Bad Students. Films Reviewed: Lady Bird, Bad Genius, My Friend Dahmer

Posted in 1970s, 2000s, Coming of Age, Crime, High School, Thailand by CulturalMining.com on November 10, 2017

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

Fall Film Festival season continues in Toronto. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, features movies from each of the EU countries, and all screenings are free. Reelasian also just started with films from South, East and Southeast Asia.

This week I’m looking at dramas about troublesome high school students. There’s a young woman in California who wants to go to the east coast, another who wants to go to south to Singapore, and a guy in Akron who wants to look inside other people.

Lady Bird

Dir: Greta Gerwig

It’s central California in the early 2000s. Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan), is a bored kid with great ambitions – she wants to study at an eastcoast University. She’s in her last year at a private, Catholic school. Her mom (Laurie Metcalf) sent her there because she thinks public school is too dangerous. She lives in a small house in Sacramento with her brother Miguel, her dad, a computer programmer, and her mom who works in a psychiatric hospital.

Lady Bird wants to be cool and maybe meet a boyfriend. But Immaculate Heart – or Immaculate Fart, as she calls it– is an all-girls school run by nuns. Her only chance of meeting guys is in the theatre club run in conjunction with an all-boys Catholic school nearby. She immediately hits it off with Danny (Lucas Hedges) who likes show tunes and wearing puka shell chokers. She takes him home to meet the family. Later she wants to create a cooler self. (Earlier she renamed herself Lady Bird – she’s actually Christine.) Now she quits doing school plays, and starts playing pranks on nuns. She swaps boyfriend Danny for the chill Kyle (Timothee Chalumet) and trades best friend Julie for the prettier and richer Jenna. She tells her she lives in a mansion, not a bungalow on the wrong side of the tracks. And secretly, with the help of her recently unemployed dad, she applies to east coast schools. But can the tower of lies she creates stand up to closer scrutny? And are her new friends good people?

Lady Bird is Greta Gerwigs first solo film – she codirected Frances Ha with noah Baumbach — and it’s a funny and touching movie. Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe make a fantastic mother and daughter who can’t get along. And side roles — like Hedges as Danny – are amazing (I didn’t even recognize him as the kid in Manchester on the Sea). I admit I found the last three minutes of the movie a terrible — and unnecessary — mistake, but Lady Bird is still an almost flawless coming-of-age story.

Bad Genius

Dir: Nattawut Poonpiriya

Lynn (actor/model Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is a student at an elite Bangkok high school. It’s a school where many grads get accepted to US Ivy league schools. Most the kids there are filthy rich but not very bright . Lynn is just the opposite – the daughter of a divorced school teacher, she’s a scholarship student, a piano player, and a genius at math. She also understands the value of money — she has to be when theres’s not much around. She quickly establishes herself – along with Bank, another scholarship student – as the top two kids in the school, in competition for a place in a Singapore university. But everything changes when Lynn’s friend Grace – with her millionaire boyfriend Pat – come to her with a proposition. They’ll pay her big bucks to act as their tutor. But they don’t really want to study – they want to an easy way to pass the tests. Lynn comes up with a brilliant plan – she shows them the multiple choice answers by “playing the piano” in the test hall, moving her fingers in the order of four famous passages. The students all pass the exam. But Bank – the good genius — suspects something fishy.

Later they recruit him to join Lynn in a trip to Sydney, Australia to take the STIC exam – the international SAT test. They plan to write the exam and text the answers just in time for the Bangkok exams, four time zones over. Will the plan work? Will they get caught? And will sparks fly between the two geniuses, Lynn and Bank?

Bad Genius is based on an actual test scandal that shook Thailand. The movie works as both a teen drama and an action movie, with the main characters racing against time to rig the tests and avoid capture. It also shows the huge gap between Bangkok’s super rich, and the rest of the people who never seem to get ahead.

My Friend Dahmer

Dir: Marc Meyers

It’s the late 1970s in a small town near Akron Ohio. Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a tall kid with big glasses and feathered blond hair. He lives with his little brother, his mom a pill-popper (Anne Heche) and his dad a chemist. Jeff collects animal bones from roadkill he finds on the highway. He is also obsessed with a local doctor he always sees jogging down the highway. He keeps to himself at a school ruled by football jocks and cheerleaders. He’s not bullied but not popular either till he finds his niche: a class clown who is both audacious and weird. He spontaneously breaks into his acts, talking like a handicapped kid, or falling to the floor in imitation tonic-clinic seizures.

This catches the attention of Derf (Alex Wolff) and his friends Neil and Mike. They are counterculture types into the Ramones and and comic books. And they see Jeff as epitomize get Punk, even if he doesn’t know it himself. They form the Dahmer fan club, planning events so Jeff can go wild in front of an audience. But are they helping him or using him? Jeff turns to alcohol to counter his constantly bickering parents. She wants to know what people are like on the inside – literally. He gets stranger and stranger, experimenting on live animals.  Are his new “friends” the ones pushing him over the edge?

My Friend Dahmer is a based on the true graphic novel written by Derf Backderf, his highchool (sort of) friend. Dahmer later became a notorious serial killer who picked up men in bars, had sex with their paralyzed bodies, and later dissolved their corpses in acid vats. But My Friend Dahmer takes place before all that. This is an extremely disturbing and creepy — but also weird and funny — look at teenagers in the 1970s. With a great soundtrack, it makes you wonder what – bullying, mental illness, encouragement — pushes people from normalcy to depravity.

Ladybird, and My Friend Dahmer open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Bad Genius is playing at the ReelAsian film festival. Go to reelasian.com for details.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Alanis Obomsawin about Our People will be Healed

Posted in documentary, Education, Environmentalism, First Nations, High School, Music by CulturalMining.com on October 20, 2017

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

Above the northernmost tip of Lake Winnipeg, Norway House is a Cree First Nation community that works. It has a wonderful school system, local radio station, police, cultural groups, a language renewal program, music, dance and more. Traditional rituals are preserved, and young people are mentored by elders about their relationship with the land and their history. But — after 150 years under the Indian Act, with broken treaties, disease, death, and poverty; forced assimilation, mass incarceration, cultural genocide, residential schools, widespread discrimination, racism, rape and murder – this is a people that needs to be healed.

Our People Will Be Healed is the name of a new documentary that premiered at TIFF and is now showing at ImagineNative, Toronto’s Indigenous film festival. It is the work of master director Alanis Obomsawin, Canada’s doyenne of documentary filmmaking, who has recorded the lives and issues of First Nations in fifty films over fifty years.

I talked with Alanis on location at the National Film Board in Toronto during TIFF 17.

Our People will be Healed is playing at the ImagineNative Film Festival in Toronto on Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 3:00 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Pat Mills about Don’t Talk to Irene

Posted in Bullying, Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, High School, LGBT, Movies by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 2017

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

Irene is an unusual girl who lives in a small town an hour north of Toronto. It’s her first day of highschool and she can’t wait to join the cheerleading team. But her mother says she’s just not cheerleader material. She’s chubby, plain, and has no friends; garbage is her comfort zone. And when she is bullied by a mean girl and sent to an old age home for community service, she worries she’ll never fit in. Luckily, she meets a lot of potential mentors: an ex-boxer, two elderly women, a non-binary classmate, a mean-ass cook, and a poster of Geena Davis on her ceiling… that seems to communicate with her. But will any of them ever talk to Irene?

Don’t Talk to Irene is the name of a new movie, a coming-of-age comedy that premiered at TIFF17 and is now playing in Toronto. It’s written and directed by Toronto filmmaker Pat Mills known for his very dark — and very funny — looks at society’s outcasts.

I spoke with Pat Mills in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Back to School. The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea #TIFF16

Posted in Animation, Coming of Age, Games, High School, Horror, School, Science Fiction, Uganda, UK, US, Women, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on September 16, 2016

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

It’s mid-September as TIFF enters its final weekend with lots left to see. It’s also the start of an academic year. So this week I’m looking TIFF movies about going back to school. We’ve got an American school sinking into the sea, smart African kids who can’t afford the school fee, and British kids kept under lock and key.

thegirlwithallthegifts_02The Girl with all the Gifts

Dir: Colm McCarthy

It’s a military camp in a dystopian, future UK. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is a bright and friendly girl who gets along well with others. She goes to school each morning and is the best kid in the class. But she – like the rest of the kids – is kept locked up in a dingy prison cell, fed raw worms, and derided thegirlwithallthegifts_04by heavily armed soldiers as a monster abortion. Only her teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Atherton), sticks up for Melanie. But Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) a sinister scientist, also has her eye on Melanie.

You see, all of England has been infected by a fungal virus that turns you into a flesh-eating zombie who never dies. But these kids are second generation — infected in utero — who think and act like humans but carry a craving for raw flesh. thegirlwithallthegifts_01Caldwell wants to carve up Melanie’s brain to find a cure. But when the camp is overrun by zombies, the three of them (along with a troupe of soldiers) are forced to escape in a military vehicle to find another base. Can Melanie – the girl with all the gifts – be trusted to stay moral and not eat the humans? Can trigger-happy soldiers and heartless scientists be trusted not to kill her? This is a great science fiction drama in the form of a zombie flic. Glenn Close goes a bit overboard in her evil rants, but Atherton and Manua are amazing as the good guys.

queen-of-katweQueen of Katwe

Dir: Mira Nair

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl who lives in Katwe, a desperately poor slum in Uganda. By day she sells corn to passing motorists. By night she sleeps in an unlit shack with her brother, her sister and her stern mother (Lupita Nyong’o) who always sticks up for her kids. Is there no way out of this desperate life.

Enter Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). He has an engineering degree but works at a community centre for underprivileged kids, teaching them chess. Phiona and her brother take to the game almost immediately, despite kids deriding their unwashed clothes. She’s illiterate but learns to play strategically, plotting out future moves in her head. Robert sees a chess prodigy and his wife helps her learn to read. But Phiona is still penniless, playing chess with bottle caps on a piece of cardboard. Her mother tries to Queen of Katwepull her away from that gambling den. But Coach Robert convinces her that only by becoming a chess master can Phiona make it out of Katwe. Mom finally understands, selling her only possessions to pay for paraffin candles so Phiona can study at night. But can a girl from the ghetto become a Chess Master?

Queen of Katwe is a wonderful traditional family story, about hard work and tenacity. It says never give up, believe in yourself. At the same it shows a realistic portrait of desperate lives, their constant search for money, and the terrible prejudice they face. The story is told in a simple way but it’s very moving. It’s shot in Africa by the great Indian director Mira Nair, an expert at showing class differences. The actors portray their roles well, from grumpy Nyong’o, to optimistic Oyelowo and especially the wonderful Nalwanga as Phiona.

myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_02My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea

Wri/Dir Dash Shaw

Dash is starting a new year with high hopes. A junior at Tides High, he’s a cynical news geek who writes for the school paper, the Tides Gazette, with best friend Assaf and Verti the editor. He wants to find the big story. He’s sure his school is about to collapse due to bad maintenance. But no one reads the paper’s turgid prose and his warnings are ignored. Assaf and Verti are dating now so he’s left all alone. When he is caught looking through school files for hard evidence, he ends up in detention. But that’s when disaster strikes — an earthquake starts fires and sends the shoddily built school sinking into the sea. It’s also on fire, with sharks in the water and rats on land. It’s up to Dash and his friends — along with a courageous lunch lady — to lead his schoolmates to safety. But they must face the school myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_01snitch, drug dealers, the devious principal, popular kids and the school quarterback who reigns from a golden throne in only his jockstrap. But who will survive and who will be torn to bloody pieces before their very eyes?

This is a fantastic animated feature, one of the best movies at TIFF. It’s the Poseidon Adventure set in a high school. The art and animation takes unexpected forms. No pixar 3-D or complex cell animation here. Instead it’s broad splashes of tempera paint behind the thick black lines that make up character faces. There are cutouts and fingerpaint, boy scout illustrations, pop art and trippy half-tone dots from newspaper sunday comics.

Great voices are provided by Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph and Susan Sarandon as Lunch Lady Lorraine. But the art of Dash Shaw — and his fellow cartoonists and artists — is what makes this so great.

The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, and My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea, are all playing now at TIFF. And you can line up at Roy Thompson Hall around 4 pm on Sunday to get a free ticket to the people’s choice award movie. Always worth watching, always free. Details are posted at tiff.net.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Toronto filmmaker Pat Mills about his new comedy GUIDANCE

Posted in Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, High School, TIFF, Toronto, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2015

photo 1This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for cultural mining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

David Gold (Pat Mills) was once a child star on a TV sitcom, but those days are gone. Now he’s reduced to voice work,  recording motivational slogans. And he could certainly use some motivation himself; he’s photo 2-2underemployed, an alcoholic, has penis issues, diagnosed with skin cancer, and has a cruel landlady threatening eviction. His cure? Denial, tanning salons and self-medication (with a mickey tucked in every pocket), and photo 3watching VHS tapes of his sitcom from back when he was still a star. But somehow, through a combination of luck and subterfuge he lands a job as guidance counsellor at Grusin High, a Degrassi from hell, helping troubled youth by offering them his very unusual photo 4-2form of “guidance”.

Guidance is also the name of a very funny new comedy now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and opening today in select cities across North America. Guidance was written and directed by and starring Toronto filmmaker Pat Mills. This dark comedy is his first feature. He told me about the lead character, the film’s origin, child actors, losing his virginity, being mistaken for a girl, Corey Haim, mimicry, Kids in the Hall, dyslexia, bullying,  Zahra Bentham, Ottawa, Degrassi, Centennial College, Disnification… and more.

I spoke to Pat at CIUT 89.5 FM.

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HIgh School Confidential. Movies Reviewed: Geography Club, Schoolgirl Complex, Animals PLUS Epic and Inside Out

Posted in Bullying, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Drama, High School, Japan, LGBT, Spain, Uncategorized, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on May 24, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and ZulmaCIUT 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.

High school often plays a central role in coming-of-age dramas, (since that’s where teenagers spend most of their time). It’s the place where people become aware of their sexual identities, their desires, their genders. And often, it’s not a lot of fun. Throw in some bullying, suicide, peer pressure, sex, university applications and young love, and you’ve got a boiling cauldron of teenage trouble waiting to overflow (at least in the movies).

So this week I’m looking at three such movies, all playing at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival a place to see mainstream and experimental films by and about lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people from around the world. It’s the third biggest such festival, and it’s also a great place to meet people and experience a different aspect of movies — one that is often swept under the carpet.

So… back to these troubled teens. This week I’m looking at a US movie about a club hidden in plain sight, one from Japan about a club on a roof, and one from Spain about people who would never join a club.

lg_geographyclubGeography Club

Dir: Gary Entin (based on the popular young adult novel by Brent Hartinger)

Russell and Kevin (Cameron Deane Stewart, Justin Deeley) are both in their senior year, but may as well live in separate universes. Russell’s the brain – his parents have already decided he’s going to Yale, and he’s wearing a sweatshirt to prove it. Kevin’s the jock, the quarterback of the football team, the cock of the walk. He’s going for a football scholarship. They’re both gay, and they end up meeting — anonymously, online — even though they see each other in the hallway at school. Secret passion ensues… until a girl sees them kissing on a school trip. They both find a hand-written note in their lockers the next day: go to room 327. What is it? Blackmail? Will their reputations be ruined?

Turns out, this is the site of an unofficial club where closeted LGBT kids can talkZPxLTD9g2pDGh32T_9MdWYmS-MxIJD-o1sAUnyvupCI,Q9GgDboopGMH38UWb-WfQiffwoBjAX8T4DhlBqLknxA openly with one another. But to keep their sexuality secret they call it the Geography Club, a club so boring, they think, that no one would accidentally wander into it. Russell joins up, but Kevin is too afraid he’ll lose his jock status (and potential scholarship). He wants Russell as his boyfriend but kept on a Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell basis. And when the club threatens to go official, as a Gay/Straight Alliance, Russell and Kevin have to make a decision: come out together or stop seeing each other. Which will they choose?

The Geography Club is a very mainstream, easy to follow, after-school-special-type movie. Still, it deals with very real topics, like bullying, sexual identity, and the lives of closeted kids who are forced (by peer pressure) to conform. It’s told as a light drama, but with GSAs a hot issue in Ontario Catholic schools right now, it may just open some eyes and change some minds.

27xZGiNQa8vEEubHIuVthvQLa9WbHf8qTB00Cadk9Zc,UInHtw6sjnrewhzSuGJv0pRS562nDD1H8raPHQWTf8ESchoolgirl Complex (スクールガール・コンプレックス~放送部篇)

Dir: Yuichi Onuma

It’s an all-girl high school in Japan. They dress in crisp white shirts and plaid skirts with floppy red bows around their necks. (No sailor suits here.) Everyone joins clubs. Even more than classes, clubs are the source of their identity and friendships. One such group is the Broadcast Club, for people who like the sound of their own voices. They meet each day on the roof of the school to practice elocution, random syllables, and nonsensical rhymes to perfect their radio Japanese, and lose any trace of a regional accent.

nv1IMtM_XvPUV1JGpsp7ZsGv7-QbyXl5wkXcRT1rFPsYou can hear them taking turns at making announcements over the school PA system, waxing lyrical on subjects like The Importance of Japanese Curry. It’s the end of the year and the broadcast club will do a reading for the whole school of Schoolgirl, a story by 20th century novelist Osamu Dazai (太宰 治). But whose voice will they use?

Group leader Manami (Aoi Morikawa) is naïve and kind, with a high forehead and pale skin. Until now, she spends most of her time hanging with her best friend Ai, eating red bean pies with mayonnaise. But when the older and wiser Mitsuzaka (Mugi Kadowaki) visits her at the school sick bed and gives her some caramels, Manami’s world is shaken. Who is this worldy woman with tousled hair and sensuous features? Is it love, lust or just a crush?

Manami puts all her faith in Mitsuzaka (an absentee member of the club), and gives her the lead role. But will Mitsuzaka even show up for the reading?

Schoolgirl Complex looks at hidden loves and crushes, at passionate obsessions and tearful confessions. This is a gentle, bittersweet story of the power dynamics of teenaged girls.

Animals 7Animals

Dir: Marçal Forés

Pol (Oriol Pla) is a student at a British-style school in Catalonia. He’s always up for sharing a smoke with his beautiful, sort-of girlfriend Laia (Roser Tapias), or his bitterly funny gay chum, the curly-haired Mark (Dimitri Leonidas). But his real best friend, the one he can always count on in times of trouble, is the cute Deerhoof. He gives Pol advice, accompanies his punk guitar-playing on the drums, and is generally just there for a hug whenever he needs him. That means a lot: Pol is lonely with his parents gone, and only his brother Lorenc, a cop, to look after him. Thing is, Deerhoof is actually a teddy bear! (Pol’s a bit whacko.)

Then a new kid, Ikari (Augustus Prew), comes to the school, and he brings Animals 1trouble. He’s into bigger things, mature things, sexual adult things. And things like cutting your wrists, watching it bleed. Pol doesn’t like the cutting but he really likes the sex and love part. He decides to let go of his childhood crutches and enter the real world. He buries the past, metaphorically… and literally (but will it stay buried?)

Does Ikari (like Icarus) fly too close to the sun, and will Pol fall to the ground in a tailspin? And will the whole school explode in chaos? Animals is a really great, nihilistic high school movie with a punk sensibility. I’d rank it up there with Heathers, River’s Edge, and Donnie Darko for its dark humour, great acting, music and story.

June 3,  2013:  ANIMALS, directed by Marçal Forés (Spain) has won the Bill Sherwood Award for Best First Feature at Toronto’s Inside-Out Film Festival. ANIMALS is awarded this prize for its accomplished and assured filmmaking and the promise the jury sees in Forés future work.

Animals, Geography Club and Schoolgirl Complex are all playing at the Inside Out festival in Toronto: go to insideout.ca for showtimes. Also opening today is another story, Epic, about a high school girl who discovers a whole other Epickingdom in the woods behind her father’s house when she is shrunk down to a tiny size. She has to help the leaf men — soldiers who fight the evil, rotten types on the backs of hummingbirds — to save the pod (a single lotus seed) on this special day, to allow a new Beyonce-voiced queen to be born. It’s animated, 3-D and it’s not Disney, not Dreamworks, but 20th Century Fox’s try at animation. I enjoyed it a lot, even though it’s basically Arriety meets Camelot.

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

October 26, 2012. Halloween Costumes and Disguises. Movies Reviewed: Cloud Atlas, Fun Size

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.

Hallowe’en is here. Traditionally, it’s a time of scariness, when the undead walk the earth, and lost souls are the ones in charge after the witching hour. But Hallowe’en has changed. Now it’s more about dressing up in funny costumes, going to wild parties and eating bags full of candy.

So this week, instead if my usual scary hallowe’en pics, I’m talking about two movies about dressing up: one is about teenagers who dress in funny costumes at a Hallowe’en party; the other about actors who dress up in funny costumes to tell a story.

Cloud Atlas

Dir: Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

Based on the novel by David Mitchell

When Cloud Atlas had its world premier at TIFF, I thought it was going to be awful – it has all the hallmarks of shameless Oscar-bait (Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant) and bad movies (multiple directors). But it was actually surprisingly interesting (though completely confusing). It jumps back and forth among six completely unrelated genres and just barely-related stories, ranging from historical epic, a period drama, a political thriller, contemporary comedy, and two futuristic space stories. Brace yourself, and let me try to explain them without any spoilers:

A 19th century American is in the South Pacific to broker a deal, but is forced to confront a stowaway slave as he sails home; a young, gay composer with a hidden past in 1930s England confronts a famous composer who may be stealing his music; a black, female investigative journalist in San Francisco in the 1970s wants to uncover a nuclear energy scandal; a present-day publisher finds himself a prisoner overnight, locked up in an old folk’s home; identical-looking female cyborg slaves foment a revolution in neo-Seoul, a futuristic Korea 200 years in the future; and a future world where people in Star Trek jump suits try to communicate with cave men speaking unaccented pidgin English like Jar-Jar Binks.

Did you get all that? No, I didn’t think so.

What’s really interesting is that the same actors play multiple roles, changing race, age, and gender from story to story. So you have famous actors in unrecognizable bit parts in one segment who star as the main character in another. Some work some don’t. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are not known for their skills at accents – they’re not Meryl Streep — so they end up looking ridiculous when they try. But groaners don’t spoil a movie. Even those two end up acting in scenes when you don’t even know they’re there. And much more interesting actors, (people like Ben Whishaw and Doona Bae, among others) more than make up for the missteps.

Cloud Atlas feels like you’re watching six movies at once on TV, but someone else is in charge of the remote control and they keep switching channels.

Is it perfect movie? No, definitely not. But is it worth seeing? Yes, definitely.

Fun Size

Dir: Josh Schwartz

Wren (Victoria Justice) is a high school student with outspoken feminist views — she plans to dress as Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween — but turns to awkward mush whenever she thinks about the most popular boy in school – a Johnny Depp lookalike. Wren lives with her chubby six-year-old brother Albert (Jackson Nicoll) who never talks but is fond of practical jokes like cutting out breast holes in her favourite sweaters; and her mom, Joy, who is back in the dating pool since their dad died. So Wren and her best friend April are thrilled when they’re invited to the big party. But mom (Chelsea Handler) tells her that Keevan, the 26 year-old frat boy she’s dating, wants her at his party. (She’s going as Britney Spears.) So Wren is stuck keeping track of the rambunctious little one. But that’s easier said than done.

Little Albert, dressed in a Spidey-suit with a fake arm, ends up leaving a trail of destruction as he travels from party to bar to fast food joint. And it’s up to Wren and her pals – including nerdy Roosevelt (Thomas Mann from Project X) and Fuzzy (Thomas Middleditch) a convenience store clerk who looks a lot like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo — to try to track him down and save him. Will little Albert escape from those meddlesome grown-ups? Will Mom ever act her age? And will Wren find happiness with the most handsome and popular guy in school, or will she choose the earnest but awkward Roosevelt?

Fun Size is a mild, cute screwball comedy, full of disguises, mistaken identities, generational mismatches, bullies, love crushes, and sort-of funny characters. There are lots of lame gags and laff-lines that fall flat, at least to my adult ears. It wavers between Home Alone and Adventures in Babysitting, but is not as funny as either one. Still it’s a fun-ish and cute-ish, if forgettable, kids movie.

Cloud Atlas and Fun Size open today in Toronto, check your local listings. For scary found footage movies, check out Paranormal Activity 4, now playing, and V/H/S which played at Toronto After Dark and opens tonight. Festivals going strong in the city this weekend Ekran.ca the new Polish film festival showing avant- garde and mainstream movies from Europe.

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

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March 23, 2012. Revisiting the Past. Movies Reviewed: Under African Skies, 21 Jump Street

Posted in 1980s, Action, Africa, Apartheid, Crime, Cultural Mining, documentary, High School, Music, Protest, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on March 24, 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.

Spring is here, and, in Toronto that means it’s time to go back inside and sit in the dark. Wait — Huh…?

It’s festival season, starting right now! In quick succession, look out for Canadian Music Week Film Fest, CineFranco, the Images festival (of alternative, artist-driven media art), Hotdocs (the documentary festival), the Jewish Film Festival, Inside-out (the LGBT film festival), NXNE, and many, many more. It’s Images’ 25th anniversary and HotDoc’s 30th.

And speaking of looking back, this week I’m reviewing two movies: a documentary where musicians look back a quarter century to their past fumbles and triumphs; and an action/ comedy where two policemen are forced to revisit their own mistakes and triumphs of their high school days.

Under African Skies

Dir: Joe Berlinger

It’s 1985, and the famous American pop musician Paul Simon, who is intrigued by a song by the band the Boyoyo Boys, goes to Johannesburg to record an album alongside South African musicians. His record, Graceland, turns into a huge hit. 25 years later, and looking a bit hobbit-like but still a great musician, Paul Simon returns there to play a concert with the people he worked and toured with back then. Seems like a simple concert doc, right? No…

You see, in 1985, the Republic of South Africa is ruled under an ideology they called Apartheid. This meant 80% of the country – that is, anyone not classified as white – could not vote, were not citizens, could not intermarry or have sex with people from another group, and were kept physically separated from, and impoverished by, the ruling white minority. And the government responded to uprisings with increasingly violent attacks and persecution of non-white South Africans, driving the leaders into exile, like Oliver Tambo or imprisonment, like Nelson Mandela. In response to this, the banned African National Congress called for a massive international boycott of everything South African, including sports and entertainment.

This documentary takes place then and now, 25 years later. And it raises some very delicate questions. Should groups like Ladysmith Black Mombaza, Mistela, and others, some of whom were arrested or harassed by a racist government, also be boycotted by international audiences? Is it OK to use music not of your own making in the music you record, even if they receive credit? Or to record new lyrics over someone else’s music? Of course a lot of these points seem moot now — when everything is mixed with everything else, and sampled, overdubbed, or mashed up – but at the time, it was quite controversial.

Even more controversial was breaking the artists’ boycott. Ultimately, did Paul Simon’s music help or hinder the boycott’s intent?

The movie covers all sides, from the American and South African musicians involved, to members of the ANC, to exiled musicians, to anti-apartheid activists in Britain, the US and elsewhere – people like Harry Belafonte, Oliver Tambo’s son Dali Tambo, and And musicians like David Byrne, Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones.

Most interesting is the incredibly dynamic music and movement in the new and old concert footage of the many South African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the late Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela. Or as Harry Belafonte puts it in the movie: “the whole mishpokhe.”

Joe Berlinger (a great documentary maker who co-directed the Paradise Lost series, about a small town murder blamed on non-conforming teens) combines vintage footage, music videos, concert and studio clips, along with interviews with people not afraid to disagree.

Under African Skies looks at old wounds In a new way: placing the new South Africa’s emphasis of Truth and Reconciliation above all.

21 Jump Street

Dir: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) went to high school together. Schmidt was the brainy-but-bullied unattractive nerd who never had a girlfriend, while Jenko was the popular, dumb but handsome jock who found it hard to get passing grades. Later, they both end up as cops. They weren’t friends in high school – they traveled in different circles – but become partners, and friends, as police.

But after failing to read a biker gang their Miranda rights, they get assigned to a deep cover squad known as 21 Jump St. It’s their job to return to high school pretending to be students and brothers, bust a synthetic drug ring, and find the supplier. But so much has changed since they were students that they can no longer read the social codes. And after a name mix-up, the two find their roles reversed: Jenko hangs out with the science geeks, while Schmidt becomes the popular guy. Will they catch the bad guys without getting kicked out of school (and the police force)? And will they get to attend the high school prom?

OK, this movie has a whole lot of the red flags that tell me it’ll be a bad movie: it has two directors, it’s based on an old TV show, it has a number in its title, and it’s a buddy action/ comedy about cops.

That said, it actually wasn’t that bad – actually funny at times, and with like-able players. Ice Cube is a bad/funny police boss like out of a bad 80s TV show; and Dax Flame (the cameraman in Project X) is a chemistry geek; and others, like Brie Larson and Dave Franco. Some of the jokes are funny and the story is watchable, but the chase scenes are awful.

21 Jump Street is playing now, check your local listings, Under African Skies premiered at the Canadian Music Week Film Fest, which continues through this weekend, and includes interesting documentaries like “Kevin” the first doc by the Duplass brothers (Jeff Who Lives at Home)

And be sure to check out the amazingly renovated new Bloor Cinema showing documentaries every day. It’s just beautiful, with new seats, great sound, newly-papered walls, and something I’ve never seen before: a glass window in the lobby with a view of the entire theatre.

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

Mar 1, 2012. California Dreamin’. Movies Reviewed: Project X, Rampart

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.

Southern California… It never rains there, they say. Surfers, bleached blondes, Beach Blanket Bingo, there’s something about LA and environs that seems so saccharine, so perfect and yet ersatz, so way out there. Back when they rarely wanted to go on location, the studio back lots doubled for the old west, middle America, suburban NY, or LA itself. Melrose Place, 90210, OC – movies or TV, it’s all so hyper-perfect.

But beneath that veneer there also lurks that festering pit of tar, that horribleness, that evil and corruption – The Manson Family, the casting couch, the satanic rituals, the real estate double dealing, the stuff you’d read about in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon…

So which is it? Well, in our present-day dystopia, southern California’s an about-to-collapse world, where the authorities are corrupt, but they’re the only things that are stopping total anarchy and destruction. …at least that’s how it’s portrayed in a lot of movies now.

So this week I’m talking about two new films about southern California… one’s about a party that explodes, the other’s about a cop that implodes.

Project X
Dir: Nima Nourizadeh (his first film)

It’s Thomas’s birthday, so his buddy Costa — a loudmouth in a sweater vest — says he’s going to throw him the best birthday party e-ver…! Both of Thomas’s parents are leaving Pasadena for the weekend, but they’re not worried – he’s just not a popular kid, his dad says – how many people does he know? Thomas thinks the party just might work, he might get away with it. But the two of them, along with their other best friend, JB, decide to go for it. And maybe Thomas will finally take his friendship with pretty Kirby to the BF/GF level?

They start out gathering the essentials – booze, drugs — (they steal a plaster gnome from their pot dealer, without realizing it held some things inside) and telling everyone at school, online, by email, texting, facebook – by any means necessary to bring in the crowds. They’re not really worried about people crashing the party – you can never have too many people… right? Besides they have their own security guards, little 10 year-olds ready to taze anyone making trouble. Everyone starts to trip on MDMA, and jump into the swimming pool – the boys fully dressed, the girls (as part of some adolescent boy fantasy) nude of course. More gratuitously naked breasts than you can shake a stick at.

Unfortunately, no one can anticipate the number of people eventually showing up, and the anarchic state that ensues.

I enjoyed Project X, as a party movie — more fun than funny, with a bit of a nasty streak running through it. But it also had a really “new” feeling to it, sort of like an extended youtube feature, but with a movie sized budget. The whole thing is purportedly taped by Dax, an unseen goth dude in a trench coat (straight out of Columbine) with a camera.

It seems like more and more movies feel that if you don’t include the camera as a character, it’s not “real”. (I disagree).

I liked the nihilism of it — though the “punish the good guys / reward the douches” theme was a bit disturbing…

The acting is great — the three mains, all unknown, mostly playing characters with their own names – Thomas Mann as Thomas, Jonathon Daniel Brown as JB, and Oliver Cooper as Costa – remind me of the three “geek” kids from Paul Feig’s “Freaks and Geeks” (Daley, Starr and Levine). Only these three are a bit older, and a bit meaner.

Project X is a “wow!” movie , as in I wanna go to that party, but also a “whoa…!” movie, especially towards the end. Not a terrific movie, but a fun and jarring experience.

Rampart
Dir: Oren Moverman

David “Date Rape” Brown is a mean egotistical street beat cop. He’s a cock-of-the-walk who drives around like he owns the Rampart precinct, an especially notorious part of Downtown LA. If he doesn’t get a confessioin he wants, he beats up the suspect until they break. He forces a rookie cop to eat her French Fries even though she doesn’t want them. He’s from a long line of cops. He lives with both his ex wives (they’re sisters!) and the one daughter he had with each of them. Dave is practically invincible. He takes the law into his own hands, and is admired by his fellow cops for his indefatigable character. And the brass tolerate him, since he brings in lots of convictions.

Dave loves his life – pretty (though troubled) daughters, two ex-wives, and he can pick up beautiful women in bars on the side. His LA is constantly moving: busy, dirty and corrupt. It’s filled with gangsters, drug dealers, drive-by-shootings, and snitches in wheelchairs. The cops are as much a part of the warp and weft as the criminals they chase. And lots of innocents die between them.

Then, one day, he gets caught on cell phone camera beating up a guy (a la Rodney King) whose car rammed him and then ran away. And things start to go wrong. The DA office starts following him around, the lawyers want him to resign, and there’s some strange unexplained conspiracy bubbling up beneath al of this. Things get worse and worse, as he gradually loses his home, his family, his friends, his money, and his status. He embarks on a self-destructive journey, though it’s never quite clear whether he means to ruin things or if they’re all just happening to him.

Woody Harrelson is amazing as Officer Brown, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, and Sigourney Weaver, among others, are fun as some of the many women picking on him. Each scene could end in a dramatic turn, but more often devolves into very long conversations about relationships and guilt. I was expecting Rampart to be an action and chase cop thriller – which it’s not. It’s a drama about what happens to a middle-aged cop when his power disappears.

Rampart is playing now, and Project X, and the new documentary Family Portrait in Black and White both open today in Toronto. 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.

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