Zaniness. Movies reviewed: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, God Help the Girl PLUS October Film Festivals!

Posted in comedy, Cultural Mining, Espionage, Movies, Music, Musical, Scotland, Screwball Comedy, Sex, Sweden, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on October 9, 2014

estdocs14_program_coverHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking site_brafft_2404_02at high-brow and low-brow movies, 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.

Get ready: it’s fall film festival season in Toronto. Coming next week are: BRAFFTV, the Brazilian festival of film and television; Estdocs, the Estonian 10694407_10152448582230345_7331007994192021518_oDocumentary Festival; and RIFF, the Reel Indie Film Festival – featuring music-themed films. These festivals are packed with hidden treasures. Followed by Toronto after Dark for horror, sci-fi, action and cult: perfect for October. And ImagineNative, the film and media arts festival celebrating works by indigenous artists and filmmakers from toronto after darkaround the world.

Lots of festivals – don’t they make you want to get out, see the world? (Lame segue?) Well, this week I’m looking at two movies about people who climb out their windows! One’s a musical drama about a beautiful, young woman in Glasgow, Scotland who just wants to make music; the other’s a screwball comedy about an extremely old man in Sweden who just wants to blow something up.

b48f5837-54f2-45dd-a3b0-fac80378d0e4The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann)
Dir: Felix Herngren

It’s Allan Karlsson’s 100th birthday at his old-age home in small-town Sweden, but Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson) isn’t interested. So he climbs out his 1st floor window and buys a bus ticket to the nearest town (population:1). But before he leaves he is ambushed by 95d73836-4233-4b79-b1b7-24cbda8a2bb8a motorcycle gang skinhead carrying a large metal suitcase. Somehow, Karlsson ends up on the bus with the suitcase… but no skinhead. And so begins his journey ec907bb3-1c24-414f-9ba5-fa36be388d40with the guy in the next village, a perpetual student they meet hitchhiking, an animal rights activist, and the circus elephant she liberated. And they’re being chased by the local police who think Karlsson was kidnapped, and the gangsters who want that suitcase back – and the millions of krona stuffed inside it. But that’s just half the story.444ba775-568a-4cae-b037-a2a4410500cf

The other half is all about how the 100-year-old man has lived his life: as a demolition expert – a guy who blows things up. You may be thinking: Bombs? In Sweden? But yeah! The Swede’s seem to have a knack for it, what with Alfred Nobel’s dynamite, Ivar Kreuger (the Match King), and the country’s enormous weapon industry. Karlsson’s expertise leads him to repeated brushes with famous leaders. From Franco to Stalin, from Truman to Reagan, somehow he’s there (like a Zelig or a Forrest Gump) at all the crucial moments.

Not a deep movie, but a totally zany, screwball-comedy look at the 20th century through the eyes of a hapless demolition expert. The 100-Year-Old Man is engaging, very entertaining and great fun.

GodHelptheGirlFestivalStill1God Help the Girl
Dir: Stuart Murdoch

Eve (Emily Browning) is a young Australian woman who lives in a Glasgow mental hospital. She spends her time lying in bed listening to radio DJs. She is waif-like with pale skin, auburn hair and huge eyes. Quite beautiful but quite depressed. She has songs to sing and GHTG_Tartan1words to express, but no one to hear them. So, one day she just climbs out the window and walks away, singing.

She wanders into a Glasgow concert hall and there she meets James, a guitarist in a fistfight with his obnoxious drummer. Glasgow is run by NEDs (non-educated delinquents) he says. James (Olly Alexander) is a skinny, wimpy guitar player with curly hair and glasses – a Scottish Michael Cera.

He works as a lifeguard but has “the constitution of an abandoned rabbit.” Eve tells him she’ll find him again at the pool. Could it be love?

Back at the mental hospital, her doctor tells her that she needs support – a home, food, a job and friends – and good health before she can worry about less important things like her music. But for Eve, music is everything. She sneaks out GHTGfilmstillto play the piano and compose songs. And she manages to record her music on a cassette tape.

She gives the tape to Anton (Pierre Boulanger), a tall, dark and handsome French rock musician she meets. They make out and she instructs him to pass it on to the radio DJs. He is impressed by her beauty. “You have exquisite breasts” he tells her.

James, meanwhile, is impressed by her talent – Eve can compose GHTG_glassessongs spontaneously, based on the thoughts in her head. And she has such a pleasing and rich voice that she could sing a diner menu and people would still listen. (In fact, Eve gets a job as a waitress.)

He takes her meet to Cassie, his music student. Cassie (Hannah Murray – who also played a Cassie in Skins) is a free spirit who wants to learn to play the guitar and write songs. Eve wants people to hear her music. James wants to cut a record. Hey, let’s form a band!  So they do.

They write some catchy tunes – in the style of sixties pop — and sing and dance and pose. But what will the future bring?

Will the DJs ever listen to her tape? Will Eve and James ever realize their true love? Will James ever see his dream of recording a record? And will the band ever perform?

This is a cute refreshing musical written and composed by Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian fame. It’s full of songs and dances that pop up after each serious event. But it leaves you thinking: is the movie a series of music videos linked by a storyline? Or a drama with a bunch of highly-stylized musical performances popping up? Either way, I enjoyed it a lot.

The Hundred Year Old Man and God Help the Girl both open today. Check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5

Dark Humour at TIFF14. Films reviewed: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch…, The Editor, Wild Tales, Magical Girl

Posted in Argentina, Canada, comedy, Corruption, Crime, Cultural Mining, Death, Drama, Movies, Satire, Spain, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on September 11, 2014

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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

It’s the final weekend at TIFF, with the hits rolling out…  There are amazing biopics, like The PHOENIXImitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing;  period romantic drama’s like Christian Petzold’s stunning Phoenix, starring Nina Hoss, and the dramatic drama from Ukraine called The Tribe — told entirely in sign-language, no subtitles! — about a boy at a school for the deaf who is pulled into a criminal gang. All fantastic films.

But these are all opening this fall, so I’d like to talk about the kind of festival movie that’s harder to categorize, harder to grasp. This week I’m going to look at the some unusual films from Sweden, Argentina, Canada and Spain. What do they have in common?  Dark humour, whether used ironically, absurdly or for its camp.

MjED0B__pigeonsatonabranch_01-TEMPORARY_o3__8264667__1406644686A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
Dir: Roy Andersson

A pair of morose salesmen ply the streets of Gothenberg, Sweden. demonstrating their wares. They sell entertaining novelties. A rubber mask, vampire teeth, Bag o’ Laffs. One is always angry, the other one depressed. Needless to say, they don’t sell many novelties. They rent sterile, windowless rooms in a boarding house, and frequent Limp-Leg Lotta’s — once a boisterous bar, but now filled with sad, old men sitting alone. At some point, they wander off-map into a sort of a time warp, where an 18th Century gay Swedish king – followed by dozens and dozens of soldiers in three-cornered hats – marches through a modern-day bar on horseback. Sweden is preparing for battle with Russia.

Simultaneously, a large flamenco teacher keeps groping her male student, and a school for kids with Down’s Syndrome is putting in a show.

These are just a few of the story lines and gags that fill this strange but hilariously sad movie. It’s set in a timeless era, maybe retro, maybe present day. the movie’s like a series of New Yorker cartoons brought to life. It’s shot in sepia tones, and the actors all look like they’ve come back from the dead, with pale, powdered fleshy faces and beige clothing. The title “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” suggests the thoughts Roy Andersson imagined while viewing a diorama of a bird behind glass in a museum. It’s depressing, it’s funny, it’s uncategorizable – and it’s a comment on life, existence and man’s inhumanity to man. Seriously. You’ve got to see it – great movie, and it just won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival

ElZxkN__editor_01_o3__8277762__1407351475The Editor
Dir: Adam Brooks and Matthew Kennedy

It’s a dangerous time at a 1970s Italian movie studio. They’re shooting a sexy horror film, but someone keeps stabbing the stars. Luckily, Ciso, the one-handed, master film editor, is there to rework the scenes and save the footage. But Detective Porfiry thinks Ciso is the killer – and he’s gonna take him down once he finds the evidence. But he has to navigate round a suddenly blinded wife, devious movie stars, and a razor in a black-gloved hand. Oh yeah, and there’s the catholic priest warning him not to deal in the black arts or he might open the door to hell itself.

OK, that’s the barebones plot. But what The Editor really is, is a combination parody and homage to 70s-era Giallo movies – the sexy, bloody genre made by directors like Dario Argento. That means spooky music, gushing blood, dark shadows, screaming starlets, and blurry, soft-Wnwq44__editor_06_o3__8277930__1407351499core sex scenes. Throw in insanity, lust and suspicion, and you’re all set.

This parody goes out of its way to be authentic – things like characters who say lines, even though their lips aren’t moving.

This one had me laughing very loudly through much of the film, partly because it’s perfectly ridiculous. To say it’s full of gratuitous nudity and gore is like saying a musical is full of music. Of course there’s a lot of it, and in a normal movie it might be excessive, but in a movie like this, it’s not gratuitous, it’s essential to the genre. The movie stars the two directors in lead roles, blond Conor Sweeney as a sexually confused actor, and the marvellous Pas de la Huerta rounding off the cast. Made for drive-ins and Midnight madness. And to think they made it all in Winnipeg.

BgnDyY__wildtales_01_o3__8254116__1406599920Wild Tales
Dir: Damian Szifron

A demolitions expert is furious when his car is towed from a valid parking spot. A waitress in a small town diner discovers the man she’s serving is the gangster who drove her father to suicide. A bride at a Jewish wedding suspects her new husband is already having an affair. A macho douche in a Lamborghini locks horns with a redneck thug in a junk heap on a rural highway. What do these short dramas all share?

They’re all ripping stories — almost urban legends — about ordinary people vowing revenge and retribution. Each of the six, separate segments in Wild Tales functions as its own short film. It starts with a small incident or conversation, but gradually escalates into something huge and potentially disastrous. Some of the characters are sympathetic, you can understand why they’re acting this way, even if you wouldn’t yourself. But it’s not just a random grouping of short films, shot like hollywood features. No. In Wild Tales the whole is more than just the sum of its parts. The tension grows as the movie rolls on to a series of amazing climaxes. Wild Tales is a compilation of funny, absurd looks at extreme consequences caused by small actions.

P1MR0y_magicalgirl_03_o3_8343970_1408453081Magical Girl
Dir: Carlos Vermut

Luis, an out of work professor, is trying to take care of his young daughter. Alicia is into ramen, manga and anime. She says she and her friends go by Japanese names. But the girl is also dying of cancer. Luis will do anything for her. So in an effort to grant what he believes is her last wish, Luis decide to get her the dress the Magical Girl wears in her series. In desperation he decides to commit burglary, but is stopped by a strange coincidence that introduces her to Barbara (Barbara Lennie.)

Barbara is a beautiful woman married to a rich but domineering psychologist, who decides LgA62A_magicalgirl_01_o3_8348922_1408453230what she can do, who she can talk to and what meds to take. Luis ends up sleeping with her, but then turns to blackmail to get the money for his daughter’s dress. Now Barbara must decide whether or not to return to a previous secret life. But will that lead to unpredictable consequences both for her and Luis?

This is a combination comedy, tragedy and drama. It feels like an O Henry short story brought to the screen.The audience poured out of the theatre in droves as soon as it was over, because they all found it disturbing — it is disturbing. But in a disturbingly good way.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, The Editor, Wild Tales, and Magical Girl are all playing at TIFF through this weekend. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

Art House Dramas. Films Reviewed: We are the Best, Things the Way They Are, Eastern Boys

Posted in 1980s, Chile, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, Drama, Feminism, France, Gay, Movies, Protest, Punk, Sex Trade, Sweden, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 31, 2014

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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

With spring comes blockbusters, superheroes and giant atomic lizards. But it’s also spring festival season. Inside out, Toronto’s LGBT festival runs through the weekend, and coming soon are NXNE, with some great movies, spectacular Luminato, the Italian Contemporary Film Fest, and NIFF, a new, integrated festival in Niagara Falls combining movies, food and wine. This week, I’m looking at great festival-type movies: realistic, low-budget, art-house dramas. There are punk girls in Stockholm, a culture clash in Santiago; and, from Paris, a gang of eastern European boys.

Mira Grosin, Liv Lemoyne and Mira Barkhammar in WE ARE THE BEST! a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.We Are the Best! (Vi är bäst!)
Dir: Lukas Moodysson (Based on the graphic novel by Coco Moodysson)

It’s Stockholm, Sweden in 1982. Bobo and Klara (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin) are two young girls who are mad at the world. Grown-ups are idiots without a clue. Other kids are into aerobics and spandex, or long hair, metal, and prog-rock. So they chop off their hair, make it into spikes or a Mohawk and declare themselves punk. Punk not dead! They embrace punk ideology, clothes and politics, not just the music – everything from questioning authority to garbage picking. They are firmly against nukes, organized religion, and consumerism.

Conformist kids pick on them, and they miss out on school sports and clubs. Jonathan Salomonsson, Mira Grosin and Mira Barkhammar in WE ARE THE BEST!So they start off on their own, spontaneously, with a band. Without any music skill. Soon, it’s Bobo on drums and Klara on bass. They’re awful. At the fall talent show, they see Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), the school pariah and a fundamentalist Christian. Because she plays classical guitar and dresses conservatively she gets booed off the stage. But Bobo and Klara can see she really knows music. So they make her a deal: she teaches them how to play and they’ll be her friend and let her join their band. Though labeled a “girl band” these punks set out to prove they are the best.

This is great movie that captures the early 80s dead-on. The best part? These girls are 10-13 year olds, yet they play the punks flawlessly and carry-off the movie.

poster las cosas como sonThings the Way They Are (Los Cosas Como Son)
Dir: Fernando Lavanderos

Jeronimo (Cristobal Palma) is an ordinary guy who quietly lives in a huge crumbling house in Santiago, Chile. He makes his money renting rooms to foreigners, and spends all day painting, plastering, and trying to bring the place into livable condition. Jeronimo has a helluva black beard, looking like a cross between an urban hipster and a 19th century anarchist. But his politics are anything but. He wants things to stay exactly the way they are.

Into his life comes the beautiful, young Sanna, a blonde woman from Norway. She’s there to teach drama classes to kids in a poor part of town. But Jeronimo can’t understand why. What does she get out of it? What’s in it for her? And he’s baffled by Scandinavian attitudes toward sex. Women have sex with whomever they want? In Chile, we call them prostitutes.

Sanna’s for openness, trust, change, being free. Jeronimo is suspicious, THINGS-Website-Photoclass-conscious, homebound. Still, there’s something happening between them. Will love follow? But when Jeronimo, who likes snooping around his tenants rooms, discovers a surprise under Sanna’s bed, that totally changes their situation.

I liked this movie. It’s attractive to watch, though not exciting. It’s more about contrasting characters, cultures and personal philosophies, giving an intimate slice of life in contemporary Santiago.

easternboysEastern Boys
Wri/Dir: Robin Campillo

Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) is a blank- faced businessman who regularly passes through the Gare du Nord in Paris. He meets a handsome young prostitute there named Marek (Kirill Emelyanov) and gives him his address for an upcoming tryst. What he doesn’t realize is that Marek is part of a closely-knit gang of guys from Eastern Europe who practically live at the station. They’re hustlers, thieves, pickpockets, conmen, and prostitutes. And the next day, to his horror, they show up, en masse, at his condo door for a “party”. Their leader, known only as “Boss” (Daniil Vorobyov), is the sinister but seductive alpha dog. He puts on music, pulls off his shirt and starts dancing in front of the businessman. Daniel’s non-plussed, but eventually just says to hell with it. easternboys_01_mediumHe dances with thieves wearing a paper crown, while they strip his apartment bare. His art, his computer, his TV… everything is loaded onto a white van.

C’est la vie, right? No. Who shows up the next day at his empty apartment but Marek, the sex worker who started it all. He says it wasn’t his fault, and he’s still willing to do what he was hired for. Sex is cold and perfunctory, but he begins to show up regularly, on the sly. He’s emphatic that Boss can’t know. Marek spends his weekends at a remote suburban refugee hotel with the gang, where they hold his passport. Daniel’s life is opaque. But we slowly find out more about Marek. He’s from a war zone and still hears the bombers, gunshots and explosions in the distance. Cold Daniel starts to show some backbone and compassion. Gradually they change from buyer/seller, to lovers, to roommates, to friends… to something very different and unexpected. Can Marek escape Boss’s control and leave the gang for a future in France?

This is a disconcerting and disturbing film, but quite good. What’s remarkable though is the ensemble of Eastern European actors, working perfectly together like Oliver Twist performed by Cirque de Soleil. Though moralistic at times, it works both as a crime thriller (with minimal violence), and as a social drama.

Eastern Boys played at Inside-Out, We Are the Best and Things the Way They Are both open today in Toronto: check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Swedish director Gabriela Pichler about her new film EAT SLEEP DIE (Äta Sova Dö)

Posted in Cultural Mining, Migrants, Movies, Sweden, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 23, 2013

Gabriela Pichler. Foto: Claudio Bresciani

Sverigesradio foto Gabriela PichlerHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Raša (Nermina Lukač) is a young Swedish woman, a Muslim born in Montenegro. She lives with her Dad in a small town near Gothenburg and works in a produce-packing factory. She’s a damned good employee — the type who can tell the exact weight of a handful of lettuce.

But when she and some others are laid off by the company, she finds herself suddenly rudderless, adrift. And, when her ailing father is forced to look for work in Norway, she has nothing to do and no one to do it with. All her friends were at the factory — her life was there, too. Is she “Swedish” enough to find a new job in her home town?
A new movie, a realistic drama, looks at small-town life in Sweden through the eyes of an assimilated, working class immigrant. It deals with questions of identity, community and exclusion.
This award-winning film is called EAT SLEEP DIE and played at the the Venice, Busan and Toronto film festivals. It is screening at the EU Film Festival in Toronto.Eat Sleep Die 06
I speak — by telephone from Gothenburg, Sweden — with the film’s writer/director, Gabriela Pichler. She talks about immigrants in Sweden, making her film and the personal connection she has with the story.

May 11, 2012. European Jewish Cinema at the TJFF. Movies Reviewed: Simon and the Oaks, My Best Enemy, My Dad is Barishnikov, Let My People Go! PLUS Cabaret-Berlin

Posted in 1940s, 1980s, Austria, Berlin, comedy, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Dance, Drama, Family, Fighting, Judaism, Sex, Sweden, TJFF, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 11, 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.

I’m back again, and this week I’m gong to talk about some of the new European movies now playing at TJFF, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. There are two historical dramas about best friends, one from Sweden, and one from Austria; and two very different light comedies, one, in Russian, about the Soviet Union in the 80’s, and another set in present-day Finland and France.

Simon and the Oaks
Dir: Lisa Ohlin
Based on the novel by Marrianne Fredriksson

It’s WWII in neutral Sweden, in Gothenburg. Two boys, Simon Larsson and Isak Lentov, become close friends at a private school: Isak fled Berlin as an infant with his terrified mother and bookseller dad; Simon lives with his parents outside the city. But when Mrs Lentov has a nervous breakdown (after Germany invades the rest of Scandinavia), Isak moves in with the Larssons.

The Larsson and Lentov families grow very close, with Simon leaning toward the Lentov father Ruben’s intellectual world and its joy of music, while Isak heads back to the land, using his hands to make things, as taught by the Larsson father, Erik. For Simon, music affects him in an unusual way: it unlocks memories of his childhood involving an old oak tree in his garden, and leads him to a secret letter his parents have never told him about.

Simon and the Oaks is a beautiful, novelistic story that follows the families over two decades as the boys come of age, the country’s mood changes, and the multifaceted relationships that develop within the extended families. This is a fascinating, character and plot-driven film that manages to convey Simon’s inner feelings visually, without resorting to explicit narration or explanation. All of the acting, including the actors playing the young and adult Simons and Isaks, and the story is compelling. I liked this movie a lot.

