July 12, 2012. Indi-rama. Films Reviewed: Neil Young Journeys, Union Square, Fat Kid Rules the World, V/H/S

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.

Spiderman, the Dark Knight, Avengers: there’s no shortage of superheroes right now – accompanied by super budgets and mega advertising campaigns. With the happy meal toys and non-stop TV ads, they’re getting way more publicity and reviews than they need. But what about the local heroes, the ones who make great films on a shoestring and whose movies end up showing on a single screen in one theatre? Don’t they deserve to be talked about, too? So this week I’m only reviewing indie productions that deserve to be seen – no big budgets or big studios. I’m talking about two dramas: one about a boy whose life might be saved by punk rock; another about a woman whose life might be ruined by a surprise visit; a concert film about a musician who goes back to his Toronto roots; and a horror movie made from handmade video tapes.

Neil Young Journeys

Dir: Jonathan Demme

I have to admit, one of my earliest memories of Neil Young was being woken up as a kid on a Saturday morning by someone playing Heart of Gold at full blast. I declared war on him for ruining my sleep. I despised his repetitive, simplistic lyrics, his plodding music, his high-pitched whiny voice. Hated him. Then, years later, something shifted in my brain… and I learned to love Neil Young.

If you’ve somehow never heard of the legendary Canadian you might go through the same process in viewing this movie. Neil Young’s Journey is a solo concert film of Neil Young at Massey Hall in downtown Toronto. He accompanies himself on guitar, piano, even an amazing rendition of After the Gold Rush on a pipe organ. The film alternates the music with a travelogue of a visit to his childhood home in Omemee, Ontario and the long drive into Toronto with his brother. The slow trip matches the relaxed pace of the film. Occasionally, Jonathan Demme gets carried away — with things like a baffling, five-minute extreme close-up of Neil Young’s grizzled lower lip and chin — but, on the whole, it’s a beautiful skillful, committed, and often moving record of a concert back in Toronto. He plays a selection of his hits from the 70’s and 80’s — like Ohio, Cinnamon Girl, and Out of the Blue – and newer songs from a recent album Le Noise. While visually it’s very plain, musically it’s sophisticated and satisfying. Just close your eyes, relax and enjoy it.

Union Square

Dir: Nancy Savoca

Jen (Tammy Blanchard), is a neat, pretty, quiet, and tidy anal professional, originally from Maine, living with he boyfriend in downtown Manhattan. She doesn’t drink or smoke, is a vegetarian, a yoga enthusiast, and runs a health food company out of her apartment. Her boyfriend and fiancé, Bill (Mike Doyle), is a generic-looking Stanford grad and runner who calls Jen “twig”. They’re happy. There lives are absolutely perfect.

But into this rarefied existence plops Lucy (Mira Sorvino), a loud-mouthed, gaudily dressed woman with a strong accent, who seems to know Jen for some reason. But it’s soon revealed that she’s her sister. She talks at twice Jen’s volume, interrupts her, laughs, shrieks, cries, and breaks hundred of house rules (no shoes, no pets, no cigarettes, no meat) even in her first few minutes in the apartment off Union Square. She’s a working-class, Italian-American from the Bronx! And that means Jen is, too. And guess who’s coming to dinner — Rob’s parents… even as Lucy camps out with her shopping bags on the couch. She has a magician’s bag of tricks, pulling out a depressed old dog named Murray, and a Miami Sound Machine ring tone. And as Lucy spreads herself out, Jen becomes increasingly tense.

Will Jen’s house of cards collapse as Bill discovers her real origins? Can she still “pass” as a suburban educated New England WASP? And will Lucy get a chance to tell Jen the news she brings?

Union Square (which Savoca shot in a friend’s apartment, with a naturalistic hand-held camera) functions like a tight, one-act-play, with revelations, gradual changes in character, and a final cathartic scene about what’s behind the two sisters’ fighting. Mira Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard are terrific as the sisters. Union Square is a short (80 minutes), sweet, tender — and really funny — family drama.

Fat Kid Rules the World

Dir: Mathew Lillard

Troy (Jacob Wysocki) is a depressed, self-loathing, overweight teenager who lives with his rigid disciplinarian single father, an ex-marine, and his obnoxious jock younger brother. He has a crush on a girl who doesn’t know he exists, was abandoned by his best friend when his mom died, and whose only contact is with anonymous game-players he meets online.

So he jumps in front of a bus to end it all… but just before it hits him, out of nowhere comes a homeless, drug-addicted punk drop-out (Matt O’Leary) who saves his life – and then asks for a few bucks for food! Gradually they get to know one another and he tells Troy they can form a punk band together: Marcus on the guitar, Troy on the drums, in exchange for a bed to sleep in or at least some food. Troy finds new status with the irresponsible but popular musician

Will the painfully shy Troy gain the self-confidence he needs to escape his depression? Will he bend his father’s hard heart? And will Marcus ever realizes he has to overcome his pharma-addictions if he ever wants a normal life?

Based on the teen novel, this is a great coming-of-age story by first time director Matthew Lillard (the iconic Generation X actor, who became a symbol of underground youth culture in movies like Scream, Hackers and as Shaggy in Scooby-Doo.) O’Leary and Wysocki have a great raport and dynamic and are great as the two main characters. They really carry the movie through.

V/H/S/

This played at the recent summer series of Toronto After Dark. It’s found-footage horror at its best.

When a bunch of petty hoods are told to break into a home and steal a VHS tape they discover a cache of extremely creepy, violent and occasionally funny homemade snuff films. The movie consists of the burglers replaying those scary videotapes on an old TV set. There’s a travelogue shot in the southwest with an unknown visitor shooting more film at night; a captured skype conversation between two lovers with unusual things appearing in the background; a failed attempt at amateur porn by some guys who pick up two drunk women in a bar (but where the sexual predators might become the prey); a hallowe’en party gone awry; and a strange drive up to a remote cabin in the woods. They’re all different styles, but all really scary, and occasionally gory in the extreme – for true horror lovers. The short films were all complete stories but seemed sort of like six directors’ demos for later linger movies. But this compilation is definitely worth seeing on a scary rainy night – can I say it again? Extremely scary.

Neil Young’s Journey, Union Square, and Fat Kid Rules the World all open this weekend in Toronto, check your local listings, and I hope V/H/S/ will also show up a theatre someday soon. Also worth seeing is the New Zealand indigenous family drama, BOY – it opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this weekend. And the Shinsedai film fest, chock-full of the best of Japanese pop culture is on now.

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

16 September, 2011. Women Directors at TIFF. Films Reviewed: Union Square, Elles, UFO in Her Eyes, Hysteria, PLUS Road Movie

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, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

TIFF is a strange and wonderful place. Where else can you go from watching a Russian movie (where all the characters speak German, but most of the actors just move their lips, open and closed, since they don’t speak either language)… to a quintessentially Winnipeg party celebrating another movie, where I ended up sitting at a table between stars Udo Kier and Louis Negin, tearing soft-core pictures out of old National Geographic magazines and new Taschen art books to glue onto paper in a collage. (It was a collage party – why not?)

Well TIFF may be winding down, but there are at least three more days left to see a huge amount of movies, and there are still tickets or rush seats available for most of them. Go to tiff.net for more information. So with no further ado, lets get to the reviews. This week I’m talking about four movies directed by and starring women in lead roles.

Union Square
Dir: Nancy Savoca

Jen (Tammy Blanchard), is a neat, pretty, quiet, and tidy
professional, originally from Vermont, living with he boyfriend in downtown Manhattan. She doesn’t drink or smoke, is a vegetarian, a yoga enthusiast, and runs a health food company out of her apartment. Her boyfriend and fiancé, Bill (Mike Doyle), is a generic-looking handsome Stanford grad, who keeps meticulous notes on his marathon training stats, and calls Jen “twig”. They’re happy.

But into this rarefied existence drops Lucy (Mira Sorvino), a loud-mouthed, gaudily dressed women who seems to know Jen for some reason. It’s soon revealed that she’s her sister. She talks at twice Jen’s volume, interrupts her, laughs, shrieks, cries, and breaks hundred of house rules (no shoes, no pets, no cigarettes, no meat) even in her first few minutes in the apartment off Union Square. She’s a working-class, Italian-American from the Bronx! And Rob’s parents are coming the next day for Thanksgiving dinner, even as Lucy camps out on a pile of things on the couch.

Will Jen’s potential marriage crumble as Bill discovers her real origins? Can she still “pass” as a suburban educated WASP? And will Lucy get a chance to explain some important family issues to Jen?

Union Square works like a one-act-play, with revelations, gradual changes in character, and a final concluding scene to explain some of what’s behind the two sisters’ fighting. And it makes for an enjoyable picture.

Elles
Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska

Anne (Juliette Binoche), is a reporter for Elle magazine in Paris. She’s writing a story on two separate, pretty college students she found Charlotte and Alicja (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) who secretly work as well-paid prostitutes. Charlotte still lived with her parents, and Alicja was from Poland, studying in Paris but without a place to stay. As they describe their sexual experiences to her, the movie drifts in and out of their sexual experiences with their clients, or at least how Anne imagines them.

Anne begins with questions about how they were forced into this life, what miserable experiences they have, and whether it make them hate sex. But their answers surprise her. Charlotte says there’s a horrible smell that’s really hard to get rid of. Anne nods supportively – all that sex with strangers… No, says Charlotte, its the smell of the housing projects she used to live in with her parents, where she worked as a fast food cashier. Now? Life was wonderful with her new comfortable lifestyle, shoes, clothes, and food. Now she has johns teach her to make Coq au vin with Reisling, and, after sex, sit on her bed playing the guitar.

Anne begins to have sexual fantasies about their lives, even as she questions her own privileged, but meaningless and alienating consumer lifestyle, and how her husband and two sons all ignore her. Elles is pleasant, pretty and sexually explicit — if lightweight — and one that offers a pro-sex, feminist view of the trade thats different from most movies.

UFO in her Eyes
Dir: Guo Xiaolu

Guan Yu (Ke Shi) is a peasant who lives in rural southern China amid the small tree-covered mountains.
She has a roll in the hay with the town schoolteacher. Afterwards, she picks up a piece of crystal and looks at the sky where she’s sure she sees some flying saucers coming to earth. Soon, word has spread, and the ambitious communist party chief for the village (Mandy Zhang) has decided to make the town rich by forcing it to be modern, complete with an ugly town sculpture, a UFO amusement park, a 5-star hotel, and a golf course. The schoolteacher begins to teach his 8-year-old students to read Henry Miller. The town Chief declares Guan Yu a model peasant, and the married school teacher a model intellectual. The schoolteacher should divorce his wife and marry Guanyu to make a perfect couple for the town, and embrace Americanism – whether they want it or not. But what about all the people in the town – the poor, the migrant bicycle repairman, the farmers whose land is requisitioned to build a golf course, and the local butcher whose pig sty is declared unsanitary? As the haves are marching toward modernity richness, the disenfranchised are banding together to protest it. Which side will triumph? Will Guan Yu go with change? Or will she find her true love, the quiet, migrant bicycle repairman? And what about the UFO – will she ever see them again?

UFO in her Eyes, based on the director’s bestselling novel, is a cute satire of the new capitalism in rural China.

Wuthering Heights
Dir: Andrea Arnold
You probably know the story: Heathcliff, an orphan brought home from a port to a rural village in 19th century England, is baptized, and raised sort of as a member of the god-fearing family. He and his adopted sister, Cate, become very close, rolling around in the heather and mud of the moors. But they’re threatened by Hindley who thinks his dad likes Heathcliff more. When Cate decides to marry a rich man, Heathcliff flees the farm, and doesn’t come back for many years. Will they get back together and embrace their love, or will it consume ad destroy them both?

OK. The thing is, this version is done by the great director Andrea Arnold, who made Fish Tank last year – that’s why I wanted to see this. She makes some changes. People speak naturally, the camera is handheld, and jiggles around, lighting seems natural – sunlight or candlelight or complete darkness – interspersed with beautiful contemporary-looking costumes, and tons of shots of birds animals and plants. Most of the actors are non-actors, Hindley’s a racist skinhead and Heathcliff is black!

It doesn’t always work, and gets a bit tedious in the second half, but has some very beautiful scenes, like Cate blowing a tiny feather or licking the wounds on Heathcliff’s back. It’s an interesting, naturalistic take on what’s usually just a costumed melodrama.

Hysteria
Dir: Tanya Wexler

It’s Victorian London, and earnest and handsome young Dr Granville (Hugh Dancy) is trying without luck to help people stay clean and healthy while remaining loyal to the ideals of Lister, and modern medicine. He is hired by a psychiatrist, Dr Dalyrimple, who gives special treatments to rich, society women suffering from the blanket ailment “hysteria”. Women who were designated frigid, or nymphomaniacal, or moody, or argumentative – well, they’re all “hysterical”, so the problem must be in their uterus (and hysterectomies were sometimes considered a “cure”). Treatment consists of manual genital massages behind discretely mounted miniature red velvet curtains.

He’s engages to marry the Dalyrimple’s conservative daughter Emily; she’s a pianist and an phrenologist: Oh, Dr Granville, your thrombus is rigid and jutting! she says after feeling the bumps on his head. But he always seems to be in arguments with the fiery Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall) a suffragette and social worker who runs a settlement house in the impoverished East End. And poor Granville might lose his job because of the repetitive stress injury in his right hand. But, together with his gay best friend and steampunk inventor (Rupert Everett) he just might have the solution to eveyone’s problems– a new machine that may permanently cure hysteria.

I was expecting nothing from a movie about the invention of the vibrator, but it was a real treat – a romance, a comedy, an historical drama, an old-fashioned Hollywood-style movie, along with a taboo twist. Try to see it this weekend – it’s a great movie!

Union Square, UFO in her Eyes, Wuthering Heights and Hysteria are all playing now at TIFF – check listings at tiff.net . And also check out Road Movie, a two sided, three-screen video installation at the O’Borne Gallery by Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatki that shows pixilated footage tracing the roads in the occupied West Bank (from the view of the Israeli settlers on one side and Palestinians on the other) with their words superimposed in short phrases over the footage.

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

%d bloggers like this: