Women on the move. Films reviewed: Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Light of My Life, The Kitchen

Posted in 1970s, comedy, Crime, Drama, L.A., New York City, Peru, post-apocalypse, psychedelia, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 9, 2019

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

Who says exciting movies are always about men? This week, I’m looking at three movies about girls and women facing danger in unusual places. There’s a pre-teen girl surviving post-apocalyptic America; a teenager exploring the jungles of Peru; and a gang of middle-aged housewives fighting back in Hell’s Kitchen.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dir: James Bobin

Dora (Isabela Moner) is a smart and friendly 16 year old girl. She was brought up by her academic parents (Eva Langoria, Michael Peña) in the jungles of Peru, where she made friends with all the animals – especially Boots, a monkey. Now her parents want to discover the legendary ruins of Parapata, an Incan city of gold – not as treasure hunters, but as explorers. But it could be dangerous. So they send her to stay with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) in far off LA. But life at Silverlake High is not what she expected. Despite her relentless positivity, students tease her for her childlike un-coolness.

Diego finds her embarrassing. Student president Sammy (Madeleine Madden) scorns her as a rival. Only astronomy nerd Randy (Nicholas Coombe) likes her. But when she is kidnapped and flown back to Peru, along with Randy, Sammy and Diego. it’s up to Dora to escape the bad guys – including mercenary treasure hunters and a masked fox named Swiper – rescue her friends, and find the Incan ruins of Parapata.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a very cute take on the popular educational kids show. It’s simultaneously a tongue-in-cheek satire of the original cartoon, and a deadpan recreation of it. Boots and Swiper are there in CGI, but there’s no talking backpack. It’s primarily for kids, but there’s lots of laughs for grownups – like a psychedelic drug scene and a bit of romance. There’s even a song about how to dig a hole to bury your poop when camping in the woods. I saw it with a 50%-toddler audience who loved it. I liked it, too.

Light of My Life

Dir: Casey Affleck

Rag (Anna Pniowsky) is a tough, outdoorsy girl going camping with her dad (Casey Affleck). She’s a preteen with short hair dressed in boyish clothes. He tells her bible stories to put her to sleep. Thing is, they’re not camping for fun. A terrible plague wiped away half the world’s population – the female half – right when she was born. So rag, short for raggedy ann, grew up in an all-male world. leaving only men and some boys. Her dad is terrified about what might happen to her – men can’t be trusted. So they live in a perpetual state of seclusion and escape. He never sleeps. He teaches her how to spell – she reads voraciously – and about the birds and the bees.

They find an empty house and move in, but Dad is terrified when she tries on girls clothes. But when they find an isolated house populated only by bible-thumping grandpas, he thinks they might finally live a normal life. Can the one of the last girls on earth lead a normal life? And will her dad ever relax?

Light of My Life is a low-budget drama about the love between a father and a daughter in extreme circumstances. It’s filled with long scenes of flashlight-lit dialogue in lush, moss-filled forests, punched with occasional bursts of fear and violence. Anna Pniowsky is fantastic as Rag, and Affleck is good as her conflicted father.

I just wonder… what is the point of this movie? That girls in an all-male world will still gravitate to their own gender expression? That guns, bible, and the family are the only things we can trust? This is a zombie movie without zombies, and not nearly as good as Leave No Trace (about a dad and daughter living off the grid). This movie is not bad, just not that great or original.

The Kitchen

Dir: Andrea Berloff

It’s 1978 on a hot summer’s night in Hell’s Kitchen. Claire, Cathy and Ruby are three working class women waiting to hear from their husbands, gangsters with the Irish mob. Cathy (Mellissa McCarthy) is happily married with two young kids. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), originally from Harlem, is an outsider who doesn’t get along with her matriarchical mother-in-law (Margo Martindale). And Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is just a punching bag for her abusive husband. But when their husbands get jailed by the Feds, they find themselves with no money, no income and few prospects for work. So they decide to take over their husbands’ jobs.

Though untrained, they seem to have a knack for collecting protection payments from local stores. And when they fight off rivals within their husbands’ gang, they become “queenpins” of the neighbourhood. Cathy does the talking, Ruby collects the bucks, and Claire finds new strength in doing “the messy stuff” – shooting, killing, and getting rid of dead bodies. She’s tutored in these skills by Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a ginger-haired hitman with a history. Their business expands northward and southward, with graft, extortion and prostitution. But can they handle the disloyal members of their gang, powerful Mafia dons from Brooklyn, and FBI agents on their tail? And what will happen when their husbands get out of jail?

The Kitchen is a brilliant new twist on the classic gangster movie, with three women rising up in a dog-eat-dog world. Based on a comic, it’s full of love, compassion, violence and intrigue. McCarthy and Haddish are comic actors but convincing in their serious roles, and Moss and Gleeson are even better.There are some missteps. Could working-class financially-strapped women in the late 1970s have no experience working? And some bizarre references to Gloria Steinem and “feminism” seem totally out of line. (There’s no feminist solidarity here; these are three criminals clawing their way to the top.) And the ending is lacklustre. But altogether this is a beautifully shot, fast-moving story that’s fun to watch. The Kitchen is a great crime drama, with women in the lead.

The Kitchen, Light of My Life, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Getting away. Level 16, Triple Frontier, The Panama Papers

Posted in Action, Adoption, documentary, drugs, Heist, Morality, post-apocalypse, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 8, 2019

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

It’s international Women’s Day, a great time to check out some movies directed by women. If you haven’t seen the great Colombian film Birds of Passage, see it now. And Objects of Desire, a retrospective of French master Claire Denis’s films is also playing now at TIFF. She’s one of my favourites.

This week I’m looking at people trying to get away with something. We’ve got orphan girls running for their lives, war vets running off with sacks of loot, and journalists rushing to publish the biggest data dump in history

Level 16

Wri/Dir: Danishka Esterhazy

Vivien and Sophia are two teenagers at an all-girls boarding school for orphans. They wear identical uniforms: skirts, shirts and ties during the day, and floor-length cotton gowns at night. Classes consist of B&W educational films from the 1950s shown on flatscreen TVs. Their teacher, the strict but beautiful Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), visits each unit to teach them feminine virtues like cleanliness, subservience, obedience and silence. And their most important exams are not about reading or math but applying cold cream to their cheeks and taking their vitamins.

They live under a panopticon with surveillance cameras recording every move and thedisembodied voice of a Doctor (Peter Outerbridge) who tells them what to do. They’ve never been outside this drab institution, since the air and sunlight out there are “hazardous”. Besides, it’s important to stay pretty and clean so a nice family will adopt them some day. And now that they’re at Level 16, that someday is coming soon.

Headstrong Vivien (Katie Douglas) is excited to hear she might be leaving this place; she’s been counting the days. But all her hopes and dreams are shattered when the nearsighted Sophia (Celina Martin) tells her a secret: don’t swallow the vitamins! When Vivien takes her advice she is shocked by what she finds out. The “vitamins” are actually sedatives and what happens to their limp bodies at night is not nice at all. What is this place? Why are they there? What is it like outside its walls? And can they ever escape?

Level 16 is a scary and weird speculative fiction look at a distopian future as seen through the eyes of teenaged girls. It’s full of strange anomalies: why do the guards speak Russian? Where did all these fake-happy educational film clips come from?  Does this movie take place in the past… or in the future? It feels like a cross between Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale.  It’s a low budget film shot on a single location (and one that is bland, industrial and and claustrophobic to look at), but it had enough shocking twists to keep me fascinated until the end.

Triple Frontier

Dir: JC Chandor

Santiago (Oscar Isaac) is a paramilitary cop working in an unnamed Latin American country. His police team raids low level drug traffickers… but they are also on the take. Any witness who tries squeal on Lorea’s — the fugitive drug kingpin — whereabouts is immediately executed to keep him quiet. But Santiago (an American) has his own informant in Lorea’s HQ. He discovers for himself where the big man is hiding. Rumour has it there are millions in cash just sitting in the jungle, waiting to be taken. So he flies back to the States to meet with his former special-ops army buddies. They loved their time in the military, but it hasn’t treated them well as veterans.

Miller (Charlie Hunnam) is a low-level army recruiter with a bad goatee who delivers the same speech over and over. Davis (Ben Affleck) tries to support a teenaged daughter from a failed marriage with the pittance he earns flogging condos. Morales (Pedro Pascal) is a helicopter pilot whose license was taken away for drug offenses. And Ben (Garrett Hedlund), Miller’s brother, is an MMA cage fighter — not a great long-term career plan.

Santiago says, let’s get what the government never gave us but that we deserve: millions in cold hard cash. And don’t worry, it’s a flawless plan. Sure enough, the heist works great. In fact, it works too well. They are faced not with millions of dollars but hundreds of millions, far too heavy for them to carry. Their momentary greed makes their exit plan impossible. Can they lug their bags of loot through the jungle, over a mountain pass and down to a the ocean (through the multinational “triple frontier” of the title)? Or will mother nature – and the vengeful locals who inhabit it – kill them first?

Triple Frontier has strikingly beautiful scenery, famous-name actors and a well known director and scriptwriter. So how come it sucks?

Well, it’s a boring and sexless buddy action flick with inane, bro dialogue: I got your back… I love you man… we deserve this. Do you really care if they get away with the money they stole? More than that, it reeks of exceptionalism. It’s co-written by Mark Boal, who brought us the vile Zero Dark Thirty, a movie which said we Americans are always the good guys, torture is useful and all Muslims are potential terrorists. For this movie just substitute drug traffickers for terrorists, and South Americans for Muslims. Almost every person they encounter is corrupt, dangerous, and out to kill us. It’s up to our heroic soldiers to stop these caravans of latino drug traffickers from invading our border.

OK, I admit there is a good chase scene near the beginning, but the rest of it is a total waste of two hours and five minutes.


The Panama Papers

Wri/Dir: Alex Winter

It’s 2016 in Munich, Germany. Bastian Obermayer, an investigative journalist at the Süddeutcher Zeitung receives a mysterious message. A whistleblower calling himself John Doe says he has some information to send him. But because of its importance and sheer volume he has to be sure his identity is kept secret and the information gets released, What is this information, where did it come from, and why is it so important? The data leak is from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama law firm known for its secrecy. Their clients include both organized crime and upstanding world leaders all hiding their money so they don’t pay taxes. The amount of money lost in taxes worldwide is stupendous: it’s the reason social services have been cut and why the wealth distribution gap between the ultra rich and everybody else is the highest it’s been in a century.

The Panama Papers tells this story through the eyes of the journalists involved in its release. It feels like a chapter of All the Presidents Men, but on a much bigger scale. The papers were shared – in secret! – with over 300 investigative journalists worldwide. And the outcome and blowback that followed changed the world. The Prime Minister of Iceland, top figures in FIFA, Argentina, Pakistan and Spain were forced to resign. Others in Russia, the US and Syria were also implicated in the multinational scandal. And top journalists like Malta’s Daphne Gaizia, were murdered because of their role in exposing these crimes.

The Panama Papers is a great documentary that churns politics, investigative journalism and conspiracies into a potent brew.

The Panama Papers is now playing at Hotdocs Cinema, you can catch Triple Frontier’s stunning cinematography on the big screen before it moves to Netflix, and Level 16 opens next Friday; 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.

Dark Summer Movies. Films reviewed: It Comes At Night, Awakening the Zodiac, My Cousin Rachel

Posted in Cultural Mining, Gothic, Horror, Movies, Mystery, post-apocalypse, Psychological Thriller, Romance, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 9, 2017

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

Even on the hottest summer day, it still gets dark at night. So this week I’m looking at some dark summer movies. We’ve got rednecks stalking a serial killer, an aristocrat falling for a black widow, and an ordinary family fighting an unknown plague.


It Comes at Night

Wri/Dir: Trey Edward Shults

Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a 17-year-old boy who lives with his parents in a huge wooden house in the woods. He sneaks around the dark halls and passageways late at night when he should be sleeping. He’s an insomniac plagued with strange dreams. And there’s a reason for his nightmares. A terrible disease – like Ebola mixed with small pox – is killing almost everybody and no one knows how it spreads. That’s why his parents Paul and Sarah (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo) fled the city and moved into this abandoned and isolated house. They are well equipped with gas masks, water purifiers… and guns, if they need them. They boarded up all the windows and doors except one: a red door that opens into a mud room.

One night, they hear a noise from behind the red door. It’s a young man covered in dirt (Christopher Abbott). Is he a thief or an innocent family man? And is he infected? Sam beats him up and leaves him to die tied to a tree with a bag over his head. But when he’s still alive the next day, he lets Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their little boy to move in with them. But can they be trusted? And are they clean?

Don’t be misled by the title. It Comes at Night is not a conventional horror movie with scary monsters; ordinary people who discard conventional morality when faced with extreme circumstances. It feels like a zombie movie, but without the zombies. It’s violent and disturbing but without the expected triumph or disaster. Great acting, amazingly shot with indoor scenes all lit by the glowing lanterns the characters carry. It has an almost surreal feel to it, as it switches between Travis’s fears, dreams and sexual fantasies and the horrible reality if his post-apocalyptic life. See this if your looking for a spooky and violent art house drama.

Awakening the Zodiac

Dir: Jonathan Wright

Mick and Zoe (Shane West, Leslie Bibbe) are a neerdowell couple living in a trailer park in rural Virginia. They drive a rusty pickup looking for work to improve their lot in life. For Mick this usually means a get-rich-quick scheme with his good buddy Harvey (Matt Craven). Their current plan? Treasure hunting in delinquent storage spaces: you pay a few hundred bucks to take ownership of the contents. And Harver thinks they’ve struck gold in the form of stacks of 8mm films dating back to the sixties. He’s uncovered the personal footage of an infamous serial killer known for his brutal murders and the cryptic messages he sent to the police. Zodiac disappeared in 1968, never heard from again. But there’s still a $100,000 reward in his head. Zoe, Mick and Harvey want the big bucks but first they must prove the storage locker belongs to Zodiac. Can they find the evidence they need before the killer finds them?

Awakening the Zodiac is a corny horror/thriller. It has some scary parts and a few shocks, and the main characters are likeable. Unfortunately it gets bogged down by a ridiculous plot and rusty script. Would a genius serial killer save all the evidence of his crimes and then forget about it? If you found valuable films wouldn’t you rather sell them than stalk a serial killer? (But I guess there’d be no movie) Even the 8 mm selfies look like what people make nowadays, not what a serial killer would have shot in the sixties. The biggest problem is when we finally discover who the killer is, he or she is just not scary enough. Save this one for late night TV.

My Cousin Rachel

Dir: Roger Michell (Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier)

Victorian England. Philip (Sam Claflin) is a young aristocrat with a fiery temper not given to fancy words and deep thoughts. He lives in a stately mansion in the English countryside. An orphan, he was brought up by his much older cousin Ambrose, his finances handled by his godfather. He is deeply loyal to these two surrogate fathers and is expected to marry his longtime friend Louise (Holliday Grainger) his godfather’s daughter. He spends his time galloping through the rolling hills, steep cliffs and sandy beaches of his vast estate.

Philip is lord of the manor, but works alongside his servants and tenant farmers at harvest time. But things take a turn for the worse when his ailing cousin Ambrose writes him from Italy that his wife Rachel Ashley (Rachel Weisz) is trying to kill him! Before he can rescue him, his cousin dies and Rachel shows up unannounced. Full of hatred and vowing revenge, Philip confronts the murderous witch. He expects a crone with a wart on her nose. Instead, she’s a charming and sophisticated older woman with dark good looks even shrouded in widow’s weeds.

Philip falls madly in love, throwing money, family jewels and even the estate he’s due to inherit at age 25, if only she’ll marry him. She kisses him by candlelight even as she concocts odd tasting tisanes for him to drink. Is she killing him or nursing him back to health? Is she a serial killer and con artist, or merely a woman trying to secure her future? And is Philip the victim or an abusive lover who expects to possess whatever woman he desires?

My Cousin Rachel is an old fashioned gothic romance, complete with beautiful costumes, stunning scenery, authentic songs and a realistic, modern take on English country life. It’s based on a novel from the 1950s, but to modern audiences, parts seem out of date, like Philip’s ridiculous naïveté. The movie starts slowly but eventually gets really good with some shocking twists and turns toward the end.

It Comes at Night, Awakening the Zodiac, and My Cousin Rachel all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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


Mind Twisters. Movies reviewed: A Field in England, Divergent, Nymph()maniac (Parts 1 and 2)

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.

Brain teasers, mind-bogglers. This week I’m bringing you some real brain-twisting films. There’s a sci-fi-action-romance about a young woman caught in a futuristic caste-system determined by personality; a Euro comedy/drama about sex; And an absurdist British period piece about … I’m not quite sure what.

A Field in England Poster stacks_image_236A Field in England

Ben Wheatley

It’s 17th Century England in a field near Norwich. The civil war is raging. Three scruffy wanderers end up travelling together. They are heading toward a legendary alehouse where all their problems will be solved, all their differences will disappear. But things get complicated when O’Neal, a tall, sinister man, appears — seemingly out of nowhere — with a nasty henchman. The necromancer’s servant (one of the three travellers), tries to arrest O’Neal. But a warrant without a musket to back it up isn’t worth much in an English field. Instead, O’Neal press gangs the three men to dig for treasure. At least I think that’s the plot, but I’m not exactly sure.

People in this movie appear, disappear, die, un-die, turn into wooden posts, and drop magic mushrooms into unwatched soup pots.

Shot in beautiful black and white, with excellent contemporary experimental music, it leaves me scratching my head. Is it all just an acid trip by men wearing three-cornered hats in an historic battle reenactment? I cannot say. But it definitely belongs in the movie file labeled “WTF”.


Dir: Neil Burger

It’s Chicago a hundred years in the future. Society is divided into five castes, each with its own rules. Erudite is for the intelligent professionals who wear Wall Street suits. Abnegation is where the sympathetic and selfless helpers go — they control the government. And Dauntless is for the paramilitary – brave and aggressive.

Young Tris’s family (Shailene Woodley) is Abnegation. They wear beige, meditate, and eat whole grains. Tris only looks in the mirror for a few seconds each day. But when she attains age of majority and takes the annual test — to determine personality and faction – something strange happens. The test doesn’t work on her – it can’t assign her to a particular faction. This could mean she’s “Divergent” — someone who displays a personality that transcend a single type. And if the authorities find out, they’ll kill her.

To everyone’s surprise, she ends up joining Dauntless, trading beige burlap Divergent Theo Jamesfor black leather. She eats her first hamburger. She and the other Dauntless newbies are thrust into a world of violent, brutal competition, runaway L-trains and parkour jumping. She answers to a sadistic trainer Eric (Jai Courtney). Only her new best friends like Chris (Zoe Kravitz) help her hang on. But when she meets a Dauntless named Four (Theo James) is it love at first sight?

Divergent Kate WinsletIn order to stay in the faction she has to pass a series of tests that subject her to her worst phobias — her mind is read and recorded by a computer. Tris has to keep reminding herself: it’s not real.Will her secret be revealed?  Is Erudite, headed by Jeanine (Kate Winslet) plotting against the Abnegation faction? Is Four on her side? And will he ever understand how much Tris loves him?

Although Divergent occasionally veers into Twilight territory, with a few too many dewy-eyed moments, it mainly sticks to plot, action and great special effects. I liked it: a simple but neat concept, great special effects, and Shailene Woodley and Theo James are good as a team of romantic fighters.



Dir: Lars von Trier

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is lying half dead in a dark alley, when an elderly intellectual (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her. He takes her into his home and nurses her back to health. She says she’s a nymphomaniac. And she proceeds to tell him the story of her life;  specifically, the sexual parts.

The stories she tells are based on the pictures she sees on the wall of his room. Is Nymphomaniac 13 photo by Christian Geisnaesshe an unreliable narrator? Maybe, but her stories are fun to watch.

Her first orgasm makes her levitate and leads to a visit by the Virgin Mary. (The Whore of Babylon, says Seligman.)

Later, she intentionally loses her virginity to a man named Jerome (Shia LeBoeuf). She describes it like this:  first I lay on my back and he thrust three times. Then he turned me over and thrust five times. And here’s how Seligman responds: Three, then Five? Why that’s part of the Fibonacci number sequence!

Joe is unadulterated sex. Seligman (an asexual virgin) represents pure reason.

chapter1As a young woman, she and a friend compete to see who can pick up – and have sex with — the most men, sequentially, on a train. The winner gets a bag of candy. Seligman: Why that’s like fly fishing – you send out the lure and try to reel it in at just the right moment!

Joe describes how she dates many nameless men simultaneously, avoiding all emotional entanglement. She actually rolls dice before calling a boyfriend to decide whether to be nice, pouty, or to drop him altogether. But she discovers her game affects many people besides just the men she has sex with.

Love rears its ugly head. Jerome is back, and she falls for him hook, line and Nymphomaniac Uma Thurman & Stacy Martin photo by Christian Geisnaessinker. But are they sexually compatible?

She describes encounters with anonymous men,  a long relationship with a BDSM master (Jamie Bell),  her try at a 12-step program, and finding a protege (Mia Goth) to take her place.

This movie is much too long to describe in a short review. It’s full of cinematic quotes from Von Triers’ earlier films – his own movie scenes reenacted. He Nymphomania chapter_2_photo_by_Christian_Geisnaes_2insults critics, pundits, himself… and occasionally the audience. For example, a  scene about Joe and two (supposedly) African men dredges up hoary racial stereotypes — it’s intentionally offensive. But it’s followed by an equally long scene with Joe and Seligman debating “political correctness”. The ridiculous sex scene is Jamie_Bell_LOWreally just a straw man to make way for a long discussion.

It’s also a movie full of explicit sex and nudity: at one point there are a hundred consecutive penis pics, but mostly it’s vagina, vagina, vagina. This movie could be subtitled The Vagina Mia_Goth_LOWDialogues. The symbols are everywhere: tunnels, alleys, window curtains, sliding doors, and holes in walls. It’s a woman’s sexuality filtered through the eyes of a male director.

There is also some repulsive, graphic violence, especially in Part 2. But above all, the movie’s a comedy. And I liked it – all four and a half hours.

A Field in England is now playing, and Nymphomaniac (Parts 1 and 2 — separate tickets), and Divergent both open today in Toronto – check your local listings. The Pasolini retrospective continues at TIFF (tiff.net) and Cinefranco, Toronto’s francophone film festival, starts next week: details at cinefranco.com.

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

Halloween! Movies Reviewed: Superstitious Minds, Ginger Snaps, Bounty Killer

Posted in Canada, Cultural Mining, Mexico, Movies, post-apocalypse, Supernatural, TV, Uncategorized, violence, Werewolves, Western by CulturalMining.com on October 24, 2013

Halloween_1 Superstitious MindsHi, 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.

Hallowe’en – it’s the scariest night of the year! And things are getting scarier and scarier. CSEC: The Communications Security Establishment Canada – this country’s own NSA. Did you know they’re allowed to spy on Canadians, as long as you’re speaking to someone outside the country? And with no watchdog, no judicial control? They’re free to do whatever they want with no one watching them! Scary…! Maybe you’re a Bell Canada customer? Beginning two weeks after Hallowe’en they want to keep a record of every web page you visit, every call you make, every TV show you watch, and every place you visit carrying your cell phone! Scarrry!!!!

Yes, it’s a very scary time of year.


So in honour of this frightening holiday, I’m looking at some very halloweeny things. There’s a documentary on superstition, a classic horror film about sisters in suburbia, and a post-apocalyptic action/western about a futuristic world.

Superstitious Minds SkullsSuperstitious Minds

Dir: Adrian Wills and Kenneth Hirsch

Are we all superstitious? I’m pretty careful about spilling salt. And are we becoming more or less so in an increasingly scientific world? Well, according to a new documentary, we are as superstitious as we’ve ever been, maybe more so, with people under thirty the most superstitious of all. It’s what keeps us grounded and gives us control in facing an uncertain, unpredictable world.

This documentary covers international phenomena like Mexico’s Day of the Dead, Feng Shui in Hong Kong, and the rituals and taboos Newfoundland fishermen stick to to keep from being lost at sea. As well as small things we notice everyday, like the rituals of everyone from sports fans to Shakespearean actors.Dia_de_muertos Superstitious Minds

One example: the strange jagged angles of the Bank of China building in Hong Kong led to widespread worry that it was upsetting their economy with it’s intrusive, knife-like nature. So HSBC – that’s the Hong King Shanghai Bank of Commerce – actually put metal cannons on the roof of their sky scraper to shoot all that bad energy back at the Bank of China, thus neutering it’s negative charms.

This is an interesting documentary, with lots of colourful vignettes talking heads, and some reenacted montages about superstition. (I just wish it dealt less with the psychology of it, and more with the magic.)

gingersnaps_01Ginger Snaps (2000)

Dir: John Fawcett

The Fitzgerald sisters, have been BFFs since they were 8. They signed a pact to be dead before they’re 16. In the midst of all the suburban conformity, Ginger and Brigitte (Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins) wear saggy cardigans, thrift store kilts and messy hair. They resist the bullies and jerks in their high school and revel in the depressing-ness of it all. Their only hobby? Acting out elaborate fake-suicides they save on Polaroid photos.

Life in the suburbs is predictable, except that all the neighbourhood dogs are turning up dead. Who is doing ths? But one night, on a full moon, Ginger feels different. She gets scratched by a wild dog, right when she’s having her first period… and things start to change.

She becomes, aggressive, erratic and highly sexualized. She starts wearing plunging necklines to school. And what about those scratches on her body? They’re starting to gingersnaps_02change too. She feels hairier, bloodier… meaner.

The school nurse explains it’s just puberty, but they both know the change means something more. And the two sisters find their relationship is fraying at the edges. Brigette likes the old Ginger, but her sister wants her to change like she did. Ignoring the nurse’s advice, Ginger has unprotect sex with a stoner at her high school – and seems to have passed the strange virus on.

People to start to die in mysterious circumstances….

It’s up to Brigitte to find a cure and bring her back to normal before she kills everybody.  She turns to Sam (Kris Lemche) for help. Sure he’s the local pot dealer, but he’s also the only one besides Brigitte who believes in Lycanthropia – he ran over a werewolf once in his delivery van. But will they get to Ginger before she snaps?  Before she makes the complete transformation to wolfdom?

Ginger Snaps was made in 2000 and I think it’s fair to say it’s attained classic Halloween movie status, along with more famous pics like the Shining, the Exorcist, and Videodrome. It’s distinctly Canadian… with street hockey, grow-ops, sex-ed and roadkill, but without that uncomfortable earnestness that mars some Canadian movies. It also avoids the puritanical nature of mainstream American horror movies, the ones that kill off characters that have sex or take drugs. And it has a refreshingly subversive subtext: Ginger Snaps is a feminist monster movie where the sisters are doing it for themselves.

This is not a special effects-driven movie — it depends on its great story, acting and originality, instead.

Bounty Killer PosterBounty Killer

Dir: Henry Saine

It’s some point far in the future. Corporations have taken over the world with governments withering away. But horrible wars between companies fighting for market share have left the US a wasteland. Now bounty hunters are celebrities followed by papparazzi for their brave exploits. They seek out the outlaws – all of whom now wear suits and ties (the business execs who ruined everything).

The champ hunter, Drifter (Matthew Marsden) brings in the bodies of every outlaw he can find. He’s as rootless as tumbleweed and mean as a rattler. But has a new competitor Catherine (Kristanna Loken), as ruthless as she is beautiful. She rides fancy sports cars and wears knee-high white boots. They are all old friends, lovers and sometime enemies. But when Drifter’s face appears on a wanted poster, Katherine vows to hunt him down. Can Drifter (and his gun-caddy side-kick) cross the badlands, avoid the bands of so-called gypsies in the desert, and make it Bounty Killer 391804_231827040231097_18835298_nto the council building to clear his name? On the way he has to escape the face-painted warriors and ride in things like a camper fan pulled by two Harleys – like an old west horse and carriage. (Great image!)

Bounty Killers is a western but the cowboys drive choppers through the desert, not horses. It’s got the brothels, the ghost towns, the angry mob, the outlaws and the sheriffs. And it all feels like a live-action graphic novel – mainly cause that’s what it is. A comic written for the big screen.

Marsden Bounty KillerI liked this movie – super low budget but punchy, slick and fast moving. Lots of hilarious side characters – all based on movie clichés but different enough and funny enough to keep you glued to the screen.

Ginger Snaps is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Halloween night (tiff.net), Superstitious Minds is airing on CBC TV on Doc Zone (also on Halloween night), and Bounty Killers played at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, which is screening its closing films tonight.

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

March 30, 2012. Battles Royal. Movies Reviewed: The Hunger Games, The Raid: Redemption, Gerhard Richter — Painting

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.

I’m back again, to review three movies. With the recent re-release of the Japanese horror/thriller Battle Royale (Dir: Fukasaku Kinji, 1990) I thought it was appropriate to look at great battles and fights to the death. One’s about a girl who must fight 23 other teenagers on national television; one’s about a cop who has to kill literally hundreds of bad guys in an apartment complex; and one’s about a master artist who has to fight a constant battle with his adversaries: the paintings he creates.

Hunger Games
Dir: Gary Ross

It’s sometime in the future in America, with the country split into 12 districts, divided by what they produce. They are all poor, while the people in the capital are rich, living their lives obsessed with grotesque, Louis XVI clothing and wigs. Catniss (Jenifer Lawrence) is extremely poor since her father died in a mining disaster, so she hunts for food (illegally) with her best friend Gale and a bow and arrow. Without the squirrels she catches she, her mother and her sister Prim would starve to death.

This country is called Panem and it operates on the bread and circuses principle (keep the people fed on bread — panem — and entertained). So while the people are just eking by, the President forces two “tributes” — a teenaged boy and girl from each district — to fight to the death each year in a televised reality show. Sort of like the Olympics, except no one wants to be chosen by the random “reaping”. They are dressed, trained, and sent away to a forest with cameras hidden in every knothole and behind each shrub.

Catniss and Peeta – the baker’s son — are the ones sent to the games. Which one of the twenty-four will survive?
I read all three of the books, and the movie’s is a fairly accurate dramatization of the original.
But… where’s the hunger? It’s the Hunger Games! They’re stuck in this manufactured, forest “arena” with nothing to eat or drink except what they can find (or that’s sent to them using tiny parachutes, paid for by donations from the fans.) But Jennifer Lawrence looks like a big, healthy milk-fed athlete, not the vulnerable wiry but headstrong little girl I was expecting. When she gets sent off to the capital she barely glances at the fancy array food. And she never really eats. Petta (Josh Hutcherson), on the other hand, is much more believable in his role.
The movie follows the action in the arena, but constantly cuts away to unnecessary behind-the –scenes action in a control room, where the scientists plan their next danger. This takes away a lot of the mystery and excitement: you know what’s going to happen before the characters do. Still, the suspense and action – save for the completely unwatchable shaky camera fights – is exciting, and the story is good. Who will survive? Can people behave morally in an immoral world? And can a boy and a girl find love in a battle to the death? My heart didn’t pound much, but it was still a fun movie to watch.
The Raid: Redemption
Dir: Gareth Evans
A young Jakarta policeman named Rama (Iko Uwais), is sent into an apartment building as part of a SWAT team, to arrest a gangster. But he soon discovers it’s a set-up! Almost every apartment in the high-rise is filled with the gangster’s minions who spring forward — armed with cleavers, knives, axes and swords – in a fight to the death against the cops.
Rama is an expert in the Indonesian martial art silat, which involves throwing, hitting, and cutting with various bladed weapons (kids… don’t try this at home!) So its up to him to fight them off, one by one, so he can reach the penthouse suite and arrest the chief bad guy. But he has to deal with corrupt cops in his own team, and a mysterious connection he has to a player on the other side.
This non-stop, extremely violent action assault movie is intense, to say the least, with incredible, choreographed fight scenes involving dozens of fighters at a time, all of them throwing themselves, like crazed, screeching zombies, at the one martial arts hero. It’s a great, gorey action movie, not like one I’ve ever scene before.
Gerhard Richter — Painting
Dir: Corrina Belz
Gerhard Richter was trained as an artist in socialist realism in East Germany but he crossed over to the west in the early sixties. Since then, his work — which spans everything from plain grey fields and coloured, geometric designs, to photorealism, and abstract expressionism – has grown in reputation to the point where, today, he’s generally considered one of the most important living painters.
But, he says, the process of painting is a private thing, not meant to be seen by the public. Painters are cowards, they do their art in private, then reveal it in public.
Paintings, he says (quoting Adorno), are mortal enemies: every work is the mortal enemy of the other.  Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company.
So it’s a rare, rare thing for him to allow a camera to reveal him at work, almost as if we’re seeing the king without his clothes on.  But what a king!
It’s just amazing seeing him at work in a completely white – floors, walls, ceiling – studio, climbing up a ladder, and painting huge brushstrokes on these 10 foot wide canvases. Bright fields of yellow, a streak of red, a blue patch. And you think, yeah that’s not bad, nice balance… then he looks at it, and says it’s not good… ist schlecht!  Then a few days later he puts some paint on a piece of glass as tall as the painting, and then slowly, deliberately squeegees  a layer of paint slowly across the painting breaking up the colour into crackly, or smooth, or patchy areas. It’s a new painting, now, and stays like that one for another few days until he decides to change it, junk it, or keep it as is. It’s like the movie shows paintings that don’t exist anymore in galleries, they’re just the stages of the painting now on a wall somewhere.
And just in case someone wants to say “my 12 year old daughter could paint better than that!” the movie also shows a previous series of his paintings, these photorealism taken from old black and white snapshots.
This movie’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. It’s in German with subtitles, and is mainly footage of Richter painting and talking about it. It’s not an “art movie”, it’s a movie about the creation of art and art itself. It’s not an exciting film, but I liked it: it’s a terrific introduction to a great painter, and an intellectually fascinating and visually stunning representation of his art.
The Hunger Games and The Raid: Redemption are playing now, and Gerhard Richter – Painting opens today. Also on this weekend, you can catch the enjoyable Ma Part du Gateau (My Piece of the Pie) showing at the Cinefranco festival in Toronto.  And a very good documentary, The Guantanamo Trap, is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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.  

May 17: All the Lonely People. Movies Reviewed: The Collapsed, Bobby Fischer Against the World, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles PLUS Inside Out Festival

Posted in Canada, Disabilities, Disaster, documentary, Ham Radio, Hotdocs, Mental Illness, post-apocalypse, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on June 8, 2011

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

It’s been raining and foggy and overcast for almost a week now – it’s hard to get up in the morning when there’s no sun coming in through your window. I thought this was supposed to happen in April — April showers? On the other hand, it’s a good time to go to the movies.

You won’t be missing much by shutting yourself into a dark room with some friends and a tub of greasy popcorn. And odd characters – the ones who won’t show themselves outside are nest viewed in the dark. So this week I’m going to talk about some new movies — two documentaries and two feature films — about reclusive, eccentric, lost, or just plain strange or unusual people.

The Collapsed

Dir: Justin McConnell

In this Canadian horror film, a family – Mom, Dad (John Fantasia), and their kids, Jennifer and Aaron (Steve Vieira) — is riding around after the world has ended. The skyscrapers are on fire, the streets are deserted and there are bodies lying around here and there.

Something or someone scary is out there – you can tell because the music goes plink plink plink, and because of all the flies stuck to fly strips hanging from the ceiling.

So Dad tells them to pile into their car and drive away from populated areas. They’re sure the bad guys must be after them because there are some man in camo with gas masks on shooting people. (Note to self: the good guys do wear plaid, bad guys wear camouflage…)

Then they do a bunch of horror movie-like things like explore abandoned houses, and running through the woods pointing their long guns at threatening noises. “Lets run wildly thorough this corn field!” or “let’s split up in the middle of the woods and explore!” You know, the usual. More bzzzz sound effects, more meaningless dialogue, more scary plink plink plink music… and then comes the weird sounds: Grouuouououwwwhhh… someone’s in the woods!

Is it a zombie? Is it a ghost? is it an alien? Who knows…? Who cares.

The thing is, there’s almost nothing scary about this movie. I can see that it’s ultra low-budget, so they can’t afford pricey special effects, but there’s no real horror in it at all. Finally, after a whole hour – a whole hour! – has passed, it starts to get a bit interesting. What or who is killing everyone? And why? Will they be able to catch it? And what’s the cause of it all?

The movie gets better right toward the end. There are some twists revealed and plots explained in the last 10 minutes, so you might want to stay till then, as it’s the most exciting part of the movie… but that means watching pointless wandering through the woods for the whole first hour.

This movie is just not scary enough.

Also opening next weekend is a really good documentary, about a historical icon and controversial figure:

Bobby Fischer Against The World

Dir: Liz Garbus

Bobby Fischer was to chess what Muhammed Ali was to boxing — a superstar, a huge international sensation in the early 70’s, a face known around the world. He rose to prominence in the midst of the cold war, and his historic tournament, Fischer against Boris Spassky in Reijkavik was touted in the media as a huge factor in International diplomacy and the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) talks. He personified America and the west, in his games against Spassky for the Soviet Bloc.(much like in the Hockey games between Canada and the Soviet Union.)

This movie follows Fischer from his childhood (he was raised by a single mother — a communist with a PhD) through his teen years, to his amazing fame in the next few decades, until his tragic spiral into infamy as he was engulfed by paranoia and mental illness.

It also concentrates on the big tournament Itself, where the world was transfixed by Fischer’s astounding gambits and seemingly incomprehensible chess moves, his lateness, and other mindgames, that so unnerved Spassky, that he, too, started to suspect spy cameras and strange noises coming out of the walls and the lights.


After the tournament, he gradually, and intentionally faded Into solitude after being overly exposed to paparazzi and intrusive media.

Then, following 9/11, Fischer re-emerged from obscurity with some outrageous statements to the press — but, unexpectedly, he was arrested for this and held at Narita Airport, until a third country offered him asylum.

The director has put together an amazing assortment of photos, obscure TV and film clips, dating back to his childhood, including B&W TV appearances as a young boy, and footage of his hilarious Olympic-style physical training captured by a photographer.

His triumphant and tragic life are told in this really fascinating and vivid historical documentary — I strongly recommend this movie.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Dir: Jon Foy

Speaking of secretive, elusive, and eccentric figures, here’s a movie about those weird messages that have been appearing in the surface of streets in the US east coast for a couple decades. These coloured tiles, imbedded into the tarmac, all say the same thing:

Toynbee Idea

In Kubrik’s 2001

Resurrect Dead

On Planet Jupiter

Just that –a haiku-like remnant of someone’s thoughts duplicated thousands of time by an unknown person, with occasional bizarre rants on tiny sidebars vowing vengeance on evil journalists and newspapers.

This extremely low-budget but compelling documentary looks at a group of friends in Philadelphia who attempt to track the writer down. A self-taught artist who lives in a squat, and some friends he gathers on the way (including the filmmaker) become a roving Scooby Gang, out to uncover the secret behind the Toynbee Tiles. Who made them? Where does he live? What’s his name? Why is he saying these things? And… what Is the David Mamet connection?

Delving into the fringes of society (in places like shortwave conventions) and knocking doors in Fishtown they explore the influence of an obscure but widely known prophet. The movie is as much about the characters involved in the search as it is about the one they’re searching before. I liked this unusual documentary, which was shown at Sundance and Hotdocs.

The Canadian horror movie The Collapsed, and the documentary Bobby Fischer against the World open next week, Check your local listings, and Resurrect Dead played Hot Docs and will open at a later date.

Also starting today is Toronto’s Inside-Out film festival, a celebration of Lesbian, Gay, Transsexual and Queer features, videos, TV shows, documentaries and short films, including Canadian and world premiers of films with a queer theme. In addition to Toronto and Canadian-made movies, this year they are featuring films and TV shows from the UK, as well as many from the Middle East, Latin America, Greece, Italy, and elsewhere. Look out for the film and discussion “Dykes Planning Tykes: Queering the Family Tree”; the new UK film The Night Watch, based on Sarah Waters’ amazing novel; and Gun Hill Road a drama about family relations for an ex-con in the Bronx. For details, go to insideout.ca.

