Revolution vs Devolution. Movies Reviewed: Zoolander 2, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 2000s, African-Americans, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Fashion, FBI, Movies, Politics, Protest, Resistance, Rome by CulturalMining.com on February 12, 2016

fonds1244item71womenhatsHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

February is Toronto’s Black History Month, because Canada has a history all its own, both good and bad. There’s the black Empire Loyalists and the Underground Railroad. But there was also slavery in Canada, and the demolition of Africville in Halifax, and the rioting at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. So this weekend is a good time to catch up on some of this history at the Black Film Festival in Toronto.

This week, I’m looking at a documentary about 50 years of revolution by an African American party, and a comedy about 15 years of devolution by male models at parties.

1451590015Zoolander 2

Dir: Ben Stiller

Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is a vapid former supermodel who lives in a log cabin in the Alps of northern New Jersey. His wife is dead and his son, Derek Jr, has been taken away by social services. Zoolander has been a hermit (or “hermit crab” as he says) since 2001. His former best friend and supermodel Hansel (Owen Wilson) lives in a tent in the middle of a vast desert near Palm Springs. He has non-stop orgies – involving sumo wrestlers, babushkas and goats — relieved only by intermittent yoga sessions. The two men hate each other’s guts. But they find themselves together 12694567_1126067307412867_853856684406049756_oagain in Rome relaunching their respective careers.

Together with former swimsuit model Valentina (Penelope Cruz), now part of Interpol’s fashion police, they join forces to fight an evil cabal of supervillains who have infiltrated the fashion industry. Why? Because the bad guys, including Mugatu (Will Farrell), want to get their hands on the fountain of youth guarded by the Chosen One. He is a direct 12742598_1126574614028803_3503656508624870388_ndescendent of an unbroken line of vapid male supermodels dating back to the Garden of Eden. (Apparently there was an Adam and Steve). But who is the Chosen One and how can they save him?

I like comedies, they just have to be funny. This one’s not. it has a few very hilarious moments, but a stand-up comic with only one laugh for every 20 jokes would be booed off the stage. It’s also weirdly outdated. I can accept that Zoolander and Hansel have hidden away for 15 years, but why is the rest of the movie in a time warp, too? It’s filled with Calvin Klein perfume ads from the 1990s, titans of the fashion avant garde like Tommy Hilfiger,  “hipsters” wearing dreadlocks,  and Al Qaeda as the most dangerous terrorists. Even the plot is a take-off of a Dan Brown novel. Everything in the movie just seems so old. There’s no satire, and very little humour. The funniest moments come from the tickle of recognition that accompanies the countless celebrities — Bieber, Kardashian, Sarandon, Sutherland — who make cameo appearances. But it’s not enough to rescue this dud.

20150804_152141_8000991-women-drilling-with-panther-flags-photo-courtesy-of-pirkle-jones.jpg.1280x720_q85The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Dir: Stanley Nelson

It’s 1966. The US is fighting in Vietnam and anti-war protests are springing up around the world. The civil rights movement is in full swing in the southern states. But in northern cities, in places like Oakland California, the police are still arresting, frisking and beating black men with impunity. So two young leaders, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, found a black nationalist movement there to counter police brutality and 20150804_152141_8233072-charles-bursey-hands-plate-of-food-to-a-child-seated-at-free-bre.jpg.1280x720_q85racial oppression and to express black pride and solidarity. And if attacked by the police, they vowed to fight back by any means necessary (in the words of Malcolm X). They named it the Black Panther Party. Members cut a mean profile: natural hairstyles, shades, black leather jackets, and military-style black berets. And, most shocking of all, they carried long guns — in the name of the Second Amendment and the Right to Bear Arms — 20150804_152141_8093234-panthers-on-parade-at-free-huey-rally-in-defermery-park-oakland-.jpg.1280x720_q85with leather straps of bullets across their chests. They were later joined by Eldridge Cleaver whose book Soul on Ice, written in prison, captured the nation’s mood.

Lyndon B Johnson, the president, and FBI chief J Edgar Hoover were shocked. They considered a black nationalist movement the biggest danger of them all — bigger than communism. They swung into action using the notorious COINTELPRO — counter-intelligence program — to infiltrate and spy on the group. They sent letters and ohone calls to women saying their husbands were cheating on them. The police were called into action to break up meetings and arrest its 20150804_152143_3153609-eldridge-cleaver-berkeley-photo-courtesy-of-jeffrey-blankfort.jpg.1280x720_q85members. Dozens were arrested on trumped-up charges, and many killed in raids across the country. Some are still in prison to this day. At an infamous Chicago trial, the judge actually had Bobby Seale chained to a chair, bound and gagged, in the courtroom, making him the perfect symbol of state oppression. Eldridge Cleaver fled to Algeria. Later many of the top members changed their beliefs, leaving the party divided among warring factions.

This is a fascinating history of the movement, with tons of still photos, archival footage, and new interviews with members that tell you lots you’ve probably never heard of. Did you know they started a successful school breakfast program? And published a newspaper that was their main source of income? Their standard image is of armed black men, but the majority of rank-and20150804_152141_8192973-black-panthers-from-sacramento-free-huey-rally-bobby-hutton-memo.jpg.1280x720_q85-file members were actually women, fighting for women’s rights within the party. The film doesn’t go deeply into the more controversial aspects of The Black Panthers. Some thought it undermined the non-violent civil rights movement. Or that it was big on image, weak on politics. But whatever your point of view, the Panthers made a huge mark on American history beginning 50 years ago, and this film explains it all.

Zoolander 2 opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is playing on Saturday at 11:00 AM at the Carlton Cinema as part of Toronto’s Black Film Festival. Go to torontoblackfilm.com for more info. And the Next Wave Film Festival is on all weekend long for 14-18 year-olds who love movies. Check out tiff.net for details — especially its great closing film Sing Street.

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

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination. Movies Reviewed: The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Adventure, Catholicism, Communism, Cultural Mining, Disease, Dreams, Fantasy, Italy, Joy, Magic, Movies, Rome, Sex, Short Stories, Slavery, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 15, 2014

The Decameron Pier Paolo PasoliniHi, 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.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: You may have heard his name, but not know why. He was an Italian novelist, poet, artist and director, born in Bologna. He got his start in movies writing screenplays (including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) before directing his own films. His films – he directed movies from the 1960s until the mid 70s, when he was murdered – celebrate the poor, The Decameron Pasolini 2 TIFFthe outcasts, the people in the margins. They dig at the complacent middle-class, and the oppressive and corrupt church and nobilitiy. He cast non-professionals in his films for their looks and attitude – he wanted his actors natural not contrived. Naturalism was all-important.

Pasolini was in the Italian Communist Party but was kicked out for his criminal activity. His crime? Being gay. So Pasolini embraced his status as sexual outlaw.

All of these elements – politics and sexuality shown in literature and art – come together in his movies: beautiful to watch, full of laughter, but with a rough and tragic streak running through them.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination is a retrospective of his films now playing at TIFF. This week, I’m going to tell you about three of his movies, often called a trilogy, all based on Medieval stories. They are extraordinarily beautiful films and you should see them on the big screen while you can. There’s an English romp, an Italian comedy, and tales of middle-eastern magic.

Pasolini Canterbury Tales 2 TIFFCanterbury Tales (1972)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the classic collection of stories told by religious pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Set in 14thcentury England, it’s filled with monastic robes, pious nuns, Oxford students, religious pilgrims. But it’s also a world full of shouting and drunkenness, farts and belches. The old are missing teeth, fat and ugly, and prone to violence. The young, though still beautiful, are selfish and arrogant. And everyone’s apt to break into raucous, unscripted laughter as they do medieval things like milling corn or polishing eggs.

But what do they all desire? Sex (and money). They come up with complex schemes to cheat on their husbands and wives. This movie is very bawdy.

But it has a dark side too. One of the earliest scenes shows a man being burned to death in the market Pasolini Canterbury tales 1 TIFFsquare: he was caught having sex with another man, but was too poor to bribe the police.

Religion and the supernatural are omnipresent. Angels, devils and wood spirits are as likely as a passing neighbour to appear outside a window. A widow wears out a succession of husbands by being too good in bed. An arrogant student fools his mentor into thinking a great flood is coming. Three brothers go from cavorting in a brothel to plotting dangerous and murderous schemes. And a bright red devil shoots the black-clothed sinners of hell out of his ass!

Most of all, it’s a place where large-breasted women and plain-faced men stand around staring… naturally, naked.

Decameron, Il (1971) aka The Decameron Directed by Pier Paolo PasoliniThe Decameron (1971)

Based on 14th century writer Boccacio’s sexual comedy, these piqaresque stories centre on Naples and other medieval Italian cities. Women are tricksters who fool hapless travelers, while sinners look for sex. It’s a comedy about sex, thumbing its nose at church-mandated restrictions.

Here’s a typical story. A nunnery is off limits to all men but the elderly. A young guy, sensing opportunity, pulls his hat down low – like Bob and Doug McKenzie — and pretends to be a deaf-mute simpleton. He gets hired as a gardner. Soon enough, all the nuns are sneaking out to the shed for their daily roll in the hay. But what happens when the mother superior gets her turn? He tells her he’s had enough. He can Pasolini's The Decameron 3 TIFFspeak! It’s a miracle!

This is an amazing movie (I liked it even better than Canterbury Tales) shot around ancient castles and down narrow allies.

Arabian Nights (1974)

The 1001 Nights is the famous collection of intertwined stories-within-stories across the Arab world. Pasolini skips the tale of the Persian Scheherazade as the storyteller, and instead uses a loving Ines Pellegrini in Pasolini's Arabian Nightsrelationship between a wise and beautiful slave-girl named Zummarud, and her young master. She’s smarter than all the men she encounters, and somehow manages to snub potential buyers at her own auction — rich old men who won’t satisfy her sexually – in favour of love at first site. But she is kidnapped by a spurned buyer. This launches a series of journeys as she outsmarts the men she meets and eventually – disguised as a man – rises to the level of king. And all the way her lover, Nur ed-Din tries to find her.

She’s played by Ines Pellegrini, an Italian woman of Eritrean background, and he’s Franco Merli, a Pasolini's The Arabian Nightsteenaged boy Pasolini apparently spotted pumping gas.

Pasolini skips the most famous stories – the Ali Babas, Alladins, and Sinbads – and instead adapts less-well-known ones. Especially the sexy parts.

Like Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, The Arabian Nights was rated “X” when it first came out. Though it includes a lot of nudity, it’s very tame, sweet and almost naïve, by present-day standards. Some of the same actors show up in all of these films. Franco Citti (usually with bright red hair) plays the devil in Canterbury, an unrepentant sinner and homosexual in Decameron and a magical demon in Arabian Nights. Ninneto Davoli (Pasolini’s former lover), is the toothy, curly-haired clown who bursts into tears or laughter, or else stares, dumbfounded, at new things he encounters. Pasolini himself also appears in small — but central — roles arabian-nightsin his own movies — as Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, or as a master painter in The Decameron, who says his art is never as good as what appears in his dreams.

Arabian Nights was shot in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran and Nepal, and to say the locations are breathtakingly beautiful doesn’t do them justice. It’s mind-boggling, ranging from lunar landscapes and strange curved mud homes, to cavernous, white-and-blue tiled cathedrals, and ancient wooden Nepali shrines. And the faces of the local actors and extras add still more beauty and authenticity to the locations. (A collection of still photos from this film by Roberto Villa is on display now at the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; details on tiff.net. Beginning next Thursday is the CFF a festival of low-budget and independent Canadian films at the Royal:  go to canfilmfest.ca for more information. And cult favourite The Room is playing at the Carlton starting tonight.

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

Movie Movies. Films Reviewed: Pompeii, 3 Days to Kill PLUS AKP Job 27

Posted in 3-D, CGI, CIA, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Cultural Mining, Drama, Espionage, Gladiator, Rome, Serbian, Silent Movie, Toronto, Uncategorized, Yakuza by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 2014

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

Do you ever get tired of movies with deep meanings and avant-garde styles? Do you ever just want to see a “movie” movie? Well this week I’m looking at some movie movies, each with a bit of a twist. There’s a sword- and-sandal romance that’s also a disaster movie, an action-thriller that’s a family comedy, and a Yakuza movie… that has no lines!

Pompeii HarringtonPompeii (in 3D)

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson

The Roman empire is reaching its apex, planting the golden eagle on Brittainia.  A particularly cruel general named Corvus battles the Celts. When it’s over he says to his henchman: Kill them all! But one little boy survives.

Milo (Kit Harrington, Game of Thrones) grows up to be a champion fighter, with stringy hair, a wispy beard and killer abs. He’s sent to Rome to compete as a fighter-slave. But on the way he comes to the aid of a beautiful, upper-class woman with porcelain features named Cassia (Emily Browning) Her horse has an accident, and Milo has a way with horses. He was “born on horseback”, he says. But will they ever meet again? You can count on it.

Pompeii Kit Harrington, Emily Browning

Now, Milo is sent to Pompeii (a holiday spot outside of Rome) to fight to the death in the arena there (Cassia’s dad controls Pompeii’s stadium). The ultimate fight will be between Milo and his rival Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Pompeii, Kit Harrington, Atticus Adewale Akinnuoye-AgbajeAgbaje) an African gladiator about to win his freedom.

Who comes to town, but a suitor, a senator from Rome. He says he’ll approve the new stadium, if — and only if — Cassia marries him. But she hates him (they had an earlier run-in in Rome) and she has a thing for Milo. And who is this Pompeii Sutherlandsenator? Why it’s Corvus (Keiffer Sutherland) who, along with his henchman Proculus (Sasha Roiz) massacred Milo’s family as a child!

So all of these plots are going on right at the base of Mt Vesuvius. And as we all know now, the volcano is about to blow, pouring lava and volcanic ash over Pompeii, Sasha Roizeveryone, rich and poor, who doesn’t get out of there soon.

This movie has three things going on. There’s the frequent action scenes – lots of fights, great gladiator matches, chase scenes; then there are the romantic parts: Cassia and Milo are constantly risking their own lives to rescue each other from death and danger; and there’s the inevitable disaster part: ground rumbling, buildings crumbling, spectacular collapses… The movie uses way, way, way too many CGIs. It makes everything look dark. You long for some blue skies. Nevertheless, I totally enjoyed this movie. Excitement, interesting plot, fights, romance, tears… it’s got everything.

And believe it or not, this movie about ancient Rome was shot in Toronto’s west end, all in enormous  soundstages and backlots.

Costner, 3 Days to KillThree Days to Kill

Dir: McG (The O.C.)

Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is just a regular guy who wears Dockers and roots for the Pittsburg steelers. He’s been away from his wife and daughter for five years. Why? Because he’s also a CIA assassin. He is in Belgrade to kill a sadistic criminal named the Albino (played by Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis as a James Bond-type super-villain). He’s known for chopping off the heads of his enemies. A young CIA agent named Vivi (Amber Heard) is there at the same time to kill another criminal known only as the Wolf. But something goes wrong.

Ethan collapses to the ground just when he should have shot the Albino.

Turns out he has inoperable brain cancer. He decides to spend his last days with his estranged wife and resentful teenaged daughter Zooey (Haillee Steinfeld, True Grit) in Paris.  This is where the action is supposed to turn to laughs.

Back in Paris, his apartment has squatters: an extended family from Mali. (He’s white, they’re black… Get it?) And his teenaged daughter Zooey is angry because he neglected her. (She’s young, he’s old… Get it?) Well, somehow, he convinces his wife he can be trusted to take care of their daughter for three days while she’s away on a business trip. But then Vivi reappears to say: I’ll cure your cancer with some secret drugs if you murder the Wolf (Ethan’s the only one who saw his face in Belgrade.) So now he has to juggle bonding with Zooey, with dying of cancer, and torturing suspects and killing alleged criminals.3 Days to Kill Amber Heard

This is such a craptastically messed-up movie. Believe it or not, the script was originally co-written by Luc Besson, the notorious French action movie director. So it does have some good chase scenes and shootouts.

But the humour? So lame, it’s absolutely devoid of laughs. Costner is a terrible comic actor, and Amber Heard is embarrassingly bad as the multi-wigged Vivi. The script feels like it was written in French, rewritten in Serbo-Croation with the English version courtesy of Google Translate, alpha edition. Just dreadful.

A016_C094_11139EAKP Job 27

Dir: Michael Suan

And in a tribute to the old Luc Besson comes a silent gangster pic from Toronto. A Yakuza hit man travels to on assignment in Canada and falls for a beautiful woman in the sex trade… who reminds him of a long lost love. This is a purely visual movie with a smorgasbord of images: gunshots in a field of air A007_C076_1102PN3turbines, sex scenes in red and blue. There is too much slo-mo and choppy jump cuts for my taste —  at times it feels like an extended 1980s music video. But it’s commendable as a first film, with Suan re-imagining a noir-ish Toronto as a city full of dark allies, rainy streets, neon lights, and strip bars.

Pompeii, Three Days to Kill and AKP Job 27 all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The glorious Chilean film Gloria continues, and also opening this week is Tim’s Vermeer.

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

 

Offbeat Mainstream Movies. Films Reviewed: The Frankenstein Theory, I’m So Excited, Thermae Romae

Posted in comedy, Horror, Japan, Manga, Rome, Spain, Uncategorized, Yukon by CulturalMining.com on July 5, 2013

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

Is it an oxymoron to be both mainstream and offbeat? This week I’m looking at movies conventional in their genres, but unusual in their subject matter, style or location. There’s a horror movie that takes place in the arctic; a campy comedy that flies through the skies; and a manga rom-com that takes place… in a bathtub!

