Shrink Brink Link? Films reviewed: Little, The Brink, Missing Link

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, Animation, comedy, documentary, Evolution, Kids, Magic, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 12, 2019

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

Toronto’s Spring Film Festival Season is in full swing right now. Images – which features art movies, videos and gallery installations — is on this weekend. And Cinefranco brings new French-language movies – this year from La Belle Province – starting next week.

But this week I’m going to spill some ink on three new popular movies that just might make you think. There’s an animated movie about a British explorer searching for the missing link; a political documentary about democracy teetering on the brink; and a comedy about a magical spell that makes a hard ass businesswoman shrink!

Little

Dir: Tina Gordon

It’s present day Atlanta. Jordan (Regina Hall) is a successful, self-made businesswoman whose company creates games and apps. Violently bullied as a badly-dressed teenaged nerd she vows never to put up with it again as a grown up. Instead, she becomes a bully herself, taking it out on her employees, her lover, and even random strangers and kids. She even attacks a little girl with a magic wand whose father runs a food truck. But her biggest target is April (Issa Rae), her faithful personal assistant who is always there to help her. But Jordan’s status is thrown into question by two events.

First her biggest client threatens to pull his account if she doesn’t come up with a new, youthful pitch in 48 hours. And when she wakes up the next morning she’s reliving her worst nightmare: she’s been magically transferred into her teenage face and body! Her adult privileges suddenly disappear and young Jordan (Marsai Martin) is forced to enroll at the same Windsor Jr High suffered through in her youth. She is a nerd again before, long she straightened her hair and wore makeup, badly bullied and forced to sit with the rejected kids. April has to cover for her at work, and becomes her public face. Can she survive as a bullied teenager, can her company be saved, will she ever turn back again, and can she get in touch with her inner child?

Little is a very funny, body-transformation comedy, like Freaky Friday or Big. The plot is fairly tame and predictable, and seems to suggest kids can be rescued from bullying with a few instagram photos! But Issa Rae is good as April, and Marsai Martin brilliant as the “little” Jordan, perfectly channelling an adult’s gestures and expressions into her performance. And finally, finally Hollywood seems to have figured out that movies from a black and female point of view can be enjoyed and appreciated by a general audience.

Little is an easy-to-like comedy that provides almost constant laughs.

The Brink

Dir: Alison Klayman

Steve Bannon is an extreme right-wing nationalist ideologue. He allies online fake-news site Breitbart with the so-called Alt Right. He goes on to lead Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign. But Bannon is fired soon after the Unite the Right riots in Charlotteville North Carolina which resulted in violence and death. This documentary follows Bannon’s daily life from that time until last fall’s US election. In between, Bannon tours Europe with Belgian Mischäel Modrikamed in an attempt to unite the extreme right within the EU. He thinks he can pull together disparate nationalists, islamophobes, populists, neo-fascists, and Euroskeptics into a unified bloc. This includes questionable figures like ultra-nationalis Viktor Orban, Nigel Farage, French Front National, the nazi-affiliated Swedish Democrats, an Italian party with fascist roots, and Belgium’s extremist Parti Populaire.

Can an American extremist successfully steer the rise in populism into a unified Europes Front? Or are is the American right – and the much reviled Trump – too different from their euro counterparts?

The Brink is a capable documentary about a player in the extreme right. It reveals the source of his funds – a Chinese billionaire – and his political ties. It even includes footage of his visit to Toronto for a debate between the right and the extreme right where he is dismayed by the widespread protests and his lack of support.  The Brink clearly exposes how his racist, antisemitic, anti-immigration and islamophpbic ideology has led directly to right-wing terrorism.

But it also humanizes and normalizes him as just a guy who wears two shirts and wonders whether he looked OK or said the right thing in his last interview. As Bannon says, any publicity is good publicity.

Missing Link

Dir: Chris Butler

It’s Victorian England. Sir Lionel Frost is an international explorer looking for fame and adventure. He survives an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster but fails to reach his real goal – membership in a prestigious gentleman’s club. But his luck changes with a letter from America, telling him where to find Sasquatch, a mythical, missing link between man and ape. He makes a wager with the club’s leader, Lord Piggit: if he brings back a live sasquatch, they will let him join the club.

But when he encounters Big Foot he is shocked to discover he’s just like you and me. He speaks english, reads and writes, and is an all around nice guy, just much bigger and hairier. He’s the last of his species and longs for a friend like himself. He agrees to travel with Lionel to England, as long as he first visits his people – the Yetis – who are said to live in Tibet. With the help of Adelina, a willful widow (and former lover of Lionel) the three set out on an adventure around the world. Will they find the Yeti, complete their missions, and avoid a murderous hitman sent to stifle thir voyage at all costs? And will Mr Link – or “Susan” as he prefers to be called – ever find a true friend?

Missing Link is a wonderfully made animated film using stylized puppets for its characters. It’s from Laika studio that also brought us Boxtrolls, Caroline and Paranorman, also by director Chris Butler. Much of the humour comes from the naïve but nice Susan as a fish out of water experiencing the outside world for the first time. It features the voices of Zach Galafianakis, Zoe Saldana, and Hugh Jackman.

Missing Link is funny, surprising, beautiful, quirky and heartwarming. If you like animation (but without any treackly Disney princesses) this is the one to see.

The Brink, Missing Link and Little all 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

Daniel Garber talks with Daniel Zuckerbrot about The Science of Magic

Posted in Canada, CBC, documentary, Magic, Psychology, Science, TV by CulturalMining.com on March 16, 2018

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

Magic.

The word conjures up visions of magic wands and abracadabra, Harry Houdini and Harry Potter, legerdemain and prestidigitation. It’s mysterious, it’s uncanny, it’s… supernatural. But what if I told you there is a scientific basis to magic?

The Science of Magic is a new documentary that looks at just that — the psychology and neuroscience that lurks behind even the simplest card trick. This fascinating documentary goes right to the source: the magicians (and magicienne) doing their tricks, with white-coated scientists watching them intently.

It’s written and directed by documentary filmmakers Donna Zuckerbrot and Daniel Zuckerbrot, known for their deft handling of magical themes.

I spoke with Daniel Zuckerbrot in studio at CIUT. He talked about magic, magicians, Julie Eng, change blindness, Deception, filmmaking, eye movement… and more!

The Science of Magic premiers on Sunday, March 18th on CBC’s The Nature of Things.

Sticking Your Neck Out. Hot Docs Movies Reviewed: An Honest Liar, Point and Shoot, Demonstration

Posted in Barcelona, Cultural Mining, Dance, documentary, Hotdocs, L.A., Libya, Magic, Prison, Protest, Resistance, Road Movie, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 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.

Cel-phone cameras are ubiquitous now. So it’s getting harder to separate the relentless recording of everyday life from a real documentary. Filmmakers really have to stick their necks out to find something amazing and surprising and beautiful. But some do just that. This week, I’m looking at three films playing at Hot Docs. There’s a magician who exposes tricksters; an adventurer who joins a (non-religious) jihad; and political demonstrators… who dance?

An_Honest_Liar_1An Honest Liar

Dir: Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom

The Magnificent Randi was a Toronto-born magician and escape artist who modeled himself after the Great Houdini. Like Houdini, he is famous for his deception and dramatic escapes.  And like Houdini, he devoted his second career to exposing the fake fakers: the ones who bamboozle audiences into thinking their tricks are for real. I’m talking faith healing televangelists like Peter “out poison!” Popov, the fake TV psychics, and the pseudo-scientific prestidigitators. He has a long-held rivalry with Uri Geller, the spoon bender from the 60s and 70s who claims he has telekinetic powers.

Randi also showed how easily scientists can be fooled as they tried to probe alien An_Honest_Liar_3abductions and ESP. Using young collaborators and his own deceptions, Randi manages to fool even a dedicated scientist if he tried. He secretly places students (who claim they have special abilities) into the experimental pool, and later reveals his tricks – much to the dismay of the scientists. He provides the scientists with a list of what to look out for, but still manages to slip through the cracks. Today he lives in California with a dramatic white beard and walks with gold-topped cane.

This is a fascinating and very well-crafted story, with a twist all its own. Turns out his longtime partner and collaborator, Puerto Rican artist Jose Alvarez, has a lie he keeps under wraps for three decades. Ironically, the two met on the old TV quiz show To Tell The Truth. These honest liars make for a very interesting movie.

Point_And_Shoot_3Point and Shoot

Dir: Marshall Curry

Matthew Van Dyke was a coddled kid from Baltimore, “the only child of an only child of an only child”. Fascinated by movies like Lawrence of Arabia, the blue-eyed boy dreams of exotic and dangerous adventures.  At the same time, he’s also a cube of quivering jello with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and a remarkable sugar phobia. So, after university (Middle Eastern Studies), Matt decides to take a crash course in Manhood. He sets off on a motorcycle trip from Gibraltar to Afghanistan, across North Africa and the Middle East. He documents all his travels with a video camera and a helmet attachment. In Iraq and Afganistan, as a freelance war reporter, he falls in with US soldiers. They teach him the basics of rifle shooting, machine gunning and missile launching. OK… fun and exciting, I’m sure, but mere backpacking adventures do not a Hot Docs movie make.

But here’s what happened next. When he reconnects with a Libyan hippie friend he’d Point_And_Shoot_1met in his travels, he ends up sneaking into Libya during its civil war. He joins the Benghazi rebels, fighting Gaddafi’s soldiers, and standing beside men shouting Allahu Akbar as they fire missiles at far off targets! Things take a turn for the worse and Matt ends up in solitary confinement in a government prison. His mother and girlfriend are terrified. Will he get out? And if he does, where will he go next?

Point and Shoot is a great adventure story about a man who carries a Leica camera in one hand and an AK 47 in the other. It is politically naïve — the movie doesn’t talk much about geo-political issues, ideologies, or the long-term ramifications of that war. Its real strength is as a first-hand look at a fascinating and exciting personal adventure.

Demonstration_1Demonstration

Dir: Viktor Kossokovsky (and 32 others)

A year ago, Spain was in economic turmoil when it’s right-wing government imposed crushing austerity measures. This led to huge demonstrations. In 2013, 32 students in Barcelona, each armed with a video camera, record it all, right in the middle. The general strike, the crowds, and the peaceful marches… and the less than peaceful responses from the riot police. The demonstrators seem split between those who wear Gandhi masks – peaceful disobedience – and the hacktivists in their Guy Fawkes masks.

This movie, though, is about the beauty of crowds, and movement. The running back and forth, the burning dumpsters, and the attacks from helmetted police.  It’s set to Minkus’s Don Quixote, and its beautiful and revealing. Against a backdrop of Gaudi’s Demonstration_4curvy, drippy architecture you see an old-timer who has been demonstrating most of his life, and young students out for their first demo. And some secrets revealed: dozens of “Black Bloc” activists are seen climbing happily into police vans (not arrested); they’re all agents provocateurs, planted in the crowd to ignite violence and justify police attacks.

Demonstration is an artistic look at a public protest.

All of these movies and more are playing through Sunday at Hotdocs. All students and seniors can go to daytime screenings for free! Go to hotdocs.ca for details. And Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival also opens today and continues all next week, including a brand new Canadian movie called the Pin – about young lovers hiding in Lithuania during WWII – and it’s in Yiddish. Looks interesting… Go to tjff.com for more info.

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

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination. Movies Reviewed: The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Adventure, Catholicism, Communism, Cultural Mining, Disease, Dreams, Fantasy, Italy, Joy, Magic, Movies, Rome, Sex, Short Stories, Slavery, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 15, 2014

The Decameron Pier Paolo PasoliniHi, 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.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: You may have heard his name, but not know why. He was an Italian novelist, poet, artist and director, born in Bologna. He got his start in movies writing screenplays (including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) before directing his own films. His films – he directed movies from the 1960s until the mid 70s, when he was murdered – celebrate the poor, The Decameron Pasolini 2 TIFFthe outcasts, the people in the margins. They dig at the complacent middle-class, and the oppressive and corrupt church and nobilitiy. He cast non-professionals in his films for their looks and attitude – he wanted his actors natural not contrived. Naturalism was all-important.

Pasolini was in the Italian Communist Party but was kicked out for his criminal activity. His crime? Being gay. So Pasolini embraced his status as sexual outlaw.

All of these elements – politics and sexuality shown in literature and art – come together in his movies: beautiful to watch, full of laughter, but with a rough and tragic streak running through them.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination is a retrospective of his films now playing at TIFF. This week, I’m going to tell you about three of his movies, often called a trilogy, all based on Medieval stories. They are extraordinarily beautiful films and you should see them on the big screen while you can. There’s an English romp, an Italian comedy, and tales of middle-eastern magic.

Pasolini Canterbury Tales 2 TIFFCanterbury Tales (1972)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the classic collection of stories told by religious pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Set in 14thcentury England, it’s filled with monastic robes, pious nuns, Oxford students, religious pilgrims. But it’s also a world full of shouting and drunkenness, farts and belches. The old are missing teeth, fat and ugly, and prone to violence. The young, though still beautiful, are selfish and arrogant. And everyone’s apt to break into raucous, unscripted laughter as they do medieval things like milling corn or polishing eggs.

But what do they all desire? Sex (and money). They come up with complex schemes to cheat on their husbands and wives. This movie is very bawdy.

But it has a dark side too. One of the earliest scenes shows a man being burned to death in the market Pasolini Canterbury tales 1 TIFFsquare: he was caught having sex with another man, but was too poor to bribe the police.

Religion and the supernatural are omnipresent. Angels, devils and wood spirits are as likely as a passing neighbour to appear outside a window. A widow wears out a succession of husbands by being too good in bed. An arrogant student fools his mentor into thinking a great flood is coming. Three brothers go from cavorting in a brothel to plotting dangerous and murderous schemes. And a bright red devil shoots the black-clothed sinners of hell out of his ass!

Most of all, it’s a place where large-breasted women and plain-faced men stand around staring… naturally, naked.

Decameron, Il (1971) aka The Decameron Directed by Pier Paolo PasoliniThe Decameron (1971)

Based on 14th century writer Boccacio’s sexual comedy, these piqaresque stories centre on Naples and other medieval Italian cities. Women are tricksters who fool hapless travelers, while sinners look for sex. It’s a comedy about sex, thumbing its nose at church-mandated restrictions.

Here’s a typical story. A nunnery is off limits to all men but the elderly. A young guy, sensing opportunity, pulls his hat down low – like Bob and Doug McKenzie — and pretends to be a deaf-mute simpleton. He gets hired as a gardner. Soon enough, all the nuns are sneaking out to the shed for their daily roll in the hay. But what happens when the mother superior gets her turn? He tells her he’s had enough. He can Pasolini's The Decameron 3 TIFFspeak! It’s a miracle!

This is an amazing movie (I liked it even better than Canterbury Tales) shot around ancient castles and down narrow allies.

Arabian Nights (1974)

The 1001 Nights is the famous collection of intertwined stories-within-stories across the Arab world. Pasolini skips the tale of the Persian Scheherazade as the storyteller, and instead uses a loving Ines Pellegrini in Pasolini's Arabian Nightsrelationship between a wise and beautiful slave-girl named Zummarud, and her young master. She’s smarter than all the men she encounters, and somehow manages to snub potential buyers at her own auction — rich old men who won’t satisfy her sexually – in favour of love at first site. But she is kidnapped by a spurned buyer. This launches a series of journeys as she outsmarts the men she meets and eventually – disguised as a man – rises to the level of king. And all the way her lover, Nur ed-Din tries to find her.

She’s played by Ines Pellegrini, an Italian woman of Eritrean background, and he’s Franco Merli, a Pasolini's The Arabian Nightsteenaged boy Pasolini apparently spotted pumping gas.

Pasolini skips the most famous stories – the Ali Babas, Alladins, and Sinbads – and instead adapts less-well-known ones. Especially the sexy parts.

Like Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, The Arabian Nights was rated “X” when it first came out. Though it includes a lot of nudity, it’s very tame, sweet and almost naïve, by present-day standards. Some of the same actors show up in all of these films. Franco Citti (usually with bright red hair) plays the devil in Canterbury, an unrepentant sinner and homosexual in Decameron and a magical demon in Arabian Nights. Ninneto Davoli (Pasolini’s former lover), is the toothy, curly-haired clown who bursts into tears or laughter, or else stares, dumbfounded, at new things he encounters. Pasolini himself also appears in small — but central — roles arabian-nightsin his own movies — as Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, or as a master painter in The Decameron, who says his art is never as good as what appears in his dreams.

