Suburban types. Films reviewed: Eighth Grade, Under the Tree, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Posted in Addiction, comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Drama, Family, Feminism, Iceland, LGBT, Scandinavia, School, Suburbs by CulturalMining.com on July 20, 2018

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

Movies needn’t be about famous people. This week I’m looking at three domestic dramas about ordinary, suburban types. There’s a girl in 8th grade deciding what to do with her future, Icelandic neighbours fighting over a tree, and a quadriplegic alcoholic learning to draw.

Eighth Grade

Wri/Dir: Bo Burman

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a modern eighth grader who lives with her dad (Josh Hamilton). It’s the end of her last year of junior high and kids are looking at the time capsules they buried three years earlier, to see how much they’ve changed. On youtube and instagram she’s a success and she shares her thoughts on a vlog, ending each podcast with the word “Gucci”! But at school she’s the opposite of famous. She’s the kind of girl who shows up at a pool party in a little kid’s one piece when the rest of the girls are wearing bikinis. Kayla has zits, she doesn’t understand fashion and has no friends.

The guy she’s crushing on, Riley, just wants sex. And popular girls – like the snobby Olivia – won’t even acknowledge she exists. But things look up when she’s invited to Olivia’s birthday party, and even better when a much older highschool girl agrees to be her mentor. Can Kayla create a new personality, make friends and find a boyfriend? Or will high school just bring more of the countless humiliations a 12-year-old girl faces each day?

Eighth Grade is a warm and funny coming-of-age story about a girl approaching — but not yet entering — adolescence. Elsie Fisher is totally believable in the lead role. And Bo Burman, the filmmaker, started as a youtube presence himself. The thing is, a lot of the movie feels like a stereotypical boy’s coming-of-age story superimposed on a girl. Things like: whenever Kayla ogles her crush Riley she pictures him walking in slow motion to loud pop music, leaving her tongue-tied; or when her dad catches her masturbating to porn on her smartphone. (Also… what’s with all these single dad movies? In real life, 80% of single-parent families are headed by moms, not dads, but you wouldn’t know it.)

On the other hand this film deals with real contemporary issues – like consent, snobbery, bullying, sex-education and the very new, very real phenomenon of shooting drills; what kids should do if a shooter comes into the school.

Eighth Grade is a very cute and touching comedy, and one that’s worth seeing.

Under the Tree

Dir: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

It’s suburban Iceland. Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is a married guy with a three-year-old daughter, until… his wife catches him watching porn on his computer. Not only that, it’s him in the video, with his ex girlfriend. It’s not how it looks, he says. We made the tape years before I met you – I’ve never cheated on you. No, she says, that’s exactly how it looks, and you’re out of here.

He ends up at his parents’ house, a retired couple named Baldvin and Inga (Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Edda Björgvinsdóttir). The family is already dealing with the disappearance and presumed death of his brother. They live in a big blue townhouse with a shady tree in the backyard. Inga has a silky cat, and Baldvin fills his free time with choir practice. They get along well with their neighbour – a divorced professional — but less so with his fitness-obsessed second wife. The shade from their tree interferes with her suntan. A small disagreement.

But just like Atli’s sex tape, little things left unchecked can grow into big problems. A series of unexplained incidents – slashed tires, salacious garden gnomes found in a planter, a missing cat – grow more and more dangerous. Can the feuding neighbours settle their crisis? And will Atli move back home with his family?

Under the Tree is a very dark comedy about life in contemporary Iceland . But don’t expect hotsprings and rustic fishing boats. It’s filled instead with classrooms, Ikea stores and government offices. The acting is excellent as the story progresses to its ultimate conclusion.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

Dir: Gus Van Sant

It’s the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest. John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) is a redhead who likes drinking and picking up girls. An adopted kid from small town Oregon he goes to California to sow his wild oats. But his life changes dramatically when a weekend bender ends with his car wrapped around a tree. He’s left quadriplegic, with little chance of recovery. But with the help of a Swedish caregiver named Annu (Rooney Mara), he learns to operate a wheelchair and eventually how to draw with one hand. His personality stays intact and so does his alcoholism.

So he joins a 12-step AA group held in a mansion. It’s hosted by Donnie (Jonah Hill) an irreverent rich gay man with long hair and beard. Donnie always has time for his piggies what he calls the men and women he sponsors. And as John passes through the twelve steps of recovery he finds a meaning in life: drawing obscene, politically incorrect and hilarious cartoons.

Normally, if someone says a movie is about Alcoholic Anonymous meetings I’d say let me out if here. These kind of movies are both gruellingly depressing and painfully earnest. But this is a Gus Van Sant movie and he makes it work. This movie is funny, surprising, shocking and very enjoyable. Yeah, it’s sad at times, but it offers so much you rarely see. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals with the bad sides of living with a disability, just as it’s not afraid of celebrating a disabled person’s sex life.

Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as John, And Jonah Hill is great – and totally unrecognizable — as Donnie. Smaller roles like Jack Black as a drunk driver, Tony Greenhand as John’s caregiver and Kim Gordon, Udo Kier and Ronnie Adrian, as some of the piggies – keep the movie going, The film is done cut-up style, jumping around over a 20-year period, which makes it a bit disorienting. Even so, it leads you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Eighth Grade, Under the Tree and Don’t worry, He Won’t Get far on Foot, all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks to Andrew Gregg about his documentary THE NORSE: AN ARCTIC MYSTERY

Posted in Anthropology, Canada, CBC, Denmark, documentary, Dorset, Indigenous, Nanook, Norse, Nunavut, Scandinavia, TV, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 2012

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

I grew up thinking in fourteen hundred and ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and that he was the first European to make contact with people in the Americas. But evidence uncovered by archaeologist Pat Sutherland suggests that contact began much, much earlier. A new documentary shows that first contact was not by the Spanish in the Caribean but between Northern Europeans and the indegenous people dwelling in Canada’s North. THE NORSE: An Arctic Mystery is playing on CBC’s The Nature of Things on November 22.

In this interview the director, writer and producer ANDREW GREGG tells me about the unknown history of the Norse in Canada, where they came from, what they did, how long they stayed, and what is the evidence that proves this. He also talks about the politics likely behind the strange dismissal of the noted archaeologist from Canada’s Museum of Civilization.

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

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

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

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

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

The Iron Lady

Dir: Phyllida Lloyd

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Dir: David Fincher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Since You

Dir: Jeff Stephenson

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

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

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

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

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

Phantasmagorical! Movies Reviewed: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale; The Tourist; The Tempest; plus Movie phone-in Contest!

This time of year, when the nights grow longer and the days grow darker, when the icy winds whistle through bare branches of the trees, when Christmas is coming, and New Year’s not far behind, thoughts turn to things fantastical, impossible and even supernatural. So today I’m going to talk about three, very different movies, but all of them far outside of the grip of what people call realism. Also, keep listening, because I’m having a real ticket giveaway at the end of my reviews

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Dir: Jalmari Helander

In the extreme north of Finland, where the Sami people hunt reindeer, something’s wrong. A big multinational mining company has come in to the area, and they’re digging something up, under an ancient mountain – or is it a burial ground? But the reindeer are disappearing, and so is the main source of income. Children are also disappearing, with creepy, sewn cloth dolls left in their beds. And so are the burlap sacks in a potato warehouse. What’s going on?

Then they discover a mass slaughter. All the local reindeer herdsman, bearded and wearing toques, think it must be the Russians‘ fault, just over the fence, across the border. Or maybe it’s the wolves? Or that multi national headed by the weird Englishman who keeps warning them “Shhh.. don’t say bad words… don’t do anything naughty…!”

And a great horned beast has been dug up by the miners what is it? What does it all mean?

But little Pietari has done some reading. All those old fairytales? They’re true! It’s Coca-cola that played the con-job in the 19th century and painted a new picture. You know that jolly laughing bearded man in red? Ho, ho, ho… Pietari has discovered the truth about Santa:

He sees you when you’re sleeping,
he knows when you’re awake,
he knows if you’ve been bad or good,
so be good for goodness sake!

Santa’s actually… the boogie man! He grabs little kids and spanks them to death…

It’s up to little Pietari to save all the kids, get rid of the sinister creature, and restore the ruined local economy. Will he do it? Can he do it?

This fast-paced film from Finland is one of the strangest Christmas movies I’ve ever seen. It’s cute, and surreal, and spooky, all at once, like a lot of Finnish movies. Although there are some scary scenes and a little bit of gore, I think most kids (and adults) who are struggling with their own parents’ Santa myths might find this just the thing to clear away the saccharine, commercial images we get bombarded with every year, right about now…

The Tourist
Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
(Starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp)

Elise is a mysterious glamorous woman, who sits in open-air cafes and reads cryptic notes delivered to her on the sly. She’s trying to find her boy-friend who robbed a gangster of billions of dollars and then disappeared. And she’s being tracked by countless European men from Italy, France, Germany, and the UK who whisper into hidden microphones and observe her every step. She’s told to meet someone and pretend he’s her boyfriend. She gets on a train, and chooses a man at random, a hapless math teacher from Wisconson – Frank (played by Johnny Depp). He is soon trapped in her machinations as she tries to escape all these men pursuing her as they chase her (and him!) through the canals of Venice. Can he help her escape? And will she ever find her real boyfriend? Will he show up at the ball? (Yes she goes to a ball). And what about all the money he stole?

This movie was a total disappointment. Athough it sounds like fun, it barely makes sense, and as the plot turns, it makes even less sense. And does Angelina Jolie hate other women? It’s like the thought of another woman competing with her for screen space is so anathema to her that she’s banned any and all potential rivals from her films. The cast of 40 has 39 men, including Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, and Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff (as the villain) – along with a legion of Euro-spies and gangsters with carefully groomed, three-day cheek-stubble, designer suits, and Zoolander poses.

What’s with her? I liked Wanted, (even though it was dumb), thought Salt, last summer was even dumber, and now there’s this one. It’s starting to grate. Johnny Depp was totally wasted as a a puffy-faced, ineffectual milquetoast.

Angelina’s accent was atrocious, and the two of them looked ridiculous posturing in evening wear in the admittedly beautiful European scenery. It looked like a Hollywood movie from the early sixties, but without real glamour – it felt out of synch. The whole movie was embarrassing, and the story, though it started out good, had so many twists it no longer made any sense.

It’s especially disappointing because the director was the one who made that really great movie the Lives of Others, about the Stasi spy in East Germany. This spy fantasy is only his second film, and it’s a real clunker.

The Tempest
Dir: Julie Taymor

Many of you already know the story, it’s about Prospero, the Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda who are exiled to an island, inhabited only by the local creature Caliban, he uses his magic powers (and that of his spirit Ariel) to cause a shipwreck, wand strand his enemies and allies on the island, cast a spells to bring back justice and regain his power in Northern Italy. It’s also Miranda’s first time seeing other humans, so she falls in love with a handsome prince, the good King’s son. Meanwhile the bad guys try out their plots along with Caliban.

So this version, directed by the very talented and original stage director Julie Taymor, tries a few changes, but keeps largely to Shakespeare’s original story. She keeps it in the period – doesn’t modernize it, but she fools around a bit with sex and gender. She casts Helen Mirren as Prospero (Prospera), Miranda’s mother now, and a witch not a sorcerer. That works fine. And she has the sprite Ariel (expertly played by Ben Whishall) do some shape-shifting, turning from man to woman and back again.

The cast is quite amazing – with Alfred Molina, Tom Conti, Chris Cooper, Allan Cumming – and others, who can handle Shakespeare without trouble. It’s shot in Hawai’i so you get these fantastical moonscapes, and volcanic cliffs and weird jungles for characters to wander around in.

It just didn’t seem movie-like to me, there was a disconnect. It was more of a play captured on film, so it was harder to connect with the characters, to really feel their emotions. It felt like a virtual proscenium arch between you and the screen, so it was doubly removed (or distanced) from the viewer. So there were stage sets in the movie – that say: look at the beautiful sets! And stage costumes that shout out look at these fancy costumes. And some of the acting, like Russel Brand (as Trinculo) was saying, Looooook! I’m a comeeeeedian! (yeah, you’re really funny).

So it’s an interesting movie, with some neat effects. And things like Ariel doing butoh dance poses, chalked in white, were quite arresting (but why?). I found the background sound and music was terrible, and too overpowering at times, it smothered a lot of the lines, and dragged the pace. Made it lethargic. Shakespeare didn’t write throw-away dialogue – it’s kind of important to be able to hear exactly what they’re saying. So it didn’t all hold together for me, but hey, Shakespeare on the big screen? Another movie Tempest? I say, keep ‘em coming!

Finally, here’s a contest: I’m giving away length of run movie tickets to the first five correct who can answer this question:

Which one of these four Scandinavian directors is from Finland?:

Lars Von Trier
Aki Kaurismaki
Lasse Halstrom
Joachim Rønning

The first 5 correct emails will win a length of engagement ticket for two persons for:
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

(CONTEST NOW CLOSED)

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

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

My Soul to Take
Dir: Wes Craven

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

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

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

Hereafter
Dir: Clint Eastwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LA Zombie
Dir: Bruce LaBruce

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

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

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

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

Finally,

Cold Fish
Dir: Sono Shion

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

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

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

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

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

Genre mash-ups: The Last Exorcism, The American, Life in Wartime

Most genre movies follow very fixed patterns, sometimes even down to the order of scenes, the introduction of characters, the sort of lines they say… But sometimes you run across mainstream movies that are a little bit off beat, a little bit mashed-up. Here are three somewhat strange movie mash-ups.

The Last Exorcism

Dir: Daniel Stamm

As the name suggests, this is a horror movie, but it’s style is that of a TV documentary, or even a reality show.

Cotton is a great evangelical preacher, he’s been up on the pulpit since he was a child and has been doing exorcisms — sometimes though as simple as Out Posion!– for many years. It’s how he earns a living. He’s so good he can preach his mother’s recipe and have the flock shouting Amen! and Hallelujah! His father is a Jimmy Carter doppelganger.

But somewhere along the way he lost his faith. He still goes through the motions, but he doesn’t believe a word of it any more. In fact, he thinks the whole exorcism thing is nothing ore than a Dr Phil psychological ttool that he can use to get the mental spooks out of the patients’ heads.

So he goes out to a country home in the deep south to do his final exorcism before a  camera crew. They’re making a doc about Cotton — and the whole exorcism scam. With his full cooperation, he reveals for the camera all his secrets – the sound effects and smoke and mirrors he uses to scare the god-fearing parishioners.

But this rural outpost – complete with all the Deliverance-style references to home-schooling, incest, superstition, violence and deeply hidden family secrets – what city dwellers picture when they hear Sarah Palin talking about Real Americans – this rural outpost may be Cotton’s last exorcism.

The daughter, Nell, is possessed. The family thinks she’s getting up in the middle of the night and slaughtering animals in the barn – but she has of memory of doing it. IS she nuts from being locked up in her home away from the rest of the world? Or is the devil inside of her?

This is a good, scary movie, that also avoided what I was least interested in seeing – the extreme pornographic slashing and blood that producer Eli Roth throws at you in his Hostel movies. There’s a bit of nasty blood, but much more scariness.

It also keeps you guessing till the end whether the girl’s possession is better explained rationally by psychiatric jargon, or by mysticism, religion and the supernatural. And all the acting, (especially Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell as the exorcist and the possessed girl, and Caleb Landry Jones as her creepy brother), is much better than you’d expect in a cheese-ball horror flick. Throw in some Blair Witchery and you’ve got a much-better-than-usual scary horror movie.

The American

Dir: Anton Corbijn

This one’s an interesting concept: a drama in the guise of a mystery thriller.

Jack, aka Edward, is an American tucked into an apartment in the picturesque, hilly Abruzzo region in Italy. He’s there on business, to provide his boss’s client with a weapon, a gun you can shoot from far away, with a high grade of accuracy, and no noise that would give away where the shooter is hiding.

Is he a CIA agent? A terrorist? A spy? An assassin-for-hire? A special ops military guy on assignment? A political activist? A mafia hire? A cop under deep cover? Who knows. He ain’t talking, and the audience isn‘t finding out anytime soon. And, actually, this is all just background fluff from the story of an alienated American who enjoys the machine-tinkering aspect of his job, but is less fond of one if its fringe benefits: guilt.

So if it’s not actually a mystery thriller waiting to be solved what is this movie? Well, it’s actually about the relationships he has with the various women he in his life – an assassin, a prostitute, a Swedish women, each more beautiful than the one before – and how he can’t fully trust them – they’re all suspect. They all might be out to get him. They all might have ratted him out, other might be killers sent to throw him off his track.

His boss tells him: “Don’t make any  friends – you used to know that Jack”. But what else is there? Lying in bed fully dressed waiting for an unknown killer? Drinking americanos in a greasy café? George Clooney showing off his skill at chin-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups?

And then there’s the blond, bearded man – his cover is made the first time Jack sees him, but he doesn’t disappear – and he seems to be out to get him. But who doesn’ he work for? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Who cares?

The other plot is about guilt and forgiveness. He meets an older priest (with a small secret) who wants Jack to confess his sins. Jack would rather not tell him anything.

So, while there are a few chase scenes, a few tense shooting scenes, it’s mainly a barren, hardscrabble life in rocky Abbruzzo, Jack’s alienated and empty life broken up only with periodic passionate soft-core sex with Clara (played by the beautiful Violante Placido, what a wonderful name!).

This is one strange movie – it’s one of very few so-called thrillers that aren’t mystery thrillers. There’s no actual mystery that the movie explains or reveals. This is really a drama of a middle-aged, single guy (Divorced? Widowed? Bachelor?) taking stock of his life, his business, his relationships, and finding them lacking. It’s a male chick flick.

(And do you ever get the feeling that George Clooney doesn’t want to be in a movie with a competitor? So there’s only one leading man, but three beautiful women for him to spend time with.)

Anyway, The American is an airplane movie, maybe a late-night video store movie, but definitely not the popcorn thriller it pretends to be.

Life During Wartime

Dir: Todd Solondz

(I saw this movie a year ago at last year’s TIFF, but it stayed with me. It’s a good, dark comedy, but with absurdly sad scenes more moving than the average drama.)

Todd Solondz’s dark comedies alternate between two New Jersey families, the Weiners (Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1995; Palindromes, 2004) and the Jordans (Happiness, 1998, Life During Wartime, 2009). The characters continue their depressing lives, while the actors who play them come and go. In this movie we join the three new Jordan sisters, ten years later.

Weepy, hippy Joy (Shirley Henderson) loves helping the most needy, but this has landed her an unbearable fiance. He asks for her forgiveness for his latest transgression, so Joy seeks out her family for advice. Her mother Mona in Miami is no help, so she moves on to suburban Trish (Allison Janney) who is dating again. But Trish discovers her pedophile husband has been released from prison and is also seeking forgiveness from their kids. Sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), a Hollywood star, is bossy and self absorbed and not much help either. Poor Joy resorts to asking advice from ex-boyfriends from her past, like Andy (Paul Reubens).

The cast is as uniformly excellent as the story is relentlessly, painfully sad. Solondz is an expert at inflicting the unvarnished cruelty of family dynamics on his moviegoers. While there is nothing earth-shattering or different in this movie, it still holds its own as a funnily sympathetic (and pathetic) black comedy in his distinctive, ongoing saga.

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

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

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

The Girl who Played with Fire

Dir: Daniel Alfredson

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

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

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

“Predators”

Dir: Nimrod Antal

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

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

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

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

“Inception”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re safe again.

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

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

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

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

Shame and Guilt. Movies reviewed: Hot Tub Time Machine, Greenberg, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Last week I was talking about that cheesie sword-and-sandals movie Clash of the Titans as a “guilty pleasure”, meaning something I enjoyed, even though I realized it was a bad movie. And a woman I know told me she has a weakness for what she calls “chick-lit”, and the equivalent type of movies, chick flicks and "rom coms" (romantic comedies) – they were her guilty pleasures. She devours those books by the dozen and automatically goes to any movie with even a hint of the old TV show Sex in the City. A guilty pleasure.

But then I thought about it. Where’s the guilt? Where’s the sin? What’s morally wrong with going to a bad movie and enjoying it anyway? Nothing. And I was at an after-party with a filmmaker a couple weeks ago, and made a comment about the crowds at the movie Hot Tub Time Machine. His response: “You saw Hot Tub Time Machine? For shame!”

Is it shameful to go to bad movies? I’d say no to that, too.

Once they dim the lights in a theatre, you’re a passive viewer, no shame there. You didn’t make the movie. But this sort of crystallizes for me the subtle difference between guilt and shame. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict declared after World War II, that the US was a guilt culture, whereas Japan, (which was under US military occupation at the time) was a shame culture. In other words, she said, in a guilt culture, like the US, you feel terrible deep down inside when you do something wrong, but in a shame culture, like Japan, you feel your reputation among others is what is damaged when you do something wrong or unacceptable. (I don’t buy the US / Japan distinction, but shame culture / guilt culture is an interesting concept.)

Anyway, to get back to movies, maybe we all set the bar fairly low in terms of what we can derive enjoyment from, but as long as you can both tell the difference between a good movie and a bad one, and then accept your own taste in movies, whether they’re good or bad, you’re fine. No shame, and no guilt, just pleasure. Not guilty pleasure.

Hot Tub Time Machine

"Hot Tub Time Machine" is what it says it is – a comedy with a paper-thin plot. A bunch of middle-aged losers pining for their glory days — days of getting drunk, getting stoned, and trying to get laid at a ski lodge — decide to revisit it. But once they get there they see the place has gone to seed, just like their lives. But somehow a hot tub sends them back – back to the future – to relive the worst of the eighties. Then they do jokey comedy things as they try to get back. That’s the movie. The visual punchlines were mainly based on the various liquids that are expelled from men’s bodies. (You get the picture.) I think they were all covered. Except maybe… pus. Was there a pus joke? I think they’re saving that for the sequel.

The thing is, it was sort of funny, in an intentionally campy way. I saw it with zero expectations, so I ended up laughing — or groaning — a lot. The comedians / actors – especially Rob Corddry, in all his horribleness — were good at what they were doing, and there were a few good cameos, notably Crispin Glover as the one-armed bellboy.

Don’t feel ashamed for seeing this movie, but don’t feel guilty if you miss it.

Greenberg

"Greenberg", a new movie by Noah Baumbach, who directed the really great "The Squid and the Whale" a few years ago, is a human drama about a guy going through an internal crisis, and the aimless woman he gets involved with. Boy meets girl.

This is a romantic comedy – sort of — that’s made the way romantic comedies should be made, if I had my druthers.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) crashes like a green iceberg onto his brother’s house in L.A. He’s a feckless, benighted, compulsive, neurotic carpenter who’s there to do nothing in particular, and doesn’t mind saying so. He wants to be alone and resents the world for invading his house-sitting solitude. He’s totally shameless — saying whatever pops into his mind – but also wracked with guilt for his past misdeeds. He has no possessions — no house, no car – to worry about, just his toolbelt. He is building a wooden doghouse for Mahler, his brother’s dog, as he learns to cope outside a mental institution.

Greenberg got along OK in Manhattan, hopping cabs or taking the subway, but he suddenly finds himself back in LA, dependent on his former best friend (Rhys Ifans) whose rock career he’d sabotaged, and his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), to ferry him around. He’s horrified and baffled by the whole city.

Then he begins to have a sort of a relationship with younger Florence, who is driven and hardworking, but adrift, and coming to terms with the physical consequences of a previous relationship. Can they love each other? Can they even stand each other?

They’re both “hurt people” who are afraid they’ll hurt other people. All of the characters in Greenberg, even the bit parts, are interesting, and three-dimensional (as opposed to 3-D), though not necessarily likeable.

The whole movie looks like the late 70’s or early 80’s – the colours, the design, the costumes, the font of the titles, the way the camera moves or zooms in, most of the music on the soundtrack… everything. It’s stunning to watch. Don’t go to this expecting a whacky, overacted Ben Stiller comedy. Go for a moving, gentle – though mildly disturbing – comic drama. This is a really good movie.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Another good movie, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, is opening today. This is a great Swedish mystery thriller about Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a young, mysterious hacker, and their interactions with the Vanger group, a very shady family of billionaires.

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

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

This is just the kind of mystery-thriller I like, where you’re solving it alongside the characters, but with enough hidden that you can’t really predict what’s going to happen next. It’s visually fantastic, with clues and images like old photos and newspaper clippings driving the story – so much so, you wonder how it worked on paper. It also has lots of amazing Swedish scenery and landscapes, makes you want to jump on a plane to Stockholm – if it weren’t for all the thugs, murderers, rapists, stalkers and Nazi’s hiding in the pine trees.

A few potential drawbacks: this movie has a few extremely violent, extended scenes. They’re not exploitative scenes – the movie doesn’t glorify the violence or make it titillating; you feel for the victims not the violence – but it’s still a bit hard to watch. It’s also tied to the famous mystery novels by Stieg Larsson, so it spends a long time tying up all the loose ends in the story. But I think it’s a great movie, and I can’t wait for the next one. I think I’m going to read book two in the meantime… but I won’t call it a guilty pleasure.

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