August 24, 2012. Underground economics. Films Reviewed: Lawless, For a Good Time, Call… PLUS Route Irish, TIFF

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Biopic, Cultural Mining, Manhattan, Movies, Sex Trade, TIFF, Uncategorized, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 24, 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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Feeling a bit… unemployed lately? Does it seem like there are just not enough jobs to go around? Well, fear not – there are lots of jobs out there, they’re just not all particularly respectable or legal. But they are out there. Just depends on how underground you’re willing to go.

So, this week I’m looking at two movies about people who stray from the straight and narrow in order to make a decent living. One is a comedy about two roommates who find that talking sexy can make them rich; the other is a depression era biopic about hillbilly moonshiners.

For a Good Time, Call…

Dir: (Torontonian) Jamie Travis

Lauren (Lauren Miller) is an uptight junior editor in Manhattan who is homeless after getting dumped by her dull, yuppie boyfriend, while Katie (Ari Graynor) is about to lose her late Grandma’s beautiful Gramercy Park apartment. But they are brought together by a mutual gay friend Jesse (Justin Long – from the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials). But the two are an odd couple, like Oscar and Felix, who can’t possibly get along. Blond Katie is a gaudily- dressed, pushy, uncouth, heavy drinker, and forthright about her sexuality. Dark-haired careerist Lauren (a Jennifer Love Hewitt-type) is prim, proper, and comes from a rich Long Island family whose mother cuts her sandwiches into neat squares. But when a newly jobless Lauren puts her business acumen to work, the two of them start up a phone sex company out of their apartment, called 1-800-mmm-hmmm. It’s to tide them over until they can find better jobs. They practice kissing noises, play with giant dildos, and relax in the bubble bath with their retro pink, sex-line telephones. They gradually grow to understand each other better, make money, and turn into independent women ready to face the world.

This is a pretty funny, female buddy-pic comedy – not the rom-com it seems to be at first. Watching the movie, I felt like I was secretly intruding on some “girls’ night out”, hearing things no guy should be allowed to hear, but that just made it fun. The two main actresses are endearing and carry their parts well. And the supporting guys – especially Katie’s customer Sean (Mark Webber) are good, too. And while about a third of the jokes sink without a trace and the comedy relies more on character than on sight gags, it manages to be low budget without looking cheap or clumsy, and a humorous movie about sex without resorting to toilet humour, gratuitous nudity, or extreme disgustingness for its laughs.

Lawless

Dir: John Hillcoat

It’s 90 years ago, between the World Wars, in Franklin County, Virginia – the “wettest” county in dry America. (Prohibition, that is.) And the Bondurant brothers – Forrest, Howard and Jack – are the most successful bootleggers around. They make a good living delivering crates of moonshine to speakeasies all around the county, including a payoff to the local police to look the other way. The oldest brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy), is a monosyllabic monolith, given to grunts and mmmggghhs. It’s said he’s indestructible – can’t be killed. He has his eye on the beautiful and sophisticated Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a Chicagoan who recently fled the big city. The youngest one, Jack (Shia Laboeuf) is the runt of the litter, physically smaller and bullied by his brothers, and forced to rely on his wits rather than his strength. He wants to impress shy Bertha, the farmer’s daughter.

But into this happy, bucolic world comes the conceited, corrupt and sadistic villain, Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pierce), to take over their operation. He wears his hair perfectly parted in the middle and despises the local hillbillies. His gang of thugs are armed with Thompson machine guns and looking to mow down anyone who stops them from getting their cut. The Sherrif switches sides and is now in Charlie Rakes’ pocket. Throw in a gang of city gangsters, headed by a rough, tough Gary Oldman as their kingpin, and you’ve got a big battle waiting to happen.

Will the Bondurant brothers be successful in their underground business and happy in love, or will the corrupt city slickers kill them all and ruin everything?

Lawless is beautiful to look at and listen to. The green hills are covered with irish moss, and the virginal Bertha appears holding a real live bambi in her hands. And in the background there’s classical country, folk and rockabilly. But the beautiful scenery is alternated with extreme violence, rape, and slit throats. This is mentally jarring, and gives the whole movie an unusual dynamic – violent gangsterism set within an authentic historical setting. It’s similar to director Hillcoat’s and writer Nick Cave’s earlier try, The Proposition, also a violent historical movie about three brothers – but Lawless works where The Proposition failed.

