How Women see the World. Films reviewed: Beeswax, Littlerock, Hanna, Born to be Wild PLUS Rivers and my Father, Images Festival, Sprockets Festival

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s still true. The Hollywood star system has made a huge shift over the past few decades across the gender line. The biggest stars are now male, not female; most movies are about men, not women, and most stories are told from a man’s point of view. Even in movies with a female star, all the other main characters are often male. Most, but not all… there’s actually a bumper crop of movies opening today that buck this trend.

So, this week, I’m looking at four very different new movies, two realistic dramas, an action thriller, and a kids documentary, all told from the point of view of women, and, interestingly, all touching on family relationships. (All of these films were directed by men.)

Two of them, Beeswax and Littlerock, are part of a new trend in indie filmmaking (sometimes called New Realism or Mumblecore), using non-actors — often using their own names — ordinary situations, improvisational scenes, locations not studios, no special effects, and without the usual obvious plotlines and clichés. (Last year, I enjoyed Modra, and No Heart Feelings, two Toronto movies that fit into this category.) It’s always fun watching new types of movies, but some work better than others.

Beeswax

Dir: Andrew Bujalski

Jeannie and Lauren (Tillie and Maggie Hatcher) are adult twin sisters who live together. Jeannie owns a vintage store in an American college town. She gets around in a car or using her wheelchair. She’s having problems with her business partner who’s always flying off overseas, while Jeannie’s always working at the store. She’s faced with the question of what to do with her business and whether her partner is suing her. Meanwhile, her sister Lauren is also deciding whether or not to take a big step in her life. And Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student writing his bar exams, is Jeannie’s on again off again bed-partner, and her potential lawyer, if he passes the bar.

The movie starts and ends very suddenly, as if we’re allowed to spend a few days with these characters — as if it were a documentary — and then they’re gone again. The story itself is about normal everyday events: people living their lives, having sex, going to work, talking with friends and family members. The parts are played by non-actors, who are appealing, and pretty funny, but still just regular people.

I like the fact that it has one main character with a physical disability, without making it the main story, and dealt with in a very matter-of-fact way — not ignoring the very real accommodations she has to be aware of to live her life, but without making it the central point, morphing into some weeper where she stands up out of her wheelchair in triumph saying “I can walk again!” It’s sort of like casting a black Hamlet or a male Ophelia. This movie also deals with same-sex-couples in the same unremarkable way.

It’s not a big and exciting movie, but has a comfortable, familial feel about it, along with the underlying competitiveness and rivalry among family members. Beeswax (as in mind your own?) is a realistic look at a few days of the secrets and tensions in two sisters’ lives.

Littlerock

Dir: Mike Ott

Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka), and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) are visiting from Japan. They’re driving from Los Angeles to the San Francisco area (to visit a place related to their past) when their rented car breaks down in Littlerock, a small town in LA county. They’re forced to stay in a motel until they send them a new one. But when they go to the room next door, to complain about a loud drunken party, they end up meeting some locals and hanging out.

Atsuko likes Cory (Cory Zacharia) – who wants to be an actor/model, but owes too much money to his father and his drug dealer – but they don’t speak the same language. They pretend to understand what each other are saying, but once Rintaro takes off, they are left without a translator. Atsuko meets some other people, and jealousy and duplicity ensues.

The problem with the movie is that most of the characters seem bland or uninteresting. It’s realistic, but maybe too realistic. Atsuko and Cory never figure how to communicate – but most of the things they want the other to hear are just standard chatter anyway – aside from a very touching scene toward the end of the movie. It really needed more interesting dialogue to go with the nice scenes of a pensive young Japanese woman coming of age in smalltown USA.

Hanna

Dir: Joe Wright

Hanna (Saoirise Ronan) is brought up by her dad, Erik (Eric Bana) — a spy and assassin who’s gone rogue — in an all-natural setting somewhere in the far north. She learns everything from a stack of old encyclopedias, dictionaries, and grimm’s fairytales. He teaches her how to shoot a deer with a bow and arrow from far away, skin it and cook it. “Always be alert” he tells her. She has to be ready to fend off any attacker — even when she’s asleep. But when she can beat her father at a fight, she realizes it’s time to “come in from the cold” to use the old spy term. She’s ready to face her father’s old foe and handler: the icy, prada-clad CIA agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett).

From there, the movie races on, with the three competing killers – Erik, Hanna, and Marrissa — trying to out-do, capture or kill one another. It’s purposely kept unclear who is the hunter and who is the prey, who is running and who is chasing as power dynamics shift. Marissa and her henchmen – an effeminate German man in white tracksuit and his two skinhead fighters – pursue the 14 year old through various unexpected exotic settings. Hanna just wants to make a friend, find her father again, revisit the brothers Grimm, and listen to music for the very first time. She falls in with a family of British hippies who are driving their van around on a camping trip, and begins to understand the complex rules of social interaction.

The plot is extremely simple, a more-or-less non-stop series of chases and fights – but it’s visually sumptuous movie, with a terrific driving soundtrack, constantly surprising cultural references, stunning scenery, great comic relief, and amazing camera work. There are scenes where the camera spins around and around in a full 360, and others where it flips or rolls or turns upside down. Cate Blanchett is great as the super-villainess, Erik Bana good as a troubled spy, and Saoirise Ronan really great as Hanna, a new type of super hero.

Born to Be Wild

Dir: David Lickley

Wild animals? Aww… Cute, baby wild animals? Cute little baby wild animal… orphans? Awwwww….

How about cute little orphaned baby elephants in Kenya, and baby orangutans living in the rain forests of Borneo… in IMAX 3D???

Yeah, this is one really cute G-rated movie, the kind that makes you

say to hell with my carbon footprint — I wanna hop on a jet-fuel guzzling airplane and fly off to the jungles of Borneo to commune with the Orangutans who look a lot like Homer Simpson…

Actually, the movies about how the rainforests that make up the wild habitat of many the great apes are rapidly disappearing. And in Africa, there are still poachers killing elephants for their ivory tusks. And when the young are left without their mothers they have no one to feed them. These are the orphans – meaning motherless orangutans and elephants — that the movie is about. Narrator Morgan Freeman shows two women — Birute in Indonesia and Daphne in Kenya — who adopt and raise these animal orphans until they’re old enough to gradually be set free again. The extremely short movie (it’s 40 min long) also has some of the best live 3-D footage I’ve seen since Avatar. An enjoyable film (though maybe a bit cloying for adults) it’s perfect for kids who want to see wild animals up close.

Canadian director and artist Luo Li’s newest film premiered at the Images Festival, North America’s largest experimental art and moving images festival, that combines gallery exhibitions with screenings at movie theatres.

Rivers and My Father

Dir: Luo Li

In this movie, he takes his father’s collected memoirs of old China, and sews them together in a black and white patchwork quilt of repeated disjointed scenes, narrations, titles and subtitles, centering around people in and around water. His own relatives play some of the parts (but not all).

So you see a man in a bathing cap bobbing up and down in a river; kids playing in the woods; a formally dressed woman leading a child up an outdoor staircase; a boy on a boat; and some older people talking to each other about their childhood memories, and about shooting this movie.

I was a bit put off by his use of obvious anachronisms that don’t match the year given in a scene’s title; and the frequent repetition of certain odd scenes, but I love his images of a wet road scene looking down in a moving bicycle in the rain; of the slow, grey waters of the Yangtse river; of a distant shore across water.

It’s funny — I’m dismissing various “errors” in the movie as artistic license, but grumbling to myself just the same… when the last third of the movie begins: his own father’s critique (represented by moving, plain and bold chinese fonts on the screen, over english subtitles) of the film I’m watching, as I watch it, and the filmmaker’s response! That was the most surprising and interesting section of this movie.

Beeswax and Littlerock are at the Royal, Born to be Wild at AMC in IMAX 3-D, and Hanna in wide release, all opening today, April 8, 2011. Check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Images Festival, which is playing right now, both on-screen in theatres and off-screen in art galleries. Look online at imagesfestival.com . And Sprockets, the festival of movies for kids and young adults opens this weekend: www.tiff.ca/sprockets

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

Kids Movies! Movies Reviewed: Toy Story 3, The Last Airbender, Despicable Me, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

This week I’m going to take a look at some of the kids’ movies and animation playing right now. So if you’re a kid, or have kids, or just like that kind of movie… stay tuned.

Kids movies, much more than a lot of crappy adult genre movies, take their stories very seriously, and I respect them for that, well, I respect the ones that have good stories. I love a good story, especially one with a bit of magic, or supernatural, or super heroes, or mythological heroic back stories. Because it doesn’t matter if they re-tell a well-known story, as long as they do it well. So let me tell you a bit about each movie’s story (I won’t give away the endings, don’t worry) and whether I think it’s worth watching.

“Toy Story 3”

Dir: Lee Unkrich

“Toy Story 3” in 3-D is a continuation of the earlier computer animated Pixar and Disney “Toy Story” movies, about a kid’s toys who, when their owner isn’t around, reveal themselves to be living beings with real emotional lives and personalities. In this version, Andy has grown up and is heading off to college, and the toys find themselves abandoned and donated to a daycare center. So they have to escape from this virtual prison run by a gang of mean toys, like Lotso, a deeply cynical “Burl Ives”-type scary, strawberry-scented care-bear, a baby doll zombie, and Ken, Barbie’s groovily-dressed, clothes-horsey kinda gay boyfriend.

It’s up to Woody, the 60’s cowboy doll, to rescue spaceman Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang, in a sort of a Dante-esque journey. Woody descends into this inferno to free Beatrice – or more accurately a whole bunch of Beatrices – (Beatrici?) from a virtual hell. This time the bad stuff seems a lot worse than it had in the earlier ‘Toy Story”. It’s not just a childhood fear of abandonment at work here, it’s actual, palpable danger. Sort of scary, to tell the truth.

I remember disliking the first Toy Story – it felt like a well-plotted infomercial there to sell toys, and had a distasteful whiff of nostalgia for the white suburban 1950’s where women all stayed at home and boys and girls knew their roles.