Frankenstein theory posterThe Frankenstein Theory

Dir: Andrew Weiner

John (Kris Lemche) is a young university professor in LA whose pet theory has landed him in hot water. He is convinced – based on some old manuscripts and letters he found – that Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was not a story. It’s all true. And not only is it true, but Frankenstein’s monster – the man himself — is still alive, hundreds of years later.

And where does he live? All the maps he has point to the far north. So he sets off with a camera crew to Whitehorse, Yukon. From there, with the help of Karl (Timothy Murphy), a chiseled-featured guide with an unplaceable accent, they head up to the sub-zero temperatures of the tundra.

Soon enough they are camped out in a wooden yurt in the middle of nowhere. John is convinced that this where they’ll find frankenstein’s monster. They spend dark nights listening to howling wolves and Karl’s stories of fighting polar bears.

But when they wake to find human footsteps in the snow, they realize that someone with very big feet is watching them. Is it the monster? What will they do if they actually meet him? And is it safe to fool around with modern nature? Soon enough, they realize they may have bit off more than they can chew… and that they might be chewed up themselves.

This Blair Witch-style found-footage horror movie is a bit eerie with some breathtaking arctic scenery (for once, the US is masquerading as Canada, not vice-versa). I like the premise, and there are some neat parts involving a meth-head, huskies, and snow drifts; and the acting is generally pretty good. But the plot is unbelievably predictable.  Most important, for a thriller/horror movie this just not scary enough.

I'm so excited 1 Raúl Arévalo as Ulloa, Carlos Areces as Fajas & Javier Cámara as Joserra. Photo by Paola Ardizzoni & Emilio Pereda © El Deseo, Courtesy of Sony Pictures ClassicsI’m So Excited

Dir: Pedro Almodovar

A plane flying from Spain to Mexico runs into trouble with its landing gear. After putting the economy class to sleep using muscle relaxants the staff has to deal with the eccentric business class passengers: A bald CEO; a mysterious, moustachioed Mexican; a much-feared female celebrity; a shy psychic who wants to lose her virginity; a young couple on their honeymoon; and a middle-aged actor with marital difficulties. Each one has a secret to be revealed.

Meanwhile the flamboyantly gay flight attendants and their macho pilots trade sexual barbs, innuendos and hidden rendezvous in the cockpit and washrooms, even as the plane endlessly circles airports, still unable to land.

We discover the passengers’ stories via two odd features of the plane. All i'm so excited 6 José María Yazpik as Infante and Cecilia Roth as Norma Photo by Paola Ardizzoni & Emilio Pereda © El Deseo, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classicstelephone conversations are broadcast on the PA system; and one flight attendant Joserra (Javier Camara) always tells the complete truth whenever asked a question.

Like Woody Allen, Almadovar started as a comedy director, only later turning to serious dramas. I’m So Excited is a screwball-style comedy harkening back to his early days. This is comedy at its most camp. The flamboyant flight attendants feel compelled to ogle every man, gossip with every woman, and perform lip-synch dances up and down the aisle.

i'm so excited 2 Hugo Silva as Benito Morón, Lola Duenas as Bruna, Javier Cámara as Joserra and Antonio De La Torre as Alex Acero Photo by Paola Ardizzoni & Emilio Pereda © El Deseo, Courtesy of Sony Pictures ClassicsI really like movies with twisted plots, strange characters and unexpected revelations – there are lots of lots of those. And the plot turns (things like a telephone call followed from the sky to the ground and back again, involving multiple coincidences) were great. And it’s fun to see lots of the old Almodovar stalwarts, like Cecelia Roth.

But at times the humour felt strangely dated, and most of the gags fell flat. (Were they lost in translation? Who knows?) I just wasn’t laughing as much as I expected. So if you plan to see this movie, go for the story, not for the laughs.

Thermae_Romae_posterThermae Romae

Dir: Hideki Takeuchi (Based on the popular manga by Mari Yamazaki)

Lucius (Hiroshi Abe) is an architect in ancient Rome under the reign of Hadrian. He always enjoys a dip in a thermae romae – that is, a roman bath. Mami (Aya Ueto) is an office worker (and budding comic book artist) in present day Japan. She also frequents the local sento or public bath.

But one day, strange circumstances suck the naked Roman down a whirlpool20130312beam and spit him out again into a pool of doddering, elderly Japanese men. Who are these “flat-faced” people who speak no Latin? Pretty but bumbling Mami falls for him, of course, but keeps her passions in check. Handsome Lucius, on the other hand, is fascinated mainly by the advanced technology he finds: the mundane accoutrements taken for granted in modern times. And when he is transported back to ancient Rome he revitalizes his career with his new inventions. They meet up again in a hot springs, in a client’s plumbing display, and other strange places. Can Mami and Lucius find true love in a relationship spanning time and space? And can the relentlessly hardworking nature of the Japanese people rescue Lucius’s Rome in its time of trouble?

Hiroshi-Abe-and-Aya-Ueto-in-Thermae-Romae3This is one of the strangest mainstream movies around, combining the mundane minutiae of  Japanese daily life with outrageous fantasy. This, combined with toilet humour and bathhouse lore, make a very weird but totally fascinating movie. Based on a manga, it has a serial comic book’s plotting, that makes it feel more like a TV sitcom ( a series of episodes with recurring characters who solve problems and then move on) than a traditional movie:. But I thought it was hilarious, and uniquely Japanese in its odd and eccentric ordinariness.

The Frankenstein Theory starts today at the Big Picture Cinema; I’m So Excited also opens today at the Varsity in Toronto – check your local listings; and Thermae Romae is another great movie playing at Toronto’s Italian Contemporary Film Festival which is on right now – go to icff.ca for more information.

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

March 9, 2012. If You Love This Planet. Movies reviewed: The Lorax, John Carter

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.

With globalization, things affect the whole planet all at once even if they only happen in one place. The Earth is all shook up! Like last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan – I remember seeing those horrific scenes of towns being swept away, and the ongoing tension about the nuclear leak at Fukushima.

In gratitude for the support of the international community, the Japan Foundation in Toronto is offering a series of free films next week at Innis College called Light Up Japan. The documentaries are all about what has happened since the disaster in that area and how the people are coping with it. Check out the Japan Foundation ( jftor.org ) for more information.

So in keeping with the theme of global events, this week I’m looking at two movies with whole-planet-sized topics. One is about a kid trying to save the earth from total destruction; the other is a man who finds himself a part of the potential ruin of Mars.

The Lorax

Dir: Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

Ted lives in Thneedville, a plastic suburban shopping mall town where life controlled by a Mr O’Hare, a nasty rich guy who made his fortune bottling air, and who spies on everyone in town. Ted has a crush on his neighbour Audrey who is into trees – which don’t exist anymore (people use plastic trees instead). Audrey says she wishes she could see one.

So taking his grandmother’s advice, Ted climbs into his vehicle – a sort of a unicycle/ segway/ scooter – and sneaks out of the city to find the Once-lear – the only person who still knows the truth. He discovers that the vast wasteland outside of Thneedville once was a land of rainbows, happy fish, droopy birds, and teddy bears who ate the berries from the puffball trees, and lived happily and peacefully. An industrialist uses the puffballs to make a knitted stringy thing, the thneed, that consumers buy by the millions. He decides it’s cheaper and easer to cut them all down rather than using their puffballs as a renewable resource. Only the Lorax, (a tiny mustachioed environmentalist who descends from the heavens in a thunderstorm) can save the day, if only people will listen. He speaks for the trees…

I thought this movie was OK, but it really seemed to stretch the short Dr Seuss book into a 90 minute song-and-dance musical. It soft-pedals the problems of industrial pollution and consumerism, and reduces the motivation from ardent environmentalism to a boy wanting to kiss a girl. It relegates the Lorax story to flashback status, and kept the wonderful Seuss-like scenes of the valley to a minimum, while over-emphasizing the non-Seuss humdrum suburban scenes, filled with your usual 3-d sitcom characters.

It’s not a bad movie, and of course it’s great to tell kids about environmentalism and privacy, but the songs were dull, the characters not-so-interesting, the story not very original, and the animation and character style not up to what I expect from a Dr Seuss story.

Interesting fact — The Lorax earned more money in its opening weekend than Hugo did in its entire run.

John Carter

Dir: Andrew Stanton

John Carter is a mean and strong fighter, a cavalry man from the civil war. He can escape from jails, scrapple with anyone – weapon or not – is good on horseback and keen with a sword and a rifle. And he doesn’t take sides – Apache or US Army – they’re all the same. He doesn’t want any part of it. He just wants to find his cave of gold in the Arizona desert. But when he encounters a stranger in the cave, and repeats the word Barsoom while touching a glowing amulet, he is magically transported to Mars a land of great civilizations, far beyond earth’s imagination.

Strong John Carter, though smaller than the four-armed tusked Tarks – some of the creatures who live there – soon discovers he can leap high in the air and jump long distances, because of the different gravity there. He soon finds himself in the middle of a huge war between the city of Helium and the bad Zodanga. And he meets Dejah, (a beautiful princess-warrior, as well as a physicist, inventor and a great swordswoman) who is being forceed into marrying a bad guy from the other kingdom. Meanwhile, the shape-shifting super-gods who are manipulating everyone on that planet, are messing things up. It’s up to John Carter to save civilization – but he’s not sure he wants to – he just wants to find the amulet and go back to earth. But with the help of his speedy and faithful dog-monster Woolla, and the noble and honest Thark-guide Sola, he and Dejah must find mutual trust, truth and possibly true love in their search for the secrets of this planet.

As you can tell, this is a very long, plot-heavy story about an adventure on Mars. Like comics, manga and pulp fiction, the story takes precedent over feelings, emotions or characters – it’s more the action, the twists, the background, the secrets, the fights, the betrayals and the fantastical, sex-tinged images. But it carries it through amazingly well in this 2½ hour epic. (People call everything epics now, but this is an actual epic). I thought it was amazing.

It’s done in the style of Frank Frazetta’s illustrations: fiery-eyed women in exotic garb with pendulous breasts and black tresses; snarling men with steely gaze and bared chests, brandishing their swords toward the red skies…..  but through a Disney filter, making it sexy, but not sexual.

It feels more like Roman sword-and-sandal story than science fiction. (It’s based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels.) It has a mainly British cast, plus Canadian Taylor Kitsch — just great in the title role. I liked Lynn Collins (never heard of her) as Dejah, and Dominic West (The Wire) as one of many assorted bad guys in this cast-of-thousands picture. Want to be overwhelmed by an elaborate, exciting movie getaway, with a complicated fantasy plot that never lets up, even for a second? Then this is the one to see.

The Lorax is playing now, and John Carter opens today in Toronto, and the Japanese documentaries are playing all week at Innis College.

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

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Men, Honour, Trust and Responsibility. Films Reviewed: The Eagle, Biutiful

Men are in a mess – or so say contemporary movies. Dragged down by family disgrace and personal difficulties, or unable to hold onto the responsibilities of wage-earner and father. Can they stand up to villains? Can they take responsibility for disaster? Can they confront their enemies? Can they judge who is to be trusted and who is to be opposed? How can they know?

This week I’m looking at two very different movies, both with strong, male lead characters — one by a British director, another by a Mexican filmmaker.

Biutiful

Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a nice guy. He helps recent migrants from West Africa and China get along in Barcelona., He helps them find jobs, and protects them from the police and immigration agents, brings them gifts, ad warns them about upcoming trouble. He feels a personal attachment. He also raises his two kids, and is considering getting back together with his estranged wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez). And occasionally, he uses his psychic abilities to help send messages from the recently dead to their living relatives left behind. He’s a regular Mother Theresa. But, things aren’t actually all that good.

Looked at another way, he’s exploiting dirt poor, desperate migrants by acting as the middle man for virtual slave-drivers; he’s the equivalent of a bag boy for unsavoury gangsters and corrupt cops; and his kindness can back-fire leading to potential disaster to the people he’s trying to help.

Then there’s his family. He lives a slovenly existence with his meager wages, and he has to deal with his immoral brother who gets “massages” from Uxbal’s unhinged, estranged wife (she says she needs the money). The wife, Marambra, is a hilarious character with a funny nose who talks a mile a minute, but can she be trusted to take care of their kids?

He’s also facing physical difficulties – his urine is turning dark, and despite the fact he wants nothing to do with blood tests (the hypodermic needles bother him for some reason) the results are clear: his body is being rotted away from the inside. His friend and advisor, a psychic like he is, urges him to settle his financial and moral debts before he dies. Will he be able to provide guidance and support for his children, comfort for a Chinese mother and child, help for his friend a West African migrant and his wife?

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Biutiful is a complicated, and at times moving drama, with great acting, and a beautiful, very distinctive look to it all.  Fish and flowing water — on the wallpaper, on a bathroom tile — appear in almost every scene. And like his own movie, Babel, a few years ago, the story jumps from language to language and culture to culture (with appropriately colour-coded subtitles: white for Spanish, blue for Chinese, another colour for a west African language.)

It’s also almost more than one movie can hold. With so many complicated stories, and engrossing events, there’s a denseness, all centred around Bardem’s character, Uxbal. But he holds it together. My one criticism – and this is not exactly a spoiler, but skip ahead if you don’t want to hear — is in a dream or memory Uxbal has that’s repeated, verbatim, in two parts of the movie; it gives it a glibness or corniness that didn’t seem to fit. Still, Biutiful is, as its title suggests, a broken but beautiful film.

Next, a much easier film to follow, with a more linear, straightforward stpry, but one that also deals with trust, honour, responsibility, and interestingly, questions of loyalty toward the people from your country vs foregners, and the ones in your family.

The Eagle

Dir: Kevin Macdonald

Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a Roman who decides to go to occupied Britain, to find out what happened in a battle that was lost by his father a generation earlier. The Ninth Legion completely disappeared, possibly massacred, in a battle in the hills of Scotland, losing all their members, and the symbol of that division, a golden Eagle that was carried on a pole. He’s scoffed at by the Roman officers stationed there, but he soon proves his mettle by saving their fort from the wild British savages. And they are really savage – they attack the troops like hi-speed zombies, clamouring all over the romans, and looking like they’re about to tear them apart with their spears teeth and bear hands. They shriek out words of attack, and their wild-haired, long-bearded leader looks like he’s falling into a bloodthirsty trance before charging.

Marcus fights until he collapses and doesn’t awaken till he’s being tended by his uncle (Donald Sutherland), and discovers he’s been released from the military due to injuries. Well, one day he attends a gladiator  match, where a huge masked and armed roman, looking like a pro-wrestler, is pitted against a scrawny local, surely to be killed in seconds. But he local fighter… refuses to fight in the unfair match. Marcus, to the surprise of the crowd, gives him a thumbs-up, and the local is now his slave. Esca (Jamie Bell , the child lead in the gotta-dance movie, Billy Elliot, from 2000), the son of a local warrior himself, hates the Romans but must pay his debt to the man who saved his life. No Romans will venture past Hadrian’s wall, but, despite objections from the Romans, Marcus decides to search for and recapture the Eagle, with Esca as his guide, and to find out what really happened to his father and the 9th Legion.

The movie follows the long adventurous journey to the land of the Seal people with their painted faces, where evidence still survived of the lost legion. When they are captured by that fierce nation, the power dynamc shifts. What is a Roman worth without Rome to back him up? Will Marcus find out what happened to the 9th?? Will he capture the Eagle? Can Esca be trusted? Can they exist as master and slave? Or are they friends, brothers, or something more? Or enemies to the death?

This is a good action/adventure/ fighting epic, with very fantastic outdoor scenes, from locations in Scotland and Hungary. So superficially, it’s a Disney “boy’s own adventure”-type film, with an old, conventional, somewhat predictable plot, that devolves at times into a simple buddy picture. But there are some really different aspects of this movie: I think the director is making some subtle comments on the past decade, and the US as a classical imperial power.

Unlike most “Sword and Sandal” movies, the Romans all have American accents, while the slaves have British accents! He’s even managed to find “upper class” American accents to represent the Roman gentry and Senators, modeling them on Washington DC-style politicians, and their prep-school kids.  Says Marcus: “A silk-assed politician’s son is pissing on my family name!” And the Roman legion is decididly made to look like the US Marine Corps, complete with their running style, lines, and presentation. Even the terminology they use is straight out of American military lingo – with Marcus recieving an “honourable discharge”.

Is The Eagle a critique of American wars abroad? Or a militaristic, ode to tea-bagger-land? Not sure, but it is a good, though quite violent, movie. No female characters though – this is yet another all-male fantasy – with no room for love, except between friends.

The Eagle and Biutiful are both playing now. Check your local listings.

Acting and Special Effects on Display. Movies reviewed: Tron: Legacy, The Fighter, Blue Valentine

At this time of year, a lot of the movies are trying for awards and audiences. The awards usually bring in bigger audiences and make it easier for the actors, directors, writers, et al to raise money for the next movie they want to make.

That’s one of the reasons they even bother to make some of these movies – so that actors or directors can show off their skills. Some work, some don’t.

Today I’m going to look at three movies that try something different or unusual, either through their appearance, story, or performances.

The Fighter
Dir: David O Russell

There are two brothers, Mickey and Dicky, and seven sisters who all live in working-class Lowell Massachusettes. Dicky Eklund — once known as the Pride of Lowell — was a former great boxer who once knocked down Sugar Ray, before retiring. Now he’s training his brother Mickey Ward to make it as a welter-weight. And his mother’s his manager. But Dicky has a tendency not to show up for practices. Why? Because he’s a crackhead with a tendency to jump out of windows so his mother won’t find out. He’s also a petty scammer and a thief.

Dicky (Christian Bale) ends up in prison, and Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) is working with a new manager and trainer, who are rivals to his mother and brother. Meanwhile, Mickey meets Charlene, (Amy Adams) a bartender. His family also doesn’t like her – they refer to her as an “MTV girlfriend”, meaning a snob, because she went to college – and the feelings are mutual.

Will Mickey make it to the top? Will he be a boxing champ? Will he reconcile with his brother and mother? Will he listen to his new trainer or his jailed brother on boxing strategy? Will he stay with Charlene? And will he be used as a stepping stone – a boxer only there to get KOed by other boxers on their trip up the ladder?

The Fighter is a boxing movie – with some long scenes in the ring – a true biopic about an Irish- Catholic New England working-class boxer’s life in the late 80‘s / early 90’s. It’s actually a very enjoyable movie.

Trained British actor Christian Bale plays this skinny, googley-eyed, fast-talking American drug addict, and you can totally believe it. He’s amazing. Amy Adams, made to look plain, is a little less so, but still good, and she gets lots of lines to play with like “Call me skank again and I’ll rip alla your hair out!” And Mark Wahlberg doesn’t really act, he just plays the same role he always does, but he’s a likeable movie star.

But it’s all the small parts, like the gaggle of sisters, and the Mother, and the various locals, which add the real colour to the film. It’s a good, old- fashioned boxing movie… and it works.

Tron Legacy
Dir: Joseph Kosinsky

Sam Flynn (Garret Helund) is a computer genius and adventurer who, when he plays an old, abandoned arcade game, finds himself inside another world – the world of the game itself. His father Kevin Flynn, who created that world, has been trapped inside there for decades. But a never-aging doppelganger, Clu – he looks like a simulacrum of Jeff Bridges preserved in a jar of botox –is trying to take over that world, and to turn it into a Roman Empire of gladiators and constant fights. Everyone wears donut Frisbees on their backs that double as computer discs with all their data. It’s also their weapon of choice in the games, because it can take down your opponent (like a boomerang) by tearing away at the digital grid. So Sam, with the help of Quorra (Olivia Wilde), has only 8 hours in which to go somewhere, and get something from someone (I think) and do something or other, before the portal closes again and he’s trapped inside.

OK. This is a great movie. Except for the characters, the story, and the dialogue, which are absolutely awful and make no sense whatsoever. Ideally this would be re-released as a silent movie with no lines, just all the cool, glowing neon images, of characters zipping through cyberspace, with people creating motorcycles or airplanes out of thin air and racing all around… all of this with the mainly great Daft Punk electronic music in the background.

Great images and special effects (except when the characters are wearing white space suits instead of black ones, and the material start bunching up – you know, you’d think when they spend tens of millions on SFX they’d catch stuff like that), and good music; everything else sucks.

Blue Valentine
Dir: Derek Cianfrance

Dean is a High School drop-out who plays the ukulele. He gets a job as a mover, and, on his first trip – moving a man’s possessions to an old age home in Scranton, Pennsylvania — he sees Cindy visiting her grandmother across the hall, and he’s smitten. It’s love at first sight — at least for Dean. He pursues her, and woos her, and they both love each other dearly, and the two of them raise their cute daughter together.

But, all is not well. The marriage seems to have gone sour, and they’re just not getting along the way they used to. Cindy has a good job as a nurse, while Dean hasn’t progressed much in his career – he’s more interested in being a househusband. Dean hopes to clear up their relationship by leaving their daughter Frankie with Cindy’s parents overnight, and holing up in a seedy motel with some alcohol, so they can get drunk, have sex, and hash out their differences.

The movie shifts back and forth between the early days of their relationship and how it developed, and the present day, where they seems to have reached an impasse.

Does this movie work? I’m of mixed feelings. It’s a very passionate and realistic look at a relationship. The acting is all great – basically a two-person show. Ryan Gosling (who looks somewhere between a scraggy redneck and a hipster) is the happy-go-lucky romantic, taking life as it comes; and the pretty but plain, voluptuous but understated, bleached blonde Michelle Williams as the more pragmatic and career-conscious but troubled one, who is plagued by indecision.

It’s a heavy-duty relationship movie, good times and bad. You ever been to a party and one couple starts arguing with each other? The rest of the people exchange glances and try to figure out how to sneak away, far away as soon as they can. (Excuse me, gotta go!)? Well this movie was a bit like that. Not that I wanted to walk out of the theatre – not at all – but a lot of the movie was about a couple’s troubled relationship, and some of it really dragged to the point you just want to say:

Shut up! Both of you…
Cindy – Dean still loves you. A lot.
Dean — Cindy can’t take it any more.
OK? That’s all. Move along.

But the story’s very realistic, the movie feels like an old Cassavetes pic, the design, the camera, the acting, all very good. It’s not a sweet tear-jerker of a Hollywood romance, it’s about real romance: love, loss, sadness. I think it’s worth seeing… but it’s a bit depressing.

August Grab Bag. Movies Reviewed: Eat, Pray, Love; Centurion; Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Eat Pray Love

Dir: Ryan Murphy

Liz (Julia Roberts), a successful writer, gets her fortune told in Bali, telling her her destiny. Soon after, her marriage collapses and she feels empty and forlorn, so she sets off on a round-the-world tour of popular vacation spots to spend some of her dough. In Rome she learns about Dolce Far Niente – which she interprets as knowing how to order food in a restaurant. In India at an Ashram, she learns to find her inner balance by being smug, condescending and vaguely pissed off as she scrubs the stone floors. Then in Bali, settling in to the island’s most expensive hotel, she meditates and rides her bike. She meets a woman who has to live in a rented place, not a house of her own – can you imagine? She feels so sympathetic she decides to raise money on Facebook. What a philanthropist!

I wanted to like it – it had beautiful scenery – Bali, Rome, New York, India – and great actors (Billy Crudup, James Franco, Javier Bardem) and I’m not a Julia Roberts hater – I like her. I’ve even heard the writer Elizabeth Gilbert (whom the main character is based on) talk on the radio, and she seems really smart and interesting. But this movie is just horrible. Some people seemed to walk out happy, but I can’t figure out why. It’s one of the worst, stupidest and most annoyingly clichéd and obnoxious movies I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s a typical line, an example of the degree of profundity she encounters on her quest for wholeness and self-actualization: “If you want to get to the castle, Groceries, you’ve got to swim the moat!” Bleaaaggghh! Maybe if this movie had been called the Ugly American, I would have understood it better.

In the beginning I was hoping that all the cute supporting roles would make up for Julia Roberts’ insufferable character. But that didn’t pan out. Instead we get to see anorexic Julia saying “I’m fat – look at my muffin top”. And the next scene is her squeezing into a pair of designer jeans, over her model-bodied flat belly.

You get to see her in Italy learning how to talk with her hands. “Like-a this-a?” says Julia Roberts. (Did she actually say like-a this-a?)

Eat Pray Love:

I ate my popcorn, I prayed the movie would get just a little bit better, and I loved finally getting out of that god-awful place.

“Centurion”

Dir: Neil Marshall

I went to this movie, at Toronto After Dark Festival, partly because Michael Fassbender was in the main role.  He was amazing in two British movies over the last couple years: “Hunger”, about IRA Bobby Sands’s prison hunger strike and a coming of age drama, “Fish Tank”. This movie, while set in the British Isles, is…a little bit different. To say the least.

This is a sword and sandals epic, about the period when the Roman soldiers fought against the Picts. This was way before all those nouveau immigrants, those Angles, Jutes and Saxons moved in and spoiled the neighbourhood. This was way back when. So in a big battle, the Roman legions were there fighting those Picts up in the north.

They’re tough mofos, those Picts are, with all their pictish ways, and blue face paint. Don’t mess with them. But the Romans are tough too. Anyway, there’s battle after battle and skirmish after skirmish before the actually story takes off. Lots of splatt, and uggh, and aaah, as another head gets chopped off and plopped into a water barrel. Anyway… so Quintas Dias (“I am a soldier of Rome, I will not yield!”) a centurian, and a Pict by birth, has been training for fighting since his childhood. He speaks the local language, and knows the way around. After the failed attempt to beat the locals, he just wants to rescue a Roman general and call it a day. But in their botched attempt, someone in his multi-cultural platoon does something that sets the whole tribe against them — till the death. They have to escape and make it back to the main Roman legion. So there are lots of scenic mountains and rivers and waterfalls as they try to outwit the dangerous Picts and an expert tracker who always seems to find them: a fur-clad and mute Lisbeth Salander-type rival, played by the striking Olga Kurylenko. I started to get dizzy when I thought of all the swooping airplanes they had to rent to shoot this movie – it felt like every second scene had to start with a swooshing aerial view of where they were fighting next.

And on the way, they encounter a pictish witch to add a further dimension to the story. I liked it, just for it’s bigness. I got bored of all the killing and stabbing and stuff, but it brightened a bit in the second half. If you like very bloody, Roman big-screen war movies, then this is the movie for you. (I liked it better than “Gladiator” and the very plastic-looking “Troy”, but that’s not saying much.)

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Dir: Edgar Wright

Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, and starring Michael Cera in the title role.

Scott Pilgrim is a nerdy guy in a band. He shares a bachelor apartment with a gay dude who gets laid way more than he does. Scott’s still pining for a girlfriend who dumped him a year ago. And he’s dating a highschool girl (“we hold hands”) named Knives Chau, who’s gradually becoming more of a fan of the band than a GF. But she’s crushing heavily on Scott Pilgrim. They play Dance Dance Revolution together in perfect Harmony. Then he meets the girl of his dreams – literally of his dreams! – at a party, and they sort of hit it off, even though he’s a wimpy Toronto guy, and she’s a beautiful and glamorous American, from New York, who changes her hair style each week.

The thing is, she has lots of baggage from her various exes, all evil, all more successful, and all out to ambush Scott when he’s least expecting it. So he has to fight them if he wants to stay with Ramona Flowers, that’s the name of his new beautiful and glamorous girlfriend.

So he goes through a series of 8-byte video battles – battles of the bands, Street Fighter skirmishes, skateboard derbies on the hills around Casa Loma… covering the whole indie, comics, video games, manga, electronica, clubs and party scene of downtown Toronto of the 90’s and 2000’s. It’s retro without being specifically any retro period. And the whole movie is told as if the area of Toronto, within, say, thirty blocks of the comic store The Beguiling were trapped inside an old Nintendo set – and the only way to get out is to beat all these villains.

This is a great movie and the most Toronto movie I’ve seen in a long time. References to Honest Ed’s, Pizza Pizza, the Second Cup, even SARS are everywhere. I’m not even going into all the other characters – too many, too funny – but I liked this movie. It’s just so Toronto, with all the cool people drinking beer at the parties… y’know? I think I was at that party in the movie. OK, maybe I wasn’t there, but I was invited, and I didn’t go, cause it would have sucked anyway.

Anyway, you have to watch it to see whether Scott Pilgrim wins his awesome battles or whether the world beats him and just leaves his burnt husk there in an Annex alley off Bloor Street: Game Over!

Finally, the 11th annual ImagineNATIVE Festival of great new movies by indigenous peoples here and around the world, is starting tonight in Toronto, and continuing for the next five days. You should check this out — It’s opening tonight with Boy, a Maori coming-of-age story, that was a huge hit in New Zealand. Look online at ImagineNative.org .

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