Blend in, fight back or run away? Movies reviewed: Neon Demon, Free State of Jones, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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

When faced with a monolithic system, do you fight back, try to blend in or run away? This week, I’m looking at movies about people trying to make the land their own. We’ve got soldiers and slaves heading into the swamp; a boy and his uncle heading into the bush; and a teenaged girl heading into the jungle… of modelling.

13502538_1122801797742983_2500767010940376674_oNeon Demon

Wri/Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives)

Jesse (Elle Fanning, Ginger and Rosa) is a small-town girl recently arrived in L.A. She’s there to make it big as a fashion model. But to do that you need connections. Right away, she meets Dean an earnest young photographer (Karl Glusman, Love). He takes some photos for her portfolio. Then, at a nightclub filled with neon she meets three women ready to lend a hand. Two blonde supermodels named Sara and Gigi (American Abby Lee and Aussie Bella Heathcote) and a makeup artist. Red-haired Ruby (Jena Malone) says she knows all the right people.

Almost immediately, Jesse starts her dizzying rise to the top. She signs with a major agency, lands a gig with a famous photographer, and is chosen as the lead 13115958_1092780254078471_5268238841686621476_omodel in a runway show. A star is born.

But beneath its shiny veneer this world is rotten to the core. She still sleeps in a super-seedy motel room. Hank, her skeezy landlord (Keanu Reeves) is a serial predator always on the lookout for victims. Jesse is startled to find wild animals animals climbing through her window. Other models she encounters are just bitter vipers waiting to strike. And her makeup artist friend, Ruby? She’s a makeup artist all right — for corpses. Only Dean seems genuine…but he’s not famous, so he doesn’t fit in her new world.

13445279_1117929004896929_5538370989361420723_nWhen her so-called friends witness Jesse’s triumph at an audition they are consumed by jealousy and rage. In despair, one model smashes a mirror in the washroom. At first Jesse tries to comfort her. When she cuts her hand on the broken glass, something horrible happens. The model literally tries to suck up Jesse’s blood to gain some of her beauty and youth!

Neon Demon is a surreal fable set in the world of modeling. Danish director Refn Wilding is known for his dark, stylized urban dramas like Drive (starring Ryan Gosling). Like his other films, it has great music, pretty people and arresting images, both beautiful and hideous. I liked it, but it’s not your usual narrative. It’s strictly art-house horror, so it’s never clear whether it’s a dream, a fantasy or real life – it’s left up to you to decide.

unnamedFree State of Jones

Dir: Gary Ross

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a Confederate soldier from Mississippi. He’s a medic, so he sees his fair share of death at the frontlines. But when he sees a young boy (Jacob Lofland, Mud), a draftee from his home town, killed on his first day, he’s FREE STATE OF JONEShad enough. Newt takes his body back for a proper funeral. Which makes him a deserter.

Back in Jones County he discovers the problems aren’t just at the front – they’re behind the lines too. All the men and boys are being sent to die defending slavery, but the actual slave owners – anyone with more than 20 slaves – is exempt from serving. This war is being fought for rich people, the cotton plantation owners, not for the poor farmers like him and all his neighbours. Not just that. The army is stealing all the food, FREE STATE OF JONESclothing, practically anything of value from the poor farmers in what they called taxation. They need it to feed the troops they say. But they leave the plantations untaxed and untouched. The raids are all led by the villanous Lt Barbour (Bill Tangradi) with his foppish blond curls.

Newt has had enough — he flees to the swamps, attacked by a vicious army dog on the way. Runaway slaves there nurse him back to health and become his new family. In particular, beautiful Rachel (the wonderful British/South African actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a house slave who serves as a secret go-FREE STATE OF JONESbetween for the runaways and slaves still on the plantation. And the self-named Moses (Mahershala Ali) a righteous leader who escaped with a hideous iron contraption still locked around his neck.