It’s kept a lot of that, but somehow seems a bit more subversive than it’s predecessors. And while keeping its nostalgic sentimentality, it is actually an emotionally wrenching movie — I laughed, I cried (OK I didn’t actually stand on my seat and cheer) and I thought it was a good movie – despite the toy-selling factor.

“The Last Airbender”

Dir: M. Night Shyamalan

“The Last Airbender” is a live action, 3-D version of the TV cartoon called Avatar – not that Avatar, another one.

In ancient times, in a sort of a made-up Sino-Tibetan-Japanese-Sumatran pan-Asian world, there were people in four kingdoms each based on one of the 4 elements – air, water, fire, and earth. There were certain people in each kingdom who could bend an element – bending means you can toss that fire or water around, and make it go “Pshew! Pshew! Pshew!

just by gesturing with your magic fingers.

And then, there is one guy who can bend all four elements – he’s known as The Avatar. But the Fire people have taken over and are oppressing the rest of them. So they want to catch the last airbender – a little bald kid with strange facial tattoos and an arrow on his forehead pointing down, named Aung – who might be the Avatar. He was asleep in an ice bubble for a century, but now he’s back.

Most of the movie is just the royal family of fire guys chasing Aung, and the rest of the elementals trying to get Aung fit enough to fight them.

This movie got trashed by critics, more so than it deserved – it wasn’t all that bad. M Night Shyamalan is not my favourite director (he’s been coasting on his 6th Sense “I see dead people!” success for quite a while now, with a whole bunch of duds), but it’s not bad, with some cool special effects, and visually captivating with ancient ruins, and mountain-top Buddhist monasteries—great to look at, with the feel of the TV cartoon.

But the characters never really develop, you never feel for them except for the conflicted, exiled prince of fire Zuko (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”) and maybe pudgy, pre-pubescent Aung (Noah Ringer). Too many lines like: “Faster Aung, they‘re right behind us!”, too much fighting and chasing, not enough actual story. And the 3-D effects in this movie are a waste of time.

Despicable Me

Dir: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Gru, is a flat headed, low browed bad guy villain with a nose like Mr Burns. He’s a truly evil, grinch-like villain. He lives in an old house where he secretly makes nefarious weapons with the help of tiny yellow capsule-shaped minions and a diabolical scientist — like James Bond’s “Q”, except hard of hearing.

But Gru is thrown when he’s told he’s over the hill in super-villaindom. The insecurities of his childhood – his mother never supported him – hence the name “despicable me” – come back to haunt him. A new villain, Vector, has stolen the Great Pyramid. What can be bigger than that for a villain to steal? Gru Decides to steal the moon, once he gets a hold of a gun that can shrink things. But the only way to get it is by using three cute orphan girls – Margo, Edith and Agnes – who sell cookies door to door, as bait. So he pretends to adopt them.

The movie follows his relationship with the spunky orphan girls as a ne’er-do-well Dad, as well as his quest to capture the moon. This is a really good movie, capable computer animation, cool-looking characters, minimal product placement, and with stories not out of place with Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl or Charles Addams – but not too scary either. (Suitable for kids).

The one thing I thought was remarkable is that three of the main characters, the orphan girls, were completely absent from all the trailers, posters, and pictures before the movie came out – I guess they think boys won’t go to see movies with girls in them. Anyway, I liked this movie a lot.

Finally,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Dir: Jon Turtletaub

Finally,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

(starring Nicolas Cage as the wizard Balthazar and Jay Baruchel as his apprentice, Dave.) While ostensibly based on the Mickey Mouse cartoon in Fantasia, this sorcerer’s apprentice is much more compicated. Merlin, in King Arthur’s day, was the greatest sorcerer in the world. But his three protégés — Veronica, Balthazar and Horvath – fail to kill the evil Morgana. Instead, a bunch of them are turned into “grimholts” – statues that look like Russian Matryoshka dolls — that hold them captive. It’s up to Balthazar, still alive centuries later, to find a new apprentice to be the Prime Merlinian. He locates the self-conscious NYU science nerd, Dave, in New York City. Dave must help him stop the villain Morgana, and her accomplice the traitor Horvath –played by Alfred Molina — while he learns wizardry in a modern-day one-man Hogwarts, even while he pursues his childhood crush, Becky.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a fun, pseudo- Harry Potter movie. The acting’s good: Nicolas Cage shows amazing restraint (unlike most of the terrible movies he’s in); Molina is great as the villain, Horvath, and Jay Baruchel — while almost exactly like in most of his other roles — carries the part well. (He’s always great.) Still, his voice changed 15 years ago – the guy’s 28! — so he should stop playing mock-twelve year olds. I also liked the way they combined physics with magic. And I thought new-comer Teresa Palmer — as Dave’s crush, Becky — was also great. (And her character works for a community radio station… excellent!) The New York City scenes – Empire State and Chrysler building, always seen from high up among the gargoyles — is attractive too. And there are lots of fun references to older movies, including Ghost Busters, King Kong, and Toy Story. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”  is a good – not great, but not bad – movie for people who like magic adventures, Walt Disney movies, or Jay Baruchel.

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

Why do directors try to go over the top?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: