Folk Heroes. Movies reviewed: Soul Kitchen, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, plus Joan Rivers A Piece of Work, and Toronto After Dark Festival

We’re at the hottest time of the year, the dog days of summer, and, with all the sticky, sultry weather, some people get boiled into limp submission… and others just boil over. This week, there was a Johnny Paycheck at Jet Blue Airlines, who’d had it. After being bonked on the head by a falling piece of luggage, he took to the airplane mike, and mouthed the equivalent of the old ’70’s country song “Take this job and shove it, I ain’t workin’ any more”. The flight attendant, Steven Slater, activated the airplane emergency slide, grabbed a couple cans of beer, and slid away. They’re already calling him a folk hero – someone who went with his feelings.

Well, there are some movies opening this weekend, with some very different takes on what to do with your life, including its anger and frustration. And one of them is about an actual folk hero.

Soul Kitchen

Dir: Fatih Akin

This movie is about Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), a German-Greek guy from Hamburg who owns a rundown diner in an old warehouse. One day, he’s with his rich girlfriend at a big family dinner, when something happens. A customer has complained that his soup is cold. No big deal. Except… the soup is cold gazpacho. So when the customer demands he heat it up in the microwave, the chef goes ballistic and comes out of te kitchen brandishing a cleaver.

Zinos witnesses all this and hires him on as a diner chef. The movie –aside from all the great food shots of chopping and stirring, is really about poor Zinos’s misadventures as he tries to get his restaurant and his life back in order. He has to deal with his icy girlfriend who has relocated to Shanghai; his brother, a thief and gambler on day parole who wants a job but doesn’t want to work; Socrates, an old bearded guy in a Greek fisherman’s cap who’s building a wooden boat behind the restaurant; and the various city zoning officials and real-estate speculators who seem to be teaming up to make his life miserable. And then there’s his bad back…

It’s unusual to see German movies with multi-ethnic casts and storylines – that’s an interesting change. And this cute, light German comedy has lots of scenes of diverse characters rolling with the punches, and eventually exploding. It’s an OK movie, (not a great one) with lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Actually, “Soul Kitchen” feels most like a TV sitcom pilot: Introducing all the madcap friends of the beleaguered main character who you can enjoy watching in his crazy musical restaurant, week after week…

The next movie, a biopic, is a lot more powerful.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct”

Dir: Jean-Francois Richet

Screenplay: Abdel Raouf Dafri (who wrote last year’s amazing prison gangster flick Un Prophete / A Prophet).

Jacques Mesrine, not so well known here, is a full-fledged folk hero in France, and maybe in Quebec. After serving his term with the French army in Algeria (France’s “Vietnam”) he has to move back in with his parents. His mother is demanding, his father is conciliatory and he hates them both. Jacques (or Jacky) wants pride, he wants glory.

He becomes a burglar and a thief of some renown. He can talk himself out of trouble, no prison can hold him. He’s quick with a gun, and a even quicker when there’s a chance of meeting a pretty girl. He rides sports cars, dresses in suits, and keeps a narrow military moustache. When his beautiful and fiery-tempered Spanish wife Sofia leaves him after a violent incident, he takes off for greener pastures. Soon, he’s in Montreal in the late 60’s, with a new Bonnie to his Clyde: Jeanne Schneider. And he shares Molson Ex stubbies and bottles of Canadian Club with his new best buddy, Jean-Paul Mercier from the FLQ. And when they end up in a horrific Quebec penitentiary, they vow: dehors ou mort — to get out or die trying.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is extremely rich, and epic in its scope. From the slick, period scenes of the Parisian demimonde of the 60’s, to the vast hyper-realism of Montreal – forests, bridges, ship yards, and apartment complexes — it all rings true.

The acting – especially the wiry, charismatic star Vincent Cassel, who’s made a career playing fighters and anti-heroes – is absolutely amazing. Gerard Depardieu as his gangster boss, Roy Dupuis as his Quebec friend; and the two female leads, Cecile de France, and Elena Anaya as two of his lovers — they’re all just perfect.

This is a great look at an extremely violent gangster who captured the imaginations of a generation. The movie also gives, for the first time, a stark look at the Canadian prison system in the 1970’s. Really shocking. I do recommend this movie, just be aware it’s quite violent, and it only covers the first part of Mesrine’s life. (“Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1” is coming soon.)

