Movies with Kids vs Kids’ Movies. Films Reviewed: Oculus, Loubia Hamra (Bloody Beans), Anina

Posted in Animation, Art, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, Dreams, Experimental Film, Family, France, Horror, Images Festival, Uruguay, War by CulturalMining.com on April 12, 2014

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.

Lots of movies use kids. Some try for a young audience, others have young characters. And the two types don’t necessarily overlap. This week I’m looking at three movies: a chiller-thriller about two kids and a haunted mirror they can’t escape; an art film with kids reenacting the Algerian War; and an animated film from Uruguay about a girl with an envelope she can’t open.

VVS_Oculus_PosterOculus
Dir: Mike Flanagan

Kaylie and Tim (Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites) are sister and brother. Kaylie is a decisive, take-charge kind of girl with long red hair like her mother. Tim is brown haired like his dad. A decade earlier, something violent and terrible happened in their home. And by the time it was over, they were orphans. They locked up 10-year-old Tim in a mental hospital. Now, they declare, he’s all cured. No more of that childish nonsense he used to spout – about voices and mind-control and a demon who lives inside a mirror. He’s a responsible adult now, ready to live in the real world. (Like a babe in the woods.)

Except… what’s the first thing big sister Kaylie does? She drags him back to the JE3_7854.NEFhouse where it all happened, and says – we’re gonna get that demon – the one in the mirror – and kill her!

Apparently that antique mirror has been spawning grisly murders for centuries. It possesses all it encounters and muddles their thoughts until they can’t tell illusion from reality. So Kaylie has rigged up a complicated system, involving cameras, computer JE3_2064.NEFscreens, alarm clocks, and a lethal-looking blade that’s always poised to smash the mirror.

The return home triggers strong memories in Tim’s mind – he begins to relive the old days alongside the recent events. Are Tim and Kaylie strong enough to resist the demon’s illusions?

This is a good, scary movie with the two stories – now and flashbacks – unfolding side-by-side, and occasionally overlapping. Parts feel hackneyed, but the two sets of actors (in their teens and twenties) are totally convincing.

Suitable for children? Only if they can handle extreme violence, gore and nightmarish horror.

bloody beans.phpLoubia Hamra (Bloody Beans)
Dir: Narimane Mari

It’s Algeria. Boys dressed in stylish shorts and silk neckties are playing on the beach. They swim in the ocean, float on beached tires and lie in the sun. Until one of them farts.

You fart like an Frenchman! they shout. It’s those bloody beans — loubia make you fart. So they raid the picnic basket the girls brought. The girls warn them there are soldiers on the streets: war is coming.

(Context: Algeria is a north African country, once colonized by its neighbour across the Mediterranean. France annexed it and hundreds of thousands of Europeans settled there. A War of Independence broke out in the 1950s. The Algerian War was notorious for the violence, torture, and cruelty used by both the French military and the FLN revolutionaries. A third group, the OAS –  French extremist-nationalists who refused to leave Algeria – terrorized both the French and the Algerians.)

So the revolutionary boys and girls who want more than just beans to eat set out along the beach, just as the sun sets. bloody beans images festivalThey don wigs, scarves, masks and capes. They paint their faces and bodies with drawings and fake beards. At a French monastery they gaze at the statues, fillagries and icons. They fight an evil man in a pigs mask, and make friends with a French soldier who was drafted to serve. And they project their shadows against a white washed building, making animal noises.

Bloody Beans is a beautiful and strange reenactment, 50 years after the end of the Algerian war. It includes lots of subtle details: women fighting alongside men, the colonial division between the French haves and the Algerian have-nots, and the violence and torture on both sides. It ends with a floating recitation in the ocean, with the boys and girls repeatedly asking: is it better to be than to obey? (Vaut-il mieux etre que d’obeir?).

This complex film is a work of art that uses video as the canvas, kids as the paint.

anina_06_medium tiff kidsAnina
Dir: Alfredo Soderguit (Uruguay)

Anina Yatay Salas is a girl with wild, red hair and a triple-barreled name. Her dad loves the symmetry of her palindromes, words where the head matches the tail. And each day Anina looks at her bus ticket to see if its number is a palindrome like her.

One day, on the school playground she bumps into blonde Yisel, sending her sandwich flying through the air and down a drain. This starts a big fight. Anina calls Yisel, a big girl, “the elephant”.anina_05_medium TIFF kids Yisel makes fun of Anina’s palindromic names.

Their punishment? The principal gives them both mysterious black envelopes, closed with red sealing wax. They have to keep it safe and unopened for a week. Will this strange punishment teach them a lesson?

Anina is a very simple film, but it looks amazing. It’s an animated cartoon in a dusty and smudgy, retro style. It’s filled with fascinating details that shout Uruguay: eggs wrapped in paper, strange fried foods, kids wearing white smocks to school. At the same time, its buses, classrooms, and playgrounds look just like here.

anina_04_medium TIFF kidsBut the movie is at its best when Anina’s imagination takes over: her bus turns into a riverboat, she gets lost in an imaginary hedge maze. And there’s a fantastic nightmare sequence where the Principal and a mean teacher morph into a ghostly judge and jury – ready to punish her for what she did to her black envelope.

Anina is clearly a kids’ movie but everyone can appreciate its amazing look.

Oculus opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; Anina is part of the TIFF Kids film festival, on now (tiff.net), and Bloody Beans is playing April 14th at Toronto’s Images festival of moving art (imagesfestival.com).

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

April 13, 2012. Interview: Simone Rapisarda Casanova talks to Daniel Garber about his film The Strawberry Tree at Images Festival

Posted in Animals, Art, Canada, Cuba, Cultural Mining, documentary, Images Festival, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on April 16, 2012

Simone Rapisarda Casanova talks about The Strawberry Tree, a film he shot in a remote fishing village in Cuba that was later flattened by a hurricane. Simone shares his thoughts on the Three Utopias, the relationship of the artist and his subjects, honesty, class, and shooting a film looking up from the floor.

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

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

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

Happy People. A Year in the Taiga

Dir: Werner Herzog, Dimitry Vasyukov

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

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

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

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

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

The Hunter

Dir: Daniel Nettheim

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

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

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

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

Cabin in the Woods

Dir: Drew Goddard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strawberry Tree

Dir: Simone Rapisarda Casanova

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

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

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

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

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

The Pettifogger

Dir: Lewis Klahr

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

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

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

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

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

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

So which is the better documentary?

