Offbeat Mainstream Movies. Films Reviewed: The Frankenstein Theory, I’m So Excited, Thermae Romae

Posted in comedy, Horror, Japan, Manga, Rome, Spain, Uncategorized, Yukon by CulturalMining.com on July 5, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.comand 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.

Is it an oxymoron to be both mainstream and offbeat? This week I’m looking at movies conventional in their genres, but unusual in their subject matter, style or location. There’s a horror movie that takes place in the arctic; a campy comedy that flies through the skies; and a manga rom-com that takes place… in a bathtub!

Frankenstein theory posterThe Frankenstein Theory

Dir: Andrew Weiner

John (Kris Lemche) is a young university professor in LA whose pet theory has landed him in hot water. He is convinced – based on some old manuscripts and letters he found – that Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein was not a story. It’s all true. And not only is it true, but Frankenstein’s monster – the man himself — is still alive, hundreds of years later.

And where does he live? All the maps he has point to the far north. So he sets off with a camera crew to Whitehorse, Yukon. From there, with the help of Karl (Timothy Murphy), a chiseled-featured guide with an unplaceable accent, they head up to the sub-zero temperatures of the tundra.

Soon enough they are camped out in a wooden yurt in the middle of nowhere. John is convinced that this where they’ll find frankenstein’s monster. They spend dark nights listening to howling wolves and Karl’s stories of fighting polar bears.

But when they wake to find human footsteps in the snow, they realize that someone with very big feet is watching them. Is it the monster? What will they do if they actually meet him? And is it safe to fool around with modern nature? Soon enough, they realize they may have bit off more than they can chew… and that they might be chewed up themselves.

This Blair Witch-style found-footage horror movie is a bit eerie with some breathtaking arctic scenery (for once, the US is masquerading as Canada, not vice-versa). I like the premise, and there are some neat parts involving a meth-head, huskies, and snow drifts; and the acting is generally pretty good. But the plot is unbelievably predictable.  Most important, for a thriller/horror movie this just not scary enough.

I'm so excited 1 Raúl Arévalo as Ulloa, Carlos Areces as Fajas & Javier Cámara as Joserra. Photo by Paola Ardizzoni & Emilio Pereda © El Deseo, Courtesy of Sony Pictures ClassicsI’m So Excited

Dir: Pedro Almodovar

A plane flying from Spain to Mexico runs into trouble with its landing gear. After putting the economy class to sleep using muscle relaxants the staff has to deal with the eccentric business class passengers: A bald CEO; a mysterious, moustachioed Mexican; a much-feared female celebrity; a shy psychic who wants to lose her virginity; a young couple on their honeymoon; and a middle-aged actor with marital difficulties. Each one has a secret to be revealed.

Meanwhile the flamboyantly gay flight attendants and their macho pilots trade sexual barbs, innuendos and hidden rendezvous in the cockpit and washrooms, even as the plane endlessly circles airports, still unable to land.

We discover the passengers’ stories via two odd features of the plane. All i'm so excited 6 José María Yazpik as Infante and Cecilia Roth as Norma Photo by Paola Ardizzoni & Emilio Pereda © El Deseo, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classicstelephone conversations are broadcast on the PA system; and one flight attendant Joserra (Javier Camara) always tells the complete truth whenever asked a question.

Like Woody Allen, Almadovar started as a comedy director, only later turning to serious dramas. I’m So Excited is a screwball-style comedy harkening back to his early days. This is comedy at its most camp. The flamboyant flight attendants feel compelled to ogle every man, gossip with every woman, and perform lip-synch dances up and down the aisle.

i'm so excited 2 Hugo Silva as Benito Morón, Lola Duenas as Bruna, Javier Cámara as Joserra and Antonio De La Torre as Alex Acero Photo by Paola Ardizzoni & Emilio Pereda © El Deseo, Courtesy of Sony Pictures ClassicsI really like movies with twisted plots, strange characters and unexpected revelations – there are lots of lots of those. And the plot turns (things like a telephone call followed from the sky to the ground and back again, involving multiple coincidences) were great. And it’s fun to see lots of the old Almodovar stalwarts, like Cecelia Roth.

But at times the humour felt strangely dated, and most of the gags fell flat. (Were they lost in translation? Who knows?) I just wasn’t laughing as much as I expected. So if you plan to see this movie, go for the story, not for the laughs.

Thermae_Romae_posterThermae Romae

Dir: Hideki Takeuchi (Based on the popular manga by Mari Yamazaki)

Lucius (Hiroshi Abe) is an architect in ancient Rome under the reign of Hadrian. He always enjoys a dip in a thermae romae – that is, a roman bath. Mami (Aya Ueto) is an office worker (and budding comic book artist) in present day Japan. She also frequents the local sento or public bath.

But one day, strange circumstances suck the naked Roman down a whirlpool20130312beam and spit him out again into a pool of doddering, elderly Japanese men. Who are these “flat-faced” people who speak no Latin? Pretty but bumbling Mami falls for him, of course, but keeps her passions in check. Handsome Lucius, on the other hand, is fascinated mainly by the advanced technology he finds: the mundane accoutrements taken for granted in modern times. And when he is transported back to ancient Rome he revitalizes his career with his new inventions. They meet up again in a hot springs, in a client’s plumbing display, and other strange places. Can Mami and Lucius find true love in a relationship spanning time and space? And can the relentlessly hardworking nature of the Japanese people rescue Lucius’s Rome in its time of trouble?

Hiroshi-Abe-and-Aya-Ueto-in-Thermae-Romae3This is one of the strangest mainstream movies around, combining the mundane minutiae of  Japanese daily life with outrageous fantasy. This, combined with toilet humour and bathhouse lore, make a very weird but totally fascinating movie. Based on a manga, it has a serial comic book’s plotting, that makes it feel more like a TV sitcom ( a series of episodes with recurring characters who solve problems and then move on) than a traditional movie:. But I thought it was hilarious, and uniquely Japanese in its odd and eccentric ordinariness.

The Frankenstein Theory starts today at the Big Picture Cinema; I’m So Excited also opens today at the Varsity in Toronto – check your local listings; and Thermae Romae is another great movie playing at Toronto’s Italian Contemporary Film Festival which is on right now – go to icff.ca for more information.

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

Behind the Curtain. Movies reviewed: Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, The Grub-Stake: Revisited PLUS Hot Docs!

Posted in 1920s, Canada, China, Conservativism, documentary, melodrama, Movies, Music, Musical, Republican Party, Uncategorized, Yukon by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2013

Jeff Harris: Lining up for Hot DocsHi, 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.

Hot Docs, Toronto’s documentary film festival, continues through the weekend – and daytime tickets are free for all students and seniors. This is a once-a-year opportunity to really absorb all sorts of politics, people, music and ideas.

This week I’m going to look at three movies that – in very different ways — pull back the curtain to show what’s going on backstage. One doc is about a Kung Fu Academy in China, another about hillbilly entertainment in southern Missouri, and there’s a new look at a silent film shot in Yukon Territory in the 1920s.

Dragon_Girls_4Dragon Girls

Dir: Inigo Westmeier

This is a movie about China’s biggest kung fu centre, the Ta Gou Shao Lin martial arts academy. It’s in Henan province, north of Beijing. It has a huge number of students, both boys and girls, and they are all strictly trained in what feels like a military school (like Karate Kid times 1,000). And this school has a public square, a vast stone plaza that looks to be about the size of Tian’anmen Square in Beijing.

This documentary uses two ways to portray the school. One is aerial views of the entire academy – that’s hundreds of people – performing flawless, intricate fighting formations, all at once, on the square. And they’re all dressed in identical red jumpsuits, running around in perfect harmony.

But then they switch to close-ups of girls at the academy telling their stories. The place is unheated in the winter and Spartan looking. It’s Dragon_Girls_5almost like a prison, says one. Another runs away, all the way home to Shanghai – she can’t stand the life there: it’s cruel and bitter. Their trainers aren’t very sympathetic toward them – they went through the same training so they expect the new girls to do suffer like they did. They train them ruthlessly, even the little girls, to learn the kicks, the sword moves, the jumps, the punches…  And there are constant competitions, with winners and losers and rankings. Some of the girls’ parents are dragons themselves – if the kids don’t come in first place they get no praise.

