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

Potential explosions. Films reviewed: House of Gucci, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, Drive My Car

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Acting, Action, Crime, Family, Fashion, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Theatre, video games, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on November 27, 2021

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

With all the stress in people’s lives these days, movies are a good place to purge personal tensions by watching other people’s explosive disasters. This week I’m looking at three new movies about potential explosions.

There’s a zombie-infested city about to be bombed to oblivion, a Hiroshima theatre festival facing an explosive personal conflict; and a bombshell in Italy who threatens a powerful family.

House of Gucci

Wri/Dir: Ridley Scott

It’s the 1970s in northern Italy. Gucci is a major luxury brand specializing in leather goods. Founded 50 years earlier, it is now in the hands of the second generation. Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), an ailing but piss-elegant man who surrounds himself with priceless art, works behind the scenes, He is grooming his smart but nerdish son Maurizio (Adam Driver) to take over. But the law school student shows little interest in the company or the family. The other half is headed by Aldo (Al Pacino) a hands-on guy who heads the company’s American branch, and wants to expand into the Asian market. But he considers his hapless son Paolo (Jared Leto) an idiot. Enter Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). She’s an accountant at her dad’s trucking business, but has greater ambitions. She meets Maurizio at a party, when she mistakes him for the bartender, but when she hears the name Gucci, her ears perk up. She wants in. After a few dates it’s true love, but Rodolfo doesn’t want his family name besmirched by a trucker’s daughter (forgetting that his own father who founded the company was not a rich man.) So Maurizzio marries into her family gives up his inheritance, and starts hosing down trucks — the best job he’s ever had, he says. But not for long. Following her TV psychic’s instructions Patricia manipulates and manoeuvres Maurizzio’s family to bring him back into the fold (with her at his side) to claw his way back to the top. And she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants. But can they survive the troubles yet to come?

House of Gucci is a true crime/corporate family drama about the rise and fall of a rich family… which isn’t that interesting on its own. And I can’t stand an entire movie of American actors putting on vaguely foreign euro accents — we’re supposed to imagine them speaking their native Italian — why the awful accents? But that’s not why the movie is so much fun. What makes this movie work are two things. One is the amazing fashion and design of the whole movie. Everyone is constantly dressing up— more dresses and purses and tuxes and jewelry than you can shake a stick at.. Even more than this are all the campy, over-the-top characters, chewing the scenery as each one tries to out-do the others. Effete Jeremy Irons, a dazed Salma Hayek, a wonderful Al Pacino, and best of all, Jared Leto, as the hilarious Paolo. Lady Gaga is OK, but can’t compare to the masterful performers all around her. And Adam Driver is the dull straight man who steps back and lets the others shine. House of Gucci is a very enjoyable feast of high-fashion schlock.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

Wri/Dir: Johannes Roberts

It’s the 1990s, somewhere in the US. Chris and Claire Redfield are an estranged brother and sister.  They grew up in the Racoon City Orphanage, a creepy place filled with weird dolls and strange creatures that appear late at night. It is run by the Umbrella corporation the worlds largest pharmaceutical company. But Claire (Kaya Scodelario) runs away when she sees something terrible, while Chris (Robbie Amell) joins the local police force. But now she’s back… to warn Chris that something terrible is about to happen. A leak at the lab has let loose a horrible epidemic infecting nearly everyone in the town. But rather than getting sick, this virus makes your eyes bleed, your hair fall out and you turn into a flesh eating zombie. Or worse (no spoilers). They have until 6 am to fight off these monsters and escape from this hell-hole, or else they, and the rest of the town will be wiped off the face of the earth. They split up; Chris, and fellow cops Wesker and Valentine (Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen) investigate the Spencer mansion, while Claire, the Police Chief, and Leon, a newby on his first day of work (Avan Jogia) set out from the police station. Will they ever get together? Who will live and who will die? And what secrets do these labs hold?

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is a movie based on a video game, plain and simple. There are some good laughs, and a threadbare plot line, but it’s mainly reenacting the game, from the long dark hallways where zombies run towards you, to the dark and scary Spencer mansion. Even some of the camera angles and pans duplicate the game itself.  But it’s very cool to see on the big screen scary pitch-black scenes lit only by a lighter and the flash of gunfire revealing zombie faces. That said, it’s more eerie than scary, more action than horror. Not bad, but not much to it.

Drive My Car

Dir: Hamaguchi Ryusuke

Kafuku and Oto are a happily married couple in Tokyo. Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and director in theatres, while Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a famous scriptwriter for TV and film. Oto’s ideas come to her at an unexpected time — while they’re having sex. Her bizarre stories are generated in the throws of orgasmic bliss, recited aloud to her husband, so it’s up to him to listen and remind her the next morning of what she said. But everything changes one day when he comes back early from a cancelled flight to Vladivostok. He catches sight of her making love to another, much younger, man in their bedroom. He sneaks away instead of barging in, but before they have a chance to talk about it, she dies of an unexpected cerebral hemorrhage.  

Years later he’s invited to direct a play — Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — for a festival in Hiroshima. Kafuku’s trademark method is to cast his plays with actors who speak other languages and can’t understand each other. In this one the actors speak Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and even signs language. So they practice under his exacting direction, forced to keep each line perfectly timed. But there’s a twist: the most famous actor in the play is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a handsome and arrogant star who says he idolizes Kafuku and his late wife Oto. And he’s the one Kafuku thinks he saw having sex with his wife before she died. Meanwhile, in line with the theatre company’s rules, all directors must be driven to and from the theatre each day. So Kafuku gets to know the introverted Misaki (Tôko Miura), a young female driver from Hokkaido with a strange story. But as the production nears its premier date something terrible happens, forcing all the main players to reevaluate their priorities. 

Drive My Car is a beautiful drama about love, loss, jealousy, and guilt. The movie builds slowly in an exacting manner, as the director and the various actors get to know one another. And the excerpts from Uncle Vanya we see as they rehearse exactly mirror the feelings and thoughts of the characters in the movie. That’s not the only story. There’s also Oto’s own stories she told her husband, and the personal confessions from the driver herself about her dark past. The acting is superb, and the panoramic views, ranging from drives on causeways and through tunnels to footage of a vast municipal incinerator, are breathtaking. The film is based on a Murakami story, with all the weird quirky fantasy combined with mundane realism you’d expect from him. Drive My Car is a long movie but one that is deeply, emotionally satisfying.

House of Gucci and Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City are now playing theatrically in Toronto; check your local listings; and Drive My Car has just opened at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

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

Separated. Films reviewed: Dear Comrades!, A Glitch in the Matrix, Two of Us

Posted in 1960s, documentary, Family, France, Lesbian, LGBT, Protest, Psychology, Romance, Russia, TIFF, USSR, video games, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 5, 2021

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

Festival and award season has begun, so this week I’m looking at three new movies – from the US, Russia and France – now playing at Sundance or already nominated for upcoming awards. There are people who believe perception is separate from reality; a Communist official separated from her daughter; and an elderly woman separated from the love of her life.

Dear Comrades!

Co-Wri/Dir: Andrey Konchalovskiy 

It’s summer in a small Russian city on the Don River, and the people are angry. Food prices are soaring while wages are going down. Thousands of factory workers take to the streets carrying red flags and pictures of Lenin. Is this the Russian revolution of 1905? Or is it 1917?

Neither… it’s the Soviet Union in 1962!

Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) is a single mom who lives with her and her daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) who works in a train factory, She’s an ardent Stalinist. And because she’s an apparatchik — a high-placed local official and member of the Communist Party — she lives a good life. This means access to hair salons, nylon stockings, negligees, and Hungarian salami. She’s having an affair with a married official. 

The food shortages and wage cuts don’t really affect her.

But her life is shaken up by the  walkout at a locomotive factory (where Svetka works) and spreading across the city of Novocherkassk. And their meetings — they’re trying to figure out how to handle this — end up with bricks through the window and Lyuda and the rest forced to sneak out through a sewer tunnel. In comes the KGB who want to bring guns ammunition into the equation: the instigators must be stopped. Mayhem and killings ensue. Lyuda is a hardliner, but when her daughter disappears she has to decide whether her loyalty is to the state or to her kin.

Dear Comrades is a moving drama about a real event and the massive cover-up that followed it. It’s shot in glorious, high-contrast black and white, similar to Polish director Pawilowski’s Ida and Cold War, but with magnificent, classic cinematic scenes involving hundreds of rioters and soldiers in the public square. Yuliya Vysotskaya’s  performance as Lyuda runs the gamut from cold official to angry mother to disillusioned and drunken party member as her entire existence and beliefs are called into question.

This is Russia’s nominee for best foreign film Oscar and definitely deserves to be seen.

A Glitch in the Matrix

Dir: Rodney Ascher 

Have you ever had the sensation that everything around you — other people, your job, what you see and hear — is an illusion, that you’re living in a programmed reality? If so, you’re not alone. A new documentary talks to people who are convinced they are trapped in a world like the Wachowskis’ 1999 movie The Matrix, where everything they perceive is just a computer simulation. And anyone else — other than one’s self — is either a part of this conspiracy, or a victim of it, or they don’t even exist outside of your head. And it is only detectable by paying attention to weird glitches in the system, like odd examples of deja vu, or coincidences that are too absurd or fantastical to be merely random events. 

The doc interviews people rendered into 3-D animated avatars who tell about their own experiences. It also gives a full history of these beliefs, dating back to Plato’s concept of shadows on the wall of a cave, through Descarte’s  epistemological example of an “Evil Demon” deceiving us, all the way to the present. This includes a rare recording of a speech given by author Phillip K Dick in the 1970s, who says the ideas in his books are not science fiction but science fact. His stories inspired movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall.

A Glitch in the Matrix is a fascinating, informative and bizarre documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a couple days ago. Aside from the animated interviews and narration, it presents a veritable tsunami of visual references to movies and TV shows video games that deal with these topics. I’m talking hundreds of clips, from the game Minecraft, to The Truman Show, to the kids’ book Horton Hears a Who, all of which propose that there are worlds or universes who don’t know they are just tiny self-contained units within much larger realities.

Do I believe I’m living in a glass dome or floating in a sensory deprivation tank? No. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying this mind-warp of a documentary.

Two of Us

Co-Wri/Dir: Filippo Meneghetti

Nina and Madeleine (Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier) are two elderly women who live in Paris (Nina’s originally from Berlin). They first met as children in a public park in Rome, and kept in touch ever since. And for the past 20 years they’ve been passionate lovers who share one floor of an apartment building, floating back and forth between the two homes separated by a hallway. And they’re planning on selling them leaving Paris and retiring somewhere in Rome. The only thing holding them back are Madeleine (or Made as Nina calls her)’s two adult children and her Anne and Frédéric and her grandson Théo.

She was married to an abusive husband for Amy years until he died, though her actual relationship was with her lover Nina. But she’s never told her family the truth — she’s too worried about what they’ll think. But when Mado has a sudden stroke rendering her speechless, Nina is suddenly separated from her de facto wife. Mado’s family just think of her as the kindly neighbour Mme Dorn who lives down the hall. They bring in a paid caregiver who blocks her entry into the other apartment. When Nina demands to spend time with her lover, Anne and Frederic begin to regard Nina as a crazy woman who won’t leave their mother alone and cut off all contact. Will Nina and Mado ever see each other again?  And can their relationship be saved?

Two of Us is a wonderful and passionate drama about two elderly lovers. It’s the young, Paris-based Italian director’s first feature, but it feels mature and masterfully done. And it co-stars the great Barbara Sukowa (If you’re into German cinema, you may remember her from movies in the 70s and 80s by Fassbinder and more recently by von Trotta), Sukowa is just as good now as she’s ever been.  And Chevalier conveys volumes even when she can’t speak. The movie is full of pathos and tears and frustration and joy, you feel so much for both of them.

Two of Us is France’s nominee for best Foreign Oscar, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

A Glitch in the Matrix starts today, and Dear Comrade and Two of Us are both opening at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Fall of the Patriarchs. Films reviewed: Downhill, Sonic the Hedgehog, Nose to Tail

Posted in Austria, Canada, comedy, Cooking, Family, Fantasy, Ski, Snow, Super Villains, Toronto, video games by CulturalMining.com on February 14, 2020

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

It’s Valentine’s Day today, as good a time as any to catch a new movie. So this week I’m looking at films about unusual relationships. There’s a husband and wife rejuvenating their marriage at an Alpen ski resort; a divorced, master chef dating the restaurant’s maitre d’;  and a super-sonic, electric-blue hedgehog in a bromance with a traffic cop.

