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

On Coming of Age Movies. Films Reviewed: An Education, Fish Tank

Coming of age themes have been around for a long time, but they’re still popular. You probably already know all about this, but it’s the old story of a young man faced with a dilemma or an unrequited love, or an opponent or a hard to reach goal… that he eventually overcomes – or not – but ends up somehow learning from it, and growing up a bit. Think of movies ranging from Breaking Away and Old Yeller, to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Lean on Me, and The Outsiders, to more recent ones like L.I.E. and Igby Goes Down, or even Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which just opened.

These kind of movies are fun to watch because you get to experience the new discoveries, fresh views, amd the adventures that the hero is going through for the first time; as opposed to a "slice of life" movie where everything is the same, not new.

Well, coming of age stories have been talked about a lot over the past year, mainly because of the death of two of the most famous proponents of that theme – I mean, of course, the late JD Salinger who wrote Catcher in the Rye, and the director and writer John Hughes, known for his teen comedies in the 1980’s.

Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield is a rebellious, troubled teenager who runs away from a boarding school, to get away from all the phoniness, cliquishness, and superficiality he saw there. Some people were so moved by this novel that they said it changed their life. (I’m not one of those people, but I did like the novel when I first read it.) There’s even a rumour of a movie version, now that the reclusive writer — who always resisted that — is dead.

Another kind of coming-of-age story was the hallmark of the much-loved "icon of the ’80’s" John Hughes. There’s been a great outpouring of grief over the end of his innocent, young rebels in movies like 16 Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club.

Well, It’s always sad when people die young, but John Hughes was an awful director with a non-stop stream of terrible, conservative, faux-rebel dreck, who co-opted fake punk/ new wave fashions to make his nasty, small-town characters seem more hip.

He was unsympathetic to the nerdy characters and the outcasts, and instead seemed to glorify bullying, and promote conformity. "Losers" were not doing well, but it was their own
fault. Ferris Bueller, the rich, successful and popular teenager (from Hughes’s best movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) decides one day — brimming with smirking entitlement — to do whatever he wants… because he can. Ferris Bueller was a Reagan-ish personification of US exceptionalism.

Expensive cars were what was really important. Women were treated to a backslide to the 1950’s, Happy Days-style, as if the feminist movement had never happened.

His movies later devolved even more with the Home Alone series, where a brat gets to run rampant out of greed and self-centredness, as long as he is juxtaposed against even more "evil" villains — meaning losers who "deserve" to lose.

In the world of coming of age movies, I think it’s fair to call John Hughes the Anti-Salinger.

But opposite though those archetypes may be, Holden Caulfield and Ferris Bueller do share one trait – they’re both teenaged boys, not girls. You see, coming of age stories about young women are a much rarer breed.

Let’s look at two current, female, coming-of-age movies.

An Education, by Danish Director Lone Scherfig, tells the story of Jenny, an English school girl in the early sixties whose father wants her to get into Oxford. That’s her only goal. She’s 16, smart, pretty, and middle class, but longs for the great things in life. She meets a much older man, David. He’s a bit sleazy, a bit louche, but to Jenny he’s glamorous and important with jaded friends who take her on cultural adventures away from her suburban town. He’s going to take her away, to take her to Paris. Eventually reality sets in and she’s forced to deal with unanticipated problems and twists.

This is an enjoyable movie, with a good story, and great acting, especially Carey Mulligan as Jenny, and it’s been nominated for an Academy award for best picture.

The only problem is that it’s a little too soft and fluffy and nice, and even its touches of bitter reality seem tinged with more nostalgia than grit. I kept expecting Hugh Grant to pop his head into a scene and say “Ooh sorry, I must be in the wrong picture…” It just has that feel to it. But it’s a good movie anyway.

Another British coming of age picture is Fish Tank, Directed by Andrea Arnold, which opens today.

Mia is a 15 year old street-smart and tough-as-nails high school drop-out who lives with her mother and little sister in a high rise council flat. She has an unspoken sense of justice: punish the bad, help the needy, free the enslaved. Her hobbies seem to be drinking, smoking, shouting, fighting, stealing little things, pilfering through wallets, and practicing her hiphop dancing. (She wants to become a dancer) She can find her way, unseen, through vacant lots and empty apartments, but she’s still strangely naïve about how people get along in the real world.

