Back to the Future? Films Reviewed: The Visitor, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013Hi, 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.

I’m taping this a week in advance, during the Toronto Ice Storm, when the power’s still off, the sidewalks still icy and Rob Ford is still mayor. But who knows what it will be like by the time you’re listening to this. Back to the future? Fittingly, I’m looking at a couple oddball fantasy movies — a remake and a rerelease — both pointless but watchable froth to bring in the new year. The remake is an American comedy about a day-dreaming adult, the rerelease an Italian horror movie (from the 1970’s) about a brat with secret powers.

The Visitor fangoria Films We LikeThe Visitor

Dir: Giulio Paradisi

Presented by Drafthouse Films and Fangoria

Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail) is a modern woman who values her freedom. She lives in a mansion in Atlanta with her sweet little daughter Katy (Paige Conner) and Katy’s pet bird. She’s being wooed by Raymond (Lance Henrickson) a slick-but-secretive basketball promoter. What she doesn’t realize is that Raymond reports to a cabal of identically dressed businessmen who are up to no good. They just want her offspring. You see, Barbara has special DNA and Katy has supernatural powers. If the cabal can pull off an alien abduction Barbara will reproduce with a special superbaby (as if her one kid isn’t trouble enough!)

Katy is actually a foul mouthed brat. She uses her powers for selfish reasons – Visitor2puting the kybosh on other kids she goes skating or does gymnastics with.  On her birthday, Katy’s gift turns into a handgun, which shoots Barbara, rendering her paraplegic.

Meanwhile, a wise old man with a white beard and a beige leisure suit (John Huston) is tracking Katy, too. He travels with a retinue of kids dressed in white. These silent, baldheaded teenagers are his disciples. You can tell he’s important because whenever he appears the theme music starts up again as he walks down a futuristic-looking escalator. And when a detective (investigates her birthday shooting she sends her pet bird to attack him.

Who will triumph? The satanic businessmen-aliens? Or the benevolent robe-wearing superman-like aliens? And will anyone stop spoiling that evil kid?

Visitor3This movie exists in its own bizarro-world, circa 1979. Shelley Winters plays Barabara’s intuitive housemaid singing Mama’s little baby loves shortening bread as she spies on Katy. Sam Peckinpah – the director of infamously violent movies (like Strawdogs and the Wild Bunch) — is her gynaecologist!

This is a very trippy, very strange movie. It has lots of horribly dated and vaguely racist shtick, and the story makes no sense whatsoever. But it still feels cool to watch: filled with fantastic dated special effects: a house of mirrors, a swarm of birds, Barbara insanely driving her electric wheelchair in endless circles. It climaxes with a bug-eyed John Huston having his Close Encounters moment with the shooting stars.

Total kitsch, but funny.

Mitty_PosterThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Dir: Ben Stiller

Walter (Ben Stiller) is a milquetoast mama’s boy and a longtime employee of Life Magazine. He lives vicariously through the exciting photos he processes in a windowless basement room (he’s in charge of “negative assets” — photo negatives, that is). Instead of a pocket-protector he wears a bad windbreaker. In his frequent daydreams and fantasies, he sees himself as an international adventurer, a “real man” who will stand up to any bully. But in reality he’s lonely, middle-aged and single. He longs for a relationship with a new employee, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but can’t seem to connect with her, even on an on-line dating site.

And now he faces a crisis. Life Magazine is folding, except on-line. A douche-y young executive (Adam Scott) is brought in to close it down, and makes Walter into the poster boy for unwanted employees. But when a negative — the cover photo of the final issue — goes missing, Walter takes it upon himself to track it down, wherever it may be. He embarks on a journey by plane, helicopter, boat, secret life of walter mittyskateboard, that takes him up mountains, across shark-filled seas, and past erupting volcanoes, all just to find the missing photo.

Will he find the picture? Will he find himself? And will his journey impress his crush Cheryl?

While the movie is filled with breathtaking scenery, it has little else to recommend it. It’s not that funny, interesting or original (the James Thurber novel is more whimsical and the Danny Kaye musical — 1947 — is more clever). Ben Stiller’s first attempt at Secret Life of Walter Mitty ben stillerdirecting fails to direct himself. He underplays it just when he should be hamming it up. His character comes across as flat, dull and pointless. Shirley MacClaine and Catherine Hahn are fun as his mother and sister but are rarely seen.

And the use of egregious product placement within the plot itself — a certain pizza chain, a cinnamon bun — is as embarrassing as it is flagrant. (Was he that desperate for funding?) It’s not that the Secret Life of Walter Mitty is terrible. It’s totally watchable, especially stunning footage of Icelandic moonscapes. It’s just… disappointing.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens on Christmas Day and The Visitor opens on Dec 30th for a three-day run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 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

September 28, 2012. Intractable Situations. Movies Reviewed: Arbitrage, Looper.

Posted in Cultural Mining, Movies, Science Fiction, Telekinesis, Thriller, TIFF, Time Travel, Uncategorized, US, Wall Street by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

The summer blockbusters are over now — it’s fall season, where they start playing real movies they hope will win academy awards. And TIFF has ushered in Toronto’s fall festival season, as well. Toronto’s Palestine Film Festival starts tomorrow, followed quickly by Planet in Focus (environmental films), ReelAsian, ImagineNative, European (sponsored by EU embassies), Rendezvous with Madness (about addiction and mental health), and some new ones like Ekran – a Polish movie festival. So, boys and girls, hold onto your hats in the weeks to come for more info about those.

In the mean time, I’m looking at two American thrillers, both about men caught in seemingly intractable situations. One’s a dramatic thriller set in the world of high finance, the other’s a futuristic action thriller about time travel… and murder!

Arbitrage

Dir: Nicholas Jarecki

Robert (Richard Gere) in the financial sector, who runs a gazillion dollar Wall Street investment firm. He has a beautiful French artist as a mistress, a dignified philanthropist wife (Susan Sarandon) at home in the mansion, and a daughter who works for the company. He drives the right car, wears the perfect suit, perfect hair – c’mon, he’s Richard Gere — and he looks like a big financier. Anyway, he’s ready to retire, so he’s going to sell the firm. But… he has to borrow a bit of money (like a few hundred mil) just for a couple weeks, while the independent auditor goes through his books. But his daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) notices something fishy in the books, the other wall street dude who lent him the money wants it back, his wife suspects there might be a mistress… and then, to top it all off, this one-percenter gets in a Chappaquiddick-type accident on a country road with his mistress who doesn’t survive. Any legal investigation could spoil his deal, reveal his questionable business, and maybe even send him to jail for murder! So in a panic, he decides to keep it all hush-hush Luckily he gets help from a mysterious young black guy, Jimmy (Nate Parker) to help him out of this mess. Jimmy drives him out of there before the detectives show up. Then the movie flips into an investigation that could lead to a murder trial, even as the financial deal is pending.

Will the detective (Tim Roth) nail him in court? Will Robert end up as a Bernie Madoff or a Warren Buffet: will he sell the company or will it all collapse like a house of cards? And who is this Jimmy guy anyway, and what’s his connection with Robert, and what will he do if the pressure comes down on him?

This is a good, simple thriller with lots of twists and an excellent cast. Most of the characters range from detestable to not very nice (except Jimmy, who it’s easier to sympathize with). And it’s the 25 year old director’s first movie, which is pretty impressive. It doesn’t have any moral story or political points or special dramatic elements… it’s just a financial thriller, but that’s good enough for me. So if you liked last year’s Margin Call, you might like this one, too.

Looper (Opening Night Film at TIFF)

Dir: Rian Johnson

It’s 50 years into the future – people still live in farmhouses on cornfields, and organized crime is all-powerful in a somewhat familiar distopia. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is learning French for a future retirement near the Eiffel Tower. But he’s not such a nice guy: he’s a hitman who shoots people for a living with his blunderbuss gun in a cornfield beside an old-school diner. His victims are all men sent back in time from the future – no evidence – and he keeps the silver bars taped to their vests as payment. But then one day they send him… himself! Well, his old self (Bruce Willis) and Old Joe is packed with gold bars – sort of severance pay. It also means Joe’s a looper who’s out of the loop, stuck in the past. Old Joe escapes and is intent on tracking down “the Rainmaker” an X-Men type child with special powers who could grow up into the cruel crime boss that ordered him killed. Get it? It’s up to young Joe to kill his old self and to save the child. He’s staying in a nearby farmhouse with a mom (a thoroughly convincing Emily Blunt as the middle-America farmer) and a little kid who or may not be the kid he’s looking for. So who will win this fight: Old Joe, young Joe, farm wife, angry little X-Men child or the future gangsters?

