Divided personalities. Movies reviewed: Al Purdy Was Here, Legend, I Smile Back
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
People want their friends to be consistent, reliable, regular. But personalities don’t always work this way. This week I’m looking at three movies about people with shifting lives and divided personalities. There’s a US drama about a drug-addicted, bipolar stay-at-home mom; a British biopic about identical twin gangsters, and a Canadian documentary about a poet with a second life.
Al Purdy Was Here
Dir: Brian Johnson
Literature once ruled Canadian culture, with poetry at the top of the CanLit heap. Dudek, Layton, Cohen, Atwood, Bowering, MacEwan, Borson… But things change, and names get lost. This documentary looks at one of those poets, a man named Al Purdy. Have you heard of him? There’s a statue of him in Queen’s Park, about 100 metres away from here.
Purdy is born in small-town Ontario and drops out of school. He joins the Air Force, works with dynamite, and rides the rails all the way to Vancouver. In the 1950s he survives on UI and roadkill. Picture a bigger-than-life man in loud plaid pants with a foghorn voice. He’s imposing, obnoxious, and happiest talking loudly with a beer stubby in his hand. He makes his mark in Montreal among the better-educated English poets, depending on his prose poetry and rough working-class persona to pull him through. But what became of him?
This movie fills in the blanks. It uses amazing old snapshots, recordings and CBC footage, chapbooks, memorial concerts and twitter feeds to memorialize Al Purdy. It concentrates on the A-frame he built by hand with poet Milton Acorn. The house falls into disrepair so a bunch of writers and musicians get together to physically fix it up. The movie also uncovers the fact it was his wife’s work and salary that let him live the life of a poet. And some skeletons in the closet of another forgotten life. For example it was his wife’s income that let him live as a poet. This movie brings musicians and poets together again, and brings Al Purdy’s poetry back to life.
Wri/Dir: Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential)
Reggie and Ronnie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy) are gangsters in London’s Bethnal Green, in the 1960s. They make their money through extortion and gunrunning. They are well known to the police, but they still go on with their work with impunity. They’re also identical twins: they may look the same, but their personalities are night and day.
Reggie is popular with the ladies, a real charmer, while Ronnie prefers sex with guys. Reg is the shrewd businessman while Ronnie is more of the brawler. Reggie can hold his own in a fight, but Ronnie’s the really scary one, the loose cannon, ready to explode at any moment, guns ablazing.
Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the movie begins with him locked away in a high-security hospital for the criminally insane. Reggie strongarms a psychiatrist to declare his brother sane but the doctor puts it on Reggie to make sure Ronnie always takes his meds. (He doesn’t)
One day Reggie meets Frances (Emily Browning) the younger sister of one of his drivers. She’s 16, a petite, beautiful wide-eyed ingénue. They share a lemon sherbet candy, and bam! they fall in love. (She serves as the movie’s narrator). She likes everything about him… except the gangster stuff. And his brother. But Reg courts her relentlessly, even climbing up a drainpipe to her second story window to avoid her mum’s disapproving glances.
Ronnie, meanwhile, is pursuing his own interests: building a mythical utopian city in far-off Africa. And hanging out with his two boyfriends.
They join forces with Payne (David Thewlis) a man with a middle class accent, an impressive office and a big moustache. He acts as the frontman, while the Krays lurk behind are the muscle. They sit in the background looking threatening, rarely having to raise a finger. Soon enough they’re taking over nightclubs, moving banknotes on the black market, and even doing jobs for Meyer Lansky the US mafia kingpin (who founded Murder Inc.) And the money is rolling in.
Things seem to be going great, until Reggie spends some time in jail and Ronnie takes charge. Uh oh. Their businesses start to unravel at a rapid pace. What will happen to them now? Can the Kray twins handle a rival gang, the police, the mafia, the House of Lords, their love interests… and their own sibling rivalry?
I like this movie – the music, the look, the acting are all great. I did have some trouble understanding Ronnies lines (is it his cockney accent or his mumbling voice?) And having Tom Hardy play both the twins is pretty impressive. It really feels like two separate people. They even get in fist fights and end up wrestling on the floor.
But the central love story — Frances and Reg — just didn’t grab me. It didn’t seem quite right, ‘t works well as an action-filled historical biopic, but fizzles as a romance.
I Smile Back
Dir: Adam Salky
Laney (Sarah Silverman) lives in a nice middle-class home with her husband Bruce (Josh Charles) and her two kids, Eli and Janey. Bruce is an insurance agent who loves playing basketball with their kids. Laney loves them too but finds even dropping them off at school an almost unbearable chore. So she fills her days popping pills, snorting coke, and getting drunk. Or sleeping with random guys she meets in dive bars. She even has an ongoing fling with her best friend’s husband (and her husband’s best friend), who keeps her supplied with meds. She takes lithium to handle her mood swings, leaving her like a depressed zombie when she takes it. But when she skips her meds she goes wild – irresponsible, extreme, always searching for new sexual adventures. She finds herself waking up in strange motel rooms hungover from extreme drunken excess.
That she can handle. It’s her role as the good stay-at-home mom – and the guilt that comes with it – is almost unbearable. She ends up telling off mothers teachers or anyone who rubs her the wrong way.
Bruce’s patience is almost limitless, but she repays this by getting even more difficult to handle. (Does he suspect she’s sleeping with strangers?) And then there are her kids – some of her worries rub off on Eli who has horrible dreams, turning to weird, nervous habits to keep calm. She realizes she’s hit rock bottom when she goes to check on her sleeping kids and ends up masturbating with his teddy bear. Oh Lanie — get a grip! She checks into rehab to try to get back to normal, But lurking in the background is something from her past involving her dad who she hasn’t spoken to in decades.
Can Lanie handle her spiraling decline? Will rehab save her? Can she learn to see her kids again and just smile back? Or will she end up homeless, drunk and beaten up in a dark alley?
I Smile Back is a hard movie to handle. It’s not fun – it’s disturbing, shocking and depressing. But Sarah Silverman pulls it off. We’re used to seeing her as a comic, pushing the limits with her shocking potty humour and dirty jokes. But what’s really chilling is seeing her doing the things she jokes about but for real, not for laughs. Worth seeing.
Legend, Al Purdy was Here, and I Smiled Back 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.