Cities. Films reviewed: The Lost City of Z, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, Colossal

Posted in Addiction, Adventure, Brazil, documentary, Drama, Manhattan, Protest, UK by CulturalMining.com on April 21, 2017

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

Cities. People around the globe are urbanizing at an alarming rate, with tens of millions leaving their farms, villages and small towns each year. So this week I’m looking at movies about cities. There’s a man who wants to find a city, a woman who wants to save a city, and another woman who is trying not to destroy a city.

The Lost City of Z

Dir: James Gray

It’s 1905. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a major in His Majesty’s Army but an undecorated one – no medals, because he has never seen battle. He’s a modern thinker not bogged down by religion and bigotry, and believes in equal rights for women, including for his wife Nina (Sienna Miller). His father — a drinker and gambler – had ruined the family name, so he jumps at the chance to restore it. The offer: to lead an expedition to “Amazonia” sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society. A skilled cartographer, Fawcett must map an uncharted river running between Bolivia and Brazil. He also wants to find a legendary, advanced civilization he calls the city of “Z”.

On the ship heading to South America, he meets a dismissive man with a bushy beard, round glasses and a big hat. Turns out it’s his aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They make an odd couple, Costin kitted out for the jungle with Fawcett still in European mode. But soon they get along. First they journey to a popup city in the jungle complete with an opera house. It’s run by filthy rich robber barons riding the Amazon rubber boom. There they assemble a small team to travel down the river on a raft, further than any European has gone. A native former slave serves as their guide. Along the way, they are attacked by locals with spears and arrows, and encounter black jaguars and make it as far as a waterfall – the river’s source? There, Fawcett finds artifacts he says are from the lost city he seeks. Back in London he raises money for a second trip. His wife asks to go too, but he says it’s no place for a woman. Instead he takes a portly millionaire named Mr. Murray – an armchair explorer – as his sponsor. But this leads to more trouble. This time they encounter cannibals and travel even further even further, but not as far as Zed. Can Fawcett earn the respect of his family, the confidence of the Geographers, and the backing of the press? Can he survive a third trip through the jungle? Or is his passion, finding the lost city of Z, based on myths and fantasies?

This is fascinating adventure, based on real historical figures. It’s also very similar to a fantastic black and white arthouse film from a few years ago called Embrace of the Serpent, also about a European travelling down the Amazon during the rubber boom. This one is more traditional, told solely from a European point of view, the dashing explorers out to discover things lost to the locals. The indigenous people are things they encounter on their journey, and almost never speak. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but I enjoyed the movie anyway. Charlie Hunnam is great as Fawcett, and Robert Pattinson (the heartthrob vampire from the execrable Twilight series ) is completely unrecognizable in this role. If you’re in the mood for an exciting colonial trek through the jungle, this long movie is made for you.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Wri/Dir: Matt Tyrnauer

It’s postwar America, where the car is king and freshly-built houses in the suburbs the ideal home. Jane Jacobs is a young writer in Manhattan who publishes pieces on manhole covers and city streets for magazines like Vogue and Architectural Forum. Robert Moses is the immensely powerful, urban planning and highway czar, building enormous parkways through cities to let people commute to their far off homes. He subscribes to the visions of Swiss architect le Corbusier: Cities are best viewed from an airplane — clean, pristine and devoid of pesky things like small shops, loitering people and peculiar neighbourhoods. Cities are old and ugly cesspools filled with cancerous slums that can only be saved by wiping them out.

Robert Moses views cities from above looking down; Jane Jacobs (in her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities) looks at cities from ground level. She loves the confusion and excitement of neighbourhoods and the people who live there. Moses wants to extend Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue down through Washington Square park, and turn into a highway, destroying Canal St, Soho, and Little Italy on the way. And no one ever defies his grand plans… until Jane Jacobs. She’s the one responsible for a new look at urban landscapes and city planning. She saved Greenwich village from destruction and changed people’s views about what a city should look like and feel like.

This is a superb documentary chronicling her battle with Moses. It also shows how people like Jacobs can challenge the orthodoxy of so-called urban renewal (what James Baldwin called “negro removal”) and its destruction of neighbourhoods.

This documentary doesn’t deal with Jane Jacobs before she moved to New York City or afterwards when she moved to Toronto (where she helped save the city from the Spadina Expressway). It’s specifically about Jacobs’ battle with Moses. And it does so in a very informative and absorbing way.

Colossal

Wri/Dir: Nacho Vigalondo

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has it made: an English boyfriend with a beautiful apartment, and lots of cool hipster friends who show her the highlife. She’s loose with the bottle and free with the pills. But after an especially horrific incident he gives her the boot until she dries out. So she is forced to relocate to her childhood home in a small town. She is taken under the wing of Oscar (Jason Sudeikas) a local entrepreneur who offers her a job at his roadhouse bar (turns it he had a crush on her as a kid and wants to renew their friendship).

She takes the job but turns down his sexual advances. Though depressed and lonely, she gradually adjusts to the slow paced rhythm of life there: working late at the bar, sharing drinks with her new friends and waking up the next morning on a park bench feeling like hell warmed over. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a giant monster is trampling through Seoul Korea, toppling buildings and terrorizing the populous. And Gloria notices something very strange: the monster only appears in Seoul whenever she wakes up in the park, drunk to the gills. Stranger still, the colossal monster she sees on the news shares her nervous tics and habits. What is the connection?

Colossal is a unique film that doesn’t fall easily into any single genre. It starts out like a sophisticated chick flick or a recovery movie, but it’s also a disaster and monster movie, a comedy and a social drama. Hathaway is good as a young alcoholic forced to deal with her addiction, and Sudeikas is equally good as a conflicted (and sometimes vengeful) friend. The Korean aspect of the movie is superficial, with locals mainly there to get stepped on. Still, Colossal is weird and surprisingly entertaining — it’s different from any movie you’ve ever seen before.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, The Lost City of Z and Colossal 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

Unusual relationships. Movies reviewed: Room 213, Your Name, Maudie

Posted in Animation, Art, Canada, Denmark, Drama, Japan, Nova Scotia, Romance, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on April 14, 2017

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

April 19th is National Canadian Film Day, which bills itself as the world’s largest film festival. On that day — at theatres around Toronto, and across the country – you can see free screenings of Canadian movies, often with actors or directors in attendance. Comedies, kids’ movies, French, indigenous… and they’re all free.  Check it out.

This week I’m looking at movies about unusual relationships. There’s a disabled woman who moves in with a recluse, a ghost who inhabits a young girl, and a teenage boy and girl who inhabit each other’s bodies.

Room 213

Dir: Emilie Lindblom

Elvira (Wilma Lundgrun) is a 12-year-old Danish girl heading to camp for the first time. Camp Bjorkuddens is a lot like a Canadian summer camp: it’s on a lake, they play games, roast weenies on sticks and tell scary stories by the campfire. The big difference is instead of tents or small, bare cabins they stay in a huge, elaborate building filled with dusty antiques. Elvira has two roommates, the blond and snobbish Meja (Ella Fogelström) and the darker, shy Bea (Elena Hovsepyan). And due to a plumbing problem they move to room 213, empty for many years.

That’s when weird things start to happen. The door creaks open in the middle of the night, and treasured items disappear (and the three girls suspect one another). A girl with red hair and bright green eyes named Mebel appears — is she a ghost? And when Elvira’s brown eyes start turning green, is it Mebel taking over?

Room 213 is a scary movie aimed at small children. It’s tame even by YTV standards — no violence at all, no slashers in hockey masks, just general spookiness. And it deals with problems like exclusion, bullying and young love in a multi-ethnic Denmark. But this is definitely a movie for little kids only.

Your Name (君の名は)

Dir: Makoto Shinkai

Taki is a high schooler in central Tokyo. He’s scrawny but quick to fight. He hangs out with his two best friends and has a crush on his sophisticated, female boss at his part-time restaurant job. Mitsuha is a teenaged girl in a remote Japanese village, known for its obscure shinto shrine and little else. She lives with her little sister Yotsuha and her traditional grandmother who knows about the old ways. Things like weaving colourful lanyards, and chewing up glutinous rice, spitting it back into a wooden box so it ferments into sake. Yum! And there’s a celestial comet that passes close to the town every 200 years (that day is approaching soon.)

Taki and Mitsuha are total strangers who live far away from each other. So what’s their connection? Some mornings, Taki is waking up with breasts, and Mitsuha with a penis. Well not exactly; they’re actually waking up inside each other’s bodies. They have to live those days at school, at work and with friends they’ve never met before. It’s not all bad. Mitsuha lands Taki a date with his boss, and Taki gains some insight into shinto rituals. He becomes more mature and she is more assertive. The two manage to communicate with each other using cryptic scrawls they leave in notebooks and diaries recorded on cel phones so they can know what happened during their switch-body days. Until something changes. The body switches suddeny stop and all the notes they left each other fade away. For Taki it’s as if Mitsuha never existed and it was all a dream. But it was real. He can’t remember her name, but he knows it all happened. Using a sketch of her town he drew from memory, he sets out to find her.

Your Name is deeply-moving romantic drama with a touch of the supernatural. It’s a beautifully- drawn, animated film from Japan with neat camera angles and lovely art. It’s also a record-breaking smash hit across East Asia that has finally reached these shores. It’s the only movie playing now to sell-out crowds, with huge lineups inside the theatre before each screening. And I understand why. No spoilers, but there’s a wrenching revelation in the middle that sent shivers down my spine, the sign of a really good story. Anime is a particular genre, and if you’re not familiar with it it might be hard to understand, but if you like anime, this one is a must-see.

Maudie

Dir: Aisling Walsh

Maud (Sally Hawkins) is a disabled woman who lives in post-war Digby, Nova Scotia with her controlling aunt. Every moment of her life is supervised and she’s treated like a simple-minded child. But on a visit to a local shop she finds a way to escape: a hand-written ad for a live in housekeeper. Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) wrote the note, though his house is barely a home. He lives in a rundown shack on a small plot of land, earning a meagre living as a fish monger. He’s unmarried, mainly because no woman can put up with his rudeness.

But Maudie can. After dogged persistence, she moves in with him and immediately starts to work. He is peculiar and abusive, but she sticks with it. In her free time she begins to decorate the walls with small paintings of flowers and animals. When her hand-painted postcards sell out at the local general store, she moves on to bigger paintings, selling them for $5 apiece. These catch the eye of a rich woman from N.Y. City who spreads the primitivist paintings among her friends back home. Meanwhile, Maud’s relationship with Everett gradually shifts from boss/servant to bedmate to wife. But can a reclusive misanthrope handle living with a recognized artist and local celebrity?

Maudie is the true story of a self-taught painter whose works now hang in famous galleries and in the homes of collectors. It’s also an unusual romance about a pair of social outcasts hammering out an unusual relationship on their own. Sally Hawkins is outstanding as Maudie – you really believe she is who she is playing. Hawke, though capable in his portrayal of such an unsympathetic character, pales in comparison to his co-star. This is a good — though very dark — movie.

Your Name is now playing and Maudie opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Room 213 is one of many films showing at the TIFF Kids Festival – go to tiff.net for details. And canadianfilmday.ca will tell you where to see free films on April 19th.

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

Exceptional people with hidden histories. Movies reviewed: Gifted, I Called Him Morgan, Frantz

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, drugs, Family, France, Germany, Jazz, melodrama, Music, Mystery, WWI by CulturalMining.com on April 10, 2017

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

Spring Film Festival season continues with the upcoming Images and TIFF Kids film festivals, celebrating their 30th and 20th anniversaries (respectively).

This week, I’m looking at movies about exceptional people with hidden histories. There’s a musical genius in Manhattan, a mathematical prodigy on the Florida coast, and a man of mystery at the border of France and Germany.

Gifted

Dir: Mark Webb

Frank (Chris Evans) is a youngish guy living in a shack in Florida. He lives a quiet life, fixing boats and hooking up with women at laguna bars. The rest of his time is spent home-schooling his niece Mary (McKenna Grace), a foul-mouthed seven-year-old with blonde pigtails. Mary likes math, dancing to pop songs and playing with Fred, their one-eyed stray cat, a castoff like the two of them. How did they end up in Florida? Frank’s sister, a math genius, left Mary with him as a baby… just before killing herself. She made him promise to let Mary have a normal life, in case it turns out she’s a genius too. Normal means keeping the child free from math profs and universities, and most of all away from their obsessive mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). She’s the one who pushed Frank’s sister over the edge with her relentless ambition: solving one of the Millennium Prize Problems.

Frank is protecting Mary from all that. But how can she live a normal life hidden away in their clapboard shack? It’s time to send her to public school — despite his savvy neighbour Roberta’s warnings not to (Octavia Spence). Right away the dominos start to fall: teacher tells principal Mary is gifted, Principal goes online and soon Evelyn is in Florida demanding a proper Harvard education for her gifted grandchild.  Who has Mary’s best interests at heart – her wealthy patrician grandmother or her salt-of-the-earth uncle Frank?

I like the idea behind Gifted, and was looking forward to a story about a genius kid trying to live a normal life – but aside from a few scenes the movie isn’t about that. It’s actually a child custody drama, which is never much fun. Throw in foster parents, courtrooms and lawyers and the movie becomes a trial to watch. While the acting is not bad – Captain America as a single dad – and there are a few big secrets revealed along the way, I found Gifted disappointing.

I Called Him Morgan

Dir: Kasper Collin

Lee Morgan was a young jazz trumpet player from Philly, featured in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band as an 18 year old. 15 years later he was shot dead outside a Manhattan jazz club in a snow storm by a much older woman named Helen. How did he get there, who was this woman, and how did it happen? A new documentary looks closely at both their lives.

Morgan was a hard-bop trumpeter who dressed in Ivy League suits and drove his Triumph through Central Park. He played with Art Blakey and John Coltrane, later breaking away with his own band. Helen was born in a small town near Wilmington, North Carolina, with two kids by age 14, and widowed by 18 after a short marriage to a bootlegger. She left her kids with grandma, moved to New York City and never looked back. She cut an impressive figure on the streets, hanging with Manhattan’s demimonde, sexual outlaws and drug dealers. That’s how she entered the jazz scene. By the time she met Lee Morgan, he was a junkie who had pawned his trumpet for some heroin and was virtually homeless. She washed him, got him into a Bronx clinic and set him back up in the jazz scene. She served as his mother, lover, manager and protector. But when he began to fool around with a young woman from New Jersey, things started to go wrong…

I Called Him Morgan is an amazing movie about the two lovers’ lives. Helen gave only one interview in a bar on a cassette tape a month before she died, but in it she tells what really happened. Interviews with the friends and musicians he played with fill in the blanks, and it is illustrated with B&W photos from Blue Note (the club and record label where Morgan played and recorded), all set alight by Morgan’s cool trumpet sounds. Fascinating musical documentary.

Frantz

Dir: Francois Ozon

A small town in Germany, right after WWI. Anna (Paula Beer) is a strong and pretty young woman all dressed in black. She is in mourning for her fiance Frantz Hoffmeister, who died in the trenches. She still lives with Frantz’s father, the good Doktor Hoffmeister, and Magda his mother. They treat her like one of the family. One day, Anna spies a young man with a pencil thin moustache laying white roses by Frantz’s grave. Who is this man and what does he want? His name is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) and he is a musician. It seems he knew Frantz before the war, in Paris, and he carries a letter he wrote. He is visiting the town to pay his respects and to say something to Frantz’s father. But the war wounds are still raw, and townsfolk can’t believe a frenchman would dare set foot there. Eventually, nervous Adrien spends time with Anna and her family forging a deep emotional friendship, but one based partly on lies. What isn’t he telling them?

After Adrien returns to France, Anna decides to track him down in Paris, and retrace the museums and music halls Frantz had loved. But Adrien is nowhere to be found. Like a detective, she tries to locate him far outside Paris, which leads her to a sumptuous villa in the country. And now Anna must reveal secrets of her own.

Frantz is a fantastic, novelistic melodrama spanning Germany and France, about secrets, lies, guilt and class. It’s a romance full of unrequited love, fuelled by letters and whispered confessions. I told very little of the story, to avoid spoilers, but believe me this is one great movie. It’s shot in stunning black and white with a hitchcockian musical score, beautiful costumes and great acting. Francois Ozon’s movies are often light family dramas or superficial sexual comedies, but this one is a sumptuous, epic story, perfectly made. I recommend this one.

Gifted, I Called him Morgan and Frantz all start 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.

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