January 19, 2012. Unromantic Romances. Movies Reviewed: The Iron Lady, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Not Since You. PLUS Sing-a-long Grease

Posted in Biopic, Cultural Mining, Drama, Movies, Nazi, Punk, Queer, Romance, Scandinavia, Sweden, Thriller, TIFF, UK, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on January 21, 2012

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

Winter is here now — that probably explains the bitter cold and the snow blowing into our faces. So to warm the cockles of your hearts, how about a bit of romance? For a double-dose of romantic pop and cinematic nostalgia, put on your bobby socks or grease back your hair and come sing at a special Sing-Along version of the movie musical Grease (playing Monday night at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto).

Yes, this week, a whole month before Valentine’s Day, I’m talking about three romances – all of a distinctly unromantic sort – and a documentary. One’s about an elderly woman (who was once a Prime Minister) remembering her husband ; another about a hard-boiled computer hacker and her friend, an investigative journalist; and one about a reunion of a group of college friends at a wedding.

The Iron Lady

Dir: Phyllida Lloyd

Margaret (Meryl Streep) a doddering old lady with Alzheimer’s is haunted by memories of her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). She hopes that by clearing away his personal items from her home she can clear away her confusing memories and halucinations. But as she tidies up, the past comes back to her in a powerful way: life as a grocer’s daughter in the Blitz, as a rising star in the Conservative Party, and later as the radically right-wing British Prime Minister in the 1980’s. Margaret, of course, is Margaret Thatcher, the only Prime Minister with an “-ism” all her own.

Thatcherism led to riots; a sell-off of the nation’s utilities to shady investors; huge cuts in public services; privatization of public housing; violent strike-breaking and anti-union legislation; a decimation of the British welfare state; and an entire country’s economic future left to the self-correcting winds of a free market. Her legacy continues to plague the UK today.

But this movie is more about her home life: The big events all happens somewhere outside her hermetically-sealed plastic bubble. The people you catch occasional glimpses of are all angry shouters and screamers, rioters and Irish terrorists who are just messing everything up.

Incredibly, Thatcher herself is portrayed as an honest, honourable woman who stays true to her ideals without even the slightest self-interest or cynicism. While she is shown as petty, vindictive, and self-centred, her speeches in Parliament differ not at all from her conversations at home.

Maybe that’s how she saw herself, but the movie could have taken a tiny step back and shown something outside her own narrow view of the world. Instead, this movie was trapped in a claustrophobic space where only Thatcher’s inner thoughts and memories of her relationship with her husband come through clearly.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Dir: David Fincher

.. is a catastrophic remake of last year’s Swedish film. Here’s part of what I wrote last year about the original version:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a mystery thriller about Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a young, mysterious hacker, and their interactions with the Vanger group, a very shady family of billionaires.

Blomkvist loses his job at a leftist magazine and faces a prison term after writing an expose on a corrupt billionaire. His source proved to have been a set-up. So he is forced to take a well-paying job as a sort of a researcher / detective for a different, billionaire, who’s trying to find out what happened to his niece Harriet, who was kidnapped or killed – the body was never found – decades before. The Vanger family is sleazy to the Nth degree. They live out in the woods in sinister, Nordic hunting lodges, equipped with a skeleton in every closet.

But Blomkvist is gradually reveals the hidden past, with the help of an anonymous hacker. This helper, Lisbeth Salander, is a fantastic cross between Steve McQueen and Tank Girl. She’s tuff, she’s rough, she’s stone cold. She’s a punk, she’s a loner, she’s an ex-con, she’s a computer genius. She’s also the girl of the title, with the dragon tattoo. She’s initially hired by the Vangers to spy on and write a report on Blomkvist, to make sure he can be trusted. They eventually meet up and form a sort of alliance, to try to find out what happened to the missing girl, and solve the ever-thickening mystery.

So what has changed? Well, the left-wing magazine collective is changed to an ordinary newsmagazine just trying to survive media downturns. The Vangers’ Nazi and Christian fundamentalist twists are swept under an invisible rug. One crucial, horrendous scene, is changed from a chilling, plain documentation to a grotesquely exploitative and titillating version. But worst of all, the rough-and-tough invincible, impermeable Lisbeth Salander is turned into a blubbering, vulnerable little girl who is infatuated with her “Daddy” (Blomkvist)!

It’s such a terrible misfire of the essential dynamics of their relationship. Daniel Craig is OK as Blomkvist, but Rooney Mara is awful as the Girl with Dragon Tattoo, and the excitement and suspense of the original is turned into a boring, detective procedural.

Not Since You

Dir: Jeff Stephenson

A group of college friends (most of whom haven’t seen each other for a decade) are all together again for a wedding in Georgia. Now there are four guys and three women with unfinished business – lots of past relationships and friendships left hanging. (The fourth woman is the unseen bride) Sam (Desmond Harrington), the tall, handsome loner still holds a torch for pretty, blonde Amy (Kathleen Robertson). He traveled in Europe and recorded his feelings in a leather notebook. But Amy’s married now, to some frat-boy (Christian Kane). Meanwhile, former best friends and drinking buddies business student Howard and his side-kick Billie are at odds because Billie is dating Howard’s old girlfriend, pretty blonde Victoria. Pushy Howard (Jon Abrahams) wants to get the Kentucky Colonel moonshine gazillionaire (who’s paying for the wedding) to invest in his biofuel venture. He also feels like he was screwed by his best friend who stole his ex-girlfriend. And Fudge feels alone and insecure without his buddies, while still-a-virgin Doogie feels like a third wheel around her prettier friends.

So there they all are in Athens Georgia, dressed to the T’s in their wedding gear, trying to settle their differences. Will Doogie and Fudge overcome their sexual inhibitions? Does Amy still have feelings for brooding Sam? (Sam sure still likes Amy!) And will Billie and Howard ever get back their old friendship or will their rivalry lead to no good?

This movie is all about old relationships – where they stand, what happened, and where will they go from here. The cast is uniformly very good looking – in a daytime soap-opera kind of way – but we learn little about them other than who they once slept with (all off-screen) and who they love. For the women, love means choosing between two men wooing them. For the men it’s pining or brooding or fighting to get their girls back. They’re exactly like real people; they’re just not very interesting people. Not Since You isn’t a rom-com… it’ a rom-dram.

The Iron Lady and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are now playing, Not Since You opens today, and and an excellent documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, Directed by Joseph Doron, opens in Toronto next week – check your local listings.

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

July 28, 2011 Multiculturalism Not Dead! Movies Reviewed: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Rocksteady: the Roots of Reggae

Posted in Canada, China, Cultural Mining, documentary, Foot Binding, Jamaica, Movies, Queer, Reggae, Romance, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 31, 2011

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

Last week — when the biggest worry seemed to be how hot the weather is, where to go for summer vacation, or how to fill one’s time without school – came a piece of news out of Europe shattering the calm and quiet. Someone had set off a car bomb outside government buildings on the ordinarily peaceful streets of Oslo, Norway. And, as the story developed, there was someone shooting people – kids! – at a summer camp nearby.

Who could it be? The usual suspects? Must be those “Islamists”! the newswires were saying. Immigrants were angry about being deported, online sites said. Or it must be because of those political cartoons: Denmark and Norway are both Scandinavian, after all. But why were they bombing buildings of the current left-of-centre government? And why had the chosen a summer camp for the same youth wing of the very same party?

It turns out, it wasn’t Al Qaeda after all. It wasn’t a home-grown muslim sleeper cell. It wasn’t an eco-terrorist, or a black bloc anarchist.

It’s a self-described conservative Christian Norwegian man who is trying to foment a right-wing revolution across Europe. Shocking! And what is his enemy, what is it he’s fighting against? Listen closely, Canadians, because this is for us: The ideology he says he fighting is…

Multiculturalism.

WHAT?

