Christmas biopics. Movies reviewed: Unbroken, Mr Turner

Posted in 1940s, Art, Biopic, Cultural Mining, Movies, UK, Uncategorized, US, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 26, 2014

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.

Happy Boxing Day! This week, I’m talking about two biopics, both historical dramas, both starring great actors from the UK. But they are as different as two movies could possibly be. One’s a young soldier captured and kept in the dark; one’s a painter trying to capture the light.

10403575_781275515276942_5431011275441931839_nUnbroken (based on a true story)
Dir: Angelina Jolie

Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is the child of Italian immigrants in small-town pre-WWII America. He lives on the wrong side of the tracks and is bullied by neighbouring kids. He’s often knocked down, but always gets up for another fight. Running away 10372750_782974231773737_321939819595855320_nfrom bullies also makes him a good runner. With his older brother’s help, he trains as a sprinter, competing at the Berlin Olympics. It’s his endurance and surprising reserves of adrenaline that set him apart. Later, he joins the Air Force in WWII and is stationed in the Pacific. His plane crashes into the ocean which he manages to survive… only to find himself captured by the Japanese, and thrown into a POW camp.

So basically The Unbroken is three movies. One is about Louis and two other men: the laid-back Phil (Domhnall Gleeson: Frank) and the nervous Mac (Finn Witrock). When their plane crashes, they have to survive in an 10409502_786380204766473_4227359387414983355_ninflatable life raft in the middle of the Pacific. Slowly starving to death, they fight off sharks, and inclement weather as they test their ability to endure… against all odds. They hang on by listening to Louis describe his mother’s gnocchi. But as days turn to weeks, can they survive on just hope and a tale? (If you’ve seen the Norwegian drama Kon Tiki, this might seem familiar to you.) I liked this part of the movie.

Then there’s Louis’ stay in a POW camp in Japan. It is run by Corporal Watanabe aka “The Bird”. (played by musician/actor Miyavi). Watanabe comes from a rich family, but never makes it as an officer. Now he’s a cruel but effeminate NCO who struts around in his khakis, carrying a bamboo stick. He takes out his frustrations on the prisoners, especially poor Louis. 1450190_785235881547572_7880022996659246521_nIs he jealous of his fame as an Olympic champion? Or is he secretly in love with him? If you’ve ever seen Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, then, again, this may all be familiar to you.

Finally there’s Louis’ boyhood as a competitive teenaged runner, which appears as a series of flashbacks. This is the weakest part of the film, one of thousands of heartwarming stories about plucky immigrant kids who make good.

This movie isn’t terrible. I like Jack O’Connell a lot and he’s plays the role well. And great supporting cast – Jai Courtney, Luke Treadaway, Domnhall Gleeson — are all really good.

1970439_620940031310492_633068160_nBut can you believe this was written by the Coen Brothers? But there’s no irony, no humour, just straightforward storytelling. And it’s filled with fake profundities, like If you can take it, you can make it. Sounds like a Tony Roberts motivational speech. I get it – Zamperini did great things but survived. But the pounds you over the head with it, with its unrelenting suffer, suffer, suffer theme. The rest of the prisoners look vaguely familiar after a while, but they’re basically just faces in the background. It’s all about Louis vs Watanabe. Not a terrible movie, but disappointing and unsatisfying with an abrupt ending.

7b7c3e5e-dbbb-4a5d-b69b-f8e6d4637e0eMr Turner
Dir: Mike Leigh

Mr Turner (Timothy Spall) is a successful businessman in Victorian London, who lives with his dad (Paul Jesson), a retired barber. He lives a good life, doesn’t worry about money. What does he do? He’s a painter. He visits the seashore to observe and take notes. He finds the right pigments in the market to match them. Later, he paints what he sees. On canvases, big ones, lots of them.

Breathtaking landscapes and seascapes, cloud and light, maybe a steamship, and here and there a ruined castle or a train. He daubs on oil paint, fa38e7e5-08c2-407b-86a0-49e8653ac8adsmooches it around, and spits on it, blows at it! The results are spectacular and impressionistic, like nothing anyone had ever seen. And ethereal watercolours. Turner becomes famous in his own time, and quite rich — aristocratic artists are forced to come by to ask him for money. But he’s not from titled gentry. He’s frequently snubbed by the snooty upper-class, and not allowed into the principal art salons, only the outside rooms. Queen Victoria is not amused by his paintings. And he had to suffer the comments of insufferable art critics like John Ruskin (wonderfully played by Joshua McGuire).

At the same time, he’s a selfish, loathesome boor, who chews on pigs’ heads and belches. He has abandoned his common-law wife and daughters. He has a shy maid, Mrs Danby (Dorothy Atkinson). When Mr Turner feels like it, fdff8789-10b2-466c-81ae-6ba2bcce7189he’ll sneak up behind her, raise her petticoats and grunt a few times. That’s “sex”. How, you wonder, can such a disgusting, depressed and ugly man create such beautiful art?

Whenever he has a chance, he revisits a seaside town from his youth. There he meets an older woman, a landlady, named Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey). Will she help him out of his perpetual blue funk?

Mr Turner is a very long, slow moving and subtle film, filled with skillfully-crafted characters. They’re not loveable people but not hateable ones either. They seem all completely real. The photography in this movie is just e671af49-baab-4efe-b119-952b2968e98famazing. If you’ve ever seen Turner’s paintings, now you get to see the skies, the clouds and the light that actually informed his art. Beautiful. Spall, Bailey and Atkinson play their parts with all their weird tics and eccentricities in place. It’s quite long, but I liked it a lot.

Mr Turner and Unbroken both open today in Toronto: check your local listings. Also opening today is Imitation Game, a fantastic biopic thriller about Alan Turing, the man who invented the computer an broke the German code known as Enigma. Definitely a must-see.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Harold Crooks about his new documentary The Price We Pay

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, Economics, Politics, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 19, 2014

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

The post-WWII social safety net has collapsed — governments say we can’t afford it any more. And they raise sales tax, social security and other fees to try to make up for revenue losses.

Middle class wages remain stagnant, while personal debt has reached record highs. And the wage gap between the very rich and the rest of us has reached levels not seen since the gilded age.

But, at the same time, population, productivity, GDP and profit levels have continued to rise. How can we be producing more than ever before, with greater efficiency while both the government and the people are falling deeper into debt?The Price We Pay

Well, according to a new documentary, the problem is tax avoidance and the use of off-shore tax havens. Based on Le Crise Fiscale qui Vient (The Coming Fiscal Crisis) by Quebec author Brigitte Alepin, the film exposes offshore banking and The Price we Pay for it.

The documentary is called The Price we Pay, and is directed by filmmaker Harold Crooks, known for his work on films like The Corporation. It’s showing in Toronto for two days on January 10-11 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Canada Top Ten movie series, and is opening later this year. I spoke with Harold Crooks by telephone from New York City. Harold talks about the City of London, the illusion of off-shoring, Canadian banks’ role in creating Caribbean tax havens, Thomas Picketty, Asterix, the redistribution of wealth upwards, austerity measures, the “Robin Hood” tax, the “equality of sacrifice”, Antonio Gramsci, … and more!

 

New Rules. Films Reviewed: Wild, Félix and Meira, Regarding Susan Sontag

Posted in Canada, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, drugs, Feminism, Queer, Romance, TIFF, Wilderness, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2014

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.

Do rules restrict us? Or set us free? This week, I’m looking at three new films about women. A religious woman who longs to be free of the rules that restrict her; a woman in crisis who, to save her own life, follows strict rules to hike and cam; and an intellectual who applied academic strictures to new topics like high camp.

FOX_3558.psdWild

Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée (Based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir)

It’s the mid-late 20th century. Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) is a young college student in Minneapolis. Her single mom (Laura Dern) wants to educate herself, too, so they’re in the same lecture halls doing English lit and women’s studies. Her mom asks her help understanding concepts like Erica Jong’s “zipless F*cks” (F-words.) Aw, Ma! So Cheryl reads her Adriene Rich, falls in love with a nice guy named Paul, and marries him. But then something terrible happens. And before you know it, Cheryl is taking tons of serious drugs and having countless Zipless Fs with strangers. I want to live like a man, she tells herself. But is what she really wants?

Her daily life spirals toward oblivion, until she’s rescued and brought back to reality by her husband and her best friend. She decides to start her life anew by doing something dramatic. So she decides to head out on a walk up the Pacific Crest Trail or PCT from the Mexican border to Canada.

Aside from her over-packed backpack, and too-tight boots, she has to overcomek5oMn6__wild_02_o3__8207946__1406599560 the potential dangers of wild animals and skeezy men, rednecks and deadheads. She interacts with the hikers along the way, people who have read the quotations she leaves in the record books. Cheryl passes through dried out deserts and snow-filled valleys, hiking ever-northward in a quest to find herself, and to learn to live by her mother’s optimistic words: always look for the kinder way of doing things.

Wild is worth seeing. It’s full of beautiful scenery and assorted unexpected characters. The movie itself is fairly flat, with no real suspense, conflict or climax. Which is fine… but doesn’t move you to tears. It’s an on-foot road movie. I enjoy her chronicling of what happens along the way (as well as the flashbacks that explain why she’s there.) Most of all, it’s a chance for Reese Witherspoon to show off her acting skills. But does she? I can accept her as a woman recovering from drugs and emotional loss. But what I don’t feel is her soul. She seems opaque, superficial. I haven’t read the memoirs it’s based on, but Movie Cheryl just seems like a woman facing hard times. She’s not Book Cheryl: a poet  a writer, a feminist or a thinker; just a character that things happen to.

Actress: Hadas YaronFélix et Meira

Dir: Maxime Giroux

Young, pretty and quirky, Meira (Hadas Yaron) lives with her stern husband Shulem (Luzer Twersky) and their baby. She comes from an insular, Chassidic community in Montreal, where her first language isn’t French or English, it’s Yiddish. She likes drawing pictures and listening to reggae music…but only when her husband’s out of the house. He’s strict and conservative, and quick to tell her what she’s doing wrong. In response, she’s as likely to listen as to drop dead, on the spot. Well, at least pretend to. She’s depressed. When the men burst into joyous songs at the Sabbath dinner table, she just fiddles with her matzo balls. She doesn’t like the headband or the wig she has to wear; she doesn’t like the dullness and tedium; she doesn’t like any of it anymore.

A couple of blocks away, but in a separate solitude, lives Félix (Martin Dubreuil). Actor: Martin DubreuilHe’s single and carefree, likes painting and music. He tends to his dying father suffering from Alzheimer’s. He doesn’t care about money, and supports himself by selling the tapestries off the walls of his father‘s mansion. But when he dies, Felix is at a loss. Religion plays no part in his life, so he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, what he’s supposed to feel. On an impulse, he asks the woman he sees at the local pizza parlour. She studiously ignores him, and tells him to leave her alone. but eventually he wins her attention. Je m’appelle Meira she says.

Though reticent at first, she starts to appear at his doorstep, so she can listen to some music, she says. Something clicks. Meira longs to be a single woman, to wear blue jeans, to do as she wants. She looks with dread at the 14-kid families around her. One’s enough. Alienated Felix admires her calm, her grounded-ness, her Actor: Luzer Twerskytraditions. He finds her exotic, shy… different. She’s not like the women he usually meets. To her, Felix represents an unseen world. Shulem suspects something is up and sends her off to Brooklyn. But Felix and Meira vow to meet again someday, to experience each other’s lives. But are their cultures too distant to bridge their differences? And is what they’re doing morally right? Can she give up everything just to be with him? And…are they even compatible?

Felix and Meira is a sweet, gentle drama of tolerance and coexistence with the Other. It jumps neatly between the two sides, gradually revealing their hidden truths and desires. Most interesting is the unexpected shifts in its portrayals of the three characters, especially Shulem. Hadas Yaron (Fill the Void) is fantastic as Meira, again playing an ultra-orthodox Jewish woman, and Martin Dubreuil – who I’ve never seen before, is a sympathetic face to watch. I liked this understated drama.

85573_1416507737Regarding Susan Sontag

Dir: Nancy D. Kates

The late Susan Sontag was one of the most prominent American intellectuals, widely known for her essays On Camp, On Photography and Illness as a metaphor. But she kept her personal life under wraps. This new documentary reveals all. Did you know she was considered a pin-up girl for young lesbian women? Or that she read Kant and Proust at age 15, before she even know how to pronounce their names? Or that she appeared as an actress in an early French New Wave film. This doc chronicles her first visit to a San Francisco lesbian bar, her life in Paris, Oxford and Manhattan, her friends and lovers. And the controversies she faced — both in intellectual culture and in the mass media. Loaded with new interviews, and childhood photographs, film clips, TV footage, it’s informative and fascinating.

Wild is now playing in Toronto: check your local listings. Félix and Meira was selected for TIFF’s Canada Top Ten. It’s playing on Sunday, December 14th at 1 and 4 pm at the Empress Walk cinema as part of Toronto Jewish Film Festival’s Chai Tea and Movie series. Got to tjff.com for details. And you can see Regarding Susan Sontag on HBO Canada.

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

 

 

 

Off the Beaten Track. Movies Reviewed: Serena, Gemma Bovery, Corner Gas: the Movie

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Books, Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, Horses, Movies, Satire by CulturalMining.com on December 5, 2014

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.

Urban life getting you down? Here are three movies set in small towns. A gothic drama in the Smoky Mountains of Carolina; a comedy in a Saskatchewan town where there’s not a whole lot going on; and a comic drama in Normandy… with a literary twist.

67934-SERENA_D1-190_R_CROPSerena
Dir: Susanne Bier

George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is a lumber baron in the roaring 20s. He’s also a big-game hunter, searching for the elusive panther. He dreams of clear-cutting the smoky mountains of North Carolina, and, with the profits, expanding into the rain forests of Brazil. But he’s a good guy — you can tell because he chops his own wood and saves his workers’ lives. There would be no SERENA_D11-2819.CR2problems at all, if it weren’t for those meddling government types. They want to make it into a national park, just because of its breathtaking scenic beauty, and the rare flora and fauna living in those foggy, tree-covered mountains.

But everything changes when he spots a blonde woman at a horse show. Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) is a strong and independent woman from out west and born to the wood. Beautiful, glamorous and tough as nails, she’s as comfortable in an evening gown as she is on horseback. She can SERENA_D18-4906._R_CROPjpgkill a rattler with an axe from across a field and is handy with a rifle. He proposes on the spot and makes her a full partner in his business… to the chagrin of his male colleagues. But Wall Street crashes and tough times follow. Things start to fray at the edges. There’s Galloway (Rhys Ifans) a sketchy ex-con with “the sight”: Serena once appeared in a vision so he’ll protect her to the death. And there’s talk George might have an illegitimate son in the village. And his partners are losing faith in the business. Can Serena and George find happiness in a lumber camp? Or will it drag them into a spiral of jealousy, revenge and madness?

Susanne Bier is a well-known Danish director, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence scored in two big hits: Silver Lining Playbook and American Hustle. Is this three for the win? Not a chance. It’s a clunky potboiler with a confusing and messy story, and extremely uneven acting. Lawrence plays it to the hilt as a deranged, screeching devil-woman, while Cooper sticks to the single-emotion style of acting. Whether it’s shock, lust, anger, or bewilderment, he just stares off into space with his mouth slightly open. Serena is not awful, it kept me watching and interested, but it’s just not very good.

GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne FontaineGemma Bovery
Dir: Anne Fontaine

Martin (Fabrice Luchini) is an intellectual from Paris. He moves to small-town Normandy, near Rouen, to take over his dad’s bakery. He likes kneading dough and pondering great literature. His wife is a world-weary realist, and his teenaged son prefers Call of Duty to French culture. But dad’s thoughts are still filled with the 19th century novels of Flaubert. So imagine his surprise when a young English couple that moves into the dilapidated house next door, shares the names of the characters in Madame Bovery! Down-to-earth Charles repairs furniture, while his bored wife Gemma (Gemma Atherton) decorates homes with trompe d’oeil to make them appear older. And just like Madame Bovery, she craves a more exciting GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne Fontainelife.

Martin, though, knows the book well and feels he can predict every thought they will have and every word they will say. Soon enough, he sees her making eyes at the town rake, handsome Hervé (Niels Schneider: J’ai tué ma mère, Les amours imaginaires) a local squire living in a nearby castle. Don’t go with him, it can only lead to ruin! Martin thinks. In his mind he sees them in period costume, dancing in the ballroom. In reality, the quaint town, including the aristocracy, is crumbling all around him. Martin tries to manipulate the local characters – using secret methods – to save them from their novelistic fates. But will it work?

GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne FontaineThe entire film is narrated, at times directly to the camera, by Martin himself. He takes us through the story, mainly to the various dinner parties, where people speak fractured English and French. He is especially incensed by a nouveau riche couple, an English/French marriage who see French culture as merely wine and Camembert.

Gemma Bovery is two movies in one. There’s Flaubert’s novel reenacted in Martin’s head, and there’s a satirical look at contemporary France. Because of the meta- aspects of the film, you don’t feel as deeply invested in the characters’ lives; you’re always a step away from what’s happening. But it more than makes up for that with its cleverness. And because it’s an Anne Fontaine movie, it carries that sensual, erotic tone she’s so good at.  And the actors, especially the beautiful Gemma Atherton, are a joy to watch. I like this movie.

CGTM_100_Brent Butt (as Brent Leroy). Photo by Steve WilkieCorner Gas: The Movie
Dir: Brent Butt

If you’ve ever watched Canadian TV, you’re probably familiar with Dog River, Saskatchewan. It’s an uneventful prairie town known mainly for its gas station, its coffee shoCGTM_109_Fred Ewanuick (as Hank Yarbo). Photo by Steve Wilkiep, and its wise-cracking locals. There’s dry Brent at the gas station (Brent Butt), his dad and mum — cranky Oscar and rational Emma (Eric Peterson, Janet Wright), pretty Lacey at the coffee shop (Gabrielle Miller), and the local police. CGTM_113_Janet Wright (as Emma Leroy). Photo by Steve WilkieThen there’s the incorrigible Hank (Fred Ewanuick) and the trickster Wanda (the very hilarious Nancy Robertson).

Nothing ever happens there, right? Wrong! To turn a sitcom into a feature film, you need an epic plot. In this film the town goes bankrupt, the people run amok, and Tim Horton’s starts sniffing at the real estate. Their only hope? A Toronto contest looking for the quaintest town in Canada. Can they pull it all together in time? Not bloody likely… it’s aCGTM_117_Nancy Robertson (as Wanda Dollard). Photo by Steve Wilkie comedy, folks.

Believe it or not, I only saw the TV show once. It felt too slow paced, so I couldn’t get into it. Clearly, I’m not one of its fans (who are legion). But the movie? It was surprisingly funny. There are corny parts and some gags fall flat of course, but on the whole the humour is clever, inventive, ironic… even subversive. And it does all this without any potty laughs, frat boy nudges, boobies, four-letter words, dumb blondes, racial and ethnic stereotypes or fat jokes. Not a small accomplishment.

So if you’re looking for Canadian humour, here it is, and then some.

spiceworld_imageGemma Bovery and Serena both open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. And Corner Gas: the Movie is playing now through the weekend. Also in Toronto,  look out for the MUFF society — specializing in girl-tastic pics for women —  kicks off their monthly series with Spice World (yes, I do mean that Spice Girl movie) only at the Royal. And First to Fall – a documentary about two students in Canada who volunteered to fight with the rebels in Libya — is finally screening in Toronto, tonight at the Jayu Human Rights Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  I interviewed the directors last summer.

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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