My Best Enemy
Dir: Wolfgang Murnberger

It’s 1938 in post Anschluss Vienna. Victor (Moritz Bleibtreu) is the son of a prominent art gallery owner and his lifelong best friend is Rudi (Georg Friedrich). Rudi was born into the family structure – he’s the son of the housekeeper – but outside Victor’s privileged status. But the tables are turned when Rudi becomes a Nazi, while Victor’s Jewish family loses its art and its home and is sent to concentration camps. But still missing is a reputed drawing by Michaelangelo, that may be part of their family art collection. High-ranking Nazis need it to appease their fascist Italian allies.

So Victor is temporarily released from the camp, so that Rudi can discover the location of the hidden work of art. But in a strange reversal, they end up swapping identities! It remains to be seen whether Victor can escape to Switzerland, and if Rudi will get his just desserts… And will that Michelangelo drawing ever be found?

Despite its setting, My Best Enemy is not a Holocaust movie at all – it’s more of a caper-style movie, set during WWII, about two former best friends, now rivals, and their long-term competition over art, love, status and power. It has lots of unexpected twists, but, because of the camera work and style of music it seems less cinematic, and more like a BBC mystery movie. That’s not criticism, per se – I love TV mysteries – just don’t expect a Haneke film.

My Dad is Barishnikov
Dir: Dimitry Povolotsky

Boris Michaelovich Fishkin is a horny, nerdy Soviet adolescent studying at a famous ballet school in the 80’s. He wants to be a great dancer, but he’s no Billy Eliot. He’s awkward, small, and clumsy, and the bigger kids bully and tease him relentlessly. So when his bleached-blonde single mom gives him a tape of the great Barishnikov – the Russian dancer who defected to the west – and drops hints that he may have been his missing father, Boris finds new confidence and inspiration. Soon all the school is whispering about their own little Barishnikov. His trademark pirouettes improve and his Bolshoi bows amuse the ballet experts. But in order to keep his status, he resorts to trading on the black market for luxuries like Levis and bananas. Will he be the next ballet superstar? Will he ever meet his dad? And will his name ever appear on a banner at the Bolshoi?

My Dad is Barishnikov is a cute, light Russian comedy – a coming-of-age memoir, just as the country itself was growing up. It’s filled with references to the era’s line-ups for meat, the cramped apartments, the underground economy, and the subservience to party hierarchy, stuff you don’t see often in movies. It also has great lines, like when the school disciplinarian pulls Boris out of the cafeteria and then announces: “Continue food consumption!”

Let My People Go!
Dir: Mikael Buch

Ruben (Nicolas Maury) is a postman who lives in a log cabin in a Finnish village with his blond boyfriend Teemu. Squeaky-voiced Ruben looks like a gay, French, Peewee Herman riding around on his bike. But one day, when he delivers a package filled with cash to an old man, it’s shoved back at him: “You take it — I don’t want it” and in the struggle, the guy drops dead, and Ruben’s left holding the 200 thousand Euros. But when he tries to explain it all to Teemu, they have a fight,  and Ruben flees home to France. There he’s forced to re-enter his French family life – a passive-oppressive mother (Almodovar’s great Carmen Maura), a milquetoast dad with a secret, a macho brother, and a self-centred sister, – a life he thought he’d escaped forever in his Finnish cabin in the woods.

This is a very funny, cute comedy contrasting a kooky, storybook Finland with the tangled and messed-up world of a French-Jewish family at Passover. It’s full of all sorts of offensively funny ethnic stereotypes played out for full effect.

And well worth seeing this weekend is Cabaret-Berlin: The Wild Scene a marvelous and fast-moving cabaret documentary about Berlin in the 20’s, composed entirely of black and white movie clips, set to recorded German music from that era. You can catch all of these movies — including Simon and the Oaks, Let my People Go, My Best Enemy, and My Dad is Barishnikov — this weekend: go to www.tjff.com for details. Also playing is How To Re-establish A Vodka Empire (www.vodkaempire.ca) at the Bloor Cinema on Sunday at 4:30pm… complete with a vodka tasting! And starting next week is Inside-Out, Toronto’s LGBT Film Festival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Iron Lady

Dir: Phyllida Lloyd

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Dir: David Fincher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Since You

Dir: Jeff Stephenson

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

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

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

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

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

November 4, 2011. Another Rendezvous with Madness. Films Reviewed: UFO, Corridor, 22nd of May, Gods of Youth, Take Shelter, Like Crazy.