Looper is directed by Rian Johnson who did that cool low-budget film-noir-in-highschool detective movie called Brick, and the truly awful The Brothers Bloom. This one’s a good action/thriller with some interesting time-warp twists. Like to send an instant message to your future self you have to cut-up your arm with a knife – since the scar will remain there for decades. And there’s the run-of-the- mill telekinesis stuff. But here’s the big problem (or at least what bugs me): Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are supposed to be the same person, so they constructed weirdly prosthetic facial features that will make them look similar. Why did they have to be so literal? Why couldn’t they just say: This guy’s thirty years older than his other self is – but that’s how he’ll look in the future. Would that be so hard? Whatever happened to the suspension of disbelief? Anyway, it means you have to watch two otherwise appealing actors with weirdly deformed faces for the entire length of the film. Still, not a bad science fiction film.

Looper and Arbitrage both open today – check your local listings. And two good movies that I recently reviewed, Lawrence Anyways and Rebelle — both from Quebec — are now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

February 10, 2012. How Do We Communicate? Movies Reviewed: A Dangerous Method, Chronicle, Safe House

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 watch a lot of movies, but film is only one way to communicate. How do you record the truth? Do you write it down? Do you tell it to your friends or whisper it in someone’s ear? Do you text it? Or do you save it in some more durable format?

This week, I’m looking at three movies that centre on recording or preserving information: A Dangerous Method is a historical drama, where talking is prime, and observations are recorded by hand, using pen and ink, in meticulous notes and sent by voluminous, lengthy letters; Chronicle, is a science fiction thriller, where a high school student records his life using a hand-held video camera; and Safe House is an action/thriller, where everything important has been recorded in a single tiny microchip.

Interestingly (at least in these three movies), the more advanced the medium, the shallower the plot.

Dangerous Method
Dir: David Cronenberg

A woman — at first known only as “S” — is an unusual patient admitted to a mental hospital near Zurich, Switzerland. She shrieks she groans, she writhes, and her face is strangely contorted. She plays with her food and rolls around in the mud! The doctor there, Karl Jung decides to try a new treatment – the Dangerous Method. This unheard-of cure has the doctor sitting behind the patient who is cured by talking… about her problems, her dreams, her thoughts and her memories. It was pioneered by Sigmund Freud in Vienna, but Jung doesn’t know if it’ll actually work. But soon the patient, Sabina Spielrein, a Russian-Jewish woman, is miraculously cured when they discover something hidden that happened to her as a girl. He puts her to work in the clinic, and she gradually changes from patient to doctor.

Then another patient, Otto Gross, who’s also a psychiatrist, arrives smoking pot, snorting coke, and drawing dirty pictures. He’s analyzed by Jung who doesn’t know what to do with him. It’s the early 20th century, not the 1960s,, but Otto’s saying just do it man, give in to your sexual desires. She says she wants you, and you want her… Uptight Jung doesn’t want to… but he also does want to. And Sabina makes it clear what she wants. What’s he gonna do?

This is a really good movie, an interesting historical biopic, about the dawn of psychiatry, the rivalry between Freud and Jung, and the passionate, but illicit, love affair between Jung and Sabina Spielrein. Cronenberg made a beautiful movie filled with the exquisite European gardens, antiseptic, white hospital beds, and steampunk clinical devices. Fassbender is great as Jung, Viggo Mortensen interesting as a new type of Freud — imagined as a big, burly, tough-guy patriarch; and Vincent Cassel is terrific as Otto the counter-culture hedonist. But the real star is Keira Knightley as Sabina, the conflicted, smart, pervy and passionate young woman. Sometimes, I wasn’t sure whether Sabina, the character, was really that crazy, or if she was just putting it on for her doctors, (and Knightley’s accent shifted from Russian to Danish-sounding and back again), but she was still amazing to watch.

Chronicle
Dir: Josh Trank

Andrew (Dave de Haan) is a high school kid in Seattle. His mother is bedridden and dying. His dad is a frustrated ex-fireman who likes smacking his only son around. Andrew’s a bit scrawny, a bit hard to talk to, not an athlete, and can’t defend himself. Instead he decides to keep a record of all the indignities and abuses he suffers with a video camera that he’ll carry around wherever he goes. He’s bullied at school, he’s bullied at home, he’s even bullied by the boys in the hood loitering on the corner. He doesn’t have any friends, and is still a virgin. But at least now he has an identity: he’s “the guy with the camera”. We – the audience — see whatever his camera sees.

He occasionally hangs out with his much richer, bigger, better-looking smarter, and more popular cousin Matt (Alex Russell) who, most important, has a car. Matt likes to quote Schopenhauer and Jung. Andrew wonders what Jung would say about glow sticks.

So one night at an outdoor rave, Steve (Michael B Jordan) — the quarterback with the cheerleader girlfriend and who’s running for class prez — asks him to come take some footage of something weird. It’s a strange, glowing crystal deep in a cave nearby. They spelunk down underground. There’re some clicking noises, a flash, and then they all wake up somewhere else. But they’re not the same anymore. They can move things around by telekinesis! But will they use they use the powers for good… or for evil? Or just to get laid? Well, as it turns out, all three.

The three guys make a pact to keep their new powers a secret, not to hurt anybody, and as Matt warns — to avoid hubris at all costs.

As their powers grow they find themselves tied to one another with some powerful immutable force that may be entering their brains. Can they fight it off? will they live or die? Will they go to Tibet? Will they change the world?

I liked this movie, too. Its very simple, a lot of fun, and most of it’s left unexplained, (if anything, it’s most like an unauthorized X-Men knock off, filmed in the style of Cloverfield). The mainly TV actors are engaging and new. The camera work is grainy, and jiggly and bumpy, but luckily, once Andrew can move things without touching them he lets the camera float free, making it a much more pleasant to watch. The special effects are great, culminating in the expected flaming and booming battle royale.

SPOILER ALERT
Not exactly a spoiler, since its apparent in the trailers, but I was disappointed by a trend in comic book morality. The American dream says it’s the good, smart and hardworking kid can always overcome his disadvantages. The poor, suffering underdog character overcomes obstacles and becomes the hero who uses his powers for good. The rich and powerful characters are spoiled, privileged and unfeeling, and try to take his power away for their own personal gain. But the poor kid has pluck, brains and gumption and triumphs in the end.

In this movie, the rich, popular kids are the heroes, while the poor, picked-on kid is the sort-of villain. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Safe House
Dir: Daniel Espinoza

Matt (Ryan Reynolds) is a low level CIA agent. He’s good at boxing, foreign languages, and strategic analysis. He sits around all day, stationed in a safe house – a secret, high security place where spies can do their stuff – in Cape Town, SA. He just sits around all day, like a Steve McQueen, throwing the baseball against a wall.

Then one day the notorious Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) comes in from the cold. He’s been a rogue agent, accused of selling CIA secrets for a decade for his own personal game. Frost is an expert spy and a master of disguise. He’s holding a tiny microchip loaded with important information. And he’s being chased by vaguely middle-eastern looking assassins.

But as soon as Tobin’s in Matt’s safe house, (after they warm him up a bit with some complimentary waterboarding), the assassins come barging in and kill everyone – except Matt who escapes with the handcuffed Tobin. he’s disgusted by the violence, but has to remain true to his mission — protect the captive. The rest of the movie is all fight, fight, fight and chase, chase, chase.

The chases take us from a Capetown stadium, through busy city streets, and into the ramshackle townships where people live in corrugated aluminum shacks lit only by a neon church crosses.

The fight scenes are extended and grueling, involving guns, bombs, knives, fists and broken glass. Who do you trust? Who are the real good guys? And is Tobin Matt’s mentor… or his enemy?

This is a fast-moving, never-stopping very violent action movie. It has a barebones plot – who does Matt trust and what’s on the microchip — hollow characters, and not much acting to speak of. I guess I wanted the heroes to survive, but I didn’t really care. Neither Denzel Washington nor Ryan Reynolds is very compelling.

It’s got tons of super-quick scene changes so the jagged camerawork is hard to watch. So much so that my brain couldn’t always tell who was punching or shooting whom.(For example, aguy in the assassin team, coincidentally, looks so much like Ryan Reynolds that I couldn’t keep tell if he’s getting away or shooting at himself. Stupid casting.) And because It’s so fast moving, the few slow scenes — like one with Ruben Blades — seem especially boring.

Safe House is an action movie with a good location. But that’s all.

Dangerous Method and Chronicle are playing now, and Safe House opens tonight – 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.

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