Do you have the post-Oscar blues? Tired of the same-old, same-old? We’ve got Boyhood, but what about Girlhood? There’s Birdman, but how about an Elephant Song? And how about 50 Shades of Gray… with an all-female cast? This week I’m looking at three new movies, that provide a twist to some you’re more familiar with. I have a coming of age movie from France, an erotic art-house flick from the UK and a psychological drama from Canada.
Dir: Charles Binamé
It’s a Canadian mental hospital in the 1960s. Michael (Xavier Dolan) a patient there is summoned to a therapy session. but his regular doctor isn’t there — he’s missing. In his place is a new face, a certain Dr Green (Bruce Greenwood). He’s read the files and listened to the reel to reel tapes. Now he’s there to set things straight, and has no time for psychological games. But games are exactly what Michael loves.
Dr Green is a greenhorn in that office, but Michael knows every nook and cranny. He decides to take the doctor (and the movie’s audience) on a grand tour of his own life, but on his own terms. And just outside the office door, always listening, is Miss Peterson, a nurse (Catherine Keener). He reveals his hidden past – he says he’s the son of a famous opera singer who toured the world as a child. Even as he uncovers hidden treasures around the office, which fit together like the missing pieces from a jigsaw puzzle. These include a stuffed animal, a box of treats, and some hidden photographs – that may be related to the doctor’s disappearance.
Dr Green is convinced everything Michael says is a lie. He thinks Michael has alterior motives — possibly an escape plan to escape the high security facility. But what about the doctor’s real reason for this question/answer session? And how does Nurse Peterson fit into this puzzle?
Elephant Song is not bad at all. It’s a genuine psychological drama, a chess game between two equal players — sort of like the movie Sleuth, but shot with a soft focus lens. The acting is credible. But the whole film has a slightly clunky, wooden feel to it. It’s like a stage play still in previews that hasn’t yet found its rhythm.
Girlhood (Bande de Filles)
Wri/Dir: Céline Sciamma
Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a 15-year-old Parisian schoolgirl. She’s shy, neat and conscientious, making sure her younger sisters are fed and put to bed… and careful not to antagonize her abusive older brother. She likes school, and is on the girls’ tackle football team. She keeps her long braids tied back and wears American Apparel jeans and hoodies. She just wants to live a normal life. But everything changes when her guidance counsellor says she’s being channeled to the vocational stream. But why? She wants her bac, she wants a chance at a better life, not cleaning offices like her mom.
It’s like her life is over. Mortified, she runs out of the building, but is called over by some tough girls cutting class outside the school. Lady, Adiatou and Fily (Assa Sylla, Lindsey Karamoh, Marietou Touré) are not like her. They use lots of makeup, have their hair ironed straight, dress in leather jackets, and carry switch blades. They’re a gang of three and want a fourth member to complete their crew. But she’s not like them… is she?
Soon enough she’s shaking down girls for cash, going on trips into the city, away from the desolate banlieus. She goes by the name Vic now, short for Victoire. And they get into fist fights with rival girl gangs. The losers are publicly shamed by getting their clothes pulled off in from of a crowd holding up their cameras. The four friends’ rules? Stand up for yourself, don’t let boys push you around, and only do what you want to do, not what others expect of you. But how much of a future does this gang have? Will she fall into organized crime? Drugs or the sex trade?
This is a great coming-of-age story, told from the viewpoint of a young black Parisian woman living in the suburban public highrises. It’s a slice of life drama, not one with easily solved problems. But the cast – all first time actors — is incredible, and the story touching and realistic.
The Duke of Burgundy
Wri/Dir: Peter Strickland
Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a single woman who lives on an estate somewhere in Europe, surrounded by fields and trees. She has auburn hair, long eyelashes and a severe demeanor. She’s a lepidopterist, and her mansion is filled with items from her collection: thousands of butterflies and moths – including the Duke of Burgundy – all carefully pinned and mounted in glass-covered wooden cases. She’s a perfectionist. Each day she spends her time drawing precise diagrams on white charts and typing her observations using a manual Underwood typewriter. And every so often she ventures outside on her bicycle to give lectures to row after row of smart looking women in smart dresses.
Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) works for her as a maid. She’s late for work and a bit confused about her duties, but Cynthia doesn’t cut her any slack. She scolds her, and warns her to do what she’s told… or suffer the consequences!
But she’s given strange tasks for a cleaning woman, made to crawl around on her hands and knees, while scrubbing the floor. When she asks for a toilet break, Cynthia cruely says no, not until I say you can. Meanwhile she’s polishing Cynthia’s knee-high black leather boots, kneeling on the floor massaging her feet or washing her boss’s undergarments… by hand. Though Evelyn always wears a meek and baffled look on her face, she doesn’t seem bothered by her boss’s eccentricities. She almost seems to want to be punished.
What’s going on? And why is Cynthia guzzling glass after glass of water for some unkown future punishment? Soon we discover its all a fantasy — complete with wigs and costumes — a role-playing exercise between two lovers: dominant Cynthia and submissive Evelyn.
And these scenes, down to the tiniest detail are repeated day after day, as almost an exercise in absurdity. These episodes are alternated with love-making in the bedroom at night, discretely shot reflected in convex mirrors, faded triple exposures or shot through tiny peepholes in closed doors.
Is this a parody of 70s soft core porn? Or an homage to it? I’m not sure which, but a director like Peter Strickland would never include footage just for titillation. He’s somewhere between Quentin Tarantino and Peter Greenaway, with a distinctive 70s style. Duke of Burgundy is beautiful to watch and listen to… but it’s clearly not for everyone.
Elephant Song, the Duke of Burgandy, and Girlhood all open today in Toronto – check your local listings. And this weekend lookout for the Canadian Screen Awards, our own Oscars.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.
15 years ago, in the fall of 1998, in Wyoming, early one morning, a 21 year old man was found tied to a wooden fence. His name was Matt Shepard — he was badly beaten and died soon after in hospital.
Matt was gay, and he was murdered out on the prairie in Laramie, Wyoming by two men in a notorious case of gay bashing. After his death, his case became emblematic of violence against LGBT youth.
Afterwards, his parents fought to expose and expunge homophobic violence, and his name is forever associated with this movement. His death is now well known, but his life is not. What about his family, his friends, his likes and dislikes?
A new documentary, Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, aims to fill in those gaps. It tells about his life before he died. It’s a tender personal story, told by a woman who knew him well. Her name is Michele Josue, and she made this film which opens tonight in Toronto. I talked to Michele at CIUT 89.5 FM about friendship, Matt’s life, how she met him, his family, a cardboard box, hate crime legislation, Switzerland, University life, Wyoming, The Laramie Project…and more!
Daniel Garber talks with anthropologist/filmmaker Niobe Thompson about his three-part documentary The Great Human Odyssey on CBC TV
Human’s are a strange species. We stand up, we cook our food, we talk and we remember.
Our bodies aren’t covered in thick fur, and we don’t have sharp teeth or claws. And yet we aren’t extinct. We live on every continent.
How come we’re alive when stronger hominids aren’t? How did a tropical species come to dominate cold climates? What kept us alive for 200,000 years in this Great Human Odyssey?
The Great Human Odyssey is also the name of a spectacular new three- part series from clearwater documentary that explores our species Homo sapiens and what sets us apart.
The series was written, directed and narrated by Canadian anthropologist-turned-filmmaker Niobe Thompson. Thompson grew up in Wabasca, Northern Alberta, where he worked fighting forest fires. Later, he travelled the world, getting his PhD in social anthropology at Cambridge. He went on to make Gemini Award-wining documentaries, and The Great Human Odyssey is the most recent. It premiered on CBC’s the Nature of Things. I spoke to Niobe by telephone from Edmonton, Alberta about hominids, disease, reindeer, Neanderthal sex, evolution, coexistence, Papua New Guinea, Siberia, the Kalahari desert, genetic legacies… and more!
Sons of Women. Films reviewed: Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, The Boys from Fengkuei, Flowers of Shanghai, PLUS Seventh Son
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Hou Hsiao-Hsien was born in Canton, China in 1947. His family fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists when he was just an infant. Since then he has emerged as one of postwar Taiwan’s most famous directors (along with Ang Lee and Tsai Mingliang).
His movies tell a fragmented history of his country, one story at a time. He deals with ordinary, working-class people, often dislocated and trying to make their way. His characters struggle with differences of language, status, age, class and money. But his films also includes love, sex, jealousy, conformity and insecurity.
Most of his films take place in Taiwan, though there are some exceptions, such as Flight of the Red Balloon (France) or Café Lumière (Japan). The times range from the 19th Century (Flowers of Shanghai), to the 1940s (City of Sadness), to the present day, or even in three eras simultaneously (Three Times).
Some critics call him one of the most important and influential directors, anywhere, comparing the style he helped pioneer – the Taiwanese New Wave — to movements like the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. He’s known for his minimalism, slow pace, long takes and an avoidance of quick editing and obvious special effects.
More often than not, he sets up a nicely-arranged tableau and lets the action take place within that frame. Sort of like a stage play but within a shifting proscenium arch.
Well, there’s a retrospective playing this month in Toronto called Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. It was put together by Richard I. Suchenski, Amber Wu and Teresa Huang and is on a world tour. The series projects pristine prints, rarely seen.
This week I’m looking at two of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s movies. One’s an early film about good men, the other a later film about good women. And, in keeping with my commitment to highbrow/ lowbrow films, I’m also reviewing a fantasy-drama about a medieval guy who hunts for witches… but ends up falling in love with one.
The Boys from Fengkuei (1983)
Three small-town boys — Ah Ching and his two friends — live in a tiny windswept island off the coast of Taiwan. They should be doing their homework but they’d rather be outside gambling and carousing. But after a big fight goes wrong they flee to an abandoned seaside shack. They make their way to Kaohsiung, a big city on the main island. But they soon find life in the big city is not what they expected. They get poorly paid jobs, and their money making ventures – like selling tapes on the street – don’t earn them much money. Their parents expect them to return home to work at an easy factory job. And they soon find themselves victims of conmen, gangsters and sophisticated city folk. But can they find true love in the big city?
I found this movie fascinating, not just because of its realistic coming-of-age portrait of life in Taiwan. It also goes against what I thought was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s directing style: slow, stationary, and dominated by long takes of seated conversations. This movie has fights and chase scenes, crowds and a lot of movement. As programmer Richard I. Suchenski pointed out in his introductory lecture on Hou (Jan 29, 2015), The Boys of Fengkuei fits closely within his oeuvre. It shares the long takes, carefully composed scenes and the stationary, framed shots of his later films.
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
It’s late 19th century Shanghai. Rich men hang out in the entertainment parlours, gambling, drinking, smoking opium and courting the courtesans there. These entertainers the so-called flowers of Shanghai. are known for their beauty and poise. They are carefully trained from an early age, brought up inside the houses. They have their own servants, and answer to the middle aged “auntie” the Madams who rule the business. They cultivate relationships with the rich men who visit them gradually saving up the money they earn. Eventually, they either marry their favourite boyfriend or purchase their independence outright and set up their own businesses. This line of work was one of the few allowing girls to advance from penniless orphan to rich, powerful and socially advanced woman.
The scenes alternate from the men all drinking and dining at a common table to the interiors of the individual houses and the women behind closed doors. The stories are simple: women in rival houses competing for the lovesick but fickle male patrons; discussions of their worth and wealth — both the businessmen and the women; and anger over arranged marriages and love.
In this movie the camera slowly pans back and forth but almost never cuts away from the scene in each brothel. The lighting has a golden glow, generated from the oil lamps on set (portraying scenes without electric lighting). What I found most fascinating was the language – you rarely get to hear dialogue spoken in Shanghainese – another example of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s commitment to realism. This is a beautiful film but like many if his movies, one that requires concentration and commitment to appreciate.
And on a entirely different note…
The Seventh Son
Dir: Sergei Bodrov
It’s the dark ages in Europe, a time of dragons, knights and witches. Tom (Ben Barnes) is a young man who slops the pigs at his remote family farm. There’s gotta be something better than this, he thinks. So when Gregory – an odd man with a pointy yellow beard – comes by seeking an apprentice, Tom jumps at the chance. Gregory (Jeff Bridges) is a knight and (like Tom) is the seventh son of a seventh son which gives him special powers and a sense of commitment. He’s an arrogant, foul-mouthed alcoholic. He’s also a Spook, a man who fights the creatures of darkness. He promises to teach Tom how to fight these demons and witches. Tom can’t wait. But before he leaves, his mother places a special charm around his neck that she says will protect him from evil.
The first witch he encounters is Alice (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) – a beautiful young woman. And when they first hold hands sparks fly… literally! A blue flame shoots out from their hands. Hmmm… But what he doesn’t know is she works as a spy for Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore). Mother Malkin is the evil queen a witch who can turn herself into a dragon. And when the red moon rises, something that happens only once a century, she and her evil cronies plan to take over the world. Will the knights beat the witches and slay the dragons? Or will Tom be slain like all the other apprentices that proceeded him? And what about Alice… is she a good witch or a bad witch?
The Seventh Son is an OK fantasy with a very predictable plot too much CGIs, very long battle scenes, and bad Twilight-style romantic element. There are at least four cliffhangers in this movie – and I mean people literally hanging onto or falling off of cliffs. I guess that’s what you get with 3D and IMAX as the main attractions. Jeff Bridges emotes wildly, Julianne Moore is wonderful as the evil queen, while Ben Barnes is a dull leading man. Most interesting thing is the sets. The women (a.k.a. the evil witches) live in a celebration of Orientalism, replete with Persian rugs, lapis lazuli tiling, and geometric screens. They recline on pillows beside incense burners. The men all dress in rough-hewn burlap and carry rusty swords. The battle of the sexes told in 100 minutes in 3-D.
Seventh Son opens today in Toronto—check your local listings; and the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien: Good Men, Good Women continue all this month at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Go to tiff.net for times.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com