Daniel Garber talks to OCADU artist-in-residence Isaac Julien with Yuling Chen

Posted in Art, Cultural Mining, LGBT, Migrants, Movies, Toronto, UK by CulturalMining.com on March 31, 2017

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

In the late 1970s and early 1980s,  Thatcher’s England was a place of great unrest and mistrust. The country was rocked by strikes, demonstrations and riots. It was also the time of a burgeoning music scene, with fashion, art and the punk movement inspiring international change. It was into this world that Isaac Julien came of age in London’s East EndAs an artist and filmmaker he embraced three separate movements: the Afro-Caribean scene, London’s gay nightlife and the largely white progressive left. His work incorporated themes of sex, politics and interracial  relationships. Over the decades to follow, his focus shifted from film to art installations.

From young soul rebel to international art star, Julien’s moving image installations can now be seen in Europe, Asia and around the world. Recently two of his works ran at the Royal Ontario Museum, another is on at the Museum of Modern Art, and two of his early films will be screening at Toronto’s Images Festival. He’s artist in residence at OCAD University (the Ontario College of Art and Design) where he is mentoring five students who will follow him to London.

Yuling Chen is a Toronto artist, originally from Hainan, China. She creates animation, video and performance art and is studying with Isaac Julien.

I spoke to Isaac Julien and Yuling Chen in studio at CIUT. 

 

 

Daniel Garber talks with anthropologist/filmmaker Niobe Thompson about his three-part documentary The Great Human Odyssey on CBC TV

Posted in Anthropology, Cultural Mining, Disease, documentary, Evolution, Migrants, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 13, 2015

bJGwTDZvDCA_KinMwSXkYoC-SnM1haVkpAaaO7sttjoHuman’s are a strange species. We stand up, we cook our food, we talk and we remember.

Our bodies aren’t covered in thick fur, and we don’t have sharp teeth or claws. And yet we aren’t extinct. We live on every continent.

How come we’re alive when stronger hominids aren’t? How did a tropical species come to dominate cold climates? What kept us alive for 200,000 years in this Great Human Odyssey?

The Great Human Odyssey is also the name of a spectacular new three- part series from clearwater documentary that explores our species Homo sapiens and what sets us apart.

The series was written, directed and narrated by Canadian anthropologist-turned-filmmaker WQeSkYDsF4FI3LoSoY3UYx-VH3oS32OD601_3yEyfskNiobe Thompson. Thompson grew up in Wabasca, Northern Alberta, where he worked fighting forest fires. Later, he travelled the world, getting his PhD in social anthropology at Cambridge. He went on to make Gemini Award-wining documentaries, and The Great Human Odyssey is the most recent. It premiered on CBC’s the Nature of Things. I spoke to Niobe by telephone from Edmonton, Alberta about hominids, disease, reindeer, Neanderthal sex, evolution, coexistence, Papua New Guinea, Siberia, the Kalahari desert, genetic legacies… and more!

Daniel Garber talks with Swedish director Gabriela Pichler about her new film EAT SLEEP DIE (Äta Sova Dö)

Posted in Cultural Mining, Migrants, Movies, Sweden, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 23, 2013

Gabriela Pichler. Foto: Claudio Bresciani

Sverigesradio foto Gabriela PichlerHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Raša (Nermina Lukač) is a young Swedish woman, a Muslim born in Montenegro. She lives with her Dad in a small town near Gothenburg and works in a produce-packing factory. She’s a damned good employee — they type who can tell the exact weight of a handful of lettuce.

But when she and some others are laid off by the company, she finds herself suddenly rudderless, adrift. And, when her ailing father is forced to look for work in Norway, she has nothing to do and no one to do it with. All her friends were at the factory — her life was there, too. Is she “Swedish” enough to find a new job in her home town?
A new movie, a realistic drama, looks at small-town life in Sweden through the eyes of an assimilated, working class immigrant. It deals with questions of identity, community and exclusion.
This award-winning film is called EAT SLEEP DIE and played at the the Venice, Busan and Toronto film festivals. It is screening at the EU Film Festival in Toronto.Eat Sleep Die 06
I speak — by telephone from Gothenburg, Sweden — with the film’s writer/director, Gabriela Pichler. She talks about immigrants in Sweden, making her film and the personal connection she has with the story.

Run Silent, Run Deep? Movies Reviewed: La Pirogue, Lovelace

Posted in Africa, Cultural Mining, Drama, drugs, Migrants, Movies, Penis, Porn, Psychology, Refugees by CulturalMining.com on August 18, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.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.

People leave their homes for different reasons. Some people are tied down by their pasts, held back by their parents. They’ll never succeed unless they can break free. Others are content, but feel they’ll missing out on something better, their destinies unfulfilled, unless they move away. But the grass isn’t always greener…

This week, I’m looking at two movies about people who go out into the world to seek a better life, but find their new world may be worse than what they left behind. One’s a realistic drama from Senegal about a journey across deep waters; the other’s a US biopic, about a movie called Deep Throatthe

Lapirogue_ArtMattanProductions_01_mediumLa Pirogue

Dir: Moussa Touré

Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) is a fisherman who plies the waters off Senegal looking for the next catch. He has a pretty good life, with a beautiful wife, and a nice home. He even dabbles in sponsoring fighters at public matches. He goes on fishing trips for weeks at a time in his long, wooden boat. But there’s hasn’t been a good catch for ages.

In walks a sleazy, but rich, local entrepreneur. He needs a ship captain to ferry a fishing boat to the coast of Spain. It’ll only take a week – much shorter than his normal trips. But this is no pleasure cruise. Baye’s pirogue – a deep, wooden canoe – won’t be hauling seafood. The cargo will be two dozen hopeful migrants.

He refuses. It’s illegal, dangerous, and immoral. But there are crowds of men in aA scene from THE PIROGUE, directed by Moussa Touré. Courtesy o corrugated shack on the beach, all waiting for him to take them to Europe. Young men want to experience western culture, up close. Join a world cup football team, or just buy an iPhone. A disabled man needs to buy a prosthetic limb Others have family, lovers or jobs waiting for them there. He finally agrees, when he discovers that his fishing navigator — and even his own brother – are going to Spain the next day, with or without him. And so begins the journey.

But there’s trouble from the start. A stowaway leads to talk of mutiny. And ethnic tensions emerge: There are national splits – with Fulani refugees from Guinea who have never been the ocean; battling ethnic groups who don’t speak a common language; and devout Muslims – contrasted with their sophisticated, hard-drinking cousins. The pirogue itself is built for piles of fish not crowds of people.

A scene from THE PIROGUE, directed by Moussa Touré. Courtesy oAs tension builds, they gag a panic-stricken man with only a chicken to keep him company. Someone breaks the ceremonial bottle. And another pirogue they encounter in the ocean does not bode well for their future. Things reach a crisis after a big storm washes away the GPS and disables one of the engines. Without much fuel, or even drinking water left, they are faced with a dilemma. Do they continue toward Spain? Or do they let the tides take them to Brazil?

La Pirogue is a good story, well told and nicely shot.  For once, there’s a movie told by the migrants themselves. Director Toure takes a few stylistic leaps, everything from the excellent opening in a public square, to an unusual (and oddly mannered) sex scene. And I love the complex rhythms of Salam Diallo’s music. Worth seeing.

lovelaceLovelace

Dir: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

It’s the early 70s in Florida. The sex and drug revolution is happening, man! Everyone wears loud clothes and listens to wooka-wooka music. Men battle each other for the worst facial hair combos and the biggest collars. Even the fonts are fat. (In the opening credits, the movie title gets an erection.) In the midst of all this is young Linda (Amanda Seyfried), a cute, freckled girl with dark curls. Her conservative and Catholic parents (Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick), had whisked Linda down south to hide her pregnancy. They want to bring her up right and whip her back into shape. She just wants a tan.

Soon enough, Linda meets the much older Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard) a bartender with ambition. They marry, and before you know it, Linda is Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat. This is a porn movie about a woman who can only reach an orgasm by giving head who meets a man with a large penis. All these topics were very taboo at the time – oral sex was never openly discussed. Suddenly, the film is a crossover hit  (this is when porn was still watched in movie theatres) a blockbuster, a cultural meme before the term existed. Even the Watergate whistleblower – the man who brought down the Nixon government – called himself “Deep Throat”.

She rises to the top, with instant stardom and notoriety. There are scenes of lovelace d1 _155.NEFporn in-production, meeting celebs like Hugh Heffner, and the glamour of talk shows and Hollywood life. It’s a campy, over-the-top look at those wacky, zany days of porn. Except it’s not.

Halfway through, the movie does a complete about face. Suddenly it’s a deadly serious drama, based on Lovelace’s autobiography: how she was raped at gun point, forced to do abominable things, kept under close watch by her evil husband Chuck. She does an extended tell-all to daytime TV host Phil Donohue.

So does it work? Combining these two very different feelings within one movie? In a word, no! In fact it fails miserably. This is one of the worst movies of the year, a painfully awful mistake.

How could so many famous stars – Adam Brody, James Franco, Hank Azaria, Eric Roberts, Juno Temple – make such a monstrously bad movie? Seyfried plays Lovelace well, and doesn’t lose her way, but Sarsgaard is unbelievably bad as Chuck. Just dreadful. (And what’s with actors throwing phones? Denzel in “Flight”, Sarsgaard in this movie? – it’s a sure sign an actor is losing it and the movie is going to suck.) Even the directors – who made that excellent documentary bio of Harvey Milk – what were they thinking?

Lovelace is like a two course meal – first a stale Hostess Twinkie… closely followed by a plate of excrement. It’s like a slapstick look at the Rwanda massacre. Watch it at your own risk.

Lovelace is playing now, and La Pirogue opens today at the TIFF Bell Light Box 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 to IGOR DRLJACA about his new film Krivina

Posted in Art, Bosnia, Canada, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, Drama, Migrants, Refugees, TIFF, Uncategorized, War by CulturalMining.com on January 26, 2013

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

Director_igor_DrljacaWars lead to dislocation, death, displacement. Refugees move to safe havens and leave people and places behind, but they live on in their minds.

A new experimental Canadian film called KRIVINA
looks at all of this, but reworks it into a new examination of art and emotions. It played TIFF, is opening soon at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and is playing now at the ROYAL CINEMA on College St in Toronto.

Krivina looks at traces of war remaining in the psyche of a Bosnian-Canadian named Miro. He lives in Toronto but feels compelled to return to his former land in search of a friend, Dado, from his childhood.

This movie is a stark example of cinema that combines
history with extreme realism, documentary, drama,
and magic realism. And I’m very pleased to have
this film’s director, IGOR DRLJACA here in studio
to tell us some more about his film.

Igor talks about war, remembrance, realism, improvisation, new cinema, Bosnia, Canada, his influences as a director… and more.

Tagged with: ,

What is a piece of popcorn worth? Movies reviewed: Payback, Jeff, Who Lives at Home

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.

So did you hear about that poor guy in Michigan? Apparently he just wanted to go to a movie, but when he got into the theatre they literally held a gun to his head and forced him to buy a very expensive bag of popcorn! Literally! Can you believe it? …Oh — wait a sec. I’m wrong. Turns out he just didn’t think the price they were charging for popcorn and candy was fair. So he’s launching a class action suit.

Question: is it fair for movie theatres to charge 6 bucks for a bag of popcorn? Are moviegoers exploited and ripped off? Of course we are – everyone knows that, but we’re OK with it. Right? I mean you’re in that theatre paying to see Images projected on a screen — the ultimate deception.

If the candy’s too much then don’t buy it — they’ll get your money one way or another. I think popcorn is up there with the huge screens, surround-sound, velvet curtains, plush seats, grand lobbies and skeezy washrooms. It’s the movie experience. These seemingly random parts are all part of a larger coherent whole.

This week I’m reviewing two movies that look at fate, morality, destiny, and retribution. One is a documentary about things you must pay back, the other a comedy about paths you must follow.

Payback

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal

Two farmers, Llesh and Ilir live in northern Albania in a lush valley surrounded by grassy hills and snow topped mountains. A few years ago, when Ilir went to complain that Llesh was farming his land, there was a fight, and it may have involved Llesh’s wife… in any case Llesh pulled out a machine gun and shot Ilir in the gut a few times. He survived, but according to the 16th cenutry Albanian ethics code the Kanun, Llesh owes Ilir a debt. So Llesh and his family are poor now, trapped inside a shack and not able to farm.

This is just one of the many tangents this movie takes you on a look at debt – moral, ecological, monetary, and legal debt, — along with penitence, guilt, and retribution. They’re all very interesting stories – Latino tomato farmers in Florida fighting for fair treatment; a fisherman in the gulf enduring ruin after BP’s mishandled oil disaster; and a look at various Canadian prisoners – a petty burglar in Ontario, and Conrad Black (!) in Florida, both serving their time, repaying their debt to society. The documentary parts are alternated with talking heads — like Louise Barbour, Karen Armstrong, and Raj Patel — commenting on law, economics and religion.

This movie is sort of based on the Massey lectures Margaret Atwood gave a few years ago – a brilliant look at the words around lending, borrowing, owing and being owed. I say “sort of”, since it almost seems like one of those romantic thriller movies that say they were inspired by a true story. Jennifer Baichwal’s documentaries usually find a starting point and then, like a Stephen Leacock character, they fling themselves onto a horse and ride madly off in all directions.

Is this a problem? Not really, because even if they’re all over the place, the subjects she chooses are all interesting. And the movie is so visually rich (cinematography by Nicholas de Pencier) with images — from ceramic figures through a pawn shop window, to staggering, long aerial shots of the BP oil slick creeping across the Gulf of Mexico – that are as fascinating as any of the things people are saying.

I do get the feeling that Baichwal realizes it’s all over the place, so, to tie it all to Margaret Atwood’s book she adds long, literal scenes of Atwood hunt-and-pecking on her laptop, or Atwood reading from her manuscript. The talking head expertss are on screen too briefly to stick in the mind, except Conrad Black – who seems to have changed his mind about debt, retribution, and prisons.

In any case, Payback is a great visual riff.

Another movie that seems, superficially, to be about random drifting is

Jeff, Who lives at Home

Dir: the Duplass Brothers

(I reviewed this after seeing it at TIFF, but it held up very well this second viewing — I actually liked it better this time.)

Jeff (Jason Segel) is part of a dysfunctional family that fell apart when the father husband died years ago. Mom works in a lonely office cubicle, douchey Brother Pat (Ed Helms) sells paint and is destroying his marriage, and Jeff, who’s 30, still lives at home – sits around his mother’s basement in his underwear, to be exact. He smokes pot, eats chips, watches TV, and waxes philosophical about the cosmos… while sitting on a toilet. He’s always waiting for “signs” to tell him what to do., like in the Mel Gibson movie.

Well, one day he’s forced to leave home for downtown Baton Rouge to get something for his mother (Susan Sarandon)’s birthday. But, when someone on an infomercial says his life will change by the words “CALL NOW!”; and at the same time a strange, threatening wrong number wanted to talk to “Kevin”, he starts off on a (seemingly) wild goose chase all around the city.

So Jeff embarks on this grand mission – one that eventually ties in with his brother’s failing marriage and his mother’s love life — because he knows, he just knows, that his actions will change the world. Will Jeff find Kevin? Will Pat forget about Hooters and Porsche’s and think about his wife for once? And will Mom ever get to kiss under a waterfall?

This is a good, enjoyable comedy. I like the Duplass brothers, who used to make low-budget, ‘mumblecore”, semi-improvisational super-realistic movies. They have a few quirks – little camera emoticons – I don’t know how else to describe it – where the camera zooms in to nudge-nudge, wink-wink to the viewer that something funny is happening like a visual laughtrack– but the movie’s good enough that it doesn’t bother me after awhile. This one, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is their biggest budget and most mainstream one so far, with stuntmen, and chase scenes, and big name cast. But I like this direction they’re taking – it’s not a sell-out, just a very funny, light comedy.

Payback and Jeff, Who Lives at Home both open today. And Margaret Atwood and Jennifer Baichwal will be there for a Q&A at the screenings on Friday and Saturday. Worth a trip just for that — Margaret Atwood is very entertaining. Also playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox are the fantastic Japanese animated films Spirited away and Princess Mononoke. And at the newly re-opened Bloor Cinema, look out for the daily HotDocs documentaries playing now. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

 

March 25, 2011 Morality in Movies. Films Reviewed: Limitless, Outside the Law, West is West

When people are looking for discussions on morality, the last place they’ll look for answers is at the movies — they’re just entertainment, right? Well… not exactly. Actually, traditional Hollywood movies — be they dramas, comedies, westerns, romances, adventures, or even horror movies – always follow a strict moral code: The bad guys are punished or killed, the good guys rewarded in the end. It’s almost puritanical: in a slasher movie, the ones who smoke pot or get drunk or make out are always the first ones killed by the serial killer. In the recent comedy, Hall Pass, the characters who have extramarital sex get physically hurt, while the ones who stay pure are spared.

But occasionally you get movies where the characters themselves face a moral dilemma, and have to decide for themselves whether or not they are doing the right thing, when both options seem terrible. So today I’m going to talk about three movies – one takes place in Pakistan and England, one in Algeria and France, and one in the US – with potential moral dilemmas at their core.

Limitless

Dir: Neil Burger

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a novelist with writer’s block. He hasn’t written a word of his first book yet, but he’s already spent his cash advance (I’d love to meet his agent!); he can’t pay his rent, and his girlfriend Lindy has dumped him.

But then he meets a low-life drug dealer from his past who offers him a new type of little, clear pill, an unnamed pharmaceutical, a sort of a super-Ritalin — that will solve all his problems, and he’ll be the only one on these drugs. Suddenly, everything’s as clear as the pill. He knows the answers to all his problems. He can seduce any woman, instantly learn any language, stop any punch before it hits him. He immediately writes his novel, but now he’s forced to consider what to do with his new powers. (Sort of a moral dillema). Will he find the cure for cancer or an HIV vaccine? Will he bring about world peace? Will he be able to save the world from Earthquakes and tsunamis?

Naaah. He goes for money fame and power instead. He borrows cash from a Russian gangster to invest on wall street and meets up with the great financier Van Loon. (The trillionaire is played by Robert de Niro, who is also just in it for the money.) And then there’s a mysterious old guy in a cheap suit who pops up all over the place and who is obviously up to no good.

What’s going to happen to Eddie? Will he make tons of money? Will he get back his girlfriend? And what about the drugs – what happens if they run out? And what about the gangster? And what about Van Loon – will he beat him at his own game? And who’s that creepy guy who’s spying on him?

Limitless is the kind of so-so popcorn movie that’s fun to watch, but crumbles apart immediately afterwards when you try to make sense of it. (Maybe it’s because I’m not on the little clear pill, but I doubt it.) I liked the semi-psychedelic scenes in this movie where he has strange out-of-body experiences in a constant forward movement, speeding through time and space. Cool special effects. And there are some good dramatic moments, but the rest of is pretty stupid. Bradley Cooper plays the same douche-y prick he did in The Hangover, Abbie Cornish is forgettable as his girlfriend, and De Niro is just killing time – he doesn’t even try.

Outside the Law (Hors-la-Loi)

Written and Directed by

Rachid Bouchareb

In 1925, a family gets kicked off its farm in Algeria because he has no written deed, and some French colonist wants the land. The defiant mother and her three young sons are each affected by this, in their own way, but all of them just want back what’s rightfully theirs. Soon the three brothers are all grown up – it’s the 50s and a demonstration is building in the city streets. Abdelkader is an activist marching in the demo, Said is an entrepreneur trying to make money through boxing; and Messaoud is the tough boxer he’s promoting. But once again the French military and police are messing things up, massacring both the political activists and the people just living their lives.

So the movie follows the three sons and the paths they take – after being jailed for demonstrating, Abdelkhader becomes a real revolutionary, Said turns to organized crime, prostitution, gambling and nightclubs, and Messaoud who joins the French army becomes a POW in Hanoi.

Algeria is now a part of France – it’s been completely annexed. So they all eventually end up living as second-class citizens in the slums and shantytowns of Paris, and become involved in the increasing tension and growing political storm In Algeria, and the rise of the FLN, (the Algerian Liberation Front) in which they all end up playing a crucial role.

Abdelkader has to decide his priorities as he’s faced with difficult moral dilemmas. Is it the revolution above all? Or family ties? And does the end justify the means? And what does it mean if he’s behaving as violently as the French he’s revolting against, or resorting to terrorist actions? While politics always makes for strange bedfellows, Abdelkader’s strict puritanism is contrasted with Said the gangster’s devil-may-care attitude. But he also forces his Messaoud to be his muscle and do the dirty deeds that he decides on.

This is a neat movie that combines, using the three brothers, different movie types – it’s a combination historical, political drama, a police thriller (they’re being chased by a cop who was in the left-wing resistance during WWII), a boxing movie, and a Godfather-type family saga. Great acting by the three brothers – Jamal Debbouze as the funny, street hood, Roschdy Zem as the strong and silent bruiser, and Sami Boujila as the troubled, heroic revolutionary – who switch from Arabic to French and back again – in this really well-made movie. I think anyone who saw Gods and Men (the gentle movie about the French monks massacred in Algeria) should also see this one if they want to really understand the politics and history of the two nations.

West is West

Dir: Andy DeEmmony

Sajid is a British schoolkid in Manchester in the 1970’s, whose parents have a chip shop. His father George is Pakistani, his mother’s English, and he’s an irascible foulmouthed brat who is picked on by racist bullies at his school. The headmaster, having spent time in Punjab when it was part of the British Empire, shows his sympathy to Sajid by telling him about Kipling. “Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab” he says, but Sajid wants nothing to do with that. And when, in a fight with his father, he uses the P-word, things really look bad. So the next thing you know, he’s being shipped off with his dad to the family homestead in Punjabi Pakistan.

And there’s a whole family there – George hasn’t seen his first wife and daughters since he emigrated thirty years before – he just periodically sent them money to support them. Sajid, who only knows “Salaam aleikum” and a few dirty words in Urdu, begins to study not in a classroom but by following a staff-carrying wise man who claims to be a fool and a local kid he dismissively calls Mowgli.

But he makes a friend, learns about life, and gradually loses his English uniform and ways. West is West wonders if ever the twain shall meet. Will his older brother, who is obsessed with Nana Mouskouri, ever find a bride that lives up to his image? Will Sajid find a culture to call his own? And what will George do to solve his impossible moral dilemma? The movie has more stories than you can shake a stick at, but it carefully and thoughtfully deals with each one inside the bigger East vs West story. It’s especially touching in the way it deals with the two wives, neither of whom planned their strange predicament.

Superficially, you can compare this to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but it’s everything that movie is not.

It’s hilarious, but without reverting to camp or slapstick; it deals with cultural differences but not with cheap ethnic stereotypes; it’s adorable, but foul-mouthed enough to never seem cutesie; and above all, it was just a really good movie. It’s not a movie only for South Asians, it’s a lovely and delightful movie for everyone.

Limitless is now playing, and opening today, March 25, in Toronto are Outside the Law, West is West, and A Matter of Size (a movie about people embracing their body-size by becoming sumo wrestlers, which I reviewed last week). Check your local listings.

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

Hallowe’en Special! Movies reviewed: My Soul to Take, Hereafter, The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest, LA Zombie, Cold Fish

Toronto is a scary place – and I don’t just mean the city elections this week. Our new mayor is… Biff Tannen! And I saw a couple hundred zombies marching through Kensington market last Saturday. But it’s about to get even scarier — this is Hallowe’en weekend, when everyone wants to see a scary, gory, spooky, otherwordly, gripping, chilling, or thrilling movie. So today I’m going to look at five Hallowe’eny movies: a slasher-horror pic, a spooky drama, a gripping thriller, and two more that played at TIFF this year.

My Soul to Take
Dir: Wes Craven

Like the Agatha Christie classic Ten Little Indians, this slasher pic has seven seventeen-year-olds each wondering who’s going to get killed next. You see, 17 years ago a crazed, serial killer kicked the bucket just as his widow was giving birth prematurely. And at the same hospital, six others were born the same day… they became a nerd, a jock, a Jane Austen Christian, a blind guy, a snobby girl, a family kid, and one more, Bug, who is slightly whack: he periodically slips into a Tourettes-like state where he imitates the voices of the other six preemies. So which one’s the slasher? Or is he possessing someone? Or maybe the original killer’s still alive and hiding in the woods?

And you know what? It doesn’t really matter in the end; getting there is most of the fun. It’s a Wes Craven movie – (the guy who directed the Scream series and wrote A Nightmare on Elm St) so you can be there’ll be lots of bathroom mirror scenes, shadowy killers in costume, and an equal number of red herrings. It’s interesting to watch, the characters are funny, and even though it’s mainly formulaic, it’s enjoyable. It’s also bloody and violent. What it wasn’t, though, it wasn’t especially scary.

My Soul to Take is a fun one to watch with a group of friends on All Hallow’s Eve.

Hereafter
Dir: Clint Eastwood

What happens after you die? And if life goes on, is there any contact between life and the afterlife? This movie (very, very slowly) follows three separate story lines trying to answer this question. Matt Damon plays a San Francisco psychic who thinks his gift is a curse: every time George touches someone else skin, he is hit by a vision of the dead who want to talk to her. So he decides to work instead in a sugar warehouse. Meanwhile, Marie (C»cile De France), an intelligent Parisian tele-journalist and her producer/lover encounter disaster in the tropics, and her near-death experience leads her to explore the boundary between life and death. Finally, a pair of somber, identical twin brothers, being raised by a junky mother in London, encounter death as well. Will they ever be able to communicate again?

OK, Herafter is not a bad drama, and I’ll watch practically anything with a hint of magic or the supernatural, but its glacial pace, and lugubrious tone combined with a non-religious angel motif, make it feel mostly like a big-budget episode of Ghost Whisperer (“He says he forgives you… now, walk into the light”). The three storylines eventually come together, but at least for the first half hour, I wondered is it going to go on like this for whole movie – unfinished story after unfinished story? It’s not really scary at all, it’s Clint Eastwood, at the age of 80, telling a relaxing tale of people pondering life and death. See it if you like sipping warm cocoa on Halowe’en.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Dir: Daniel Alfredson

Lisbeth Salander and journalist Blomkvist are back again for part three of their story. Lisbeth, is a fantastic character, a cross between Steve McQueen and Tank Girl. She’s tuff, she’s rough, she’s stone cold. She’s a punk, she’s a loner, she’s an ex-con, she’s a computer genius. And Blomkvist, the committed leftist investigative journalist at the Swedish magazine Millenium, will do anything he can to help her. The last movie ended with a bloody shoot out, and this one starts up immediately afterwards, with Lisbeth, near death in a hospital, charged with attempted murder, and Blomkvist on the verge of uncovering a cold-war era conspiracy involving government, police, and psychiatry.

So the two sides gear up for the long fight, culminating in a bug trial. On one side they’re all trying to uncover the truth about the conspiracy and get it to print before the trial. But the bad guys – mainly a bunch of old Swedish guys in suits – will stop at nothing – including murder, intimidation, and character assassination – to keep the secrets secret. The pale blue-eyed and goateed psychiatrist, Dr Teleborian, is especially sinister, with his plans to use the veneer of psychiatry to hide his true motives.

And then there’s the wildcards on both sides, including Niedermeier, the giant blond thug who can feel no pain, and Plague, the shy, secretive computer geek extraordinaire.

So, I liked it a lot, as a conclusion to the three-part movie series. I think it’s much better to see the first two before you watch this one. I also missed the beautiful cinematic camerawork of Dragon Tattoo – this one was much more indoors, with pedestrian TV-like scenes, and without all of the unexpected plot revelations of the first two.

But it’s still worth seeing. I love rooting for the heroes when they barely escape a killer, and mentally cheering when the villains mess up. (The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest feels more like a BBC detective miniseries — not a bad thing to be) This movie is two and a half hours long, so be prepared for a slow start with a good payoff. You’ll need lots of Hallowe’en popcorn for this one.

LA Zombie
Dir: Bruce LaBruce

A muscle bound monster emerges out of a Pacific beach like a creature from the black lagoon. All around him is violence – shootouts in the ravines, murder in drug deals gone wrong, cars spilling off the highways, and the slow violence graduaully crushing the homeless and undocumented of downtown Los Angeles. The zombie monster (porn actor Francois Sagat) is observing all and is saddened by it.

But unlike the voraciously eating- zombies we usually see, who inflict their condition on the living, this one is a sort of a messiah. Through the disgusting – but gentle – sex he has with all the newly dead corpses he encounters – and it’s always gay sex with male corpses, by the way – he brings the bodies back to life. The strangely-coloured semen that comes out of his grotesquely-shaped penis is a panacea: ejaculation equals rejuvenation.

L.A. Zombie is a violent and gory zombie movie, with very few lines, but with lots of colourful, pornographic gay sex between a gentle zombie and the spilt organs of fresh corpses. More than anything else, it’s also an experimental art film, at times quite beautiful, with extended tableaux, urban landscapes and sunsets, and some documentary-looking footage of the marginal and lost beings of Los Angeles. By the end you get the impression that the zombie scenes are just the imaginary fantasies of a destitute, muscle-bound, mentally-ill homeless guy.

L.A. Zombie turns the Hallowe’en monster-as-villain paradigm upside down, and shows that the real monster… is us.

Finally,

Cold Fish
Dir: Sono Shion

This movie also played at the Toronto Film Festival. I see a couple hundred movies every year, and I don’t normally leave a movie shaking, googly-eyed, saying “what the fuck was that?!” to total strangers. But I did after this ultimate, extreme Japanese exploitation film about a mild-mannered Shizuoka tropical fish dealer who is pulled into the sway of an aggressive entrepreneur and serial killer.

Based on a true story, Shamato is a wimpy widower who owns a tropical fish store. His young, second wife shops with her eyes closed and cooks rice in a microwave. His teenaged daughter Mitsuko is dating a hood and shoplifts for fun. He seeks solace in the peace of the local planetarium. But soon his miserable existance is altered by a hyper-enthusiastic entrepreneur, Murata, who tells him “Business is entertainment!” Soon, Mitsuko is living in his big box store dorm working as a glamour fish salesgirl wearing hotpants and a tanktop, and his wife is also on Murata’s side (after an attack/rape scene that “pulls her out of her wretched life…”) All is not well.

Shamato is soon made an unwitting accomplice in a crooked fish scam, bilking investors in a “rare”, ugly amazon fish venture. Soon he discovers Murata and his wife don’t just defraud investors, they also kill them in a most awful way, inside a tiny church. They glory in the blood and guts, sexually playing with their organs and body parts, and joyfully disposing of the remaining flesh and bones, drenching them with soy sauce and roasting them in an outdoor barbecue!

It’s up to milquetoast Shamato either to become a willing part of their awful lives or to fight back and stop it forever.

What can I say? This has got to be the most depraved exploitation film I’ve ever seen. It’s joining of sex and death makes even Miike seem tame, and LA Zombie is like a gentle glimpse of flowers and rainbows in comparison. Definitely one of the most horrific movies ever, Cold Fish retains its credibility (without sinking to the “Saw” level of pornographic torture.) The most shocking and disturbing movie of the year.

Caught in a Trap. Films reviewed: Shutter Island, Punishment Park, Last Train Home

You walk into a theatre, sit down, relax, stretch your legs, maybe eat a bit of popcorn, maybe nibble at some candy you smuggled in, and get set for sitting in one place for 90 minutes, 2 hours, maybe two and a half hours.

You don’t know the people in front of you, the people behind you, and very likely some of the people sitting right beside you. The lights go out, it’s dark, and you’re in a room full of strangers… so why doesn’t that bother you? Why doesn’t it make you feel claustrophobic to be trapped in a movie theatre? I think it’s because you’re not trapped there, and you chose to go there, and you’re there to enter an open space projected on a giant screen – it’s that huge opening to a world, looking through a looking glass, through a crystal ball, down a rabbit hole – you’re opening something for a little while, you’re escaping – maybe that’s why they call movies escapist – it’s just the opposite of being trapped somewhere.

I think that’s part of the attraction of movies – getting inside of a place you can’t visit physically, being a guest in a different world for a short time.

But the movies you see are sometimes about people caught in a trap. Here are a few movies about people caught somewhere but can’t seem to get out.

In Shutter Island, the new film directed by Martin Scorsese, US Marshall Daniels takes the ferry to a remote cliff-covered island with an old lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s 1952. There’s a hospital-cum-prison for the criminally insane there, and it’s a place that, it’s said, once you’re inside it, there’s no way to escape. But a woman who committed a terrible crime has escaped, so Daniels, (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffallo) are called in to solve this unexplainable mystery. And Daniels has a secret goal of his own – to try to find out what happened to the man who brutally murdered hiswife and three children, and seems to have disappeared. Was he hiding on this island? And what really was going on in that old lighthouse?

Once he arrives there, Daniels is gradually stripped of his symbols of power as a Marshall – he is forced to give up his gun, his badge, his shoes, even his suit, and is soon dressed in a the white clothes of the orderlies there. But he begins to suspect that the psychiatrists have been slipping him drugs, and begins to have realistic hallucinations of his own. As one character he meets tells him, once you’re here they can decide you’re crazy, and anything you can say to them will just prove you really are crazy. It’s a deadly trap – an island with no way out, and hospital that’s said to conduct terrible experiments on its patients. He’s also haunted by memories of liberating the Dachau concentration camp in Germany – one psychiatrist at the hospital feels like a Nazi to him

I don’t want to give away the plot – and it’s a twisted one, approaching Mulholland Drive proportions – but the movie left me more or less satisfied with the various plot turns. It isn’t a great movie, but an entertaining one – though 2 ½ hrs long. The scary hospital scenes and the dramatically towering cliffs were really effective, though the brittleness of the video it was shown on left me a bit more chilled than I would have liked – I prefer the warmth of film over digital’s nails-on–the-blackboard feel.

The anti-psychiatry themes of imprisonment, despair and cruel and despotic psychiatrists persecuting patients are strong in this film at first, but fizzle away in the convoluted plot. DiCaprio’s performance was not bad, but I still see him as a kid trying to play a grown up, and he doesn’t convince me. He keeps squinting his eyes and scrunching up his forehead to look perplexed – I guess that’s what they call “acting”.

So, not a terrific film, it’s no Taxi Driver, but it wasn’t bad either; you can see it as a Hollywood dramatic-thriller and leave it at that.

I saw a very unusual but very good film last week, that I had never really heard of, even though it was made in 1971, called Punishment Park, directed by Peter Watkins (who also made movies like the amazing biopic Edvard Munch).

It’s a fake documentary about a group of anti-war protestors who are put on trial by a panel consisting of corporate head, a politician, a judge, a suburban housewife, a union worker – basically The Man — versus activists of different stripes (a feminist, a pacifist, a black-power activist, and some violent militants).

After a long tribunal consisting of diatribes and shouting matches between the two sides – (with some of the defendants being restrained or even gagged for talking out of turn) they are all sentenced to absurdly long prison terms – or given the option of choosing three days in Punishment Park.

The European documentary filmmakers are allowed to record all this for their TV stations, and to follow them to Punishment Park – a bizarre obstacle course in the middle of the desert, sort of an Outward Bound, but to the death, or a proto-reality show – a “Survivor: California” – where they have three days to cross the desert until they reach an American flag on a pole. The protestors and activists are followed by armed police and soldiers chasing after them with automatic weapons. So they are caught in a trap to which there seems to be no escape.

The whole movie really looks like a documentary. It was shot on an almost square aspect ratio of 1-1.33 (the way TV news footage used to look), with the European filmmakers observing this odd American event off-camera, but staying detached as documentary makers tend to do. Watkins eventually brings himself into the story when he finally notices the absurdity and severity of the punishment – and his sees his own crew at risk. If you get a chance to see this amazing movie – hopefully it will play again at the rep cinemas — don’t miss it, it’s as compelling and a propos in 2010 as the day it was made.


Last Train Home, a Canadian documentary, directed by Fan Lixin, about migrant workers in China, follows an everyman couple in their annual pilgrimage from their sewing machines in a factory in the east to their family farm in the west. Once a year, at Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), they take a train ride from Guangdong all the way to Sichuan – it’s their only chance to see their teenage daughter and younger son.

China’s population went from 20% urban, 80% rural in 1980 to nearly a 50-50 split over just 30 years. Fan Lixin captures the enormousness of this huge, migrant population, (estimated between 100 and 300 million people) as it rushes, en masse, home for the holidays. Scenes like the ones in Guangzhou station, with a human flood of people trying to catch a train or even to get their bags on board, are great; he also caught the mood of the crowds during the massive, three-day power outage that stranded hundreds of thousands of people a few years ago.

We don’t learn that much about the migrant couple he follows except that their lives seem dingy and miserable and alienated; they even speak in a Sichuan dialect incomprehensible in eastern China. Their annual visit home is the one time they can spend time with their family. Ironically, bad relations arise between the parents (who never see their kids, but are devoting their lives to them so they can study and escape life as a peasant), and the kids themselves (especially the angry daughter) who feel they’ve been abandoned. They’re caught in the double-bind of trying to escape the farm but feeling trapped in the city.

A lot of Chinese movies in the past dealt with educated former city dwellers who had been sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution — movies like Jia Zhangke’s Platform or Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams – and long to move back to the big city again. In those films, cities are wonderful and interesting, while farms are boring and backbreaking and pointless. Life is miserable in the yellow dirt. Cities used to be the beacon of hope, farms just a bitter life to escape from.

Last Train Home, on the other hand, contrasts the polluted, miserable life in the cities with a bucolic green and beautiful view of the countryside – a sort of back-to-the-farm, idyllic vision of rural life. The viewer glories in breathtaking scenes of snow covered terraces in Sichuan, and quiet days on the farm filled with pretty insects. Cities are only for hard work (we never see the couple during their free time in Guandong), while farms are places to stand quietly and contemplate their natural beauty.

Aesthetically, you wish for more country scenes and less of the miserable, polluted, and crowded cities you’re forced to watch for most of the movie. And you wonder why anyone ever left the farm.

But Last Train Home does give a largely unseen glimpse into the family lives of Chinese migrant workers.

– Daniel Garber, February 24, 2010

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