October 20, 2011. The Calm Before the Storm. Movies Reviewed: Restoration, Wiebo’s War, 50/50 PLUS ImagineNATIVE

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.

There’s a term “The Calm Before the Storm”, and I’m getting the sensation that we’re there right now. Have you ever felt what it’s like before a tornado hits? It’s uncomfortably still, with a heavy weight in the pit of your stomach, and a strange feeling in the air. No wind. Weird feeling. Last weekend I stopped by the Occupy Toronto protest, where people are talking about how the middle class and poor — in countries like Canada, the US, Germany — have had their incomes go down or stay stangant over the past two decades, while a tiny percentage, that “1%”,  have had the biggest increase in their wealth in a century. Our national wellbeing is not keeping up to the constant rise in GDP.

Before the march, they pointed out the medics, in case people got clubbed or shot, and asked everyone to write down a number to call in case you’re thrown into prison. So there was that nervous sensation, not knowing how the police would react, would they be violent?, and what the potential risks were for marching, even in a democratic country. It turned out to be totally peaceful with a friendly police escort and no bad incidents whatsoever… but you never know.

So, knowing that some countries are on the brink of self-destruction, and (not that the two are comparable) knowing that next week – Hallowe’en – will be marked with deliberate mayhem and confusion, I’ve decided to talk about three movies where people face potential chaos, calamity, and collapse, and the different ways they choose to confront the coming storm.

First is a movie, which played at TIFF, about people confronting personal change and relationships, and trying to avoid a collapse.

Restoration
Dir: Joseph Madmony

Anton (Henry David), a young man and almost a drifter is looking for work in a run-down section of Tel Aviv. He stumbles into an old-school furniture-restoring shop and gets hired immediately by the grizzled and grumpy old carpenter Fidelman (Sasson Gabai). But the childless co-owner of the place dies the next day, and leaves his half not to the carpenter, but to his son.

Fidelman’s broke. And his son, a lawyer, is a bit of a douche, who is glad to be removed from his father’s life as a tradesman. He calls the place a junkyard, and wants to sell the property to build a condo, destroying his own father’s livelihood and forcing him into retirement. But musical Anton, (who has family troubles of his own) vows to learn the trade and tries to find the golden egg that will save the store. If he can only locate the missing piece of a rare antique piano, it will change from a piece of junk to a treasure worth enough money to keep the place open, and evade the impending doom. Anton becomes almost a surrogate son to the carpenter… almost. But it’s complicated when he realizes he may be falling in love with the real son’s pregnant wife.

This movie had great acting from the two main characters. On the surface, it’s a “let’s work hard to fix the piano and save the shop!”-type story, but that’s just its superficial structure. It’s actually much more sophisticated. Though drab-looking, Restoration is a bitter-sweet examination of love, duty, families, allegiances, death and inheritance.

Next, a movie, which played at Hotdocs, about a man, his family, and his supporters who take drastic moves to confront what he thinks is a coming disaster.

Wiebo’s War
Dir: David York

Wiebo Ludwig is a devout Christian who lives in a remote, isolated colony with his fellow religious settlers in BC, near Alberta. Their lives are food and energy self-sufficient, but, in the 90’s, things began to go wrong. Goats started having frequent stillbirths, and, when a woman also miscarried, they realized their watershed had been contaminated by natural gas wells built right at the edge of their property.

He was later arrested, tried, and jailed for bombs he had set off at wells and pipelines in that energy-rich Alberta area. This movie follows filmmaker David York who was allowed to film inside their compound.

Is Wiebo a religious nut or a devoted social activist? Well, he’s certainly religious, but he’s crazy like a fox. The movie documents some of Wiebo’s (and those of his fellow settlers’) frequent brushes with the law and the big energy companies. There are run-ins with outwardly conciliatory execs from Encana; pointless, intimidating, and relentless police raids of their homes to test things like how many ball point there are on one floor, and how many cassette tapes are on another; and their increasingly fractious relationship with the nearby town, where they have found themselves local pariahs following the unexplained shooting death of young woman on their property.

Folk hero, or deranged terrorist?

Maybe both. I left the movie even less certain than before as to who’s to blame and what actually happened. While a bit slow-moving, Wiebo’s War gives a first hand look at a legendary Canadian figure (who was sadly diagnosed with cancer just a few days ago), his family and co-religionists, and the unusual junction between Christian fundamentalism and environmental extremism. …an inside look at the calm before the storm.

50/50
Dir: Jonathan Levine

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a shy, quiet, polite and passive guy, with a boorish and boisterous friend named Kyle, a smothering, worrying mom, and a beautiful but shallow girlfriend named Rachael. He’s in his twenties, no car, lives in a tiny red house far from the city of Seattle, and cubicle job at a beautiful public radio station (Support CIUT!) where he’s working on a story about a soon-to-erupt volcano.

But when Adam gets a pain in his belly, his doctor (a man with possibly the worst bedside manner ever) does some tests and tells him he has a rare form of cancer, and a 50% chance of living. He’s sent to a therapist (Anne Hendrick) who’s younger than he is, and is still at the student-teacher stage.

So, how is Adam going to face his situation? How will he deal with his casual girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is suddenly his caregiver? His best friend (Seth Rogen) who just wants to use his cancer buddy as a wing-man chick magnet? And his intrusive worry-wort mother, who is already taking care of his Alzheimer stricken dad? Or even his bumbling but sincere therapist, Katie? What will he do? Can he accept the possibility of death? Who is really important to him?

50/50, based on a true story, is not a bad movie – it’s sweet — but, beware, it’s not the comedy it’s billed as. It’s a drama — even a bit of a weeper — with some needed comic relief. Gordon-Levitt is perfect as Adam, as is Hendrick as Katie, while Seth Rogen – not so funny, a bit too much. But Angelica Huston as the Mother was shockingly good. I mean, she plays to stereotypes, but does it so well, I didn’t figure out it was her playing the part until the final credits!

50/50 is now playing, Wiebo’s War opens in Toronto today, check your local listings, and Restoration is playing one show only next week, on Sunday afternoon, October 30th, as part of the Chai, Tea and a Movie series. Go to tjff.com for details.

Also on right now in Toronto is the wonderful ImagineNATIVE, the world’s largest aboriginal film festival, that explores native film, art and music from Canada and abroad. Great stuff! Many events are free and they’re all open to everyone — go to ImagineNATIVE.org for details.

Next week: Hallowe’en!

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

October 7, 2011. Changes? Solar Taxi, Waking the Green Tiger, Restless, PLUS Planet in Focus.

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 what the difference is.

You’re listening to this on Friday morning but I recorded this on Wednesday, so I’m taking an intentionally neutral tone – I don’t know yet what changes the election has brought. Are people saying: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? Or: hooray! Change at last! Right to strike and no more diesel fumes! Or maybe: Hallellujah! Our prayers have brought the Tea Party to Canada with no more of them-there sexiness kidnapping our babies away and stealing our tax breaks! Or even, OMG – Look! There’s a triple rainbow, halley’s comet, a total eclipse… and hell just froze over! …if you’re a faithful Green Party supporter.

Like I said, I don’t know… But I do know that change is happening on a global scale and we ignore these changes at our own risk. So this week, I’m going to look at two informative documentaries playing at the Planet in Focus festival, and also review a new, offbeat romance film that played at TIFF.

So, what is Planet in Focus? Well, it’s an annual Toronto event that brings together video and filmmakers, environmental experts, and activists from around the world for a week-long look at what’s happening to our planet. It’s a good place for youth and adults to learn more about the environment and what to do about it.

There are some big documentaries opening and closing the festival – one, called Revenge of the Electric Car (Narrated by Tim Robbins), and another called The Whale, narrated by Ryan Reynolds about an Orca named Luna separated from his family off the coast of Vancouver.

First let’s look at the movie

Solartaxi: Around the World with the Sun.

Dir: Erik Schmitt

Louis us a Swiss-German school teacher who loves cars but doesn’t like what they’re doing to the planet, with all their inefficient carbon-burning engines, and the disgusting and dangerous emissions that come out the back end. And ever since he was a kid, he dreamed of going around the world by a sort of a race-car. So how does he reconcile his diametrically opposed goals? Well, he manages to find sponsors, battery manufacturers, a mechanic, and a builder to make him the car of his dreams. It’s a cute, low-rolling, blue-and-white three-wheeler that he hopes will carry him out of the Swiss Alps and across many continents.

And behind it is a flatbed covered in solar panels. He dubs the whole thing his “Solar Taxi” and wants to bring it to the world’s attention, that not just hybrids, but purely electric cars really do work. Here’s the thing – the solar panels being made today, aren’t strong enough to power a two-person car. But his home back in Switzerland has a lot more solar panels that feed into the power grid, so he juices up with more power on the way, but never more than he’s actually producing.

Louis has a weedy moustache and rectangular wire-rimmed glasses and a bit politically naïve; but he does manage to take it across Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, giving rides to local politicians, celebrities and movie stars along the way as he spreads the news about his car. The movie shows mainly touristy sights – like snake charmers in India, kangaroos in Australia, and TV celebs in America – but it’s a fun trip. And in China, he sees countless electric mopeds, solar panels on every roof, and even gets a red carpet laid down for his car to drive on!

Which brings us to the next movie:

Waking the Green Tiger

Dir: Gary Marcuse

Is China a green paradise? Or an environmental nightmare? I think the answer’s somewhere in between. This movie gives the issue a balanced look.

In the early days of the People’s Republic, environmentalism didn’t exist. Any potential problem could be solved by the peasants and the workers putting their efforts together and working with all their might. Except… it didn’t always work. In the early 60’s Mao declared there was a shortage of steel, and no factory’s big enough to smelt all the iron the country needed. So they said if collective farm made their own little factory they could all work together and make it happen. Unfortunately, most of the stuff it produced was unusable. And when they decided that the sparrows were eating too much grain they told all the farmers to clap their hands and shake their trees until all the sparrows fell to the ground. Well, they did manage to tire out and kill all the sparrows, but without birds eating the insects there was a horrible plague of locusts that destroyed that year’s crop. So perhaps good intentions, but horribly environmentally unsound practices.

So this movie traces that period to the present, and how the growing awareness of environmental and cultural destruction taking place is awakening a huge number of people as to what’s going on and what they can do to change it. There are thousands of environmental NGO’s in China, some maverick journalists and filmmakers showing the country what’s behind the curtain, and local activists who are fighting the huge corporations and government entities there building dams, mines and rerouting lakes and rivers.

It focuses on the Salween or Nu River and in particular the Tiger Leap gorge, a dramatically beautiful canyon where they might be building a series of dams, and moving out the people who live around there. The Salween river is one of the world’s biggest free-flowing rivers, surrounded by unusual monkeys, diverse wildlife and ecosystems, and unique languages and cultures that exist only there. So, a filmmaker, Shi Lihong, took some of the Salween villagers in a bus across the country to talk to a similar place on the Mekong river. When they saw and spoke to the people there, how they were living now, (compared to what their lives were like before they were evicted) they were horrified and galvanized to take action back home. And the documentary itself, along with a series of newspaper articles, captured the interest of many people across China who also felt it would be an environmental disaster.

This is a great documentary showing the grass-roots environmental campaigns and public reactions in a vast country we know very little about. Using archival footage, great Mao-era propaganda posters and photos, and interviews with contemporary journalists and government officials, it goves a good overview of what’s happening right now in China, and what people are doing about it.

Next, here’s another movie about people who are restless… but in a different way.

Restless

Dir: Gus van Sant

Enoch (Henry Hopper) is a teenaged boy who only wears black and white, and hides his emotions. He talks, plays battleship, and seeks advice from Hiroshi, the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase). He lives with an aunt since his parents died, never going to school, and trying never to show emotions. For some reason, he enjoys going to funerals and memorial services. Well at one of these funerals he’s caught by pretty Annabelle, (Mia Wasikowska). Although an odd match, they eventually hit it off. But here’s the catch – and maybe there’s another funeral to crash on the horizon. You see, Annabelle has cancer and her future does not look great.

Can the two cute blond High Schoolers make a morbid but happy life together – dressing in funny 1920’s era costumes, walking around cemeteries, and acting out potentially romantic death scenes? Or will sad, real life disturb their fantasies?

This is a nice little romantic drama, and a bit of a tear-jerker. I thought she was much more convincing than he was – she’s a much better actor – she lights up the screen, while he seems to drag it down a little. The whole movie feels like any Japanese girl’s manga: a good place to moon over sad, sad love with some witty humour, a lot of posturing and pretty costumes thrown in. I admit it did make me cry — it was touching — but it didn’t seem up to the level of most Gus Van Sant movies.

Restless is now playing, and Planet in Focus starts next Wednesday – check planetinfocus.org for listings and times. And look out for the ImagineNative festival, coming soon!

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

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