Arabian Nights was shot in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran and Nepal, and to say the locations are breathtakingly beautiful doesn’t do them justice. It’s mind-boggling, ranging from lunar landscapes and strange curved mud homes, to cavernous, white-and-blue tiled cathedrals, and ancient wooden Nepali shrines. And the faces of the local actors and extras add still more beauty and authenticity to the locations. (A collection of still photos from this film by Roberto Villa is on display now at the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; details on tiff.net. Beginning next Thursday is the CFF a festival of low-budget and independent Canadian films at the Royal:  go to canfilmfest.ca for more information. And cult favourite The Room is playing at the Carlton starting tonight.

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

Back to the Future? Films Reviewed: The Visitor, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013Hi, 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.

I’m taping this a week in advance, during the Toronto Ice Storm, when the power’s still off, the sidewalks still icy and Rob Ford is still mayor. But who knows what it will be like by the time you’re listening to this. Back to the future? Fittingly, I’m looking at a couple oddball fantasy movies — a remake and a rerelease — both pointless but watchable froth to bring in the new year. The remake is an American comedy about a day-dreaming adult, the rerelease an Italian horror movie (from the 1970’s) about a brat with secret powers.

The Visitor fangoria Films We LikeThe Visitor

Dir: Giulio Paradisi

Presented by Drafthouse Films and Fangoria

Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail) is a modern woman who values her freedom. She lives in a mansion in Atlanta with her sweet little daughter Katy (Paige Conner) and Katy’s pet bird. She’s being wooed by Raymond (Lance Henrickson) a slick-but-secretive basketball promoter. What she doesn’t realize is that Raymond reports to a cabal of identically dressed businessmen who are up to no good. They just want her offspring. You see, Barbara has special DNA and Katy has supernatural powers. If the cabal can pull off an alien abduction Barbara will reproduce with a special superbaby (as if her one kid isn’t trouble enough!)

Katy is actually a foul mouthed brat. She uses her powers for selfish reasons – Visitor2puting the kybosh on other kids she goes skating or does gymnastics with.  On her birthday, Katy’s gift turns into a handgun, which shoots Barbara, rendering her paraplegic.

Meanwhile, a wise old man with a white beard and a beige leisure suit (John Huston) is tracking Katy, too. He travels with a retinue of kids dressed in white. These silent, baldheaded teenagers are his disciples. You can tell he’s important because whenever he appears the theme music starts up again as he walks down a futuristic-looking escalator. And when a detective (investigates her birthday shooting she sends her pet bird to attack him.

Who will triumph? The satanic businessmen-aliens? Or the benevolent robe-wearing superman-like aliens? And will anyone stop spoiling that evil kid?

Visitor3This movie exists in its own bizarro-world, circa 1979. Shelley Winters plays Barabara’s intuitive housemaid singing Mama’s little baby loves shortening bread as she spies on Katy. Sam Peckinpah – the director of infamously violent movies (like Strawdogs and the Wild Bunch) — is her gynaecologist!

This is a very trippy, very strange movie. It has lots of horribly dated and vaguely racist shtick, and the story makes no sense whatsoever. But it still feels cool to watch: filled with fantastic dated special effects: a house of mirrors, a swarm of birds, Barbara insanely driving her electric wheelchair in endless circles. It climaxes with a bug-eyed John Huston having his Close Encounters moment with the shooting stars.

Total kitsch, but funny.

Mitty_PosterThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Dir: Ben Stiller

Walter (Ben Stiller) is a milquetoast mama’s boy and a longtime employee of Life Magazine. He lives vicariously through the exciting photos he processes in a windowless basement room (he’s in charge of “negative assets” — photo negatives, that is). Instead of a pocket-protector he wears a bad windbreaker. In his frequent daydreams and fantasies, he sees himself as an international adventurer, a “real man” who will stand up to any bully. But in reality he’s lonely, middle-aged and single. He longs for a relationship with a new employee, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but can’t seem to connect with her, even on an on-line dating site.

And now he faces a crisis. Life Magazine is folding, except on-line. A douche-y young executive (Adam Scott) is brought in to close it down, and makes Walter into the poster boy for unwanted employees. But when a negative — the cover photo of the final issue — goes missing, Walter takes it upon himself to track it down, wherever it may be. He embarks on a journey by plane, helicopter, boat, secret life of walter mittyskateboard, that takes him up mountains, across shark-filled seas, and past erupting volcanoes, all just to find the missing photo.

Will he find the picture? Will he find himself? And will his journey impress his crush Cheryl?

While the movie is filled with breathtaking scenery, it has little else to recommend it. It’s not that funny, interesting or original (the James Thurber novel is more whimsical and the Danny Kaye musical — 1947 — is more clever). Ben Stiller’s first attempt at Secret Life of Walter Mitty ben stillerdirecting fails to direct himself. He underplays it just when he should be hamming it up. His character comes across as flat, dull and pointless. Shirley MacClaine and Catherine Hahn are fun as his mother and sister but are rarely seen.

And the use of egregious product placement within the plot itself — a certain pizza chain, a cinnamon bun — is as embarrassing as it is flagrant. (Was he that desperate for funding?) It’s not that the Secret Life of Walter Mitty is terrible. It’s totally watchable, especially stunning footage of Icelandic moonscapes. It’s just… disappointing.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens on Christmas Day and The Visitor opens on Dec 30th for a three-day run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 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

Odd Jobs. Movies reviewed: Pieta, C.O.G., Now You See Me PLUS Inside-Out

Posted in Cultural Mining, Family, Gay, Korea, Magic, Movies, Poverty, Psychology, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 2013

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.

We’ve all had some pretty strange if short-lived jobs. I’ve worked as a newly-hatched chick crate stacker (horrifying… they kept on dying) and handing out government information pamphlets dressed as the letter “i”, with an enormous round, foam ball over my head (as the dot).

Well today I’m talking about three movies where the main characters have very unusual jobs. There’s a violent sort of insurance adjuster in Korea; a stuck-up Ivy League grad student who decides to be a migrant fruit-picker; and a group of magicians who try to rob banks.

PIETA_key still (2)Pieta

Dir: Kim Kiduk

Kang-do is a tall, baby-faced man in his thirties who lives in a rusty, dusty industrial district of Seoul. Most of the factories there are tiny shops with zero employees outside the owners. Maybe there’s one machine punching out metal parts. So it’s a constant scramble for cash. It’s a poor area, and only Kang-do (Lee Jeong-jin) seems to be doing well. He sells the one thing everyone needs: money.

He’s just an ordinary a loan shark. But he collects his payments in an extraordinary way. He makes them sign up for insurance, and then pay back their debt according to what the insurance form pays: a broken leg, an injured hand, the loss of a finger. He casually pushes people off abandoned buildings, but only from the second floor. He’s selfish, cruel and emotionless, without even a shred of conscience – the devil incarnate. He has no one to answer to except his boss – no pesky extended family to hold him back: his mother abandoned him when he was a child.

But who shows up at his door one day, offering to cook and clean, but a stranger (Jo Min-soo) — PIETA_key still (4)an older woman – who says she’s his mother! She sings him his childhood lullaby. She wants to make up for abandoning him. He is still bitter and untrusting but she won’t give up. She even helps him in his cruel debt collection – since it’s all her fault for not teaching him right from wrong. It’s up to Kang-do to learn to trust, change his ways and open his heart to the only one who cares for him. Is the strange woman really his mother? Why did she choose to come back after all these years? And will the introduction of love – and a conscience? — upset his equilibrium and his job?

Pieta, like most of Kim Kiduk’s movies, has a neatly symmetrical storyline with a twist, coupled with extreme violence, and largely unsympathetic, over-the-top people. The ending is very good, the quirky, extreme characters are played well, and I love the gorgeous industrial look of the film, but it’s so grim, so relentless, so nnngggrrhhh that it’s just not a lot of fun to watch, except perhaps for its schadenfreude. It’s disturbing. I appreciate the way the story plays out, but I can’t say I loved this movie.

Groff COGC.O.G

Dir: Kyle Patrick Alvarez

Sam (Jonathon Groff) has just finished his MA at Yale but doesn’t want to live with his estranged mother. So he decides to earn some money communing with The People – apple pickers on a farm out west. Unfortunately, he studied Japanese in University, not Spanish. He expects to meet up with a classmate but he soon finds himself abandoned without friends. He’s soon brought down to size. The entitled, intelligent and successful rich kid soon learns the reality of real work, alienation, low wages, and unfair bosses. Next he’s working in the factory sorting fancy apples. A sympathetic employee, Curly (Corey Stall) offers him a promotion, but the benefits come with unstated duties, chez Curly. Finally he is driven to stay with an evangelical jade carver Jon (Dennis O’Hare) who is preparing for the county fair. Can a gay, cynical intellectual accept Jesus into his heart?

Groff Stoll COGThis is a really funny – not laugh out loud, but a grim humour – movie about the calamities hapless Samuel lands in, and the hard-to-take people he encounters. He’s made fun of as much as the people he meets. It’s based on a story by David Sedaris, and is just as funny but the movie exists, perfectly, outside of his book, as its own entity. Groff is great as an understated Sam, and Corey Stall (as Curly) has perfected the affable but skeezy guy – similar to his role as Russo on the TV show House of Cards. This is a very good movie.

NOW YOU SEE MENow You See Me

Dir: Louis Leterrier

Four people, entertainers all, receive tarot-card invitations from a mysterious source. There’s a conjurer (Jesse Eisenberg), a hypnotist / conman (Woody Harrelson) an escape artist (Isla Fisher) and a spoon-bender and pickpocket (Dave Franco). They meet up in New York City where they are dubbed the Four Horseman (not “of the apocalypse” – it’s just a name) and trained as a new act. Their gimmick? They can rob banks halfway around the world and give the loot to a screaming audience.

Their act is a huge media success.

As good magicians, they understand the point of a long-range trick, or a years-long setup, so NOW YOU SEE MEthey follow their directions perfectly. Soon they are being financed by a millionaire (Michael Caine), chased by an FBI detective who swears he’ll catch them (Mark Ruffalo), and also pursued by a man who earns his living debunking magicians as frauds (Morgan Freeman). And everyone wants to find out who is the fifth horseman? Is he one of the magicicians themselves? An unknown rival? A member of an illuminati-style cult? And what will the magicians’ final revelation bring?

OK. Some of the lines in this movie are pure cornball, the CGIs are often distracting, the actors are much better than the roles they’re playing, and there are a few too many twists to the plot. But never mind all that… I thought Now You See Me was a completely enjoyable, big-budget popcorn movie. A lot of fun.

Now You See Me opens today, and Pieta will be at the TIFF Bell Lightbox starting today. C.O.G played at Inside-Out Film Fest which continues through Sunday. Ghost in the Machine – a documentary about another strange job also opens today. Directed by Liz Marshall and beautifully shot, it follows an animal rights activist who, instead of freeing caged animals, takes their photos and shows their suffering to the world. And Lore, the amazing Australian movie about young German woman, a displaced person trying to find her way home right after WWII, also opens today, at the TIFF Bell Light Box.

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

November 23, 2012. The Joys and the Dangers of Fantasy. Movies Reviewed: Rise of the Guardians, The Suicide Room

Posted in Animation, Bullying, Christianity, Cultural Mining, Dragons, Drama, Dreams, drugs, Emo, Fantasy, Magic, Movies, Poland, Russia, US by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 2012

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

A new American import known as “Black Fridays” is spilling over into Canada as a big shopping day. The name supposedly comes from the day in which the average US retailer reaches a positive balance on sales for the year which is usually the Friday after American Thanksgiving. But in a weird case of a snake swallowing its own tail they have turned it into a massive frenzy of shopping from consumers searching for bargains put on by retailers wanting to capitalize on a chance to pump up sales.

It also means it’s the start of Christmas shopping in earnest. So, just in time for new childhood memories to form, this week I’m talking about two movies that show the good side and the bad side of believing in fantasy.

Rise of the Guardians

Dir: Peter Ramsey

Jack Frost (Chris Pine)  is a mischievous teenager in a hoodie and skinny jeans who likes snowball fights, getting kids’ tongues stuck to metal poles, and skatebording on hazardous, icy roads. When his snow lands on humans they have fun.He’s also invisible. He loves play but wishes he knew where he came from, and that other kids could see him.

Meanwhile there’s trouble up at the north pole: the bogeyman, aka Pitch, a fey, vain and evil man with an English accent (of course) is injecting nightmares into kids’ minds, and interfering with their sleep. So the Guardians who live there – Santa, the Easter Bunny, Mr Sandman, the Tooth Fairy — summon Jack to join them in their fight against scariness.

Santa (Alec Baldwin) is a Finnish-type Father Christmas known as “North” – muscular, tough and tattooed — but with an unplaceable Eastern European accent. He carries matruschka dolls, and curses using the names of Russian composers: Rimsky Korsakov! Shostakovitch! He’s guarded by a gang of rough looking Yetis and serviced by short-bus elves. The Easter Bunny is a foul-tempered Aussie (Hugh Jackman), and the Tooth Fairy collects teeth to store the memories of children.

In their war room stands a giant globe of flickering lights – each one representing a kid who still believes in them. But with Pitch on the upswing, the lights are gradually dimming, and, like in the Peter Pan cartoon, if no one believes in fairies then tinkerbell will die! In this case they won’t die, they’ll just become invisible to the non-believers, like Jack is.

So… will Jack join up with the good guys and try to get the human kids to believe in them again? Or will he let the world fall into the clutches of the evil and scary Pitch?

Rise of the Guardians is a resolutely non-religious Christmas movie, without a cross, a church or even a glowing star to be seen. God takes the form of an all-knowing and all seeing Man in the Moon, the easter bunny is all about eggs, and they’re all on equal footing of secular figures like Sandy the Sandman. It’s a beautiful crafted movie – really nice art direction, with an interesting plot. It’s clearly aimed at the pre-teen set, but was aesthetically pleasing enough to hold my attention.(like an incredibly beautiful scenes where they all meet in a sort of a floating, rust-tiled Samarkand in their encounter with Pitch.) And it has Guillermo Del Toro’s name on it – as an executive producer, which lets you know it’s not degenerating into a comedy dissing childhood beliefs.

And it’s in 3-D.

Much grimmer, but also a partly- animated drama is

The Suicide Room

Dir: Jan Komasa

Dominik (Jakub Gierszal) is a happy, popular private school kid, a bit emo-looking but in tight with the in crowd. But there’s a guy he likes at school who may or may not be leading him on. And when he has an embarrassing frottage incident at a judo practice when he gets a bit too frisky with the guy he’s crushing on, he is mortified. All his friends seem to have turned on him and to make matters worse, they other guy put up a video of the incident on Facebook where everyone could see it. He’s cyber-bullied into hiding up in his bedroom.

His one solace is an animated world on line, a sort of Second Life ruled by a queen, Sylwia (Roma Gasiorowska), who lives in a castle. He becomes obsessed by her and seems to exist only in the form of his avatar, while his real self lives in the dark, barely eating and never going outside. From most popular kid to reclusive otaku in a matter of weeks. Sylwia strongly pressures Dom to join their suicide club and kill himself.

His parents, both rich and successful, have no idea what’s going on. Dominik may be on the verge of killing himself while the parents are more worried about how their son’s aborted sexual life might embarrass them and damage their career ambitions. They just want him on meds so he stops bothering them.

Will Dominik choose to live or to die? Will he reconnect with the outside world? Will he get to meet his cyber-love Sylwia face to face? And will his parents ever show compassion for their son?

This Polish film (which played at this year’s Ekran Polish Film Festival in Toronto) is a look at adolescent depression, cyber-bullying and Second Life, all aspects of contemporary Polish life largely unknown in North America.

Rise of the Guardians is playing now, while Suicide Club played at the EKRAN Polish Film Festival. Also look out for free Japan Foundation screenings coming up in December at the Bloor cinema featuring dramatizations of Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai’s stories; The Toronto Film Noir Syndicate showing the Coen brothers’ classic Blood Simple this weekend, and the first annual Blood in the Snow Canadian film festival showing new and classic Canadian horror movies next week at the Projection Booth on Gerrard St E. It features cool pics like Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool and the world premier of new movies like SICK and psychological thriller the House of Flies.

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

August 4, 2011. Things Inside Other Things. Movies Reviewed: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Change-Up, Cowboys and Aliens

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

Have you ever wondered whether what you’re looking at is something with something inside of it? Or if it’s something that’s inside something (or someone) else? Let me give you an example.

I went to Toronto’s annual Night Market – a huge outdoor street fair full of Asian food stalls, held on Cherry Street near the lakefront – and amidst all the deep-friend stinky tofu, the Xinjiang lamb kebobs, and the bacon ice cream – something caught my eye.

What was it? Was it garlicky Korean bulgogi served on a crusty baguette? Or was it a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich with grilled beef filling? Was its essence the container or the content? Well, in any case, it tasted great, and the makers described it as a Vietnamese sandwich (with something in it.)

A big part of reviewing movies is determining the categories — the taxonomy — of a given film and its characters, trying to find an easy-to-understand label that encapsulates its true essence.  So, to make a long story short, this week I’m talking about three movies, all about things with other things inside them: a documentary about a cave with paintings in it, a traditional western with some space ships in it, and two men who end up trapped inside one another’s bodies.

Cowboys and Aliens

Dir: Jon Favreau

A stranger (Daniel Craig) rides into an old, run-down mining town wearing a strange metallic bracelet. He doesn’t know who he is, what he’s doing there, where he came from, or even his own name. he may have lost his memory, but he’s still a crackshot straight shooter with his six gun, and a good puncher in a dust-up. He knows right from wrong and good from bad, and is liked by dogs and small children. He just wants to remember what happened to his wife. But when the spoiled son of the town boss — an ornery cattle baron (Harrison Ford) — starts shaking down the locals for cash, the stranger steps in on behalf of the town folk.

All just an ordinary western, until, out of left field, comes a bunch of flashing alien spacecraft, plucking up all the people in some alien abductions, and taking them off somewhere (probably for some microchip implants, anal probes or brainwashing!)

So now it’s not the white hats vs the black hats, the people vs the bosses, or the cowboys vs the indians. Now it’s the humans vs the aliens, scary identical-looking monsters who are up to no good and probably want to take over the world. So they all band together, along with a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde) who wears a flowered dress and knows something she’s not telling us.

It’s good there’s some native actors (Adam Beach and Raoul Trujillo) and fun to see a twist on old themes, but the movie, even with some scary 3-D effects, is fun enough to watch, but pretty hollow and predictable in its plot.

Much nicer is another summer 3-D pic:

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Dir: Werner Herzog

Some tens of thousands of years ago a cliff collapsed in a French river valley, hiding the entrance to a series of caverns. The great German director and documentary maker Herzog is allowed into the restricted areas and shows us the amazing animal paintings on the walls: lions, rhinos, horses, and bulls; leopards, cave bears, and strange fertility totems. He leads us in three-d through the stalactites and stalgmites, and the glossy, drippy calcium deposits covering everything, from jawbones, to the charcoal they may have used to paint on their walls.

It shows shadows and firelight and the echoey music they might have played on tiny bone flutes.

And, because it’s a Herzog movie, he populates the documentary with all the eccentric types who end up showing their quirks before the camera. An archaeologist admits he used to be a unicycle-riding juggler in the circus. A master French perfumer sniffs his way around the caves to try to find any primeval odours that might still be there. And an eccentric scientist demonstrates spear-hurling techniques in a vineyard.

Though I thought the movie drags a bit in the long lingering shots of the wall paintings, it does give you both the forgotten dreams inside the narrow caves, and the people and world all around, emanating down rivers and through valleys across Europe, ending with some fantastic albino crocodiles.

The Change-up

Dir: David Dobkin

Dave and Mitch (Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds) have been best buddies since grade six. Dave’s married with three kids, a diligent, conservative careerist on the verge of a promotion if he can pull off a big corporate merger with a Japanese conglomerate. Mitch is a handsome hedonist, a foul-mouthed, struggling actor who lives the Life of Reilly: sleeping-in, smoking pot, hanging out, and having more casual sex than you can shake a stick at. Mitch envies the stability and symbols of success that Dave has, while Dave wishes he could go back to the freedom and fun of his college years.

Through some magical wishing they accidentally end up in each other’s bodies, having to live their buddies’ lives.

The rest of the movie is funny scenes of them trying to cope with the nightmarish situations they find themselves in, wearing the wrong clothes, saying the wrong things, and wracked by guilt once they see how others view them. Dave in Mitch’s body goes to shoot a movie without realizing he’ll be asked to perform sexually in a soft-core porn movie with a 70-year old women made entirely of botox, collagen, and silicon. Mitch has to take up all the responsibilities of an intense, stressful workplace, and an equally hard home life, with a neglected wife, and twin ADHD toddlers from hell. Will they get their old lives back? And do they really want to go back?

The movie’s funniness ranges from extremely funny (especially with the babies and kids, and the misbegotten sex scenes) to gross funny (with the explicit potty jokes and dick jokes) to cute funny, to… barely funny at all. Reynolds and Bateman get to play out of character which is fun. I think it all balances out with enough shocking and hilarious scenes to make it a worthwhile, if generally predictable, “guy” comedy.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is playing at the TIFF Bell Light Box, Cowboys and Aliens is also now playing, and the Change-up opens today: check your local listings.

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

July 22, 2011. Final Fantasy. Movies reviewed: Captain America, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Shirome

Posted in Action, Bullying, Comics, Crime, High School, Horror, Magic, Monsters, Mystery, Nazi, Sex, Uncategorized, violence, War, Women, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2011

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

It’s hottest summertime when a young person’s fancy turns to … fantasy (to mangle a quote.) School’s out, offices are closed, cottages are open, job vacations are on, and blockbusters, filled with the fantastical, pack the theatres. This week I’m looking at three movies about the supernatural with their origins tied to traditional youth culture: One’s adapted from a kid’s book, one from a comic book, and one starring a group of teen idols In an unusual situation.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Dir: David Yates

Everyone knows who Harry Potter is – the English orphan boy who discovers he’s a wizard, studies magic at the Hogwarts academy, and – with his friends Ron and Hermione — is in an ongoing fight with his evil nemesis, the snakelike Voldemort. Well this movie, the second half of the last book of the series, picks up exactly where the last one left off. Harry and his friends must find and destroy the rest of the horcruxes (little objects that hold part of Voledmort’s power) or else everything they live for will be lost, the school will be ruined, and all the people enslaved.

This final movie was filled with long serious scenes of gravitas, Harry grimacing at the camera, the good guys giving their all for the final battle, the confrontation between good and evil. The usual villains are there – Snape, Draco Malfoy, Bellatrix Lastrange and the Death Eaters – but some startling twists and discoveries show that things aren’t always what they first appear to be. A lot of the humour, the traditional school scenes, and the fun sense of adventure are missing here, but audiences seem to lap it up anyway – who wants it to be just another episode when it’s the final one? There was a long ovation after the last scene in the theatre, with scores of costumed viewers — more adults than kids — applauding a blank screen as the credits rolled.

I enjoyed it (although most of the 3D effects were pretty lame – you may as well see it in 2D and save a few bucks) but, like the last book in the series, it left me with the hollow, sad feeling that an era was over.

The next movie

Captain America

Dir: Joe Johnston

…had – for me — a lot of points in its favour before I even saw it. It’s a WWII European action drama of the allies versus the Nazis, it’s adapted from a comic book, and it uses a fun sub-genre called body transformation or body growth. This usually involves a 98-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face who (through some natural or supernatural phenomenon) turns instantly into an invincible super hero. On the negative side, Captain America looks militaristic, it’s overly nationalistic, and more than a bit corny. In the 50’s Captain America was trotted out as a symbol of American conservativism, Cold War anti-communism and McCarthyism, and by the 60’s and 70’s was thought of as a hopelessly dated, and almost fascistic caricature, a symbol of the country’s misadventures in Vietnam.

So… what about the movie? Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who wants to join the army. He never runs away from a fight, despite his skinny body, asthma, and flat feet. He hates bullies, and stands up to them, but it’s left to his best buddy, Bucky, to rescue him from the dust-ups. But he’s rejected from joining the army until a German scientist who had fled the Nazis brings him into an elite squad of potential superfighters. He trains alongside much bigger guys, but catches the attention of the beautiful and sultry, but tough, British Spy Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell).  The scientist chooses him for his experiments because of his true heart, and because he has compassion and no killer instinct. So after an injection he’s transformed into an almost indestructible hero – strong, fast, muscular and agile. And he carries a round metal shield. But instead of being a fighter, he’s made the centrepiece of a kitschy Victory Bonds team who tour America to raise money, performing on stage in elaborate musical numbers with red, white, and blue, high- kicking dancing girls.

Meanwhile, his nemesis, Dr Shmidt (Hugo Weaving), — an evil man who is out-nazi-ing even the Nazis in his Nordic mysticism and a master race – is preparing ultimate victory. He’s also super-powerful but he is cruel and selfish where Captain America is kind and just. Schmidt and his lackeys say “Hail Hydra” (instead of Heil Hitler) in deference to his plans. And where Cap is handsome, Schmidt is hideously ugly once he removes his face mask, revealing a red skull underneath.

Will Captain America prove himself as a real hero not an imitation one? Will he be able to give back what he owes his buddy Buck for past rescues? Will he consummate his love for Agent Carter? And will he be able to beat the indestructible villain?

Although mainly just a war and battle movie, Captain America was very enjoyable to watch. The art direction – yes, that’s what I mean, the whole look of the movie – was amazing, and its corniness was presented with enough tongue in cheek to balance the kitsch. And the 3D effects were fantastic, with some especially pleasing shots of 3D faces against flat, green-screen projections, like in Lars Van Trier’s Europa. So if you like comic-book war scenes, with lots of explosions, and simple two dimensional characters, this is a good movie for that.

Shirome

Dir: Shiraishi Koji

It’s typical for Japanese idols, talents, or stars to be followed around by cameras all day long. So it sort of makes sense that their a strange video about a pop group. In this tape, an under-aged Japanese girl group called Momoiro Clover is shooting a promo when they are asked to make an appearance, on camera, at an old, abandoned school. Apparently, legend has it, a spirit known as Shirome – “White Eyes” – will grant them any sincere and heart-filled wish, as long as its repeated three times in front of its marker – a butterfly on an old wall. But if they disobey the rules they may be found dead, just like other people who had tried this.

Their manager convinces them to wish for a chance to appear on the annual Red and White New Years Day Show, where celebrities, singers and idols perform for all of Japan. But a teller of ghost stories spooks them and they don’t know what to do. Should they accompany the exorcists and psychics into Shirome’s den in the old abandoned schoolhouse? Or should they run away as fast as they can?

This movie is a strange one.  It’s 50% treakly, cutesy over-performing teen idols talking to an ever-present video camera, pursing their lips, posing, and repeating their routines, or bursting into catchy music-video numbers. And 50% Japanese-style horror, with a strange, little white butterfly appearing on grainy footage enchanting and choking various characters as it flutters past. And the usual crackling video, starting and stopping, and almost unnoticeable evil seeping in and out of recovered footage. Picture Paranornal Activity, but instead of actors, starring a Japanese girl group. Death by kawaii-sa?

A strange movie indeed.

Harry Potter and Captain America are playing now, and Shirome and other new Japanese films are playing this weekend only at the Shinsedai Film Festival – go to shinsedai-toronto.com .

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

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