Hallowe’en Special! Movies reviewed: My Soul to Take, Hereafter, The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest, LA Zombie, Cold Fish

Toronto is a scary place – and I don’t just mean the city elections this week. Our new mayor is… Biff Tannen! And I saw a couple hundred zombies marching through Kensington market last Saturday. But it’s about to get even scarier — this is Hallowe’en weekend, when everyone wants to see a scary, gory, spooky, otherwordly, gripping, chilling, or thrilling movie. So today I’m going to look at five Hallowe’eny movies: a slasher-horror pic, a spooky drama, a gripping thriller, and two more that played at TIFF this year.

My Soul to Take
Dir: Wes Craven

Like the Agatha Christie classic Ten Little Indians, this slasher pic has seven seventeen-year-olds each wondering who’s going to get killed next. You see, 17 years ago a crazed, serial killer kicked the bucket just as his widow was giving birth prematurely. And at the same hospital, six others were born the same day… they became a nerd, a jock, a Jane Austen Christian, a blind guy, a snobby girl, a family kid, and one more, Bug, who is slightly whack: he periodically slips into a Tourettes-like state where he imitates the voices of the other six preemies. So which one’s the slasher? Or is he possessing someone? Or maybe the original killer’s still alive and hiding in the woods?

And you know what? It doesn’t really matter in the end; getting there is most of the fun. It’s a Wes Craven movie – (the guy who directed the Scream series and wrote A Nightmare on Elm St) so you can be there’ll be lots of bathroom mirror scenes, shadowy killers in costume, and an equal number of red herrings. It’s interesting to watch, the characters are funny, and even though it’s mainly formulaic, it’s enjoyable. It’s also bloody and violent. What it wasn’t, though, it wasn’t especially scary.

My Soul to Take is a fun one to watch with a group of friends on All Hallow’s Eve.

Hereafter
Dir: Clint Eastwood

What happens after you die? And if life goes on, is there any contact between life and the afterlife? This movie (very, very slowly) follows three separate story lines trying to answer this question. Matt Damon plays a San Francisco psychic who thinks his gift is a curse: every time George touches someone else skin, he is hit by a vision of the dead who want to talk to her. So he decides to work instead in a sugar warehouse. Meanwhile, Marie (C»cile De France), an intelligent Parisian tele-journalist and her producer/lover encounter disaster in the tropics, and her near-death experience leads her to explore the boundary between life and death. Finally, a pair of somber, identical twin brothers, being raised by a junky mother in London, encounter death as well. Will they ever be able to communicate again?

OK, Herafter is not a bad drama, and I’ll watch practically anything with a hint of magic or the supernatural, but its glacial pace, and lugubrious tone combined with a non-religious angel motif, make it feel mostly like a big-budget episode of Ghost Whisperer (“He says he forgives you… now, walk into the light”). The three storylines eventually come together, but at least for the first half hour, I wondered is it going to go on like this for whole movie – unfinished story after unfinished story? It’s not really scary at all, it’s Clint Eastwood, at the age of 80, telling a relaxing tale of people pondering life and death. See it if you like sipping warm cocoa on Halowe’en.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Dir: Daniel Alfredson

Lisbeth Salander and journalist Blomkvist are back again for part three of their story. Lisbeth, is a fantastic character, a cross between Steve McQueen and Tank Girl. She’s tuff, she’s rough, she’s stone cold. She’s a punk, she’s a loner, she’s an ex-con, she’s a computer genius. And Blomkvist, the committed leftist investigative journalist at the Swedish magazine Millenium, will do anything he can to help her. The last movie ended with a bloody shoot out, and this one starts up immediately afterwards, with Lisbeth, near death in a hospital, charged with attempted murder, and Blomkvist on the verge of uncovering a cold-war era conspiracy involving government, police, and psychiatry.

So the two sides gear up for the long fight, culminating in a bug trial. On one side they’re all trying to uncover the truth about the conspiracy and get it to print before the trial. But the bad guys – mainly a bunch of old Swedish guys in suits – will stop at nothing – including murder, intimidation, and character assassination – to keep the secrets secret. The pale blue-eyed and goateed psychiatrist, Dr Teleborian, is especially sinister, with his plans to use the veneer of psychiatry to hide his true motives.

And then there’s the wildcards on both sides, including Niedermeier, the giant blond thug who can feel no pain, and Plague, the shy, secretive computer geek extraordinaire.

So, I liked it a lot, as a conclusion to the three-part movie series. I think it’s much better to see the first two before you watch this one. I also missed the beautiful cinematic camerawork of Dragon Tattoo – this one was much more indoors, with pedestrian TV-like scenes, and without all of the unexpected plot revelations of the first two.

But it’s still worth seeing. I love rooting for the heroes when they barely escape a killer, and mentally cheering when the villains mess up. (The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest feels more like a BBC detective miniseries — not a bad thing to be) This movie is two and a half hours long, so be prepared for a slow start with a good payoff. You’ll need lots of Hallowe’en popcorn for this one.

LA Zombie
Dir: Bruce LaBruce

A muscle bound monster emerges out of a Pacific beach like a creature from the black lagoon. All around him is violence – shootouts in the ravines, murder in drug deals gone wrong, cars spilling off the highways, and the slow violence graduaully crushing the homeless and undocumented of downtown Los Angeles. The zombie monster (porn actor Francois Sagat) is observing all and is saddened by it.

But unlike the voraciously eating- zombies we usually see, who inflict their condition on the living, this one is a sort of a messiah. Through the disgusting – but gentle – sex he has with all the newly dead corpses he encounters – and it’s always gay sex with male corpses, by the way – he brings the bodies back to life. The strangely-coloured semen that comes out of his grotesquely-shaped penis is a panacea: ejaculation equals rejuvenation.

L.A. Zombie is a violent and gory zombie movie, with very few lines, but with lots of colourful, pornographic gay sex between a gentle zombie and the spilt organs of fresh corpses. More than anything else, it’s also an experimental art film, at times quite beautiful, with extended tableaux, urban landscapes and sunsets, and some documentary-looking footage of the marginal and lost beings of Los Angeles. By the end you get the impression that the zombie scenes are just the imaginary fantasies of a destitute, muscle-bound, mentally-ill homeless guy.

L.A. Zombie turns the Hallowe’en monster-as-villain paradigm upside down, and shows that the real monster… is us.

Finally,

Cold Fish
Dir: Sono Shion

This movie also played at the Toronto Film Festival. I see a couple hundred movies every year, and I don’t normally leave a movie shaking, googly-eyed, saying “what the fuck was that?!” to total strangers. But I did after this ultimate, extreme Japanese exploitation film about a mild-mannered Shizuoka tropical fish dealer who is pulled into the sway of an aggressive entrepreneur and serial killer.

Based on a true story, Shamato is a wimpy widower who owns a tropical fish store. His young, second wife shops with her eyes closed and cooks rice in a microwave. His teenaged daughter Mitsuko is dating a hood and shoplifts for fun. He seeks solace in the peace of the local planetarium. But soon his miserable existance is altered by a hyper-enthusiastic entrepreneur, Murata, who tells him “Business is entertainment!” Soon, Mitsuko is living in his big box store dorm working as a glamour fish salesgirl wearing hotpants and a tanktop, and his wife is also on Murata’s side (after an attack/rape scene that “pulls her out of her wretched life…”) All is not well.

Shamato is soon made an unwitting accomplice in a crooked fish scam, bilking investors in a “rare”, ugly amazon fish venture. Soon he discovers Murata and his wife don’t just defraud investors, they also kill them in a most awful way, inside a tiny church. They glory in the blood and guts, sexually playing with their organs and body parts, and joyfully disposing of the remaining flesh and bones, drenching them with soy sauce and roasting them in an outdoor barbecue!

It’s up to milquetoast Shamato either to become a willing part of their awful lives or to fight back and stop it forever.

What can I say? This has got to be the most depraved exploitation film I’ve ever seen. It’s joining of sex and death makes even Miike seem tame, and LA Zombie is like a gentle glimpse of flowers and rainbows in comparison. Definitely one of the most horrific movies ever, Cold Fish retains its credibility (without sinking to the “Saw” level of pornographic torture.) The most shocking and disturbing movie of the year.

Family Ties. Movies Reviewed: Boy, A Windigo Tale, Score: a Hockey Musical, Conviction plus ImagineNative festival

This week, I’m talking about four very different movies, two dramas, a comedy drama, and a comic musical, that all deal with family members and family ties: brother/sister; father/son; parents/son; mother/daughter; grandfather/grandson.

But first, let me tell you a bit about the 11th annual ImagineNative film and media arts festival that’s on right now in downtown Toronto. It’s a cultural celebration of First Nations, Inuit, and international aboriginal and indigenous artists and filmmakers, from Canada – urban, rural, and northern – Latin America, as well as Asia and the Pacific, and Europe. There are movies – short films and features, mainstream and experimental — lectures, workshops, art exhibits, installations, and multimedia events, including radio podcasts, and online new media sites. So tons of contemporary media and current issues and artforms. Lots of free exhibits going on, and films every night in the Spadina and Bloor area. You should definitely check this out – look online at http://www.ImagineNative.org

ImagineNative started with a screening of

Boy
Director/Writer: Taika Waititi
The Canadian premier of a popular, new New Zealand movie.

It’s the early 1980s, in a small town in New Zealand. Boy – that’s his name – lives there with his Nana, his little brother, Rocky, and a bunch of cousins. His mom died when he was young, and he can barely remember his dad who took off years ago with some petty hoods in a sort of a biker gang called the Crazy Horses. Boy’s waiting for his promised return to take him away from all this and to see a Michael Jackson concert in the big city. But when his grandmother leaves town for a few days to go to a funeral, who shows up but his dad – for real (played by the director, Waititi.)

He’s up to no good though, and Boy has to reconcile his hood-y pothead of a dad with the hero he had been expecting. Whenever reality gets too hard to handle, Boy retreats into his fantasies, and recasts things – in his mond – like visualizing a bar brawl as a Michael Jackson Beat It video. (His little brother Rocky, on the other hand, imagines he has super powers, and is laden with guilt thinking he’s the one who caused all the bad events in his life.)

This is sort of a sad story, but the tone is light enough, and there are enough very funny scenes that it’s not a downer of a movie at all. It reminded me a lot of a movie from a couple years ago called Son of Ranbow, but Boy’s a bit more serious, less comical. It also gives a realistic glimpse of Maori life in the 80‘s – something I’ve never seen before.

The actors, especially the two kids, (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, and James Rolleston), and their dad (Waititi) were great. And as a special bonus, there’s even a dance scene in the final credits that’s a mash-up of a Michael Jackson video mixed with a Maori Haka war dance (looked like the Kama Te haka usually performed by the All Blacks rugby team, but his one in full 80s video regalia!)

The closing night movie is a Toronto premier called:

A Windigo Tale
Dir: Armand Garnet Ruffo.

The Windigo is a legendary being – it’s a starving, cannibalistic creature that you can turn into either while you’re alive or else after you die; it comes to eat you up and carries the spirits of the people it eats in its belly. Taking off its clothes will take it out of the body, and burning the bones will get rid of it.

In this movie, Joey is a high school drop-out who wears his hiphop gang colours. He’s communing with his grandfather (Gary Farmer) who tells him their family history and secrets in the form of a folktale.

Lily, and her white boyfriend, David, have driven up so she can talk to her mom, Doris. Lily was sent away from there 15 years before, and blames her mother for abandoning her. And at the same time there’s a reunion – of sorts — of Six Nations people who had been sent to the residential schools – the notorious Canadian religious and educational system that isolated, abused, and even killed natives for generations.

All these story lines are going on at the same time. Doris is sure the Windigo is in the air. Strange things start to happen. Can she fight the Windigo and the demons of her history she carries with her? The story goes back and forth between the serious, realistic family drama and Doris and Lily’s violently spiritual encounter with a Windigo. Interesting movie. It packs in a lot of stories and plotlines for a 90-minute picture, so I found it a bit confusing over what was the story, what was a flashback, and what was the story-in-the-story. But it’s a totally watchable movie with interesting characters, good acting – especially Jani Lauzon as Doris – and deals with an important, dark part of Canadian and native history that’s only coming to light very recently.

Next, a much lighter Canadian story:

Score: a Hockey Musical
Director/Writer: Michael McGowan

A hockey musical? Yup, that’s what is, no more, no less.

Farley (Noah Reid) and Eve are next door neighbours in Toronto who communicate late at night using a clothesline running between their two houses. She has a crush in him, but he’s more interested in playing a game of shinny with his hockey buds. He gets discovered by an agent who books him as the next hockey star. But, raised by hippy parents who frown upon competition and deplore hockey violence, he’s caught between two worlds. He’s a lover not a fighter. Will he be the next Sidney Crosbie? Will he learn to fight in the rink? Will he be accepted by the hard-ass team coach? And will he ever get together with his starry-eyed neighbour Eve?

It’s a cute movie, very Canadian both in the good sense and the bad, if you know what I mean. Good in that it shows real Canadian topics, national “in” jokes, tons of can-con straight out of an old “I am Canadian” beer ad, but bad in that it’s super corny and cheesy and baaaad in a lot of places, with some real groaner punchlines, and some truly lame lyrics. (Some great ones, too.) The singing’s uneven – ranging from the clear tones of Olivia Newton-John to the sort of voices that should never leave the shower. And one of the dance scenes looks artificially sped-up. But it doesn’t matter – I laughed out loud a lot, and I just took it for what it was – a 90-minute-long, all-Canadian piss in the snow. Score is not a hockey musical, it’s the hockey musical. (And one’s enough.)

And finally, another family drama,

Conviction
Dir: Tony Goldwyn

Betty Anne and Kevin are a brother and sister who grew up together in very hard circumstances with neglectful parents and a series of foster homes. But at least they had each other. Kevin (Sam Rockwell) is a high-spirited class-clown type guy, but he also is in and out of trouble with the cops, usually just for mischief. But he gets charged and later convicted of a heinous, vile rape and murder and is sent off to prison for life. His wife testifies against him, and she takes their little daughter away. Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) is sure he didn’t do it, so she makes it her life goal to set him free. She goes to law school and, twenty years later, with the help of a friend, Abra (Minnie Driver) she tries to bring his case back to court. Will she succeed and save her brother? And was he innocent or guilty?

Based on a true story, this has a movie-of-the-week feel to it. It is a tear jerker, got a couple of tears, and it’s an uplifting story, but it’s not the kinda movie I normally go to see. I should also say the acting is all great, including an almost unrecognizable Juliette Lewis as a shady trial witness – she’s fantastic.

Just to review, today I talked about Boy, and A Windigo Tale, two of the many cool movies playing at ImagineNative, which is happening now through Sunday: look online at http://www.imaginenative.org/ ; Conviction (now playing), and Score: the Hockey Musical – which opens tomorrow.

Docs vs Biopics. Movies reviewed: In the Wake of the Flood, Cry of the Andes, Nowhere Boy, The Social Network

Posted in Acting, Biopic, Canada, Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, High School, Movies, Sex, UK, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2010

This week I’m looking at two documentaries and two bio-pics. First, let me say that in general these are my two least favourite genres. Lots of docs are too boring, lots of biopics are too earnest or stiff, and you know what’s going to happen, since the characters are already famous. But that doesn’t mean they’re aren’t some good ones out there.

The documentaries both come from the international Environmental Film and video festival going on in Toronto right now through October 17th, called “Planet in Focus.” Through lectures, workshops, films, and events — some aimed at school kids, some at adults – it’s an excellent place for people wanting to learn more about environmental issues.

The opening night film, directed by well-known Toronto documentary maker Ron Mann, was “In the Wake of the Flood”, and it’s a record of Margaret Atwood’s recent book tour. But unlike most book tours, she had local theatre groups and choirs performing with her. And she conducted it all as a fundraiser for birds! She also traveled by train, and boat, from Scotland to Sudbury, Ont, espousing environmental topics and showing her interest in the migration of songbirds and how they’re threatened by pollution, development, and environmental degradation. Her readings, in this movie have a quasi-religious feel to them; inside empty churches she preaches the ecumenical gospel of environmentalism, organic coffee, and the protection wild birds.

The movie is extremely low-key, with sort of a massive, anglo- Canadian Tilley-hat aesthetic to the whole thing. What I liked most are the historical clips and quotes of environmental saints – as one group refers to them; Saints like Eual Gibbons, Rachel Carson, Terry Fox, and Henry David Thoreau. The nature scenes are also really beautiful. So look out for this documentary, both for fans of Margaret Atwood, and people who want to help save the birds.

Cry of the Andes
Dir: Carmen Henriquez and Denis Paquette

Another documentary, Cry of the Andes, is also playing at Planet in Focus. If you’ve been watching TV listening to the radio, reading a newspaper, or just catching news headlines on-line, you cannot help but know about the incredible rescue of the miners trapped in Chile. But how much do you know about mining there, and what it’s doing to Chile, the people there, and the environment?

Toronto-based Barrick Gold, a mining multinational, is planning on putting mammoth open-pit gold mines into the devastatingly beautiful but ecologically fragile mountain region of the Andes. It’s water source is the mountain glaciers, that slowly melt and feed the streams that trickle down the rocks. The mining company plans to dig the glaciers up and truck them away. And it uses deadly poisons to bring the metals to the surface.

Without water, the community can’t function, and their orchards, rocky pastures, indeed their whole way of life would disappear. But the mines would also be a source of jobs and money, at least in the short term. It mines gold – Barrick Gold is the biggest gold mining company in the world – so it literally pits money and gold against the traditional and ecologically sound cultures.

This movie shows the dilemma facing the local indigenous population: go for the gold or keep the water. Barrick has set up lots of nice sounding commissions and compensation boards they present to the locals, but in absolute terms, it’s do the indigenous people there own the water rights – or just the land? Canadian filmmakers Henriquez and Paquette show the hidden effects of Canada’s international mining companies, and give voice to the largely unheard local side in their protests against the mines. Cry of the Andes follows the grassroots activists as they take their political cause from their small villages all the way to Bay st. in Toronto, and then home again for a local election that could decide their future. This movie has beautiful landscape shots of the Andes. And it’s screening on the 16th, at Planet in Focus.

Now the biopics:

Nowhere Boy
Dir Sam Taylor-Woods

John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), a high school student in the late 50’s, is growing up with his cold aunt Mimi and nice uncle George in a middle class home in Liverpool. But at a funeral he discovers his long-lost mother is still alive. Not only that she lives a couple blocks away. He confronts her, and his life begins to change.

His new-found, passionate and eccentric mother teaches him how to strum a banjo, and takes him to a movie where the girls in the audience shriek when Elvis appears on the screen. You can almost hear the gears turning in his head:  yeah, I want to be like him. He combs his hair like a rock ‘n’ roller, and becomes rebellious, cocky, almost a local tough, joy-riding around town on the roof of a double decker bus, smoking, drinking, kissing strange girls.

When he gets suspended he decides to secretly wait it out at his mom’s place, so his icy and strict aunt Mimi won’t find out. Who des he choose as his parent: his passionate mother Julie or his cold but committed aunt Mimi? He also starts up a band, eventually including a young Paul McCartney– who looks like a cute, 14 year old lesbian in this movie.

This movie works – I was expecting yet another tedious biopic about a much-too-famous rock icon, but the story of how he ended up being raised not by his mom but by her sister is really good. (It’s a bit of a tear-jerker, actually.) Kristen Scott-Thomas as Mimi, Anne Marie Duff as his mother, and especially Aaron Johnson (he played Kick-Ass earlier this year) as John give three great performances. It’s well worth watching.

A bit of context: the director, Sam Taylor-Woods was a YBA (young british artists) a group of, well, young conceptual British artists in the 90’s, who changed the world’s art scene into a series of bed-hopping, money-making, artists-as-celebrity entities.

So, when watching this movie, it’s hard to look at John Lennon’s mother’s incredible, almost sexual, touchy-feely affection she has for him, without also seeing the director’s own obvious affection for the actor playing Aaron Johnson. (She recently gave birth to the boy’s baby. Nothing directly to do with the movie… but, in my mind, it informs the whole story.)

The Social Network
Dir David Fincher

You’ve probably heard of this bio-pic about the founder of Facebook, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s an interesting, clever, and pretty funny drama about Mark Zuckerberg and his various friends, enemies and frienemies from his Harvard days.

The story is narrated by the various people suing him: his former best friend Eduardo, and the rich crew team preps the Winklevoss twins who claim he stole their ideas. But it all harkens back to Mark being dumped by his girlfriend – which inspired what was originally a revenge site, to the phenomenon Facebook is now.

The script is intricately plotted, almost too dense; the acting is great (Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as the funny, driven, uptight geek; with Justin Timberlake surprisingly convincing as a slick-talking dot-com sleaze); even the scratchy, creaky soundtrack is effectivek disturbung. Only problem, it’s one of those movies where it’s hard to sympathize with any of them, or to care which millionaire or billionaire ends up with the most money and status in the end.

Also on this weekend is what might be your only chance to see Margaux Williamson’s experimental film Teenager Hamlet — a movie that strips away the artifice of film in order to explore the artifice of art, drama, and conversation — at the Royal Cinema tonight and on Sunday.

And the Toronto Jewish Film Festival’s “Chai Tea and a Movie” program is showing Avi Nesher’s film The Matchmaker – which is about a kid who meets a mysterious matchmaker from the wrong side of town – is the kind of movie  (one with a great story, comedy, passion, romance, intrigue, betrayal, and truly memorable characters) that you rarely encounter anymore. It’s playing one screening only on the 17th at 5 pm at the Sheppard Grande also this weekend. Look online at TJFF.com for details.

Films reviewed: Return to El Salvador, Teenager Hamlet

Posted in Canada, Movies, Uncategorized, US, violence, War by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2010

There are lots of good movies playing right now, dramas, horrors, comedies, thrillers, but I’m going to talk about a couple of movies you might not know about, because they’re not advertising on TVand they’re playing at smaller theatres.

First,
Return to El Salvador
Dir: Jaime Moffet

The US has a very sorry record in the Central American states. If you’ve been reading the news recently, the US government has issued an unreserved apology for intentionally infecting Guatemalans with syphilis, 50 years ago, in order to test the efficacy of penicillin on that STD. A lot of people also know about the ventures of the notorious United Fruit company, who had the US marines repeatedly invade cou countries like Honduras to protect their Chiquita banana crop. The Canal zone in Panama was put under direct US rule, for strategic purposes.

In Panama, the US had installed the corrupt government of Noriega, and then, when they no longer liked him, proceeded to kidnap him and put him on trial on US soil. The Contras were another blemish on the US record: they were rebel soldiers paid by the US in the 80’s to try to overthrow the legally elected government in Nicaragua. And then there was El Salvador – the corrupt military government there hired death squads to assassinate everyone against the government in a long-term civil war. Priests, nuns and union organizers were some of the victims. For many of the people there, there were three options: die, flee, or join the rebels.

In a new documentary called Return to El Salvador, filmmaker Jamie Moffet looks at where that country is now.

Although the civil war there ended almost 20 years ago, the death squads continued their executions, and there was a steady stream of people fleeing that country. But in 2009, the FMLN (The Farabundo Martà National Liberation Front) the party that represented the guerillas in the 12 year civil war, was elected, in the form President Mauricio Funes, a TV journalist and public figure. This documentary on this turning point, and the effect it has had on El Salvadorans, is shot during a trip by progressive Christian American activists who make a return visit to the country, and the people in El Salvador they had supported during the struggle of the civil war and afterwards

The movie also deals with other issues I knew little about: protests against the notorious School of Americas, that turned out people like Pinochet’s team, Noriega, and Galtieri, and even the founders of some Latin American drug cartels; the fact there’s a CAFTA deal with the US and central Americas – and what it does to the farmers there; and the horrific killings both during their civil war, and, long afterwards.

It’s narrated by Martin Sheen, and is mainly talking heads – people recalling past events and telling it to the movie viewers, illustrated by photos from the period they‘re talking about. In my view, that’s not the most compelling type of documentary – I like there to be some footage or video from the era they’re talking about. In this doc, you hear about a lot of things, but don’t get to see them.

Still, the issue is very compelling and rarely dealt with in documentary films, the stories the people tell are quite moving – often horrifying, and things I never knew about before. Apparently the death squads did things playing with the dead bodies, cutting off limbs of the students they killed – just awful. It seems especially apropos right now. It even has a Canadian twist in it — Canadians love being smugly indignant when it comes to US misadventures in Central America. But right before the movie was shot, a Salvadoran activist was murdered (or “was disappeared”), and there seems to be some connection to the protest he was leading against yet another dodgy Canadian mining conglomerate, this one called “Pacific Rim”.

So if you want to learn more about the politics and history of this central American country — specifically from the point of view of the former rebels there and their supporters – then this movie, Return to El Salvador, is a good place to start.

Teenager Hamlet
Dir: Margaux Williamson

The Toronto-based group Trampoline Hall (started by her friend Sheila Heti) is a series of lectures by interesting people who are amateurs, NOT experts in the field they’talk about. In what seems to be a vindication of the Trampoline Hall ethos, this movie uses a group of non-actors in a casual setting to explore what is art, drama, poetry, music and thought.

They answer questions about their lives in a natural setting to on-screen interviewers armed with mikes and earphones, and a techie handling the light (and an unseen cameraman) in staged interviews. Everything is shown, wires and all, to let you see that this is no artifice. Except — it is.

And what is she’s doing? She’s putting on a play – Hamlet! – by casting a whole bunch of Ophelias and whole bunch of Hamlets — gender neutral casting – that they find at a single’s party on that big, ugly party boat, Captain John’s, in Tornoto’s harbour.

So all the actors get together in a non-reality-show type atmosphere to discuss: What is acting – what is real, what is false?

The interviews are mixed with cut-out animation of ghosts (is that hamlet’s dad?) still paintings – Williamson is an artist who says she wants to break out of the two-dimensional art world into something more dynamic, like film — and oddly appropriate off-the-wall video clips, like one of Phil Donahue Interviewing Ayn Rand about public personas vs people’s actual selves. (She reveals she likes the cheesy TV show Charley’s Angels because of its artifice and what she calls its “romance”.)

So, here’s a chance to see Hamlet without the shakespeare, without the stage, without the costumes, and without the actors. Instead it’s a discussion of individual memories and feelings of love, betrayal, and father/son relationships; of art and artifice vs naturalism; Of acting, vs “Ackting” (with a “K”); of memory, ambition, and regret.

Shakespeare superimposed on locations in bathrooms, vacant lots and out near a lake – (there has to be somewhere for all the male and female Ophelia to drown herself) reflects the movie’s discussion of the meaning of superficiality – literally the drawing of designs on a surface – like tattoos that is part of any performance or art.

Margaux Williamson makes use of frequent collaborators Sheila Heti, Mischa Glouberman and Sholem Krishtalka to conduct the interviews and talk to or near the cameras.

“Teenager Hamlet” is at the Royal Cinema on College St. on Friday, October 15th at 7pm and on Sunday, October 17th at noon.

~ Oct 6, 2010.

Late Teens, Early Twenties. Films Reviewed: Heartbeats, Bran Nue Dae, Never Let Me Go, Catfish

There’s a surprising variety in the films about people in their teens and early twenties that played at the Toronto Film Festival. I’m looking at a few of them, plus one odd duck from outside TIFF that fits the category too. Like most coming-of-age or college movies, these have love, crushes, and passions; followed by some big revelation or shock that shakes their hopes and beliefs to their very foundations.

Each of these movies, though, has a twist that makes it just a little different from the usual teen or college movie. One has a gay element; one involves indigenous people as the main characters; one takes place in an alternate reality from the one we live in; and one is based mainly on the difficulties of using facebook – and, no, unfortunately, I’m not reviewing that Social Network movie that’s opening today – I’m reviewing the other facebook movie.

Heartbeats

Dir: Xavier Dolan

Quebecois Xavier Dolan, who directed, wrote, and starred in his great debut film, J’ai tue ma mere / I killed my mother,

(about a gay teenager and the problems he has with his mother) is back with his second triple-threat movie, called Heartbeats or Les Amours Imaginaire. In this one best friends Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri), both become infatuated with a good-looking, intelligent, rich, and personable newcomer to Montreal, Nicolas (Niels Schneider). Neither wants to admit they like him, but each of them secretly schemes how to win him over. Nicolas, in the meantime, flirts with them both — he loves being the centre of attention and adulation. The tension and competition between the two friends grows until it explodes during a trip the three of them take to a house in rural Quebec.

It’s not a bad movie — it’s a light-hearted farce, well acted, and interesting. It just felt like a bit of a let-down after his much more dramatic, entertaining, and moving first film. If only Dolan could have kept it as just the three-character story. But instead he adds very long scenes of people shopping, of long pillow conversations in dim light with their various sex partners; and periodic scenes of talking heads of unidentified montrealers giving their views on sex, relationships, and break-ups.

To me it seemed like a good 45 minute film, but with lots of filler to stretch it out into a feature film. OK maybe that’s not fair. Dolan may be 21, but he puts in as many cultural, literary, and filmic allusions as a well-established filmmaker. He’s not playing around, I assume, and there must be some reason for all the less interesting scenes. But still, the movie could have used more of the story – which was great! – and less of all that extra stuff, which was… just not very interesting. It broke up the flow, it didn’t add to it.

The characters were all fun to watch, and the acting was great by all three, plus a hilarious cameo by Anne Dorval – she’s amazing. (She was the mother in J’ai tue ma mere.) Enjoy Heartbeats as a light, pleasant comedy, and leave it at that.

Bran Nue Dae

Dir: Rachel Perkins

Another pleasant diversion is this Australian musical – yes, a musical – that played last year’s Toronto Film Festival. 50 years ago: Willie, an aboriginal kid who lives in a shack with his deeply religious mom in Broome – a small town in Western Australia — likes a cute girl with a great voice who sings in the local bar. But she’s hanging with a greaser. He gets sent to a residential school, where kids wear uniforms and learn religion. He rebels much to the dismay of a priest, Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush). Willie makes his way back to Broome, chased by the priest, and falls in with a hobo, who says he’s his Uncle Tadpole; but he’s a trickster, who does things like throwing himself in front of a car to get money or maybe a free ride. They encounter a tough floozie in a roadhouse, a German guy and his Aussie hippie girlfriend looking for his Dad for some reason, in a VW bus in the outback. They all set out to reach Broome. The movie traces all the characters’ adventures, punctuated by songs and dances, as Willie makes his way back home to see the girl he longs for.

It’s not bad for a low budget movie… its very distinctly Australian, cute, funny, with a cast that’s largely made up of indigenous people and pacific islanders. Some of the songs are better than others. Interestingly, the young woman with the great voice apparently won Australian Idol a couple years ago. It takes place in the past but the whole movie also has a bit of a dated feel to it – it could be because it toured the country as a play for 20 years before it was made into a movie. But if you like musical comedies, or want to learn about a very different, yet oddly similar, culture; or if you just want to a good old fashioned-type story with all the hidden identities and plot turns, and you approach this without grand expectations, you just might enjoy Bran Nue Dae.

Never Let Me Go

Dir: Mark Romanek

It’s 1983 somewhere in England. So you expect to see skinheads marauding on the streets, people in bright colours and funny haircuts listening to the latest Duran Duran album, pop culture everywhere. But no. This is a different England than the one you’re used to. Three kids at an exclusive English boarding school called Hailsham, grow up as close friends. Tommy (Andrew Garfield) gets bullied because he’s easy to tease – he’s got an anger problem. Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is kind and mature but a bit plain, while tall, beautiful black-haired Ruth (Keira Knightley) is a bit selfish.

They, and the other kids, live an isolated, sheltered existence, never really seeing the world outside the experimental school. No fighting. No bad manners. They’re raised from a young age to be Carers and Donors (wonder what that means… hmmmm…). The movie shows them realize what their purpose is in life, in their duty toward the country that takes care of them. They are there to provide medical help – their whole existence, once they graduate, is to care for the ill and elderly, who often live to be well over a hundred. But Hailsham grads are a special case, and it is said, that some can break loose from their inevitable fate. The three friends, Kathie, Ruth and Tommy decide to try.

This one is not a light diversion. It’s a depressing, demoralizing downer of a movie. It’s pretty interesting, an adaptation of the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro (the author Remains of the Day) ‘s disturbing science fiction novel. It’s a tender, moving film, showing the trade-offs a society goes through for the greater good, a sort of an alternate reality set in the past. Great acting, kinda creepy story.

Catfish

A “documentary”

Nev, a photographer in NYC discovers that a little girl, Abby, in small-town Michigan is making paintings of his photos – and sending them to him. He communicates with her, her mother, and her beautiful older sister Megan.

Nev and Megan’s long distance relationshipm via facebook, telephone and texting, takes on a sexual dimension. Although they’ve never met face to face, they feel like they’re together. But when she emails him some obviously pirated music tapes, and claimed she was the singer, Nev begins to suspect something is not right. So he and his buddies, the so-called documentary makers, drive out to Michigan to confront her.

I felt really misled by the advertising for this movie – they claimed it was a Hitchcockian thriller. Well it ain’t. It’s a not-very-good low-budget pseudo-documentary about social networking, I’d rank it slightly above “Bridezilla” (the notorious youtube forgery about a bride whose hair goes bad on her wedding day) that might work online, but feels like a rip-off on the big screen. Instead of Catfish, this movie should be called Red Herring… or maybe Shaggy Dog.

And, finally, starting this weekend and running for one week is the Toronto Palestine Film Festival. It’s playing a wide variety of films, like “The Time that Remains”, a semi-autobiographical story by the well-known director Elia Suleiman, about the fate of Palestinians who remained in Israel, from 1948 to the present; two films on the noted poet Mahmoud Darwish; and “Aisheen: Still alive in Gaza”, a documentary shot just two weeks after the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009. There is also a panel discussion with Palestinian filmmakers, as well as a traditional Palestinian breakfast, catered by a Toronto chef. Lots going on from October 2nd to the 8th at the Toronto Palestine Film Festival – check out details, tickets, prices, and times, at tpff.ca.

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