Her mother’s handsome Irish boyfriend Connor acts like a young father to her and her little sister – but then she sees him half dressed one day. The familial structure begins to crumble when all of their roles silently adjust themselves.

Early in the movie Fish Tank, Connor drives his new family out to a hidden piece of land. Mia follows him into the water while her mother stands disapprovingly on the shore. He reaches into the pond and pulls out a trusting fish with his bare hands, just like that. Then he pierces it with a skewer. The movie’s full of unforgettable scenes that carry the story along. (In fact all the scenes are unforgettable)

This is a great movie, with a terrific cast, especially the staggeringly good Katie Jarvis, as Mia, in her first acting role, and Michael Fassbender, (who played IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in the movie Hunger) as Connor. The movie itself looks almost improvised though it clearly follows a story – and a heart pounding, tense, and engrossing story it is. Beautifully shot, this movie just blew me away.

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Another Movie About the Iraq War That’s Not About Iraq: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker, a US wartime drama directed by Catherine Bigelow has garnered an impressive number of Oscar nominations. I saw it last summer and thought it was a good drama, and then thought nothing more about it. So it’s a bit of a shock that it’s suddenly back in the public eye. Let me give you a bit of background. The Director has a mixed record. She was riding high for a while with her tense psychological thriller Blue Steel (1989), about a rookie cop (Jamie Lee Curtis) who freezes up at an armed robbery, and enters into a sort of a sexual battle with the killer. But Bigelow’s career crashed to a halt with the meandering and pointlessly long science fiction drama Strange Days. Not coincidentally, it was written by her then husband, James Cameron. Yeah, him.

So here she is, back again, directing a tense drama.

The Hurt Locker is about Sergeant James, a new replacement in a US squadron that meticulously defuses bombs set by insurgents in Iraq. To the horror and dismay of his fellow soldiers, James behaves like a sort of a superhero, shrugging off the padded suits and headgear, brazenly walking right into the middle of things, picking up bombs and pulling them apart – seemingly unaware, or unwilling to admit that he could get his head blown off in a second. When you gotta go, you gotta go, is his attitude.

He gets along better with an Iraqi kid who plays with a soccer ball near the bass camp – he calls him Beckham – than with his teammates. The danger and violence wear him down, but his true fear comes when he sheds his uniform and is forced to deal with the mundane reality of his life at home, back in America.

The Hurt Locker is one of a long stream of American movies about the war in Iraq – Jarhead (2005), Redacted (2007), Stop-Loss (2008), and the very good documentary Gunner Palace (2004)– but they all have the same problem: they all take the point of view of US soldiers who, seemingly through no fault of their own, find themselves in a strange country engaged in a senseless war filled with violence, death, and murder. Very much like US movies about the war in Vietnam. But you almost never see a scene in any of these movies, including The Hurt Locker, that is told through the eyes of the Iraqis.

Now American movies, or movies from any country for that matter, are going to take the viewpoint of people the viewer can identify with, and it’s always easier to identify with the people who look or sound like you.

But it’s almost disingenuous to portray the US military in general as finding itself there in Iraq — just coincidentally —  as opposed to being part of the same army that invaded it on false pretenses.

The one exception to this is documentary maker Nick Broomfield’s great, unreleased feature drama Battle for Haditha, made in 2008, in which he shifts back and forth between Iraqi civilians, insurgents, US soldiers on the ground, and officers far away at computer consoles pressing buttons and giving orders. It’s one of the few Iraq war movies that lets the audience see the war the way some Iraqi civilians see it, from inside their own homes.

The Hurt Locker is a good, tense, drama, with great acting – especially unknown Jeremy Renner in the main role. It has some interesting details – the soldiers spend their off hours playing the video game Call of Duty, shooting up the enemy for fun. But it also reduces an actual shootout – like one stalemate in the desert where they shoot at snipers poking up their heads in different windows of an abandoned house on a hill – to what seems like nothing more than a game of whak-a-mole.

– Daniel Garber, February 5, 2010

Three Cities: reviews of My Winnipeg, When in Rome, A Prophet

Posted in Academy Awards, Best Picture, Canada, documentary, France, Guggenheim, Uncategorized by on February 13, 2010

My Winnipeg, directed by the great Guy Maddin, playing this weekend at Cinematheque Ontario (check local listings), is a fantastical B&W pseudo-documentary about that city, told in a mixture of forms, ranging from low-budget NFB short to government mind control messages, to classic melodrama. The movie, narrated by the filmmaker, turns the grey, windswept city, with its empty hockey rink and suburban tracts, into eerie, psychologically-perverse memories of Maddin’s childhood, and the collective unconscious memory of the city itself. Images drift from scenes on a train, to frozen horses, suburban rec-rooms and long gone Eaton’s department stores, to an iced river, with a junction of streams morphing into a woman’s pubic hair. This is one of his best movies, as good as Tales from the Gimli Hospital.

A completely different ode to a city is When in Rome, a romantic comedy, directed by Mark Steven Johnson. It’s a simple movie about Beth, played by Kristen Bell, a woman who is pursued by a series of love-sick men under a spell. On a visit to her sister’s wedding in Rome, Beth ran out of a church just as Italian Morris Dancers were taking over the dance floor, and stole some coins out of the Trevi fountain – hence the love spell. No it doesn’t actually make sense.

Kristen Bell – whom you may remember from the TV series Veronica Mars and Heroes has a good sense of comic timing. And guest cameos from comic actors like Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and Will Arnett (Arrested Development), are sorta funny for a few seconds. But this can’t rescue a really bad movie. While there are a few good gags, where Kristen Bell is trapped in embarrassing situations, most of the forced laughs come from cheap pratfalls and slapstick headbumps.

The funniest part of the movie is that Bell’s character is supposed to be an art curator at the Guggenheim, but for some reason her job is portayed like a combination wedding planner and security guard.

Look for something better than that for Valentines Day.

A Prophet, directed by Jacques Audiard, is one of the nominees for best foreign language film. I saw this movie last fall at the Toronto European Film Festival. If you’ve never been there, that’s a great annual festival, sponsored by European embassies and consuls to show Torontonians, without charge, great movies from across the European Union.

Actually — and this is a true story – I showed up early for a screening and wanted to makes sure I was in the right line. So I asked the volunteer handing out tickets, “Is this for a Prophet?”

“Mais Non, Monsieur, there is no charge for tickets.”

“No, I mean is this movie “a Prophet”

“No! No profit! If you wish to make a donation, please do so, but the festival
is sponsored by the Ambassadeur.”

“Is the name of the movie that I am going to see “Un Prophete”! (etc.)

Who’s on first…

The movie itself is great. It’s a prison movie, a gangster movie, and a coming of age movie, and just a terrific movie in general.

It starts when Malik, a young street punk, is thrown into prison, and is asked, first thing, if he needs any special diet or religious accommodations. (Malik is French, but is of North African origin.) He brushes it off and asks to be put in with the general prison population. So he finds himself, in that rigidly segregated and hierarchical society, one of the few muslims in the middle of a section controlled by the Corsican Mafia. He gradually adjusts to his new life under Cesar, the top Corsican gangster, amidst harrowing violence and a callous disregard for human life, in which he is forced to be an active participant. As he learns the ins and outs, you see Malik gradually transformed from a scruffy frightened kid to a Scarface- type with a new wardrobe, mustache and hairstyle to match his rising status.

The title of the movie comes from his unusual nature – Malik talks to the dead in his dreams, and carries on conversations with prison ghosts. Despite some shockingly violent scenes this harrowingly realistic look at the French prison system is a great, moving, and haunting film.

– Daniel Garber, February 9, 2010

The Demise of the Velvet Curtain

Posted in 3-D, Action, Avatar, Crank: High Voltage, Hitchcock, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Uncategorized, US, Velvet Curtain by on February 13, 2010

Everyone says that movies are going through a major change these days. I’m not so sure. Some people think that the big change is in their speed. The pace of movies is much more frenetic – and viewers have a lower attention span than they used to. So you get movies like Crank: High Voltage, a comic action movie from last summer about a British gangster who has to keep recharging the batteries in his artificial heart. Older action movies don’t have the speed and the special effects of newer ones. Hitchcock thrillers like North by Northwest — with airplane chases in corn fields and fight scenes on Mt Rushmore — are just not as impressive as they used to be. It’s simple enough now to have a herd of CGI elephants run across the screen, even for a cheap laugh.

But whether or not chase scenes are gradually speeding up their space, and are flashier, speedier, noisier, they’re still more or less the same. It’s just a matter of degree.

Other people point to the new technology available to audiences, saying: “After Avatar, all movies are going to be 3-D… And using video-game style animation!” I can safely say, that ain’t gonna happen. These kind of movies may become more frequent — as long as 3-D movies make money they’ll keep making them — but I doubt this will amount to a fundamental change in the nature of movies.

But I’d like to talk about one small detail that seems to be completely disappearing from the “movie experience” after 90 or 100 years, something that outlived silent movies, black and white movies, movies on film. But I’m not talking about something in the movie itself, but something outside the movie, in front of the movie.

There has been a subtle change in the past few years. One, seemingly superficial part of the movies is fading away. I’m speaking of the Velvet Curtain.

The what?

Traditionally, after the trailers, but before the movie begins, a curtain is lowered or pulled shut, only to reopen after the film starts to roll. So the first image of any film is the luxuriousness of curtains distorting the projected image, soon replaced by the crisper look of film directly on the screen.

You know when a movie is starting by the opening of the curtain, and when it’s over by its closing.

I don’t know for sure why it started. Perhaps a curtain was needed to replicate the vaudeville or stage theatres that were their main competition. In fact, many movie theatres used to share their screens with newsreels, cartoons, shorts, and B-movies in double features – so the opening of the curtain before the main movie gave it a sense of majesty.

Many theatres are now inserting a metaphorical curtain before the movie, a 3-D -looking commercial celebrating the magic and adventure of that chain’s cinemas – plants growing around the seats, shooting stars and rainbows in the sky, teenagers excitedly drinking cups of cola – but it doesn’t do it for me. And they haven’t even tried to find a replacement for the equally important closure at the end of a movie.

I’m not nostalgic, but I do regret the slow demise of this cinematic gesture, this "Amen", now in its death throes.

– Daniel Garber, February 12, 2010.

The ten Best Picture nominations might finally do away with Oscar-type movies

Posted in Academy Awards, Bad Movies, Best Picture, Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks, Uncategorized, US by on February 4, 2010

The most interesting and unusual change in the Academy Awards this year is the seemingly off-the-wall shift from the usual five nominees for best picture to a colossal ten. At first glance, it feels like a kids’ intramural track meet where everyone is given a coloured ribbon so they won’t feel discouraged or left out. The ten nominations are a whole handful of ribbons. But why stop at ten? Why not twenty… or fifty?

But if you think about it, there is some sense to this decision. I think the Oscars were caught in a rut, and they knew it. There used to be unwritten rules to qualify for an Academy Award. No sequels, no franchises, no genre movies. Nothing funny, and no cartoons. The nominees have to appeal to people who watch PBS. They need actors wearing giant powdered wigs. Characters that overcome cancer, or a dying baby, or the holocaust, or a traumatic historical event. It has to make baby boomers remember how much better life used to be, how much more “real”, or better yet — and this is crucial one — the movie’s a biopic or biopic-looking film where an alcoholic rock star overcomes his addiction before one last concert. And then he dies. Dying is especially good because then there’s no chance of a sequel.

If all else fails at least use a good-looking movie star with a fake nose or funny teeth so they can live like the ugly people and stare pensively to the right of the camera… That’s what gets you a Best Picture award.

Anyway, too many of the Academy Award winning movies and nominees over the past few decades were so dusty and mouldy and awful that they had formed their own de facto genre, and it seemed almost like producers were making movies for no other purpose than to win an Oscar. Weird.

So, possibly to get rid of this embarrassment of bad winning movies, the Oscars decided to expand it, first to low budget indies, and — now that all the independent production companies have gone tits- up – they’ve decided to be all-inclusive in their nominations. And I think it’s a good thing.

So maybe the 10 nominees are a sign that Hollywood will eventually start to make good movies again.

Daniel Garber, February 3, 2010

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