August 31, 2012. TIFF! Victims and Rights. Movies reviewed: The Hunt, West of Memphis, Blackbird PLUS The Central Park Five

Posted in 1980s, Canada, Cultural Mining, Denmark, documentary, Drama, Good Ol' Boys, Goth, Movies, Prison, TIFF, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on September 1, 2012

VICTIMS AND RIGHTS

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.

Ever heard of Victims’ Rights? It’s a government policy within the justice system to consider the victims of the crimes, not just the crimes themselves – an admirable idea. But what happens when the only victims are the accused? This week I’m looking at three movies playing at TIFF that touch on this topic. There’s a Danish drama about a town’s reaction to a Kindergarten teacher accused of a crime; a Canadian movie about a high school non-conformist who finds himself unfairly trapped within the youth justice system; and an American documentary about the West Memphis 3 – high school students charged with Satanic, ritual murder of children.

The Hunt

Dir: Thomas Winterberg

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) teaches at a small town Danish kindergarten. Since his divorce he’s been a bit lonely. He goes to drinking parties with his buddies, plays with his dog Fanny, and goes hunting for deer. But things are looking up: his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) is preparing to move back in with him, and he’s preparing him for the coming of age ceremony where boys are first allowed to join in The Hunt. And Lucas has a new girlfriend, a Swedish-speaking woman who works at the same school. But when his best friend’s daughter, Klara, an imaginative five-year-old he’s been helping, gets mad at him, she sets off a series of events with an accusation that changes his life. She tells a teacher Lucas “showed her his willy” at school – a serious crime.

The accusation spreads like wildfire in the small town, until everyone knows the rumour – except Lucas, who is kept in the dark. Her story continues to escalate as it’s passed around, until soon all the kids are saying terrible things happened to them too. Lucas must be some kind of monster – except that he didn’t do anything! He is successively baffled, offended, angered and terrified when, in a kafka-esque series of events, his friends, neighbours, and even the local shop-keepers lash out at him, violently and filled with venom. And they transfer their anger to his teenaged son, who is attacked by a thuggish, blond giant. Can Lucus ever be cleared of a non-existent crime so he can return to his normal life? Or will his former friends continue to serve as the judge, jury, and executioner?

Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, is terrific in this subtle movie, a harrowing and upsetting fable about misguided anger.

West of Memphis

Dir: Amy Berg

Two decades ago, the bodies of three young boys who had been brutally murdered were found in the woods near West Memphis, Arkansas. But when supposed experts were brought in by the police prosecuters, they somehow decided the children were killed in a satanic ritual. And they quickly arrested, tried and convicted three local boys who dressed in black, and liked heavy-metal music and posters. The documentary series Paradise Lost (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky) exposed this miscarriage of justice to the world. Since then, widespread interest in the case has led to the first “defense by crowd-sourcing’, with countless people investigating online and exposing all the consistencies of the original case.

While this new documentary offers little new evidence, it is compelling nonetheless. It’s long but very well done, very methodical. I’ve been following the case since the first documentary came out, so I found it fascinating. It brings the story up to date. It shows what happens to the politicos and police  behind the prosecutions; what is the fate of the three accused boys – Damien Echols, John Byers, and Jessie Misskelly; who the potential, new suspects might be; and it talks to the original witnesses, all of whom have since recanted their testimony. And new evidence – like a forensic sequence about animal bites – is quite amazing and terrifying.

(I have to say, though, it’s seems strange for a documentary-maker to make a new film on a subject made famous by someone else’s documentaries…)

Blackbird

Dir: Jason Buxton

Sean (Connor Jessup) is a gothy-looking adolescent who goes to school every day wearing a spiky leather jacket torn-up skinny jeans, and a cloud if attitude. He likes his pet lizard, red wiccan stars, and camo sheets. He’s actually a big city boy, but his mom has pawned him off on his small town Nova Scotia dad, now that she’s remarried. Dad’s lives for hockey and works as a Zamboni driver; he’s not comfortable with his son always dressing up for Hallowe’en as he calls it. He says it’s not a smart thing to do in a small town. It also attracts the school bullies – the alpha-dog hockey players. He could just stay away from them but he really likes hockey bunny Deanna (Alexia Fast) who rides the bus with him. He’s attacked and humiliated by the school bullies, and Deanna doesn’t defend him. But when his guidance counsellor tells him to express his anger in story form, things turn from bad to worse. The police get a hold of his notebook, his website, and the short films he made on his cell phone and he’s arrested for supposedly plotting to kill everybody. And his lawyer tells him to plead guilty to cut down his jail time.

Blackbird is divided between a very realistic portrayal of life as a pariah in a small town, the even rougher stay in a juvenile detention centre, and his ongoing relationship Deanna. Equally compelling is the in-prison run-ins with the unstable psycho-killer Trevor (Alex Ozerov) who labels Sean “Columbine”. Jessup is fantastic as Sean, as is Ozerov as Trevor, and the understated performances of Alexia Fast and Michael Buie as Sean’s girlfriend and dad serve as good foils for the main character. I really like this movie. And it’s the first Canadian film I’ve seen about the youth justice system. (It looks like it was actually filmed on location at the Waterville Detention Centre).

These movies leave you with a lot to think about… as does another doc at TIFF, The Central Park Five, about the five black and hispanic youths from Harlem who were wrongly blamed for the terrible rape of a woman jogging in Central Park in Manhattan in 1989.

West of Memphis, Blackbird, and The Hunt are all official films at TIFF. Check out these and all the other movies playing at TIFF this year, at tiff.net. They also have daily last-minute deals for tickets and special offers for people under 25. And two movies I talked about last week, Lawless and For a Good Time, Call… open 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 .

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

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

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

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

Oslo, August 31st

Dir: Joachim Trier

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

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

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

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

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

Killer Joe

Dir: William Friedkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dir: Carl Colby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 12, 2011. Temperatures Rising. Movies reviewed: Devil’s Double, The Help, Rise of the Planet Of The Apes, Final Destination, Gun to the Head

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 getting into high August, and there are tons of movies playing now, so let me just dive right in and tell you about a few of them. I’m talking about two stories about servants who have good reason not to like their bosses, one where an employee is forced to challenge his boss or die, one where a whole class could challenge the people in power, and one where a group of people attempt to challenge… fate itself.

Devil’s Double

Dir: Lee Tamahori

It’s the 1980’s during the Iran-Iraq war, when Latif, a scruffy, young soldier from a good family in Bagdad, is brought into a palatial mansion. He’s asked whether he wants to work for Uday, Saddam Hussein’s son. Well, not exactly asked: He’s told. If he says no, he, his family and friends will all be tortured and killed. If he says yes, though, he will move into this luxurious palace, wear tailored suits and Rolex watches, drink champagne, drive sportscars, have his pick of the most beautiful women, and hang out at the most exclusive nightclubs in Iraq.

What’s the catch? He’s a near exact double of Uday in height, weight, body-type, and facial features. So he’ll be taking his place at public appearances with the constant risk of being shot at by assassins. So, the movie, (partially based on Latif’s memoir) shows his bizarre double life… as a professional double. This is a violent, scarface-y story with shootouts, coke sniffing, disco dancing, and backstage intrigue.

It’s also a chance for an actor to be or the screen about 140% of the time in the dual roles – when Dominic Cooper isn’t playing the humble, honest Yatif, he’s acting as the profligate, decadent and cruel Uday, and often both at the same time. He does it well enough that the audience immediately knows whether it’s the conceited, aggressive, strutting, whiny-voiced Uday, or Yatif imitating him. They walk differently, think differently and have a different look in their eyes.

Can Yatif find a way out of this crazy life? And can he and his secret love – one of Uday’s mistresses – escape the country?

This is quite a violent movie. And while it paints a generally negative view of a whole country, and gives an inaccurate view of women’s status in Baathist Iraq,  it can be enjoyed as an apolitical drama and as an actor’s tour de force.

Next, another movie about badly treated servants.

The Help

Dir: Tate Taylor

Smart but frowsy Skeeter (Emma Stone) comes home from University to the high-society of heavily segregated Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s. She wants to get herself a job as a writer, see her old debutante friends, and take care of her mother who’s dying of cancer. But she soon sees the world is changing, and is disgusted by how black servants are treated by their rich white employers: demeaned, disrespected, badly paid. They essentially raise the white kids from birth, but rarely get to spend time with their own children.

When Skeeter’s friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the reigning top woman in her set, attempts to pass a bylaw making it illegal for blacks even to use a bathroom inside the homes where they work all day, Skeeter decides something must be done.

She befriends Aibilene (Viola Davis) and asks her to tell her own inside story about life in the south. When another maid, Minnie (a comical Octavia Spencer) — known for her cooking skills — joins her project, it looks like their stories might be published as a book.

