Fish out of Water. Films Reviewed: What Happened Miss Simone?, The Overnight

Posted in 1960s, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, L.A., Movies, Music, US by CulturalMining.com on June 26, 2015

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

With the Pan Am / Parapan Am Games coming to Toronto (one field is a pebble’s throw from this station) the city is welcoming strangers from across this hemisphere. There’s a celebration of Panamerican culture in documentaries screening at the Bloor Cinema, as well as short documentaries about Everyday Ambassadors playing as part of PanAmMania and screening at Nathan Phillips Square on July 11th.

This week I’m looking at Fish Out of Water: a documentary about a would-be concert pianist tossed into the worlds of jazz and soul; and a comedy about a young couple from the Pacific Northwest floundering in LA culture.

1517459_321391588070445_9092701473599202779_nWhat Happened, Miss Simone?
Dir: Liz Garbus

Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul” is revered today in Europe and North America as one of the great singers of the 20th century. Her rich low voice is saturated with emotion and musicality. But her life and fame had its ups and downs. How did she go from star to political activist to skid-row torch singer and back to legendary diva? This fantastic bio-documentary traces her uneven path.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon into a family of poor black preachers in North Carolina in 1933. By the age of three, she is already playing piano at her mom’s church, and her musical talent catches the eye of many parishioners. One, a white woman, sets up a scholarship fund and10862637_311209889088615_3613607397890030736_o private lessons with a Miss Massinovitch, a strict piano teacher with a Russian-sounding name (she’s actually English). Her goal is to become the first black concert pianist, and her teacher instills in her a love of Bach. She goes on to study at Julliard in New York, but her dreams are crushed when she is refused entry into the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia – probably because she is black. (This is before integration.)

To earn money, she starts playing piano in Atlantic City bars. And, so her mother doesn’t find out, she plays under the stage name Nina Simone (Niña is Spanish for girl, Simone after French actress Simone Signoret). And when she becomes known for her voice, she is funneled into the slot of “jazz singer” – a popular genre but not something she is 10958820_322827554593515_6218808686065354153_ntrained in, nor particularly likes. But with so few career choices available, she can’t pick and choose.

In the 1960s, she starts to tour and marries Andrew Stroud, a former cop who doubles as her manager. He’s hardboiled and conservative, and wants her to stick to hits to bring in the bucks. But Simone is shaken by the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls. She gravitates toward the civil rights movement and performs at Martin Luther King’s historic march at Selma. Later she writes and performs the song Mississippi Goddamn to show her anger and frustration at the violence and discrimination faced by African Americans across the country..11008445_334102973465973_4393093998390268430_n

By the 70s, she is firmly established as a member of the black arts elite. She lives with her husband and daughter in New York state, and her daughter is best friends with their neighbours the Shabazz family, the kids of Malcolm X. But as her fame begins to fade, she divorces her violent husband and her money starts to run out. She flees, first to Liberia with her daughter, and later ends up performing alone in seedy French bars for a handful of francs.

There’s much, much more to her story, and this amazing movie covers it all. Director Liz Garbus takes you right into her life with interviews with her family and close friends. Like in her documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), she explores the fine lines between genius, fame and madness. Using period footage, photos, and most of all her music, you get a real taste of Nina Simone as a perfectionist diva and incredible singer and pianist, as well as a troubled, lonely woman losing her grip. I strongly recommend this documentary.

Jason-Still-#1The Overnight
Wri/Dir: Patrick Brice

Alex and Emily (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) are a young couple with a little son, RJ. Alex is a stay-at-home dad, both optimistic and insecure, with a bad goatee and shlumpy clothes. Emily is a smartly-dressed careerist with little tolerance for her husband’s B.S. They recently moved down to LA from Seattle so Emily can pursue her career. She’s always busy, but Alex is bored. They don’t have any friends and it’s hard to meet new people. And while the two are deeply in love they don’t a great sex life: Alex has body issues. (He thinks his penis is too Adam-Still-#7small.)

One day Alex meets Kurt (Jason Schwartzman) at a picnic in the park when they catch their two sons playing together. Seeing a potential friend, they say eagerly yes to a pizza party at Kurt and Charlotte (Judith Godrèche)’s home. They are an older couple, rich successful and privy to the ways of LA. Kurt is a semi-hipster who indulges in odd paintings – he sees himself as the Georgia O’Keefe of anuses. And French Charlotte is an amateur actress, known on the web for a peculiar practice involving her breasts.

But the party takes on a strange turn when the kids are put to bed. Kurt and Charlotte initiate a series of games unknown to the naive out-of-towners. Like fish out of water, they’re unsure whether Group-Still-#5this is how normal people in L.A. behave or if they’re being seduced by a couple of swingers. Will they succumb to the older couple’s seedy charms? Or will they flee the house screaming?

The Overnight is a very funny comedy with a great small cast. It’s almost like a classic drawing room comedy, though bedroom comedy is more accurate. Its humour doesn’t rely on clever lines or pratfalls; it’s the characters and the uncomfortable sexual/social situations they find themselves in that makes it funny.

Though written and directed by Patrick Brice, The Overnight is produced by the Duplass Brothers and has their hallmarks — sexual situations, weirdness, social comedy — all over it. It also has the feel of improvisation within a structured plot. This is a great comedy with an indie feel.

The Overnight opens today in Toronto; check your local listings; and What Happened, Miss Simone is now playing on Netflix.

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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