The movie continues like that: in and out, tight then wide. There are the close-up, touching stories about individual girls’ plights; alternating with fantastical movie-style performances in the square, involving hundreds or thousands of shaolin kids.

From far away everything looks perfect. But, up close, the flaws begin to appear.

We_Always_Lie_To_Strangers_1We Always Lie to Strangers

Dir: AJ Schnack, David Boone Wilson

Somewhere, halfway between Hollywood and Broadway stands a small town in the Ozarks that offers its own, unique variety of entertainment. It’s Branson Mo., and it’s one of the best-known, unknown tourist attractions in the US.

What is this place? It’s a strange small town filled with giant music halls started a few decades ago by people like the Osmonds, the Presley Family, and Lawrence Welk. They put on old-school musicals and variety shows that are mainstream, conservative, and very, very white. It’s a world of elaborate kitschy musicals and hillbilly, Hee-Haw comedy.

But this movie goes behind the scenes, showing that it’s not quite what it appears to be. It follows some of the theatrical families who make Branson their home base. There’s a foul-mouthed single mother, who cusses a blue streak and then says – for Jesus. There’s the town mayor, a woman and member of the Presley clan, who points out that women are the ones who really run things there. There’s the Lennon family, transplanted from Venice, California, who have kept their liberal convictions even deep in Tea Party territory. And there’s a gay couple, a divorced We_Always_Lie_To_Strangers_2man with two sons and his boyfriend, both of whom sing and dance in some of the kitschy, dog-and-pony shows, even while promoting Branson “family values”.

I liked this doc because, even though it starts as a conventional, reality-TV-style show, following some of the characters around, it ends up giving much more. There’s lots of music, some of which is actually really good.

There’s a lots to like: things like a brilliant analysis of the differences between borscht-belt and bible-belt humour. And some scenes are visually fantastic: like when everyone’s at this combination flea market and air show, and, all of the sudden, the planes are dropping fire bombs just behind them, and there are huge plumes of black smoke shooting up, just past the funnel cakes! (That scene made it for me…) Very interesting movie.

GrubStake_mediumThe Grub-Stake: Revisited

Dir: Bert Van Tuyl and Nell Shipman

A silver-haired prospector arrives down south with a fistful of gold nuggets. He tempts the wide-eyed young Faith (Nell Shipman) to leave her laundry shop and come north with him to the Yukon to find love and get rich. After some resistance she agrees, and they head north by steamship.

But he soon turns out to be a monstrous letch and Nell has to fight him off. She’s forced to flee by dog sled with her disabled father. She has to cope with blizzards, bears, outlaws with guns, and dangerous cliff-side chases. Luckily, Nell meets a handsome man in the woods and together they try to triumph over the bad guys.

That’s what The Grub Stake – a Canadian silent movie from 1923 – looks like. But in the new, Revisited version (that’s showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox next week) the archival print will be shown alongside an original, live performance, that comes to us from the Yukon. A group of actors supply new voices to the silent images, with live musicians creating a haunted, ambient soundtrack.

Here’s the twist: the new script is positively Shakesperean, with all the lines pulled from plays like Hamlet, Richard III and Twelfth Night. Does it work? It’s funny! It doesn’t quite make sense, though: sometimes the dialogue is in perfect synch with the images on the screen, but at other times it seems to be at war with what you’re watching. But I guess that’s what makes it… art.

The Grub Stake is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, only on May 6th. For more information, go to tiff.net.

You can see Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, and many other great documentaries at Hot Docs this weekend. Go to hotdocs.ca for details.

Also opening today is Still Mine, based on a true story about an elderly farmer in New Brunswick who vows to defy the law for the sake of his ailing wife; Kon Tiki, the fantastic Norwegian epic about a journey across the pacific on a raft (I loved the Norwegian version, but haven’t seen the English-language one (check your local listings); and various short films at TIFF that support Mental Health Week (May 5-11) sponsored by Toronto’s Workman Arts: 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 .

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