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.

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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