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

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

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

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

The Space-Time Continuum. Movies Reviewed: Source Code, Repeaters, American: The Bill Hicks Story, The Tiny Ventriloquist

Everyone loves some good time travel right? Sure you do. You want to go back in time and fix something up, right a wrong, to do something you wished you had done before it was too late. So, this week, I’m looking at four movies — an action thriller, and a psycho-science fiction movie that deal directly with glitches in the time- space continuum, as well as a historical documentary/ biography about a stand up comic who was inspired by his psychedelic trips, and an art film that manipulates old images and sound, using newly created and found footage and graphic art.

Time travel movies used to be simple, you’d climb into your time machine, travel back or forward in time, until you fix whatever the problem was and come back home.

But now (possibly influenced by start-again video games and rebooted computer programs where you always have the chance to erase your mistakes and go back to point zero) we have this sub genre where scenes are repeated over and over and over again.

You are the one variable that can make a difference, but if you mess up, someone is pressing Play Again until you get it right (like in the classic Groundhog Day)

In one new movie,

Source Code

Dir: Duncan Jones

you get to see the same 8 minute episode, throughout the film, until the hero, a US military helicopter pilot In Afghanistan, tries to win his game.

So, the soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) suddenly awakens on a Chicago commuter train, in the middle of a chat with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty woman across from him. The problem is, he doesn’t know where he is, what he’s doing, and who are all the strangers seated with him who seem to know him. And when he looks in a bathroom mirror he discovers he’s not there — he’s somehow inside another person! But even as he tries to make sense of it all, he is the victim of a huge explosion on the train whichh catapults him back to his military job.

It turns out he’s part of an experiment called source code, based on the principal that the brain can hold on to 8 minutes of short-term memory, and that after someone dies (like the man on the train) his neuro synapses remain open and retrievable if caught immediately after the heart stops.

So it’s up to him to figure out who the terrorist is, where the bomb was hidden, and then to trackdown the killer and stop a massive nuclear bomb set to go off later in downtown Chicago. he can’t change the past, but he can relive it until he finds out the truth.

Will he solve the crime, catch the bad guy, get to know Christina, and save the world? And will he ever be told why he’s In this program, and allowed out of this hellish space-time loop?

Source Code essentially has the same format as the directors other film Moon (about a man who lives alone on a base on the moon, with only a computer voice to keep him company) — a dialogue between two detached people caught in sort of a loop created by people beyond their understanding. In this one, the ongoing conversation — on the two sides of a video screen — is between the soldier and a female officer (Vera Farmiga) who sends him his assignments.

It’s a neatly imagined science fiction action thriller, even though Gylenhaal doesn’t seem quite up to the part, he’s too opaque, and the story doesn’t exactly make sense, even according to its own plot.

A Canadian film that opens next Friday,

Repeaters

Dir: Carl Bessai

follows a similar pattern.

Three young ne’er-do-well drug addicts — Kyle, Sonia and Weeks –at an isolated rehab center, live through a god-awful day iof depression, bullying, idiocy, neglect, and frustration. The three only have each other to depend on. Pick-up truck Kyle (Dustin Milligan) is rejected by his little sister for something he did; Sonia (Amanda Crew) is unable to talk about an issue with her father who is dying in a hospital; and Weeks (Richard de Klerk) is emotionally crushed by the hate-on his furious father carries for him when he tries to visit him in a prison.

But when they wake up the next morning after a thunderstorm, it’s soon clear the world is reliving the previous day exactly as before, and only those three are aware of it. This totally messes up their sense of destiny and morality. Is there any meaning to life at all? Even if they save a person’s life — or kill him — it all goes back to the same point of restart. (It’s one day, not 8 minutes, in this movie, so it’s not as action- packed as source code.) will they ever confront their own moral dillemmas and right the wrongs they know about?

This is a neat movie about things like where morality fits into one’s own self image, what are the psychological consequences of good and evil that has no effect, and what would you do if you could do anything? It’s also a romance, a bit science fiction, with a lot of psycho-thriller, as the three reveal their own minds to each other as the loops continue.

The next movie is only related to time travel in that the main character was known to mentally float around in a drug induced state.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Dir: Matt Harlock and Pauk Thomas

Bill Hicks was a counter-culture standup comic in the Seventies and Eighties, known for tackling the topics that are taboo for comedians: not dick jokes, but politics, philosophy, intellectual issues, psychedelia. His jokes combined a Texas drawl, the lilt of a preacher’s revival meeting, and out-of-control, drunken and drug-filled vivid improvisational fantasies, rages and rants.

This moving documentary traces his life from his geeky teen years until his untimely death in his early thirties. Interesting technique for a documentary; there are almost no talking heads – instead the heads, people like his parents, his best friend, other comedians — turn into the movies narrators, like an oral history, with most of the movie comsisting of animated old photos, along with old concert footage.

He started as a thirteen yr old in suburban Houston, Texas. On his first try at drinking alcohol at a night club, he asks his fellow comedians – what’s a good drink (because he’s never had a mixed drink before)? They tell him Margaritas. So he downs seven margaritas at once and then goes on stage and lets loose. He considers alcohol as a disinhibitor, to let his true emotions loose on stage, and psilocybin mushrooms the source of his psychedelic insights. He would go up to a ranch every so often with a bunch of friends to down the mushrooms and see what images they bring.

Hicks was a heavy drinker and a creative psychedelic druggie, and the movie shows some unflattering footage of low period where audience members would buy him drinks during his standup act and he would drink, snort or inhale anything that got sent up the stage. A bt disturbing — like most of his act, where unsobreity was part of his defiance.

American, the Bill Hicks Story, is a very good and interesting movie, of a largely unsung folk-hero, done in the style of a rock-star documentary. My only criticism is that it concentrates too much on the serious biography parts and not enough on his art.

The Tiny Ventriloquist

Dir: Steve Reinke

Here’s another film that played last week’s Images Festival, where experimental art meets the big screen. This movie takes a disjointed look at the director’s own self-reflections towards his art; using his own great narrated shots and photos, along with found footage – of the most surprising kind – cut up and manipulated in an unexpected way.

I’ve always liked Steve Reinke’s work because it’s art, but it’s also always interesting and funny to watch, without the overly tedious or pensive feel, that a lot of video art has. You’re allowed to enjoy it, you’re allowed to laugh or squirm.

So in the same way Steve Hicks would drag political outrage into the usually pablum, fake-shock world of stand-up comedy, Steve Reinke, in the same way, violates the usually dry inner sanctum of art using found porn and other taboo sources (in an artistically valid way, naturally.)

So in this movie you het a combination of uneasy travel footage, spooky monochrome, costumed, home movie dancing, and old crackly recordings. Scenes of flood, water, and old rural western USA. Drunken Dutch soccer hooligans, hunters, real or imagined vaguely threatening child memories, manipulated Peanut’s cartoons, scary medical and industrial footage, and post-apocalyptic fantasies filled with dread.

The most bizarre footage is of a woman shown bear hunting in the woods, followed by a protracted explicit sex, in the form of very low-grade amateur porn, on top of the dead body of the bear. It’s funny: the dry didactic narration, while describing each scene in detail, in order to not offend the viewers it censors parts of the images by covering it with amorphous green-screen colour. Here’s the surprise: he keeps all the hard core porn images, but scribbles out the body of the poor dead bear!

Throughout the piece, vivid footage is alternated with animated simple line drawings. I liked this film, The Tiny Ventriloquist, a lot.

Source Code is now playing, American, the Bill Hicks Story starts today at the Royal Cinema in Toronto (check our local listings), Repeaters opens next Friday and The Tiny Ventriloquist was shown at the Images Festival.

How Women see the World. Films reviewed: Beeswax, Littlerock, Hanna, Born to be Wild PLUS Rivers and my Father, Images Festival, Sprockets Festival

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s still true. The Hollywood star system has made a huge shift over the past few decades across the gender line. The biggest stars are now male, not female; most movies are about men, not women, and most stories are told from a man’s point of view. Even in movies with a female star, all the other main characters are often male. Most, but not all… there’s actually a bumper crop of movies opening today that buck this trend.

So, this week, I’m looking at four very different new movies, two realistic dramas, an action thriller, and a kids documentary, all told from the point of view of women, and, interestingly, all touching on family relationships. (All of these films were directed by men.)

Two of them, Beeswax and Littlerock, are part of a new trend in indie filmmaking (sometimes called New Realism or Mumblecore), using non-actors — often using their own names — ordinary situations, improvisational scenes, locations not studios, no special effects, and without the usual obvious plotlines and clichés. (Last year, I enjoyed Modra, and No Heart Feelings, two Toronto movies that fit into this category.) It’s always fun watching new types of movies, but some work better than others.

Beeswax

Dir: Andrew Bujalski

Jeannie and Lauren (Tillie and Maggie Hatcher) are adult twin sisters who live together. Jeannie owns a vintage store in an American college town. She gets around in a car or using her wheelchair. She’s having problems with her business partner who’s always flying off overseas, while Jeannie’s always working at the store. She’s faced with the question of what to do with her business and whether her partner is suing her. Meanwhile, her sister Lauren is also deciding whether or not to take a big step in her life. And Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student writing his bar exams, is Jeannie’s on again off again bed-partner, and her potential lawyer, if he passes the bar.

The movie starts and ends very suddenly, as if we’re allowed to spend a few days with these characters — as if it were a documentary — and then they’re gone again. The story itself is about normal everyday events: people living their lives, having sex, going to work, talking with friends and family members. The parts are played by non-actors, who are appealing, and pretty funny, but still just regular people.

I like the fact that it has one main character with a physical disability, without making it the main story, and dealt with in a very matter-of-fact way — not ignoring the very real accommodations she has to be aware of to live her life, but without making it the central point, morphing into some weeper where she stands up out of her wheelchair in triumph saying “I can walk again!” It’s sort of like casting a black Hamlet or a male Ophelia. This movie also deals with same-sex-couples in the same unremarkable way.

It’s not a big and exciting movie, but has a comfortable, familial feel about it, along with the underlying competitiveness and rivalry among family members. Beeswax (as in mind your own?) is a realistic look at a few days of the secrets and tensions in two sisters’ lives.

Littlerock

Dir: Mike Ott

Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka), and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) are visiting from Japan. They’re driving from Los Angeles to the San Francisco area (to visit a place related to their past) when their rented car breaks down in Littlerock, a small town in LA county. They’re forced to stay in a motel until they send them a new one. But when they go to the room next door, to complain about a loud drunken party, they end up meeting some locals and hanging out.

Atsuko likes Cory (Cory Zacharia) – who wants to be an actor/model, but owes too much money to his father and his drug dealer – but they don’t speak the same language. They pretend to understand what each other are saying, but once Rintaro takes off, they are left without a translator. Atsuko meets some other people, and jealousy and duplicity ensues.

The problem with the movie is that most of the characters seem bland or uninteresting. It’s realistic, but maybe too realistic. Atsuko and Cory never figure how to communicate – but most of the things they want the other to hear are just standard chatter anyway – aside from a very touching scene toward the end of the movie. It really needed more interesting dialogue to go with the nice scenes of a pensive young Japanese woman coming of age in smalltown USA.

Hanna

Dir: Joe Wright

Hanna (Saoirise Ronan) is brought up by her dad, Erik (Eric Bana) — a spy and assassin who’s gone rogue — in an all-natural setting somewhere in the far north. She learns everything from a stack of old encyclopedias, dictionaries, and grimm’s fairytales. He teaches her how to shoot a deer with a bow and arrow from far away, skin it and cook it. “Always be alert” he tells her. She has to be ready to fend off any attacker — even when she’s asleep. But when she can beat her father at a fight, she realizes it’s time to “come in from the cold” to use the old spy term. She’s ready to face her father’s old foe and handler: the icy, prada-clad CIA agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett).

From there, the movie races on, with the three competing killers – Erik, Hanna, and Marrissa — trying to out-do, capture or kill one another. It’s purposely kept unclear who is the hunter and who is the prey, who is running and who is chasing as power dynamics shift. Marissa and her henchmen – an effeminate German man in white tracksuit and his two skinhead fighters – pursue the 14 year old through various unexpected exotic settings. Hanna just wants to make a friend, find her father again, revisit the brothers Grimm, and listen to music for the very first time. She falls in with a family of British hippies who are driving their van around on a camping trip, and begins to understand the complex rules of social interaction.

The plot is extremely simple, a more-or-less non-stop series of chases and fights – but it’s visually sumptuous movie, with a terrific driving soundtrack, constantly surprising cultural references, stunning scenery, great comic relief, and amazing camera work. There are scenes where the camera spins around and around in a full 360, and others where it flips or rolls or turns upside down. Cate Blanchett is great as the super-villainess, Erik Bana good as a troubled spy, and Saoirise Ronan really great as Hanna, a new type of super hero.

Born to Be Wild

Dir: David Lickley

Wild animals? Aww… Cute, baby wild animals? Cute little baby wild animal… orphans? Awwwww….

How about cute little orphaned baby elephants in Kenya, and baby orangutans living in the rain forests of Borneo… in IMAX 3D???

Yeah, this is one really cute G-rated movie, the kind that makes you

say to hell with my carbon footprint — I wanna hop on a jet-fuel guzzling airplane and fly off to the jungles of Borneo to commune with the Orangutans who look a lot like Homer Simpson…

Actually, the movies about how the rainforests that make up the wild habitat of many the great apes are rapidly disappearing. And in Africa, there are still poachers killing elephants for their ivory tusks. And when the young are left without their mothers they have no one to feed them. These are the orphans – meaning motherless orangutans and elephants — that the movie is about. Narrator Morgan Freeman shows two women — Birute in Indonesia and Daphne in Kenya — who adopt and raise these animal orphans until they’re old enough to gradually be set free again. The extremely short movie (it’s 40 min long) also has some of the best live 3-D footage I’ve seen since Avatar. An enjoyable film (though maybe a bit cloying for adults) it’s perfect for kids who want to see wild animals up close.

Canadian director and artist Luo Li’s newest film premiered at the Images Festival, North America’s largest experimental art and moving images festival, that combines gallery exhibitions with screenings at movie theatres.

Rivers and My Father

Dir: Luo Li

In this movie, he takes his father’s collected memoirs of old China, and sews them together in a black and white patchwork quilt of repeated disjointed scenes, narrations, titles and subtitles, centering around people in and around water. His own relatives play some of the parts (but not all).

So you see a man in a bathing cap bobbing up and down in a river; kids playing in the woods; a formally dressed woman leading a child up an outdoor staircase; a boy on a boat; and some older people talking to each other about their childhood memories, and about shooting this movie.

I was a bit put off by his use of obvious anachronisms that don’t match the year given in a scene’s title; and the frequent repetition of certain odd scenes, but I love his images of a wet road scene looking down in a moving bicycle in the rain; of the slow, grey waters of the Yangtse river; of a distant shore across water.

It’s funny — I’m dismissing various “errors” in the movie as artistic license, but grumbling to myself just the same… when the last third of the movie begins: his own father’s critique (represented by moving, plain and bold chinese fonts on the screen, over english subtitles) of the film I’m watching, as I watch it, and the filmmaker’s response! That was the most surprising and interesting section of this movie.

Beeswax and Littlerock are at the Royal, Born to be Wild at AMC in IMAX 3-D, and Hanna in wide release, all opening today, April 8, 2011. Check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Images Festival, which is playing right now, both on-screen in theatres and off-screen in art galleries. Look online at imagesfestival.com . And Sprockets, the festival of movies for kids and young adults opens this weekend: www.tiff.ca/sprockets

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

War and Filmic Vocabulary. Movies Reviewed: The Christening, Essential Killing. PLUS Cold Fish, Images Festival

It’s funny how current events can change our whole filmic vocabulary, adding new concepts and words to make images that would have made no sense a decade ago instantly recognizable on today’s movie screens.

Most people immediately think of technology — ipods, digital pics, texting, on-line dates — as the biggest recognizable changes. But,  unfortunately, some of the biggest stretches of our visual vocabulary is in images of war, violence and death.

During one of the darkest periods in American history, that started less than a decade ago following 9/11 (and doesn’t seem to have finished), the Bush/Cheney administration started a “war on terror”. Countries were invaded, bombs dropped, and a huge number of suspects were arrested, jailed, tortured or killed. In general, these horrific events were kept away from American soil, but done by Americans under direct orders from the government. They also introduced new words and concepts into our vocabulary, that previously might only have been used in horror novels.

Clandestine prison camps, known as “Black Sites”, were set up across Europe and the Middle East. Undocumented suspects, who were sent there to be tortured or interrogated, were called “Ghost Detainees”. One of the torture techniques, in which detainees were made to repeatedly suffer the sensation of death by drowning, is now widely known as “Water Boarding”. And the black hoods put over prisoners (used in Abu Ghraib) are also instantly recognizable.

Canada has also morphed into a nation at war, without consciously deciding to make the change from peacekeeper to bomber. We’re fighting on two fronts now. So today I’m looking at some new movies from Poland (a country that has certainly seen more than its fair share of wars) that examine how war and violence has infiltrated daily lives.

The Christening
Dir: Marcin Wrona

The movie opens with a soldier, face covered, being chased down by cops who beat him up, and arrest him for unknown reasons. Then flash forward – Janek (Tomasz Schuchardt) is visiting his army buddy and best fishing friend, Michal (Wojciech Zielinski). They’re together again to guzzle vodka and do Maori war chants. When they go fishing, they use their old military experience – throwing grenades into a lake — to blow up as many fish as they can. Nice guys!

Everything seems great for Michal: he has a good job, a beautiful wife, Magda (Natalia Rybicka) – he says they met in a hospital when she stitched up a cut on his brow — and a little baby. He’s gone straight: he even offers to help his friend out. But Janek, he’s happy just getting drunk, carousing with his buddies. He doesn’t want an office job – he makes good cash stealing cars and stripping them down for parts.

But there’s a problem — Michal seems to be hiding something. Someone’s putting pressure on him, and he’s showing up with a black eye, or beaten-up body. Janek doesn’t understand what’s happening — if there’s a problem he should tell him – he’ll just beat the guy up. Janek still likes a good brawl. Meanwhile, Magda is sure everything is Janek’s fault. He’s dragging her husband into the gutter. Maybe Michal owed something to his army buddies, but she doesn’t owe Janek anything. But her husband’s dark secret – one of betrayal and duplicity – makes Michal feel both guilty and trapped.

So he sets up a scheme to exit from his problems after the baby’s christening. He thinks he’s doomed there, but maybe his best friend can replace him in his home.

Will Janek stick by him? Who’s the criminal here? The cops or the thugs? Where does a person’s loyalty really lie? And how far will you let it go?

The Christening is an extremely – I’d say excessively — violent movie. I get the feeling the director was influenced by directors like Quentin Tarantino, but in all the wrong ways. Characters, like the gangsters’ boss, Fatman, who behaves like a sadistic killer, seem to be there just for titillation. So lots of horrible, gory, senseless, over-the-top fighting, but almost no humour (only melodrama) to lighten the mood.

Essential Killing
Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

Mohamed (Vincent Gallo), a militant hiding out in the smooth caves of a lunar landscape (Afghanistan?), is startled to hear two American marines approaching in desert storm camouflage and beige burnooses. He pulls out his weapon and Boom! Ratatatatat! He ambushes the soldiers. Mohamed runs out into the sun to escape, but is taken down by helicopters and more special ops soldiers.

So now he’s taken away to some unidentified place (a black site) where he’s placed on his back, screamed at in English (he can’t hear after the explosions) and then waterboarded. Next, he’s off with other prisoners on some snowy forest road – looks like Canada – and there’s an accident. He gets out of the truck, grabs a gun and starts a long, painful, and violent trek trough the woods of rural Poland, pursued by US Special Ops and helicopters.

It becomes almost like a fairy tale or a picaresque novel, but with a violent streak running through it. He encounters a stream of characters — like a huge-breasted woman on a bike with a baby, a friendly black and white dog, some drunken wood cutters,  a deaf-mute woman who lives in a cottage in the forest who tends to his wounds, and a pale white, broken horse — as he tries to escape, survive, and get away. He climbs snow covered banks, slides off cliffs into rivers, hallucinates after eating poison berries, and conceals himself using the changing costumes he finds or steals on his journey.

Essential Killing was directed by Skolimowski, who was one of the dialogue writers on Polanski’s Knife in the Water, but this movie has almost lines at all. It’s not silent, but with both Mohammed and the US soldiers far from their own homes, they can’t understand each other. The locals around the Dark Site talk a bit but about nothing in particular. This is an aesthetically beautiful, though bloody, art movie – one of very few “action/art” films. I’m not a big fan of Vincent Gallo, but he is fantastic in this as a silent pilgrim, alternately Christ-like and psychotic.

This is an unexpectedly amazing movie — just be aware it’s not a conventional, Hollywood-style film.

And, just in case this isn’t enough violence for one weekend, the Japanese horror film Cold Fish also opens today. You can read my whole review but just let me say, it is the most hellaciously bloody, gory, horrifyingly abusrdist exploitation movie I’ve ever seen. And it left me physically shaking by the time I walked out of the theatre, after its orgyistic tsunami of sex, blood, serial killing and cannibalistic outrages that In a few days transform the life of a mild-mannered tropical fish salesman, to a victim and potential participant in this ultimate sex blood flic.

The Christening played last year’s TIFF, Essential Killing and Cold Fish are opening today, April 1, 2011 in Toronto. Check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Images Festival, which is on right now. Toronto’s Images Festival — an exhibition of film and art, experimental and independent — is the largest one in North America to feature moving images and media art both on the big screen and in gallery installations.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM and CulturalMining.com.

Movies for Grown-ups. Films reviewed: Of Gods and Men, Nora’s Will, Unknown. Plus upcoming film festivals

Well, if you ever need a break from standard Hollywood fare, I’ve got a few movies that are watchable but slightly outside expected norms.

This week I’m going to talk about three movies notable for having mature characters (meaning they’re over 14); movies that deal with questions of identity, religion, and the concepts of alienation and acceptance; and movies that take place in small communities within larger ones. They also take place outside the United States: one in Berlin, one in Mexico City, and one in a small village in Algeria. And these movies all feature great actors, even in the smaller roles.

Nora’s Will

Dir: Mariana Chenillo

Jose shows up at his ex-wife Nora’s apartment one morning to find the coffee being made, fresh food in the fridge, everything arranged for the day, but with Nora in her bedroom, dead. They’ve been divorced for 20 years, but he still lives right across the street.

Jose (Fernando Luján) is shocked by her death, but even more surprised when he discovers her plans are still unfolding. Nora is a Jewish, Mexican woman, and it appears she arranged for her funeral to coincide with a final Passover dinner. She has left little post it notes all around her apartment, and the calls start coming in as planned – her eccentric cousin from Guadalajara is on her way, their children are returning from their vacations, and her doctor is also showing up, and so is her Rabbi.

Jose bristles at both his ex-wife’s religious beliefs and her arrangements, so he makes it his unspoken goal to mess up all her plans. He suspects she had a lover, and wants to find evidence of that in her apartment. Even after her death he is still obsessed with his ex-wife. And in order to do what he can to disrupt the funeral he offers pepperoni pizza to the kosher rabbi, festoons the apartment with giant floral crosses, and tries to hide all the post-it notes about her planned last supper. And once the rumour escapes that Nora may have committed suicide, Jose’s disruptive plans spin out of control, with a possibility that there will be no where at all to bury her. His daughter in law is pissed-off, her housekeeper is suspicious, and the various other characters all seem ready to explode. Can JOse pull everything back together again? And does he want to?

This is a pretty funny movie, sort of a gentle, drawing-room comedy about middle-class, urban life in Mexico – something I’ve rarely seen in a movie before. And it reveals (in flashbacks) some unexpected secrets of the family – or at least secret to the movie viewer – so it keeps your interest as the stories unfold, and the plot gains more depth. Nora’s Will is a good, funny and, in the end, poignant portrayal of a damaged relationship, and their need for closure. And it won eight awards from the Mexican Academy of Film, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Of Gods and Men

Dir: Xavier Beauvois

This is a movie about a peaceful monastery of Trappist monks in Algeria in the 1990s. They don’t proselytize or evangelize; instead they just make honey, tend to the sick and the poor, and spend the rest of their time in prayer and meditation. But civil war tensions enter into their lives, when Islamist extremists are getting closer, and start attacking nearby villages, and the equally violent — though ardently secular — military wants to place armed gunmen inside the monastery.

This is based on the true story, (made clear even in the ads) of their tragic massacre, so their fates are not a surprise, but the movie is about the period before then when they debate whether to stay in Algeria or go back to France.

The movie itself is constructed in a very formalistic way – scenes of their uneventful daily routines are contrasted with the increasingly violent events encroaching on their lives. Each short section is concluded with a silent tableau of the white-robed monks praying. Their feelings are subtly reflected by their postures at prayer: standing tall, or hunched in a circle, or reclining at rest, or collapsing in despair… a silent visual commentary on the events in their lives.

They start out as an undifferentiated mass, unidentifiable one from the next, but gradually their identities, names and personalities are made clear. Well, sort of… I thought the director made them more into a real-life version of the seven dwarves: Doc, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy… They seemed more like allegorical figures than real people, with only Christian, the Abbot (Lambert Wilson), the leader among the brothers, and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a doctor who spends much of his time in native dress, as fully-formed characters.

Of Gods and Men is a slow-moving, but not boring, beautifully constructed look at monks’ lives as religious martyrs, proto-saints, and nearly-flawless examples. Is there anyone who doesn’t like monks?

But it left me feeling slightly duped by the religiosity of it all, with its story and characters made less real, and more like a sunday school lesson, by their hagiographic portrayals. The whole movie felt like a parent or a priest wagging his finger at the collective movie goers, as a lesson in religious purity and peity.

And you had to wonder about the film’s point of view.

Remember, Algeria was a colony, annexed and ruled as an integral part of France up until the end of their bloody war of independence in 1962. So you have to wonder about a French movie portraying the Algerian soldiers as the bad guys, and the Islamist extremist as the other bad guys, with the only good guys being the French monks (and the local villagers) still in Algeria. Sketchy, n’est-ce pas? While I feel nothing but sympathy for the massacred trappist monks, this movie really seems to be shedding a tear for France’s whole lost empire.

Unknown

Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra

Dr Martin Harris, a scientist, arrives in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth to give a presentation on agricultural biology. But at the doors of their luxury hotel he realizes he left his briefcase at the airport. So he hails a cab and rushes back. But there’s an accident on the way that plunges the car into a river, with the pretty cabby risking her life to save his. Four days later, he comes to in a hospital bed with a brain injury, his mind confused. He rushes back to the hotel to find his wife, but when he gets there, she denies knowing him, and, stranger still, she has checked in with another man, also claiming to be Dr Martin Harris! Whoa…!

So here he is, with a bandaged head, no ID, no money, in a strange city he’s never been to, and he knows nobody there. His identity has even been wiped clean on the Internet – he doesn’t exist. And he starts to have paranoid thoughts – is that guy in a parked car waiting for him. Is that other guy with round glasses following him? And how about the man on the subway? Is he losing his mind? But, as they say, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

So Martin teams up with some locals to try to solve the mystery – the nice illegal immigrant cabby, and a blandly sinister detective who used to be in the Stasi, the East German secret service. What’s going on? What happened to his wife? And is he in danger? Unknown is a not-bad mystery/thriller with a Catalan Director, and a really good , largely European cast – Liam Neeson as the confused yet violent Martin, the great Bruno Ganz as the Stasi agent, Sebastian Koch as the German scientist, and Diane Kruger as the cabby; as well as Americans like January Jones as his wife, and Aiden Quinn as the man pretending to be him.

I thought the mysterious set-up of the first half was more satisfying than the car chases, shoot-outs and fights of the second half (when the secrets are revealed and the plot chugs along its way) but it’s not a bad, mystery/thriller.

In Toronto, festival season is starting up soon. Here are some of the lesser known festivals.

Look out for the Toronto Silent Film Festival starting on March 30th, with bog stars of the silent era like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Harold Lloyd, and great directors like FW Murnau, Hal Roach and King Vidor. Look online at http://www.ebk-ink.com/tsff/home.html

The Female Eye Film Festival features movies directed by women, including a Canadian psychological drama, The High Cost of Living directed by Deborah Chow. Check out listings at http://www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com/

And the Images Festival, North America’s largest collection of art and culture in the form of moving images on videos and in film, starts on March 31. Go to imagesfestival.com.

Nora’s Will opens today in Toronto, and Unknown and Of Gods and Men are now playing. Check your local listings.

High Concept movies v Conceptual Art. Movies Reviewed: No Images, How to Train Your Dragon, The Lightning Thief, Clash of Titans

It seems to me that commercial movies try to be as accessible as possible — often to the point of excess. Whereas art tries to be as inaccessible as it can, while still conveying its ideas, designs, or aesthetics.

The current 3D fad is sometimes described as making movies feel like “real thing”. Hollywood wants to artificially give the illusion of reality, to make you feel like you’re part of the movie experience, to make them easy to like. The movie itself, on the other hand, often slips into “high concept”: an extremely simple idea churned into a film the producers believe will make money.

The art side, though, seems to take the opposite approach, often equating complexity, difficulty, opaqueness, or inaccessibility, with artistic “success”. Anything considered overly simplistic, or too easy to “get”, is bad. Ambiguity, confusion, and occasionally randomness is good. Taken to itrs extreme we sometimes encounter conceptual art, where the idea, the concept, takes precedent over the art itself.

I used to picture a continuum, a line, or a piece of string, where easy to understand and simplistic, Hollywood, was on one end, harder to understand, and more complicated, (independent, artistic, foreign movies), were toward the other end, and way beyond that was actual “art” on film, at the extreme end. But somewhere on the way, someone picked up the extreme art end of the line, and pulled it all the way back around into a loop, where it met the simplistic easy-to-get Hollywood side again. Conceptual art meets high-concept movies. I think they both tend to suck, but conceptual art usually sucks more: it’s as bad as Hollywood but not as entertaining.

The Images festival had a lot of films where, while not conceptual, they did experiment with altering the usual expectations of a movie by eliminating one aspect. So Luo Li’s movie "I Went to the Zoo the Other Day", left out the expected language of a Canadian film, and instead had the script translated into Serbian, with English subtitles. A movie by Ross McLaren, "Summer Camp", eliminated actually making a film, instead putting together found TV audition footage. John Greyson’s short film "Covered", about the closing down of a Queer Film Festival in Sarajevo by right-wing protesters, replaced the usual narrative structure in favour of telling most of his story via non-stop subtitles and extensive text on the screen (super imposed upon beautiful images of dead birds, and found music from Youtube).

Finally, I saw one show, called “No Images” at the Images Festival, where they tried to experiment by eliminating the ultimate factor in art films – the visual part. Unfortunately, it was all sizzle, no steak.

They called it “No Images” – sort of like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, I guess. At “No Images”, there was an audience, there was a theatre, there was a screen, but there would be nothing visible at all – a movie experience without images. This sounded really interesting, so I made sure to go to this.

