Movie Experiences. Films Reviewed: Foxfire, Young and Beautiful PLUS Game of Thrones Exhibit at TIFF

Posted in 1950s, Bullying, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Sex Trade, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 15, 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.

photo 1 Game of Thrones, © Daniel GarberEver watched a movie on your cel phone or iPod? People do. Tiny screens are considered acceptable now. So how do they keep people coming to theatres? By giving us more bang for the buck.

More stimulation. More one-of-a-kind experiences. Movies are becoming immersive – appealing, simultaneously, to all the senses. There’s a Game of Thrones exhibit on through Sunday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, where you can Game of Thrones Exhibit TIFF photo © Daniel Garber 4sit on the throne or look at the swords and costumes up close. But, more than that, there’s a display where you don headphones and goggles, using Oculus photo 3 Game of Thrones Exhibit TIFF © Daniel GarberRift technology, and climb into a wood and metal cage. You can look all around and it feels like you’re rising off the ground in a wooden elevator on a snowy day watching people in the forest far below…amazing! Is totally immersive, experiential cinema the future?

This week, I’m looking at two movies, both dramas, about young, female characters looking for outlawed experiences. One’s about a secret girl gang in 1950s western New York; the other’s about a beautiful young woman in Paris, with a hidden identity.

Foxfire Confessions of a Girl GangFoxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (Based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates)

Dir: Laurent Cantet

It’s the 1950s, in a small town in western New York. Men hold all the money and the power. The words sexual harassment didn’t exist, and things like rape are never talked about. “Good” girls know their place and never fight back. “Bad” girls are ostracized, and tough girls are outcastes. Then something changes at the town high school. Pretty Rita (Madeleine Bisson) is harassed, humiliated and made to stay after school by a skeezie math teacher. But the working-class tough girls — Maddie, super-tough Goldie and their leader Margaret “Legs” Sadovsky (Raven Adamson) – decide to take Rita’s side. They get revenge on the teacher by publically shaming him.

The proto-feminist Legs always questions authority. Raised by a single father, she runs away from home and bunks with gentle Maddie (Katie Coseni), who narrates the movie. Wouldn’t it be great of we had friends we could always count on – no matter what? After learning revolutionary ideas2 foxfire confession of a girl gang from an old priest (Gary Reineke) – from each according to her abilities, from each according to his needs – the five girls decide to make it official. They will live by their ideals. They form a gang called Foxfire, and seal their commitment with bloody tattoos beneath their bra straps, sterilized with a splash of cheap bourbon.

Their actions start small and non- violent – just protests at pet stores, broken windows and graffiti. They intervene whenever one of them is in trouble, rescuing Maddie from her evil molesting uncle. They’re a mystery at school – who or what is Foxfire? The boys’ gangs think it must be other boys. Nobody knows. But when they go on a joy ride in a stolen car, Legs ends up in Juvie and the rest of them on probation. Is Foxfire finished?

Foxfire_Legs Raven AdamsonNo. When their terms are finished they move to a new level: co-operative living. Maddie documents it all on her portable typewriter.

They find a rundown house on the edge of town and move in together, sharing chores and pooling money. More women join the group, but they still can’t support themselves. Men hold the power and the purse strings. So they turn to extortion, using honeypot schemes to entrap married men. They decide to carry out one big crime, to get them the money they need.

This is a fascinating, novelistic picture of a girl gang. Some of the acting is great, especially Legs and Goldie (Raven Anderson and Claire Mazzerole), while others sounded stilted or unnatural at times. It’s not perfect, and it’s almost two and a half hours long. But I’m glad I saw it.

Young and Beautiful Marine Vacth (Isabelle). Courtesy of Mongrel MediaYoung And Beautiful (Jeune et Jolie)

Dir: Francois Ozon

Isabelle (Marine Vacth) is teenaged girl from a middle class family. She loses her virginity to a German boy she meets on a summer seaside holiday. But the sex is not good. She feels detached, literally, from the experience. It’s an out-of-body episode, where she casually views herself, lying on her back, having meaningless, uncomfortable sex.

Back in the city, she decides to explore that mental split. In the fall, she creates Marine Vacth (Isabelle)  Courtesy of Mongrel Mediaa separate, nighttime personality – with a different makeup, clothes and hairstyle – and sets up an online presence. Her nighttime persona secretly works in the sex trade, meeting much older men in posh hotels. Sometimes dangerous, sometimes eye-opening, occasionally with an emotional connection. She doesn’t spend any the money – she just squirrels it away. Only her gay-ish little brother suspects something is up. Her daytime-self is still virginal, inexperienced with boys. She just goes to school, studies, or chats with her school friends about dates. Her nighttime self is totally adult.

But come wintertime, she is shocked by an unexpected turn of events. Can Isabelle’s emotional maturity ever catch up to her sexual maturity?

Marine Vacth in Young & Beautiful 02 Courtesy of Mongrel MediaYoung and Beautiful follows the two sides of the gorgeous, model-like Isabelle as she navigates growing up and her troubled relationship with her own liberal mom. Simple in form – it’s divided into four parts, following the four seasons – the movie is psychologically and emotionally complex. This is a really good movie.

Foxfire and Young and Beautiful both open today (May 16, 2014) in Toronto – check your local listings; and the Game of Thrones Exhibit continues through Sunday. It’s fully booked and free, but a few rush tickets are still available.

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

I talk with Morgan White about his new documentary THE REP

Posted in Batman, Cultural Mining, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Toronto, Uncategorized, Underground by CulturalMining.com on May 25, 2013

Morgan_0695(1)Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

There used to be a repertory cinema in every town, in every neighbourhood, and near every university. Reps are the kind of theatres that play a mix of second-run, classic, cult movies, art flics, and perennial favourites… for a few bucks. They’re usually one-screen theatres, but with a constantly changing program — often two new movies each night.

But something is happening — repertory cinemas are disappearing across North America. Why? What’s going on? Well a new movie, called The Rep, which opens The Rep Crowd Watching A Movietoday in Toronto, takes a look at these theatres, focussing on one of them: Toronto’s Underground Cinema on Spadina. It’s a beautiful homage to a disappearing phenomenon. I speak with the film’s director Morgan White to find out more about it.

Tagged with: ,

March 30, 2012. Lovers in a Dangerous Time. Daniel Garber interviews May Charters about her new film

Posted in Art, Canada, Cultural Mining, Hockey, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Music, Romance, Rural, Toronto, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on March 31, 2012

May Charters and Mark Hug co-wrote, co-directed, and co-star in a new movie, Lovers in a Dangerous Time, opening next week (April 6th, 2012).

It’s a romantic drama about a Toronto woman, Allison (May Charters) a book illustrator returning to her home town in rural Creston, BC for a high school reunion.

There she meets up with her childhood friend Todd (Mark Hug). Todd’s little brother / rival is now a rising young hockey star, but Todd has failed to live up to his potential.

It’s a visually and musically really pretty, (and seldom-seen) realistic look at life in small-town, rural Canada.

I speak to May in Los Angeles by phone about how they made the film, life in a small town, bush parties, Canadian-ness, her co-star, her art, how to shoot a feature with almost no crew, and the future of independent movies.

(Opening music: Lovers in a Dangerous Time, a new version of Bruce Cockburn’s song, performed by Montreal’s JBM)

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.

 

July 8, 2011. Films Without Superheroes. Movies Reviewed: The Tree of Life, Blank City PLUS Shinsedai, Toronto After Dark, HotDocs

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.

Some people wonder, aren’t there any movies that aren’t about cartoon characters, superheroes, guns or toys? What are adults supposed to watch in the summertime? Well, don’t worry, there are films out there for everyone’s taste. This week, I’m looking at two examples of films that exist outside, or alongside, the summer blockbusters. One is an unconventional movie that some people like and some people hate; and another is an up-coming documentary about the no-wave film movement in the post-punk era of downtown New York City  in the 80’s.

But first… some news about the movie scene in Toronto.

Art films are great, but genre films are fun too. And there’s a small but amazingly entertaining film festival in the fall that shows genre movies: Horror, Supernatural, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Animation, Crime, Action, Thriller, Suspense, Cult, and Bizarre. Well, if you are (or know of) a filmmaker who has made a genre film — the kinds of moviesI just mentioned – The Toronto After Dark film festival is open for submissions, worldwide. But better send it fast: the deadline is July 22. For more information go to torontoafterdark.com

Also, the venerable Bloor Cinema, that great reparatory cinema at Bathurst and Bloor st. is about to undergo a big change. You may have noticed that it’s not showing movies right now. They’re doing much-needed renovations, but that’s not all: when it re-opens in the fall, it looks like it’s going to be the headquarters of HotDocs – the documentary film festival. Does that means we’re going to have a nice, downtown movie theatre that only shows documentary movies, all year round? We shall see… but it does mean the Bloor Cinema isn’t disappearing – it’s just taking a short rest.

