Folk Heroes. Movies reviewed: Soul Kitchen, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, plus Joan Rivers A Piece of Work, and Toronto After Dark Festival

We’re at the hottest time of the year, the dog days of summer, and, with all the sticky, sultry weather, some people get boiled into limp submission… and others just boil over. This week, there was a Johnny Paycheck at Jet Blue Airlines, who’d had it. After being bonked on the head by a falling piece of luggage, he took to the airplane mike, and mouthed the equivalent of the old ’70’s country song “Take this job and shove it, I ain’t workin’ any more”. The flight attendant, Steven Slater, activated the airplane emergency slide, grabbed a couple cans of beer, and slid away. They’re already calling him a folk hero – someone who went with his feelings.

Well, there are some movies opening this weekend, with some very different takes on what to do with your life, including its anger and frustration. And one of them is about an actual folk hero.

Soul Kitchen

Dir: Fatih Akin

This movie is about Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), a German-Greek guy from Hamburg who owns a rundown diner in an old warehouse. One day, he’s with his rich girlfriend at a big family dinner, when something happens. A customer has complained that his soup is cold. No big deal. Except… the soup is cold gazpacho. So when the customer demands he heat it up in the microwave, the chef goes ballistic and comes out of te kitchen brandishing a cleaver.

Zinos witnesses all this and hires him on as a diner chef. The movie –aside from all the great food shots of chopping and stirring, is really about poor Zinos’s misadventures as he tries to get his restaurant and his life back in order. He has to deal with his icy girlfriend who has relocated to Shanghai; his brother, a thief and gambler on day parole who wants a job but doesn’t want to work; Socrates, an old bearded guy in a Greek fisherman’s cap who’s building a wooden boat behind the restaurant; and the various city zoning officials and real-estate speculators who seem to be teaming up to make his life miserable. And then there’s his bad back…

It’s unusual to see German movies with multi-ethnic casts and storylines – that’s an interesting change. And this cute, light German comedy has lots of scenes of diverse characters rolling with the punches, and eventually exploding. It’s an OK movie, (not a great one) with lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Actually, “Soul Kitchen” feels most like a TV sitcom pilot: Introducing all the madcap friends of the beleaguered main character who you can enjoy watching in his crazy musical restaurant, week after week…

The next movie, a biopic, is a lot more powerful.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct”

Dir: Jean-Francois Richet

Screenplay: Abdel Raouf Dafri (who wrote last year’s amazing prison gangster flick Un Prophete / A Prophet).

Jacques Mesrine, not so well known here, is a full-fledged folk hero in France, and maybe in Quebec. After serving his term with the French army in Algeria (France’s “Vietnam”) he has to move back in with his parents. His mother is demanding, his father is conciliatory and he hates them both. Jacques (or Jacky) wants pride, he wants glory.

He becomes a burglar and a thief of some renown. He can talk himself out of trouble, no prison can hold him. He’s quick with a gun, and a even quicker when there’s a chance of meeting a pretty girl. He rides sports cars, dresses in suits, and keeps a narrow military moustache. When his beautiful and fiery-tempered Spanish wife Sofia leaves him after a violent incident, he takes off for greener pastures. Soon, he’s in Montreal in the late 60’s, with a new Bonnie to his Clyde: Jeanne Schneider. And he shares Molson Ex stubbies and bottles of Canadian Club with his new best buddy, Jean-Paul Mercier from the FLQ. And when they end up in a horrific Quebec penitentiary, they vow: dehors ou mort — to get out or die trying.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is extremely rich, and epic in its scope. From the slick, period scenes of the Parisian demimonde of the 60’s, to the vast hyper-realism of Montreal – forests, bridges, ship yards, and apartment complexes — it all rings true.

The acting – especially the wiry, charismatic star Vincent Cassel, who’s made a career playing fighters and anti-heroes – is absolutely amazing. Gerard Depardieu as his gangster boss, Roy Dupuis as his Quebec friend; and the two female leads, Cecile de France, and Elena Anaya as two of his lovers — they’re all just perfect.

This is a great look at an extremely violent gangster who captured the imaginations of a generation. The movie also gives, for the first time, a stark look at the Canadian prison system in the 1970’s. Really shocking. I do recommend this movie, just be aware it’s quite violent, and it only covers the first part of Mesrine’s life. (“Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1” is coming soon.)

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed”

Dir: J Blakeson

Also opening this weekend, is a thriller I saw last year at the Toronto Film Festival.

Alice Creed is a young woman woman who is kidnapped, bound, gagged and tied to a bed by two masked men. They have a foolproof plan — to hide her in a high rise apartment, without her ever knowing who they are. Their plan is flawless… until it begins to fall apart.

Is she really a total stranger? How

can these two men trust each other? And how innocent a victim is the young woman?

As the three players in this intrigue shift alliance, blame, and loyalty, the power equation constantly changes.

Eventually it all breaks down to who gets the satchel of cash. But isn’t there some sort of unwritten rule for movies — that there can only be so many plot twists before it completely loses its point?

Spindly plot legs can’t support a story with too many heavy plot reversals, and this one has more than you can count. I liked the fact that it has a tiny cast — just the three of them — and I liked seeing Eddie Marsan (the loopy driving teacher from “Happy-Go-Lucky”: En! Ra! Ha!) in another unusual role. But the acting is better than the story. This is not terrible, but not a great one either.

And if these three movies aren’t enough, there’s a fourth one opening this weekend: “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg) a tell-all documentary about the famous stand-up comic and talk-show host.

This is a really funny movie, with lots of the comedian’s offensive one-liners. You also get to see her behind the scenes reconstructing her face and body for the audiences; and her personal struggles with her husband, daughter, agent and career. As someone who is not a fan of Joan Rivers, and had never actually seen her perform before, even on a talk show, the movie was surprisingly entertaining. I don’t like celebrity culture at all, but this is one good, funny documentary. I don’t know if Joan Rivers can ever be called a folk hero, but she’s a real piece of work.

Finally, for people who love horror, cult, action and science fiction movies, you’re in for a treat. It’s time again for the Toronto After Dark festival.

One full week of al the ninjas, zombies, aliens, robots and monsters you can stand. I haven’t seen any of the movies playing, but the titles say it all: “RoboGeisha”; “Alien vs Ninja”; “The Human Centipede”; and a new remake of the revenge classic “I Spit on your Grave”. Whoa! More scary B-movies than you can shake a stick at. And there’s a special appearance by none other than Eli Roth (who directed “Hostel” and acted in “Inglourious Basterds”) along with the cast of his latest production, “The Last Exorcism”. After Dark is also the kind of festival that attaches short films before the main feature, something that should be done more often.

Inside Out Festival, 2010. Movies Reviewed: Leo’s Room, The OWLs, Brotherhood, Oy Vey My Son is Gay, Joan Rivers, a Piece of Work, Undertow

Today I’m going to take a look at some of the movies playing at this year’s Inside Out festival, Toronto’s LGBT Film and Video Festival.

Inside Out is good and friendly film festival, with a wide, and extremely varied itinerary, ranging from Ryan Trecartin’s excellent art videos, to movies and documentaries including a very good selection of first-run foreign films, from France, Scandinavia, Israel, Latin America, Korea and, of course, the US. They deal with themes like aging, coming out, secrecy, discrimination, violence, tolerance, and of course, love and sex.

“Leo’s Room”, a gentle, low-key drama from Uruguay (Directed by Enrique Buchichio), is a coming-of -age story about a graduate student, Leo. Leo breaks up with his girlfriend to try to pursue something he’s not getting from her. Something one character says is all men think about, even though it only totals about ten minutes of their life each year: he was referring to the orgasm. Leo turns to the internet to secretly meet other men, whom he takes home to his small, dingy unpainted room. He makes his new friend sneak out past his couch potato pothead roommate, lest he suspect what was going on. But when he runs into a childhood crush in a supermarket, Caro, a sad but pretty woman, he finds a new friend. His life is still full of bleached-out faded colours and enclosed spaces. Caro ends up bedridden for an unknown reason, while Leo doesn’t want to leave his own room and face the world. Will they ever be able to voice their troubles and free themselves?

“Leo’s Room” (set in a rarely-seen, urban Uruguay), is a nice, if simple, look at how a man and a woman in a non-sexual relationship can help one another rid themselves of their secrets.

In the Danish dramatic thriller “Brotherhood” (Directed by Nicolo Donato) Lars starts going to clandestine meetings of a political group, partly to spite his liberal parents. He quickly rises up in the organization – it’s a neo-nazi, white supremacist party – and proves his mettle by attacking and beating up a Muslim refugee. In order to become a member for life of the sinister group, Lars is sent to a country house where Jimmy, a longtime Nazi skinhead, will instruct him in the ways of the order: Masculinity, worship of nature, extreme nationalism and so-called racial purity. All couched in the highly-charged homo-erotic atmosphere of male bonding. But the two men — Jimmy with giant swastikas and the number 88 (code for Heil Hitler) tattooed all over his body; and upper-class, rebellious Lars – take the step from homo-eroticism to homo sex. They become lovers. This complicates things. Even more so when Lars discovers that his new friends don’t just beat up immigrants, but also gay men. “Hey– that’s not fair…!”

This is a troubling, difficult movie; it’s hard to sympathize with members of a repugnant group who enthusiastically study Hitlerian theory and put it to work in thuggish attacks on innocent strangers, just to further their political causes… but I think it does manage to show this unlikely, doomed-from-the-start relationship as a compassionate one in the oddest of places. A very problematic movie to reconcile, morally, but an emotional one, none the less.

The OWLs (Directed by Cheryl Dunye of the Parliament Collective) is an extremely low budget (12 thousand dollars!) look at the lives of a group of aging women living together in a sprawling home in southwestern US. These OWLs – meaning Older Wiser Lesbians – were involved in an incident at a pool party where a young woman, Cricket, was killed. Their relationships are grouping and regrouping, they’re trying to sell the house and move on, and they’re terrified that someone might find the body. But their already tenuous equilibrium is upset with the arrival at their door of Skye, a much younger, muscular, masculine and aggressive woman. Skye dismisses their politics, their relationships, their beliefs, and inserts herself between couples. An even bigger shock is when the actors step out of their roles and discuss politics, identity, collaboration, sexuality, gender and the changing attitudes of younger lesbians.

At first I was put off by this meta-movie spoiling the storyline, but by the end their discussions are even more interesting than the plot, and somehow (not sure why) they provided both the content and the glue to hold this unusual collaborative movie together.

Oy Vey, My Son is Gay (Directed by Evgeny Afineefsky) is a comedy about the Hirsches, a middle-aged Jewish couple, (played by Lainie Kazan and Saul Rubinek) who are looking for a bride for their unmarried son, Nelson, a real estate agent. But, as the title says, he’s gay (they don’t know it) and is living with Angelo, an interior decorator. Shirley, the mother, is led to believe that he’s going out with a female porn star (played by Carmen Electra) and that Angelo is just there to tastefully decorate his apartment.

I was all set for a gay re-take of the old-school screwball comedy– you know, where there are lots of mistaken identities, witty dialogue, sharp-tongued innuendo, and all the characters running around trying to make sense of all the confusion. Well, it’s a little bit screwball, but mainly lame movie-of-the-week about parents struggling trying to understand and accept their gay son.

But, ¡ay, caramba! Mama mia! Was this ever a bad comedy. Painfully bad. Oy vey is right. The witty repartee, the mistaken identities, the disguises – they were all sparse indeed. No double entendres in this movie – you’re lucky to find a single entendre… There are some OK parts – especially the few times when Saul Rubinek and Lainie Kazan get into some energetic discussions, and stop walking through their lines – but they’re counterbalanced by awful, unfunny scenes. Like the father trying to get the porn star to date his son, to turn him straight again, but ends up making a glacially slow pass at her instead, and falls onto her, on a sofa, with his bum sticking up in the air. And then stays like that for two minutes.

I seriously think the movie needed a laugh track, to fill in the enormous gaps between punchlines; at least I’d know when it was supposed to be funny.

One movie that actually is funny is “Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work” (directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg), a tell-all documentary about the famous stand-up comic and talk-show host. When I say she’s famous, I mean I’d heard of her name, but never actually seen her perform as a stand-up comic, anywhere, even on TV. The documentary follows her career as a funny woman, when female comics were few and far between, and her catch line was: “My name is Joan Rivers – and I put out!”

Now, I’ve been told she’s been using the same one-liners for half a century, but my ears were virgin territory. So her jokes were funny, and still just offensive enough to surprise a laugh out of the listener. Equally shocking were candid scenes of her face without makeup: puffed, sewn, reconstructed and botoxed. I was like – Wow! Who’s that ventriloquist dummy, (and what happened to that smooth-cheeked blond woman who was there a minute ago)?

But you can see she’s still on the ball as a comedian by the way she deftly handles an angry heckler who objected to her Helen Keller jokes.

Finally, “Undertow”, (Directed by Javier Fuentes-Leon) a beautiful, intriguing movie about a macho Peruvian fisherman in love with a rich painter and tourist from Colombia.

Miguel, the fisherman, starts the movie by welcoming his new son, even as he “offers” a villager’s dead body to the harsh waters. The villagers believe if that’s not done, his soul will never rest. But macho Miguel is also having a love affair with Sebastien, a rich, gay Columbian painter (played by Manolo Cardona). They secretly meet in an abandoned building on the beach. But after a fight he disappears into the waves… and then comes back as a ghost. His dead body was never offered, so his corporeal self remains there but visible only to Miguel. He is elated – he can spend time with his lover without any threat to his machismo. But things soon go awry. His relationship is exposed. He must choose between his loves – his wife and son, his fellow villagers, and the memory of his male lover. Undertow is a great movie, beautifully shot.

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