July 26, 2012 Heroes vs Superheroes. Movies Reviewed: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Posted in Art, Batman, China, Comics, Cultural Mining, 艾未未, Hotdocs, Movies, Super-heroes, Uncategorized, US, 中国艺术 by CulturalMining.com on July 27, 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..

People like to watch superheroes and supervillains, whether its on the big screen or on the news screen – media gobble up anything in the news that seems horrific, and when it can be tied to movies or TV – like the recent shooting disaster in Colorado, it’s media gold. But what about a real hero? Those are harder to find. Do we give as much attention to heroes as villains, and what about real heroes vs comic book superheroes?

This week I’m talking about two action movies about superheroes trying to save Manhattan from being blown up, and a documentary about a real guy, an artist, who’s trying to stop China from imploding.

The Avengers

Dir: Joss Whedon

OK, NASA is building a machine called the tesseract that is powered by this bluish glowing cube about yea big. But a skinny goth with a glowing, golden sceptre — the Norse god Loki — puts the scientists under mind-control and zooms off somewhere to open a hole in the universe that would let an army of slimy metallic evil creatures from outer space take over the world.

So a group of people with special powers are brought together by a secret US government agency — SHIELD — to fight supervillain Loki. There’s Thor, the God of Thunder with a heavy hammer, Bruce Banner, the scientist who might turn into the Hulk at any moment, Ironman, a rich dude who’s also an inventor; Captain America, an earnest military guy from the 1940s who wears an ice-ballet stars and stripes leotard and carries a super-strong shield; and the black widow Natasha, a former Soviet spy who now fights bad guys everywhere. They all get loaded onto this mammoth airborne battleship the size of a small city. And, for some reason, Loki’s locked up into a glass cage on board.

Since they’re superheroes, they get into a bunch of fights: Thor vs Ironman, Hulk vs Thor, etc etc… until they finally get it together to fight the real baddies. But of course Loki and his hypnotized minions are going to stop them. Will the good guys beat the bad guys? Or will the earth crumble, taken over by Loki’s alien allies? Uh… guess.

This is a pretty goofy movie but it’s directed by Joss Whedon so you know it’s going to be watchable with lots of collapsing buildings falling apart just behind someone running full speed toward the camera. Cool. And the space aliens — who look like massive flying trilobite armadillos with sharp teeth – get in some amazing urban disaster scenes, smashing through glass office towers. The big stars – Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansen, Samuel Jackson, and Tom Hiddleston as Loki — all seem to be having a good time.

And the bits of sardonic humour thrown in here and there, helps it a lot. Not great fun, but at least good fun once all the fighting starts.

The Dark Knight Rises

Dir: Christopher Nolan

As in The Avengers, a super-villain, this one called Bain, — a big guy with a mask over his mouth — descends on Manhattan, aka Gotham City, because he wants to take over, seize Wayne Enterprises’ secret energy-generating device (with WMD potential), and then kill everybody. Why? Doesn’t really matter. Because he’s a bad guy, I guess.

But billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is in retirement, his company running dry, and the forlorn orphans he used to help are left abandoned. Meanwhile, in a French Revolution-style takeover, they storm the Bastille letting the world’s worst criminals out of jail, a Robespierre-type judge sentences everyone to death or exile, and the NYPD are all locked up in a collapsed underground tunnel. Who will save everyone? It takes the combined efforts of a tough, young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a slinky cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) to finally get Batman out of his funk to fight the bad guy. But Bain locks him up in a pit in central Asia with no way out. Oh no!

I dunno about this one. Two hours and forty minutes later we get to see the ending, find out who will triumph and what is the villain’s secret. To be honest, this is a pretty stupid movie. The effects are good enough, but never seem to be justified – they’re evoked seemingly at random. Great actors — like Tom Hardy as Bain and Christian Bale as Batman – spend the movie masked, with distorted voices. Why bother? They could have meat puppets doing the same thing. What a waste. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway are a bit better, as their characters actually get to develop, but in general, this movie was a humourless drudge. Good enough to watch, but not worth dying for (this is not meant to downplay the terrible shooting at the premier in Colorado).

Incidentally, the scariest part for me was when someone walked past my aisle seat, with a loud, sudden pattapattapatta clacking sound. Everyone jumped and stared and a security guard came running into the theatre to investigate, but it turned out to be just some guy spilling reese’s pieces all over the steps.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Dir: Alison Klayman

But what about a real hero?

Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is a Chinese artist and photographer who studied in NY in the 80s and 90s and is now an international art celeb. He helped design the Beijing Olympic stadium and his photography – he’s famous for giving the finger to all the world’s great buildings — and installations are widely known. And he has impeccable credentials: his dad was Ai Qing (艾青), the poet who was jailed by the Nationalists, and who joined the Communist Party and participated in Mao Zedong’s famous Talks on Art and Culture at Yen’an. That’s major historical creds in postwar China.

