July 26, 2012 Heroes vs Superheroes. Movies Reviewed: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Posted in Art, Batman, China, Comics, Cultural Mining, 艾未未, Hotdocs, Movies, Super-heroes, Uncategorized, US, 中国艺术 by CulturalMining.com on July 27, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM,  looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference..

People like to watch superheroes and supervillains, whether its on the big screen or on the news screen – media gobble up anything in the news that seems horrific, and when it can be tied to movies or TV – like the recent shooting disaster in Colorado, it’s media gold. But what about a real hero? Those are harder to find. Do we give as much attention to heroes as villains, and what about real heroes vs comic book superheroes?

This week I’m talking about two action movies about superheroes trying to save Manhattan from being blown up, and a documentary about a real guy, an artist, who’s trying to stop China from imploding.

The Avengers

Dir: Joss Whedon

OK, NASA is building a machine called the tesseract that is powered by this bluish glowing cube about yea big. But a skinny goth with a glowing, golden sceptre — the Norse god Loki — puts the scientists under mind-control and zooms off somewhere to open a hole in the universe that would let an army of slimy metallic evil creatures from outer space take over the world.

So a group of people with special powers are brought together by a secret US government agency — SHIELD — to fight supervillain Loki. There’s Thor, the God of Thunder with a heavy hammer, Bruce Banner, the scientist who might turn into the Hulk at any moment, Ironman, a rich dude who’s also an inventor; Captain America, an earnest military guy from the 1940s who wears an ice-ballet stars and stripes leotard and carries a super-strong shield; and the black widow Natasha, a former Soviet spy who now fights bad guys everywhere. They all get loaded onto this mammoth airborne battleship the size of a small city. And, for some reason, Loki’s locked up into a glass cage on board.

Since they’re superheroes, they get into a bunch of fights: Thor vs Ironman, Hulk vs Thor, etc etc… until they finally get it together to fight the real baddies. But of course Loki and his hypnotized minions are going to stop them. Will the good guys beat the bad guys? Or will the earth crumble, taken over by Loki’s alien allies? Uh… guess.

This is a pretty goofy movie but it’s directed by Joss Whedon so you know it’s going to be watchable with lots of collapsing buildings falling apart just behind someone running full speed toward the camera. Cool. And the space aliens — who look like massive flying trilobite armadillos with sharp teeth – get in some amazing urban disaster scenes, smashing through glass office towers. The big stars – Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansen, Samuel Jackson, and Tom Hiddleston as Loki — all seem to be having a good time.

And the bits of sardonic humour thrown in here and there, helps it a lot. Not great fun, but at least good fun once all the fighting starts.

The Dark Knight Rises

Dir: Christopher Nolan

As in The Avengers, a super-villain, this one called Bain, — a big guy with a mask over his mouth — descends on Manhattan, aka Gotham City, because he wants to take over, seize Wayne Enterprises’ secret energy-generating device (with WMD potential), and then kill everybody. Why? Doesn’t really matter. Because he’s a bad guy, I guess.

But billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is in retirement, his company running dry, and the forlorn orphans he used to help are left abandoned. Meanwhile, in a French Revolution-style takeover, they storm the Bastille letting the world’s worst criminals out of jail, a Robespierre-type judge sentences everyone to death or exile, and the NYPD are all locked up in a collapsed underground tunnel. Who will save everyone? It takes the combined efforts of a tough, young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a slinky cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) to finally get Batman out of his funk to fight the bad guy. But Bain locks him up in a pit in central Asia with no way out. Oh no!

I dunno about this one. Two hours and forty minutes later we get to see the ending, find out who will triumph and what is the villain’s secret. To be honest, this is a pretty stupid movie. The effects are good enough, but never seem to be justified – they’re evoked seemingly at random. Great actors — like Tom Hardy as Bain and Christian Bale as Batman – spend the movie masked, with distorted voices. Why bother? They could have meat puppets doing the same thing. What a waste. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway are a bit better, as their characters actually get to develop, but in general, this movie was a humourless drudge. Good enough to watch, but not worth dying for (this is not meant to downplay the terrible shooting at the premier in Colorado).