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

Matruschka Dolls Dancing on a Moebius Strip. Films Reviewed: The Crazies, The Runaways, You Are Here

Posted in Action, Army, Canada, Conspiracy Theory, Cultural Mining, Drama, Feminism, Japan, Movies, post-apocalypse, Thriller, US, violence, War, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 26, 2010

No Spoilers!… is a refrain I hear fairly often, and have been known to say it myself. Not everybody cares whether they know what’s going to happen before they see a movie – actually, there are people who would rather see their favourite movies over and over again, than seeing something they’re not sure about. But I also know some people who the second you say even the title of a movie that they haven’t seen yet, their fingers fly to their ears and they start humming tuneless songs.

Ok, I admit it, that’s me sometimes, and I have a sister who does that, too – maybe it’s hereditary. But this definitely poses a dilemma for a movie reviewer – how much do you give away? You want to be able to talk about the movie in concrete terms, to tell about its story; but you don’t want to spoil the ending, because that essentially ruins the whole thing.

One Toronto critic who shall remain nameless (but who some people call "The Schpoiler") can’t resist giving away a movie, in a review, a puff piece, an interview, or even in a one paragraph summary. It’s reached the point where if I see this reviewer’s name I reflexively turn my eyes away, since she’s been know to includes spoilers even in story headlines.

So what’s the right amount to reveal?

If you see a trailer for a movie, sometimes you get the whole movie chopped-up into a 3-minute summary – they figure you won’t be seeing that movie for a while, so it’s OK to say a lot about it, hoping a smidgen will remain in your mind when the movie is released.

So should a film review include no more than you can see in a trailer? Maybe. Depends on the genre. If it’s a standard comedy, the plot is more like that of a TV sitcom: they set up the situation, then give you riffs on that, with all the twists and variations they can fit into 90 minutes — then the story line isn’t so important, it’s the characters and their lines. But if it’s a mystery or a thriller, or an intense drama, or an adventure, part of the fun of watching the movie is seeing the plot turns and surprises while they happen, and sometimes a big shocking reversal (or two) by the end. So you don’t want to know everything that will happen before you see it.

Here’s what I will say – I promise not to gratuitously give it all away… (except when I need to for it make sense.)

First I’m going to talk about “The Crazies”, directed by Breck Eisner, a remake of the George Romero film from the seventies. “The Crazies” is the sort of a movie you don’t want to hear spoilers about – it’ll kill all the twists.

In a small farm town near Cedar Falls Iowa, something strange is going on. It’s not clear what exactly it is, but some of the people in this red-blooded, god-fearing town start behaving in a very strange way. A crazy way. People are getting killed. A man walks onto a baseball diamond with a rifle. Is he drunk? Is he possessed? Is he ill? Nobody realy knows, but it’s spreading around. Strange things happen in a funeral home. And all this is being observed. From somewhere high above, in sattelite pictures with cryptic, forebding messages typed on the screen. And while all this going on, there are some local hunters in the town swamp (are there really swamps and bayous in Iowa?) who seem to like their guns too much, and look like rednecks who just stepped out of the movie Deliverance.

It’s up to the town sherrif and his wife the town doctor, played by Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell, to look out for themselves and their buddies.

This movie has that excellent post-apocalyptic, holocaust-y feel to it, with empty streets, burned-down towns and an especially haunting truck stop with gaily recorded come-on announcements continuing to play loudly to an empty parking lot.

Although it has horror elements, it’s also a mystery-chiller-thriller, and a classic road drama. “The Crazies” is a very scary movie, but it’s also a movie with content (not just “boo!”) and great acting. Go see this one, on a rainy day.

“The Runaways” has everything I hate about some movies – it’s a biopic, it’s an exploitative, b-movie about an old, defunct rock band and the sentimental drama of its members; and it’s kinda Canadian, but in that bad, crappily-done way. So how come it’s so good?

“The Runaways”, a first film by Hamilton photographer and music video director Floria Sigismondi, tells the story of the seventies rock band The Runaways and how they got together.

Cherrie Curry – the movie’s based on her autobiography – and Joan Jett, a legendary hard rocker, are brought together as teenagers to form a teenage girl rock band. Cherrie (played by child actor Dakota Fanning), whose divorced dad is an alcoholic washout, and whose dilletante-ish mom comes home one day to announce “I’m moving to Indonesia!” depends on her identical twin sister to help her through hard times. She sees herself as a female David Bowie and paints lightning bolts on her cheeks. Joan Jett, (Kristen Stewart, the star of the Twilight vampire-romance trilogy, who plays Joan like a young, sullen Patti Smith) wants to form a rock band, but gets no help from her High School music teacher who says girls shouldn’t play electric guitar. Together with manager Kim Fowley, who sees big bucks in a teenage rock band, they get together to form The Runaways. There’s a great scene where you see them come up with the lines: I’m a ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch cherry bomb. The musicians get trained to avoid rowdy audiences throwing stuff at the stage. Then they start touring… a group of teenaged girls with no supervision. Drugs, sex, exploitation, screaming Japanese fans, and recording room drama are sure to follow.

Even though the movie occasionally collapses into Valley of the Dolls kitsch, and even though the whole thing has a low-budget feel to it – maybe they spent all the funds on the amazing soundtrack of The Runaways and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – and even though the period seventies scenes didn’t seem right, and even though Cherrie’s identical twin sister looked like she was 10 years older than her –it was still a great movie. It might be the first real girl rock band movie, and I really liked it. I think every teenager or former teenager who considers herself a rocker should definitely see it.

You are Here, Toronto video artist Daniel Cockburn’s first feature, is an experimental movie about the real dangers of following a red dot. OK, spoiler alert – I have to explain large parts of this movie to make it make any sense whatsoever. But it’s an art film, so that’s OK, right?

The movie is like a series of matrushka dolls dancing on a moebius strip, being fed through a reel to reel tape recorder. Each plot turns is revealed to be connected to an earlier scene, but if you look to closely you miss the connection with the other story-streams. OK here goes:

On a You are Here sign on a map, wherever you are should appear as a red dot. But how does anyone know where they really are? Are there people who make it their job to keep track of your red dot? A lecturer points out using a red laser pointer on a rear projection screen showing waves, to prove how hard it is not to follow the red light dot. But we also see him at the beach filming the waves where he gets ambushed by small children who partially blind him with his own laser pointer. One of the kids writes a story about this incident, but says it’s an evil genius (with one eye) trying to take over the planet – because in a land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

At the same time as all this, a man named Alan, records his thoughts into a hand-held tape recorder so he can remember who he is – you see, he’s actually a collective entity, made up of hundreds of people, men women young old of every colour and nationality who all occupy his same life, taking his place – in his mind – at the drop of a hat.

And then there’s the question of how do you know who you are? When you’re working at a desk job with no real point, how do you know what you’re saying makes any sense at all? How do you know you’re not a cog in a vast machine that takes in and spews out information, like an old mega computer. So we see a man who’s locked into a cell, for an experiment of course, who has to diligently copy the Chinese characters (he’s not Chinese) that are slid under his door on a piece of paper, using a bizarre custom encyclopedia, and slide them back out the door until the next one appears.

I believe the director was himself an archivist (like the character in the movie played by the great Tracy Wright) at V-Tape in Toronto, and so maybe elements of this film – the defunct vintage machinery, the seemingly endless, disconnected and pointless cataloguing, the disseminating of information to no one in particular.

Ok, don’t worry there’s at least two other major plot lines I’m not even going to get into. Suffice it to say, this movie is really complicated, but also fun to watch – and looks good, too, in a very straightforward, calm, drab-looking design. But it’s not just hollow forms, it also has fascinating stories. I don’t know when this extremely strange movie is coming out, but hopefully soon – look out for it.

Films Reviewed: The Lovely Bones, Edge of Darkness, The Book of Eli

Crummy movies. And there are quite a few.

Let’s start with The Lovely Bones, based on the novel by Alice Sebold, and directed by Peter Jackson, who did the Lord of the Rings.

Little Susie Salmon is an innocent teenaged girl with a happy family, a loving dad who puts ships into glass bottles, a boy she likes, and a shopping mall to hang out at. But one day she’s brutally murdered in a cornfield on the way home from high school. She’s caught in some limbo where she can see her family falling apart and the evil murderer getting away with it. Her sister and father try to catch the killer and stop their family troubles as Susie tries to come to terms with her own death.

This sounds like it could be a really good adventure/thriller, with unusual supernatural elements, and a poignant story. But it wasn’t. It was gross! And uncomfortable, and tacky, if a movie can be tacky. Just the whole look of the movie was unintentionally wrong, especially the otherwordly, limbo scenes. Are we supposed to feel attached to a fake tree suddenly losing all its CGI leaves? Who cares?

The whole movie felt like an out-take from Ghost Whisperer — “Step into the light…Come to the light…” “Not before I tell them my secret!” — but without Jennifer Love Hewitt to provide some link between the two sides.

On the plus side, the thriller scenes were great, with the evil and scary murderer in a race with Susie’s relatives – who feel driven to avenge her death and catch her killer. And some of the acting was also fun, especially Susan Sarandon as a hilariously flamboyant, alcoholic grandmother, who exalts in puffing cigarettes and sweeping metaphoric dust under the rug; and an almost unrecognizeable Stanley Tucci as the creepy neighbour, Mr Harvey. But on the whole, this movie doesn’t work. If you want to see a great movie by Peter Jackson, look for one from his early New Zealand days, Heavenly Creatures, the polar opposite of The Lovely Bones.

And this shows you that just because a movie’s been adapted from a novel doesn’t mean a it’s good.

Opening tonight, there’s Edge of Darkness, a thriller vengeance movie, directed by another kiwi, Martin Campbell, and starring Mel Gibson.

Craven (played by Gibson) is a Boston police detective whose daughter is killed on his doorstop just before she has a chance to tell him something important. Torn apart by grief, and haunted by hallucinations of his daughter who talks to him, he vows to find her killer or killers and make them pay. And he knows his fellow cops in Boston will watch his back.

But he soon finds himself in the middle of something involving his daughter’s shady employers, Northmoor. (the movie keeps many of the names from the old BBC miniseries from which this was adapted) There is some hint of corporate malfeasance, scared whistle blowers, and homeland security spooks. Everyone is lying or too scared to tell him the truth, and people keep getting shot and run down, just before he finds out the secrets. And Jedburgh, a heavy-set English spy, is keeping his eye on things from the margins.

There are some really great scenes of revelations, plot turns, confrontations, and some good chases and escape scenes. The problem is the movie doesn’t sustain it. So you’ll be on the edge of your seat, and then it’ll settle in for some long boring parts again. Mel Gibson plays the psychotic, angry father scenes pretty well, they’re fun, but he falls into awful overacting. In fact there’s a lot of that – there’s a death scene (one of many) that’s like in a sketch comedy that takes ten slow falls and gaspings and near deaths, (just die!) before one character finally exhales its last breath. And an exhausted Mel stumbling up a staircase in a shootout had the whole house laughing – except… it was a serious scene. Oops. The movie also had some interesting if unintentional twists, where there’s a Republican Massachusetts senator in the movie (even though the surprise midterm election was just last week) and crucial information is passed to an investigative journalist – from Fox News?

But the complicated conspiracy plot is so nebulous and twisted it isn’t even worth pondering its implications.

Finally, there’s The Book of Eli, a post-apocalyptic action drama directed by the Hughes brothers.

Eli (played by Denzel Washington) is a hobo living in a destroyed America, traveling on a highway toward the west coast with a heavy bible-looking book. He eats whatever he finds and defends himself from strangers. Water, not food, is the commodity in this world. When he wanders into a western town, he is set upon by illiterate motorcycle gangs. He eventually teams up with Solara, a tough young woman held hostage by a corrupt town boss. In this post-nuclear world, the town boss thinks his literacy is power, and that a copy of the bible will give him absolute power.

On the surface, this seems like a lo-cal version of The Road, with more sword fights and punch outs and chase scenes, and less depressing heaviness, and profundity.

(This movie also borrows heavily from movies like The Road Warrior, the Japanese Zatoichi series, and just about every western ever made.)

And I thought, what a junky piece of Bush-era crap,

where the heroes quote scripture and shoot up everyone they meet in the name of God and America. But when I thought about it a bit more, I liked it a bit more. I think it was better than I first gave it credit. And I think it had a message. (And this won’t give anything away.)

By reclaiming evangelical Christianity after it had become strictly right-wing territory, The Book of Eli lets the baptism of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. overthrow the corrupt, power-hungry southern whites, as symbolized by false preachers like Gary Oldman (the town boss).

The film rejects the intolerance of fundamentalist “culture wars” and intentionally embraces alternative lifestyles. An old couple they meet on the road are humanized by showing their love of 70’s gay disco records. California, Eli’s ultimate destination, is shown not as a fallen Sodom and Gommorah, but as the new Jerusalem — where, Eli hopes, faith and learning are kept alive despite the near destruction of the world. Hobo preachers spread the word and fight against censorship, while the corrupt false preachers horde their information, emulate Mussolini’s fascism, and use illiterate lackies and blackshirted soldiers to hold on to their power and fuel their dreams of a water-hording empire.

Is it a coincidence that this movie was released on the weekend of Martin Luther King’s birthday? No. The Hughes brothers
are reclaiming the gospel in the name of educated, inclusive, black centrists — led by Barry Obama.

While not a great movie, The Book of Eli is an interesting one.

Daniel Garber, January 28, 2010

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