And coming up later this month is the Shinsedai Film Festival, a chance to see a wide range of contemporary movies coming out of Japan, and too meet some of the filmmakers who will be speaking at the screenings. It’s at the JCCC – the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, up near Don Mills and Eglinton from the 21st to the 24th. For more information go to jccc.on.ca .

Now some reviews.

First, the movie I said some people like and some people hate:

The Tree of Life

Dir: Terrance Mallick

(SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to talk about the entire movie. But I don’t think this is a movie that can be spoiled by understanding what it’s about.)

This is a movie about an American family – a mother, a father, and three sons – back in the late 1950’s. They live in a wooden house in Waco, Texas. The father (Brad Pitt), an inventor, is having trouble getting ahead. He sees the world as cruel, rough, and competitive, and wants to make his sons into tough fighters who survive against all odds. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is deeply religious, a spiritual, charitable and nurturing protector. And the eldest son, Jack, (Hunter McCracken) takes it all in, but since he’s a kid, it all gets messed up in his head. He decides his father hates him and wants him dead, while he’s sexually excited by his beautiful mother – with all the guilt and shame that entails. Oedipus, anyone?

At the very beginning of the movie, we discover that one of the three sons has died. So the rest of the film shows us the memories, whispered thoughts and fantasies of all the other characters thinking back from the present to earlier times.

The story seems mainly to be told through Jack’s eyes, but the voices and thoughts of other characters weave in and out, too. When he wants to remember his now dead brother — whose faintly glowing soul appears at the start of every section of the movie — he thinks back to the very beginning – I mean the very, very beginning. At this point, the movie goes off on an unusual, but pleasant detour, back to the creation of the earth, with volcanoes, lava, ice, and water everywhere. Spiro gyra swim in the primordial ooze, and gradually cells separate, merge and evolve. It looks like an old NFB or Birth-Of-An-Island clip, or a grade 8 film strip. Only so much better.

All to the sounds of Smetana and Mahler. Water crashes down over cliffs, and cute, fuzzy dinosaurs appear until they’re all wiped out by an asteroid. And then a baby – one of the brothers — is born.

Aside from that — and a mega-FAIL yucky beach montage toward the end — the movie is mainly about a few years in the young family’s life as the kids grow up alongside a sapling in their yard – the tree of life – that turns into a huge, twisted and towering tree by the end. The very long memory scenes are book-ended by the eldest son looking back from the present day.

Is it a good movie? I thought it was great! But it’s an art film drama – don’t go if you’re looking for a mainstream conventional Brad Pitt love story. There’s not much dialogue, and the storytelling is a bit more subtle than formulaic dramas. But it’s not a low-budget run-off either; it’s a sumptuous, beautiful, and moving story of the confused memories of one boy’s childhood in Texas.

A totally different type of movie, but also experimental is a documentary about the indie movie scene in NY City in the late seventies and early eighties.

Blank City

Dir: Celine Danhier

Before the real estate explosion, manhattan was a gritty, edgy place filled with crumbling tenements, lurking muggers, and random shootings.

Artists, writers and musicians fled from small towns and suburbs across the country to live in a more dangerous, more exciting world. They shared a feeling of nihilism, living as if the world was about to be obliterated by late-cold

-war atomic bombs blowing up across the planet. Large parts of the Lower East Side and Alphabet city were completely uninhabitable and bombed out, with broken windows, and missing doors. Nina, a Yugoslavian woman I used to know, lived on 3rd and B, and you had to walk over a giant piece of wood nailed halfway across the door of her closet-like apartment even to get inside. She was squatting there since no one anted to go near those buildings anyway.

Now, of course, Manhattan is a giant shopping mall, with Times Square – formerly the place for runaways, hustlers, porn, prostitutes, pot dealers, and petty crime – now features tourist traps like the Disney princess store, and the M&Ms gift shop.

Against the post-apocalyptic look of Dangerous Manhattan arose the No Wave movement, where filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Lizzie Borden, Susan Seidelman, and Richard Kern used their super-8 black and white cameras to create transgressive, sexually explicit, short films. Part of the coolness was to be poor, on the edge, anti-corporate, shocking, and completely divorced from conventional life. In order to appear as the absolute antithesis of slick and plastic hollywood movies, they went the opposite direction with unrehearsed, raw (if stilted) dialogue, rough editing, and scratchy sound. John Lurie says he had to hide his skill as a trained musician – you had to be unskilled and amateur to be accepted as “real”.

A doctrine, known as the Cinema of Transgression, served as their guide to subvert… well, everything. The movies themselves were just as likely end up being shown at a punk club as in a movie theatre.

This documentary, Blank City, is a visual explosion of countless short clips of those films, alternated with present day interviews with some of the actors, musicians, artists and filmmakers of the period.

So you see Debbie Harry popping up almost everywhere, people dressed like RAF terrorists blowing up buildings, and lots of weird, semi-out-of-focus sex and violence. All with punk, new wave, early hip-hop and experimental music. This is a great movie that captures that short, explosive period of wide-open but underground filmmaking in the 80’s.

Tree of Life is now playing, and Blank City starts next Friday, July 15 at the Royal: check your local listings.

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

Is Toronto Broken? Movies Reviewed: This Movie is Broken, Thomas Pynchon: a Journey into the Mind of P

Do you ever get the feeling the city is broken? That everything is splitting apart at the seams? A honking parade of cars promoting exuberant football nationalism every time a ball enters a net half a world away, bringing traffic to a halt for a half a day with whistles, buzzing vuvuzelas and rhythmic car horns. And south of there, something more sinister: rows of riot police securitizing the crowned heads from potential cherry bombs, demanding photo ID’s from subway riders and arresting people as they come out for resembling someone “described in an anonymous phone call, ma’am”.

And making sure nobody gets too close to the downtown Freedom Fence. Yup, the G-20 is in town. Aah… I love the smell of teargas in the morning.

What to do? Well, you can always rub that magic lantern and end up at a movie. And if you’re feeling really rebellious, go to an indie movie in an underground movie theatre. Escapism does have a purpose after all.

One movie that seems especially appropriate is called “This Movie is Broken: a Rock Show Romance”, directed by Bruce McDonald (who did Road Kill, Hard Core Logo, and Pontypool), and written by Don McKellar. I caught it at last week’s NXNE music festival.

This is a totally Toronto movie, a concert film shot last summer, featuring Broken Social Scene, with a bunch of guest musicians all up on a stage at Harbourfront. But it’s also a very low key “boy meets girl” story.

The guy (Greg Calderone) tells his best buddy that he just woke up in bed, not with just anyone, but with the woman he had a crush on as a nine year old. His ultimate crush. Pretty, sophisticated Caroline (Georgina Reilly) is studying anthropology in Paris. Can you believe it? His blonde bearded buddy (played by Kerr Hewitt, wearing what a friend of mine refers to as an ironic hat) gets him to play up his status. When Caroline says she’s too busy to hang out that night, he casually says that’s too bad, cause I coulda got us a back stage pass at the Broken Social Scene concert. Oh yeah? says Caroline. That’s what I’m busy doing tonight. Oops. So he has to somehow get her into the concert by hook or by crook. Like I said, it’s a concert movie and a lightweight romance.

But I thought it went together perfectly. I’m not a follower of the band, so as an outsider – not a music critic or a fan of the group – I really enjoyed, and was totally entranced by the performances. This is one of those cases where just the story would have been too silly, and just the concert would have been too concert-y for me, but the sum total was just right.

Interestingly, the movie was shot last summer during the contract dispute (between the city government and the public workers, when no garbage was collected and it was deposited instead in city parks and baseball diamonds, with the garbage mountains reaching epic proportions). So it’s good, gritty, scenic Toronto. Since we survived that we can survive this, too.

Another movie I stumbled upon at NXNE, that should be easy to find online — it was made nine years ago. It’s a German/Swiss documentary: “Thomas Pynchon: a Journey into the Mind of P.”, directed by Donatello and Fosco Dubini.

This is a weird one! Pynchon is the guy who wrote the momentous tome Gravity’s Rainbow, and the more compact novel with the shorter name V. His books, and the movie itself, covers the huge, disturbing themes and incidents that obsessed people in the 69’s and 70’s: The Cuban Missile Crisis, the cold war, The assassination of JFK, the Vietnam war, LSD, the CIA, rockets to the moon… stuff like that. So, naturally, an obsessive cult has sprung up around this writer. What does he look like? Where does he live? Pynchon is known as a recluse who has never had his picture taken and whose personal information is kept, well, private.

So, apparently, urban legends about the guy abound. Did he use to dress up as a woman to go to bookstores unrecognized? Did he meet Lee Harvey Oswald on a crucial airplane trip? What’s his real connection to Timothy Leary? And the CIA? And who really showed up to accept the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow?

And in the background to all these strange unexplained mysteries is footage of subway rides sped up, and music slowed down featuring The Replacements. Warped 60’s pop hits slowed down and distorted till they sounds like this: Yummy Yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy… and C’mon baby light my fire… but stuck in tar. And then a train goes into a tunnel… I wonder that means? It’s a strange, low-budget, pop culture documentary about the followers of the Pynchon cult, and worth seeing.

But if you want some real escapism, to get away from it all, there are two new places in Toronto to do that. First, there will be two days of free movies at Carlton and Yonge street in the theatre there. It used to be the Cineplex Carlton, but closed a while back, and is now being re-opened as the Magic Lantern Carlton Theatre. It’s part of the same chain that operates the Rainbow Theatres, which are a little cheesy but a lot of fun, and always packed with students on a budget – they charge lower prices than the big chains, but show first-run movies on the old Cineplex-style small screens.

So now’s your chance to see all the ones you wanted to catch – academy award nominees, good kids movies, foreign films – all at one place. You can see Sarah Polley’s movie Away from Her, based on an Alice Munroe story about Alzheimers, the really great animated Fantastic Mr Fox, The Japanese movie Departures, about funerals, Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, and even How to Train your Dragon – an animated kids movie about a Viking kid who meets a dragon, but a really good one that all ages can enjoy.

I liked it.

Another movie theatre that recently opened downtown is the aptly named Toronto Underground Cinema. I last went to that theatre when it was the Golden Harvest, one of the last Chinese language movie houses – it’s at 186 Spadina, north of Queen. I still remember watching a Hong Kong zombie comedy (zom-com) where they put on the third reel of the film right after the first reel – and no one noticed for a while, everyone just thought the plot was a bit jumpy.

The theatre still has that slightly off-beat, don’t-know-what-to-expect feel about it. The Toronto Underground is deep underground, literally. It’s a nice big place, good stage and screen, popcorn, and cool old plumbing fixtures. The three guys who run this theatre program everything from amazing documentaries like “Gasland”, to cult classics like “Lady Terminator”, to present-day schlock like “MacGruber”.

They seem to be reviving the double feature – putting together two good movies that go together. If you’re in the mood this weekend, and really want to escape, what could be better than “Hot Tub Time Machine” matched with “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. Toronto Underground is another theatre that attracts noisy and fun audiences ready to hoot and holler at the good parts.

This city is not broken at all  —  you just have to know where to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Demise of the Velvet Curtain

Posted in 3-D, Action, Avatar, Crank: High Voltage, Hitchcock, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Uncategorized, US, Velvet Curtain by CulturalMining.com on February 13, 2010

Everyone says that movies are going through a major change these days. I’m not so sure. Some people think that the big change is in their speed. The pace of movies is much more frenetic – and viewers have a lower attention span than they used to. So you get movies like Crank: High Voltage, a comic action movie from last summer about a British gangster who has to keep recharging the batteries in his artificial heart. Older action movies don’t have the speed and the special effects of newer ones. Hitchcock thrillers like North by Northwest — with airplane chases in corn fields and fight scenes on Mt Rushmore — are just not as impressive as they used to be. It’s simple enough now to have a herd of CGI elephants run across the screen, even for a cheap laugh.

But whether or not chase scenes are gradually speeding up their space, and are flashier, speedier, noisier, they’re still more or less the same. It’s just a matter of degree.

Other people point to the new technology available to audiences, saying: “After Avatar, all movies are going to be 3-D… And using video-game style animation!” I can safely say, that ain’t gonna happen. These kind of movies may become more frequent — as long as 3-D movies make money they’ll keep making them — but I doubt this will amount to a fundamental change in the nature of movies.