He chooses the most innocuous of all things Canadian as his bete noir? That’s like saying he’s setting off bombs because he doesn’t like poutine, or butter tarts, or Hockey Night in Canada, or dragon boat races or double-doubles, or smoked meat, or two-fours. He’s murdering children to protest against puppies, or mittens, or Banff, or the smell of coriander.

He claims multiculturalism is to blame for all the world’s problems. I strongly disagree: it’s what makes Canada a great country.

So, this week — in part to protest against right-wing villains like Anders Behring Breivik and their xenophobic hatred and fear of all things different or foreign — I’m looking at a couple movies about important aspects of Canada’s diverse culture: a drama about Chinese women, and a documentary about Jamaican music.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Dir: Wayne Wang

Snow Flower (Gianna Jun) is a young girl in 19th century Hunan, China whose mother binds her feet in order to marry her out to a good husband. You can hear the bones of her toes breaking, one by one. Tiny feet were the only path to class mobility, for a poor girl. And her feet make her suitable for a rich husband. But she’s surprised when her matchmaker also sets her up with a young woman as her Laotong – her BFF in modern language. She signs a contract and is more-or-less married to her as well, as a lifelong friend and confidant.

She and Lily (Li Bingbing) learn a secret language written in a Chinese script called “Nvshu” or women’s writing. Even after they are married – poor Lily weds a rich but loveless foot-fetishist, the formerly wealthy Snow Flower meets a boorish butcher – they continue to communicate via secret messages written in poetry on folding fans.

Flashforward to present day, sophisticated Shanghai. Now Lily’s descendent, Nina, lies in a coma after an accident, and her modern day laotong, Sophia, wants to find out what happened to her, and why they were no longer the best friends they were as teenagers.

The movie cuts back and forth between the parallel stories, as women’s past and present-day lives (played by the same two actresses) and status are compared. Nina’s fan-messages, that were saved over the centuries, provide Sophia the clues as to what really happened back then, and possibly what was happening between the two friends now.

The acting was good, and I thought the movie was pretty interesting and told me a lot that I wouldn’t otherwise know. But it was also sort of messy and confusing and meandering. The weaker, modern day scenes were less interesting than the hostrical ones, except for the scenes with the always entertaining Vivian Wu as a tragic Shanghai Auntie.

While not perfect, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a very rare thing: a Hollywood-style movie, with an all-Asian cast (from China and Korea), in Chinese, about a relationship between two women.

Now another movie about an important part of Canadian culture.

Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae
Dir: Stascha Bader

What is rocksteady music? Where did it come from? And what does it mean?

Rocksteady is ska… slowed down; it comes Jamaica, from an island of 2 1/2 million people that has recorded over 300,000 songs; and there’s a movie that explains it all for you.

The movie documents the big Rocksteady reunion that took place recently in Kingston, Jamaica when all the legendary musicians, many of whom hadn’t seen each other in 4 decades, got together to recreate the sixties sound. Sly Dunbar, Rita Marley, Leroy Sibbles, the Tamlins, U-Roy, Marcia Griffiths all talk to the camera and perform their music in studio.

This movie gives brief biographies of all the men and women in the rocksteady movement in Jamaica in the 60’s. Better than that is the rerecording of all the great songs from that era that every Canadian would recognize, songs like The Tide is High, You Don’t Love Me, No No No, By the Rivers of Babylon, and others.

What’s really interesting about the movie is the way the musicians explain the meanings of the songs, their contexts. I grew up hearing a lot of these songs — especially the soundtracks of The Harder They Come, and Rockers – liking the music without knowing what they were singing about. This documentary lets the songs original musicians explain what they meant.

For example, when Jamaica got its independence from Britain in 1962, it started to boom, with lots of construction, investment and industry in Kingston. But along with the economic boom there was a big influx of people from small towns into the capital, and not everyone got jobs. So some of the young men, jobless in the shantytowns and cut off from their families, became rude boys – the gangsters that terrorized the rest of Kingston. Hence Desmond Decker’s song Shanty Town.

And the people pouring into the city by train looking for jobs? Stop That Train….

Historical scenes are illustrated by black and white newspaper photos, record covers, and film and TV clips from the period, accompanied by new recordings by the original artists. Rocksteady is an enjoyable, nostalgic look at the golden age of reggae music in Jamaica.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is playing now, and Rocksteady is playing for free as part of this weekend’s Irie Music Festival. It’s playing under the stars on Sunday, July 31st at 9:30 p.m. There are also sound stages set up for concerts at Queens Park and Dundas square. For more information look at http://www.iriemusicfestival.com

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

June 24, 2011. Women at Centre Stage, Men at the Fringe. Movies Reviewed: J.X. Williams Cabinet of Curiosities, William S Burroughs A Man Within, Bridesmaids, Bad Teacher

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.

Last week was NXNE Toronto’s huge indie music and movies festival. And while there were a lot of music videos and films about bands going on tour, (bands practicing their instruments, bands getting drunk, bands feeling sad…), there were also a few good ones about people in the underground, on the fringe, at the far reaches.

At the same time as the festival, there are also loads of mainstream movies at the local googleplex. I’ve talked about this before, but women are disappearing from movies. There are lots of movies with only one female character, for every ten or twenty male characters. “The woman” is now a token character, along with the black guy, the fat guy, the grandpa, the guy next door…

So, today I’m going to deal with both those themes: two movies about men on the fringe, and two movies with women, front and centre.

William S Burroughs: A Man Within
Dir: Yony Leyser

William S Burroughs was the prep-school and Harvard heir to the Burroughs adding-machine fortune in St Louis. He drifted to New York and fell in with the so-called beatniks, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. After he accidentally killed his wife, Joan, in Mexico when he tried to shoot a tumbler of gin off her head and missed, he fell into a depression and began to write it all down.

His style really took off when he fell in with artist and visionary Brion Gysin, the inventor of the Dream Machine (a psychedelic light tube that spins on a turntable and is viewed with the eyes closed). Burroughs began using Gysin’s cut-up technique, snipping up his manuscripts and realigning strips to a give a broken feel to his mind-bending novels.

At the same time, his personal life consisted of cold, unemotional sexual relationships with much younger men – who were poets, writers, artists. His books were banned, but Burroughs was eventually embraced, in succession by the beat movement of the 50’s, the 60’s counterculture, 70’s punk, and gay liberation movements in the 80’s – none of which he was actually a part of. So his influence was huge and deep for more than half a century.

This excellent biography is made up of interviews with some of the people he knew or influenced — his ex-lovers, academics, musicians like Patti Smith and Genesis P. Orridge, poets like Amiri Baraka and John Giorno, artists – Andy Warhol, and directors like David Cronenberg and Gus Van Sant. And also, people who knew him like his arms dealer – he had a lifetime obsession with guns and slept with one under his pillow, even during sex, a reptile trainer, his fellow druggies, and his next door neighbours. The new interviews and old footage are combined in sections with cool wire animation. This documentary is well worth seeing.

JX WIliams’ Cabinet of Curiosities

Archivist and Curator: Noel Lawrence

Another underground artist from the same era deserves attention too, even though he is so underground and obscure that virtually no one in the world has ever actually heard of him.

But his name is J.X. Williams, and his Cabinet of Curiosities – clips from the films he made in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s – have been collected and curated by L.A. devotee Noel Lawrence, who brought some of his collection to NXNE.

Williams was no ordinary underground figure, and his films are not ordinary movies. Lawrence, both in the film clips and in the unusual extended panel discussion at NXNE, explained part of this man’s career. He was the son of a communist, and managed to get blacklisted by the House un-American Activities Committee at the age of 17. Somehow, he became involved with not just the communists, but also the mob, the FBI and the Kennedy assassination. He earned his living as a base pornographer – some of his movies showed only in Copehagen, and even there, only once — and was forced to flee to Switzerland to avoid arrest (perhaps for copyright infringement)?

The movies themselves are, at times, baffling and annoying, but also a pleasure to behold. Basically they consist of parodies of classic and film noir titles, with Mad Magazine-style names: for example, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows with Williams becomes the 400 Blowjobs. Other films in his porn/occult matrix include Hollywood Playgirls, Hades Highway, and ESP Orgy. So split-screen film clips of Steve McQueen meets Clint Eastwood in an alternate universe, combined with unexplained stock footage of flashing coloured traffic lights, wicked stop-motion animation, crackly peepshow credits, and hardcore B&W silent porn.

What can I say? Keep an eye out for Noel Lawrence’s amazingly detailed lectures (photog: Brad Clarke)  about this hitherto unknown, underground figure J.X Williams. www.jxarchive.org

From the obscurest of the obscure, to the mainstreamest of the mainstream are two movies which attempt the unthinkable – comedies starring women – and pull it off. Both of the movies have women in atypical roles (as underdogs, underachievers, and anti-heroes), with the successful, beautiful, rich and hard-working women as the “villains”. And the female stars both manage to do non-topless sex scenes.

Bridesmaids
Dir: Paul Feig

Annie and Lillian (played by Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph) are best friends who share everything including laughs. But when Lillian makes Annie her maid of honour or her upcoming wedding, she finds herself pitted against a new enemy – Whitney, a rich, preppy trophy-wife who is trying to steal away her best friend. Annie’s life unravels – she feels used by her douche-y sex partner, hates the jewelry store job she was forced to take once her cake business went bottoms-up, and lives with the roommates from hell. Meanwhile, her crazy fellow bridesmaids take up her time with a series of fiascos, with only a kind-hearted, Irish cop (Officer Rhodes, played by Chris O’ Dowd) shows some sympathy for her. Will she completely give up and be defeated by Whitney? Will she ever get back together with her best friend? And will she find true love?

This is a pretty funny comedy, with humour coming more from unusual characters than from cheap site-gags. A competitive speech-making scene was especially funny, as was Wiig feeling queazy. While the pace seemed slower than most comedies, and the gags – save for a puke and diarrhea scene – more mature, it works. I laughed a lot and it kept my interest. Some of the writing was weird, with dialogue not matching the rest of some characters’ lines – but in general it was a lot of fun, especially Mellissa McCarthy, the woman from the TV show Mike and Molly.

This is a comedy, not a chick flick, but it also avoids most of the gratuitous nudity, dick jokes and gross-outs, and allows the very funny cast of seven funny women to shine.

Bad Teacher
Dir: Jake Kasdan

Elizabeth (Cameron Diaz) is forced to work as a teacher at John Adams Jr High (“we call it JAMS!”) when her rich fiancé dumps her before the wedding. She’s a gold digging pothead, and a misanthropic teacher who hates kids. She soon finds herself in a competition with the hardworking and perky teacher Amy Squirrel (hilariously played by Lucy Punch) over the rich, airhead teacher Scott (Justin Timbelake).
She decides to get a breast-implant operation to win him over and marry into his fortune – but this will be expensive. Can she get her previously neglected class to score high on the state tests and get her the bonus she needs? And will she ever date the gym teacher (Jason Segel) who likes her?

Well, I thought it was pretty funny. Not great, mind you, but funny enough, and much funnier than the gags they show in the trailer. Filthy language, but no serious violence, disgustingness, or dick, puke or bowel jokes. Both Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher are directed by people from that great TV show Freaks and Geeks, maybe that’s why it’s a bit better than most. This is not a clever movie by any stretch, but it has its larfs, and Cameron Diaz is great as the anti-heroine.

William S Burroughs: The Man Within, and J.X. Williams’ Cabinet of Curiosities screened at NXNE last week, Bridesmaids is now playing, and Bad Teacher opens today: check your local listings.

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

May 25, 2011. Inside Out Festival. Renee, Lost in the Crowd, Gun Hill Road, Black Field, Harvest, We Were Here

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

Toronto Inside-Out festival is one of the world’s biggest LGBT film festivals, that shows movies and documentaries from around the world by and about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals. Or queers for short. The festival is continuing through this weekend, mainly at Toronto’s Light Box, and I hear there are still some tickets available, so now’s your chance to catch some of these very varied and interesting movies.

So this week I’m going to look at a cross-section of movies and docs at this festival with a special emphasis on some good movies about the too often neglected “T” in LGBT. Next week: more on the “L” word.

Renee

Dir: Eric Drath

“I’m getting the message across that you can be a transsexual… and yet be a nice, normal, socially acceptable and productive member of society.” – Renee Richards.

Renee Richards was born as Richard Raskin, who grew up as an aggressive alpha male, served in the navy, became a tennis champ, a young man with dating prowess, a surgeon, a husband and a father.

But in the early seventies, after years of agonizing, and (after first chickening out on her first attempt, when she went to Morocco for sex-reassignment surgery) she took the plunge and became a woman. She named herself Renee (French for reborn) and started a new life. She became a sensation on the women’s tennis circuit until the past came out. She was ostracized, alienated by many tennis players, and splashed across the mass media.

They attempted to force Renee Richards to take a DNA test to prove her sex – this despite surgery, hormones, her day-to-day identity, clothes, body, voice and name. So she took them to court.

This is a very good, sympathetic documentary, that uses TV sports footage, home movies, newspaper articles and present- day interviews with family members, and famous tennis players (like Billie Jean King and Martina Navritolova). The most emotionally trying part of the documentary is about her difficult relationship with her son Rick.

Lost in The Crowd

Dir: Susi Graf

…is another documentary, also touching on problems faced by transsexuals and others. But if Renee is about rich and famous celebrities, Lost in the Crowd is about the other side of things. It’s about Queer youth who migrate to new York City to escape homophobia and other dangers in their hometowns, only to find themselves penniless, homeless and alone on the streets of Manhattan. It shows a few of these kids and young adults, many latina, and gay or trans, who seek shelter but end up in prison, on the streets, or dead.

While a very important issue, I was a bit disappointed by the movie, since it mainly just showed the victimization of the runaways by drugs, prostitution, and crime. It didn’t really offer any new viewpoint on the standard risks that face all runaways. One exception were the scenes shot in a prison, where one person (who had been arrested for low-level drug dealing) said he felt more free in the jail than he had in his midwestern small town.

Much more moving was a fictionalized drama about many of the same issues, a movie called

Gun Hill Road

Dir: Rasheed Ernesto Green

This tells about Enrique, and ex-con out on parole going back home. He’s an ultra-macho Puerto Rican-American who was known for attacking any “maricon” in prison who might have looked at him the wrong way. What’s a few months of solitary if he’s defending his own masculinity? He arrives back with his street corner pals to see his much missed son Michael (Harmony Santana). But something about Michael has changed.

He’s living his life as a girl in school, but like a boy at home. He hangs out with his friends at school but faces widespread bullying in the hallways. As pretty and strong Vanessa, she meets a boyfriend at a poetry slam, but he’s less friendly once he discovers Vanessa is a pre-op transsexual. He doesn’t want to see her as a boy – she has to cover up anything that might turn him off. But Michaels’s father doesn’t want to see his son as in any way feminine. He attacks him with a scissors and hacks off his long hair.

Gun Hill Road is a good, moving drama of the trials and tribulations of being trans in a public school, and how both a father and a son have to learn how to understand each other. The actor playing Vanessa/Michael is excellent, and you feel for all the characters. And it has a great latino hiphop soundtrack.

Black Field

Dir: Vardis Marinakis

In the middle ages, at its height,  the Ottoman empire used a special unit in their military known as the Janissaries. This was a division consisting entirely of paid, trained soldiers who were also slaves. They had no outside friends or families because they were kidnapped as small boys from outlying villages in the Balkans. Eventually, they converted to Islam and enlisted in this all-male, elite part of the army — the Janissaries.  In this movie, a wounded janissary (Hristos Passalis) is found outside a Christian convent in a remote, mountainous region of Greece. The black-hooded nuns take him in, chain him up, while they tend to his wounds. A young nun, Anthi  is sent to heal him, but there she makes a surprising discovery  — his genitals are like hers. She is actually a boy, who had been taken in as an infant and raised there, so that the Mother Superior could save him from being kidnapped and made into… a janissary!

The movie follows – literally follows, the camera holds back behind the two as they walk through the lush forest, a green-covered swamp, and a dark rocky area –  the tough, mean, AWOL soldier and the timid, whispering nun, as he forces the newly discovered boy to reclaim his male identity, and eventually become his partner. To make matters even more ambiguous, the boy who was raised as a girl is played by a very good actress (Sofia Georgovassili). It’s a slow-paced, challenging, sometimes violent, and at other times sensuous and exquisitely beautiful,  first film. Very interesting to watch and should be seen on the big screen.

Harvest

Dir: Benjamin Cantu

Marco is a young man who lives and works at an internship program on what used to be an East German communal farm. He wears overalls and a T-Shirt as he sorts carrots, bales hay, and clips the ears off cattle, along with the other interns. But he’s resisting committing himself to a lifetime of farm work. He doesn’t want to write the exam he has to take, mainly because he can’t write well. And he’s a bit of a loner – he won’t go out drinking with the other trainees, and they tease him for it.

But he enters into a silent friendship with a newby, Jacob. Things start to heat up in an abandoned old car (a Trabant?) and they realize they have something in common when Jacob finds the keys and drives them both into Berlin for an evening.

Harvest is another one of these hyper-realistic films –  made on real locations, usually with non-actors, without a complicated plots, and often without a written script. There aren’t that many lines in this movie, and the budding relationship between Marco and Jacob is never really talked about – it just happens. But you totally understand and identify with all the characters, and the farm footage is fantastic – I’d never actually seen an enormous carrot-sorting mill. Harvetst is a very good, understated, realistic drama.

We Were Here

Dir: David Weissman

This is a documentary about San Francisco from the late 70’s until the early nineties. That was the period when the city was transformed from a gay mecca into the epicentre of a worldwide epidemic. I’m speaking about AIDS and HIV, then called the gay plague for the sudden, massive death toll of that community.

This movie is heart-wrenchingly moving because of the way it was made. They found a handful of people who lived there at that time and were somehow involved in that disaster, to tell the story of themselves and their friends directly to the camera.

The movie shows the face of one speaker’s friend and then close-ups, ten days later. So happily galavanting at a Castro street party one day, and then, suddenly, the same man infected with Karposi Sarcoma (cancerous, but painless black spots on the skin) and then, a few days after that, just dropping dead.

No one knew what was going on or what to do about it. Panic set in. The movie shows the quick progression of events — the protests, the medical advances, the set-backs — all told through the eyes of real, sympathetic men and women.

This is a very important, living oral history, illustrated by ample newspaper clips, snapshots and still photos.

These movies and more are part of Inside-Out, continuing on this weekend: you can check times atinsideout.ca . Also opening is the terrific documentary Bobby Fischer against the World, and the Canadian low-budget spooky, post-apocalyptic horror thriller The Collapsed, both of which I reviewed last week, and Little White Lies, a very funny, if long, French social comedy about the secrets and conflicts of a group of friends who vacation together; I reviewed that last year.

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

How Women see the World. Films reviewed: Beeswax, Littlerock, Hanna, Born to be Wild PLUS Rivers and my Father, Images Festival, Sprockets Festival

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s still true. The Hollywood star system has made a huge shift over the past few decades across the gender line. The biggest stars are now male, not female; most movies are about men, not women, and most stories are told from a man’s point of view. Even in movies with a female star, all the other main characters are often male. Most, but not all… there’s actually a bumper crop of movies opening today that buck this trend.

So, this week, I’m looking at four very different new movies, two realistic dramas, an action thriller, and a kids documentary, all told from the point of view of women, and, interestingly, all touching on family relationships. (All of these films were directed by men.)

Two of them, Beeswax and Littlerock, are part of a new trend in indie filmmaking (sometimes called New Realism or Mumblecore), using non-actors — often using their own names — ordinary situations, improvisational scenes, locations not studios, no special effects, and without the usual obvious plotlines and clichés. (Last year, I enjoyed Modra, and No Heart Feelings, two Toronto movies that fit into this category.) It’s always fun watching new types of movies, but some work better than others.

Beeswax

Dir: Andrew Bujalski

Jeannie and Lauren (Tillie and Maggie Hatcher) are adult twin sisters who live together. Jeannie owns a vintage store in an American college town. She gets around in a car or using her wheelchair. She’s having problems with her business partner who’s always flying off overseas, while Jeannie’s always working at the store. She’s faced with the question of what to do with her business and whether her partner is suing her. Meanwhile, her sister Lauren is also deciding whether or not to take a big step in her life. And Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student writing his bar exams, is Jeannie’s on again off again bed-partner, and her potential lawyer, if he passes the bar.

The movie starts and ends very suddenly, as if we’re allowed to spend a few days with these characters — as if it were a documentary — and then they’re gone again. The story itself is about normal everyday events: people living their lives, having sex, going to work, talking with friends and family members. The parts are played by non-actors, who are appealing, and pretty funny, but still just regular people.

I like the fact that it has one main character with a physical disability, without making it the main story, and dealt with in a very matter-of-fact way — not ignoring the very real accommodations she has to be aware of to live her life, but without making it the central point, morphing into some weeper where she stands up out of her wheelchair in triumph saying “I can walk again!” It’s sort of like casting a black Hamlet or a male Ophelia. This movie also deals with same-sex-couples in the same unremarkable way.

It’s not a big and exciting movie, but has a comfortable, familial feel about it, along with the underlying competitiveness and rivalry among family members. Beeswax (as in mind your own?) is a realistic look at a few days of the secrets and tensions in two sisters’ lives.

Littlerock

Dir: Mike Ott

Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka), and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) are visiting from Japan. They’re driving from Los Angeles to the San Francisco area (to visit a place related to their past) when their rented car breaks down in Littlerock, a small town in LA county. They’re forced to stay in a motel until they send them a new one. But when they go to the room next door, to complain about a loud drunken party, they end up meeting some locals and hanging out.

Atsuko likes Cory (Cory Zacharia) – who wants to be an actor/model, but owes too much money to his father and his drug dealer – but they don’t speak the same language. They pretend to understand what each other are saying, but once Rintaro takes off, they are left without a translator. Atsuko meets some other people, and jealousy and duplicity ensues.

The problem with the movie is that most of the characters seem bland or uninteresting. It’s realistic, but maybe too realistic. Atsuko and Cory never figure how to communicate – but most of the things they want the other to hear are just standard chatter anyway – aside from a very touching scene toward the end of the movie. It really needed more interesting dialogue to go with the nice scenes of a pensive young Japanese woman coming of age in smalltown USA.

Hanna

Dir: Joe Wright

Hanna (Saoirise Ronan) is brought up by her dad, Erik (Eric Bana) — a spy and assassin who’s gone rogue — in an all-natural setting somewhere in the far north. She learns everything from a stack of old encyclopedias, dictionaries, and grimm’s fairytales. He teaches her how to shoot a deer with a bow and arrow from far away, skin it and cook it. “Always be alert” he tells her. She has to be ready to fend off any attacker — even when she’s asleep. But when she can beat her father at a fight, she realizes it’s time to “come in from the cold” to use the old spy term. She’s ready to face her father’s old foe and handler: the icy, prada-clad CIA agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett).

From there, the movie races on, with the three competing killers – Erik, Hanna, and Marrissa — trying to out-do, capture or kill one another. It’s purposely kept unclear who is the hunter and who is the prey, who is running and who is chasing as power dynamics shift. Marissa and her henchmen – an effeminate German man in white tracksuit and his two skinhead fighters – pursue the 14 year old through various unexpected exotic settings. Hanna just wants to make a friend, find her father again, revisit the brothers Grimm, and listen to music for the very first time. She falls in with a family of British hippies who are driving their van around on a camping trip, and begins to understand the complex rules of social interaction.

The plot is extremely simple, a more-or-less non-stop series of chases and fights – but it’s visually sumptuous movie, with a terrific driving soundtrack, constantly surprising cultural references, stunning scenery, great comic relief, and amazing camera work. There are scenes where the camera spins around and around in a full 360, and others where it flips or rolls or turns upside down. Cate Blanchett is great as the super-villainess, Erik Bana good as a troubled spy, and Saoirise Ronan really great as Hanna, a new type of super hero.

Born to Be Wild

Dir: David Lickley

Wild animals? Aww… Cute, baby wild animals? Cute little baby wild animal… orphans? Awwwww….

How about cute little orphaned baby elephants in Kenya, and baby orangutans living in the rain forests of Borneo… in IMAX 3D???

Yeah, this is one really cute G-rated movie, the kind that makes you

say to hell with my carbon footprint — I wanna hop on a jet-fuel guzzling airplane and fly off to the jungles of Borneo to commune with the Orangutans who look a lot like Homer Simpson…

Actually, the movies about how the rainforests that make up the wild habitat of many the great apes are rapidly disappearing. And in Africa, there are still poachers killing elephants for their ivory tusks. And when the young are left without their mothers they have no one to feed them. These are the orphans – meaning motherless orangutans and elephants — that the movie is about. Narrator Morgan Freeman shows two women — Birute in Indonesia and Daphne in Kenya — who adopt and raise these animal orphans until they’re old enough to gradually be set free again. The extremely short movie (it’s 40 min long) also has some of the best live 3-D footage I’ve seen since Avatar. An enjoyable film (though maybe a bit cloying for adults) it’s perfect for kids who want to see wild animals up close.

Canadian director and artist Luo Li’s newest film premiered at the Images Festival, North America’s largest experimental art and moving images festival, that combines gallery exhibitions with screenings at movie theatres.

Rivers and My Father

Dir: Luo Li

In this movie, he takes his father’s collected memoirs of old China, and sews them together in a black and white patchwork quilt of repeated disjointed scenes, narrations, titles and subtitles, centering around people in and around water. His own relatives play some of the parts (but not all).

So you see a man in a bathing cap bobbing up and down in a river; kids playing in the woods; a formally dressed woman leading a child up an outdoor staircase; a boy on a boat; and some older people talking to each other about their childhood memories, and about shooting this movie.

I was a bit put off by his use of obvious anachronisms that don’t match the year given in a scene’s title; and the frequent repetition of certain odd scenes, but I love his images of a wet road scene looking down in a moving bicycle in the rain; of the slow, grey waters of the Yangtse river; of a distant shore across water.

It’s funny — I’m dismissing various “errors” in the movie as artistic license, but grumbling to myself just the same… when the last third of the movie begins: his own father’s critique (represented by moving, plain and bold chinese fonts on the screen, over english subtitles) of the film I’m watching, as I watch it, and the filmmaker’s response! That was the most surprising and interesting section of this movie.

Beeswax and Littlerock are at the Royal, Born to be Wild at AMC in IMAX 3-D, and Hanna in wide release, all opening today, April 8, 2011. Check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Images Festival, which is playing right now, both on-screen in theatres and off-screen in art galleries. Look online at imagesfestival.com . And Sprockets, the festival of movies for kids and young adults opens this weekend: www.tiff.ca/sprockets

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

Contemporary Chinese Cinema. Movies reviewed: Aftershock, The Ditch, All About Love, I Wish I Knew PLUS Rendezvous with Madness & Scott Pilgrim

This week I’m looking at four movies from China (and Hong Kong) that explore its history, and in some cases, break the boundaries as to what is allowed in Chinese film.

Aftershock (唐山大地震)
Dir: Feng Xiaogang

In 1976, right at the end of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, there was a huge earthquake in northeastern China, Tangshan, Hebei Province, that killed a quarter of a million people. But this movie isn’t really about the earthquake or the aftershocks that followed – it’s a drama about what happens to a family that was living there.

Mom and Dad are a young couple with twin kids, a boy and a girl named Feng Da and Feng Deng. Mom favours the boy a little but loves them both. The parents sneak out to a truck to have sex in the hot air, just when the earthquake hits, with buildings collapsing all around them. Kids are trapped inside and when the building comes down, they’re both still alive but stuck in the rubble under a concrete slab. The men helping move the cement say mom has to choose one kid only – if they lift it, one will be crushed, the other will live. The twins can hear everything. And in a panic, Mom says “save the boy”. But the girl gets out too, and is adopted up by a childless couple from the People’s Liberation Army, (who are there to help in the aftermath of the quake.)

That’s the set-up for the movie – what happens to the lost daughter, her amputee brother, and their always grieving mother, is a 30-year-long melodrama about the paths their lives took as China (like the city of Tangshan) rebuilds, modernizes, and gets richer. Both of the twins end up in Hangzhou… why? I guess because it’s a prettier city to have in a movie than Tangshan.

This movie is a blockbuster in China. It’s a good tearjerker – though not the thrilling disaster movie I thought I’d be seeing. It gets a bit schmaltzy at times, and more than that, all the scenes involving the PLA are a bit over the top; the 1976 scenes with the rosy cheeked girls in pigtails, and the windswept red flags looked like they were modeled on Cultural Revolution posters. With lots of nostalgia, but not a hint of irony. Similar scenes, set in present day China, were also rather propagandistic. Still, it’s not a bad movie; you feel for the feelings of the mom, the son, and the daughter. The acting was generally good – especially the twins (Zhang Jingchu and Chen Li) and the girl’s stepfather (Chen Daoming, whom you might recognize as the Emperor in the movie Hero). Though other scenes, with the mother screeching or weeping at the camera were a bit much. And it gives a nice outline of the changes in China over the past three decades, while steering completely away from any political issues. (Jia Zhangke’s fantastic movie Platform, that took place over the same 30-year period, seems to have inspired the much more mainstream Aftershock.)

The Ditch
Dir: Wang Bing

A very different take on Chinese history is a new movie called The Ditch, that takes place around the time of the anti-rightist campaign and the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It paints a much grimmer portrait. And grim it is.

This is a period of Chinese history that isn’t written about much, and rarely (if ever) portrayed in movies. A bit of historical context: In 1956, there was a movement in China in which the government encouraged artists, intellectuals and students to speak out, and to freely voice their differences and opinions. “Let a hundred flowers bloom” they said. “Let a hundred schools of thought contend.” And that’s what eventually happened. But right after that, there was a huge crackdown on anyone who had voiced criticism of censorship, poor living conditions, or of the Communist Party itself.

And they ended up cracking down on half a million people. The movie, The Ditch, deals with what happened to the ones sent to a particularly heinous labour camp in the Gobi desert. It’s an isolated, deathly poor camp without actual buildings. The inmates literally live in a hole in the ground, a sort of a tunnel, where they slept when they aren’t being worked to death digging a ditch in the middle of nowhere. Life is miserable for them, they can barely stand up, and they survive on the watery gruel they’re given to eat (while the party members are shown happily gorging on plump white noodles and meat.) Then, at some point, the prisoners are told, sorry, no more food at all. Ask your relatives to mail you some or else, you can find food outside. So they start eating any desert gerbils they can catch, and whatever seeds they can find in the dirt.

You get to know the beleaguered inmates – like an engineer who in the Hundred Flowers movement questioned whether “the dictatorship of the proletariat was the right way” (oops!); a man branded as being from the “landlord” class, even though he’s never had enough money to taste braised pork belly; and the various other professors, writers, scientists and former Party members. The most moving part is about the fate of one man whose wife comes in from the big city to see him.

This is an extremely harsh portrayal of life in the prison camps, (sort of a gulag archipelago for the Chinese), showing their cruelty, the degradation of the prisoners, the desecration of the dead, and even the rumours of cannibalism among the starving men. I have a feeling this movie (which played at the Toronto Film Festival), might not be widely shown in China, if at all. It was allowed to be made there, though, on locations very near to the actual camps. The Ditch is a very hard movie to watch, but a moving one nonetheless, and one of great historical significance. And it’s a credit to the sophistication of Chinese cinema that movies like this are being made at all.

All About Love (得閒炒飯)
Dir: Ann Hui

…is a Hong Kong romantic comedy drama about another topic rarely dealt with in Chinese films – a love story between women.

Macy and Anita, who were once a couple, get back together again at a pregnancy group.

But they also have to deal with the earnest and caring sperm donors who got them both pregnant. Do they stay together as a couple? Macy is holding on to a pair of dancing shoes, to return, like Cinderella, to her true love, so that they may someday dance a tango together again.

Do they keep the babies? And what role will the men (well, one’s actually a very young man) play in their lives? One still has a crush, and the other thinks he’s been tricked. There’s also the question of their lives as feminists in Hong Kong, and whether Anita can keep her job after facing sexual harassment in her conservative workplace – she becomes a virtual prisoner there, confined to a conference room.

All about love is a very light romantic farce, but one that deals with an important topic. I found the movie kind of corny (like many romantic comedies), and a bit muddled. I like Ann Hui’s previous movies better than this one, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.

I Wish I Knew (海上传奇)
Dir: Jia Zhangke

Jia Zhangke is one of the best Chinese directors of his generation, and I think it’s even safe to say he’s one of the best directors… period.

I Wish I Knew, is a documentary that shows Shanghai, warts and all. Before 1949, and expecially in its heyday in the 1930’s, Shanghai was known as the Paris of the East, but also as Sin City, replete with filthy-rich bankers and entrepreneurs, gamblers, mahjong players, drunkards, opium-addicts, gangsters, prostitutes and foreigners. Post revolution, the government went to great pains to declare Shanghai “all cleaned up”, but Jia Zhangke has reclaimed the sordid past (and present) as part of what gives Shanghai its mystique.

Using a beautiful silent model, I wish I knew takes you on a city tour, interviewing the very people (like a son of a gangster, an entertainer, and an MSG mogul) that used to be taboo.

He only deals with professions that are in some way international, glamorous, edgy, artistic or in some way both interesting, and specific to Shanghai. And, for the most part, the people he interviews speak in Shanghainese, not in standard Chinese. Interspersed with the talking heads are clips from great movies — by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Wang Kar-wai, and others — that give recreations of periods in the city’s past.

While not one of Jia Zhang-ke’s best films, this is a great documentary view of China — and the city of Shanghai — in a way you rarely get to see it.

Also opening tonight is a very interesting film festival, Rendezvous With Madness, which looks at how mental health and drug addiction are portrayed at the movies. Interesting screenings are followed by Q&A discussions with the filmmakers and people in the field of addiction and mental health. I’ll be talking more about this next year: Check out rendezvouswithmadness.com .

Also playing, tonight only, is Scott Pilgrim vs the World. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a fun movie, based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, set in downtown Toronto. Since the movie features local landmarks like Lee’s Palace, Honest Ed’s, and the Beguiling, it makes sense it’s playing at the Bloor. And guess what? Bryan will be there at the screening… and it’s completely free! So show up early if you want a seat.

Just to review, today I talked about four Chinese movies, Aftershock, now playing, check your local listings; All about Love and The Ditch, which played at the Toronto Film Festival this year, and I Wish I Knew, which opens next week, Nov.11, at the TIFF Lightbox. (Check times at tiff.net)

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

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

My Soul to Take
Dir: Wes Craven

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

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

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

Hereafter
Dir: Clint Eastwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LA Zombie
Dir: Bruce LaBruce

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

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

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

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

Finally,

Cold Fish
Dir: Sono Shion

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

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

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

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

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

Late Teens, Early Twenties. Films Reviewed: Heartbeats, Bran Nue Dae, Never Let Me Go, Catfish

There’s a surprising variety in the films about people in their teens and early twenties that played at the Toronto Film Festival. I’m looking at a few of them, plus one odd duck from outside TIFF that fits the category too. Like most coming-of-age or college movies, these have love, crushes, and passions; followed by some big revelation or shock that shakes their hopes and beliefs to their very foundations.

Each of these movies, though, has a twist that makes it just a little different from the usual teen or college movie. One has a gay element; one involves indigenous people as the main characters; one takes place in an alternate reality from the one we live in; and one is based mainly on the difficulties of using facebook – and, no, unfortunately, I’m not reviewing that Social Network movie that’s opening today – I’m reviewing the other facebook movie.

Heartbeats

Dir: Xavier Dolan

Quebecois Xavier Dolan, who directed, wrote, and starred in his great debut film, J’ai tue ma mere / I killed my mother,

(about a gay teenager and the problems he has with his mother) is back with his second triple-threat movie, called Heartbeats or Les Amours Imaginaire. In this one best friends Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri), both become infatuated with a good-looking, intelligent, rich, and personable newcomer to Montreal, Nicolas (Niels Schneider). Neither wants to admit they like him, but each of them secretly schemes how to win him over. Nicolas, in the meantime, flirts with them both — he loves being the centre of attention and adulation. The tension and competition between the two friends grows until it explodes during a trip the three of them take to a house in rural Quebec.

It’s not a bad movie — it’s a light-hearted farce, well acted, and interesting. It just felt like a bit of a let-down after his much more dramatic, entertaining, and moving first film. If only Dolan could have kept it as just the three-character story. But instead he adds very long scenes of people shopping, of long pillow conversations in dim light with their various sex partners; and periodic scenes of talking heads of unidentified montrealers giving their views on sex, relationships, and break-ups.

To me it seemed like a good 45 minute film, but with lots of filler to stretch it out into a feature film. OK maybe that’s not fair. Dolan may be 21, but he puts in as many cultural, literary, and filmic allusions as a well-established filmmaker. He’s not playing around, I assume, and there must be some reason for all the less interesting scenes. But still, the movie could have used more of the story – which was great! – and less of all that extra stuff, which was… just not very interesting. It broke up the flow, it didn’t add to it.

The characters were all fun to watch, and the acting was great by all three, plus a hilarious cameo by Anne Dorval – she’s amazing. (She was the mother in J’ai tue ma mere.) Enjoy Heartbeats as a light, pleasant comedy, and leave it at that.

Bran Nue Dae

Dir: Rachel Perkins

Another pleasant diversion is this Australian musical – yes, a musical – that played last year’s Toronto Film Festival. 50 years ago: Willie, an aboriginal kid who lives in a shack with his deeply religious mom in Broome – a small town in Western Australia — likes a cute girl with a great voice who sings in the local bar. But she’s hanging with a greaser. He gets sent to a residential school, where kids wear uniforms and learn religion. He rebels much to the dismay of a priest, Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush). Willie makes his way back to Broome, chased by the priest, and falls in with a hobo, who says he’s his Uncle Tadpole; but he’s a trickster, who does things like throwing himself in front of a car to get money or maybe a free ride. They encounter a tough floozie in a roadhouse, a German guy and his Aussie hippie girlfriend looking for his Dad for some reason, in a VW bus in the outback. They all set out to reach Broome. The movie traces all the characters’ adventures, punctuated by songs and dances, as Willie makes his way back home to see the girl he longs for.

It’s not bad for a low budget movie… its very distinctly Australian, cute, funny, with a cast that’s largely made up of indigenous people and pacific islanders. Some of the songs are better than others. Interestingly, the young woman with the great voice apparently won Australian Idol a couple years ago. It takes place in the past but the whole movie also has a bit of a dated feel to it – it could be because it toured the country as a play for 20 years before it was made into a movie. But if you like musical comedies, or want to learn about a very different, yet oddly similar, culture; or if you just want to a good old fashioned-type story with all the hidden identities and plot turns, and you approach this without grand expectations, you just might enjoy Bran Nue Dae.

Never Let Me Go

Dir: Mark Romanek

It’s 1983 somewhere in England. So you expect to see skinheads marauding on the streets, people in bright colours and funny haircuts listening to the latest Duran Duran album, pop culture everywhere. But no. This is a different England than the one you’re used to. Three kids at an exclusive English boarding school called Hailsham, grow up as close friends. Tommy (Andrew Garfield) gets bullied because he’s easy to tease – he’s got an anger problem. Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is kind and mature but a bit plain, while tall, beautiful black-haired Ruth (Keira Knightley) is a bit selfish.

They, and the other kids, live an isolated, sheltered existence, never really seeing the world outside the experimental school. No fighting. No bad manners. They’re raised from a young age to be Carers and Donors (wonder what that means… hmmmm…). The movie shows them realize what their purpose is in life, in their duty toward the country that takes care of them. They are there to provide medical help – their whole existence, once they graduate, is to care for the ill and elderly, who often live to be well over a hundred. But Hailsham grads are a special case, and it is said, that some can break loose from their inevitable fate. The three friends, Kathie, Ruth and Tommy decide to try.

This one is not a light diversion. It’s a depressing, demoralizing downer of a movie. It’s pretty interesting, an adaptation of the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro (the author Remains of the Day) ‘s disturbing science fiction novel. It’s a tender, moving film, showing the trade-offs a society goes through for the greater good, a sort of an alternate reality set in the past. Great acting, kinda creepy story.

Catfish

A “documentary”

Nev, a photographer in NYC discovers that a little girl, Abby, in small-town Michigan is making paintings of his photos – and sending them to him. He communicates with her, her mother, and her beautiful older sister Megan.

Nev and Megan’s long distance relationshipm via facebook, telephone and texting, takes on a sexual dimension. Although they’ve never met face to face, they feel like they’re together. But when she emails him some obviously pirated music tapes, and claimed she was the singer, Nev begins to suspect something is not right. So he and his buddies, the so-called documentary makers, drive out to Michigan to confront her.

I felt really misled by the advertising for this movie – they claimed it was a Hitchcockian thriller. Well it ain’t. It’s a not-very-good low-budget pseudo-documentary about social networking, I’d rank it slightly above “Bridezilla” (the notorious youtube forgery about a bride whose hair goes bad on her wedding day) that might work online, but feels like a rip-off on the big screen. Instead of Catfish, this movie should be called Red Herring… or maybe Shaggy Dog.

And, finally, starting this weekend and running for one week is the Toronto Palestine Film Festival. It’s playing a wide variety of films, like “The Time that Remains”, a semi-autobiographical story by the well-known director Elia Suleiman, about the fate of Palestinians who remained in Israel, from 1948 to the present; two films on the noted poet Mahmoud Darwish; and “Aisheen: Still alive in Gaza”, a documentary shot just two weeks after the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009. There is also a panel discussion with Palestinian filmmakers, as well as a traditional Palestinian breakfast, catered by a Toronto chef. Lots going on from October 2nd to the 8th at the Toronto Palestine Film Festival – check out details, tickets, prices, and times, at tpff.ca.

Summer Popcorn Thrillers! Films reviewed: The Girl Who Played with Fire, Predators, Inception

Summer’s here, and sometimes a movie’s good enough to watch if it lets you sit in a comfortable seat, in a dark, air-conditioned room, while pretty pictures dance on the screen in front of you. If there’s a bit of a plot, credible acting, or a thrilling story – all the better. Escapism is simply getting away from the heat.

This week I’m looking at three very different summer thrillers about groups of people chasing — or being chased by — their opponents.

The Girl who Played with Fire

Dir: Daniel Alfredson

This is number two in the series adapted from Stieg Larsen’s mysteries, that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth Salander, the super computer hacker, stone cold, secretive, punk-goth detective , and sexually liberated woman-about-town is back in Sweden after a sojourn in warmer climes. Her erstwhile partner, the left-wing journalist Blomkvist, wants to talk to her.

But there’s also a mysterious cabal of baddies that are out to get her, so she has to be extra careful. So she gets Miriam Wu, her ex-lover, to move into her apartment as she reconnoiters the Swedish scene to find out what’s shaking. Who’s doing this? Is it the police? The Russian Mafia? Is it her noxious parole officer from the first movie? Or maybe it’s something from her own past –- the reason she had been jailed as a juvenile. And who’s this blond giant, an almost zombie-like killer, that even a professional boxer can’t hurt? He’s definitely a bad guy, but what’s his role? And is he the mysterious “Zala”?

Throw in some bad-ass bikers (Swedish Hell’s Angels? Who’da thunk it?) a meddlesome poplice detective, and Blomqvist’s journalistic ventures… and you have a lot of plotlines on the same plate, calling out for closure. This movie keeps you interested, it was not bad, there are a few stunning revelations, but it doesn’t have the oomph and the feeling of catharsis of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Too much this, that, and the other – not enough driving plot or satisfying finish. I don’t think we’ll get that until number three in the series.

“Predators”

Dir: Nimrod Antal

…is a new version of the 80’s action movie, Predator. It’s the kind of BOOM BOOM BOOM movie that pulls you in from the first moment, and drags along with them till the last battle. This action/ thriller/ horror pic starts with an unnamed soldier (played by a wiry tougher-looking Adrian Brody) falling through the air, and crash landing in tropical jungle. Where the hell is he? Other, similar alpha dogs, predators all, are plopping down all around him. But are they hunters? Or are they the prey in this most Dangerous Game?

Wherever they are, and whatever they’re all there for, much like the characters in the TV series “Lost”, they soon realize they’re going to have to live together… or die separately, one by one. Brody, Alice Braga (as a hard-ass soldier with a soul), and Lawrence Fishburne (as an whack jungle survivalist) head up an international cast of predators, fighting to stay alive in this treacherous jungle, and trying to see who exactly their enemy or enemies are.

It’s a good, gross and gory, summer B-movie with the feel of Alien, Lost, and Rambo (shorn of all the nasty, 1980s CIA central American guerrilla stuff in the original Predator). Some of the special effects don’t do it — the CGIs and background mattes are often kindergarten-ish — and some of the fight scenes – especially a Samurai style showdown – seem way stupid and out of place, but the movie’s still worth seeing on the big screen for a good crappy action getaway.

Finally, there’s the popular, and bafflingly – to me – critically acclaimed big-budget movie

“Inception”

Dir: Christopher Nolan (and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe).

Cobb, an international corporate spy, is hired by a Japanese executive to infiltrate — with his mission impossible team — the dreams of a man, in order to change his mind. Why? Cause this man has inherited the monopoly on big oil – and it should be broken up among competing oil interests. Wow – there’s a motive. Also, if they do this, Cobb’s unnamed criminal charges will be dropped, and Cobb will go back to see his kids in America.

So they build a sequence of dreams, not one, but a whole bunch, each one a dream within a dream. So we get to follow them around, ski-shooting, driving a van in a city, or… going to a mock crime scene. Each dream is precisely calibrated with the others and they’re all going on simultaneously, sort of like in a video game. But, there’s also Cobb’s sub-conscious occasionally intruding into the story line, via a woman from his past – so a bit of intrigue, bit of romance.

I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but it didn’t do it for me. It’s a movie about dreams, but with the most un-dreamlike storylines imaginable, and with all these co-conspirators participating in real-time, inside someone else’s head.

To illustrate this, (and I’m not saying “my dreams are interesting, Nolan’s are boring”) let me tell you my own dream the night I saw this movie, last week.

I’m looking down a desolate stretch of urban highway with telephone lines beside very wide street. It’s all in black and white.

In the distance dark clouds – and what look like three tornadoes — start spinning toward me. I run and hide, inside somewhere… I know I have to stop them somehow, so I make little bombs out of household cleansers and powders in plastic baggies.

The tornadoes have stopped spinning around and are “standing” there in a grassy clearing near a stand of trees. (It’s in colour now.)

In fact they’ve changed form, into three pinkish giant plucked chickens (like the yellow rubber chickens bad comedians used to pull out in lieu of a punch line —— only these guys are three stories tall.) But I know they’re still tornadoes who just happen to look like rubber chickens.

I have to hit one with a bomb-baggie to blast the tornadoes away — but they’re so far away… Will I hit one?

I toss a baggie bomb, but it just bounces off a rubber chicken’s forehead, instead of exploding. I guess it was a dud. But a few seconds later, the giant rubber chicken tornado stiffens and TIMBERRR…! it falls straight to the ground like a tree.

We’re safe again.

Ok – now if someone were to tell me that seeing the tornadoes or rubber chickens would convince me to break apart my monopoly on world oil – I’d say: what are you talking about? Are you crazy? It’s just a dream.

Dreams are weird, not ordinary, not just literal recreations of everyday life, not neatly functioning things. And whatever they are like, they are generated by your brain, from your memories and according to your internal method of seeing and understanding the world. They may be strange, but they’re understood and accepted as your own internal reality.

So if someone were to rewrite your dreams so they were turned into a three hour action-adventure movie – wouldn’t you notice something a little … odd about them? Like the fact that they have absolutely nothing to do with the normal functioning of your brain?

Anyway, “Inception” was not awful. The movie had some neat themes — like a subtle reference to Matteo Ricci’s Memory Palace, where Cobb is able to store his own memories in mental compartment in a self-created city inside his mind. I also liked the some of the spectacular background special effects, like the images of crumbling buildings (that you can catch in the trailers and TV commercials). But on the whole, it was just another much too long, convoluted action movie, with a science fiction twist and ridiculous plot. It’s a B-movie disguised as a deep drama, another vapid Ocean’s 11-style caper flick pretending to be something deep.

Lives of Girls and Women. Movies reviewed: Acts of Dishonour, The Kids are Alright, Hey Hey it’s Esther Blueburger

This week I’m talking about the lives of girls and women.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there are way too many movies that use female characters only as walk-ons, tokens, eye candy, the straight man for joke scenes. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon, there really has been a slide from when movies had male and female characters, to now, where there are male characters and their female appendages.

There’s a fun technique some people use now, to decide whether or not a movie can be said to be a movie with women in it. It’s called the Bechdel Rule, named after the cartoonist and graphic novelist Allison Bechdel. And the rule is: does the movie have two female characters? Do they ever talk to each other? And when they talk, is it about something besides a man? It’s surprising how uncommon movies passing these three rules are. So let’s look at some that definitely pass this test.

“Hey Hey it’s Esther Blueburger”

Dir / Wri: Cathy Randall.

12 year old Esther (Danielle Catanzariti) lives in Adelaide, Australia, with her eccentric, computer geek twin brother and her nice, middle-class, but detached, parents. She goes to a private girls school in pigtails, a plaid skirt, shirt and tie, and an old fashioned straw hat. She looks like a Jewish Anne of Green Gables, but with black hair, not red. She’s a bit of an outcast in this hierarchical, conformist, school of rules, bullies and guards, and she has no friends, except her brother and a little duck she adopts.

She sits in a toilet stall and asks, Are you there God? It’s Me Margaret… I mean Esther. So she hangs out near a public high school built on the grounds of an old zoo, looking in at the kids who get to do dancing and karate and drumming instead of singing in a choir.

When something terrible happens at her school, Esther rebels. She’s befriended by Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes), an older tough girl from the public school who lends her a spare uniform. Esther becomes a stealth student at another school. She tries new things, pierces an ear, starts to wear makeup, express herself, creates a brand new personality. But at the expense of her truer, better self?

“Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger”, is a nice, cute, coming of age story, a sort of an Aussie Holden Caulfield about a young girl finding herself, and learning about the world. The movie doesn’t always work – it’s formulaic, and wavers from after school special, to light comedy, to fantasy, to more serious drama – but I enjoyed it. It’s also really well made – what’s with these Australian movies? One made in North America would just churn out something like this as a cheap knock-off; but the Australians put so much work into the look of this movie, with stylized, almost choreographed scenes, repeating colour images, running visual themes… the art direction is noticeably superior, and the editing, direction, everything, are all really good. And Catanzaritti is terrific (if sometimes too terrific) as a young girl growing up.

“The Kids are All Right”

Dir: Lisa Cholodenko

…is a real honey of a movie. It’s about a nice Southern California family, with two kids, Joni and Laser, and two mommies, Nic a doctor, and Jules, a housewife. Both kids have the same anonymous donor as their biological father, with each mother giving birth. So… as part of their agreement, the sperm bank keeps a record of the donor, and when Joni turns 18, she decides to initiate contact, mainly because 15-year-old Laser wants a chance to meet his dad. That’s where the plot thickens. All of their lives are suddenly disrupted with the introduction of Paul. Let me say who’s playing whom, so you can get an idea of this movie: Nic and Jules is Annette Bening as the uptight doctor, in maybe her best role ever; Julianne Moore, going against type, as an insecure, bumbling, apologetic mum; and Mia Wasikowska (who was Alice in Wonderland) as the gentle Joni. The third wheel dad/sperm donor is Mark Ruffallo, a motorcycle riding, college drop out, organic farmer restauranteur, who hits on every pretty woman he sees – quite successfully, it seems. He’s a do-er. He’s still the 19 year old sperm donor, but in his 40’s now, and suddenly wants to settle down and fly right… sort of.

Normally I’m not a big fan of light family dramas, but this movie has such good acting, is so funny, is such a good story – I really liked it. And it wasn’t actors playing roles, Nic and Jules really are this middle class married lesbian couple, with all their quirks and foibles and embarrassing squirmy personality traits — like they get off watching gay male porn! — that transcend the usual stereotypes, but let a few choice ones in, too. Great movie!

Act of Dishonour

Dir: Nelofer Pazira

A much graver story, Act of Dishonour is a Canadian movie that takes place in a polyglot and diverse Afghan village, a village at peace. Mejgan, played by Nelofer Pazira who also wrote and directed, is a woman returning to Afghanistan to find out about her past, and also to work on a Canadian movie being shot there. The Hazera are returning to the village as well, as are people who had fled to the west, to Kabul or to Iran, or are returning from a Taliban prison. And members of the Taliban still live there too. Kids are being educated again, allowed to watch animated movies at school, buut women are still kept sequestered away.

Meanwhile, a pretty, 15 year old girl who dresses in red and weaves and dyes cloth behind the clay walls of her home, is hoping to get married soon, and she sometimes sees a boy her age who she would like to marry, but needs a burqa to wear to her wedding. So Mejgan makes a deal – she’ll give her a bright purple burqa if the girl agrees to appear in a movie scene.

Here’s where the subtle irony comes in: A decade ago, Pazira starred in a great movie about the oppression of women in Afghanistan, called “Kandahar”. In that movie the burqa was a symbol of oppressed women and their lack of freedom. But in this village it’s a symbol of honour, tradition and beauty.

The smug director, though, is set in his ways – there’s no way he’s going to play a part in this subjugation of woman – he will not give a woman a burqa! A day or two later the Canadians will be moving on to Kabul, but what are the consequences of what they’ve done?

Acts of Dishonour deals with the stubbornness of earnest Canadian visitors, the violence of the fundamentalists, the ethnic unrest, and the concept of foreigners versus locals, (which doesn’t necessarily mean westerners) and how even the appearance of sin or dishonour to a family’s name can lead to revenge, death, or even the threat of honour killing.

I’ve only seen two movies about contemporary Afghanistan – both involving Pazira – and together they give a good before and after view of the Afghan war, (not to say that it’s over now) bookends of a decade of conflict. It’s not a gripping thriller, or a melodrama; it’s a subtle film, nicely shot — stark cold, plain, realistic — that gives a glimpse into the lives of the people there and some of the intractable conflicts and violence they face. It makes a nice metaphor about Canadians’ generous, earnest intentions for Afghanistan… and how divorced from reality they sometimes end up being.

So there you are, three interesting movies — Canadian, Australian, and American — all with at least two female characters, who talk to each other, and not just about a man. That’s a solid “three” on the Bechdel scale.

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