Lawless and For a Good Time, Call… are both opening in Toronto next week. Also, coming out soon on DVD (it never made it to the big screen here) is one of the best movies about the Iraq war, Ken Loach’s brilliant dramatic thriller Route Irish, about a British mercenary trying to find out what really happened to his best friend. And TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is gearing up with some amazing movies to see. I’ll be talking about some of those starting next week.

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

August 17th, 2012. Carpe Diem. Movies Reviewed: And If We All Lived Together?, Dimensions, This Space Available

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Advertising, Anthropology, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, France, TIFF, Time Travel, UK, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on August 17, 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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Carpe diem: seize the day. Sometimes, when facing seemingly insurmountable odds, you just have to face the problem head-on, and go ahead with your outrageous plans. This week I’m looking at three films; a French social comedy about a group of elderly friends don’t want to live in old-age homes; a documentary about activists confronting the proliferation of public advertising; and a British historical meta-drama about a group of young scientists in Cambridge who want to go back in time.

And If We All Lived Together?

Dir: Stéphane Robelin

A group of middle-class friends have held onto their bonds even in old age. But one of their number, Albert (Pierre Richard), seems to be slipping. He keeps an exquisite daily journal to keep track of events, but he’s never sure what year it is. And his wife, Jeanne (Jane Fonda), may be facing terminal cancer, but she’d rather pick out the most fashionable coffin she can find than to worry about surgery. So what will happen to Albert when she’s gone?

With the help of a leftist activist, Claude, and a couple, photographer Jean and Annie (Geraldine Chaplin), they decide to move in together, like college students in their first home. Meanwhile, after Albert hires Dirk, an anthro PhD student from Berlin, as a dog walker, he soon changes his ethnological thesis to look at the real lives of a distinct population: aging, white Europeans. So we get a birds-eye view of their sex lives, social lives, politics, and their long-buried secrets… which come to life again in their new close quarters.

What can I say? This is a sweet, gentle French comedy with excellent acting and realistic characters, including the sexuality of seniors. And you get to see Americans, Germans, and others happily acting in lovely, accented French.

Dimensions

Dir: Sloan U’Ren

Three children – Conrad, Steven and Victoria – are best friends, living in Cambridge in the 20s. They play by racing around willow trees, and dropping things into an extremely deep well. At a lawn party, they encounter a fascinating old professor who explains to them that time is not just something linear, like a piece of string, but also bendable, something that can be looped back again. He puts paper masks over their eyes with little slits in it to show what it’s like to live in two dimensions. We only have to learn to look outside our own restrictive masks, that trap humans in three dimensions. The three of them find it fascinating.

But when something terrible happens to Victoria, Conrad and Stephen become bitter rivals, riven with guilt.

The movie then jumps to the 1930s where they are working together again, with another woman, Annie, to build a functional time machine so they can stop history, and the tragic loss of their friend. If, as they suppose, in parallel universes all possible events might exist, then they should be able to escape the flawed one they live in. One of them must dive right in and change time. But who will it be? And might Victoria already be with them?

This is a fascinating and intricate meditation shaped into a meta-narrative, where the characters end up wondering whether they are emperors dreaming they’re butterflies or butterflies dreaming they’re emperors. It’s part drama, and part puzzle, filmed in period costume beside the University on the banks of the river Cam.

This Space Available
Dir: Gwenaëlle Gobé

Are billboards taking over the world? Sometimes it seems that way. Experts estimate that in 1984 Americans saw 2000 advertising images a day. And it’s tripled since then. Billboards, online banner ads, posters, pop-ups, and traditional commercials. Apparently Japanese advertisers have come up with urban digital screens that read your age and sex and change to target the viewer of the moment. And their ever growing sizes – sometimes illegally wrapping entire 30-storey buildings and turning them into city-sized ads – are becoming more and more common.

But what can we do to counter this? The documentary takes a look at activists around the world and what they’re doing to stop this. It was shot around the world, in Tokyo, Bombay, Moscow, Sao Paolo and across North America.

Graffiti artists slightly alter messages to change them from ads to dire statements. In Toronto, artist activists are replacing crass paper posters on kiosks and in bus shelters with beautiful, translucent prints, paintings and conceptual installations. And local politicians – in places like Houston and Sao Paolo – ban billboards altogether, exposing long hidden parks, spectacular architecture, and breathtaking urban vistas, lost for decades.

But what about freedom of speech? US court rulings have stated, you have no right to illegally post billboards; just the right to post what you want once given legal permission to use the space. But in reality, the bigger the company, the less likely to be fined for illegal postings.

This is a good introduction both to the value and the harm of outdoor visual and sound advertising and how it has changed our lives.

And If We All Lived Together and This Space Available open today in Toronto, And Dimensions will be showing for one night only, August 18th. check your local listings. And it’s only three weeks until TIFF — North America’s biggest film festival and one of the most important ones in the world. Ticket packages are still available, including ones for students and seniors.

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

August 10, 2012. Angsty White Men. Movies reviewed: Oslo, August 31st, Killer Joe, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby

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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Hey white guys out there — do you rule the world, cause all the trouble, and carry the guilt on your shoulders? (It seemed so on the news last night). Well, this week I’m looking at three movies about white guys, and the bitter angst of responsibility, fear of failure, and the terrible crimes we are responsible for.

One’s a Norwegian drama about a guy in his 30s, forced to confront the world outside his addiction centre; there’s a crime drama about a guy in his 20s who considers turning to murder to solve his own debts; and an American documentary about an ethical family man… who played a part in some of his country’s worst war crimes.

Oslo, August 31st

Dir: Joachim Trier

Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a wiry, intense intellectual in his mid-thirties. He is let out of a drug rehab centre for a day after a long stay. The movie follows his encounters with family, friends, party-goers, and strangers in homes, offices, parks and cafes.

Anders is not your “normal drug addict” (if there is such a thing); he’s successful at picking up women, has (or once had) a relaxed self-confidence at social gatherings, and is much more comfortable debating Proustian aesthetics than sitting at moderated addiction self-help groups. But his intelligence, razor wit, and nuanced reactions are not enough.

He just can’t face the outside world. He finds himself rejected or completely blanked by a lot of the people – his old friends and family — he tries to speak to. But he is so filled with despair and self-loathing that he seems to sabotage his future, even when things seem to be going right. Because he’s sure there is no future: he blew his chances of a promising career and family life and he can never get back to them.

I don’t do justice to this beautiful, desperate movie by concentrating on the plot – that’s just the framework. It’s more of a travelogue of a shut-in’s chance to experience a day out in his city. He’s never happier than when he absorbs and mentally files the random conversations around him, along with the voices of past conversations echoing in his brain – sonic flashbacks. You feel for Anders but you experience the rejection and anger by those around him who he may have wronged in the past.

This is a great, gently-paced internal drama: I recommend it.

Killer Joe

Dir: William Friedkin

Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a broke loser in debt to a local good-old-boy. But, with the help of his stupid father (Thomas Haden Church) and despite resistance from his sleazy, shifty step-mother (Gina Gershon) he comes up with a plan to get the 25 grand he needs: he’ll secretly murder his mom and split the insurance with his dad. They hire a corrupt and deadly local cop known as Killer Joe (Matt McConaughey) to do the deed. But when their plans don’t go as smoothly as they thought they would, Chris’ younger sister, the appropriately-named Dottie (Juno Temple), is dragged into the mess he made.

Dottie is tetched in the head. Although now sexually an adult she still thinks of herself as a 12 year old, and likes to practice kungfu kicks while watching Chinese movies on TV. She’s given to random non-sequitors, and taking off her clothes. And the predatory Killer Joe wants to take her as sexual collateral until he gets paid.

Will Chris and Dottie remain true to their vows of loyalty? Will he escape the venomous cop and the violent local mobster? And what about their Mom?

OK – this movie has a lot going for it. It’s based on a play with a gripping plot (which may or may not translate into a good movie), interesting characters, and an excellent cast, and it’s directed by William Friedkin who brought us The Exorcist, The French Connection and the Boys in the Band. But (perhaps because of its low-budget) it wavers between good and cool, and drop-dead awful. So we get to see the (generally credible) Emile Hirsch overacting wildly in a scene where he loses it before the camera; and even worse, Juno Temple reciting her non-sequitor lines deadpan. (Come on, Juno – if Dottie’s crazy or mentally handicapped it’s not enough just to read the lines and stand around naked. It may work for a few minutes but eventually you have to act.)

On top of this, you have to sit through a relentless and excruciatingly violent scene of a sexual assault using a Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick. While there are some good parts, the unevenness of the acting and the overblown dialogue make it hit or miss.  And this hard-core crime-drama is definitely not for the squeamish.

The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby

Dir: Carl Colby

William Colby was a career spy who worked his way to the top of the CIA from its earliest stages immediately after WWII, to the awful fallout of The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Some background: The CIA was formed as the main international intelligence agency following WWII, and by the 1950s took on the Cold War as its main raison d’etre. So, in addition to collecting information, the CIA was also infiltrating civil rights groups, financing political parties of the right, and sabotage parties that were left of centre; and sponsoring coups to overthrow elected governments around the world (in Iran, Chile, and Vietnam, among others) in the name of democracy and the free world.

So into this world steps the educated and upper-class devout Catholic William Colby. This movie follows his career from WWII, to being an agent working out of the Embassy in Rome, funneling millions in cash to the conservative Christian Democrats to stop Italy from “falling to the Communists”.

From there he moves to Saigon, reluctantly playing a part in the coup that brought down South Vietnam’s (Catholic President Nho Dimh Dien) and the changes in policy from benevelant helper of the South Vietnamese to purveyor of napalm and agent orange (that leads to over a million deaths.) This culminates in a series of testimonies he gives before the US Senate investigating the CIAs wrong doings. (Ironically, his truthful testimony uncovers a huge load of dirty laundry the CIA had kept hidden until then.)

The film covers all angles, using period film clios and snap shots, but what’s really interesting is that the talking heads – notorious figures like Donald Rumsfeld and famed journalists like Seymour Hersh – all speak directly to the filmmaker. So their memories aren’t all about Bill Colby, they’re about “your father”. (Probably it was the director’s personal connections that allowed him access to some of these major figures.) His mother’s testimony is especially interesting. For example, she talks about going to a cocktail party and being held back from speaking with a couple they had had drinks with just the night before “ We don’t know them”. She had trouble keeping track of her husband’s web of covert deceptions.

The Man Nobody Knew is a good documentary both as an apolitical history of the CIA and as a personal bio.

The dramas Oslo, August 31st and Killer Joe open today in Toronto, and the documentary The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, is now playing at the HotDocs Bloor St Cinema – check your local listings. Also, coming out this week on DVD and blueray is the wonderful Genie Award-winning Quebec drama, Monsieur Lazhar (Directed by Philippe Falardeau). This is a great movie – touching, tender, funny – about a French-speaking Algerian schoolteacher with a hidden, tragic past who tries to find peace teaching Montreal kids… who are recovering from their own loss.

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

August 3, 2012. Movies Reviewed: 360, Blue Like Jazz. PLUS Queen of Versailles, The Invisible War

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, documentary, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Countless fairytales about travellers include a scene where a character comes to a fork in the road, and has to decide which way to go. One direction could bring happiness and good fortune; the other way – danger. This week I’m looking at two movies about people making life decisions and where that path takes them. One’s a low-budget American movie about a young, conservative Texan who ends up in liberal Portand, Oregan; the other’s a multi-lingual drama with an international cast about people facing life-changing decisions that end up affecting dozens of strangers they’ll never meet.

360
Dir: Fernando Meirelles

In a series of apparently unrelated stories in Vienna, Paris and London, we see men and women falling in love, and falling out of it, having illicit affairs, purchasing sexual acts, stalking strange women, resisting temptation, breaking up and starting all over again.

(This is a difficult movie to describe without giving away the stories and relationships which provide the main reason for watching this movie… but I’ll try) In just one of the linked stories, a
middle-class, somewhat selfish London couple, (Jude Law and Rachel Weisz) have a fragile relationship but, depending on which direction they each decide to take it, they will affect lots of people – a sex trade worker in Eastern Europe, a Brazilian woman stranded in a US airport (alongside an old man seeking his daughter’s dead body, and a sex offender recently released from prison) as she heads home to Rio.

These and many other stories come looping back in a 360 degree turn, just like the ring roads in the grand European capitals – Vienna, London and Paris. Since these are all strangers who meet at random, we see the characters in hotel bars, airport lobbies, cafes, internet sites, and AA meetings, the sorts of places strangers meet. We get a glimpse of their problems and decisions, then — zoom! — it’s on to the next city.

All the individual stories are loosely woven together, but not in the neat circle the title suggests. It’s not even like the hub in a wheel with lots of spokes heading out. It’s more like throwing a bunch of shoes into a bag, shaking them up, and then wondering how all the laces got so tangled and knotted. It’s definitely interesting, and neat, and the plot is never predictable (lots of the characters don’t take the paths you expect them to)… but I was left wondering if I was duped by complicated junk or had just witnessed a masterpiece. Or more simply: is it a good movie?

A movie doesn’t have to be great and perfect, but this one seems to be a smaller film than the grandiose themes it’s tackling. On the positive side, it’s not encumbered with a weepy, Hollywood violin soundtrack; instead it skips from city to city with old local pop songs. And it does have a great international cast (Jamel Debbouze, etc), a well-known Brazilian director who did City of God, and the UK writer Peter Morgan.

Hmm… is it just pandering, “Oscar Bait”? No, that’s not quite fair, although it does have that grave, sombre tone of too many film festival movies. But it’s also fascinating, a bit thrilling and tense, with a bit if ironic humour. Even if the movie as a whole left me feeling cold and devoid of satisfaction (that 1960’s, angsty European feel) it’s still a unique piece of work.

OK, I give in. I liked it. It wasn’t bad. Go see it.

Blue Like Jazz
Dir: Steve Taylor

Donny (Marshall Allman) is a good Texan. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t cuss. He tucks in his short-sleeved shirt, and goes to Baptist church every Sunday, and does whatever his divorced mother tells him to. But right when he’s about to go off to Baptist College he discovers two things: his layabout Dad who lives in a trailer park is ready to bankroll his tuition at a liberal arts school in Portland(ia); and his bible-ready Mom isn’t quite the goody-goody church lady he thought she was. He decides the church has betrayed him, so he heads off to open his mind to new ideas.

So the movie follows his experiences as a Fresher at college, as he gradually adjusts to student life. He falls in with Lauren (Tania Raymonde), a genuine lesbian who looks like Amy Winehouse; The Pope, an older college rabble-rouser given to dressing in a robe and mitre; and Penny, an earnest politically active blonde woman
who is fighting plastic water bottles. His shirts get untucked, then he switches to T-shirts, stops shaving and soon enough he’s throwing beer bottles out of windows and popping MDMA at outdoor raves. Portland is not without its rules. Umbrellas are considered “uncool” and Penny warns him that, in these parts, Christians are expected to stay in their religious closets – they don’t “come out” as born again.

It’s up to Donny to decide if he should permanently ditch the church in favour of new ideas, or to fall back on his childhood upbringing.

Blue like Jazz is an extremely low-budget drama, paid for through crowd-sourcing. It’s actually a fun, coming-of-age college movie, with interesting characters, a nice story and good acting. Worth watching.

Also opening this weekend are the two documentaries The Invisible War, and The Queen of Versailles.

The Invisible War (Dir: Kirby Dick) tells about the estimated one million rapes or sexual assaults that have happened within the US armed forces over the past half century, how the perpetrators are let off even as the victims face punishment. It’s an important look at a shocking subject. (Listen to my interview with director Kirby Dick)

And on a much lighter note, is the Queen of Versailles, a hilarious documentary by Lauren Greenfield about a pneumatically equipped compulsive shopper with many children and little yappy dogs; and her husband, an elderly time-share mogul, who, together, attempt to build themselves a replica of the Palace of Versailles in the Florida everglades — the biggest home in the world — but are caught in a lurch by the sudden bursting of the real estate bubble. (Read my Hotdocs review here.)

The dramas 360 and Blue Like Jazz, and the documentaries The Invisible War and the Queen of Versailles all open today in Toronto – check your local listings.

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

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