The Space-Time Continuum. Movies Reviewed: Source Code, Repeaters, American: The Bill Hicks Story, The Tiny Ventriloquist

Everyone loves some good time travel right? Sure you do. You want to go back in time and fix something up, right a wrong, to do something you wished you had done before it was too late. So, this week, I’m looking at four movies — an action thriller, and a psycho-science fiction movie that deal directly with glitches in the time- space continuum, as well as a historical documentary/ biography about a stand up comic who was inspired by his psychedelic trips, and an art film that manipulates old images and sound, using newly created and found footage and graphic art.

Time travel movies used to be simple, you’d climb into your time machine, travel back or forward in time, until you fix whatever the problem was and come back home.

But now (possibly influenced by start-again video games and rebooted computer programs where you always have the chance to erase your mistakes and go back to point zero) we have this sub genre where scenes are repeated over and over and over again.

You are the one variable that can make a difference, but if you mess up, someone is pressing Play Again until you get it right (like in the classic Groundhog Day)

In one new movie,

Source Code

Dir: Duncan Jones

you get to see the same 8 minute episode, throughout the film, until the hero, a US military helicopter pilot In Afghanistan, tries to win his game.

So, the soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) suddenly awakens on a Chicago commuter train, in the middle of a chat with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty woman across from him. The problem is, he doesn’t know where he is, what he’s doing, and who are all the strangers seated with him who seem to know him. And when he looks in a bathroom mirror he discovers he’s not there — he’s somehow inside another person! But even as he tries to make sense of it all, he is the victim of a huge explosion on the train whichh catapults him back to his military job.

It turns out he’s part of an experiment called source code, based on the principal that the brain can hold on to 8 minutes of short-term memory, and that after someone dies (like the man on the train) his neuro synapses remain open and retrievable if caught immediately after the heart stops.

So it’s up to him to figure out who the terrorist is, where the bomb was hidden, and then to trackdown the killer and stop a massive nuclear bomb set to go off later in downtown Chicago. he can’t change the past, but he can relive it until he finds out the truth.

Will he solve the crime, catch the bad guy, get to know Christina, and save the world? And will he ever be told why he’s In this program, and allowed out of this hellish space-time loop?

Source Code essentially has the same format as the directors other film Moon (about a man who lives alone on a base on the moon, with only a computer voice to keep him company) — a dialogue between two detached people caught in sort of a loop created by people beyond their understanding. In this one, the ongoing conversation — on the two sides of a video screen — is between the soldier and a female officer (Vera Farmiga) who sends him his assignments.

It’s a neatly imagined science fiction action thriller, even though Gylenhaal doesn’t seem quite up to the part, he’s too opaque, and the story doesn’t exactly make sense, even according to its own plot.

A Canadian film that opens next Friday,

Repeaters

Dir: Carl Bessai

follows a similar pattern.

Three young ne’er-do-well drug addicts — Kyle, Sonia and Weeks –at an isolated rehab center, live through a god-awful day iof depression, bullying, idiocy, neglect, and frustration. The three only have each other to depend on. Pick-up truck Kyle (Dustin Milligan) is rejected by his little sister for something he did; Sonia (Amanda Crew) is unable to talk about an issue with her father who is dying in a hospital; and Weeks (Richard de Klerk) is emotionally crushed by the hate-on his furious father carries for him when he tries to visit him in a prison.

But when they wake up the next morning after a thunderstorm, it’s soon clear the world is reliving the previous day exactly as before, and only those three are aware of it. This totally messes up their sense of destiny and morality. Is there any meaning to life at all? Even if they save a person’s life — or kill him — it all goes back to the same point of restart. (It’s one day, not 8 minutes, in this movie, so it’s not as action- packed as source code.) will they ever confront their own moral dillemmas and right the wrongs they know about?

This is a neat movie about things like where morality fits into one’s own self image, what are the psychological consequences of good and evil that has no effect, and what would you do if you could do anything? It’s also a romance, a bit science fiction, with a lot of psycho-thriller, as the three reveal their own minds to each other as the loops continue.

The next movie is only related to time travel in that the main character was known to mentally float around in a drug induced state.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Dir: Matt Harlock and Pauk Thomas

Bill Hicks was a counter-culture standup comic in the Seventies and Eighties, known for tackling the topics that are taboo for comedians: not dick jokes, but politics, philosophy, intellectual issues, psychedelia. His jokes combined a Texas drawl, the lilt of a preacher’s revival meeting, and out-of-control, drunken and drug-filled vivid improvisational fantasies, rages and rants.

