Scary and Scarier. Movies Reviewed: Dark Skies, Act of Killing PLUS Oscar predictions

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

Oscar is back – and I’m not talking about Pistorius the Paralympics star’s trial. This weekend, the good and the bad compete for the most important prizes in the industry.

So, once again I will make my Oscar predictions – but a warning: I’m almost always completely wrong.

I have a feeling Amour, Haneke’s devastating film about the final years of an elderly couple, will come out on top. Zero Dark Thirty – the CIA torture-fest about the hunt for Bin Laden – will be largely shut out. And Silver Linings Playbook, the bi-polar rom-com, and Argo, a light, revisionist history about the Iranian hostage crisis, will divide the rest if the spoils.

Best Movie: Amour should win, but Argo will win. Best Actor: I haven’t seen Lincoln yet, so I can’t judge Daniel Day Lewis, but of the other four, Joaquin Phoenix did the best performance. He should win. Best Actress: Emmanuel Riva should and will win. Supporting actor? Robert De Niro in Silver Linings should win, but Christopher Waltz will win. Supporting actress: I liked Amy Adams in The Master, but I think Anne Hathaway will win. I think Michael Haneke will win best director and he deserves it.

The documentaries are all fantastic. I have a feeling Looking for Sugarman will win. And the foreign language films this year – Rebelle, No, Amour, Kon Tiki (plus Royal affair, which I haven’t seen) – are all outstanding. Three of them are on my 2012 best ten list, and No would be as well, if it had been released in time. You should see them all. And finally best original and adapted screenplays: I think Amour and Silver Linings will win that.

Some of the Oscar choices are scary, and so are their song and dance numbers. Even scarier are two movies: a Spielberg-style family thriller-chiller, and an unbelievably strange documentary out of Indonesia.

DARK_SKIES_POSTERDark Skies

Dir: Scott Stewart

It’s a hot summer, and the fourth of July is a couple days away. In the best of times, the Barrets are not a perfect family. Mom and Dad (Keri Russel and Jeff Hammond) are in trouble: their mortgage payments are three months overdue. Daniel’s out of work, and Lacey’s real estate sales aren’t doing well. Then there’s their two kids, Jesse and Sam (Toronto-native Dakota Goyo and Kadan Rockett). Jesse is hanging out with an older, “bad” friend, Ratface, who introduces him to long guns, bong-smoking and vintage porn videos (Jesse’s 14.) They hang out in one of the fixer-upper houses Lacey’s trying to sell. And little Sam is having nightmares – the sandman keeps coming to him at night. Still, the family likes their nice suburban neighbourhood, with its swimming pools, American dark skiesflags and backyard barbecues and don’t want to move. Jesse calms the waters by staying up late, talking to Sam by walkey-talkey.

But things go from bad to worse. Birds smash into the windows. The family starts having absence seizures, wetting their pants, and walking into walls. Strange bruises and marks are appearing on the kids’ bodies – is someone calling Children’s Aid? They open their mouths wide and start screaming, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They wake up in the middle of the night to find strange, little tricks left behind by a Poletrgeist-like being. And humming sounds and bright white lights appear under doors, just like in ET and Close Encounters. (Get the picture?)

dark skies 2Dad is perturbed, so he puts video camera in all the rooms to see of there is any Paranormal Activity at night. And sure enough, he finds something… but what are they? Can they fight off the enemy and keep together as a family unit? Or will they disappear, one by one?

I love the pseudo-retro quality of the movie as they plunder all the scary movies from 70s and 80s. The kid actors are all great, and the adults are usually good. And there are some wicked semi-psychedelic dream sequences popping up all through the movie. They almost make the whole film worthwhile. Almost.

But the story is a mess, some of the characters are lame, and the dialogue waivers between good to chokingly awful. So even though I felt like I should like this kind of film – it was really disappointing, especially the ending. It almost feels like they ran out of money before they could rewrite flubbed dialogue, and re-shoot missing scenes, and just decided to release it half edited. Too bad.

Act of Killingactofkilling_02_medium

Dir: Joshua Oppenhemier (and another director remains anonymous)

This is one of the weirdest documentaries I’ve ever seen, and has to be seen to be believed. Apparently, a group of former militants from Sumatra, Indonesia, decide to produce a fun, action film portraying the torture and murders it carried out in the 1960s. And they want to play themselves and their victims on the original sites where they murdered them. But they want to make it enjoyable, so they add musical numbers, dancing girls, a man in drag (one of the killers) for comic relief, and all sorts of additions to make it “entertaining”.

Historical context: In 1965-66, there were riots and mass-killings of about half a million ethnic Chinese Indonesians and Communist Party members in the mid-sixties around the fall of President Sukarno.

Those killers are still associated with a paramilitary security force and right-wing political group there which proudly actofkilling_04_mediumrecalls their deeds to the locals.

This is simultaneously the western filmmaker’s a first-hand record of the mass murderers unapologetically admitting their war crimes, and a film-diary of a bizarre low-budget Indonesian pop production. Jaw-dropping film.

Dark Skies opens today, check your local listings; Act of Killing is playing at the Human Rights Watch film festival in Toronto – go to tiff.net for details; and the Academy Awards are on TV this Sunday. Also opening tonight in Toronto is the very cool, experimental film Tower, directed by local Kazik Radwanski, who I interviewed last week. Check that one out.

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

December 23, 2011 Christmas Flicks. Movies Reviewed: The Adventures of Tintin, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse

Posted in 1970s, Drama, Espionage, Family, Horses, Steven Spielberg, Tintin, UK, Uncategorized, US, WWI by CulturalMining.com on December 22, 2011

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.

It’s holiday time once again, and there are lots of good movies out there to see. I’m just going to tell you about three of them, all period movies – one set in the 1910’s, one in the fifties, or thereabouts, and one In the 70’s — all with mainly British casts, and two out of three, directed by the same guy – Steven Spielberg.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Dir: Tomas Alfredson

It’s the 1970’s, in the middle of the Cold War between the Soviet Bloc and the West, when a British agent is shot in Budapest in a failed mission. Why? Because, says a young agent, there’s a mole somewhere in the highest ranks of The Circus (as the agents refer to MI6 headquarters). The wife of an enemy general told him. So they let the disgraced spy, George Smiley — John Le Carre’s most famous character — to come back in to find the leak.

This is an amazingly complex spy movie, with three or four plots going on simultaneously, along with various flashbacks gradually filling in the missing details. (I gave only the most bare-bones details, so as not to spoil the film.) Some of the scenes are fantastic – like an insiders’ view of the spy division’s office Christmas party, where the agents sing out songs from the various nations they are spying on as they guzzle vodka-stoked punch. It’s also a visually stupendous movie, with period costumes, and lighting that somehow makes all the sombre faces look like chiseled (or grizzled!) stone statues.

The acting is all-around amazing, with Gary Oldman as Smiley, and especially the less well-known actors like Mark Strong, Kathy Burke, and Tom Hardy. Warning – this is not a high-concept film like a 007 action movie. It’s not so easy film to absorb: you have to think about it as you watch. But it’s very satisfying to see.

The Adventures of Tintin

Dir: Steven Spielberg

Based on comics by Herge

Tintin is a young journalist who travels around the world with his dog Snowy. When his model ship is stolen, he discovers a secret message left behind, and vows to track down the other clues. But he’s being chased by a mean man with a sweet-sounding name — Sakharine. Tintin is shanghaied, and on board the cargo ship he meets Captain Haddock, a drunk who also has a connection to the missing model ship, the Unicorn. Together, they set out on an orientalist journey to a North African sheikhdom – travelling by plane, boat and on foot — to find the secret message, solve the mystery, and catch the evil villain. Part of the puzzle is written down, but part is lost somewhere in Haddock’s hazy memory – the only way to find the treasure of the villainous pirate Red Rackham is for Captan Haddock to remember the story. Billions of blue bilious blistering Barnacles!

Tintin and Snowy are Herge’s beloved characters who travelled around the world, speaking the same language as everyone he met, and always doing the right thing. I loved reading those comics. Never mind that Herge continued to publish during the Nazi occupation, affably drawing his villains evil Jews; never mind that he used racist caricatures in depictions of the Congo (where, ironically, it was Belgium’s King Leopold who had slaughtered millions as he plundered their wealth). These things are all Herge’s faults, not Tintin’s. He is always true, brave, clever, kind hearted, and adventurous.

I always loved the clear detailed lines, the amazing adventures, and the exotic locales of Herge’s comics. But some of it’s lost on the big screen. The 3-D movie version is shot in my least favourite type of animation: Motion Capture. This is the type where actors move around with little cameras hanging all over them, to give a combination of live action but animated characters and background. But it’s uglier and less elegant than the original, simpler versions. This one gives Tintin a sort of a globe head with fuzzy hair (could you imagine someone doing a motion capture movie, of, say Charlie Brown and giving him a bulbous head and one giant curled hair?) And the clips of ocean waves and fire look totally out if place – they don’t match the rest of the images. Some scenes are perfect – like Haddock drinking blobs of floating alcohol on board a prop plane. But the sword fights are way too long; the opera singer, Bianca Castafiore, is given a beautiful voice (instead of a terrible one). And worst of all, they hijacked a Tintin story and almost turned it into a Haddock story. Great Snakes! Tintin and a sidekick? You can’t do that…

The voices – Andy Bell and Andrew Sirkis as Tintin and Cap’t Haddock – are great, no problems there. Anyway, it’s a fun adventurous drama… but it left me hollow — not with the great thrill I felt reading the comics gave me.

War Horse

Dir: by Steven Spielberg

Albie, a poor farmer’s kid in the rolling hills of Devon, trains and raises his beautiful colt Joey. They grow up together, but when his father is close to losing the farm on the eve of WWI, he sells the horse to an officer to use in the war. Albie is heartbroken, but ties his dad’s regimental flag from the Boer War to Joey’s bridle to remember him.

This is where the focus shifts from the kid, to the horse himself! Horses played a vital part in WWI, and Joey the horse finds itself drifting across battle lines in France, between the British and the Germans. He’s taken in by German soldiers who also recognize his strength and beauty. Later he’s found by a young French girl who wants to hide him from the soldiers. And he makes friends with a bigger, black horse. But it’s a war, and Joey is sent back to the front lines, back to the trenches, facing death as a dray horse. Will he make it through the war? And will he ever get back to Albert and his peaceful farm in Devon?

When I heard about this movie, I put a giant X across it, and said BLLLLEEEEAAAAAAGGGHHH! I am not watching a movie about a horse! NO WAY! That’s a definite. But you know what? I went, I saw it, and… oh my God! It turned out to be an amazingly touching movie: Sentimental but not smarmy, unorthodox, exciting, unusual, and a total tear-jerker – at least three genuine sob-scenes. OK, it’s partly formulaic – everyone likes kids and animals – but it’s so much more than that. It avoids anthropomorphizing the animals – they are horses not people. Spielberg also shows war as a cruel and bad place, with the Germans and the British equally suffering.

Acting was great, the cinematography looks like an old Hollywood western, and even the somewhat cloying music rarely spoiled the feel.

I thought they couldn’t make great G-rated movies anymore, just Chipmunk Squeakquels… but they can. This is a wonderful, beautiful, tear-wrenching, and exciting movie.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is now playing, The Adventures of Tintin just opened, and War Horse on Christmas Day. Check you local listings.

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

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