Word spreads and poor white farmers join Newt’s makeshift army. He declares a free state in Jones and FREE STATE OF JONESneighbouring counties. He deems them all free men, both black and white, says farmers can reap what they sow, and that no one will ever go to war again for the rich. They start like Robin Hood, taking back food the army is stealing. But end up going to battle against the Confederate government from deep within Mississippi.

This is a fascinating, true story. It’s timely too. with the rise of populism in American politics. Warning – it’s a very long movie (almost feels like a mini-series). It continues long after the civil war, covering things like lynching, post-war slavery and KKK terror, rarely mentioned in mainstream movies. It’s the first time I’ve heard about this slice of history — a genuine civil rights movement born deep in Mississippi, in the midst of civil wat.

HUNTTHD-01_KeyArt_FMtrimHunt for the Wilderpeople

Dir: Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows)

Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a chubby 12 year old city kid, into hip hop and gangsta movies. He’s a “bad egg” says Paula his tough-as-nails social worker (Rachel House). He’s surly, unresponsive and a frequent runaway. Given up for adoption as an infant he’s reached his final foster home – if he doesn’t fit in here, he’ll be sent to juvie. His new 12541048_771498859649965_4286703744334521458_nhome is out in the middle of nowhere at an isolated farmhouse in the green-covered hills of New Zealand. He’s immediately welcomed by the warm and giving Bella (Rima Te Wiata). She decorates his room, makes him special food, even gives him a hot water bottle to snuggle up with at night. Her husband HFTW 1 Julian Dennison (Ricky), Sam Neill (Hec) CreditHec (Sam Neill), on the other hand won’t even give him the time of day. He’s reclusive and anti-social, but he does know his way around the woods. Ricky runs away a few times but soon realizes this is his real home with a loving mom, a new dog, he calls Tupac, and a place to write haiku.

But then disaster strikes, and his new life is imperiled. He flees into the bush to live off the land. Like the South African wildebeest he plans to walk a thousand miles. Unfortunately, he V1-0071_150525HFTWP23_620hasn’t a clue what to do. Luckily, Hec comes to his rescue to help him out. But unbeknownst to them both they become famous – in a bad way: the object of a nationwide manhunt. Can they survive in the bush without driving each other crazy?

This world is full of strange people. Like Psycho Sam, a tin-foil hat devotees and idiot city hunters who want to turn them in and collect the reward.

V1-0046_150521HFTWP17_93474This movie is told from an indigenous point of view. The director and most of the actors – though not the characters they play – are of Maori descent. The story incorporates indigenous culture. Ironically, it’s Uncle Hec, the white character, who passes on the indigenous learning that Ricky was never taught. And Ricky who shares contemporary culture and basic literacy with the isolated Hec.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a feel-good, light, family comedy. I like this movie — it’s cute and a lot of fun.

Neon Demon, Free State of Jones, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

October 20, 2011. The Calm Before the Storm. Movies Reviewed: Restoration, Wiebo’s War, 50/50 PLUS ImagineNATIVE

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.

There’s a term “The Calm Before the Storm”, and I’m getting the sensation that we’re there right now. Have you ever felt what it’s like before a tornado hits? It’s uncomfortably still, with a heavy weight in the pit of your stomach, and a strange feeling in the air. No wind. Weird feeling. Last weekend I stopped by the Occupy Toronto protest, where people are talking about how the middle class and poor — in countries like Canada, the US, Germany — have had their incomes go down or stay stangant over the past two decades, while a tiny percentage, that “1%”,  have had the biggest increase in their wealth in a century. Our national wellbeing is not keeping up to the constant rise in GDP.

Before the march, they pointed out the medics, in case people got clubbed or shot, and asked everyone to write down a number to call in case you’re thrown into prison. So there was that nervous sensation, not knowing how the police would react, would they be violent?, and what the potential risks were for marching, even in a democratic country. It turned out to be totally peaceful with a friendly police escort and no bad incidents whatsoever… but you never know.

So, knowing that some countries are on the brink of self-destruction, and (not that the two are comparable) knowing that next week – Hallowe’en – will be marked with deliberate mayhem and confusion, I’ve decided to talk about three movies where people face potential chaos, calamity, and collapse, and the different ways they choose to confront the coming storm.

First is a movie, which played at TIFF, about people confronting personal change and relationships, and trying to avoid a collapse.

Restoration
Dir: Joseph Madmony

Anton (Henry David), a young man and almost a drifter is looking for work in a run-down section of Tel Aviv. He stumbles into an old-school furniture-restoring shop and gets hired immediately by the grizzled and grumpy old carpenter Fidelman (Sasson Gabai). But the childless co-owner of the place dies the next day, and leaves his half not to the carpenter, but to his son.

Fidelman’s broke. And his son, a lawyer, is a bit of a douche, who is glad to be removed from his father’s life as a tradesman. He calls the place a junkyard, and wants to sell the property to build a condo, destroying his own father’s livelihood and forcing him into retirement. But musical Anton, (who has family troubles of his own) vows to learn the trade and tries to find the golden egg that will save the store. If he can only locate the missing piece of a rare antique piano, it will change from a piece of junk to a treasure worth enough money to keep the place open, and evade the impending doom. Anton becomes almost a surrogate son to the carpenter… almost. But it’s complicated when he realizes he may be falling in love with the real son’s pregnant wife.

This movie had great acting from the two main characters. On the surface, it’s a “let’s work hard to fix the piano and save the shop!”-type story, but that’s just its superficial structure. It’s actually much more sophisticated. Though drab-looking, Restoration is a bitter-sweet examination of love, duty, families, allegiances, death and inheritance.

Next, a movie, which played at Hotdocs, about a man, his family, and his supporters who take drastic moves to confront what he thinks is a coming disaster.

Wiebo’s War
Dir: David York

Wiebo Ludwig is a devout Christian who lives in a remote, isolated colony with his fellow religious settlers in BC, near Alberta. Their lives are food and energy self-sufficient, but, in the 90’s, things began to go wrong. Goats started having frequent stillbirths, and, when a woman also miscarried, they realized their watershed had been contaminated by natural gas wells built right at the edge of their property.

He was later arrested, tried, and jailed for bombs he had set off at wells and pipelines in that energy-rich Alberta area. This movie follows filmmaker David York who was allowed to film inside their compound.

Is Wiebo a religious nut or a devoted social activist? Well, he’s certainly religious, but he’s crazy like a fox. The movie documents some of Wiebo’s (and those of his fellow settlers’) frequent brushes with the law and the big energy companies. There are run-ins with outwardly conciliatory execs from Encana; pointless, intimidating, and relentless police raids of their homes to test things like how many ball point there are on one floor, and how many cassette tapes are on another; and their increasingly fractious relationship with the nearby town, where they have found themselves local pariahs following the unexplained shooting death of young woman on their property.

Folk hero, or deranged terrorist?

Maybe both. I left the movie even less certain than before as to who’s to blame and what actually happened. While a bit slow-moving, Wiebo’s War gives a first hand look at a legendary Canadian figure (who was sadly diagnosed with cancer just a few days ago), his family and co-religionists, and the unusual junction between Christian fundamentalism and environmental extremism. …an inside look at the calm before the storm.

50/50
Dir: Jonathan Levine

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a shy, quiet, polite and passive guy, with a boorish and boisterous friend named Kyle, a smothering, worrying mom, and a beautiful but shallow girlfriend named Rachael. He’s in his twenties, no car, lives in a tiny red house far from the city of Seattle, and cubicle job at a beautiful public radio station (Support CIUT!) where he’s working on a story about a soon-to-erupt volcano.

But when Adam gets a pain in his belly, his doctor (a man with possibly the worst bedside manner ever) does some tests and tells him he has a rare form of cancer, and a 50% chance of living. He’s sent to a therapist (Anne Hendrick) who’s younger than he is, and is still at the student-teacher stage.

So, how is Adam going to face his situation? How will he deal with his casual girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is suddenly his caregiver? His best friend (Seth Rogen) who just wants to use his cancer buddy as a wing-man chick magnet? And his intrusive worry-wort mother, who is already taking care of his Alzheimer stricken dad? Or even his bumbling but sincere therapist, Katie? What will he do? Can he accept the possibility of death? Who is really important to him?

50/50, based on a true story, is not a bad movie – it’s sweet — but, beware, it’s not the comedy it’s billed as. It’s a drama — even a bit of a weeper — with some needed comic relief. Gordon-Levitt is perfect as Adam, as is Hendrick as Katie, while Seth Rogen – not so funny, a bit too much. But Angelica Huston as the Mother was shockingly good. I mean, she plays to stereotypes, but does it so well, I didn’t figure out it was her playing the part until the final credits!

50/50 is now playing, Wiebo’s War opens in Toronto today, check your local listings, and Restoration is playing one show only next week, on Sunday afternoon, October 30th, as part of the Chai, Tea and a Movie series. Go to tjff.com for details.

Also on right now in Toronto is the wonderful ImagineNATIVE, the world’s largest aboriginal film festival, that explores native film, art and music from Canada and abroad. Great stuff! Many events are free and they’re all open to everyone — go to ImagineNATIVE.org for details.

Next week: Hallowe’en!

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

Family Ties. Movies Reviewed: Boy, A Windigo Tale, Score: a Hockey Musical, Conviction plus ImagineNative festival

This week, I’m talking about four very different movies, two dramas, a comedy drama, and a comic musical, that all deal with family members and family ties: brother/sister; father/son; parents/son; mother/daughter; grandfather/grandson.

But first, let me tell you a bit about the 11th annual ImagineNative film and media arts festival that’s on right now in downtown Toronto. It’s a cultural celebration of First Nations, Inuit, and international aboriginal and indigenous artists and filmmakers, from Canada – urban, rural, and northern – Latin America, as well as Asia and the Pacific, and Europe. There are movies – short films and features, mainstream and experimental — lectures, workshops, art exhibits, installations, and multimedia events, including radio podcasts, and online new media sites. So tons of contemporary media and current issues and artforms. Lots of free exhibits going on, and films every night in the Spadina and Bloor area. You should definitely check this out – look online at http://www.ImagineNative.org

ImagineNative started with a screening of

Boy
Director/Writer: Taika Waititi
The Canadian premier of a popular, new New Zealand movie.

It’s the early 1980s, in a small town in New Zealand. Boy – that’s his name – lives there with his Nana, his little brother, Rocky, and a bunch of cousins. His mom died when he was young, and he can barely remember his dad who took off years ago with some petty hoods in a sort of a biker gang called the Crazy Horses. Boy’s waiting for his promised return to take him away from all this and to see a Michael Jackson concert in the big city. But when his grandmother leaves town for a few days to go to a funeral, who shows up but his dad – for real (played by the director, Waititi.)

He’s up to no good though, and Boy has to reconcile his hood-y pothead of a dad with the hero he had been expecting. Whenever reality gets too hard to handle, Boy retreats into his fantasies, and recasts things – in his mond – like visualizing a bar brawl as a Michael Jackson Beat It video. (His little brother Rocky, on the other hand, imagines he has super powers, and is laden with guilt thinking he’s the one who caused all the bad events in his life.)

This is sort of a sad story, but the tone is light enough, and there are enough very funny scenes that it’s not a downer of a movie at all. It reminded me a lot of a movie from a couple years ago called Son of Ranbow, but Boy’s a bit more serious, less comical. It also gives a realistic glimpse of Maori life in the 80‘s – something I’ve never seen before.

The actors, especially the two kids, (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, and James Rolleston), and their dad (Waititi) were great. And as a special bonus, there’s even a dance scene in the final credits that’s a mash-up of a Michael Jackson video mixed with a Maori Haka war dance (looked like the Kama Te haka usually performed by the All Blacks rugby team, but his one in full 80s video regalia!)

The closing night movie is a Toronto premier called:

A Windigo Tale
Dir: Armand Garnet Ruffo.

The Windigo is a legendary being – it’s a starving, cannibalistic creature that you can turn into either while you’re alive or else after you die; it comes to eat you up and carries the spirits of the people it eats in its belly. Taking off its clothes will take it out of the body, and burning the bones will get rid of it.

In this movie, Joey is a high school drop-out who wears his hiphop gang colours. He’s communing with his grandfather (Gary Farmer) who tells him their family history and secrets in the form of a folktale.

Lily, and her white boyfriend, David, have driven up so she can talk to her mom, Doris. Lily was sent away from there 15 years before, and blames her mother for abandoning her. And at the same time there’s a reunion – of sorts — of Six Nations people who had been sent to the residential schools – the notorious Canadian religious and educational system that isolated, abused, and even killed natives for generations.

All these story lines are going on at the same time. Doris is sure the Windigo is in the air. Strange things start to happen. Can she fight the Windigo and the demons of her history she carries with her? The story goes back and forth between the serious, realistic family drama and Doris and Lily’s violently spiritual encounter with a Windigo. Interesting movie. It packs in a lot of stories and plotlines for a 90-minute picture, so I found it a bit confusing over what was the story, what was a flashback, and what was the story-in-the-story. But it’s a totally watchable movie with interesting characters, good acting – especially Jani Lauzon as Doris – and deals with an important, dark part of Canadian and native history that’s only coming to light very recently.

Next, a much lighter Canadian story:

Score: a Hockey Musical
Director/Writer: Michael McGowan

A hockey musical? Yup, that’s what is, no more, no less.

Farley (Noah Reid) and Eve are next door neighbours in Toronto who communicate late at night using a clothesline running between their two houses. She has a crush in him, but he’s more interested in playing a game of shinny with his hockey buds. He gets discovered by an agent who books him as the next hockey star. But, raised by hippy parents who frown upon competition and deplore hockey violence, he’s caught between two worlds. He’s a lover not a fighter. Will he be the next Sidney Crosbie? Will he learn to fight in the rink? Will he be accepted by the hard-ass team coach? And will he ever get together with his starry-eyed neighbour Eve?

It’s a cute movie, very Canadian both in the good sense and the bad, if you know what I mean. Good in that it shows real Canadian topics, national “in” jokes, tons of can-con straight out of an old “I am Canadian” beer ad, but bad in that it’s super corny and cheesy and baaaad in a lot of places, with some real groaner punchlines, and some truly lame lyrics. (Some great ones, too.) The singing’s uneven – ranging from the clear tones of Olivia Newton-John to the sort of voices that should never leave the shower. And one of the dance scenes looks artificially sped-up. But it doesn’t matter – I laughed out loud a lot, and I just took it for what it was – a 90-minute-long, all-Canadian piss in the snow. Score is not a hockey musical, it’s the hockey musical. (And one’s enough.)

And finally, another family drama,

Conviction
Dir: Tony Goldwyn

Betty Anne and Kevin are a brother and sister who grew up together in very hard circumstances with neglectful parents and a series of foster homes. But at least they had each other. Kevin (Sam Rockwell) is a high-spirited class-clown type guy, but he also is in and out of trouble with the cops, usually just for mischief. But he gets charged and later convicted of a heinous, vile rape and murder and is sent off to prison for life. His wife testifies against him, and she takes their little daughter away. Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) is sure he didn’t do it, so she makes it her life goal to set him free. She goes to law school and, twenty years later, with the help of a friend, Abra (Minnie Driver) she tries to bring his case back to court. Will she succeed and save her brother? And was he innocent or guilty?

Based on a true story, this has a movie-of-the-week feel to it. It is a tear jerker, got a couple of tears, and it’s an uplifting story, but it’s not the kinda movie I normally go to see. I should also say the acting is all great, including an almost unrecognizable Juliette Lewis as a shady trial witness – she’s fantastic.

Just to review, today I talked about Boy, and A Windigo Tale, two of the many cool movies playing at ImagineNative, which is happening now through Sunday: look online at http://www.imaginenative.org/ ; Conviction (now playing), and Score: the Hockey Musical – which opens tomorrow.

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