They put a lot of work into this, creating a mystique for the audience. We had to stand in a line, close together where we’d be led into the theatre in absolute pitch black. The person in front of you would be sitting right beside you. Be sure to use the toilet before – there would be no coming and going during the performance. And nothing glowing, no cel phones, not even anything shiny would be allowed into the theatre. It would be pitch darkness. If you succumbed to absolute terror, or claustrophobia, or fear of the dark, the safe word was “help”! just say it and an usher would guide you back to safety. Wow. Looking good…

I pictured exotic smells, rumbling seats, avante garde music, maybe itching powder on the seats – who knows what they would do? They had an hour and the world was their oyster.

But what did we get? First a woman talked about tapes she found that gave the recorded silence found in different spaces. Then there were 15 minutes of strange cello-like sounds playing just one creaky note in the aisles, like the sound effects of a Japanese horror movie. Then 15 recorded minutes of two women (Alexis O’Hara & Mary Margaret O’Hara) joking around, saying to the audience, “it’s pitch black in there — are you using the darkness to feel each others boobies?” And the fourth quarter hour: That’s where things got really scary. Here’s what the last 15 unbearably long minutes sounded like. And cover your ears. “THIS IS MY VOICE. I AM SPEAK-ING TO YOU. I AM A SPEAK-ER YOU ARE LIST-EN-ING TO MY VOICE THROUGH A SPEAK-ER. I AM IN A ROOM…”

While listening to this amplified drone, these thoughts started going through my head: "Noooooo… please make this guy stop. Shut up. Shut up! You’re an asshole. Please shut up. SHUT UP! I hate art. I HATE ART! shut the f*ck up…!" It was like being trapped at a wedding table by the worst drunken bore who somehow got hold of a microphone and really liked the sound of his own voice. It was an unintentionally kindergarten-ish, obnoxiously awful, no,excruciatingly awful recording that no one should have listened to. It didn’t stretch the margins of art and film, it abused it.

Sound images without pictures may be experimental for some people, but it’s not so new to me – it’s called radio.

At the other end of the spectrum, here are three current movies for general audiences, "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief"; "Clash of Titans" (in 3D); and “How to Train your Dragon” (in 3D).

"The Lightning Thief", based on the book by Rick Riordan, is a kids’ movie about a dyslexic high schooler, Percy, who lives with his mother and evil stepfather in a small town, and who discovers things are not what they seem. His best friend’s a satyr, his favourite teacher’s a centaur, he’s being chased by evil monsters, and he may even be a demi-god himself. So he goes to a secret training camp in the woods with other people who have mythical connections. But his mother is kidnapped and Percy has to find out who stole lightning… and rescue her from Hades.

In “Clash of the Titans”, the Greek gods think humans have forgotten them, so they agree to follow Hades’ advice to make the humans suffer so they’ll respect them again. Perseus (Sam Worthington), Zeus’s son, hear’s Hades’ ultimatum –sacrifice princess Andromeda or all hell will break loose. Perseus joins with his confreres, and his watcher Io, on a quest to consult the witches, fight the desert scorpions, find Medusa, save Andromeda, and defeat Hades in order to bring goodness and order back to the world.

Finally, in the kids animated movie, "How to Train Your Dragon", Vikings with Scottish brogues live on an island where they are tormented by dragons who steal their sheep and wreak havoc. The Vikings live mainly to capture and kill the various fire breathing creatures. But young Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), an inventive non-conformist, doesn’t want to kill dragons. When he discovers a disabled Night Fury dragon that he names Toothless, Hiccup fashions a prosthesis and learns the secrets of all the dragons as he trains him like a pet. But his dad enrolls him in a gladiator-like training camp to teach him to kill the dragons. Are dragons the dreaded enemies of the Vikings, or are they just like puppy dogs?

Of these three movies, I liked "How to Train your Dragon" the best. The 3-D effects were great, the characters likeable, and it was a funny, interesting story with a lot of breathtaking scenes and battles, and a good amount of suspense. At times it felt like being in a good video game – weaving between rock formations, through the clouds, under the northern lights – and I mean that as a compliment.

"The Lightning Thief" was fun, with some clever scenes (like the lotus eaters trapped in a Las Vegas casino), but also some glitches — like excessive product placement where Percy uses a shiny i-pod, not a shield, to stop himself from looking directly at the Gorgon.

"Clash of Titans" was bad, but was sort of a guilty pleasure – cheezy, with so-so 3-D effects, ridiculously stupid story, and an awful, dated aesthetic: the gods have a 70’s sort of glow to them, like they’re wearing disco-era sequins shot through a Vaseline-covered camera lens– the sort of scenes you can giggle at with friends late at night, as the actors chew up the scenery. Ironically, “Clash of the Titans” is meant for an older audience than the other two, but it was definitely the dumbest of the three. See the kids’ movie instead.

History! Films Reviewed: Max Manus, Summer Camp, Crash and Burn Karaoke, Covered, I Went to the Zoo the Other Day, Women Without Men

There are a whole lot of history-related movies opening in Toronto this weekend, both mainstream releases and films at the Images Festival. First, a new Norwegian movie, an historical spy drama called “Max Manus”, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Max Manus and his buddies all live in Nazi occupied Norway after the country fell to a Blitzkrieg invasion. The Quisling puppet government is in power, but Max and his friends’ biggest worry seems to be that they’ll soon ban Django Reinhart’s European jazz as ideologically incorrect.

So they form an amateur resistance group, coming up with cool nicknames, distributing propaganda flyers, and having fun time of it… until Max gets caught by the Gestapo when they find some explosives hidden in his apartment. This is where his legendary reputation begins. He escapes (in a beautifully shot sequence) by diving out the second story window onto the street below. He soon becomes known as the “window jumper”. And this is also where the movie becomes more interesting, with Max and his friend Greygers eventually walking across the Swedish border and from there onward to Scotland, (where the King and army live in exile) to become… saboteurs!

Max Manus (the movie) is a real throw-back to old-school war resistance stories, the sort of things you used to find in old british boys’ comics. So you get lots of shootouts, Max hiding in doorways wearing a black toque, or paddling past giant war ships in a wooden rowboat to plant these little underwater magnetic explosives. Cool!

Max’s nemesis is the diabolical Siegfried, the young Nazi head guy who keeps capturing and torturing the resistance fighters, but whom Max has always managed to evade. The movie itself is a very earnest — not camp, not melodramatic — look at a national hero, who I have to admit, I’d never heard of before the movie. For a historical drama, it’s a bit to historical, with not quite enough drama. I think because he’s a national hero, it would have been almost sacrilege to have him hopping out of beds with femme fatales; but I would have liked it pouring on a little more

intrigue, double-crossing, and steamy romance, to fight off the occasional boring factor. Anyway, I had fun, so go see Max Manus — if you like earnest, wartime Norwegian espionage historical dramas.

Images is an annual film festival in Toronto that “showcases moving image culture”, or as I would say, shows art movies. Beware: these are not conventional narrative movies – they’re works of art shown on a screen. I have to keep reminding myself that they’re not movies, they’re art—but I still end up gravitating toward the stories. Also beware, that the pace is slower, I mean much, much slower than a commercial movie you might go to.

Toronto’s Ross McLaren’s works are featured this year. “Summer Camp” is a fun one – it’s a strange piece made up of found footage – black and white glowing rotoscopes of old CBC Toronto audition tapes from the late 60’s. This piece has teenage kids sitting on a stool reciting hokey monologue scripts about the fat cook at a mythical summer camp. Eventually you start anticipating each line you hear over and over: “She was so fat she could hardly get up the basement stairs.” “She’s always saying, Do this! Do that!” “She made me eat porridge!” Then there’s an improv part where they talk to their “brother” (a CBC actor) who says he’s dying of cancer and has three weeks left to live– they’re supposed to cheer him up. So you get to see the auditioning teenagers looking really uncomfortable to be talking about – or denying – death. Toward the end it starts to get really funny when one of the auditioners challenges the whole premise. I don’t know what it is about watching found footage for an hour, but I just ate it up.

Crash and Burn Karaoke, another movie by McLaren, is a real must-see. I’ve seen it lots of times but I love this one. It’s grainy black and white footage he took at a seminal punk concert in a Toronto club in 1977, by the Diodes, The Dead Boys, Boyfriends, and Teenage Head. The movie — with music not synched — has the guitarists (and audience) writhing on the stage, pogoing around, twisting their arms, snarling, drooling. There’s actually a very long shot of — I believe it’s Steven Leckie — with non-stop spittle and drool hanging out of his mouth. At Images, it will be presented in the form of Crash and Burn Karaoke, with lyrics appearing on the screen.

John Greyson has made a short film called Covered: It’s a report on a Gay/Lesbian film festival in Sarajevo that got closed down by right wing protestors. I wavered back and forth between loving and hating this movie. Loving the extremely wide bias and vivid images of stuffed birds, wooden birds, bird bones, alternating with pissed off filmmakers, and assorted musicians simultaneously playing off-key guitar on separate youtube clips… but not at all liking the long, written-out mock quotes by “Susan Sontag” that appear on the screen, or the voice of someone – is it Greyson himself — laboriously repeating the – is it Bosnian? — narration, on the soundtrack, in the manner of an elocution lesson. This is a movie, not a magazine article: I found the written and spoken words interrupted the flow, and distracted from the film’s visual beauty and its message of the danger and indifference of established politicians in the face of threats to marginalized groups. Too much of the film’s meaning relies on a steady stream of written narration in the form of subtitles and constant, superimposed texts.

Hamilton director Luo Li’s hour long film, called “I Went to the Zoo the Other Day”, is a beautifully-shot, black and white film filled with pictures of the Toronto Zoo. A couple are at the zoo. The camera follows them around the fish tanks, the elephants, tigers. We listen to their conversations – all in Serbian with subtitles!

They make comments and tell stories. Like a story of the guy who leaps in to save a drowning animal; or the middle-aged woman who considers some of the zoo animals as her own children, and carries their pictures in her purse. These stories are talked about, not shown. All the animals in this movie look really old – maybe Director Luo Li purposely found extra wrinkly elephants, middle-aged looking gorillas, lazy boa constrictors, surly-looking camels.

Half the time you’re watching the animals through bars or glass walls with the viewers reflected on them… then it’ll switch perspective, and you’re suddenly watching people from inside the glass — what the animals must see looking out. Who’s in the zoo, us or them?

Sometimes I wish the couple in the movie would speak English, so I could forget about reading the subtitles and concentrate on the amazing images – is Li deliberately using a language to increase dissociation or alienation between the viewers and the actors? It works, but why do it? I think the unnecessary putting up of walls between film and viewer is a mistake. Since neither the filmmaker, nor the intended audience, nor the topic, is related to Serbian, why use it? It seems gimmicky.

In any case, the acting is excellent, the stories are good, and the visual side of the movie is amazing – really nice images, from a mosaic of fish through an aquarium window, to the relaxing apes, the milling people. Every shot is perfectly composed and constructed, and pleasing to watch, edited together at the pace of a leisurely stroll through a park. It ends with scene filmed through the windshield as they drive down the highway, with just a recording of whale music providing the soundtrack.

Another event at the festival which I definitely want to go to is the One Take Super Eight, put together by Alex Rogalski of Regina, Saskatchewan, in its first Toronto version. It’s a grab bag of three minute, unedited, super eight movies shown one after another for the first time. From the camera, to the lab, directly to the screen – unseen by anyone. Could be good, could be awful, could be god-awful… might be awful good.

Women Without Men, is directed by video artist Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour. I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and it’s being featured at Images and being released commercially as well.

Women without Men is a Farsi-language film (shot in Morocco) adapted from the popular novel of the same name. It tells a story about a handful of women in Tehran who manage — during that brief period of nationalist Prime Minister Mossadegh’s government (in the fifties) — to escape a life dominated by men.

An upper-class woman, married to a general, leaves her husband to live in a house in a fruit orchard she has bought. A prostitute who is driven crazy by her work and a young woman who is supposed to become the second wife of a man she doesn’t want to marry, both find there way to her Eden-like orchard. Another woman leaves her home to join the street politics she hears outside, and eventually joins the Communist Party. Through a series of complex, circular scenes the epic gradually unrolls its magic-realism style plot. Certain scenes remain in your mind long after the movie ends, such as party-goers quoting Camus and reciting classical Persian poetry, and women exchanging remarks in a harrowing, foggy bathhouse.

I enjoyed this film but, never having read the novel, it was tough. I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters and plot turns. It also surprised me that the movie was not always successful visually (since the director is a photographer and video artist). I found the excessive use of CGI’s, faded tints and almost sepia tones throughout the movie distracts from, not adds to the drama. Still, the film provides a glimpse at Iranian women’s history and the richly cosmopolitan, intellectual culture seldom seen on a screen.

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