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

What does it mean when dreams, hallucinations and thoughts begin to blur? When fears overtake you or sadness engulfs you? And what can you do about it? This week I’m looking at films that deal with these issues, and with a film festival called Rendezvous with Madness, that touches on mental illness and substance addiction, as well as the wonderful visions, voices and opinions of people living with these conditions. Films shown – which range from documentaries to stand-up comics, dramas to reality shows to experimental short pieces by great video artists like Michael Stecky and Steve Reinke – are all followed by expert panels and the audiences discussing the issues in depth.

UFO

Dir: Burkhard Feige

It’s the 80’s in West Germany and young Bodo (Henry Stange) lives with his parents and brother near a nuclear power plant. He’s into space travel and aliens and walkie-talkies, but things aren’t going right. The cold war’s heating up again, and the USSR and the Americans are both in trouble. When he watches the news on TV with his mom (Julia Bendler), the space station Challenger blows up right in front of them. And not too far away, in Chernobyl, there’s a nuclear meltdown. Lots of material for angst.

His mother is sure everything they drink or touch might be infected by radiation (and she may be right), and they have to get out of there. She argues daily with his father. She tells Bodo they’re all out to get her, and, just because she’s going crazy doesn’t mean she’s wrong, because they’re coming to take her away ha ha they’re coming to take her away ho ho ha ha hee hee to the funny farm where life is beautiful all the time…etc.

Well, when Bodo goes to visit her in hospital after an accident, they won’t let her out. He wants to help her escape, but the guards block her from leaving. He’s horrified. And torn – should he be loyal to his mother or his father? Especially when his father is the one locking up his mother, She’s tied down, and drugged – it’s not right.

UFO is a touching, coming-of-age story about life in Germany in the turbulent 1980s, complete with a good/bad eighties pop-rock soundtrack with Neun und Neunzig Loftballons, Corey Hart in the dark, and Billy Idol dancing with himself.

Corridor

Dir: Johan Lundberg

Frank (Emil Johnson) is a skinny, shy and smart student, working hard to pass his Swedish Medical exams, just like his father had, and doesn’t want other people interfering. He’s not a very social guy. So he’s about as cold as you can get to the nice, young woman, Lotte, who lives in the apartment upstairs, directly above his. He doesn’t like the bedroom noises she makes with her boyfriend at night – it’s messing up his sleep. He starts drifting off in class and its affecting his grades. (He’s not too keen on cutting up dead bodies either, but that’s another problem.)

But things take a sinister turn, when Lotte’s boyfriend starts beating her up. He’s twice the size, twice as old, and twice as scary as anything Frank can muster up – and the guy thinks Lotte’s cheating on him… with Frank! He locks his door but can see the mean guy marauding the halls.

Frank becomes a shut-in, afraid to leave his apartment, repeatedly calling the police, but no one believes him. Finally, he decides to fight back, but with some unintended consequences. Is the boyfriend the one to be feared now, or is it the housebound Frank?

Corridor is a good, dark psychological thriller, with shades of Polanski’s “Repulsion”.

22nd of May

Dir: Koen Mortier

Sam (Sam Louwyck) is a non-descript, blandly-dressed, middle aged man who works as a security guard at a Belgian indoor shopping arcade. He goes to work each day, puts on his black, polyester tie and windbreaker, kicks out the homeless woman who sleeps in the halls, nods to the same faces, gives directions, keeps his eyes open for anything unusual. But nothing unusual ever happens.

Then – boom! – a horrible explosion sends him hurling through the air in an awful blast of fire. He pulls himself up and gets the hell out of there, like anyone would. But afterwards he’s torn apart by guilt: why didn’t he save that mother with her baby? Why didn’t he spot the suicide bomber coming in? He’s visited, one by one, by the dead: the angry guy, the man with a crush on a married woman, the sad mother.., each of the ghosts in his head want Sam to turn back the clock. Can he fix the past? Or should he accept the truth and mourn for the dead?

22nd of May combines dramatic special effects with mundane social problems.

Gods of Youth

Dir: Kate Twa

This movie’s about Jay, a teenaged meth dealer who makes friends with a guy named Paul, who wants to try something new. They share a bowl, and life is wonderful. Soon there are beautiful women in bikinis throwing themselves at them as they jiggle sensuously for the camera. Life is great! Paul’s instantly hooked. They do some more and now its like they’re transported to some battlefront with bombers and shooters all around them. They’re losing it. Things go from bad to worse to dreadful, and hours later they’re collapsing on the streets, breaking out in fits of nervous laughter and delusion. Jay is forced to do disgusting things just to get a bit of cash to pay for his next hit. Don’t they know? Drugs are bad for you…!

Gods of Youth has a great title and it works as a sort of a fun, over-the-top addiction drama, but it seems too much like the new Reefer Madness to take it seriously: Tweaker Madness. I’m not saying crystal meth isn’t bad for you, I’m just afraid that super-exaggerated versions like this aren’t going to convince many people not to use it.

Take Shelter

Dir: Jeff Nichols

Curtis and Samantha (Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain) and their young daughter live in a small town in the flat part of Ohio. He works in gravel quarry, and she does sewing jobs at home. His daughter, who is deaf, has a chance at getting a cochlear implant if he can get his insurance to cover it. And Sam is excited about their upcoming beach vacation. But all is not well. He begins to have extremely realistic nightmares – about a vicious dog, tornados, lightning, and other signs of an impending disaster. He’s sure there’s a storm coming, worse than any they’ve ever seen. His family must have a shelter to hide in, for when the worst of his suspicions come true. Curtis knows the difference between dreams and thoughts, but the boundaries are starting to blur.

Is he crazy? Or prophetic? His mother had similar episodes around the same age: 35. But he has vowed to protect his family, never to leave them, no mater what.

Take Shelter is a very moving and interesting drama about how an ordinary family deals with the possibility of mental illness. And I’d see it just for the incredible dream sequences (with thunder clouds, tornados, birds, and strangely coloured rain – I love this stuff!) which put the spectacular but meaningless special effects in movies like Inception to shame.

Like Crazy

Dir: Drake Doremus

(This movie doesn’t fit the theme — except for the title.)

Jacob is an American studying furniture design and Anna is an aspiring British writer who meet at a California university. She writes him a note (seen only by the two characters, not the audience) that inspires a meeting, which quickly leads to a passionate relationship. After a summer spent rolling around in their bed, she’s forced to go back to England but promises to see him soon. But she’s deported from the airport on her return because she overstayed her student visa. Their relationship continues via voice mail and text messages but they both want to be back together permanently. How will the long-distance relationship pan out?

Like Crazy is a bitter-sweet romance about distance and togetherness. They both hook up with other mates when it looks like they’ll be apart for a long time, she with a neighbour, he with someone at work. (If you’re not near the one you love, love the one you’re with.) Their new partners, though good-looking, seem saccharine and superficial compared with Jacob and Anna’s very real love. The movie manages to convey all this not with the lines, but with the looks in the eyes, and expressions on their faces. Will the two of them ever clear up the visa problems and the petty jealousies that have sprung up? And are their shared memories enough to sustain their love? Not a tear-jerker at all, but a realistic romance about the troubles a young couple might face when separated. But like the lovers themselves, you start losing interest in their affair.

UFO, 22nd of May, Corridor, Gods of Youth and many more films, documentaries and discussions are all playing at the Rendezvous with Madness film festival, which starts tonight and runs for a week, and opens tonight with Brothers and Sisters, by Carl Bessai. Go to www.rendezvouswithmadness.com for times and listings. Take Shelter is now playing, and Like Crazy opens tonight – check your local listings.

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

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

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

My Soul to Take
Dir: Wes Craven

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

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

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

Hereafter
Dir: Clint Eastwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LA Zombie
Dir: Bruce LaBruce

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

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

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

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

Finally,

Cold Fish
Dir: Sono Shion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl who Played with Fire

Dir: Daniel Alfredson

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

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

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

“Predators”

Dir: Nimrod Antal

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

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

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

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

“Inception”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re safe again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Tub Time Machine

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

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

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

Greenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: