Hope? Films reviewed: The Matrix Resurrections, Try Harder, American Underdog

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

New Year’s Day is a good time to look toward the future and make plans. So this week I’m looking at three new movies, a drama, a documentary, and a science fiction action /thriller, about looking forward. There’s a football player who dreams of playing for the NFL, a group of high school students who dream of going to Stanford, and a video game creator who dreams of a world completely different from our  own. 

The Matrix Resurrections

Co-Wri/Dir: Lana Wachowski 

Tom Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a video game maker and programmer in Chicago. His baby is a series called The Matrix —0 there have been three versions so far and the company is thinking of creating a fourth. The game — created and programmed by Tom and financed by his business partner (Jonathan Groff) — is about two fighters named Neo and Trinity who fight in a parallel world against a villain named Smith. At a cafe Tom frequents, he notices a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), and she notices him, too. Have they met? No, but Trinity and Neo, the characters in the game, look very similar to Tiffany and Tom. And Tom has been having weird dreams and deja vu, so his analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) gives him meds  — blue pills — to keep his mind from wandering. That is, until one day glitches start to appear on his computer matrix, unexplained activity within his own designs. These soon morph into changes in real life: people, (actually characters he created) are appearing in the office! And they know who he is… Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a fighter, and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) are their to explain it all. 

You’re not Tom, they say, you’re Neo. And it isn’t your dreams that are false, it’s your daily life that’s made up. You can pass through mirrors, climb walls, jump off roofs and fly! And if he just stops swallowing those blue pills he’ll see what the world is really like — a futuristic dystopia of people kept alive in rusty pods guarded by scary bots. Will he stay in his current world or break free? What awaits him in the other world? And will Tiffany/Trinity come with him if he goes?

The Matrix Resurrections is the long awaited sequel to the famous Matrix trilogy that has permeated our popular culture. People still use the terms “swallowing the blue pill” to refer to those who go about their daily lives ignoring a darker reality. It incorporates older footage in the forms of dreams and flashbacks, while introducing new characters as well as new actors playing older roles. It’s two and half hours long, much of which is gun fights, chase scenes, and endless SGI images.

Does it work? I’m not a Matrix fanboy, so I have no deep, vested interest in finding out what happens to these characters. I like the new plot twists, and the whole meta-aspect of it (it initially presents the previous episodes as existing in this universe but only as video games). And it’s fun just to watch (though a bit too long). I enjoyed this final version of the Matrix, but it didn’t change my life.

Try Harder

Dir: Debbie Lum

San Francisco’s Lowell School, known for its exceptional test scores and a graduation rate of nearly 100%, is one of the most famous public schools in California. Students there are under pressure — from their parents, other students, and themselves, to achieve high marks, SAT scores and ultimately to get into a prestigious university. This documentary looks at five students as they try to navigate the stress of senior year. 

The film follows the students at school, in their classes, at teams and clubs, and at home. The school — like the city — has a large Asian-American population, mainly of Chinese origin, but explores the stark differences as well, of class race and culture. Some are the kids of recent immigrants, while others are a part of the city’s long history. It also looks at differences in attitudes and stereotypes. This film doesn’t try to dig too deeply or uncover surprising turns; rather it observes and talks to the subjects and lets nature take its course — as they apply to universities and change their expectations over the course of the year. Try Harder is an intimate look at how teenagers handle what many consider the most important year of their lives. 

American Underdog

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) is born in small-town Iowa and raised by his divorced mom. Ever since he was a kid he has always wanted to be a pro football player. He practices religiously, till his arm can throw balls like a howitzer. After  high school he makes the team  at Northern Iowa University, but spends most of his time on the bench. One night, at a roadhouse bar, a certain woman catches his eye. Brenda (Anna Paquin) is a no-nonsense former marine who likes line dancing and Country & Western music. But she won’t give Kurt her number. How come? She has two small kids, including one with disabilities, and she doesn’t have the time to waste on guys like him. But Kurt is persistent. He brings her flowers, and more important, just it off with Zach (Hayden Zaller) her legally blind and disabled son. So they start dating. Meanwhile his career is advancing nicely, until he is asked to try out for the Green Bay Packers. Is this his big chance? Nope, he only lasts one day. 

Now he has to work as a stock boy at the local grocery store. Eventually he is recruited to play pro football… well, kinda. It’s a new sport called Arena Football: played indoors on smaller fields, with fewer players and is much faster than the usual game. The years pass, and he’s spotted by someone who wants him to play on for the St Louis Rams — that’s NFL. But can someone who is way too old to be a rookie, and too green to be a pro  ever make it in the NFL? And can he win and keep Brenda’s heart?

American Underdog is a moving family drama and sports biopic based on a true story.  It’s no spoiler to say that Warner ended up taking his team to the Super Bowl and was awarded Most Valuable Player and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. But this film tells us what led up to it and how he got there.

This is what’s known as a “Christian” or “faith-based”  movie,  a particular American genre, with no nudity, sex, drugs or even cussing. It’s all about cornfields and country music… not my usual cup of tea. Nor am I football fanatic. But you know what? It’s a compelling story, with real situations and interesting characters. It’s not sappy or corny or cheesy, nor is it cringe-worthy (unlike your average Hallmark movie). No. This is an honestly good, nice film. OK, there’s no way — even in a dark room — that you would ever mistake a 40-year-old Zachary Levi for a college student. No way. But that’s beside the point. He’s good, and so is Paquin, and Hayden Zaller as the kid Zach is adorable without ever being cutesy. I saw the Erwin brothers previous Christian film, “I Still Believe” and there’s no comparison — this one is a cut above. 

American Underdog, is now playing theatrically, check your local listings. You can find the Matrix Resurrections in theatres and certain streaming services, while Try Harder is playing at Hot Docs cinema and on VOD.

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

Old-school Heroes. Films Reviewed: Gleason, Anthropoid PLUS #TIFF16

Posted in 1940s, Cultural Mining, Czechoslovakia, Disabilities, documentary, Espionage, Football, Movies, Resistance, Romance, WWII by CulturalMining.com on August 12, 2016

SachaHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Toronto International Film Festival, opening in September, has announced some of its big ticket premiers. And a running theme is heroism. TIFF opens with Antoine Fuqua’s 13735682_260091707716632_4902776212232250389_o(Training Day) remake of the classic spaghetti western The Magnificent Seven (based, of course, on Kurusawa’s Seven Samurai). Another movie filled with heroes is Oliver Stone’s biopic Snowden. It’s about everyone’s favourite whistleblower queen of katweEdward Snowden who revealed the chilling fact that the NSA is spying on all of us.

India’s great director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) is bringing us Queen of Katwe about a young girl in Uganda who is sent to Russia to become a chess champion. This one looks so good, and co-stars Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. And then there’s a political documentary about IF Stone’s investigative journalism. The theme is in the title: All All Governments LieGovernments Lie. I haven’t seen any of these movies yet, but they do sound interesting.

But there’s no need to wait a month for your share of heroes. This week I’m looking at two new movies with old fashioned heroes. There’s a wartime thriller about two men fighting for their country, and a documentary about an NFL running back fighting for his life.

5f83d981-4835-420b-bbb4-34b5bff7db92Gleason

Dir: Clay Tweel

Steve Gleason is a running back. Smaller than the average football player, he makes up for it with his lightning speed. He plays for the New Orleans Saints. Just a year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, he sets the crowd wild with a legendary play at the Superdome. It’s labelled a symbol of the city’s rebirth. Steve is the antithesis of the stereotypical football player: long-haired, adventurous, smart and articulate. He’s like a punk hippy. He’s a great guy, a free spirit, a local hero. He meets Michel – a wonderful woman, equally unusual and 3b9bacf2-12f6-4f5c-bb5c-35b491530832independent. They get married enjoying the fun and laughter of young love.

He retires from football and just a couple years later, he notices a physical change. It’s just a small change, but he goes to a naturopath and then to a doctor to check it out. And in January, 2011, he is diagnosed with a neurological condition: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. ALS, also known as Lou Gerhig’s disease, is a View More: http://keridoolittle.pass.us/gleason-hall-of-famedegenerative condition where you gradually lose your ability to walk, talk, move and eventually even to breathe – your awareness and perception of the outside world doesn’t change, but your ability to move and express yourself does. And just a few weeks after his diagnosis Michel discovers she’s pregnant.

This film is a record of his life with ALS. It shows the very rapid decline in his abilities over the course of just a year. But during that time he and Michel decide to devote their lives to raising awareness of ALS. He makes appearances at football games, and becomes friends with musician Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam. And he raises lots of money so that all people with ALS are provided with devoices to give them a voice after they stop talking. This film is also a video letter to their son Rivers so he won’t grow up 44741754-b1ea-45c4-877a-a2766e62b5b2never hearing his Dad’s voice.

This is a touching personal movie about faith, disabilities and family relations. It chronicles the day-to-day difficulty and drudgery of living with ALS, including lots of scenes you may not want to think about: like surgery, bowel movements, food chewing and marital difficulties. There’s also Michel caring for two people at once – her husband and her baby. And his Dad, an evangelical Christian who believes in faith healing. Steve’s faith is very different.

While not an easy film, I think it raises awareness of ALS a lot more than dumping buckets of ice water on your head.

L1007758.jpgAnthropoid

Dir: Sean Ellis

It’s WWII in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Jan and Josef (Cillian Murphy, James Dornan) are two members of the resistance. They are based in London with the government in exile, but are parachuted back into their country late at night. Along with a handful of others, they are there on a mission known as Operation Anthropoid. Their goal? To assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich is considered the third most powerful man L1007978.DNGin Nazi Germany, after Hitler and Himmler, and is in charge of the SS in occupied Czechoslavakia. Because of his infamous cruelty and mass killings, he is known as the Butcher of Prague.

The two men make their way into the city to carry out their assignment. But when they meet up with what remains of the local resistance fighters, they discover broken men. They have completely lost their moxie. They don’t want to fight;

L1010105.DNGtheir only goal is to stay alive. They warn Jan and Josef that their mission is impossible and will lead to torture and death.

They meet two young women to pose as girlfriends so as ot to raise suspicion. Marie (Charlotte Le Bon) is beautiful with pale skin and raven hair. Her friend Lenka (Anna Geislerová), is an elegant redhead. Together they plot a complex plan to ambush the anthropoid-ANTH_00619_rgbheavily-guarded Heydrich at a city intersection. Can false relationships turn to real love? Will their plan succeed? And if they do succeed who will survive the wrath of the occupying forces?

Anthropoid is a classic wartime thriller, based on real events. I liked this movie, though parts of it bothered me. Why do the main characters all speak English but with fake Czech accents?

L1008450.DNGAnd for a thriller, it starts out slow, with lots of waiting around… though it picks up handily later on, with a gripping and exciting battle scene. The main cast – the men are Irish, the women Canadian and Czech – is very attractive, almost more like models than actors. The period costumes, sets, and locations are beautifully done. So all in all, Anthropoid is an enjoyable espionage thriller.

Gleason and Anthropoid both 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

September 21, 2012. TIFF Round-up. Movies Reviewed: Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence, Anyways + TIFF12 awards

Posted in Cultural Mining, Dance, Drama, Football, Mental Illness, Movies, Quebec, Queer, Trans, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 2012

Photographs by Jeff Harris

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.
Xavier Dolan TIFF12 awards Photo by Jeff Harris

TIFF is over for the year. I feel like a kid who was left, unsupervised at an all-you-can-eat buffet with no one to tell me to stop stuffing my face. I ended up seeing 53 TIFF movies (if including the 17 press screenings I saw in the weeks before the festival started), and liking about 2/3 of them. I ran on adrenaline — not food, sleep, or exercise — for the length of it, turning my eyes red, my body to mush, and my brain to putty. Luckily I kept good notes.

The winners were announced on Sunday, with the Blackberry People’s Choice going to Silver Linings Playbook, the Midnight Madness award to the very funny Seven Psychopaths, the NETPAC award to Sion Sono’s excellent Land of Hope, a look at the Japanese nuclear meltdown, and the City of Toronto award to Laurence, Anyways. The Canadian first feature prize was split between Jason Buxton’s excellent Blackbird, for its authenticity and social conscience, and Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral for its sophisticated visuals and plot. So this week, I’ll take a look at two of these winners, both of which deal with odd couples and mental illness.

Silver Linings Playbook

Dir: David O. Russell

When Pat Jr (Bradley Cooper), a schoolteacher from suburban Philadelphia, is let out of a me­ntal hospital he vows to make his life better. He’ll get back in shape, re-connect with his estranged wife, Nikki, and stop all the negativity in his mind. He’s going to look at the silver linings in his life, not the dark clouds. But the dark clouds keep coming back. He has moved back in with his mom and dad, and Pat Sr. (Robert de Niro) is an abusive, obsessive-compulsive bookie. Pat Sr wants his whole family to base their lives on his obscure patterns and lucky shirts so he can bring the Eagles football team to NFL victory.

Meanwhile, Pat Jr will do anything to get a letter to Nikki, and he finds out the way to do that, when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an extremely intelligent and beautiful young woman who stalks him during his morning jogs.

She’s the only one who can see through his BS without being afraid of his odd behaviour. Tiffany understands what he’s going through – since she’s had her own episodes and sexual compulsions. So if Pat agrees to be her dancing partner in a contest, she’ll help him get his wife back. But is that what she really wants?

Silver Linings Playbook is a fun, crowd-pleaser that presents mental illness as a palatable, fascinating, and easy-to-understand difficulty that people can overcome with hard work, the right attitude, and a bit if help from friends and family. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are a nice couple, and De Niro is finally acting again, not just mugging for the camera. I have absolutely no interest in Philadelphia’s football scene, or Dancing With the Stars, but the fact that the story depended on those two subjects didn’t make it ay less interesting.

Laurence, Anyways

Dir: Xavier Dolan

Laurence Alia (French actor Melville Poupaud) is a slim prof with a black buzzcut living in Montreal in the late 80’s. He’s in love with his fiery, beautiful and passionate girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement). She’s gaining fame as an assistant director while he’s fighting off the adoring looks of the pretty girls in his lectures on Celine. And the two of them are trying for a baby. But one day, in the middle of having sex he confesses he’s about to die. The old Laurence of the past three decades was all a façade which he is now throwing away to make way for the real Laurence: a woman! Fred is shocked and their relationship teeters on the brink.

As Laurence embarks on her transition, she loses her job, and since she can’t easily “pass” in public, she faces physical danger and derision from strangers. When Lawrence is bashed in a bar she is given refuge by an unusual family – the Five Roses. He awakens in a palatial building filled with the actual tabernacles, chalices, hostiesand ciboires that Fred curses about in one of her rants — a sort of a cathedral of transsexuality, a Quebecois Notre Dame des Fleurs.

Fred, meanwhile, is left to deal with her bipolar episodes on her own, as Laurence is more busy with her own changes than that of her lover. As the decade passes, Fred retreats to Trois Rivieres with a handsome but bland husband, while Laurence, with a new blond girlfriend, publishes her poems in Europe. Will the troubles that tore them apart bring them back together?

Laurence, Anyways is a long, complicated melodrama of mismatched lovers immersed in  Quebec’s cultural life even while facing their personal trials alone and together over the course of a decade.

Poupaud and Clement are great as the lovers, and Monia Chokri (as Fred’s acerbic and offensive sister Stephanie) steals every scene she’s in. This is not a perfect movie: it’s longer than it needs to be, the story has some confusing omissions which leave me unsatisfied, and some of the montages — which look like 80’s music videos — while a welcome break, are a bit jarring. (They feel like the director is intruding into his characters’ story).

This is how I felt watching it. But an amazing thing happens: in the very last, short scene, it all ties together with a masterful ending. This is Dolan’s most challenging and sophisticated  movie so far.

They’re both good, enjoyable movies, touching similar topics.

Laurence, Anyways is less commercial than Silver Linings, the mentally ill characters are less delightful, but it feels more passionate and heartfelt, and less calculated and Oscar-hungry.

Silver Linings Playbook and Lawrence Anyways both won major awards at TIFF. Laurence opens this weekend and Playbook will be released later this fall. And don’t miss the fantastic documentary opening soon at the Bloor, Detropia – a look at the collapse and possible revival of the rapidly shrinking city of Detroit.

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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