Incidentally, the scariest part for me was when someone walked past my aisle seat, with a loud, sudden pattapattapatta clacking sound. Everyone jumped and stared and a security guard came running into the theatre to investigate, but it turned out to be just some guy spilling reese’s pieces all over the steps.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Dir: Alison Klayman

But what about a real hero?

Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is a Chinese artist and photographer who studied in NY in the 80s and 90s and is now an international art celeb. He helped design the Beijing Olympic stadium and his photography – he’s famous for giving the finger to all the world’s great buildings — and installations are widely known. And he has impeccable credentials: his dad was Ai Qing (艾青), the poet who was jailed by the Nationalists, and who joined the Communist Party and participated in Mao Zedong’s famous Talks on Art and Culture at Yen’an. That’s major historical creds in postwar China.

But Ai Weiwei doesn’t like everything going on in China these days. So when a poorly designed school building collapses in Sichuan, killing hundreds of kids, his art turns political – after painstaking research he creates a memorial listing all the names of the dead. But this is taken as a possible insult to the the authorities. He is arrested and beaten up by a violent cop known only by his badge number. So begins his odyssey, fighting the powers that be, and trying to get justice using his art, his writing, the media, lawsuits, fighting in court, and filming everything, everywhere he goes.

He is one of the signers of Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08, and generally makes a name for himself, not just as an installation and photographic artist, but as a leading dissident — a sort of a Chinese Michael Moore, but one with deep artistic and cultural capabilities.

This documentary (that opened this year’s Hotdocs) is very important as an historical record. While it may be a case of the filmmaker being in the right place at the right time – It’s mainly shot with a handheld camera allowed to trace and document his life: in the galleries, his encounters with the police, his family life, including time with his son (from an unseen mother, not his wife).

He comes across as a bit unlikeable – not a smiling panda, but an irascible, sometimes obnoxious stubborn man. But one who sticks to his principles (freedom of speech, freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, etc). AI Weiwei has had his studio destroyed by the government, he’s been thrown in a secret prison — allegedly for tax reasons – and fined millions of dollars, but he hasn’t stopped fighting. Really interesting and worth seeing if you’re interested in China, politics, or art.

The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises are playing now, check your local listings; and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens today in Toronto.

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

Cabins in the Woods. Movies Reviewed: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, The Hunter, The Cabin in the Woods

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m back again, and I’m reviewing three good movies opening this weekend, that are all about the hunters and the hunted in their cabins in the woods. There’s a documentary about a Siberian trapper in the Taiga; a drama about a hunter looking for a tiger; and a horror/ comedy about five college students trapped in a cabin by a hunter zombie.

Happy People. A Year in the Taiga

Dir: Werner Herzog, Dimitry Vasyukov

Genady is an enigmatic, bearded trapper and hunter who lives in Bakhtia, Siberia, in a town reachable only by boat (or helicopter). He sets handmade wooden sable traps over an area so enormous it would take a day and a half to cross by skidoo. He builds a series of little wooden huts across his trapping territory and the camera is there to show it. This is the Taiga, the boreal forest south of the Tundra that looks a lot like most of northern Canada. (Actually, Siberia is bigger than all of Canada.)

The directors follow Genady and other fur trappers for a year, showing the cycle of the seasons, the holidays, the intimate relationship between a hunter and his dogs, and the happy time when they’re welcomed back home for the new year.

You watch him carve skis from a living tree, using just a hatchet and wooden wedges, and some moose fur. He does the same thing people there have been doing there for centuries.

Everything is just how it always was… except maybe an occasional chainsaw, and a few skidoos whizzing across the crusty snow, past some wolves or a stumbling moose.

This is a low-key, educational documentary that gives a realistic and fascinating look at trappers in Siberia, filled with rot-gut vodka, fluffy white animals, frozen fish, and grizzled neighbours wearing black toques or flowery headscarves. Some of the scenes of river vistas, huge clouds and vast frozen tracts are truly beautiful. It’s not quite as funny or shocking as some of Herzog’s other documentaries, but it’s still good, and his deadpan narration is delightful, as always. My one complaint is, whenever anyone starts speaking Russian, instead of subtitles we get English voiceovers. (This is the theatrical version of a four hour German TV series.)

The Hunter

Dir: Daniel Nettheim

Willem Dafoe plays Martin, a cold, mercenary shootist, hired by a military bio- medical conglomerate to track down and kill the Tasmanian tiger, a rare animal in a remote island state in Australia. He is an anal, precision-obsessed anti-social pro, who is friendless — and likes it that way. He’s a loner. But when he arrives, he finds the rustic, wooden house he’s supposed to stay at is filthy, dysfunctional, and falling apart… and occupied by a family.

The father is missing, the mother (Frances O’Connor) is in a perpetual prescription-drug-induced stupor, and the kids run wild, climbing naked into the bathtub with him as he tries to get clean. He brushes them all off, as well as his local guide, Jack (Sam Neill) – he just wants to catch the Tazzie tiger.

But, gradually he adjusts to family life. He helps the mom detox, and starts to spend time with the kids. And, it turns out that the son, a tiny tyke, had accompanied his missing father on a similar tiger hunt. So he has first-hand experience and his drawings could help Martin in his search. But, as his heart warms up, his conscience begins to bother him: should he be killing the last member of a species? And can he survive the barren life in the bush, the xenophobic, redneck townies, the crusading “greenies” (enviro-activists), and the sinister corporation itself?

This is a good, tense drama – not an action movie, despite the way it’s being advertised – that shows Martin stalking the Tiger and resisting the deadly attacks from his rivals. This has good acting, spectacular and unusual scenery, a moving story, and an interesting plot.

Cabin in the Woods

Dir: Drew Goddard

Five college students head off for a fun weekend at a cottage in the woods, where they plan to hang out, maybe have sex, get drunk, and take drugs. It looks like it’ll be fun, despite the warnings of a crusty, tobacco-chewing local who predicts their demise. The five of them — Jules (Anna Hutchison), the newly-blonde party girl, Curt (Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) the “dumb” jock, Dana (Kristen Connolly) the shy, good girl, and Holden (Jesse Williams) the nice-guy nerd — just want to have a good time, and enjoy a game of truth or dare.

Only Marty (Fran “Dollhouse” Kranz) the stoner, suspects something is up:  why are the very smart students behaving like celebutantes and french-kissing wolf heads? It doesn’t make sense. And when the game leads them down to the basement, why do they accidentally summon redneck killer zombies from the grave by reading a spell they find in an old diary? Whatever the reason is, they find themselves fighting for their lives against an endless series of scary, trap-and-chain wielding hunter zombis. Just what you’d expect from a horror movie.

Except… this isn’t a conventional slasher story. It’s a meta-meta-meta movie, more layers than you can shake a stick at. You see, they don’t realize it, but it’s all been a set-up by technicians in a laboratory somewhere who have made their own hunger games inside and around the cottage, complete with little cameras hidden everywhere. It’s total manipulation and mind control! To get them to act sexier, they spray pheremones into the building. And when they try to escape, they discover they’re trapped in what may be something like a movie set (which eventually morphs into an extended version of Vincenzo Natali’s “Cube”…) Is there any way to escape?

The movie switches back and forth between the boring, white-jacketed, middle-aged pocket-protector guys in the lab causing all the trouble (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, and the perennial lab-geek Amy Acker, from Whedon’s Angel and Dollhouse), and the teens in the cabin running for their lives.

It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I just loved this comedy-horror movie by first-time director Goddard who previously wrote Cloverfield; and written by Joss Whedon, the man whose series Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired more PhD theses than Jane Austin. The best way to understand it is to compare it to a one season (BTVS) story arc, building from an innocuous start, through a twisted plot, and with a grand finale where everyone runs amok. Of course, the lines are hilarious, and the violence is scary, extreme and bloody.

Cabin in the Woods, and The Hunter open today in Toronto, Check your local listings; Happy People: a Year in the Taiga, opens at the TIFF Bell Light Box. The Images festival is on now. Also opening is Gus Madden’s long-awaited Keyhole; the wonderful, heart-wrenching drama, The Deep Blue Sea, (which I’ll talk about next week); and the slapstick meat puppets of The Three Stooges. And tickets for HotDocs, Toronto’s documentary festival, are now on sale.

And if you like what you hear, be sure to support CIUT in its membership drive, on now!

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

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