Wedding or Wetting? Films reviewed: Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles, Aquarela, Ready or Not

Posted in documentary, Horror, Movies, Musical, Russia, Thriller, Ukraine, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 23, 2019

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

There’s a great movie series on right now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, highlighting a rarely screened cohort, one I’ve been covering for the past decade: contemporary Arab Women Filmmakers. It features movies from places like Lebanon, Algeria, Palestine and Tunisia, and cover a wide range of genres from avant garde to docs to dramas. Well worth seeing.

This week I’m looking at three movies, two docs and a comic thriller horror. – there’s a milkman worried about his daughters’ wedding; a bride whose inlaws want her dead after her wedding; and melting glaciers, waterfalls and hurricanes wetting everybody.

Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles

Dir: Max Lewkowicz

In 1964, a new musical about a Jewish milk man in Czarist Russia, opened on Broadway to little fanfare. With songs by Jerry Bockand Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein it was based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye and his Five Daughters and their neighbours in a shtetl. It was a risky venture with little hope if a widespread audience. Little did they know that Fiddler on the Roof would become one of the most popular musicals ever staged, with productions staged somewhere in the world until today.

This is a deep dive documentary that delves into everything there is to know about Fiddler on the Roof: is it a feminist fable? Jewish nostalgia? Is it about the American dream? The immigrant experience? And lots of esoteric news. Did you know the title came not from Sholem Aleichem stories but from a painting by Marc Chagal? That it’s wildly popular in Japan for its Japeneseness? Or that Zero Mostel (the original Tevye) was in a feud with director Jerome Robbin notorious for his perfectionism and slave driving style, but Mostel hated Robbins for a different reason. They were both called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee (the Macarthy hearings). Mostel stood up to them and refused to cooperate – and was blacklisted for years because of it. Robbins named names – gave them a list of suspected communists – not because of the Red Scare but because of the Lavender purge: he worried they’d reveal he’s gay.

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a fascinating documentary, full of interviews and stage footage and photos from the various productions over the past half century. It even plays songs you’ve probably never heard – they were cut from early versions. If you’re a theatre buff, this one’s a must see.

Aquarela

Dir: Viktor Kossakovsky

It’s Lake Baikal in Siberia. For some reason a team of men are digging holes into the frozen crust. Why? Because the usually solid ice melted early and cars crossing the lake are being swallowed up. The rescue team is there to save unsuspecting drivers. Then Boom! You’re on a sailboat navigating between drifting icebergs. And then you’re in the middle of a hurricane destroying an American city. Aquarela is a meditative collage of images of ice and water, turning on a dime to new locations across the globe. No explanations are given, no voiceovers no talking heads here, just a series of images tell their own stories, some slow and contemplative, others violent and arresting, as nature takes its toll. While not explicitly about climate change, when you see and hear glaciers calving mammoth icebergs which bob in the ocean like dinosaurs, you can’t help think about the meltdowns happening right now from greenland to Tuktoyaktuk.

Aquarela is shot at high speed ninety six frames per second, giving the doc an intense visual effect. It starts extremely slow, but this unusual documentary gradually switches to faster and faster images in a visual symphony. It may be a little slow and hard to comprehend, but it’s more than a week since I saw it, and it’s images are still haunting my dreams.

Ready or Not

Dir: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett

Grace (Samara Weaving) is a young woman raised by foster parents and who has never had a family to call her own. So when she meets Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brian) she wants to be a part of his family in every way. It doesn’t hurt that they’re filthy rich. So after an 18-month bone-a-thon, they decide to get married. And all of Alex’s eccentric family are there: big brother Daniel (Adam Brody) his dad and mom (Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell), various coke-snorting siblings and inlaws, and even his hate-filled Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni)

The Le Domas family made their vast fortune from playing cards, board games, and pro sports teams. They love games. So it’s no surprise that family tradition says a new bride or groom has to play a game on their wedding night. The big surprise? The rules to the game – its hide-and-seek – say she hides and the rest of the family has until dawn to find her and kill her. Why is thefamily doing this to her? Will her husband protect her? And can she ever escape from this nightmare?

Ready or not is a horror thriller with darkly comic undertones. It’s full of satirical jabs at a truly evil family of one percenters, while still being interesting enough to care when characters kill or are killed. Aussie actor Samara Weaving is terrific as the strong female lead – a Buffy the Vampure skater without special powers – , who has to transform herself from blushing bride to road warrior in a manner of minutes. It’s shot in and around a mansion in Ottawa as she t makes her way out of windows and down hidden passages. Warning: this movie is quite violent and gory, but it’s light tone keeps you watching. I liked this movie.

Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles opens today at the Rogers Hot Docs Cinema, with Aquarela playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Ready or Not is playing now in Toronto, check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Andrey Zvyagintsev about Loveless

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, Family, Movies, Realism, Russia by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 2018

(Second track is an unedited version for Russian speakers)

(второй трек – неотредактированная версия для русскоговорящих)

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Boris and Zhenya — an attractive young couple in Moscow obsessed by sex, money and status — are getting a divorce. Zhenya wants to move in with her rich and powerful boyfriend. Boris’s girlfriend is pregnant with his child. That leaves only their loving son, Alyosha. But the boy reacts in horror when he overhears his parents saying neither of them want him.

And then he disappears. What more can you ask of a boy from a home that is loveless?

Loveless (Нелюбовь) is the name of a new film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev – who was nominated for an Oscar for the great Leviathian — has made another powerful movie. This is no ordinary family drama; this is the kind of movie that reaches into your guts, pulls them out and spreads them on the table in front of you. It’s stunning and devestating, without resorting to explicit violence.

Loveless won the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival. I spoke with Andrey Zvyagintsev on location at TIFF17.

Loveless has been nominated for an Academy Award, Best Foreign Language Film.  It opens in theatres today.

Daniel Garber talks with director Boris Ivanov and activist Justin Romanov about Putin’s Blacklist

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, LGBT, Movies, Politics, Protest, Russia by CulturalMining.com on October 27, 2017

Boris Ivanov (l), Justin Romanov (r)

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

Since Donald Trump was elected US President we hear new news stories each day about possible Russian involvement in that election. But rarely do we hear anything about Russian politics, it’s government and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Why is he so popular? What are his politics? Who opposes him? And what does it mean to be on Putin’s blacklist?

On Putin’s Blacklist is a new documentary that tries to make sense of it all. It looks at diverse topics like the politicization of the foreign adoption of Russian orphans; political dissidents, propaganda, nationalism and LGBT rights. Using extensive media clips, new political commentary and documentary footage, On Putin’s Blacklist provides an insider’s look at Russia today. The film is written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Boris Ivanov. It features Justin Romanov, the well-known Russian-Canadian LGBT activist.

I spoke with Boris and Justin in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

On Putin’s Blacklist is now playing in Toronto.

Unexpected combinations. Films reviewed: Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite, Hitchcock/Truffaut

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, Dreams, France, Hitchcock, Hollywood, Horror, Russia, Supernatural, Thriller, US by CulturalMining.com on July 15, 2016

cockneys-vs-zombiesHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

What do these movies have in common? Cockneys vs Zombies, Cowboys cowboysandaliens_1280x1024_3and Aliens, Bambi Meets Godzilla. Obviously, they’re all movies with unexpected combinations. So this week I’m looking at two new movies (though nothing like the ones I mentioned) that combine things in unexpected ways. There’s a documentary about the historic meeting of two very different directors, and a ghostly horror movie… set in Russia.

Queen-of-Spades-The-Dark-Rite_poster_goldposter_com_3Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite

Wri/Dir: Svyatoslav Podgayevskiy

It’s a snowy day in a Russian city. Four teenagers – Anya, Matya, Matvey and Seryozha – are playing a game. Matyev is a jock, Seryozha (Sergey Pokhodaev, Leviathin) is a nerd with glasses, Katya is an older redhead (Valeriya Dmitrieva), and Anya (Alina Babak) while tough is still just a 12-year-old girl who lives with her divorced mom.There’s an urban myth that says you can summon the Queen of Spades, a dead spirit, if you draw a door on a mirror in lipstick by candlelight, and repeat her name three times — Queen of Spades, Queen of Spades Queen of Spades. (Don’t try this at home, kids…) Naturally, nothing happens – well not right away.

After the game, the four friends go back to their respective apartments, as usual, but at night queen_of_spades_the_dark_rite-HD— that’s when the scary stuff begins. Turns out the Queen of Spades was a Russian aristocrat who murdered kids for their money. She was caught and the cut out her tongue and shaved he head, left to roam the streets in black rags – hence the Queen of Spades. But her spirit, if that’s what it maxresdefaultis, will come to you by night with a scissors to snip off your hair, and kill you.

When the kids start dying, one by one, Anya’s and her divorced parents (Igor Khripunov, Evgeniya Loza) flee the father’s apartment. Will the ghost follow them there? Eventually they track down a former doctor (Vladimir Seleznyov) in a dacha in the woods.He’s an expert at getting rid of 2QwUuFdP6P8wgoWmvWxoxdHzbAgghosts — and holds a grudge against this o ne in particular. But can anyone defeat the Queen of Spades?

This is a good scary horror movie. It feels like those creepy Japanese movies from the 90s like Ring and Dark Water (Hideo Nakata), with a good dose of the Exorcist thrown in. The plot is very conventional, but what I found so interesting was the look of the film. So that’s what a Russian funeral looks like. Or a hospital, or even a public toilet with curved tiled walls inside. And I never knew people upholster their front doors. Great austerity and cold creepiness.

The acting is generally good, and the suspense keeps you watching, but it’s the look I really like from this ghostly Russian pic.

Hitchcock/Truffaut

Dir: Kent Jones

Francois Truffaut is today known as a great French Director and one of the founders of the nouvelle vague, the French New Wave. But before he was a director he was a film critic. As a young movie enthusiast, he was taken under the wing of andre Bazin, and brought into the fold of an extremely influential magazine, the Cahier du Cinema. It’s the Cahier du Cinema (and Truffaut himself) that changed the way we look at films as a body of work of a single artist. Directors became oYmq0j_hitchcocktruffaut_03_o3_9009094_1463581659“auteurs”, the authors of a series of films. Before that, they were employees of the huge factory mentality of Hollywood —   important and well paid, for sure, but a cog in the wheel.

In the 1960s, the fledgling French director wrote to the incredibly successful Alfred Hitchcock. He asked if they could meet for a week in Hollywood for a series of detailed interviews for a book. Now, Hitchcock was rich and successful and his qjov52_hitchcocktruffaut_01_o3_9009008_1463581640movies were often hits. But what he didn’t have was critical praise, He was dismissed as unimportant, popular entertainment. And he never received an Oscar.

So Hitchcock said yes.

The result was Hitchcock/ Truffaut an incredibly influential book that served as a bible for future directors. This film, with the same name, shows the original recordings and photos those interviews. It’s illustrated with crucial stills and clips from the two directors’ works. And many of the directors they influenced — Scorsese, Fincher, Linklater, Wes Anderson, Paul Schrader, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and many others — appear to talk about these movies.pgn062_hitchcocktruffaut_02_o3_9009051_1463581649

You find out Hitchcock didn’t have a great relationship with his actors — he said they were cattle that had to be moved around.

It turns out Hitchcock was a total perv and so were most his characters! He calls Scottie (the Jimmie Stewart character in Vertigo) a necrophiliac.

If you’re into movies, film criticism, cinema studies, or if you’re a filmmaker yourself, this one is a must-see. Fascinating documentary.

Queen of Spades: The Dark Rite opens today in Toronto: check your local listings; Hitchcock/Truffaut is part of a TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Hitchcock/Truffaut: Maginificent Obsessions running all summer long, with films by those two great directors. (Stay tuned, I’ll be covering some of the films later on this summer.) Go to tiff.net for showtimes.  

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

Caught up. Movies Reviewed: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Leviathan

Posted in Corruption, Cultural Mining, Farsi, Movies, Russia, Uncategorized, Vampires, Yakuza, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2015

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

There aren’t many blockbusters released in January, so it’s a good time to catch up on less commercial films. So this week I’m looking at movies about people caught in a bad place: an art-house indie horror,  an over-the-top comedy/horror/musical, and a serious drama.  There’s an Iranian guy caught between a drug dealer and a vampire, a Japanese filmmaker caught between rival yakuza gangs, and a Russian caught by corrupt politicans.

A_Girl_6A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Dir: Ana Lily Amirpour

Bad City is a place for lost souls. It’s a desert town filled with oil rigs and refineries, separated from the rest of the world by a row of distant mountains. The streets are deserted except for a few people. Arash (Arash Marandi) is a Persian James Dean, who works as a gardener at a rich woman’s mansion. And at home he takes care of his dad, Hossain. Hossein (Marshall Mannesh) is depressed and slowly committing suicide by using drugs. Then there’s the track-suited, A_Girl_2tattooed drug dealer and all-around asshole; the sex worker who peddles her wares in dark alleys, and a little kid with a skateboard who observes it all. And finally there’s a girl who walks home alone at night (Sheila Vand).

A_Girl_1The girl – who is kept nameless – wears the conservative Iranian chador – an outfit that covers her head and body in an unbroken shroud. But hidden underneath the chador she’s like Marjane Satrapi in the graphic novel Persepolis, with black eye liner and a striped French jersey. She dances to Emo dirges at home, and only ventures outside at night to wander the dark streets… and look for human blood to drink. She’s a vampire.

Arash owns nothing but his treasured sports car and loses that to the thug. But due to a strange turn of events he suddenly finds himself A_Girl_4surrounded by money, power and drugs. He ends up at a costume party dressed in the cape and collar of Dracula. And in an ecstasy-induced haze he encounters the nameless girl who walks home alone at night. Is it true love? Or will she eat him?

This is a cool — though somewhat opaque — indie film, shot in beautiful black and white. It’s filled with sex, drugs, rock and roll – all in farsi. It takes place in a limbo world caught somewhere between the American Southwest and Iranian oil fields. It’s a slow moving mood piece, like Jim Jarmusch directing a Becket play, but from a feminine perspective. Interesting movie.

47_jigoku_sub3_5MBWhy Don’t You Play in Hell? (地獄でなぜ悪い)
Dir: Sono Sion

A team of aspiring college film geeks called the “F*ck Bombers” vow to make a real movie, starring one of their own – a Bruce Lee lookalike. But 10 years pass and still no luck. Meanwhile, two rival yakuza gangs are in a permanent state of war. The Muto gang dress in Godfather suits and carry guns, while the Ikegami gang wear classic kimono, armed with genuine Samurai swords.

Teenaged Mitsuko – the daughter of the Muto gang boss — is famous 49_jigoku_sub5_5MBfor a jingle she sang as a child on a TV toothpaste ad. And the Ikegami boss still has a deeply-buried crush on her (they met in a bloodbath 10 years earlier). Her yakuza dad is bankrolling a film starring his reluctant daughter. But things start to unravel when the famous director quits in disgust. Who can make a movie produced by organized criminals? Especially when a gang war is about to erupt. Confusion, violence and mayhem ensues.

46_jigoku_sub2_5MBIn walks the Movie Club members to the rescue… maybe they could take over the movie? But would rival gangs ever agree to let film geeks record a bloody and violent showdown on 35 mm film… as it happens?

My bare-bones description does not do justice to this fantastic musical45_jigoku_sub1_3M comedy – including an unbelievably blood-drenched, 30-minute-long battle scene. It has to be seen to be believed, and the film is finally opening on the big screen in Toronto. Sono Sion is one of my favourite Japanese directors. His movies are outrageous and shockingly violent but also amazingly sentimental, earnest and goofy at the same time: an odd, but oddly pleasing combination.

05ff2dc3-382c-446d-93f1-6646a6b29db8Leviathan
Dir: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) is a mechanic who lives in northern Russia by the sea. His family has lived there for three generations and Kolya built his home with his own two hands. His son Roma is a bit spoiled but doing OK at school, and his beautiful second wife works at the fish cannery. Their marriage is going well.

But there’s trouble at City Hall. They want to seize his house and land6002bf07-aaaf-4f30-8420-9d038fba9d3f to build something… municipal. Kolya is furious and he’s not going to take this lying down. He’s a real hothead. He’s sure the Mayor is up to no good – just wants to build himself a mansion. So Kolya calls his army buddy in Moscow to give him a hand. Dima (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) is a lawyer. He comes to town fully loaded with files on the very corrupt mayor Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF FileVadim. The man has “blood on his hands” he says, and he has the documents to prove it. This should stop the mayor in his tracks.

So things are looking up. The trial looks promising, and if not, he can always file an appeal. And there’s a picnic and shooting party to look forward to. A local cop has invited the whole gang, family and friends, to head out to the cliffs to shoot a few bottles with their rifles and AK47s. And boy do these guys have a lot of empty vodka bottles to 2e8da8fe-7cf4-40ce-a66f-5252e16ad79dshoot!

Meanwhile Vadim, the criminal mayor (Roman Madyanov) is plotting Kolya’s downfall. He’s an incredibly arrogant, abusive and greedy politician, a raging alcoholic, and he doesn’t care who knows it. He has the judges, the police, even the local church on his side. This sets off a series of unforeseen events that turn Kolya’s life into a Jobean ordeal of despair.

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF FileLeviathan is a fantastic movie, a slice-of-life look at modern Russia. Breathtaking, stark scenery, really great acting. But it’s also a devastating indictment of corruption and how it affects regular people there. The story starts slow, but gradually grows, driving toward an unexpectedly powerful finish. It’s also relevant: It’s nominated for an Oscar – best foreign film – but just last week Russia’s Culture Ministry threatened to censor this movie. That would be a real shame, because it’s a great film.

Leviathan, Why Don’t You Play in Hell, and a Girl Walks Home Alone at Night all open today in Toronto: check your local listings. Also opening is Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore as a professor with early-onset Alzheimers – I’ll talk about this next week – and the 50 Year Argument, a documentary about the New York Review of Books.

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

Daniel Garber talks to Russian director Aleksey Uchitel at TIFF13 about his new film Break Loose

Posted in Action, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, Movies, Romance, Russia, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 28, 2013

Aleksey Uchitel TIFF13 photo by Jeff Harris IMG_0407

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

It’s the end of the millennium, downtown Leningrad, a drunken Boris Yeltsin babbling on the TV.

Law and order has collapsed, giving way to rule of strongest. The oligarchs are taking over — factory workers don’t get paid. Instead, gangsters and an untrained paramilitary beat them into submission.

Thrust into this world are four young toughs, best friends, fearless and nihilistic. They work for OMON, the corrupt local police. They cruise along the city’s grand boulevards in a broken down jalopy.

One of them falls in love with a beautiful woman dressed in white at a local night club. But his easy life of drunken brawls is heading for disaster when he discovers his dream girl is the girlfriend of a gangster boss.

I’m talking about BREAK LOOSE, a new movie that had it’s world Aleksey Uchitel TIFF13 photo by Jeff Harris IMG_0400premier at the Toronto International Film Festival last night. I caught up with Alexey Uchilev — the well-known Russian filmmaker famous for epics like THE EDGE — at TIFF13.

He talks about changes to Russia, fatalism, censorship, A Clockwork Orange, and more.

Secretive Groups. Movies Reviewed: Pussy Riot, Kill Team, Pain & Gain PLUS Hot Docs!

Posted in 1990s, Bodybuilders, Cultural Mining, documentary, Movies, Punk, Russia, Trial, Uncategorized, War by CulturalMining.com on April 26, 2013

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.

Hot Docs – Toronto’s legendary Film Festival that shows over 200 documentaries in one week – is on now. It brings cutting edge documentaries from around the world, the filmmakers, and subjects, It’s centered on the Hot Docs cinema on Bloor St, but runs movies and events all around the downtown. And if you’re a student or a senior, you can get free rush tickets for any daytime screening.

What do conspiracies look like? They can be a group of well-meaning protesters, a gang of thieves, or a secret cabal of soldier killers. This week I’m looking at three films about secretive groups whose actions run up against the law and morality. One’s about Russian feminist punks who run into trouble with Putin and the Russian Orthodox church; another’s about a whistleblower in the US military who gets charged with murder; and a third is about some ambitious bodybuilders who want their slice of the pie – and will do whatever is necessary to get it.

The_Kill_Team_2Kill Team

Dir: Dan Krauss

When the photos of Abu Ghraib hit the papers, people were shocked at the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. But a series of incidents in Afghanistan , even more shocking than Abu Ghraib are the subject of a new expose. Here’s what happened.

Winfield, a young skinny marine, the smallest in his unit, notices a strange shift in his unit when a new commanding officer, Gibbs, arrives. Gibbs has a reputation for violence during his term in Iraq. And now he was demanding his soldiers take down Afghan civilians – boys and yound men — in their area. Gibbs forms an elite squad, a “Kill Team”, who are The_Kill_Team_3sent out on “drop weapon” missions. This means they would surprise someone, kill him, and then drop a weapon they had brought for that purpose beside the dead body to justify the killing. And then pose for smiling souvenir photos.

So Winfield becomes a whistleblower, sending out word of these heinous murders to his family, asking them to report it. But, through a series of events that the film reveals, the whistleblower ends up being arrested and charged with murder for the very events he was trying to prevent. The movie tells the story of the various marines involved in this particular unit, as the trials and court-martials are prepared. This disturbing documentary also suggests that these practices were not restricted to that one unit but are common practice among soldiers in Afghanistan. They were just the only ones caught. While mainly talking heads – the various soldiers telling their stories – and with a few too many scenes involving negotiatins with lawyers – it is a serious, important film. The Kill Team puts the integrity of the entire Afghan mission into question.

Pussy_Riot_A_Punk_Prayer_1Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Dir: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Mike Lerner

Pussy Riot is a Russian feminist punk band. They perform their protest pieces wearing neon-coloured balaclavas to cover their faces, playing guitar and singing about government corruption, human rights and freedom of expression. But something happened when they choose to sing about Putin’s ties to the Russian Orthodox church’s patriarchy on the actual altar of a famous cathedral. Within seconds police swarm the stage and arrest three of them for trespassing and defaming religion.

And so begins a lengthy trial followed around the world. The movie interviews the three prisoners – Nadia, Maria and Ekatarina – their families, co-performers and friends. Performance art, public satire and the avant garde, while familiar in the west (where it’s met with yawns or raised eyebrows) are new and genuinely revolutionary in Russia. Somehow, the filmmakers got their cameras and microphones into the trial itself, with perfect views of the three women boxed into a glass cage, as if they were Hannibal Lecters on trial for mass murder. It’s a rare glimpse into the Russian justice system, where playing a simple protest tune still holds the threat of a term in a Siberian prison camp.

Pussy Riot is a must-see at Hotdocs.

PG-01Pain & Gain

Dir: Michael Bay

Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a musclehead personal trainer. He’s given to mindless slogans to inspire him. He’s all about the American dream, being a doer not a don’t-er, and yo, bitches, his body is his temple, his muscles a shrine to physical power (“no homo!”). It’s Miami in the 90’s. This is America — a buff, pimpin’ nation! Or so say the men with fake orange tans at Sun Gym.

But Danny just isn’t making enough money – and he wants to have it all. So he gathers a team of ex-cons to kidnap his client Pepe, an obnoxious, middle-aged Jewish guy from Colombia. After some trouble and some violent episodes, their scheme pays off – they’re rich! They have everything now: a mansion, a sportscar, a yacht, cocaine, a Romanian girlfriend, penile implants… But a persistent P.I. (Peter Weller) is on their trail. Will he catch them in the act?

Pain & Gain is a mildly interesting comedy /action movie. It’s just not that funny, or that PG-12interesting, and without much action. The main characters are all caricatures – Dwayne Johnson (“the Rock”) is OK as a sub-normal, born-again body-builder; Tony Shalhoub is great as the world’s most annoying kidnappee; and Mark Wahlberg does his wannabe criminal mastermind very well. But the characters seem to be there just so the audience can laugh at how stupid they all are. (It’s also a weirdly structured movie. The plot repeatedly screeches to a halt to give each character a freeze-frame and an extended voiceover explaining their backstory, out loud. Why?) Pain & Gain is intentionally kitschy, mildly offensive and aims for the lowest common denominator… but it still entertains.

Pain and Gain opens today, check your listings; and Hot Docs is on now: for showtimes of movies like Pussy Riot (screening today) and Kill Team, go to hotdocs.ca.

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

November 23, 2012. The Joys and the Dangers of Fantasy. Movies Reviewed: Rise of the Guardians, The Suicide Room

Posted in Animation, Bullying, Christianity, Cultural Mining, Dragons, Drama, Dreams, drugs, Emo, Fantasy, Magic, Movies, Poland, Russia, US by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

A new American import known as “Black Fridays” is spilling over into Canada as a big shopping day. The name supposedly comes from the day in which the average US retailer reaches a positive balance on sales for the year which is usually the Friday after American Thanksgiving. But in a weird case of a snake swallowing its own tail they have turned it into a massive frenzy of shopping from consumers searching for bargains put on by retailers wanting to capitalize on a chance to pump up sales.

It also means it’s the start of Christmas shopping in earnest. So, just in time for new childhood memories to form, this week I’m talking about two movies that show the good side and the bad side of believing in fantasy.

Rise of the Guardians

Dir: Peter Ramsey

Jack Frost (Chris Pine)  is a mischievous teenager in a hoodie and skinny jeans who likes snowball fights, getting kids’ tongues stuck to metal poles, and skatebording on hazardous, icy roads. When his snow lands on humans they have fun.He’s also invisible. He loves play but wishes he knew where he came from, and that other kids could see him.

Meanwhile there’s trouble up at the north pole: the bogeyman, aka Pitch, a fey, vain and evil man with an English accent (of course) is injecting nightmares into kids’ minds, and interfering with their sleep. So the Guardians who live there – Santa, the Easter Bunny, Mr Sandman, the Tooth Fairy — summon Jack to join them in their fight against scariness.

Santa (Alec Baldwin) is a Finnish-type Father Christmas known as “North” – muscular, tough and tattooed — but with an unplaceable Eastern European accent. He carries matruschka dolls, and curses using the names of Russian composers: Rimsky Korsakov! Shostakovitch! He’s guarded by a gang of rough looking Yetis and serviced by short-bus elves. The Easter Bunny is a foul-tempered Aussie (Hugh Jackman), and the Tooth Fairy collects teeth to store the memories of children.

In their war room stands a giant globe of flickering lights – each one representing a kid who still believes in them. But with Pitch on the upswing, the lights are gradually dimming, and, like in the Peter Pan cartoon, if no one believes in fairies then tinkerbell will die! In this case they won’t die, they’ll just become invisible to the non-believers, like Jack is.

So… will Jack join up with the good guys and try to get the human kids to believe in them again? Or will he let the world fall into the clutches of the evil and scary Pitch?

Rise of the Guardians is a resolutely non-religious Christmas movie, without a cross, a church or even a glowing star to be seen. God takes the form of an all-knowing and all seeing Man in the Moon, the easter bunny is all about eggs, and they’re all on equal footing of secular figures like Sandy the Sandman. It’s a beautiful crafted movie – really nice art direction, with an interesting plot. It’s clearly aimed at the pre-teen set, but was aesthetically pleasing enough to hold my attention.(like an incredibly beautiful scenes where they all meet in a sort of a floating, rust-tiled Samarkand in their encounter with Pitch.) And it has Guillermo Del Toro’s name on it – as an executive producer, which lets you know it’s not degenerating into a comedy dissing childhood beliefs.

And it’s in 3-D.

Much grimmer, but also a partly- animated drama is

The Suicide Room

Dir: Jan Komasa

Dominik (Jakub Gierszal) is a happy, popular private school kid, a bit emo-looking but in tight with the in crowd. But there’s a guy he likes at school who may or may not be leading him on. And when he has an embarrassing frottage incident at a judo practice when he gets a bit too frisky with the guy he’s crushing on, he is mortified. All his friends seem to have turned on him and to make matters worse, they other guy put up a video of the incident on Facebook where everyone could see it. He’s cyber-bullied into hiding up in his bedroom.

His one solace is an animated world on line, a sort of Second Life ruled by a queen, Sylwia (Roma Gasiorowska), who lives in a castle. He becomes obsessed by her and seems to exist only in the form of his avatar, while his real self lives in the dark, barely eating and never going outside. From most popular kid to reclusive otaku in a matter of weeks. Sylwia strongly pressures Dom to join their suicide club and kill himself.

His parents, both rich and successful, have no idea what’s going on. Dominik may be on the verge of killing himself while the parents are more worried about how their son’s aborted sexual life might embarrass them and damage their career ambitions. They just want him on meds so he stops bothering them.

Will Dominik choose to live or to die? Will he reconnect with the outside world? Will he get to meet his cyber-love Sylwia face to face? And will his parents ever show compassion for their son?

This Polish film (which played at this year’s Ekran Polish Film Festival in Toronto) is a look at adolescent depression, cyber-bullying and Second Life, all aspects of contemporary Polish life largely unknown in North America.

Rise of the Guardians is playing now, while Suicide Club played at the EKRAN Polish Film Festival. Also look out for free Japan Foundation screenings coming up in December at the Bloor cinema featuring dramatizations of Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai’s stories; The Toronto Film Noir Syndicate showing the Coen brothers’ classic Blood Simple this weekend, and the first annual Blood in the Snow Canadian film festival showing new and classic Canadian horror movies next week at the Projection Booth on Gerrard St E. It features cool pics like Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool and the world premier of new movies like SICK and psychological thriller the House of Flies.

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

Cabins in the Woods. Movies Reviewed: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, The Hunter, The Cabin in the Woods

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

I’m back again, and I’m reviewing three good movies opening this weekend, that are all about the hunters and the hunted in their cabins in the woods. There’s a documentary about a Siberian trapper in the Taiga; a drama about a hunter looking for a tiger; and a horror/ comedy about five college students trapped in a cabin by a hunter zombie.

Happy People. A Year in the Taiga

Dir: Werner Herzog, Dimitry Vasyukov

Genady is an enigmatic, bearded trapper and hunter who lives in Bakhtia, Siberia, in a town reachable only by boat (or helicopter). He sets handmade wooden sable traps over an area so enormous it would take a day and a half to cross by skidoo. He builds a series of little wooden huts across his trapping territory and the camera is there to show it. This is the Taiga, the boreal forest south of the Tundra that looks a lot like most of northern Canada. (Actually, Siberia is bigger than all of Canada.)

The directors follow Genady and other fur trappers for a year, showing the cycle of the seasons, the holidays, the intimate relationship between a hunter and his dogs, and the happy time when they’re welcomed back home for the new year.

You watch him carve skis from a living tree, using just a hatchet and wooden wedges, and some moose fur. He does the same thing people there have been doing there for centuries.

Everything is just how it always was… except maybe an occasional chainsaw, and a few skidoos whizzing across the crusty snow, past some wolves or a stumbling moose.

This is a low-key, educational documentary that gives a realistic and fascinating look at trappers in Siberia, filled with rot-gut vodka, fluffy white animals, frozen fish, and grizzled neighbours wearing black toques or flowery headscarves. Some of the scenes of river vistas, huge clouds and vast frozen tracts are truly beautiful. It’s not quite as funny or shocking as some of Herzog’s other documentaries, but it’s still good, and his deadpan narration is delightful, as always. My one complaint is, whenever anyone starts speaking Russian, instead of subtitles we get English voiceovers. (This is the theatrical version of a four hour German TV series.)

The Hunter

Dir: Daniel Nettheim

Willem Dafoe plays Martin, a cold, mercenary shootist, hired by a military bio- medical conglomerate to track down and kill the Tasmanian tiger, a rare animal in a remote island state in Australia. He is an anal, precision-obsessed anti-social pro, who is friendless — and likes it that way. He’s a loner. But when he arrives, he finds the rustic, wooden house he’s supposed to stay at is filthy, dysfunctional, and falling apart… and occupied by a family.

The father is missing, the mother (Frances O’Connor) is in a perpetual prescription-drug-induced stupor, and the kids run wild, climbing naked into the bathtub with him as he tries to get clean. He brushes them all off, as well as his local guide, Jack (Sam Neill) – he just wants to catch the Tazzie tiger.

But, gradually he adjusts to family life. He helps the mom detox, and starts to spend time with the kids. And, it turns out that the son, a tiny tyke, had accompanied his missing father on a similar tiger hunt. So he has first-hand experience and his drawings could help Martin in his search. But, as his heart warms up, his conscience begins to bother him: should he be killing the last member of a species? And can he survive the barren life in the bush, the xenophobic, redneck townies, the crusading “greenies” (enviro-activists), and the sinister corporation itself?

This is a good, tense drama – not an action movie, despite the way it’s being advertised – that shows Martin stalking the Tiger and resisting the deadly attacks from his rivals. This has good acting, spectacular and unusual scenery, a moving story, and an interesting plot.

Cabin in the Woods

Dir: Drew Goddard

Five college students head off for a fun weekend at a cottage in the woods, where they plan to hang out, maybe have sex, get drunk, and take drugs. It looks like it’ll be fun, despite the warnings of a crusty, tobacco-chewing local who predicts their demise. The five of them — Jules (Anna Hutchison), the newly-blonde party girl, Curt (Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) the “dumb” jock, Dana (Kristen Connolly) the shy, good girl, and Holden (Jesse Williams) the nice-guy nerd — just want to have a good time, and enjoy a game of truth or dare.

Only Marty (Fran “Dollhouse” Kranz) the stoner, suspects something is up:  why are the very smart students behaving like celebutantes and french-kissing wolf heads? It doesn’t make sense. And when the game leads them down to the basement, why do they accidentally summon redneck killer zombies from the grave by reading a spell they find in an old diary? Whatever the reason is, they find themselves fighting for their lives against an endless series of scary, trap-and-chain wielding hunter zombis. Just what you’d expect from a horror movie.

Except… this isn’t a conventional slasher story. It’s a meta-meta-meta movie, more layers than you can shake a stick at. You see, they don’t realize it, but it’s all been a set-up by technicians in a laboratory somewhere who have made their own hunger games inside and around the cottage, complete with little cameras hidden everywhere. It’s total manipulation and mind control! To get them to act sexier, they spray pheremones into the building. And when they try to escape, they discover they’re trapped in what may be something like a movie set (which eventually morphs into an extended version of Vincenzo Natali’s “Cube”…) Is there any way to escape?

The movie switches back and forth between the boring, white-jacketed, middle-aged pocket-protector guys in the lab causing all the trouble (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, and the perennial lab-geek Amy Acker, from Whedon’s Angel and Dollhouse), and the teens in the cabin running for their lives.

It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I just loved this comedy-horror movie by first-time director Goddard who previously wrote Cloverfield; and written by Joss Whedon, the man whose series Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired more PhD theses than Jane Austin. The best way to understand it is to compare it to a one season (BTVS) story arc, building from an innocuous start, through a twisted plot, and with a grand finale where everyone runs amok. Of course, the lines are hilarious, and the violence is scary, extreme and bloody.

Cabin in the Woods, and The Hunter open today in Toronto, Check your local listings; Happy People: a Year in the Taiga, opens at the TIFF Bell Light Box. The Images festival is on now. Also opening is Gus Madden’s long-awaited Keyhole; the wonderful, heart-wrenching drama, The Deep Blue Sea, (which I’ll talk about next week); and the slapstick meat puppets of The Three Stooges. And tickets for HotDocs, Toronto’s documentary festival, are now on sale.

And if you like what you hear, be sure to support CIUT in its membership drive, on now!

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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