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed”

Dir: J Blakeson

Also opening this weekend, is a thriller I saw last year at the Toronto Film Festival.

Alice Creed is a young woman woman who is kidnapped, bound, gagged and tied to a bed by two masked men. They have a foolproof plan — to hide her in a high rise apartment, without her ever knowing who they are. Their plan is flawless… until it begins to fall apart.

Is she really a total stranger? How

can these two men trust each other? And how innocent a victim is the young woman?

As the three players in this intrigue shift alliance, blame, and loyalty, the power equation constantly changes.

Eventually it all breaks down to who gets the satchel of cash. But isn’t there some sort of unwritten rule for movies — that there can only be so many plot twists before it completely loses its point?

Spindly plot legs can’t support a story with too many heavy plot reversals, and this one has more than you can count. I liked the fact that it has a tiny cast — just the three of them — and I liked seeing Eddie Marsan (the loopy driving teacher from “Happy-Go-Lucky”: En! Ra! Ha!) in another unusual role. But the acting is better than the story. This is not terrible, but not a great one either.

And if these three movies aren’t enough, there’s a fourth one opening this weekend: “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg) a tell-all documentary about the famous stand-up comic and talk-show host.

This is a really funny movie, with lots of the comedian’s offensive one-liners. You also get to see her behind the scenes reconstructing her face and body for the audiences; and her personal struggles with her husband, daughter, agent and career. As someone who is not a fan of Joan Rivers, and had never actually seen her perform before, even on a talk show, the movie was surprisingly entertaining. I don’t like celebrity culture at all, but this is one good, funny documentary. I don’t know if Joan Rivers can ever be called a folk hero, but she’s a real piece of work.

Finally, for people who love horror, cult, action and science fiction movies, you’re in for a treat. It’s time again for the Toronto After Dark festival.

One full week of al the ninjas, zombies, aliens, robots and monsters you can stand. I haven’t seen any of the movies playing, but the titles say it all: “RoboGeisha”; “Alien vs Ninja”; “The Human Centipede”; and a new remake of the revenge classic “I Spit on your Grave”. Whoa! More scary B-movies than you can shake a stick at. And there’s a special appearance by none other than Eli Roth (who directed “Hostel” and acted in “Inglourious Basterds”) along with the cast of his latest production, “The Last Exorcism”. After Dark is also the kind of festival that attaches short films before the main feature, something that should be done more often.

Over the Top. Movies reviewed: The Square, Kick-Ass, Fritz the Cat

Why do directors try to go over the top?

I get the impression that movies that want to get noticed try to up the quotient a bit, by including more violence, especially more unexpected violence, or more sex, especially outside the mainstream, or more explicit than what you see in most mainstream movies. So people will be a bit shocked, a bit dismayed, a bit distressed. That’s nothing new. What is new is that the boundaries of what used to be shocking is so far beyond what it was a decade or even five years ago.

So the sex or violence alone isn’t enough. To really shock they want to have kids or old people, or women, or pets, either committing the violence or having it done to them; and what used to be the push for celebrities and famous actors to show more flesh on film, has now shifted to a push for actors to show explicit sex on films. What used to be a bit of blood, now is a flood.

At the same time, the openness to a broad range of opinions and language that really expanded into the mainstream in the sixties and seventies seems to have been scaled back, especially over the past decade. Dirty words are OK now; troubling ideas less so. I’m going to review three comic-book-like movies that are in some way edgy in the over-the-topness in their stories, ideas, explicitness, or language.

“The Square”, an Australian movie directed by Nash Edgerton, has more mullets than you can shake a stick at. A contractor, Raymond (David Roberts), agrees to install a large concrete square in a building development, and arranges to get a kickback from a supplier. He has a good job, success, money, marriage, big house… and even a much younger mistress, Carla (Claire van der Boom). And they all live in the same area — some in mansions, some in shacks — on the banks of a wide, bucolic river. Life’s beautiful.

But one day, Carla discovers her bearded, abusive husband has a hidden bag of slightly stained cash. Lots of it. So she manages to convince Ray to come on board her scheme of somehow stealing it – in a way that can’t be traced back to her. They secretly hire a shady guy – well actually everyone in this movie is a bit shady – to burn down the house. Of course something goes wrong. So now happy Ray has everything and everyone lined up against him.

The square he’s building is sinking; and he has to fend off his contractor, his employees, his boss, the shady arsonist, the womanizing kick-back guy, the conniving mistress, the low-life, mullet brigade colleagues of her bearded hubby, and a mystery person, sending him creepy Christmas cards telling him – “I know what you did”.

So he starts to unravel, suspecting everyone, which devolves into a series of linked, unplanned deaths. It gets stranger and stranger as the movie goes on, till the point where the audience starts cracking up at all the misguided violence. I think the director wanted to go too far… and he did. And I think the movie pulled it off.

It’s definitely a B movie (maybe a C), but it kept my attention and interest. The acting was fun, across the board, though it was hard to deeply sympathize with anyone. (I thought some of the dodgier elements looked more like espresso bar faux-hemian actors than ruthless killers.)

Finally, there are a few great, unforgettable scenes in “The Square” that make it worthwhile. A Christmas picnic in the park, with its miscommunication leading to a panicky Santa is unforgettable. For a Canadian, just seeing a Christmas party in the middle of an Aussie summer is whack.

“Kick-Ass”, which you may have heard of, (directed by Matthew Vaughan, and based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr) is a great retake of the super-hero origins-style comic book (as in Spiderman, Superman, Batman). It’s about Dave (Aaron Johnson), a High School boy who’s tired of his undesirable combination: invisible to girls, but a magnet to bullies and muggers. So after a typical round of complaining to his pals, Dave decides to do something about it.

He fashions himself a super-hero outfit from stuff he buys on-line, and practices poses and punches in front of his bedroom mirror. And he lucks out: his rescue of a man in a street fight with some hoods is captured on a cel phone and instantly goes viral – Kick-Ass is born. He gets lots of hits on his Kick-Ass Facebook, but his own life is unchanged, just full of difficult secrets. Gangsters believe he’s moving in on their territory and want to snuff him, the girl he has a crush on thinks he’s gay, and other kids everywhere are copycatting his costume.

So when he encounters some real superheroes, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), he is shocked back into reality. These real “heroes” are also amassing huge amounts of weapons and money they steal from drug dealers. And Kick-Ass is getting blamed for it.

Tiny, 12-year-old Hit Girl is like a ninja in her speed, skill and ruthlessness, with a shocking moral code different from conventional superhero comic books. She’s part of Big Daddy’s mission of vengeance. These real life super-heroes (similar to the ones in Watchmen, but done much better here) are not the good role models they used to be.

At first glance, Kick-Ass” seems like a typical teen comedy with a twist. But it’s actually a superhero action movie with great comic elements. It is morally ambiguous, extremely bloody and violent, but it does manage to avoid one annoying and pervasive element of action movies: There are no girls calling out to their boyfriends to save them. The girls in this movie follow the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model; either they’re superheroes themselves or they’re self assured regular people, who, when push comes to shove, are ready and able to fight back, to kick ass themselves. That alone makes this an above-par movie. And a reason for there to be more female scriptwriters (like Jane Goldman).

We’re in the midst of film festival season in Toronto. Coming in May, is HotDocs, follwed closely by NXNE. Right now, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival is just finishing up. One of the most interesting topics they’re covering is comics. And of those films, nothing can compare to the well-known but seldom seen on the big screen Fritz the Cat, directed by the legendary Ralph Bakshi).

Fritz the Cat was the first animated film to receive an “X” rating in the US – this was back in the early 70’s. And to understand it, you have to consider it in context, the period in which it was made. (FTC would never be made this way today.)

The story is about a hep-cat, Fritz, who’s a hip cat. (He’s a cat.) Fritz is a university student at the peak of the baby-boomers’ take on the ‘sixties, in downtown New York City. He’s sick of studying and going to classes so he embarks on a journey, to experience life. So we follow him from Washington Square Park, where he tries to pick up girls by impressing them with his lame guitar-playing.

He ends up at a pot party, which soon devolves into romping group sex in a bathtub. He later falls in with a crow, steals a car, has sex, takes drugs, and falls in with some bikers and revolutionary terrorists who want him to blow things up.

Fritz is a sort of a Cheshire cat, but dressed like a college student trying to be cool. The crows look suspiciously like the magpies Heckle and Jeckle. (This was a TV cartoon series made by Terrytoons, where Bakshi worked in the 50’s at the start of his career. I wonder if that was his inspiration.) In this movie the cats and rabbits live downtown, while the crows, well, they live in Harlem. The pigs, of course, are a bumbling team of cops — an old-timer, Ralph, and his new partner. And there are lizards, a cow who’s a biker chick, and other cats and dogs. (Black pimps? Cops as pigs? Old jews praying and complaining? Maybe in 1972 these tired stereotypes were more audacious end edgy, less cliched than now.)

Most of the characters — especially the scrunched faced men, and the big bottomed women in overalls — are icons of the great cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was also a sort of an underground comic superstar at the time. This movie captures a lot of Crumb’s relaxed hippy sexuality, but also Bakshi’s sorta terrifyingly nihilistic, and misogynistic view of a violent world. So there’s lots of tame sex, lots of music, drugs, four letter words, and very bloody, senseless death, none of which was ever seen at the time in animated American movies (but are now on the level of what you find in a few minutes of The Simpsons). Fritz the Cat is a step back into the defunct microcosm of rioting, extreme change, and anything-goes experimentation of the late 60’s and early seventies.

Will Ninjas Replace Werewolves? Ninja Assassin and Kamui

Posted in Berlin, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, Japan, Korea, Movies, Ninjas, US, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2010

Japan and Japanese period movies, usually set in the mid-19th Century, like most westerns, are often reduced to the same clichéd elements: samurai, ronin, yakuza, corrupt nobles, scheming geisha… It’s the ever-changing stories that keep them interesting.

Hollywood westerns also have their stock characters — the black hats and white hats, the saloon keepers, the sheriffs –- that they wheel out before the camera when they need them.

And movies, like anything else, go through fads. We all know that pop movies have gradually shifted popular themes, from zombies to vampires. And lots of people predict that the werewolves are pushing out vampires now.

But what about the Ninjas? Where do they stand? Will they be the next big thing? Maybe.

Ninja Assassin, a mediocre action movie, notable mainly for its ultra-bloody red, black, and white colour scheme, stars a Korean non-actor, the pop star called “Rain” as – what else? – a Ninja Assassin.

Ninja Assassin (in English)
Dir: James McTeigue

The head of a ninja academy kidnaps small children all around the world and transports them to a Himalayan mountain top’s secret hideaway. They grow up as viciously trained ninjas, the almost invisible Japanese spies and killers who wear black, who throw stars and use their swords to chop up whoever they were ordered to kill. They creep in and out like the world’s best spies, nameless, faceless, deadly. But rather than keeping its Japanese theme, this movie universalizes it. The children are of every nationality and the action takes place mainly in Berlin of all places, complete with U-bahn and curry wurst – an unexpected juxtaposition of unrelated cultures.

So it’s only as Japanese as the sliding paper screens on the sets – Ninja’s have reached international status.


Kamui (in Japanese)
Dir: Koichi Sai

Much better than Ninja Assassin is the quite amazing movie Kamui, Directed by Koichi Sai. I hope it will be released in North America this year.

As an ex-shinobi on the run, Kamui, fights a female Ninja to the death when he is still just a little boy. You can never escape the clan. He is an outcast, a hinin, and teaches himself all the secret tricks and almost magical rules of self defense just to stay alive.

14 years later he witnesses a poor fisherman, for unknown reasons, cutting the leg off a corrupt nobleman’s prized horse. Kamui helps him escape and is pulled into the conflict. He has no choice but to follow the fisherman to his boat to escape the attacking troops.

The fisherman takes him to a quaint island where life is peaceful and almost idyllic, but he must always be alert to the Ninja ghosts of his past – the shinobi agents who are sworn to execute any ex-member; and the spoiled and cruel nobleman who wants to punish everyone associated with the death of his horse.

Kamui is an amazingly beautiful and moving adaptation of a Japanese comic and shares its long and complex melodramatic plot, countless faces, and the frequent revelation of characters’ hidden secrets and acts of betrayal.

Fights are done in that old Hongkong movie style where every battle has swordsman jumping high in the air to clash blades. Fighters swing from trees like Tarzan. Although it frequently uses CGIs (computer generated images), something I usually hate, they’re all excellently done.

Watch out for Kamui.

– Daniel Garber, January 10, 2010.

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