This is a richly plotted, multi-charactered, story about life in the deep south, and the subtle and overt racism in every aspect of the lives of the people who lived in this era. This isn’t a movie about KKK lynchings or good ol’ boys with rifles. It gives a calmer view of the segregated, Jim Crow days, right when the civil rights movement was taking off. It’s also a richly moving women’s story – not a chick flick — with terrific acting all around, especially Viola Davis, and Jessica Chastain as Celia, a suddenly rich blonde bombshell from dirt poor origins who seeks help from Minnie. It also has great actresses like Cicily Tyson, Cissie Spacek and Alison Janney in the side roles.

Only quibble? Though some of the black characters slip in and out of dialect, the younger white women’s accents don’t sound much like they would have in Mississippi in the 1960s. But The Help is definitely worth seeing if you like complicated dramas, family secrets, frequent plot turns and funny surprises.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dir: Rupert Wyatt

Will (James Franco) is a scientist who works for a multinational pharmaceutical corporation who is developing a new medicine that can repair brain functions. They test it on chimpanzees, and he takes home a newborn one when his mother dies in the lab. But he soon discover his ape, Caesar, is special: he’s somehow inherited the new brain skills his mother had gained from the drug testing, and he’s quickly getting better and better. He learns art, sign language, and better motor skills than any human. Will and Caroline (Frieda Pinto) treat him almost like a son… except for the collar and leash they force him to wear outside. But when Caesar tries to rescue Will’s senile father (John Lithgow) from a mean neighbour, he is taken away by the authorities and thrown into an animal shelter that looks more like a federal prison run by cruel guards.

There he interacts with his own kind and discovers he’s not a human but an ape. Caesar has to decide who he can trust and whether he should wait for his former human father to rescue him or strike out on his own.

This is a really enjoyable movie, with fantastic camera work, a great story, and — though largely animated – believable characters with sympathetic faces. (I’m talking the apes here.) Which is why I was surprised at how awful the CGI’s were in some scenes – jerky toy monkey’s bounding up trees like a bad outtake from a third-rate videogame intro – and how excellent in others. In any case, if you want a fun exciting story, this is the one to see. A thousand times better than the awful Planet of the Apes remake.

Final Destination 5

Dir: Steven Quale

A group of eight coworkers on their way to a retreat, manage to escape from an enormous collapsing bridge when one of them, Sam, has a premonition and gets them away in time. But they soon discover they were destined to perish, so are being killed off, one by one, in a series of gruesome Rube Goldberg-esque accidents. Who will live and who will die? And will they succeed in cheating death a second time?

What can I say – this is one of my favourite genres of horror movies: bloody gore but without an identifiable villain. Instead, the danger is everywhere — in a leaky pipe, a dropped match, a speck of dust or a misplaced screw. A restaurant kitchen is filled with potentially dangerous flames, knives, and shish kebab skewers. Ordinary life is fraught with danger!

The lines stink, the characters are predictable, the music is corny, and the acting ranges from humorous to forgettable, to excruciatingly awful. But the special effects are flawless, and the pace is just right. It pulls you forward with stress, fear and tension, then lets you back down again, never knowing for sure whether the next shot is a real danger or just a red herring. And the 3D, especially in the multi-leveled scenes on the bridge and on a factory floor, is amazing. This is a great, super-cheezy “B” or “C” summer movie.

It also has the best non-trailer trailer ever, that shows what Final Destination would look like if it were a pop music video recorded on the set of Saved by the Bell — complete with laugh track.

Gun to the Head

Dir: Blaine Thurier

Trevor (Tygh Runyan) gets away from his own dinner party (complete with creepy, Japanophile swinger guests wearing sleazy kimonos) to pick up a bottle of white wine and talk to his drug dealer cousin, Darren (Paul Anthony). He just wants to give him a bit of help, but he’s soon dragged into this underworld of strip bars, guns and lines of coke. He has to deal with a fickle small-town drug potentate, his deranged guard, and his sexually adventurous, skeezy girlfriend. Can Trevor outsmart the gangsters, rescue his sleazy cousin, and ever get back home to his wife? Or will everything fall apart?

This is a funny very low-budget Canadian thriller. Though not perfect, it has great characters, and some manic — but not hammy — performances, especially Paul Anthony channelling the spirit of Don Knotts, dressed as a Vancouver hood.

Devil’s Double and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes are now playing, check your local listings, The Help just opened in Toronto, and Final Destination and Gun to the Head open tonight in Toronto (Friday, Aug 12, 2011). Also look out for You Are Here, opening today at the TIFF Lightbox.

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

Genre mash-ups: The Last Exorcism, The American, Life in Wartime

Most genre movies follow very fixed patterns, sometimes even down to the order of scenes, the introduction of characters, the sort of lines they say… But sometimes you run across mainstream movies that are a little bit off beat, a little bit mashed-up. Here are three somewhat strange movie mash-ups.

The Last Exorcism

Dir: Daniel Stamm

As the name suggests, this is a horror movie, but it’s style is that of a TV documentary, or even a reality show.

Cotton is a great evangelical preacher, he’s been up on the pulpit since he was a child and has been doing exorcisms — sometimes though as simple as Out Posion!– for many years. It’s how he earns a living. He’s so good he can preach his mother’s recipe and have the flock shouting Amen! and Hallelujah! His father is a Jimmy Carter doppelganger.

But somewhere along the way he lost his faith. He still goes through the motions, but he doesn’t believe a word of it any more. In fact, he thinks the whole exorcism thing is nothing ore than a Dr Phil psychological ttool that he can use to get the mental spooks out of the patients’ heads.

So he goes out to a country home in the deep south to do his final exorcism before a  camera crew. They’re making a doc about Cotton — and the whole exorcism scam. With his full cooperation, he reveals for the camera all his secrets – the sound effects and smoke and mirrors he uses to scare the god-fearing parishioners.

But this rural outpost – complete with all the Deliverance-style references to home-schooling, incest, superstition, violence and deeply hidden family secrets – what city dwellers picture when they hear Sarah Palin talking about Real Americans – this rural outpost may be Cotton’s last exorcism.

The daughter, Nell, is possessed. The family thinks she’s getting up in the middle of the night and slaughtering animals in the barn – but she has of memory of doing it. IS she nuts from being locked up in her home away from the rest of the world? Or is the devil inside of her?

This is a good, scary movie, that also avoided what I was least interested in seeing – the extreme pornographic slashing and blood that producer Eli Roth throws at you in his Hostel movies. There’s a bit of nasty blood, but much more scariness.

It also keeps you guessing till the end whether the girl’s possession is better explained rationally by psychiatric jargon, or by mysticism, religion and the supernatural. And all the acting, (especially Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell as the exorcist and the possessed girl, and Caleb Landry Jones as her creepy brother), is much better than you’d expect in a cheese-ball horror flick. Throw in some Blair Witchery and you’ve got a much-better-than-usual scary horror movie.

The American

Dir: Anton Corbijn

This one’s an interesting concept: a drama in the guise of a mystery thriller.

Jack, aka Edward, is an American tucked into an apartment in the picturesque, hilly Abruzzo region in Italy. He’s there on business, to provide his boss’s client with a weapon, a gun you can shoot from far away, with a high grade of accuracy, and no noise that would give away where the shooter is hiding.

Is he a CIA agent? A terrorist? A spy? An assassin-for-hire? A special ops military guy on assignment? A political activist? A mafia hire? A cop under deep cover? Who knows. He ain’t talking, and the audience isn‘t finding out anytime soon. And, actually, this is all just background fluff from the story of an alienated American who enjoys the machine-tinkering aspect of his job, but is less fond of one if its fringe benefits: guilt.

So if it’s not actually a mystery thriller waiting to be solved what is this movie? Well, it’s actually about the relationships he has with the various women he in his life – an assassin, a prostitute, a Swedish women, each more beautiful than the one before – and how he can’t fully trust them – they’re all suspect. They all might be out to get him. They all might have ratted him out, other might be killers sent to throw him off his track.

His boss tells him: “Don’t make any  friends – you used to know that Jack”. But what else is there? Lying in bed fully dressed waiting for an unknown killer? Drinking americanos in a greasy café? George Clooney showing off his skill at chin-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups?

And then there’s the blond, bearded man – his cover is made the first time Jack sees him, but he doesn’t disappear – and he seems to be out to get him. But who doesn’ he work for? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Who cares?

The other plot is about guilt and forgiveness. He meets an older priest (with a small secret) who wants Jack to confess his sins. Jack would rather not tell him anything.

So, while there are a few chase scenes, a few tense shooting scenes, it’s mainly a barren, hardscrabble life in rocky Abbruzzo, Jack’s alienated and empty life broken up only with periodic passionate soft-core sex with Clara (played by the beautiful Violante Placido, what a wonderful name!).

This is one strange movie – it’s one of very few so-called thrillers that aren’t mystery thrillers. There’s no actual mystery that the movie explains or reveals. This is really a drama of a middle-aged, single guy (Divorced? Widowed? Bachelor?) taking stock of his life, his business, his relationships, and finding them lacking. It’s a male chick flick.

(And do you ever get the feeling that George Clooney doesn’t want to be in a movie with a competitor? So there’s only one leading man, but three beautiful women for him to spend time with.)

Anyway, The American is an airplane movie, maybe a late-night video store movie, but definitely not the popcorn thriller it pretends to be.

Life During Wartime

Dir: Todd Solondz

(I saw this movie a year ago at last year’s TIFF, but it stayed with me. It’s a good, dark comedy, but with absurdly sad scenes more moving than the average drama.)

Todd Solondz’s dark comedies alternate between two New Jersey families, the Weiners (Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1995; Palindromes, 2004) and the Jordans (Happiness, 1998, Life During Wartime, 2009). The characters continue their depressing lives, while the actors who play them come and go. In this movie we join the three new Jordan sisters, ten years later.

Weepy, hippy Joy (Shirley Henderson) loves helping the most needy, but this has landed her an unbearable fiance. He asks for her forgiveness for his latest transgression, so Joy seeks out her family for advice. Her mother Mona in Miami is no help, so she moves on to suburban Trish (Allison Janney) who is dating again. But Trish discovers her pedophile husband has been released from prison and is also seeking forgiveness from their kids. Sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), a Hollywood star, is bossy and self absorbed and not much help either. Poor Joy resorts to asking advice from ex-boyfriends from her past, like Andy (Paul Reubens).

The cast is as uniformly excellent as the story is relentlessly, painfully sad. Solondz is an expert at inflicting the unvarnished cruelty of family dynamics on his moviegoers. While there is nothing earth-shattering or different in this movie, it still holds its own as a funnily sympathetic (and pathetic) black comedy in his distinctive, ongoing saga.

Kids Movies! Movies Reviewed: Toy Story 3, The Last Airbender, Despicable Me, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

This week I’m going to take a look at some of the kids’ movies and animation playing right now. So if you’re a kid, or have kids, or just like that kind of movie… stay tuned.

Kids movies, much more than a lot of crappy adult genre movies, take their stories very seriously, and I respect them for that, well, I respect the ones that have good stories. I love a good story, especially one with a bit of magic, or supernatural, or super heroes, or mythological heroic back stories. Because it doesn’t matter if they re-tell a well-known story, as long as they do it well. So let me tell you a bit about each movie’s story (I won’t give away the endings, don’t worry) and whether I think it’s worth watching.

“Toy Story 3”

Dir: Lee Unkrich

“Toy Story 3” in 3-D is a continuation of the earlier computer animated Pixar and Disney “Toy Story” movies, about a kid’s toys who, when their owner isn’t around, reveal themselves to be living beings with real emotional lives and personalities. In this version, Andy has grown up and is heading off to college, and the toys find themselves abandoned and donated to a daycare center. So they have to escape from this virtual prison run by a gang of mean toys, like Lotso, a deeply cynical “Burl Ives”-type scary, strawberry-scented care-bear, a baby doll zombie, and Ken, Barbie’s groovily-dressed, clothes-horsey kinda gay boyfriend.

It’s up to Woody, the 60’s cowboy doll, to rescue spaceman Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang, in a sort of a Dante-esque journey. Woody descends into this inferno to free Beatrice – or more accurately a whole bunch of Beatrices – (Beatrici?) from a virtual hell. This time the bad stuff seems a lot worse than it had in the earlier ‘Toy Story”. It’s not just a childhood fear of abandonment at work here, it’s actual, palpable danger. Sort of scary, to tell the truth.

I remember disliking the first Toy Story – it felt like a well-plotted infomercial there to sell toys, and had a distasteful whiff of nostalgia for the white suburban 1950’s where women all stayed at home and boys and girls knew their roles.

It’s kept a lot of that, but somehow seems a bit more subversive than it’s predecessors. And while keeping its nostalgic sentimentality, it is actually an emotionally wrenching movie — I laughed, I cried (OK I didn’t actually stand on my seat and cheer) and I thought it was a good movie – despite the toy-selling factor.

“The Last Airbender”

Dir: M. Night Shyamalan

“The Last Airbender” is a live action, 3-D version of the TV cartoon called Avatar – not that Avatar, another one.

In ancient times, in a sort of a made-up Sino-Tibetan-Japanese-Sumatran pan-Asian world, there were people in four kingdoms each based on one of the 4 elements – air, water, fire, and earth. There were certain people in each kingdom who could bend an element – bending means you can toss that fire or water around, and make it go “Pshew! Pshew! Pshew!

just by gesturing with your magic fingers.

And then, there is one guy who can bend all four elements – he’s known as The Avatar. But the Fire people have taken over and are oppressing the rest of them. So they want to catch the last airbender – a little bald kid with strange facial tattoos and an arrow on his forehead pointing down, named Aung – who might be the Avatar. He was asleep in an ice bubble for a century, but now he’s back.

Most of the movie is just the royal family of fire guys chasing Aung, and the rest of the elementals trying to get Aung fit enough to fight them.

This movie got trashed by critics, more so than it deserved – it wasn’t all that bad. M Night Shyamalan is not my favourite director (he’s been coasting on his 6th Sense “I see dead people!” success for quite a while now, with a whole bunch of duds), but it’s not bad, with some cool special effects, and visually captivating with ancient ruins, and mountain-top Buddhist monasteries—great to look at, with the feel of the TV cartoon.

But the characters never really develop, you never feel for them except for the conflicted, exiled prince of fire Zuko (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”) and maybe pudgy, pre-pubescent Aung (Noah Ringer). Too many lines like: “Faster Aung, they‘re right behind us!”, too much fighting and chasing, not enough actual story. And the 3-D effects in this movie are a waste of time.

Despicable Me

Dir: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Gru, is a flat headed, low browed bad guy villain with a nose like Mr Burns. He’s a truly evil, grinch-like villain. He lives in an old house where he secretly makes nefarious weapons with the help of tiny yellow capsule-shaped minions and a diabolical scientist — like James Bond’s “Q”, except hard of hearing.

But Gru is thrown when he’s told he’s over the hill in super-villaindom. The insecurities of his childhood – his mother never supported him – hence the name “despicable me” – come back to haunt him. A new villain, Vector, has stolen the Great Pyramid. What can be bigger than that for a villain to steal? Gru Decides to steal the moon, once he gets a hold of a gun that can shrink things. But the only way to get it is by using three cute orphan girls – Margo, Edith and Agnes – who sell cookies door to door, as bait. So he pretends to adopt them.

The movie follows his relationship with the spunky orphan girls as a ne’er-do-well Dad, as well as his quest to capture the moon. This is a really good movie, capable computer animation, cool-looking characters, minimal product placement, and with stories not out of place with Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl or Charles Addams – but not too scary either. (Suitable for kids).

The one thing I thought was remarkable is that three of the main characters, the orphan girls, were completely absent from all the trailers, posters, and pictures before the movie came out – I guess they think boys won’t go to see movies with girls in them. Anyway, I liked this movie a lot.

Finally,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Dir: Jon Turtletaub

Finally,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

(starring Nicolas Cage as the wizard Balthazar and Jay Baruchel as his apprentice, Dave.) While ostensibly based on the Mickey Mouse cartoon in Fantasia, this sorcerer’s apprentice is much more compicated. Merlin, in King Arthur’s day, was the greatest sorcerer in the world. But his three protégés — Veronica, Balthazar and Horvath – fail to kill the evil Morgana. Instead, a bunch of them are turned into “grimholts” – statues that look like Russian Matryoshka dolls — that hold them captive. It’s up to Balthazar, still alive centuries later, to find a new apprentice to be the Prime Merlinian. He locates the self-conscious NYU science nerd, Dave, in New York City. Dave must help him stop the villain Morgana, and her accomplice the traitor Horvath –played by Alfred Molina — while he learns wizardry in a modern-day one-man Hogwarts, even while he pursues his childhood crush, Becky.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a fun, pseudo- Harry Potter movie. The acting’s good: Nicolas Cage shows amazing restraint (unlike most of the terrible movies he’s in); Molina is great as the villain, Horvath, and Jay Baruchel — while almost exactly like in most of his other roles — carries the part well. (He’s always great.) Still, his voice changed 15 years ago – the guy’s 28! — so he should stop playing mock-twelve year olds. I also liked the way they combined physics with magic. And I thought new-comer Teresa Palmer — as Dave’s crush, Becky — was also great. (And her character works for a community radio station… excellent!) The New York City scenes – Empire State and Chrysler building, always seen from high up among the gargoyles — is attractive too. And there are lots of fun references to older movies, including Ghost Busters, King Kong, and Toy Story. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”  is a good – not great, but not bad – movie for people who like magic adventures, Walt Disney movies, or Jay Baruchel.

Journeys. Movies reviewed: Winter’s Bone, Get Him to the Greek, Cyrus

Watching a movie is like going on a journey, a quest, or a mission. It might show you a different world you might never have had the chance to see on such an intimate level. So today I’m looking at some simple stories that take you on a trek through the woods in the Ozark Mountains, then down a steep hill to a new low level, and then back up again. (The hill I’m referring to is Jonah Hill).

Winter’s Bone

Dir: Debra Granik

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year old girl who lives in dirt poor rural Missouri in the Ozarks with her silent mother and two little kids. Her father is nowhere to be seen. Ree is educating the kids on living with zero income – the correct way to shoot a rifle, how to skin a squirrel and pull its guts out, how to make deer stew. (Sarah Palin, eat your heart out; this Ree’s the real thing.) She stops by the highschool, pondering whether to sit in on the childrearing class, or to join the military marchers, parading, in step, with their rifles.

In the old comics, DeBeck’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith lived up in the hills, and used hidden stills to make moonshine and keep it from the revenoo-ers (the tax collectors). Nowadays, they’re more likely to run a lab where they cook up crank (a.k.a. crystal meth) the current drug of choice.

So Ree’s not surprised one day when the Sheriff comes by. Her Dad, Jessup, is missing, awaiting trial. He’s out on a bail bond. None of this is news. But here’s the kicker. He put the house up as collateral for the bond, and if he doesn’t show up for trial, they seize the house, and kick out the family. So, Ree has to find him and bring him in.

Ree’s a Dolly – “bread and buttered”, she says. The Dollys aren’t the nicest family in those parts, but they’re her kin and she has no one else to turn to. So she starts out on a long, scary complicated journey, from relative to relative, trying to find out what happened to him, so she can save her home and family. There are some strange secrets, and creepy, danegerous family members (you half expect a pig farmer Picton peeking out of a barn), and no one is telling her what she wants to know. But Ree knows something “real wrong is going on”.

Winter’s Bone is an excellent, compelling mystery-drama, nicely made on location in the Ozarks with an unknown cast. With the fiddle, banjo and the guitar and mountain folksongs making the soundtrack, it feels as far from Dollyland as you can get. If you liked the great movie “Frozen River”, you’ll love “Winter’s Bone”.

Another movie with a simple journey plot is:

Get Him to the Greek

Dir: Nicolas Stoller

But I can’t think of a movie more different.

Aaron Green (Jonah Hill) is a low level record label exec who lives in L.A, with his girlfriend, an over-worked med school grad. He works with stupid toadies promoting awful music. But he gets his first big break. A chance to accompany his childhood hero, the faded rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) from London to appear at the Greek Theatre for his big comeback. Aldous Snow has been on a decade-long bender, existing solely on drugs and alcohol since the colossal failure of his single African Child.

Aaron’s the straight man in this movie. He has to get Aldous to LA on time, at all costs. He quickly finds himself as a personal assistant immersed in an insane world of excess — groupies, self-centred musicians, hotel room trashing, guitar smashing, and previously unheard of drug varieties. He’s forced to endure unforseen levels of humiliation, degradation, pain and suffering, just to get him to the theatre on time.

The movie’s kinda funny, but not that funny. Some of the jokes are drawn out way past their expiry dates. In one scene, Aaron has to consume all the available drugs and alcohol to keep Aldous sober for his TV performance. I get it – that’s funny. But did he have to wear his vomit on his lapel like a corsage for all the scenes that followed? It’s kinda disgusting – like a lot of this movie.

I guess the movie is playing on the absolutely vapidity and vacuousness of the mainstream, commercial music scene, but the movie itself was pretty vapid and excessive. Russell Brand’s a sharp British comic, the character’s good, and Jonah Hill’s not bad either, so they can keep the weak laughs coming, but it’s hard to have any sympathy or affection for either of them. Aside from some very clever lines (Aaron tells his girlfriend “ You’re blackmailing me with your genitals”. And says to his boss “I don’t think you’re a house N-word…”) and a few good scenes, there’s not much there. “Get Him to the Greek” is not a bad comedy, but not a very good one either. Save it for the next time you’re on an airplane – there are better things to see on the ground.

A much better, funnier and more interesting comedy is:

Cyrus

Wri/Dir: Jay and Mark Duplass

John (John C. Reilly) has been on a lonely, depressed tailspin since his ex-wife Jamie (Catherine Keener) dumped seven years before. But now she’s about to get remarried, and she wants him to snap out of it, to live his life. So she takes him to a cocktail party where he starts to guzzle glasses of vodka and red bull. He strikes out with a bunch of women he tries to meet – using the worst conceivable pick up lines – and finally meets someone, Molly, while he’s taking a leak into a potted palm tree. After an impromptu karaoke session to the Human League,  they really hit it off. So things are looking up.

But Molly is hiding something. He’s been single for seven years, but she’s been single for 22. She spends all her time on her son Cyrus. They have a special, intimate relationship – she’s home-schooled him since birth, and to say they’re close is an understatement. They do everything together – no secrets. It’s approaching Oedipal proportions. And her son? No, he’s not a child, or an adolescent – he’s an adult now, but still lives at home. It’s Jonah Hill again, this time as a rather creepy demon seed. He wears shirts buttoned up to the neck, and doesn’t know how to talk with outsiders.

So when John moves in with her, he’s on thin ice, with both of them competing for Molly’s precious attention. There’s a hilarious scene when the two men start to talk to each other and Cyrus does a musical performance on his Mac. Lots of awkward scenes follow, and then they find themselves as passive-aggressive enemies. Cyrus is devious and manipulative, but so is John. It’s a psychological war, but one that has to be hidden from Molly’s eyes, until it finally explodes into a big confrontation.

Cyrus is a clever, funny, and uncomfortable movie, with lots of improvisation by the small cast. The Duplass brothers take the simple, run-of-the-mill high-concept premise – new boyfriend moves in with girlfriend and her adult son – and make it into an unusual, inventive movie.

My only criticism is what the movie looks like. They tend to use that annoying type of filming I call “paparazzo-style”: jiggly, hand-held camera shots that zoom right in on a character then zoom in even closer. Extreme close ups. The stuff you see on cheap-ass reality shows or gossip shows like TMZ – it makes it look like the cameraman is catching a character when they don’t know they’re being filmed. But Cyrus is a movie – and it’s distracting and irritating; it might work watching youtube on an iPad, but a movie screen is just too big for that.

But that’s small criticism for a very funny and clever adult dark comedy with great improvisations by all four actors.

Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. Revenge of the Jocks?

Posted in Breasts, College, comedy, Feminism, Good Ol' Boys, Movies, Sex, Sex Trade, Strippers, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 13, 2009

beer in hell

Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell
Dir: Bob Gosse

Tucker Max (Matt Czuchry) takes his two sidekicks, Drew (Jesse Bradford) and Dan (Geoff Stults) on a drive to a faraway strip bar for a bachelor’s party the night before Dan’s wedding. They get drunk, act like boors, break things, and insult women while ogling their breasts. The End.

Is it funny to watch a rich, privileged, southern, white, good ol’ boy and his buddies enjoy the good life at the expense of everyone else? Not particularly. Is it unusual for someone like Tucker Max (the man, not the character) to enjoy describing his pick-ups and sex life in detail on a blog (www.tuckermax.com)? Unfortunately not.

In fact, is there anything, anything at all, distinctive or worthwhile about such a patently offensive movie? Maybe a little. It has a few very funny lines, and there’s an engaging round of competitive insults between the abusive, depressed gamer Drew and a smart stripper; and affable acting by the actor playing Tucker Max. But on the whole, jokes with audaciousness but no irony — humour that takes the side of the bullies instead of the underdogs — quickly begin to grate. Ten-minute potty jokes are better written down than shown. It’s supposed to be funny when he happily tosses bills off a wad of cash to get poor people to do unpleasant things for him. And you do laugh at the awfulness of his mindset. But it’s not meant to be self-deprecating; you’re supposed to think of him as a hero for his unparalleled honesty.tucker max with ex-girlfriend

Tucker Max is touring the continent with campus previews of his film (earlier this week at Innis College, University of Toronto) and surprisingly he attracts as many female fans as males. His Q&A this week after the screening was funnier than the movie — he’s a good stand-up comic. But he’s the type of guy who gets his laughs by insulting insecure students in the audience: “I liked you in Harold and Kumar, but I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The most surprising thing about Tucker Max may be the fact that he doesn’t get beaten up.

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