But I’d like to talk about one small detail that seems to be completely disappearing from the “movie experience” after 90 or 100 years, something that outlived silent movies, black and white movies, movies on film. But I’m not talking about something in the movie itself, but something outside the movie, in front of the movie.

There has been a subtle change in the past few years. One, seemingly superficial part of the movies is fading away. I’m speaking of the Velvet Curtain.

The what?

Traditionally, after the trailers, but before the movie begins, a curtain is lowered or pulled shut, only to reopen after the film starts to roll. So the first image of any film is the luxuriousness of curtains distorting the projected image, soon replaced by the crisper look of film directly on the screen.

You know when a movie is starting by the opening of the curtain, and when it’s over by its closing.

I don’t know for sure why it started. Perhaps a curtain was needed to replicate the vaudeville or stage theatres that were their main competition. In fact, many movie theatres used to share their screens with newsreels, cartoons, shorts, and B-movies in double features – so the opening of the curtain before the main movie gave it a sense of majesty.

Many theatres are now inserting a metaphorical curtain before the movie, a 3-D -looking commercial celebrating the magic and adventure of that chain’s cinemas – plants growing around the seats, shooting stars and rainbows in the sky, teenagers excitedly drinking cups of cola – but it doesn’t do it for me. And they haven’t even tried to find a replacement for the equally important closure at the end of a movie.

I’m not nostalgic, but I do regret the slow demise of this cinematic gesture, this "Amen", now in its death throes.

– Daniel Garber, February 12, 2010.

Blurring the Boundaries: Chains vs Indie Rep Cinemas

Posted in Cultural Mining, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on January 30, 2010

I like movies and I’m no purist as to what makes a movie. And even if you base it on a 70’s TV show (like the very funny the Brady Bunch Movie), or a kids toy (like the so-so Transformers), or even a video game (like the awful Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) they’re still all movies…more or less.

But while movies change, movie theatres have stayed more or less the same. At least in my lifetime. And one thing I thought was unchanging is that chain movie theatres did one thing, and indie rep cinemas did something else.

Mainstream movie theatres show new, first run, studio movies; rep cinemas show second run movies, or classics. Big theatre chains are a bit pricey, reps are a bit cheaper. Right? Well, it looks like something strange is happening in Toronto, and it’s getting very hard to tell one from the other.

So, in Toronto, The Royal, a rep cinema, is showing first-run European and Asian movies, like Police: Adjective and so is the Bloor, with films like Revanche. First run! And charging premium prices for them. I can live with that. It’s been heading that way for awhile.

But here’s something I’ve never, ever seen before. Now Cineplex is showing a series of old movies, all well known, mainly from the 70’s, 80‘s and 90’s, in early February. And charging 5 bucks a pop. Ok, they’re digital, so they’ll look a bit different (worse, in my opinion), but these are all movies I know from the reps: Close Encounters, The Godfather, The Shining, Die Hard.

What’s going on? Are they allowed to peach old movies, their mainstays, from the reps? Is that fair? Meanwhile, they’re also showing live Operas. I didn’t go to that, but people of my parents generation saw Carmen and loved it — a couple hundred thousand people, all over the world. Which is what people used to do… but they watched live shows on TV, not in movie theatres. And, before you think movie chains are altruistically raising the bar by sponsoring high culture, realize that has nothing to do with it. They’re just trying to find what puts bums in seats. Bums in seats — that’s the motivation. Next in line after the opera? Pro-wrestling.

And the reps are showing live performances, hosting film festivals… so that’s what I mean when I say the borders are blurring.

This is in the movie theatres, but something else is happening, something that I find really hard to fathom. I recommended a movie to some friends, and ran into one of them.

“So? Did you see it?”

“Oh yeah, it took three days, but I finally found it online, and downloaded it. It was in Romanian and it had Chinese subtitles, and it stopped playing after 40 minutes…”

Why can’t people just go to a movie theatre? Isn’t there something to be said for a nice crowded theatre filled with people laughing or hooting just generally enjoying themselves watching it on a big screen? And people are going back to the movies. Maybe it’s because of Avatar — it only takes one big hit to bring the people back — but whatever the reason, I’ve been seeing even second- and third-rate movies selling out. So tear yourselves away from your laptop screens and join the rest of the world, and go see some crummy movies. Come on. They’re fun.

– Daniel Garber, January 28, 2009

%d bloggers like this: