Canadian Film Day! Movies reviewed: The Decline, The Grey Fox

Posted in 1900s, Canada, Conspiracy Theory, Crime, Quebec, Romance, Snow, Thriller, Trains, violence, Western, Wilderness by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2020

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

It’s spring film festival season in Toronto, but all the theatres are closed… or are they? It’s actually possible to enjoy new movies without ever leaving your home. Images Film Festival went digital this year for the first time, showing art as moving images, not projected on a screen or in an art gallery, but transferred onto your home device. They live-streamed, both movies and dialogues with the artists. National Canadian Film Day (April 22) continues through the week in virtual cinemas throughout the country. This lets you support your local theatres and enjoy new and classic Canadian films. So this week I’m looking at two Canadian movies to celebrate National Film Day. There’s a fugitive looking for love in the Rockies, and a survivalist looking for refuge in Northern Quebec.

The Decline (Jusqu’au déclin)

Dir: Patrice Laliberté

Antoine (Guillaume Laurin) is a happily married man with a young daughter in Montreal. They’re survivalists, intent on preparing for an unknown, unpredictable apocalypse. He knows something terrible is coming he; just doesn’t know what form it will take. So he diligently studies lessons on youtube, and practices late night escapes with his family, just in case. He’s thrilled when a legendary survivalist named Alain (Réal Bossé) invites him up north to visit his compound, and study under the master.

Alain’s estate is everything he hoped for. There’s a geodesic greenhouse, huge storage lockers, and a cosy wooden cabin to sleep in. The forest is bountiful, filled with deer and rabbits – more meat than they could eat. Alain is recruiting the best and the brightest to join him in his utopia. But secrecy and security are top priorities; mustn’t let the unbelievers – or the government – know about this vast hideaway. It would ruin their paradise. So he and the other trainees gladly give up their cel phones and cars. Up here travel is done on foot or by skidoo.

And it’s not just Antoine and Alain. There are others, both first timers, like Rachel (Marie-Evelyne Lessard) a hard-ass army vet; and devotees like Dave (Marc Beaupré) an arrogant douche with a hint of bloodlust in his manner. The snowy woods have paths and roads heading in all directions to confuse outsiders. And there are active snares and booby traps to catch animals (and maybe people). This elite crew trains as hard at hunting and trapping as they do at shooting and self defense. But when the lessons turn to explosive devices, something goes wrong and a member is badly hurt. If they go to a hospital will that reveal their plans? But they can’t just let a person die… can they? Which is more important – safety or secrecy? The group splits up, and the two opposing sides soon find themselves in an all-out war. Who will survive – the newbies or the hardliners?

The Decline is a good, taut action/thriller set in northern Quebec. It’s exciting and surprising. It’s shot in the winter, in stark snowy forests where they have to fight each other but also icy rivers and steep rocky hillsides. Man vs Man (and women) and Man vs Nature. And it shows how things that look fun and exciting on conspiracy-theory websites can prove to be much more sinister in real life. Ths film seems particularly appropriate in the midst of a pandemic.

The Grey Fox

DIr: Phillip Borsos

Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth) is a pioneer of sorts in the old west. He robs the famed Pony Express and makes his fortune stealing from stage coaches. He is known as the “Gentleman Bandit” taking the loot without firing a shot. But eventually the law catches up to him and he’s locked away in San Quentin. He emerges decades later, older, wiser and grey. But has he learned his lesson? He gets work picking oysters in Washington State, but it just isn’t his style. So he makes his way north on horseback to British Columbia. And on the way he catches his first movie, Thomas Edison’s 12 minute smash hit: The Great Train Robbery! He hires Shorty (Wayne Robson) as a henchman and looks up an old prison buddy named Jack (Ken Pogue) in Kamloops. His goal? To become Canada’s first train robber.

He bides his time, settling into an ordinary life in smalltown BC. There he makes two unexpected friends. Sgt Fernie (Timothy Webber) is a Dudley Do-right Provincial policeman who likes and respects this newcomer. And then there’s Kate (Jackie Burroughs). She’s a feminist firebrand, ahead of her time. She’s middle-aged, unmarried, alone – and loving it. No man is keeping her down. She works as a professional photographer. They meet by chance when he hears her listening to opera music on a hillside. Sparks fly and they become lovers… but will he ever reveal his secret past? Meanwhile, the dreaded Pinkerton private detectives have crossed the border looking for him. Can Bill Miner pull of his final heist? Does Sgt Fernie know his friend’s a robber? Will the Pinkerton’s catch him? And can he and Kate stay together?

The Grey Fox is a classic Canadian movie from the early 80s shot on location in the Canadian Rockies, complete with real steam engines and horses before stunning mountain sunsets. Farnsworth and the much-missed Jackie Burroughs make for an atypical, sweet couple. It’s based on a true story, but The Grey Fox’s nostalgic feel comes not from evoking the old west but rather by harkening back to a gentler and more idealistic 1980s Canada.

The Decline is streaming on Netflix. You can watch The Grey Fox on your TV, computer, phone or device until April 30, in a virtual cinema benefitting independent theatres from Charlottetown to Victoria including Toronto’s Revue Cinema. Go to filmmovement.com/virtual-cinema for more information.  

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

Fall of the Patriarchs. Films reviewed: Downhill, Sonic the Hedgehog, Nose to Tail

Posted in Austria, Canada, comedy, Cooking, Family, Fantasy, Ski, Snow, Super Villains, Toronto, video games by CulturalMining.com on February 14, 2020

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

It’s Valentine’s Day today, as good a time as any to catch a new movie. So this week I’m looking at films about unusual relationships. There’s a husband and wife rejuvenating their marriage at an Alpen ski resort; a divorced, master chef dating the restaurant’s maitre d’;  and a super-sonic, electric-blue hedgehog in a bromance with a traffic cop.

Downhill

Dir: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Pete and Billie (Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are a happily-married couple. He’s a workaholic and a bit of chowderhead, while she’s an successful, if opinionated, lawyer. Billie is worried about her husband. He spends more time texting than playing with their two sons.  And he hasn’t been the sane since his own father died last summer. So when Pete books a family vacation at a ski chalet in the Austrian Alps — and handles all the arrangements — they are all looking forward to a fun, quiet time to heal their inner wounds. When they arrive, they are greeted by an Alpen sexpot named Charlotte (hilariously played by Miranda Otto: Aunt Zelda on  CHilling Adventures of Sabrina) who assures them nudity is encouraged and enforced. (Turns out the family lodge is nearby… they’re at the swingers chalet.)

Then Pete secretly invites his younger workmate Zach (Zach Woods) and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Zhao) to join them. But things really get bad when a planned avalanche crashes near the chalet, sending patrons on an outdoor patio running for cover in the sudden whiteout. Turns out, Billie stayed behind to protect the kids from what they thought was their final moment. And Pete the family patriarch? He grabbed his smart phone and ran, leaving his family to die. No one did die, of course, but now Billie and the kids feel abandoned by Pete in a dangerous crisis.

Will Pete ever regain Billie’s trust or his his kids’ respect? Or are his marriage, his family and his self confidence damaged beyond repair?

Downhill is a mildly funny dramatic comedy about the fall from power of the proverbial middle class white American male. It’s also an American remake of the brilliant Swedish film Force Majeure. But it’s less visually attractive, less biting and bitter than the original, trading subtlety for the broad strokes of tired Euro stereotypes.  Odd sex has been replaced by straightforward moral lessons. Louis-Dreyfus is great as Billie, conveying her hurt and suspicion through a single squint or pursed lip. Ferrell is less successful as a clueless Joe Biden-type, seemingly unaware of his imminent downfall.

Downhill is OK, but not great.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Dir: Jeff Fowler

Sonic is an electric-blue hedgehog who lives in a cave  furnished with a beanbag chair and a ping pong table, near Green Hills, Montana. He looks like a plush toy with spaghetti legs, a button nose and bright red sneakers.  And he can run faster than anything else on earth. He’s so fast he can play ping pong with himself. He’s so fast he can play all the bases on a baseball game at once, pitching a fastball from the pitcher’s mound and then hitting it from home plate. When he’s truly in danger he rolls up into a small blue ball and can generate mammoth amounts of electricity. He carries a bag of golden rings, magic portals that can instantly take hint to any place in the universe.

Sonic is a social animal who speaks perfect English (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and would love to meet friends, but is forced to remain hidden. If anyone found him – or discovered his secret powers – he would be in great danger.

But when he accidentally triggers an interstate blackout, the DC generals fear an enemy attack. They send out an expert to solve the problem and capture the so-called terrorist. This expert is the infamous Dr Robotnik (Jim Carrey) a brash and arrogant genius with multiple PhDs and a curly moustache. He plans to find the elusive source of the blackout… and dissect him. Luckily, Sonic is taken under the wing of the local speed-trap cop named Tom (James Marsden). Although dubious at first, eventually Tom takes to the hedgehog and the two become fast friends They set off on a roadtrip to San Francisco to evade Robotnik, recover the lost gold rings and save the world. But who will triumph? The evil Dr Robotnik? Or the fast little hedgehog and his buddies?

Sonic the Hedgehog is a kids movie based on the famous Sega video game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, movies based on video games is the worst new genre out there. But you know what? I actually enjoyed this one. It’s silly of course, but the special effects are terrific. And the scenes shot from Sonic’s point of view, where everyone else seems frozen in time – like a barfight in a roadhouse where the spiny mammal runs rampant around redneck bikers – are totally fun to watch. OK, there’s relentless product placement (the whole movie is basically an ad) but still… it is fun. And Jim Carrey is a perfect as the villain and very funny.

If you see it, remember to watch it until the credits roll.

Nose to Tail

Wri/Dir: Jesse Zigelstein

Dan (Aaron Abrams) is an arrogant, self-centred master chef at a restaurant in downtown Toronto. He oversees every dish and inspects each outsourced vegetable that arrives in the morning. If anyone in the kitchen steps out of line, he lashes out like a boot camp sergeant. Dan starts his day with a makeshift breakfast of single malt whiskey and prescription drugs. The restaurant is everything to him. He depends on Chloe (Lara Jean Chorostecki) at the front of house, Keith, his Chef de Cuisine ( Brandon McKnight) in the kitchen, and Steven his sommelier (Salvatore Antonio) to keep the wine cellar well stocked. Problem is his world is collapsing all around him.

He’s four months overdue on the rent. Online bloggers are dissing his abrasive manners (fuckin’ millennials!). Keith is heading for greener pastures and his bills are piling up. He stood up Chloe (his on-again, off-again girlfriend) and has berated and verbally abused his entire staff, burning bridges all around him. Then his ex-wife drops by with unexpected news, and a popular new food truck parks right across the street. Everything depends on a high school friend and millionaire (Ennis Esmer) who is coming for dinner that night. Will he invest in the business? Or will the restaurant – just like the heritage pig he cuts up on camera, from nose to tail – go belly up?

This isn’t the first drama about a high-strung egotistical chef –  think Bradley Cooper in Burnt and Jon Favreau in Chef, to name just two – but Nose to Tail has a level of intensity and density – the whole movie lasts just one day – that beats those other two hands down. And Aaron Abrams (The Go-Getters) gives a tour de force performance, keeping close to the boiling point till the bitter end.

Downhill, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Nose to Tail 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.

Popcorn Movies. Films reviewed: Cold Pursuit, What Men Want, The Prodigy

Posted in comedy, Crime, drugs, Horror, Psychology, Sex, Snow, Sports, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on February 8, 2019

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

It’s the middle of winter, and all the highbrow pics have been released. So this week I’m looking at regular, popcorn movies – a comedy, a revenge thriller and a horror movie. There’s a psychic sports agent looking to land a killer client, a man out to find his son’s killers… and a young couple worried their 8-year-old son might be a killer himself.

Cold Pursuit

Dir: Hans Petter Moland

It’s winter at a ski resort in Colorado. Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is the town snowplow driver, clearing the roads for drivers from nearby Denver. He lives a respectable unremarkable life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and his snowplows. But his life turns sideways when their only son turns up dead from a drug overdose. At least that’s what the police detective (Emily Rossum) says. But his son doesn’t do drugs. Turns out he accidentally disrupted a drug deal involving lots of cocaine.

Nels decides to take the law into his own hands, work his way up the chain of command and get revenge on the criminal ultimately responsible for his son’s death. On the way Nels kills and disposes of each man he meets. The head gangster is Viking (Tom Bateman) a detestable, effete millionaire whose lackies all look like models in fine suits. His territory is split with an aboriginal Chief named White Bull (Tom Jackson) of the Ute Nation. But when dead bodies show up, Viking thinks his indigenous rivals, starting a major drug war. With a kidnapped boy, the local police, the Feds, and Nels himself all converging on a single spot, who will survive the ultimate showdown?

Cold Pursuit is an exact, scene-by-scene remake of the 2016 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance. Same director, same stunning snow scenes, but this time shot in Canada, not Norway, and the script is in English. I’m not a big fan of Liam Neesen action movies, but he plays this part perfectly: the single-minded revenge killer out for blood. It’s bloody, it’s violent and while somewhat comic, it seems to be missing the sardonic, Norwegian irony of the original.

But I still liked it.

What Men Want

Dir: Adam Shankman

It’s present day Atlanta.

Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) is a manager at Summit Worldwide a highly competitive pro-sports management agency. She’s an alpha dog in an all-male office. Her dad (Richard Roundtree), a former boxer, raised her to be a winner in both her work and her private life. When she takes men home for the night she’s always on top. She’s ambitious and self-centred. And with her gay personal assistant Brandon’s help (Josh Brenner) she’s close to landing a huge client – Jamal a star college basketball player. But she still can’t break through the glass ceiling and make full partner.

Until… her life changes after a party with her closest girlfriends when a psychic gives her a secret potion, and later that night she gets bonked on the head by a huge inflatable penis. When she comes to, she realizes she has a new secret power: she can read men’s minds. Suddenly a whole world is open to her, with all its potential benefits. Like finding out if a guy she’s crushing on has a thing for her. Or what men say to each other when women aren’t around. And where those men-only poker games are taking place. Is this new power the key to her success? Can she penetrate the locker-room bro culture that is holding her back? Can she turn a one night stand with single-dad bartender Will (Aldis Hodge) into a real relationship? Or is all this ESP stuff less of a blessing than a curse?

What Men Want is a remake of Mel Gibson’s comedy from 20 years ago, but with a role reversal. If you’re into pro sports and TV comedies there are tons of celebrity cameos to keep you happy, from Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Jones, Tracy Morgan, Pete Davidson, Mark Cuban, and many, many others. Eryka Badu is great as the psychic, and Taraji P. Henson – who starred in Hidden Figures – carries the show as Ali. But is it funny?

It’s OK, but not that funny. It’s disturbingly full of product placements in almost every scene. They could have done so much more, but in this movie a black woman who reads minds finds out white men may be sex obsessed, devious, condescending and insecure, but none of them are actually racist. (“Yay! — no one’s racist!“) It does talk about the problems inherent in pro sports, but steers away from bigger issues just begging to be addressed. This movie may be facile, safe and predictable, but I enjoyed it anyway.

The Prodigy

Dir: Nicolas McCarthy

Sarah and John (Taylor Schilling, Peter Mooney) are a young married couple in suburban Pennsylvania with a gifted son. Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) seems older than his years. He spoke his first words after just a few months, and at age eight is excelling at a school for exceptional students. And he has an angelic smile he shows his mom and dad. But there’s something not quite right about him. He seems to speak an exotic language in his sleep. And people nearby keep having strange accidents, which Miles claims he knows nothing about.

But when he violently attacks another boy in science class, his parents are disturbed. A specialist named Arthur (Colm Feore) says there might be someone else controlling Miles from somewhere deep inside him. Is he possessed by Satan? Does he have a split personality? Or is it something else? And what is little Miles’s connection to a notorious serial killer with a fetish for cutting of women’s hands? Sarah doesn’t know exactly what’s behind Miles strange behaviour but decides it’s time to act… before it’s too late!

If you like extremely scary horror movies, this is one to see. A disturbing Bad Seed-style story of a parent’s worst nightmare: that their nice kid might actually be evil. Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) is totally believeable as the mother, and young Jackson Robert Scott is extremely creepy as Miles – watch out for him. I still have shivers in my gut.

The Prodigy is classic horror.

Prodigy, Cold Pursuit and What Men Want 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.

Bro Movie Week. Movies reviewed: Before We Go, Meru, The Transporter: Refueled

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime, Cultural Mining, Docudrama, Drama, Movies, Romance, Snow, Sports by CulturalMining.com on September 4, 2015

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

Summer is almost over, so this week is Bro Movie Week. There’s an action-thriller about a driver who wants to get from here to there; a documentary about three mountain climbers who want to get from the bottom to the top; and a romantic dramedy about a guy who wants to help a woman he meets to get home.

11755254_1690148554546489_391372841939396319_nBefore We Go

Dir: Chris Evans

Nick (Chris Evans) is a bearded busker who’s playing his trumpet in Grand Central Station. He’s in NY City for an important audition the next day – the chance of a lifetime to join a famous jazz band. But he’s dogged by memories of a long lost love. Brooke (Alice Eve) is a well-dressed woman in a hurry. She wants to get back to her home in New Haven as fast as she can. And if she doesn’t get there in time… big 11012648_1694040134157331_8491743828569222621_ntrouble.

The problem is she missed the last train, and is penniless and without any ID. Her purse got snatched in a bar that night. So as the station is closing, Nick goes out on a limb for her, and says he’ll help her get home. At first she’s cold and standoffish but soon realizes he’s her only chance. And so they step out into the scary streets of the city that never sleeps.

Over the course of the night, they find themselves in a dangerous den of thieves, performing on a stage at the wrong wedding, and running into lost 11807391_1694040120823999_4338576212858907929_oloves at a party. Will Brook ever tell Nick why she has to get home? Will Nick find closure with his own relationship? And have the two of them forged a new friendship — or possibly a lasting romance — of their own?

Before We Go isn’t terrible, it’s just OK. More meh than anything else. The plot is uninteresting and predictable, and the characters are mediocre. Chris Evans is better known as Captain America so I guess this is his try at directing a movie. Nice try Chris, but try again. I’ve seen Alice Eve in lots of TV shows and movies, but she’s also unremarkable in this one. If you really need to watch a “Night in Manhattan” movie see Martin Scorsese’s After Hours instead.

The North Face Meru Expedition, 2011Meru

Dir: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Renan Ozturk, Jimmy Chin and Conrad Anker are three American mountain climbers. They’re not ordinary hobbyists. These are the guys with weather-beaten faces you see staring sternly at a cloud on the cover of Outside magazine; or dangling from a sheer face of rock in National Geographic. Climbing is their life. Profession, too. They make a living partly from taking the pictures and videotape of the mountains they’re climbing. But their white whale, their unconquerable peak, is a mountain Meru Expedition, Garwhal, Indiacalled Meru.

Meru is a formidable, bare, sheer peak of rock on a snow-covered mountain in the Himalayas. Its top is known as the Shark’s Fin. In comparison, Mt Everest is a popular tourist spot with plenty of sherpas there to help would-be climbers. Meru – at the source of the river Ganges in northern India – is a do-it-yourself climb. Basically, you carry, on your back The North Face Meru Expedition, 2011everything you need to eat, wear or use. You’re on your own. This movie chronicles the two attempts made by these driven climbers to get to the top of the un-climbable Meru.

The photography in this movie is quite spectacular. And some of the incidents caught on film – like an avalanche on a mountain side, or shots of the climbers inside a tent pinned near the top of a peak – is amazing. So if you’re into outdoor or extreme sports, or chronicles of guys who risk their lives climbing mountains just because they’re there, then you’ll love this movie. Otherwise… I think it only has niche appeal.

Transporter RefueledThe Transporter: Refueled

Dir: Camille Delamarre

Frank (Ed Skrein) is a driver in Monte Carlo. He’s known for his unmatched skills in a car. He can get anyone anywhere they want to go, no questions asked. Cops or robbers can’t stop him. So when he’s hired for a large

Still_-_Transporter_Refueled_9But there’s more to the story than that. They hire Frank again for another job, and just to make sure he comes through, they kidnap his dad, Frank Senior (Ray Stephenson). And give him a time-release poison to which they hold the only antidote. They want to take down the mob, including Karasov (Serbian actor Radivoje Bukvic). But can Frank’s lightning-fast fighting and driving skills teamed with the vengeance-driven sex-workers defeat the worst gangster-pimps of Monaco?

This is the latest installment in an endless action movie franchise, that Transporter Refueledstarred Jason Statham as the Transporter in earlier versions. It’s dumb and ridiculous, and sexist of course, and riddled with logical impossibilities and melodramatic acting. And the dialogue is atrocious: did they take an already bad French script and feed it into Google Translate? Still, I have to say I actually liked it. The chases, the fights, and the shootouts were all good, and Ed Skrein (Game of Thrones) is credible as the new, artfully-scarred driver. It’s a crime action thriller, a B movie (maybe a C movie), but I still enjoyed it.

Transporter: Refueled opened earlier this week and Meru and Before We Go both start today in Toronto and on V.O.D. 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

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.

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

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

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

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

Beeswax

Dir: Andrew Bujalski

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

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

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

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

Littlerock

Dir: Mike Ott

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

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

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

Hanna

Dir: Joe Wright

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

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

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

Born to Be Wild

Dir: David Lickley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rivers and My Father

Dir: Luo Li

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

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

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

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

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

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

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