Downhill

Dir: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Pete and Billie (Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are a happily-married couple. He’s a workaholic and a bit of chowderhead, while she’s an successful, if opinionated, lawyer. Billie is worried about her husband. He spends more time texting than playing with their two sons.  And he hasn’t been the sane since his own father died last summer. So when Pete books a family vacation at a ski chalet in the Austrian Alps — and handles all the arrangements — they are all looking forward to a fun, quiet time to heal their inner wounds. When they arrive, they are greeted by an Alpen sexpot named Charlotte (hilariously played by Miranda Otto: Aunt Zelda on  CHilling Adventures of Sabrina) who assures them nudity is encouraged and enforced. (Turns out the family lodge is nearby… they’re at the swingers chalet.)

Then Pete secretly invites his younger workmate Zach (Zach Woods) and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Zhao) to join them. But things really get bad when a planned avalanche crashes near the chalet, sending patrons on an outdoor patio running for cover in the sudden whiteout. Turns out, Billie stayed behind to protect the kids from what they thought was their final moment. And Pete the family patriarch? He grabbed his smart phone and ran, leaving his family to die. No one did die, of course, but now Billie and the kids feel abandoned by Pete in a dangerous crisis.

Will Pete ever regain Billie’s trust or his his kids’ respect? Or are his marriage, his family and his self confidence damaged beyond repair?

Downhill is a mildly funny dramatic comedy about the fall from power of the proverbial middle class white American male. It’s also an American remake of the brilliant Swedish film Force Majeure. But it’s less visually attractive, less biting and bitter than the original, trading subtlety for the broad strokes of tired Euro stereotypes.  Odd sex has been replaced by straightforward moral lessons. Louis-Dreyfus is great as Billie, conveying her hurt and suspicion through a single squint or pursed lip. Ferrell is less successful as a clueless Joe Biden-type, seemingly unaware of his imminent downfall.

Downhill is OK, but not great.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Dir: Jeff Fowler

Sonic is an electric-blue hedgehog who lives in a cave  furnished with a beanbag chair and a ping pong table, near Green Hills, Montana. He looks like a plush toy with spaghetti legs, a button nose and bright red sneakers.  And he can run faster than anything else on earth. He’s so fast he can play ping pong with himself. He’s so fast he can play all the bases on a baseball game at once, pitching a fastball from the pitcher’s mound and then hitting it from home plate. When he’s truly in danger he rolls up into a small blue ball and can generate mammoth amounts of electricity. He carries a bag of golden rings, magic portals that can instantly take hint to any place in the universe.

Sonic is a social animal who speaks perfect English (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and would love to meet friends, but is forced to remain hidden. If anyone found him – or discovered his secret powers – he would be in great danger.

But when he accidentally triggers an interstate blackout, the DC generals fear an enemy attack. They send out an expert to solve the problem and capture the so-called terrorist. This expert is the infamous Dr Robotnik (Jim Carrey) a brash and arrogant genius with multiple PhDs and a curly moustache. He plans to find the elusive source of the blackout… and dissect him. Luckily, Sonic is taken under the wing of the local speed-trap cop named Tom (James Marsden). Although dubious at first, eventually Tom takes to the hedgehog and the two become fast friends They set off on a roadtrip to San Francisco to evade Robotnik, recover the lost gold rings and save the world. But who will triumph? The evil Dr Robotnik? Or the fast little hedgehog and his buddies?

Sonic the Hedgehog is a kids movie based on the famous Sega video game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, movies based on video games is the worst new genre out there. But you know what? I actually enjoyed this one. It’s silly of course, but the special effects are terrific. And the scenes shot from Sonic’s point of view, where everyone else seems frozen in time – like a barfight in a roadhouse where the spiny mammal runs rampant around redneck bikers – are totally fun to watch. OK, there’s relentless product placement (the whole movie is basically an ad) but still… it is fun. And Jim Carrey is a perfect as the villain and very funny.

If you see it, remember to watch it until the credits roll.

Nose to Tail

Wri/Dir: Jesse Zigelstein

Dan (Aaron Abrams) is an arrogant, self-centred master chef at a restaurant in downtown Toronto. He oversees every dish and inspects each outsourced vegetable that arrives in the morning. If anyone in the kitchen steps out of line, he lashes out like a boot camp sergeant. Dan starts his day with a makeshift breakfast of single malt whiskey and prescription drugs. The restaurant is everything to him. He depends on Chloe (Lara Jean Chorostecki) at the front of house, Keith, his Chef de Cuisine ( Brandon McKnight) in the kitchen, and Steven his sommelier (Salvatore Antonio) to keep the wine cellar well stocked. Problem is his world is collapsing all around him.

He’s four months overdue on the rent. Online bloggers are dissing his abrasive manners (fuckin’ millennials!). Keith is heading for greener pastures and his bills are piling up. He stood up Chloe (his on-again, off-again girlfriend) and has berated and verbally abused his entire staff, burning bridges all around him. Then his ex-wife drops by with unexpected news, and a popular new food truck parks right across the street. Everything depends on a high school friend and millionaire (Ennis Esmer) who is coming for dinner that night. Will he invest in the business? Or will the restaurant – just like the heritage pig he cuts up on camera, from nose to tail – go belly up?

This isn’t the first drama about a high-strung egotistical chef –  think Bradley Cooper in Burnt and Jon Favreau in Chef, to name just two – but Nose to Tail has a level of intensity and density – the whole movie lasts just one day – that beats those other two hands down. And Aaron Abrams (The Go-Getters) gives a tour de force performance, keeping close to the boiling point till the bitter end.

Downhill, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Nose to Tail 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.

January 27, 2012. Airplanes and Wheelchairs. Films Reviewed: Red Tails, Moon Point PLUS Oscar nominations

Posted in 1940s, Academy Awards, Acting, Action, African-Americans, Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, Drama, Movies, Slackers, US, video games, WWII by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

They announced the Oscar nominees this week, some expected and others not so. I’ll be talking more about the nominations closer to the awards ceremony. They nominated some enjoyable movies – like The Help, War Horse, some good but not special ones like the Descendents, some good but flawed movies like the Tree of Life, and some mediocre ones like The Artist. And then there are the shockers. They nominated one of the worst movies of the year for best picture — Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; one of the worst acting performances — Rooney Mara for Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and Nick Nolte’s overwrought “Drunk Dad” in the mixed martial arts flick The Warrior.

I think Hugo is a good movie, but isn’t it sad that Scorsese could win for his so-so movies like this or The Departed but not for Taxi Driver, Goodfellas or King of Comedy? Ok, just wanted to let off a bit of steam, as I plod along my way…

This week I’m looking at two movies in motion. One’s an American film about soldiers who want to fly in the air, and a Canadian one about friends who want to roll up a hill.

Red Tails (Based on a true story)

Dir: Anthony Hemingway

It’s nearing the end of WWII. The Americans have taken Italy and are pushing the Germans northward across Europe. And at one of the Italian bases is a team of ace flyers who have yet to see battle. Why? Because they’re all African Americans from a special Air Force project in Tuskegee, Alabama. And in the 1940’s America was still a segregated country, with the “colour bar” strictly enforced. Black officers aren’t even allowed to drink in the officers’ club. The want to kill some Germans. Instead they’re stuck puttering around in glued together old junk-heaps, aiming their guns at covered jeeps and enemy trains.

Their officers, meanwhile, are in DC, trying to give them a chance to do some real fighting as they train in northern Italy. The whites in the military characterize this group of bright-eyed University-educated, ambitious, would-be-heroes as lazy and incompetent.

But they are actually champ flyers and fighters, especially Lightning (David Oyelowo) the best of them all. He swoops and spins, ducks, turns and flies upside down They all have nicknames, like “Easy” (Nate Parker) the drinker, or “Junior” (Elijah Kelley) the kid – with their names and logos painted on the sides of their planes. But they all want “kills” o their planes, too.

One day on a flight, Lightning sees a beautiful woman, Sofia (Daniela Ruah) looking out her window as he flies overhead – they catch each others’ eyes, and it’s love at first sight. (But will it be happily ever after?)

Finally the men are given new planes to fly, and they paint the tails bright red to make it clear who they are. Will they win their battles? Will Lightning shoot down his personal enemy a Red Baron Nazi flyer they call Pretty boy for his scarred face? And will they get to go with the other planes to drop bombs on Berlin?

What can I say about this movie?

It has a lot going for it. I liked the acting – an all-around good cast (although the scenes in Washington, with Terrence Howard pleading his soldiers’ case, were painfully wooden). David Oyelowo, especially, owns the screen.. And I have to say I enjoy the spectacular plane fights up in the air – it felt like a cool video game. And it’s a good idea to tell little-known history, to give kids role models, and to celebrate forgotten accomplishments by African Americans.

The problem is in the movie’s tone. Seriously — is it possible to show such a gung-ho, “war is great” type of movie in this day and age with a straight face? Even a hint of disgust for the excesses of war would have made this more understandable for contemporary audiences. Instead it ends up feeling more like a 1940’s recruitment ad then a modern-day movie.

Moon Point

Dir: Sean Cisterna

Darryl (Nick McKinley) is a slacker, a loser, and a compulsive liar who lives at home and is picked on by his snobby cousin Lars. He does little aside from hanging out with his good friend Femur (Kyle Mac), a disabled orphan who lives with his grandma. But when his cousin sarcastically asks if Darryl will be bringing a date to Lars’s upcoming wedding, he vows he’ll be bringing a movie star. You see, he had a crush on Sarah Cherry when he was a kid, and now she’s back shooting a movie.

Things have got to change. So Darryl convinces Femur to drive him up north to Moon Point, a town where where the movie’s being shot. By drive, he’s referring to Femur’s motorized scooter he uses when not in a wheelchair. So Darryl climbs into the little metal cart pulled by the scooter and begin their extremely slow trip to the North. On the way they meet a young woman, Kristin (Paula Brancati) who hitches a ride after her car broke down.

Will Darryl ever find his Hollywood crush? Will Kristin find her true love? And will Femur tackle his personal crisis? And can they all get to Moon Point and back in time for a wedding… at 5 miles an hour?

Moon Point is a very low-budget, locally-made Canadian comedy. It’s cute and fairly original with likeable characters. It’s a comedy, but some of the jokes fall as flat as a pancake. The humour comes less from the one-liners than from the unusual and uncomfortable situations characters find themselves in. Like sitting in on an A.A. meeting after catching a lift from a drunk driver (played by Art Hindle… dressed in a banana suit!) Or an impromptu karaoke contest in a highway roadhouse. The tone swings back and forth, from hokey to charming — but I ended up liking it.

Moon Point reminds me of Bruce MacDonald’s earliest movies, like Roadkill, only not rock and roll… calmer, gentler.

Red Tails is playing now, and Moon Point opens in Toronto next week – check your local listings.

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

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

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

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

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

Union Square
Dir: Nancy Savoca

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

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

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

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

Elles
Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska

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

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

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

UFO in her Eyes
Dir: Guo Xiaolu

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

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

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

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

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

Hysteria
Dir: Tanya Wexler

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

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

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

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

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

The Space-Time Continuum. Movies Reviewed: Source Code, Repeaters, American: The Bill Hicks Story, The Tiny Ventriloquist

Everyone loves some good time travel right? Sure you do. You want to go back in time and fix something up, right a wrong, to do something you wished you had done before it was too late. So, this week, I’m looking at four movies — an action thriller, and a psycho-science fiction movie that deal directly with glitches in the time- space continuum, as well as a historical documentary/ biography about a stand up comic who was inspired by his psychedelic trips, and an art film that manipulates old images and sound, using newly created and found footage and graphic art.

Time travel movies used to be simple, you’d climb into your time machine, travel back or forward in time, until you fix whatever the problem was and come back home.

But now (possibly influenced by start-again video games and rebooted computer programs where you always have the chance to erase your mistakes and go back to point zero) we have this sub genre where scenes are repeated over and over and over again.

You are the one variable that can make a difference, but if you mess up, someone is pressing Play Again until you get it right (like in the classic Groundhog Day)

In one new movie,

Source Code

Dir: Duncan Jones

you get to see the same 8 minute episode, throughout the film, until the hero, a US military helicopter pilot In Afghanistan, tries to win his game.

So, the soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) suddenly awakens on a Chicago commuter train, in the middle of a chat with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty woman across from him. The problem is, he doesn’t know where he is, what he’s doing, and who are all the strangers seated with him who seem to know him. And when he looks in a bathroom mirror he discovers he’s not there — he’s somehow inside another person! But even as he tries to make sense of it all, he is the victim of a huge explosion on the train whichh catapults him back to his military job.

It turns out he’s part of an experiment called source code, based on the principal that the brain can hold on to 8 minutes of short-term memory, and that after someone dies (like the man on the train) his neuro synapses remain open and retrievable if caught immediately after the heart stops.

So it’s up to him to figure out who the terrorist is, where the bomb was hidden, and then to trackdown the killer and stop a massive nuclear bomb set to go off later in downtown Chicago. he can’t change the past, but he can relive it until he finds out the truth.

Will he solve the crime, catch the bad guy, get to know Christina, and save the world? And will he ever be told why he’s In this program, and allowed out of this hellish space-time loop?

Source Code essentially has the same format as the directors other film Moon (about a man who lives alone on a base on the moon, with only a computer voice to keep him company) — a dialogue between two detached people caught in sort of a loop created by people beyond their understanding. In this one, the ongoing conversation — on the two sides of a video screen — is between the soldier and a female officer (Vera Farmiga) who sends him his assignments.

It’s a neatly imagined science fiction action thriller, even though Gylenhaal doesn’t seem quite up to the part, he’s too opaque, and the story doesn’t exactly make sense, even according to its own plot.

A Canadian film that opens next Friday,

Repeaters

Dir: Carl Bessai

follows a similar pattern.

Three young ne’er-do-well drug addicts — Kyle, Sonia and Weeks –at an isolated rehab center, live through a god-awful day iof depression, bullying, idiocy, neglect, and frustration. The three only have each other to depend on. Pick-up truck Kyle (Dustin Milligan) is rejected by his little sister for something he did; Sonia (Amanda Crew) is unable to talk about an issue with her father who is dying in a hospital; and Weeks (Richard de Klerk) is emotionally crushed by the hate-on his furious father carries for him when he tries to visit him in a prison.

But when they wake up the next morning after a thunderstorm, it’s soon clear the world is reliving the previous day exactly as before, and only those three are aware of it. This totally messes up their sense of destiny and morality. Is there any meaning to life at all? Even if they save a person’s life — or kill him — it all goes back to the same point of restart. (It’s one day, not 8 minutes, in this movie, so it’s not as action- packed as source code.) will they ever confront their own moral dillemmas and right the wrongs they know about?

This is a neat movie about things like where morality fits into one’s own self image, what are the psychological consequences of good and evil that has no effect, and what would you do if you could do anything? It’s also a romance, a bit science fiction, with a lot of psycho-thriller, as the three reveal their own minds to each other as the loops continue.

The next movie is only related to time travel in that the main character was known to mentally float around in a drug induced state.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Dir: Matt Harlock and Pauk Thomas

Bill Hicks was a counter-culture standup comic in the Seventies and Eighties, known for tackling the topics that are taboo for comedians: not dick jokes, but politics, philosophy, intellectual issues, psychedelia. His jokes combined a Texas drawl, the lilt of a preacher’s revival meeting, and out-of-control, drunken and drug-filled vivid improvisational fantasies, rages and rants.

This moving documentary traces his life from his geeky teen years until his untimely death in his early thirties. Interesting technique for a documentary; there are almost no talking heads – instead the heads, people like his parents, his best friend, other comedians — turn into the movies narrators, like an oral history, with most of the movie comsisting of animated old photos, along with old concert footage.

He started as a thirteen yr old in suburban Houston, Texas. On his first try at drinking alcohol at a night club, he asks his fellow comedians – what’s a good drink (because he’s never had a mixed drink before)? They tell him Margaritas. So he downs seven margaritas at once and then goes on stage and lets loose. He considers alcohol as a disinhibitor, to let his true emotions loose on stage, and psilocybin mushrooms the source of his psychedelic insights. He would go up to a ranch every so often with a bunch of friends to down the mushrooms and see what images they bring.

Hicks was a heavy drinker and a creative psychedelic druggie, and the movie shows some unflattering footage of low period where audience members would buy him drinks during his standup act and he would drink, snort or inhale anything that got sent up the stage. A bt disturbing — like most of his act, where unsobreity was part of his defiance.

American, the Bill Hicks Story, is a very good and interesting movie, of a largely unsung folk-hero, done in the style of a rock-star documentary. My only criticism is that it concentrates too much on the serious biography parts and not enough on his art.

The Tiny Ventriloquist

Dir: Steve Reinke

Here’s another film that played last week’s Images Festival, where experimental art meets the big screen. This movie takes a disjointed look at the director’s own self-reflections towards his art; using his own great narrated shots and photos, along with found footage – of the most surprising kind – cut up and manipulated in an unexpected way.

I’ve always liked Steve Reinke’s work because it’s art, but it’s also always interesting and funny to watch, without the overly tedious or pensive feel, that a lot of video art has. You’re allowed to enjoy it, you’re allowed to laugh or squirm.

So in the same way Steve Hicks would drag political outrage into the usually pablum, fake-shock world of stand-up comedy, Steve Reinke, in the same way, violates the usually dry inner sanctum of art using found porn and other taboo sources (in an artistically valid way, naturally.)

So in this movie you het a combination of uneasy travel footage, spooky monochrome, costumed, home movie dancing, and old crackly recordings. Scenes of flood, water, and old rural western USA. Drunken Dutch soccer hooligans, hunters, real or imagined vaguely threatening child memories, manipulated Peanut’s cartoons, scary medical and industrial footage, and post-apocalyptic fantasies filled with dread.

The most bizarre footage is of a woman shown bear hunting in the woods, followed by a protracted explicit sex, in the form of very low-grade amateur porn, on top of the dead body of the bear. It’s funny: the dry didactic narration, while describing each scene in detail, in order to not offend the viewers it censors parts of the images by covering it with amorphous green-screen colour. Here’s the surprise: he keeps all the hard core porn images, but scribbles out the body of the poor dead bear!

Throughout the piece, vivid footage is alternated with animated simple line drawings. I liked this film, The Tiny Ventriloquist, a lot.

Source Code is now playing, American, the Bill Hicks Story starts today at the Royal Cinema in Toronto (check our local listings), Repeaters opens next Friday and The Tiny Ventriloquist was shown at the Images Festival.

Shrink Away or Fight Back? Dogtooth, The Mechanic

What do middle-aged white guys do when the world seems to be falling apart around them? Do they withdraw or do they fight back? This week I’m talking about two very different movies that deal with reactions to the collapse of everyday life, including isolationism, xenophobia, fear, and violence.

Dogtooth

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Dogtooth is an unusual film from Greece, a fantasy about a control freak of a father who regards his three children as tabula rasa, blank slates to be filled with his ideas and no one else’s. No one ever contradicts him since he keeps them isolated in a fenced-in compound with no outside contact of any kind. The twist is that the “kids” are adults now, but still live as children, not realizing there is any other life with them talking on normal, adult roles.

The three adult children live a completely controlled life in which their experience never extends beyond a fence around their estate. They are raised like trained dogs, in accordance with their father’s strange psychological theories.

They’ve been told if they step outside they will die. So, like creative small kids, they build on what they’ve learned by inventing variations and playing games, but can only riff on what they’ve seen. Their games evolve on their own tracks, far away from what even the father envisions. They’ve grown up with a bizarre twisted morality and view of the world, and become experts at mimicking his duplicity.

Only Father ever leaves the house and no one new ever comes in. Then one day he does something new, different: He brings home a visitor, Christine. She’s a security guard at his company, and he lets her have mechanical sex with the Son. But once he introduces a new variable, the father’s careful familial equilibrium begins to fray in unexpected ways.

This is a really weird, neat, movie. Great, stylized acting! The actors use stiff-sounding, controlled lines, even as they do outlandish and disgusting things. There’s a sterile, artless, faded 1970’s retro look to everything in their world, like they were frozen in some kind of time machine. Forget about computers and the internet – this place has no newspapers, no TV, no telephones.

The plastic bubble the family lives in is especially poignant when you think of the strikes, riots, demonstrations, and all-around social unrest and economic upheaval actually going on in Greece right now. The film shifts back and forth from the black humour of social satire, to strange sexual experimentation, to the pathos of a disturbing family drama. Dogtooth is a black comedy that leaves you with a strange, uneasy feeling. It’s a fascinating art film, and has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The Mechanic

Dir: Simon West

This movie also sounded good.

Bishop (Jason Statham) a man known as “the Mechanic”, is a hitman who knocks off hard-to-kill people. He finds out what his assignments are by looking at certain want-ads looking for mechanics. He studies a man, kills him, makes it look like an accident, and collects an overstuffed envelope of cash as his reward.

There also seems to be some unspoken rule that all his victims somehow “deserve” to be killed. So, (like TV’s Dexter, the serial killer who only kills other serial killers) he’s not a bad man, just efficient… and deadly.

So he’s surprised one day, when he’s told to kill his boss, Harry (Donald Sutherland, who apparently will do any role if the price is right), an affable fellow in a wheelchair, who pays him to murder other men on behalf of the shady corporation he works for. Harry has a son, Steve (Ben Foster), who’s a ne’er-do-well. With Harry out of the way, Bishop feels he owes something to his old boss, so he decides to mentor Steve in the only profession he knows – as a killer.

Sounds intriguing, no?

Unfortunately this is a dreadful movie that seems more like a wet dream for NRA tea-baggers than a normal action thriller. Its message is clear – everyone is a murderer, so you’d better arm yourself to the teeth and kill them first, or else they’ll kill you.

Can a movie (not just its characters) actually be bigoted? This one is. It takes place in New Orleans, but naturally it’s a place were everyone’s white – except for the two blacks: a carjacker, and a lazy-ass shrimper. The Latino? He’s a drug dealer. Women have no names or personalities. They are all either victims — terrified, screaming wives and daughters — or paid, nameless prostitutes. Then there’s the one gay man in this movie — a predatory, pedophile murderer…. naturally!

I love a good action movie but this one doesn’t even make sense. It’s full of things like: the Mechanic lives in an isolated compound, seemingly reachable only by motorboat… but then in other scenes you see him driving off in his sportscar from the same house.

My mistake was I thought it would be a Jason Statham movie like the terrific, 8-bit-style, high-speed action comedy Crank, or its even better and faster sequel Crank: High Voltage. (Movies that are equally full of offensive racist caricatures, but funny ones.) Or maybe a Ben Foster movie like last year’s sad, moving film “The Messenger”. But it isn’t. It’s a Simon West movie, directed by the same talentless schmoo who brought us such cinematic gems as the wretched Con Air (about an airplane full of violent prisoners), or the even worse Lara Croft Tomb Raider, an unwatchable action-adventure based on a British computer game.

If George Clooney’s “The American” was a glamorous, shallow look at a heartless paid assassin and his troubles with his employers, at least it was visually appealing in the foggy Italian hills. It was aimed at middle-class Americans longing for the beauty of Europe. This movie is ugly to the core, (it looks like an out-take from CSI Miami) and seems to appeal only to angry, xenophobic knuckle-draggers, angry but afraid of everything, who want to see as many people dead, as soon as possible.

OK, so what? It’s just an action movie…

Admittedly, there are a couple great shoot-out and fight scenes – I liked them — involving mirrors, buildings roofs, and improvised weapons — but they are few and far between. Most of the film just dragged on and on. A few good fights and thrills can’t redeem this stupid, pointless, boring, and morally corrupt movie where cold-blooded gun-toting killers are painted as the good guys.

The Mechanic, opens in Toronto on January 28th, and Dogtooth also opens tonight at the Royal, in a double bill with another Greek film, Attenberg.

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Acting and Special Effects on Display. Movies reviewed: Tron: Legacy, The Fighter, Blue Valentine

At this time of year, a lot of the movies are trying for awards and audiences. The awards usually bring in bigger audiences and make it easier for the actors, directors, writers, et al to raise money for the next movie they want to make.

That’s one of the reasons they even bother to make some of these movies – so that actors or directors can show off their skills. Some work, some don’t.

Today I’m going to look at three movies that try something different or unusual, either through their appearance, story, or performances.

The Fighter
Dir: David O Russell

There are two brothers, Mickey and Dicky, and seven sisters who all live in working-class Lowell Massachusettes. Dicky Eklund — once known as the Pride of Lowell — was a former great boxer who once knocked down Sugar Ray, before retiring. Now he’s training his brother Mickey Ward to make it as a welter-weight. And his mother’s his manager. But Dicky has a tendency not to show up for practices. Why? Because he’s a crackhead with a tendency to jump out of windows so his mother won’t find out. He’s also a petty scammer and a thief.

Dicky (Christian Bale) ends up in prison, and Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) is working with a new manager and trainer, who are rivals to his mother and brother. Meanwhile, Mickey meets Charlene, (Amy Adams) a bartender. His family also doesn’t like her – they refer to her as an “MTV girlfriend”, meaning a snob, because she went to college – and the feelings are mutual.

Will Mickey make it to the top? Will he be a boxing champ? Will he reconcile with his brother and mother? Will he listen to his new trainer or his jailed brother on boxing strategy? Will he stay with Charlene? And will he be used as a stepping stone – a boxer only there to get KOed by other boxers on their trip up the ladder?

The Fighter is a boxing movie – with some long scenes in the ring – a true biopic about an Irish- Catholic New England working-class boxer’s life in the late 80‘s / early 90’s. It’s actually a very enjoyable movie.

Trained British actor Christian Bale plays this skinny, googley-eyed, fast-talking American drug addict, and you can totally believe it. He’s amazing. Amy Adams, made to look plain, is a little less so, but still good, and she gets lots of lines to play with like “Call me skank again and I’ll rip alla your hair out!” And Mark Wahlberg doesn’t really act, he just plays the same role he always does, but he’s a likeable movie star.

But it’s all the small parts, like the gaggle of sisters, and the Mother, and the various locals, which add the real colour to the film. It’s a good, old- fashioned boxing movie… and it works.

Tron Legacy
Dir: Joseph Kosinsky

Sam Flynn (Garret Helund) is a computer genius and adventurer who, when he plays an old, abandoned arcade game, finds himself inside another world – the world of the game itself. His father Kevin Flynn, who created that world, has been trapped inside there for decades. But a never-aging doppelganger, Clu – he looks like a simulacrum of Jeff Bridges preserved in a jar of botox –is trying to take over that world, and to turn it into a Roman Empire of gladiators and constant fights. Everyone wears donut Frisbees on their backs that double as computer discs with all their data. It’s also their weapon of choice in the games, because it can take down your opponent (like a boomerang) by tearing away at the digital grid. So Sam, with the help of Quorra (Olivia Wilde), has only 8 hours in which to go somewhere, and get something from someone (I think) and do something or other, before the portal closes again and he’s trapped inside.

OK. This is a great movie. Except for the characters, the story, and the dialogue, which are absolutely awful and make no sense whatsoever. Ideally this would be re-released as a silent movie with no lines, just all the cool, glowing neon images, of characters zipping through cyberspace, with people creating motorcycles or airplanes out of thin air and racing all around… all of this with the mainly great Daft Punk electronic music in the background.

Great images and special effects (except when the characters are wearing white space suits instead of black ones, and the material start bunching up – you know, you’d think when they spend tens of millions on SFX they’d catch stuff like that), and good music; everything else sucks.

Blue Valentine
Dir: Derek Cianfrance

Dean is a High School drop-out who plays the ukulele. He gets a job as a mover, and, on his first trip – moving a man’s possessions to an old age home in Scranton, Pennsylvania — he sees Cindy visiting her grandmother across the hall, and he’s smitten. It’s love at first sight — at least for Dean. He pursues her, and woos her, and they both love each other dearly, and the two of them raise their cute daughter together.

But, all is not well. The marriage seems to have gone sour, and they’re just not getting along the way they used to. Cindy has a good job as a nurse, while Dean hasn’t progressed much in his career – he’s more interested in being a househusband. Dean hopes to clear up their relationship by leaving their daughter Frankie with Cindy’s parents overnight, and holing up in a seedy motel with some alcohol, so they can get drunk, have sex, and hash out their differences.

The movie shifts back and forth between the early days of their relationship and how it developed, and the present day, where they seems to have reached an impasse.

Does this movie work? I’m of mixed feelings. It’s a very passionate and realistic look at a relationship. The acting is all great – basically a two-person show. Ryan Gosling (who looks somewhere between a scraggy redneck and a hipster) is the happy-go-lucky romantic, taking life as it comes; and the pretty but plain, voluptuous but understated, bleached blonde Michelle Williams as the more pragmatic and career-conscious but troubled one, who is plagued by indecision.

It’s a heavy-duty relationship movie, good times and bad. You ever been to a party and one couple starts arguing with each other? The rest of the people exchange glances and try to figure out how to sneak away, far away as soon as they can. (Excuse me, gotta go!)? Well this movie was a bit like that. Not that I wanted to walk out of the theatre – not at all – but a lot of the movie was about a couple’s troubled relationship, and some of it really dragged to the point you just want to say:

Shut up! Both of you…
Cindy – Dean still loves you. A lot.
Dean — Cindy can’t take it any more.
OK? That’s all. Move along.

But the story’s very realistic, the movie feels like an old Cassavetes pic, the design, the camera, the acting, all very good. It’s not a sweet tear-jerker of a Hollywood romance, it’s about real romance: love, loss, sadness. I think it’s worth seeing… but it’s a bit depressing.

Rom Com Glom. Films Reviewed: The Switch, Going the Distance, No Heart Feelings plus: Types of movies to avoid; and A New Toronto Movement?

Posted in Acting, Animals, Anthropology, Bad Movies, Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, drugs, Movies, Romantic Comedy, Sex, Uncategorized, video games by CulturalMining.com on September 2, 2010

Have you ever walked into a multiplex and discovered you’re too late for the movie you planned to see? But since you’re already there…How do you know what to go to, and what to avoid at all costs? Are there any clues?

Well, no rule is steadfast, but here are a few types of movies that you should not go to:

Don’t go to movies with a number in its title or where a number is the title

Don’t go to movies based on video games,

Disneyland rides,

or 60’s TV sitcoms

Don’t go to movies directed by bad actors

Don’t go to live-action movies where the main character is a talking animal

Don’t go to movies without a single positive review quoted in the ad

And never, ever go to movies with two directors!

And then there’s types of movie.

Why is it, that so many comedies, especially romantic comedies, suck? I’m going to look at three of them now, some of which worked better than others… I’ll do them in ascending order, by number of directors.

“Going the Distance”

Dir: Nanette Burstein

Garret (Justin Long) goes off to a bar to get sheet-faced drunk after his girlfriend dumps him for ordering take out and not giving her a present. “But you said no presents”. “Because you’re supposed to want to give me one…” At the bar he meets Erin (Drew Barrymore), a vintage arcade game champ. She’s in New York in an internship at a newspaper – she’s 31. Times are tough. So they end up in bed together, even after seeing his Top Gun movie poster-themed apartment. In fact his eccentric roommate plays background music through the thin walls whenever their whispered pillow talk inspires him.

But at the end of the summer, she’s back in San Francisco, and he’s in Manhattan. Life is tough. Should they stay together? Will their relationship endure in two coastal cities? Or will one of them take the plunge and move..?

The boyfriend has two goofy hipster sidekick friends, one of whom has the world’s worst douche-stache on his upper lip. The girlfriend lives with her sister and brother-in-law, who make weird sexual references, and give her humorously uptight advice.

This is an ok comedy. They’re a nice couple, who obviously are in love. In fact Drew Barrymore and Justin Long are a couple in real life as well as in the movie. She’s always a great actress. He’s just OK. He’s mainly known as the I’m Mac, I’m PC guy from the commercials, and you may have seen him this year as the boyfriend in Sam Raimi’s funny horror movie Drag me to Hell. The sister character played by Christina Applegate is very funny. Not too bad a movie, but not very good.

“The Switch”

Dir: Josh Gordon and Will Speck

In this movie, Kassie (Jennifer Anniston) decides it’s time to have a kid. She goes the self-insemination route, and holds a big sperm party for her friends. But her neurotic friend Wally (Jason Bateman) has a crush on her and feels rejected. He gets drunk and finds, in the bathroom, a little jar lying around. What’s that? It’s the sperm. Why’s it just lying there? Who knows? Oops! He spills it. Better replace it…

Naturally, that one switch, means she gets inseminated not by the blond mountain-climbing Columbia prof of feminist theory, but rather old pal neurotic Wally. And she moves to Minnesota, where, apparently,  they live in cabins without phones. So when she decides to move back to NY, 7 years later, she lets Wally know she has a 7 year-old son! And she’s letting the kid meet his biological father, the now divorced prof. Will Wally tell her he’s the baby’s father? And will he tell her he still has a crush on her? And will he get along with the genetically neurotic son?

So this is still the beginning of the movie. Basically there’s nothing left to happen in terms of the plot. They hang out, they get to know each other, he competes with the supposed donor, he helps the kid with his headlice, blah blah blah.

The thing is – it’s not funny. It has a unbelievably weak plot. It’s not consistent, the actors  — and they’re all good, Anniston, Bateman, jeff Goldblum, and long-time-no-see Juliette Lewis – look like they’re reading lines that were written on a napkin. And the characters don’t make sense. The mother has no real backstory — you don’t know who she is or what she does, or even what interests her – she’s a baby vessel. Jason Bateman’s character is supposed to be neurotic… except he’s not. He’s just a mildly depressed guy. Everythng about this movie is stupid. The feminist theory professor is a dumb jock, while the wall street trader is deeply intellectual. You even get a bruise on the kid’s face migrating around his cheek from scene to scene.

So if you’re on an airplane or an all-night bus ride, sure, watch it. Otherwise… why not go to the Kids are All Right instead, to see a much better insemination comedy. Or just check out the next movie I’m reviewing…

“No Heart Feelings”

Dir: Sarah Lazarovic, Geoff Morrison, Ryan J. Noth

Here’s a movie with not two, but three director/writers! Uh-oh… does that mean it’s even worse than “The Switch”? No! Just the opposite.

Mel (Rebecca Kohler) dumps her long-distance boyfriend by telephone. (At least she didn’t do it by texting.) Even though she did the dumping, she feels like crap so her friend gets her drunk so she can vent and recover. And in her bounce-back semi-inebriated state, she meets Lewis, (Dustin Parkes)

a nice guy, who’s just returned to Toronto after a while away. They have sex, and sorta hit it off… kinda. Mel’s a bit awkward about the whole thing. And Lewis isn’t sure. They both, separately, decide to keep it “super caj” – no commitments or anything. But there’s definitely a spark.

The movie’s super casual too – it’s the exact opposite of a high concept movie. It reminds me of Bruce McDonald’s movie, a few months back, This Movie is Broken. People in their 20’s or 30’s, hanging out in downtown Toronto and just living the life… in the nice, green summertime.

Some people are losing their jobs or working at ridiculous ones that have no meaning beyond forwarding PDFs or watching lolcats all day. It can be frustrating. One character says “I have five bosses — altogether they have one sense of humour.

But they all have people around them in widening ripples: best friends, groups of buddies, party acquaintances, the people they say hi to on the street.

Mel and Lewis run into friends on Spadina, and talk about work, condos, food…they wander around dollar stores in Chinatown, the wading pool in Kensington Market,  401 Richmond building, hotdog stand at Queen and Spadina, College Street, breakfast at Aunties and Uncles, badminton in what looks like Trinity Bellwoods Park, a garage sale, a gallery opening, and biking everywhere in the streets alleys and the bike paths in the ravines.

They finally all end up at one of the friends’ cottage for an awkward reunion. Will they end up together?

Well, it’s not that kind of a romantic comedy. The comedy is mainly in the comments of all the wise-cracking group of friend, not the “awkward situations” you usually get stuck with. This one is just a very low-key, nice slice of downtown Toronto life. It’s what a reality show should look like, but never does. And it proves that three directors can put together a sweet and coherent story, about people you wouldn’t mind hanging out with.

I get the impression that there’s a new Toronto film movement forming right around now. Movies where the city plays itself instead of other places; where there’s a laid back vibe, and where there’s a lot of recognizable landmarks — movies like Scott Pilgrim, This Movie is Broken, and now No Heart Feelings.

I hope it continues to flourish.

(More on the Toronto Movement to come….)

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