This moving documentary traces his life from his geeky teen years until his untimely death in his early thirties. Interesting technique for a documentary; there are almost no talking heads – instead the heads, people like his parents, his best friend, other comedians — turn into the movies narrators, like an oral history, with most of the movie comsisting of animated old photos, along with old concert footage.

He started as a thirteen yr old in suburban Houston, Texas. On his first try at drinking alcohol at a night club, he asks his fellow comedians – what’s a good drink (because he’s never had a mixed drink before)? They tell him Margaritas. So he downs seven margaritas at once and then goes on stage and lets loose. He considers alcohol as a disinhibitor, to let his true emotions loose on stage, and psilocybin mushrooms the source of his psychedelic insights. He would go up to a ranch every so often with a bunch of friends to down the mushrooms and see what images they bring.

Hicks was a heavy drinker and a creative psychedelic druggie, and the movie shows some unflattering footage of low period where audience members would buy him drinks during his standup act and he would drink, snort or inhale anything that got sent up the stage. A bt disturbing — like most of his act, where unsobreity was part of his defiance.

American, the Bill Hicks Story, is a very good and interesting movie, of a largely unsung folk-hero, done in the style of a rock-star documentary. My only criticism is that it concentrates too much on the serious biography parts and not enough on his art.

The Tiny Ventriloquist

Dir: Steve Reinke

Here’s another film that played last week’s Images Festival, where experimental art meets the big screen. This movie takes a disjointed look at the director’s own self-reflections towards his art; using his own great narrated shots and photos, along with found footage – of the most surprising kind – cut up and manipulated in an unexpected way.

I’ve always liked Steve Reinke’s work because it’s art, but it’s also always interesting and funny to watch, without the overly tedious or pensive feel, that a lot of video art has. You’re allowed to enjoy it, you’re allowed to laugh or squirm.

So in the same way Steve Hicks would drag political outrage into the usually pablum, fake-shock world of stand-up comedy, Steve Reinke, in the same way, violates the usually dry inner sanctum of art using found porn and other taboo sources (in an artistically valid way, naturally.)

So in this movie you het a combination of uneasy travel footage, spooky monochrome, costumed, home movie dancing, and old crackly recordings. Scenes of flood, water, and old rural western USA. Drunken Dutch soccer hooligans, hunters, real or imagined vaguely threatening child memories, manipulated Peanut’s cartoons, scary medical and industrial footage, and post-apocalyptic fantasies filled with dread.

The most bizarre footage is of a woman shown bear hunting in the woods, followed by a protracted explicit sex, in the form of very low-grade amateur porn, on top of the dead body of the bear. It’s funny: the dry didactic narration, while describing each scene in detail, in order to not offend the viewers it censors parts of the images by covering it with amorphous green-screen colour. Here’s the surprise: he keeps all the hard core porn images, but scribbles out the body of the poor dead bear!

Throughout the piece, vivid footage is alternated with animated simple line drawings. I liked this film, The Tiny Ventriloquist, a lot.

Source Code is now playing, American, the Bill Hicks Story starts today at the Royal Cinema in Toronto (check our local listings), Repeaters opens next Friday and The Tiny Ventriloquist was shown at the Images Festival.

WWII Communists as Rebels and Prison Guards. Movies Reviewed: The Army of Crime, The Way Back, The Edge

This week I’m talking about three European movies that look at the people out of power during and right after WWII.

Some of the best historical movies are about WWII. There’s something more monumental and profound about this huge, all- encompassing war that can’t be matched in movies about, say, the Americans’ war in Vietnam, or France’s in Algeria. And a lot of the fighting boils down to the two prevalent ideologies of the time: right-wing Fascism, and left wing Communism. So this week I’m going to talk about three movies that take very different perspectives on the role of the Communists in eastern and western Europe in WWII.

A few years ago, Western Europe started to examine its own role under the Nazi occupation, both as collaborators and as victims. The resistance – those who fought against the occupiers, often through violent actions – was facing not just the enemy but their own countrymen who sided with the occupiers.

Released in 2006, the Dutch movie, The Black Book, (directed by the fantastic Paul Verhoeven) is a great fictional story of a beautiful Jewish Dutch woman, Rachel (Carice Van Houten) a cabaret singer, who joins the resistance by infiltrating the Nazi’s as a spy—but she ends up being the mistress of a high-ranked, but kind-hearted and handsome Nazi officer (Sebastian Koch). Although fictional, this is a major rethinking of Dutch attitudes toward their German occupiers.

After this, other Western Europeans countries, one by one, made their own dramas about the occupation. The Danes made Flame and Citron, a retelling of two young heroes of the Danish resistance, one a redhead, one blonde, who blew up bridges and carried out espionage. It’s a good, tense drama.

Max Manus (2008), the Norwegian story, is an old-school adventure movie about a brave young man (Aksel Hennie) and his confreres who, on behalf of the Norwegian government in exile, fought against the Nazi’s and their own Quisling government by jumping out of windows and engaging in acts of sabotage against the enemy’s military ships around the Oslo harbour.

Germany had it’s own resistance, as portrayed in the movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) , a true historical drama about an upper-class Munich university student, and her friends, who plotted against the Nazis by distributing anonymous leaflets in a movement known as the White Rose.

There were others as well, including the awful American drama Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise as one of the aristocratic military officers who plotted to assassinate Hitler. Quentin Tarantino made a much better American movie. An exaggerated but enjoyable spectacle, Inglorious Basterds, was simultaneously a melodramatic love story, a war-time comic-but-violent action flic, and a tense, espionage thriller.

Well, just when I thought this sub-genre was all played out, comes another very watchable and moving drama called…

The Army of Crime (2009)
Dir: Robert Guédiguian

This is a true story. It’s 1941 in Paris, and the Germans have moved in, the government has fallen, but day-to-day life hasn’t been affected much yet. The policemen are still French, and the shops, schools and institutions still operate the way they always have. But, for immigrants and minorities, things are getting worse. The police are cracking-down, searching homes, and the axe feels like it’s about to drop.

A group of young people who are already doing clandestine protests, independently of one another – communist grafitti, paper flyers dropped from buildings, street scuffles – are brought together under the French poet, Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian), who had survived the Armenian Holocaust as a child.

It’s interesting: in the past, the French resistance was shown on TV and in movies as the brave and noble Frenchmen who fought off their Nazi occupiers. In this movie, it’s mainly the French themselves who are collaborating with the Germans, ratting on their neighbours, and zealously joining the police force to catch all the vandals and resistance members that are upsetting their peaceful, occupied lives. And the ones fighting hard against the occupation are immigrants or their children – Armenians, Communists, Jews from Poland, Hungary and Romania; Italian radicals, and Spanish Republicans.

Some are using hidden printers in backrooms, and practice the piano in the front to cover the noise. One teenaged boy continues to compete in swim meets (under a false French name) while he secretly shoots German officers. A shadowy hierarchy — unidentified, but looking like eastern European Communists — impose order and planning on the individual firebrands. The story follows four or five plotlines as the diverse resistance members gradually converge into one unit with the plan to do a dramatic action… or die trying.

This is a good, gripping WWII dramatic thriller of the French resistance as de facto terrorists battling the complacent, majority collaborators who were aiding the occupiers in their nefarious schemes of deportation and death. Their various love stories, families, and historical events are all woven together in this dense, fascinating movie.

But what about the opposite side of the coin? What happened to the Eastern Europeans who opposed the Soviet Union’s occupation, or fell out of favour with the communist party? A new movie, by a very well-known Australian director, looks a group in some ways diametrically opposed to the ones in The Army of Crime.

The Way Back
Dir: Peter Weir

… depicts life in a Siberian gulag, a great escape, and an epic journey (by a few of the survivors) all the way south to India.

Januzs, a Polish man, is sent to Siberia for being “anti-Stalin” when his wife “confesses” his crimes after being interrogated and tortured. He finds himself in an isolated prison camp where the harsh snow and winter itself is the toughest guard. The other prisoners are petty criminals, purged party members, actors, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and anti-communists. The criminals are the highest-ranked ones, and therest cower from them. They move logs and some are sent to work in the mines.

But a group manages to escape, including Januzs, a shady American known only as Mr Smith (Ed Harris) and a rough criminal, Valka (Colin Farrell). An innocent young girl (Saoirse Ronan) they meet outside the prison helps the suspicious and cautious men to get to know one another. They set off on great walk, and here the movie makes a strange shift — from a prison movie to a human travelogue, pitting man against the great outdoors. The scenery is really beautiful, as they travel from the Siberians steppes, the plains of Mongolia, the Gobi desert, Tibet, and the Himalayas.

Cliffs, dunes, lakes, plains, forests, temples – all truly breathtaking and spectacular. I found the story itself, though, less interesting. Their main drives — to go on, to survive, to reach India — seemed incidental to the trip. What was their motivation? And it had a bit – just a bit — of the feel of a cold war-era propaganda flic: We must escape iron curtain and reach free world!

I don’t want to downplay those sentiments, and Stalin’s very real war crimes, but the movie seemed oddly out of date in its fuzzy-religious, anti-communist tone.

I think it’s almost worth seeing it just for the outstanding scenery – almost, but not quite.

Finally, a very different view of Siberian prison camps.

The Edge
Dir: Aleksei Uchitel

…which played at this year’s TIFF, and is the Russian entry for the Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Ignat (Vladimir Mashkov) is a decorated war vet who is sent, in uniform, to Siberia just after WWII. There he hooks up with Sofia (Yulia Peresild) to become a sort of a husband/sex partner and a father to her baby. Sofia is surviving, by hook or by crook, having been a servant in Nazi Germany during the war, and then punished by the Soviets. Ignat is obsessed by trains, and wants to get them up and running again. He hears there’s an engine still out there in the forest somewhere, so he decides to bring it back. This is where the story gets really interesting. He finds it, but it’s being guarded by a mysterious, violent creature, whom he has to vanquish in order to get to the steam engine. (I don’t want to give this away, since that character becomes important to the plot).

Ignat becomes obsessed with getting the train across a fallen bridge and over a river so they can all get away. His rival – the mysterious Fishman – represents the authorities he wants to overthrow. Will his train ever work? Will he get away? Will he win over the hearts of the locals?

The Edge is a good, old-school Hollywood-type drama/adventure, laced with the  Russian irony and absurdity that was largely missing from Peter Weir’s movie.

It’s also strangely nostalgic, for the “good old days” just after WWII, despite the bitter losses (war, poverty, death) that went with it. Believe it or not, The Edge is a sort of a feel-good movie about Siberian gulags, told Russian-style.

The Way Back opens in Toronto on January 21st, (check your listings), The Army of Crime is showing in Thornhill, one screening only on Sunday, January 23rd , as part of the Chai, Tea and a Movie series, (go to www.tjff.com for details), and The Edge played at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Also check out a rare chance to see Spike Lee in Toronto, in conversation with Toronto filmmaker Clement Virgo in celebration of Black History Month. They’re appearing at the Varsity Cinema, Tuesday, January 25, 2011, at 7pm.

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.

Caught in a Trap. Films reviewed: Shutter Island, Punishment Park, Last Train Home

You walk into a theatre, sit down, relax, stretch your legs, maybe eat a bit of popcorn, maybe nibble at some candy you smuggled in, and get set for sitting in one place for 90 minutes, 2 hours, maybe two and a half hours.

You don’t know the people in front of you, the people behind you, and very likely some of the people sitting right beside you. The lights go out, it’s dark, and you’re in a room full of strangers… so why doesn’t that bother you? Why doesn’t it make you feel claustrophobic to be trapped in a movie theatre? I think it’s because you’re not trapped there, and you chose to go there, and you’re there to enter an open space projected on a giant screen – it’s that huge opening to a world, looking through a looking glass, through a crystal ball, down a rabbit hole – you’re opening something for a little while, you’re escaping – maybe that’s why they call movies escapist – it’s just the opposite of being trapped somewhere.

I think that’s part of the attraction of movies – getting inside of a place you can’t visit physically, being a guest in a different world for a short time.

But the movies you see are sometimes about people caught in a trap. Here are a few movies about people caught somewhere but can’t seem to get out.

In Shutter Island, the new film directed by Martin Scorsese, US Marshall Daniels takes the ferry to a remote cliff-covered island with an old lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts. It’s 1952. There’s a hospital-cum-prison for the criminally insane there, and it’s a place that, it’s said, once you’re inside it, there’s no way to escape. But a woman who committed a terrible crime has escaped, so Daniels, (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner Chuck (Mark Ruffallo) are called in to solve this unexplainable mystery. And Daniels has a secret goal of his own – to try to find out what happened to the man who brutally murdered hiswife and three children, and seems to have disappeared. Was he hiding on this island? And what really was going on in that old lighthouse?

Once he arrives there, Daniels is gradually stripped of his symbols of power as a Marshall – he is forced to give up his gun, his badge, his shoes, even his suit, and is soon dressed in a the white clothes of the orderlies there. But he begins to suspect that the psychiatrists have been slipping him drugs, and begins to have realistic hallucinations of his own. As one character he meets tells him, once you’re here they can decide you’re crazy, and anything you can say to them will just prove you really are crazy. It’s a deadly trap – an island with no way out, and hospital that’s said to conduct terrible experiments on its patients. He’s also haunted by memories of liberating the Dachau concentration camp in Germany – one psychiatrist at the hospital feels like a Nazi to him

I don’t want to give away the plot – and it’s a twisted one, approaching Mulholland Drive proportions – but the movie left me more or less satisfied with the various plot turns. It isn’t a great movie, but an entertaining one – though 2 ½ hrs long. The scary hospital scenes and the dramatically towering cliffs were really effective, though the brittleness of the video it was shown on left me a bit more chilled than I would have liked – I prefer the warmth of film over digital’s nails-on–the-blackboard feel.

The anti-psychiatry themes of imprisonment, despair and cruel and despotic psychiatrists persecuting patients are strong in this film at first, but fizzle away in the convoluted plot. DiCaprio’s performance was not bad, but I still see him as a kid trying to play a grown up, and he doesn’t convince me. He keeps squinting his eyes and scrunching up his forehead to look perplexed – I guess that’s what they call “acting”.

So, not a terrific film, it’s no Taxi Driver, but it wasn’t bad either; you can see it as a Hollywood dramatic-thriller and leave it at that.

I saw a very unusual but very good film last week, that I had never really heard of, even though it was made in 1971, called Punishment Park, directed by Peter Watkins (who also made movies like the amazing biopic Edvard Munch).

It’s a fake documentary about a group of anti-war protestors who are put on trial by a panel consisting of corporate head, a politician, a judge, a suburban housewife, a union worker – basically The Man — versus activists of different stripes (a feminist, a pacifist, a black-power activist, and some violent militants).

After a long tribunal consisting of diatribes and shouting matches between the two sides – (with some of the defendants being restrained or even gagged for talking out of turn) they are all sentenced to absurdly long prison terms – or given the option of choosing three days in Punishment Park.

The European documentary filmmakers are allowed to record all this for their TV stations, and to follow them to Punishment Park – a bizarre obstacle course in the middle of the desert, sort of an Outward Bound, but to the death, or a proto-reality show – a “Survivor: California” – where they have three days to cross the desert until they reach an American flag on a pole. The protestors and activists are followed by armed police and soldiers chasing after them with automatic weapons. So they are caught in a trap to which there seems to be no escape.

The whole movie really looks like a documentary. It was shot on an almost square aspect ratio of 1-1.33 (the way TV news footage used to look), with the European filmmakers observing this odd American event off-camera, but staying detached as documentary makers tend to do. Watkins eventually brings himself into the story when he finally notices the absurdity and severity of the punishment – and his sees his own crew at risk. If you get a chance to see this amazing movie – hopefully it will play again at the rep cinemas — don’t miss it, it’s as compelling and a propos in 2010 as the day it was made.


Last Train Home, a Canadian documentary, directed by Fan Lixin, about migrant workers in China, follows an everyman couple in their annual pilgrimage from their sewing machines in a factory in the east to their family farm in the west. Once a year, at Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), they take a train ride from Guangdong all the way to Sichuan – it’s their only chance to see their teenage daughter and younger son.

China’s population went from 20% urban, 80% rural in 1980 to nearly a 50-50 split over just 30 years. Fan Lixin captures the enormousness of this huge, migrant population, (estimated between 100 and 300 million people) as it rushes, en masse, home for the holidays. Scenes like the ones in Guangzhou station, with a human flood of people trying to catch a train or even to get their bags on board, are great; he also caught the mood of the crowds during the massive, three-day power outage that stranded hundreds of thousands of people a few years ago.

We don’t learn that much about the migrant couple he follows except that their lives seem dingy and miserable and alienated; they even speak in a Sichuan dialect incomprehensible in eastern China. Their annual visit home is the one time they can spend time with their family. Ironically, bad relations arise between the parents (who never see their kids, but are devoting their lives to them so they can study and escape life as a peasant), and the kids themselves (especially the angry daughter) who feel they’ve been abandoned. They’re caught in the double-bind of trying to escape the farm but feeling trapped in the city.

A lot of Chinese movies in the past dealt with educated former city dwellers who had been sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution — movies like Jia Zhangke’s Platform or Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams – and long to move back to the big city again. In those films, cities are wonderful and interesting, while farms are boring and backbreaking and pointless. Life is miserable in the yellow dirt. Cities used to be the beacon of hope, farms just a bitter life to escape from.

Last Train Home, on the other hand, contrasts the polluted, miserable life in the cities with a bucolic green and beautiful view of the countryside – a sort of back-to-the-farm, idyllic vision of rural life. The viewer glories in breathtaking scenes of snow covered terraces in Sichuan, and quiet days on the farm filled with pretty insects. Cities are only for hard work (we never see the couple during their free time in Guandong), while farms are places to stand quietly and contemplate their natural beauty.

Aesthetically, you wish for more country scenes and less of the miserable, polluted, and crowded cities you’re forced to watch for most of the movie. And you wonder why anyone ever left the farm.

But Last Train Home does give a largely unseen glimpse into the family lives of Chinese migrant workers.

– Daniel Garber, February 24, 2010

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