But Ai Weiwei doesn’t like everything going on in China these days. So when a poorly designed school building collapses in Sichuan, killing hundreds of kids, his art turns political – after painstaking research he creates a memorial listing all the names of the dead. But this is taken as a possible insult to the the authorities. He is arrested and beaten up by a violent cop known only by his badge number. So begins his odyssey, fighting the powers that be, and trying to get justice using his art, his writing, the media, lawsuits, fighting in court, and filming everything, everywhere he goes.

He is one of the signers of Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08, and generally makes a name for himself, not just as an installation and photographic artist, but as a leading dissident — a sort of a Chinese Michael Moore, but one with deep artistic and cultural capabilities.

This documentary (that opened this year’s Hotdocs) is very important as an historical record. While it may be a case of the filmmaker being in the right place at the right time – It’s mainly shot with a handheld camera allowed to trace and document his life: in the galleries, his encounters with the police, his family life, including time with his son (from an unseen mother, not his wife).

He comes across as a bit unlikeable – not a smiling panda, but an irascible, sometimes obnoxious stubborn man. But one who sticks to his principles (freedom of speech, freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, etc). AI Weiwei has had his studio destroyed by the government, he’s been thrown in a secret prison — allegedly for tax reasons – and fined millions of dollars, but he hasn’t stopped fighting. Really interesting and worth seeing if you’re interested in China, politics, or art.

The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises are playing now, check your local listings; and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens today in Toronto.

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

June 22, 2012. Square Pegs. Movies Reviewed: Your Sister’s Sister, Kryptonite!, Alps.

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.

Can square pegs fit into heart-shaped holes? This week I’m looking at three movies about odd-balls adjusting their lives to fit into new families and relationships. There’s an indie rom-com from Seattle about a middle-aged slacker caught between two beautiful women; an Italian drama about a bullied 9-year-old who explores 70’s hippie culture; and an experimental Greek film about people trying to temporarily replace the dead.

Your Sister’s Sister
Dir: Lynn Shelton

Jack, (Mark Duplass) is depressed, unemployed, single, and stuck in a bottomless pit of negativity following his brother’s death. So to cheer him up, his friend Iris (Emily Blunt) – who was also his late brother’s ex-girlfriend – offers him the use of her family cabin, off on some island in the Pacific North West.  But when he gets there, he sees an attractive woman inside, coming out of her shower. And after a clumsy confrontation involving a wooden paddle, Hannah, a lesbian who has just broken up with her long-time lover, gets into a drunken confessional with this stranger, Jack. He’s a lumpish, impulsive ne’erdowell; while Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a strikingly beautiful, but acid-tongued meat-is-murder vegan. Is there a spark there? Uh, oh… Sometimes things that happen in the night are best forgotten in the morning.

Who shows up but the next day but Iris – who it turns out is Hannah’s half-sister! She’s been through a series relationships with swooshy haired, skinny jeaned, rock- and-roll hipster boyfriends… but could she also harbour feelings of her own toward her platonic best friend Jack? All these new complications throw a wrench into their mutual relationships.

Your Sister’s Sister is a really good, extreme-low-key romantic comedy. It’s mainly about the characters, not the plot, with most of the dialogue improvised by the actors themselves. The three of them work very well together and Mark Duplass is everywhere! (He was in another low-budget, Seattle-based comedy, Safety Not Guaranteed, just last week. Anyway, this movie’s worth seeing if you’re looking for a Left-coast romcom.

Kryptonite!
Wri & Dir: Ivan Cotroneo  (I Am Love)

Peppino (Luigi Catani) is a 9-year- old school kid in Naples in the early 70’s. He wears glasses and that’s enough to get picked on by his schoolmates. When he plays soccer, he‘s stuck being the goalpost. So, aside from his father who works in a sewing machine shop, and his loving mother he turns to his eccentric uncle Gennaro (Vincenzo Nemolato) who thinks he’s Superman.

But things start to go wrong. His mom (Valeria Golino) discovers her husband is having an affair. Instead of making a scene, she collapses and becomes bed-written until sent to psychoanalysis. His dad shoos him away so he can spend time with his secret girlfriend. And Genarro is found dead, hit by a car. So, without a functional family, and to keep him out of trouble, he’s lent out to his many uncles and aunts. They’re Neapolitan hippies, given to wearikng eye makeup and dancing to Ziggy Stardust and Nancy Sinatra.

They introduce him to their own new world of bra-burning, acid tripping, folk-dancing, nudity and mass love-ins. And the Superman Genarro periodically returns

from the dead to impart words of superhero wisdom to the bullied and “different” Peppino, as he struggles to understand and appreciate his differences.

Kryptonite! is a really great coming-of-age drama. It has a complex, but easy-to-follow story with a dozen main characters; Visually and aurally it’s a fantastic feast of eye- (and ear-) candy, including sets, costumes, amazing locations and seventies music.

ALPS
Dir: Giorgos Lanthimos

Something’s strange: why is a moustachioed EMT worker asking a dying patient about their favourite movie star, instead of allergies and past illnesses? Well, he’s gathering data for his second job: it’s a private enterprise where he and his colleagues – a nurse at his hospital, a competitive gymnastic dancer and her coach – rent themselves out to take the place of recently dead or injured people. This way their families and friends can ease more gradually into their new lives, and cope with the large gap. The business is called “Alps” (to evoke the steadfastness and immovable nature of the Alps mountains), with each of the four answering to a secret code name based on a famous Swiss peak (Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa…). The bossy paramedic declares himself the highest peak of the Alps.

Their role is ambiguous, lying somewhere among therapist, actor and prostitute.

They memorize pat dialogue, likes and dislikes so they can pretend to be the missing ones. But the four of them have different aims. The gymnast yearns to leave stodgy classical ribbon dancing and move onto modern pop sounds… like Prince. But she’s is kept tethered by a cruel coach who says he’ll break every bone in her body if she deviates from his orders. Meanwhile the paramedic is a petty dictator, a suspicious popinjay who wants to keep the others members in line with his power scheme. But the nurse would rather fall in love — even artificially — and if the process involves sex, all the better. So the two men want more control, while the women want more freedom.

This is the same director who made the great movie Dogtooth and ALPS shares a lot of its style: intentionally stilted dialogue, long pauses, long takes; a story about vainglorious adults behaving like adolescent bullies and their oppressed victims; and an unnervingly dated and outré look to everything. I guess I’ve adjusted to Lanthimos’s style since Dogtooth, as it no longer bowls me over, but it’s still funny and absurd and shocking with an amazingly strange story. The acting and the characters still grab my attention.

Your Sister’s Sister, and ALPS both open tonight in Toronto, check your local listings; and Kryptonite! plays the opening night of the Italian Contemporary Film Festival next week – for details go to icff.ca . Also opening is the excellent but heart-wrenching documentary 5 Broken Cameras, about the Israel/Palestine conflict from the point of view of a Palestinian activist in a small village; the experimental Indian drama Patang (aka Kites), co-starring Seema Biswas; and the Toronto Korean Film Fest, featuring great Korean classics from years past, like The Tale of Two Sisters; Mother; and Old Boy. Go to TKFF.ca for details.

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

March 9, 2012. If You Love This Planet. Movies reviewed: The Lorax, John Carter

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.

With globalization, things affect the whole planet all at once even if they only happen in one place. The Earth is all shook up! Like last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan – I remember seeing those horrific scenes of towns being swept away, and the ongoing tension about the nuclear leak at Fukushima.

In gratitude for the support of the international community, the Japan Foundation in Toronto is offering a series of free films next week at Innis College called Light Up Japan. The documentaries are all about what has happened since the disaster in that area and how the people are coping with it. Check out the Japan Foundation ( jftor.org ) for more information.

So in keeping with the theme of global events, this week I’m looking at two movies with whole-planet-sized topics. One is about a kid trying to save the earth from total destruction; the other is a man who finds himself a part of the potential ruin of Mars.

The Lorax

Dir: Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

Ted lives in Thneedville, a plastic suburban shopping mall town where life controlled by a Mr O’Hare, a nasty rich guy who made his fortune bottling air, and who spies on everyone in town. Ted has a crush on his neighbour Audrey who is into trees – which don’t exist anymore (people use plastic trees instead). Audrey says she wishes she could see one.

So taking his grandmother’s advice, Ted climbs into his vehicle – a sort of a unicycle/ segway/ scooter – and sneaks out of the city to find the Once-lear – the only person who still knows the truth. He discovers that the vast wasteland outside of Thneedville once was a land of rainbows, happy fish, droopy birds, and teddy bears who ate the berries from the puffball trees, and lived happily and peacefully. An industrialist uses the puffballs to make a knitted stringy thing, the thneed, that consumers buy by the millions. He decides it’s cheaper and easer to cut them all down rather than using their puffballs as a renewable resource. Only the Lorax, (a tiny mustachioed environmentalist who descends from the heavens in a thunderstorm) can save the day, if only people will listen. He speaks for the trees…

I thought this movie was OK, but it really seemed to stretch the short Dr Seuss book into a 90 minute song-and-dance musical. It soft-pedals the problems of industrial pollution and consumerism, and reduces the motivation from ardent environmentalism to a boy wanting to kiss a girl. It relegates the Lorax story to flashback status, and kept the wonderful Seuss-like scenes of the valley to a minimum, while over-emphasizing the non-Seuss humdrum suburban scenes, filled with your usual 3-d sitcom characters.

It’s not a bad movie, and of course it’s great to tell kids about environmentalism and privacy, but the songs were dull, the characters not-so-interesting, the story not very original, and the animation and character style not up to what I expect from a Dr Seuss story.

Interesting fact — The Lorax earned more money in its opening weekend than Hugo did in its entire run.

John Carter

Dir: Andrew Stanton

John Carter is a mean and strong fighter, a cavalry man from the civil war. He can escape from jails, scrapple with anyone – weapon or not – is good on horseback and keen with a sword and a rifle. And he doesn’t take sides – Apache or US Army – they’re all the same. He doesn’t want any part of it. He just wants to find his cave of gold in the Arizona desert. But when he encounters a stranger in the cave, and repeats the word Barsoom while touching a glowing amulet, he is magically transported to Mars a land of great civilizations, far beyond earth’s imagination.

Strong John Carter, though smaller than the four-armed tusked Tarks – some of the creatures who live there – soon discovers he can leap high in the air and jump long distances, because of the different gravity there. He soon finds himself in the middle of a huge war between the city of Helium and the bad Zodanga. And he meets Dejah, (a beautiful princess-warrior, as well as a physicist, inventor and a great swordswoman) who is being forceed into marrying a bad guy from the other kingdom. Meanwhile, the shape-shifting super-gods who are manipulating everyone on that planet, are messing things up. It’s up to John Carter to save civilization – but he’s not sure he wants to – he just wants to find the amulet and go back to earth. But with the help of his speedy and faithful dog-monster Woolla, and the noble and honest Thark-guide Sola, he and Dejah must find mutual trust, truth and possibly true love in their search for the secrets of this planet.

As you can tell, this is a very long, plot-heavy story about an adventure on Mars. Like comics, manga and pulp fiction, the story takes precedent over feelings, emotions or characters – it’s more the action, the twists, the background, the secrets, the fights, the betrayals and the fantastical, sex-tinged images. But it carries it through amazingly well in this 2½ hour epic. (People call everything epics now, but this is an actual epic). I thought it was amazing.

It’s done in the style of Frank Frazetta’s illustrations: fiery-eyed women in exotic garb with pendulous breasts and black tresses; snarling men with steely gaze and bared chests, brandishing their swords toward the red skies…..  but through a Disney filter, making it sexy, but not sexual.

It feels more like Roman sword-and-sandal story than science fiction. (It’s based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels.) It has a mainly British cast, plus Canadian Taylor Kitsch — just great in the title role. I liked Lynn Collins (never heard of her) as Dejah, and Dominic West (The Wire) as one of many assorted bad guys in this cast-of-thousands picture. Want to be overwhelmed by an elaborate, exciting movie getaway, with a complicated fantasy plot that never lets up, even for a second? Then this is the one to see.

The Lorax is playing now, and John Carter opens today in Toronto, and the Japanese documentaries are playing all week at Innis College.

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

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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.

August Grab Bag. Movies Reviewed: Eat, Pray, Love; Centurion; Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Eat Pray Love

Dir: Ryan Murphy

Liz (Julia Roberts), a successful writer, gets her fortune told in Bali, telling her her destiny. Soon after, her marriage collapses and she feels empty and forlorn, so she sets off on a round-the-world tour of popular vacation spots to spend some of her dough. In Rome she learns about Dolce Far Niente – which she interprets as knowing how to order food in a restaurant. In India at an Ashram, she learns to find her inner balance by being smug, condescending and vaguely pissed off as she scrubs the stone floors. Then in Bali, settling in to the island’s most expensive hotel, she meditates and rides her bike. She meets a woman who has to live in a rented place, not a house of her own – can you imagine? She feels so sympathetic she decides to raise money on Facebook. What a philanthropist!

I wanted to like it – it had beautiful scenery – Bali, Rome, New York, India – and great actors (Billy Crudup, James Franco, Javier Bardem) and I’m not a Julia Roberts hater – I like her. I’ve even heard the writer Elizabeth Gilbert (whom the main character is based on) talk on the radio, and she seems really smart and interesting. But this movie is just horrible. Some people seemed to walk out happy, but I can’t figure out why. It’s one of the worst, stupidest and most annoyingly clichéd and obnoxious movies I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s a typical line, an example of the degree of profundity she encounters on her quest for wholeness and self-actualization: “If you want to get to the castle, Groceries, you’ve got to swim the moat!” Bleaaaggghh! Maybe if this movie had been called the Ugly American, I would have understood it better.

In the beginning I was hoping that all the cute supporting roles would make up for Julia Roberts’ insufferable character. But that didn’t pan out. Instead we get to see anorexic Julia saying “I’m fat – look at my muffin top”. And the next scene is her squeezing into a pair of designer jeans, over her model-bodied flat belly.

You get to see her in Italy learning how to talk with her hands. “Like-a this-a?” says Julia Roberts. (Did she actually say like-a this-a?)

Eat Pray Love:

I ate my popcorn, I prayed the movie would get just a little bit better, and I loved finally getting out of that god-awful place.

“Centurion”

Dir: Neil Marshall

I went to this movie, at Toronto After Dark Festival, partly because Michael Fassbender was in the main role.  He was amazing in two British movies over the last couple years: “Hunger”, about IRA Bobby Sands’s prison hunger strike and a coming of age drama, “Fish Tank”. This movie, while set in the British Isles, is…a little bit different. To say the least.

This is a sword and sandals epic, about the period when the Roman soldiers fought against the Picts. This was way before all those nouveau immigrants, those Angles, Jutes and Saxons moved in and spoiled the neighbourhood. This was way back when. So in a big battle, the Roman legions were there fighting those Picts up in the north.

They’re tough mofos, those Picts are, with all their pictish ways, and blue face paint. Don’t mess with them. But the Romans are tough too. Anyway, there’s battle after battle and skirmish after skirmish before the actually story takes off. Lots of splatt, and uggh, and aaah, as another head gets chopped off and plopped into a water barrel. Anyway… so Quintas Dias (“I am a soldier of Rome, I will not yield!”) a centurian, and a Pict by birth, has been training for fighting since his childhood. He speaks the local language, and knows the way around. After the failed attempt to beat the locals, he just wants to rescue a Roman general and call it a day. But in their botched attempt, someone in his multi-cultural platoon does something that sets the whole tribe against them — till the death. They have to escape and make it back to the main Roman legion. So there are lots of scenic mountains and rivers and waterfalls as they try to outwit the dangerous Picts and an expert tracker who always seems to find them: a fur-clad and mute Lisbeth Salander-type rival, played by the striking Olga Kurylenko. I started to get dizzy when I thought of all the swooping airplanes they had to rent to shoot this movie – it felt like every second scene had to start with a swooshing aerial view of where they were fighting next.

And on the way, they encounter a pictish witch to add a further dimension to the story. I liked it, just for it’s bigness. I got bored of all the killing and stabbing and stuff, but it brightened a bit in the second half. If you like very bloody, Roman big-screen war movies, then this is the movie for you. (I liked it better than “Gladiator” and the very plastic-looking “Troy”, but that’s not saying much.)

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Dir: Edgar Wright

Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, and starring Michael Cera in the title role.

Scott Pilgrim is a nerdy guy in a band. He shares a bachelor apartment with a gay dude who gets laid way more than he does. Scott’s still pining for a girlfriend who dumped him a year ago. And he’s dating a highschool girl (“we hold hands”) named Knives Chau, who’s gradually becoming more of a fan of the band than a GF. But she’s crushing heavily on Scott Pilgrim. They play Dance Dance Revolution together in perfect Harmony. Then he meets the girl of his dreams – literally of his dreams! – at a party, and they sort of hit it off, even though he’s a wimpy Toronto guy, and she’s a beautiful and glamorous American, from New York, who changes her hair style each week.

The thing is, she has lots of baggage from her various exes, all evil, all more successful, and all out to ambush Scott when he’s least expecting it. So he has to fight them if he wants to stay with Ramona Flowers, that’s the name of his new beautiful and glamorous girlfriend.

So he goes through a series of 8-byte video battles – battles of the bands, Street Fighter skirmishes, skateboard derbies on the hills around Casa Loma… covering the whole indie, comics, video games, manga, electronica, clubs and party scene of downtown Toronto of the 90’s and 2000’s. It’s retro without being specifically any retro period. And the whole movie is told as if the area of Toronto, within, say, thirty blocks of the comic store The Beguiling were trapped inside an old Nintendo set – and the only way to get out is to beat all these villains.

This is a great movie and the most Toronto movie I’ve seen in a long time. References to Honest Ed’s, Pizza Pizza, the Second Cup, even SARS are everywhere. I’m not even going into all the other characters – too many, too funny – but I liked this movie. It’s just so Toronto, with all the cool people drinking beer at the parties… y’know? I think I was at that party in the movie. OK, maybe I wasn’t there, but I was invited, and I didn’t go, cause it would have sucked anyway.

Anyway, you have to watch it to see whether Scott Pilgrim wins his awesome battles or whether the world beats him and just leaves his burnt husk there in an Annex alley off Bloor Street: Game Over!

Finally, the 11th annual ImagineNATIVE Festival of great new movies by indigenous peoples here and around the world, is starting tonight in Toronto, and continuing for the next five days. You should check this out — It’s opening tonight with Boy, a Maori coming-of-age story, that was a huge hit in New Zealand. Look online at ImagineNative.org .

Geek Appeal! Movies reviewed: It Came from Kuchar; Splice; Micmacs.

It Came from Kuchar

Dir: Jennifer Kroot

George and Mike Kuchar are a pair of twins from New York City, who have been making strange, low-budget kitsch-y exploitation movies since they were 12 years old. Together — and separately — they have directed hundreds and hundreds of these things. They’re interviewed in this documentary, along with some of their actors, and many of their famous admirers.

The Kuchar brothers started making 8 mm shorts as kids in their parents’ basement in the Bronx. They got their neighbours and family members to play the parts. They combined melodramatic, campy stories and extremely broad amateur acting, within the world of B movies: the land of serious exploitation genre movies – horror, monster, thriller, murder, sex… and all the rest. Their filmography reads like a haiku written in Mad Magazine:

Hold me when I’m naked
Color me shameless, Thundercrack
Boulevard kishka

The Kuchars make-up and costume their actors in unusual ways — painting enormous, dramatic black eyebrows on all their female characters. (Maybe they were influenced by the old silent movies – Valentino, Theda Bara with their heavy make up and melodrama – keep in mind, in the early 1960’s those old silent movies were not ancient and forgotten at all – they were as omnipresent and as recent as 80’s movies are to filmmakers today.)

The Kuchar brothers were also known for integrating all the “organic” aspects of life that were not previously shown in movies – such as toilet functions, throwing up, blood and guts — that were intentionally left out of mainstream films… because they’re gross, and also because they were banned by the Hays Code – you couldn’t show it. “Low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil” topics were “subject to the dictates of good taste”. But the Kuchars made underground movies. They existed outside the Code (though still subject to the law) as a crucial part of the underground film movement that really took off in the sixties. Later the Kuchars moved to San Francisco where they also participated in the 1970’s underground comics movement based there.

In this fun documentary (which was screened at the Inside-Out festival in Toronto), you see the big names of today – John Waters, Guy Madden, Atom Egoyan – talking about how the Kuchar films influenced them. It shows some of their signature techniques, and captures them shooting their latest production, It’s a hilarious documentary, because you get to see little clips of some of their films – things like cheesy UFO’s, a guy with three foot dangling testicles, a haunting, melodramatic scene of a woman taking out the trash, lots of god-awful rubber puppet monsters – without needing to sit through a whole Kuchar movie.

Splice
Dir: Vincenzo Natali

Vincenzo Natali, is not all that famous, but I think he’s one of the most successful Canadian directors there is. He directed the science fiction movie Cube – about a bunch of people stuck inside an elevator-like cube who want to get out – which was extremely popular in many countries, while largely overlooked in Canada. (Cool story, so-so acting.) His latest movie, “Splice” – starring Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody – is his first big name, bigger budget movie.

Elsa and Clive are scientists who work in a research lab for the N.E.R.D. (as in nerd) corporation. They’re trying novel ways to combine the DNA — the genetic information — of various animals. But their big breakthrough – a new life form, a sort of walking lump of flesh, that can mate and reproduce – has a rather dramatic failure. So it’s back to the old drawing board.

But Elsa wants to take it even further.

Their next project has human DNA spliced, on the sly, into the mix to create a new sort of animal. Sort of like the Island of Dr Moreau.

It’s totally illegal, but Elsa wants to hang on to her new, rapidly growing flesh lump. She becomes its protector. She even names her: “Dren” — that’s nerd spelled backwards. But as she grows up, Dren’s human and animal parts begin to appear. First scary, then cute (with a rabbit-y cleft pallet), and later, as something else again.

Elsa and Clive are forced to smuggle her out of the lab and up to their cottage – for some home schooling. And there, out in the woods, the rapidly growing and maturing Dren, adds a third wheel to the young scientific couple’s relationship.

Splice is a good (if sometimes unintentionally funny) horror movie. There are some groaners, but the story itself is interesting and creepy and scary enough (with good special effects) to keep you watching. It’s an unapologetically B movie with the feel of early Cronenberg — like Scanners and the Brood – and with Guillermo del Toro adding his blessing as an executive producer. What more could you ask for?

Micmacs

Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Starring Dany Boon (who made the phenomenally successful “Welcome to the Sticks” / “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis”) “Micmacs” is the most captivating movie by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in a long time. He’s best known for Amelie, but I liked Delicatessen, and City of the Lost Children better.

In Micmacs, Bazil, (Dany Boon) is a video store clerk who wants nothing more than to lipsynch all the lines from “Casablanca” while squeezing the goop out of La Vache Qui Rit foil triangles. But when he’s hit in the head with a stray bullet, his life collapses. He becomes a homeless busker on the streets of Paris. He’s rescued and adopted by a family of circus-like oddballs who live in a hidden lair inside an old junkyard. Each of them has a special ability – an inventor, a contortionist, someone who can calculate and estimate – who, cobbled together, form a sort of a salvaged material X-men team.

One day Bazil discovers that the headquarters of the company that made the bullet lodged in his brain is across the street from the company that made the land mine that blew up his father when he was a boy. So he vows revenge on both their houses, and his new family agrees to help him out. Rejecting high-tech surveillance, to find out their secrets, he bugs the offices of the two industrialists by dangling telephone receivers down their chimneys. With the new info, his plan goes into high gear.

This beautiful, retro-looking movie is made up of lots and lots of short funny vignettes strung together. Puns, pantomime, gags, gibberish talking, contraptions, fake sign language, fake accents and dialects, combined with multi-part stings, rube-goldberg-style contraptions and steampunk machinery pulled together from savaged materials. It’s like old Jaqques Tati movies, but rebooted to run at the speed of a TV cartoon. I definitely missed some of the jokes, and didn’t get all the French political references to Sarkozy and company. But that didn’t matter. You can appreciate this movie without a word of French, without even reading the subtitles.

It’s a very funny, cute, enjoyable, fast moving slapstick comedy, intricately made, starring lots of the same faces from previous Jeunet movies, along with some new ones. It’s a great geek flic with something for everyone: good romantic comedy, with chase scenes and explosions, too.

Over the Top. Movies reviewed: The Square, Kick-Ass, Fritz the Cat

Why do directors try to go over the top?

I get the impression that movies that want to get noticed try to up the quotient a bit, by including more violence, especially more unexpected violence, or more sex, especially outside the mainstream, or more explicit than what you see in most mainstream movies. So people will be a bit shocked, a bit dismayed, a bit distressed. That’s nothing new. What is new is that the boundaries of what used to be shocking is so far beyond what it was a decade or even five years ago.

So the sex or violence alone isn’t enough. To really shock they want to have kids or old people, or women, or pets, either committing the violence or having it done to them; and what used to be the push for celebrities and famous actors to show more flesh on film, has now shifted to a push for actors to show explicit sex on films. What used to be a bit of blood, now is a flood.

At the same time, the openness to a broad range of opinions and language that really expanded into the mainstream in the sixties and seventies seems to have been scaled back, especially over the past decade. Dirty words are OK now; troubling ideas less so. I’m going to review three comic-book-like movies that are in some way edgy in the over-the-topness in their stories, ideas, explicitness, or language.

“The Square”, an Australian movie directed by Nash Edgerton, has more mullets than you can shake a stick at. A contractor, Raymond (David Roberts), agrees to install a large concrete square in a building development, and arranges to get a kickback from a supplier. He has a good job, success, money, marriage, big house… and even a much younger mistress, Carla (Claire van der Boom). And they all live in the same area — some in mansions, some in shacks — on the banks of a wide, bucolic river. Life’s beautiful.

But one day, Carla discovers her bearded, abusive husband has a hidden bag of slightly stained cash. Lots of it. So she manages to convince Ray to come on board her scheme of somehow stealing it – in a way that can’t be traced back to her. They secretly hire a shady guy – well actually everyone in this movie is a bit shady – to burn down the house. Of course something goes wrong. So now happy Ray has everything and everyone lined up against him.

The square he’s building is sinking; and he has to fend off his contractor, his employees, his boss, the shady arsonist, the womanizing kick-back guy, the conniving mistress, the low-life, mullet brigade colleagues of her bearded hubby, and a mystery person, sending him creepy Christmas cards telling him – “I know what you did”.

So he starts to unravel, suspecting everyone, which devolves into a series of linked, unplanned deaths. It gets stranger and stranger as the movie goes on, till the point where the audience starts cracking up at all the misguided violence. I think the director wanted to go too far… and he did. And I think the movie pulled it off.

It’s definitely a B movie (maybe a C), but it kept my attention and interest. The acting was fun, across the board, though it was hard to deeply sympathize with anyone. (I thought some of the dodgier elements looked more like espresso bar faux-hemian actors than ruthless killers.)

Finally, there are a few great, unforgettable scenes in “The Square” that make it worthwhile. A Christmas picnic in the park, with its miscommunication leading to a panicky Santa is unforgettable. For a Canadian, just seeing a Christmas party in the middle of an Aussie summer is whack.

“Kick-Ass”, which you may have heard of, (directed by Matthew Vaughan, and based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr) is a great retake of the super-hero origins-style comic book (as in Spiderman, Superman, Batman). It’s about Dave (Aaron Johnson), a High School boy who’s tired of his undesirable combination: invisible to girls, but a magnet to bullies and muggers. So after a typical round of complaining to his pals, Dave decides to do something about it.

He fashions himself a super-hero outfit from stuff he buys on-line, and practices poses and punches in front of his bedroom mirror. And he lucks out: his rescue of a man in a street fight with some hoods is captured on a cel phone and instantly goes viral – Kick-Ass is born. He gets lots of hits on his Kick-Ass Facebook, but his own life is unchanged, just full of difficult secrets. Gangsters believe he’s moving in on their territory and want to snuff him, the girl he has a crush on thinks he’s gay, and other kids everywhere are copycatting his costume.

So when he encounters some real superheroes, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), he is shocked back into reality. These real “heroes” are also amassing huge amounts of weapons and money they steal from drug dealers. And Kick-Ass is getting blamed for it.

Tiny, 12-year-old Hit Girl is like a ninja in her speed, skill and ruthlessness, with a shocking moral code different from conventional superhero comic books. She’s part of Big Daddy’s mission of vengeance. These real life super-heroes (similar to the ones in Watchmen, but done much better here) are not the good role models they used to be.

At first glance, Kick-Ass” seems like a typical teen comedy with a twist. But it’s actually a superhero action movie with great comic elements. It is morally ambiguous, extremely bloody and violent, but it does manage to avoid one annoying and pervasive element of action movies: There are no girls calling out to their boyfriends to save them. The girls in this movie follow the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model; either they’re superheroes themselves or they’re self assured regular people, who, when push comes to shove, are ready and able to fight back, to kick ass themselves. That alone makes this an above-par movie. And a reason for there to be more female scriptwriters (like Jane Goldman).

We’re in the midst of film festival season in Toronto. Coming in May, is HotDocs, follwed closely by NXNE. Right now, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival is just finishing up. One of the most interesting topics they’re covering is comics. And of those films, nothing can compare to the well-known but seldom seen on the big screen Fritz the Cat, directed by the legendary Ralph Bakshi).

Fritz the Cat was the first animated film to receive an “X” rating in the US – this was back in the early 70’s. And to understand it, you have to consider it in context, the period in which it was made. (FTC would never be made this way today.)

The story is about a hep-cat, Fritz, who’s a hip cat. (He’s a cat.) Fritz is a university student at the peak of the baby-boomers’ take on the ‘sixties, in downtown New York City. He’s sick of studying and going to classes so he embarks on a journey, to experience life. So we follow him from Washington Square Park, where he tries to pick up girls by impressing them with his lame guitar-playing.

He ends up at a pot party, which soon devolves into romping group sex in a bathtub. He later falls in with a crow, steals a car, has sex, takes drugs, and falls in with some bikers and revolutionary terrorists who want him to blow things up.

Fritz is a sort of a Cheshire cat, but dressed like a college student trying to be cool. The crows look suspiciously like the magpies Heckle and Jeckle. (This was a TV cartoon series made by Terrytoons, where Bakshi worked in the 50’s at the start of his career. I wonder if that was his inspiration.) In this movie the cats and rabbits live downtown, while the crows, well, they live in Harlem. The pigs, of course, are a bumbling team of cops — an old-timer, Ralph, and his new partner. And there are lizards, a cow who’s a biker chick, and other cats and dogs. (Black pimps? Cops as pigs? Old jews praying and complaining? Maybe in 1972 these tired stereotypes were more audacious end edgy, less cliched than now.)

Most of the characters — especially the scrunched faced men, and the big bottomed women in overalls — are icons of the great cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was also a sort of an underground comic superstar at the time. This movie captures a lot of Crumb’s relaxed hippy sexuality, but also Bakshi’s sorta terrifyingly nihilistic, and misogynistic view of a violent world. So there’s lots of tame sex, lots of music, drugs, four letter words, and very bloody, senseless death, none of which was ever seen at the time in animated American movies (but are now on the level of what you find in a few minutes of The Simpsons). Fritz the Cat is a step back into the defunct microcosm of rioting, extreme change, and anything-goes experimentation of the late 60’s and early seventies.

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