Suburban types. Films reviewed: Eighth Grade, Under the Tree, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Posted in Addiction, comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Drama, Family, Feminism, Iceland, LGBT, Scandinavia, School, Suburbs by CulturalMining.com on July 20, 2018

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

Movies needn’t be about famous people. This week I’m looking at three domestic dramas about ordinary, suburban types. There’s a girl in 8th grade deciding what to do with her future, Icelandic neighbours fighting over a tree, and a quadriplegic alcoholic learning to draw.

Eighth Grade

Wri/Dir: Bo Burman

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a modern eighth grader who lives with her dad (Josh Hamilton). It’s the end of her last year of junior high and kids are looking at the time capsules they buried three years earlier, to see how much they’ve changed. On youtube and instagram she’s a success and she shares her thoughts on a vlog, ending each podcast with the word “Gucci”! But at school she’s the opposite of famous. She’s the kind of girl who shows up at a pool party in a little kid’s one piece when the rest of the girls are wearing bikinis. Kayla has zits, she doesn’t understand fashion and has no friends.

The guy she’s crushing on, Riley, just wants sex. And popular girls – like the snobby Olivia – won’t even acknowledge she exists. But things look up when she’s invited to Olivia’s birthday party, and even better when a much older highschool girl agrees to be her mentor. Can Kayla create a new personality, make friends and find a boyfriend? Or will high school just bring more of the countless humiliations a 12-year-old girl faces each day?

Eighth Grade is a warm and funny coming-of-age story about a girl approaching — but not yet entering — adolescence. Elsie Fisher is totally believable in the lead role. And Bo Burman, the filmmaker, started as a youtube presence himself. The thing is, a lot of the movie feels like a stereotypical boy’s coming-of-age story superimposed on a girl. Things like: whenever Kayla ogles her crush Riley she pictures him walking in slow motion to loud pop music, leaving her tongue-tied; or when her dad catches her masturbating to porn on her smartphone. (Also… what’s with all these single dad movies? In real life, 80% of single-parent families are headed by moms, not dads, but you wouldn’t know it.)

On the other hand this film deals with real contemporary issues – like consent, snobbery, bullying, sex-education and the very new, very real phenomenon of shooting drills; what kids should do if a shooter comes into the school.

Eighth Grade is a very cute and touching comedy, and one that’s worth seeing.

Under the Tree

Dir: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

It’s suburban Iceland. Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is a married guy with a three-year-old daughter, until… his wife catches him watching porn on his computer. Not only that, it’s him in the video, with his ex girlfriend. It’s not how it looks, he says. We made the tape years before I met you – I’ve never cheated on you. No, she says, that’s exactly how it looks, and you’re out of here.

He ends up at his parents’ house, a retired couple named Baldvin and Inga (Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Edda Björgvinsdóttir). The family is already dealing with the disappearance and presumed death of his brother. They live in a big blue townhouse with a shady tree in the backyard. Inga has a silky cat, and Baldvin fills his free time with choir practice. They get along well with their neighbour – a divorced professional — but less so with his fitness-obsessed second wife. The shade from their tree interferes with her suntan. A small disagreement.

But just like Atli’s sex tape, little things left unchecked can grow into big problems. A series of unexplained incidents – slashed tires, salacious garden gnomes found in a planter, a missing cat – grow more and more dangerous. Can the feuding neighbours settle their crisis? And will Atli move back home with his family?

Under the Tree is a very dark comedy about life in contemporary Iceland . But don’t expect hotsprings and rustic fishing boats. It’s filled instead with classrooms, Ikea stores and government offices. The acting is excellent as the story progresses to its ultimate conclusion.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

Dir: Gus Van Sant

It’s the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest. John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) is a redhead who likes drinking and picking up girls. An adopted kid from small town Oregon he goes to California to sow his wild oats. But his life changes dramatically when a weekend bender ends with his car wrapped around a tree. He’s left quadriplegic, with little chance of recovery. But with the help of a Swedish caregiver named Annu (Rooney Mara), he learns to operate a wheelchair and eventually how to draw with one hand. His personality stays intact and so does his alcoholism.

So he joins a 12-step AA group held in a mansion. It’s hosted by Donnie (Jonah Hill) an irreverent rich gay man with long hair and beard. Donnie always has time for his piggies what he calls the men and women he sponsors. And as John passes through the twelve steps of recovery he finds a meaning in life: drawing obscene, politically incorrect and hilarious cartoons.

Normally, if someone says a movie is about Alcoholic Anonymous meetings I’d say let me out if here. These kind of movies are both gruellingly depressing and painfully earnest. But this is a Gus Van Sant movie and he makes it work. This movie is funny, surprising, shocking and very enjoyable. Yeah, it’s sad at times, but it offers so much you rarely see. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals with the bad sides of living with a disability, just as it’s not afraid of celebrating a disabled person’s sex life.

Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as John, And Jonah Hill is great – and totally unrecognizable — as Donnie. Smaller roles like Jack Black as a drunk driver, Tony Greenhand as John’s caregiver and Kim Gordon, Udo Kier and Ronnie Adrian, as some of the piggies – keep the movie going, The film is done cut-up style, jumping around over a 20-year period, which makes it a bit disorienting. Even so, it leads you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Eighth Grade, Under the Tree and Don’t worry, He Won’t Get far on Foot, 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.

Acting white. Films reviewed: Whitney, Sorry to Bother You, Mary Shelley

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, documentary, Feminism, Movies, Music, Poetry, Politics, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 13, 2018

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

The scorching heat shows no sign of letting up, but you can always wait till dark and watch free screenings in Toronto parks. There are screenings at Yonge/Dundas Square each Tuesday, in Corktown each Thursday, and a special TPFF screening at Christie Pits in August.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies playing only in air-conditioned theatres. There’s a man in Oakland told to talk white, a musician from Newark made to sing white, and a woman in 19th century England… who just wants to write.

Whitney (a documentary)

Dir: Kevin McDonald

Whitney Houston is a middleclass churchgoing girl born into a musical family in Newark, New Jersey. Her mom Cissie Houston sings backup for Aretha Franklin and her cousin is Dionne Warwick. She has many supportive aunts and brothers – including an NBA player – and her stepdad is a municipal bureaucrat. They put her into a private Catholic school to avoid urban strife and riots. She’s pretty and talented and professionally trained. By age 18 she is accompanying her mom at a Manhattan nightclub, until the night she takes the stage on her own. Her beautiful voice blows the audience away, soon record execs are banging at her door, and she never looks back. She moves in with her best friend, Robyn Crawford, in a committed relationship.

Soon she’s chalking up consecutive number one hits, eventually breaking records for a female vocalist. And she puts her entire extended family on the payroll. Despite her intimate relationship with Robyn – a woman — she meets and marries popstar

Bobby Brown and does her best to please him – and their cute little daughter. But all is not well.

Even as her fame grows, some fans object to the homogenized, MOR tunes provided by a studio that wants her to sing “white”. Whitney becomes a real superstar when the movie The Bodyguard – and its theme song – attract worldwide attention. But she’s too big to survive. She start on a downward spiral of drug addiction, depression and isolation. She’s exploited, abused and her career collapses, as do her vocal chords and her family life.

Whitney is a new documentary that, through interviews with her family members and work mates – virtually everyone in her life (except Robyn) — unveils her hidden history: her drug use, her fluid sexuality and even, possibly, sexual abuse as a young girl (no spoilers here). Personally, I was never a fan of Whitney’s bland musical style, but I found this documentary totally engrossing (and sickening). Along with all the interviews, it has amazing montages that combine 80s music videos, TV commercials and violent news footage –  it’s worth watching just for that. Whitney is a celebration of crash-and-burn celebrityhood that you don’t want to watch, but can’t take your eyes off of.

Sorry to Bother You

Wri/Dir: Boots Riley

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young, everyman in Oakland in a bad situation. He’s jobless, penniless, and nearly homeless: he lives in his uncle’s garage and drives a rust bucket. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a political performance artist who is also perpetually broke.

So he jumps at the chance to work for a telemarketing company and gradually learns the ropes. It’s stressful and depressing with a high turnover rate. Worse than that, salary is commission-based, meaning if you don’t close a deal, you don’t get paid. And he can’t get anyone to buy from him until an old timer (Danny Glover) tells him the secret: talk white. It’s not just an accent, it’s the whole lifestyle, talking like you don’t have a worry in the world. Sure enough, he begins to earn some cash. At the same time a union rep named Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is organizing a wildcat strike. And behind the scenes, bay area zillionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is urging labour sign up as indentured servants — virtual slavery, in other words. He owns the company. Which direction will Cassius go… join the strike or cross the picket line?

Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant political satire that combines science fiction, black american culture, experimental movie making and delightful comedy. Filmmaker Boots Riley reinvents movies in unexpected ways: like tearing down the fourth wall in one scene – literally! He portrays gangsta rap as modern day minstrelsie while keeping political issues – like homelessness and precarious employment – at the forefront. This is an excellent indie movie.

Mary Shelley

Dir: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning: Ginger and Rosa, Neon Demon, 20th Century Women, The Beguiled) is a teenaged girl in 19th century London. She wears her blond hair braided and her dresses loose. She can be found curled up against a gravestone reading a book. She’s the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecroft (who died when she was an infant), and political philosopher Charles Godwin, so she’s always open to new ideas, both scientific and literary.

Her dark-haired, half-sister Claire (Bel Powley: Diary of Teenege Girl, ) is her constant companion, until she meets a poet at a reading. Handsome, young Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth: The Riot Club) sweeps her off her feet with his amorous verse. Is it love? Mary thinks so… until she meets his estranged wife and child. (Turns out Shelley is a bit of a player.) But she agrees to run off with him, accompanied by the faithful Claire. And when deby collectors chase them out of their Bloomsbury flat, they flee to the continent, where sex-addicted poet Lord Byron lives in a grand mansion.

To while away the rainy days Byron proposes the four of them – Mary, Shelley, himself and a young doctor, but not Claire – to write some scary stories. That’s where Mary pens the classic Frankenstein. Can a woman get her work published in 19th century England? And is “free love” just an excuse men use to exploit gullible women?

I enjoyed Mary Shelley but didn’t love it. It can’t seem to decide where it’s going: is it a gothic, Brontë romance? An intellectual feminist historical biopic? Or a witty, Jane Austen drama? You can’t be all three.

As for Frankenstein, the only monsters here are the loathesome poets Mary Shelley has to deal with.

Whitney, Sorry to Bother You and Mary Shelley 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.

Working class heroes. Films reviewed: 22 Chaser, Boundaries, Leave No Trace

Posted in Canada, Cars, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Road Movie, Toronto, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 6, 2018

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

Movies aren’t only about escapism, superheroes and spaceships. Some equally entertaining movies shed light on real people and their concerns – like escaping poverty, finding a home, or keeping their kids in school.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about working-class families. There’s a father and daughter in Portland who live in the wild, a west coast mom and her son forced to deal with a wiley grandpa, and a tow truck driver negotiating the wilds of downtown Toronto.

22 Chaser

Dir: Rafal Sokolowski

Ben and Avery (Brian J Smith: Sense8; and Tiio Horn: Ghost BFF) are an ambitious young couple from a small town with a scrappy son named Zach. Ben drives a truck for Jackrabbit Towing but hopes to open his own garage some day; while Avery plans to parlay her skills as diner waitress into restaurant owner. But despite their big ideas they’re barely surviving, with Avery forced to visit the local foodbank.

Ben is an ethical guy who helps the victims he sees at accidents; he’s no ambulance chaser like his rival towtruck drivers Elvis (Shaun Benson) and Wayne (Raoul Trujillo). One day at work he gets some good news and bad news. The good news is his company is about to land a big police contract – this guarantees lots of future income. The bad news is the drivers have to pay a big deposit to keep their tow trucks – money he just doesn’t have.

So he enters a deal with a crooked cop named Ray (Aiden Devine) who doubles as a predatory loan shark. The meeting is arranged by his best friend Sean (Aaron Ashmore), another chaser. But the income he expects doesn’t come in. The loanshark demands a payment in 24 hours — or else — but he doesn’t even have enough to buy his kid a birthday present. Jackrabbit Ben is forced to turn chaser, at least for one night. Can he survive the bloodthirsty world of competitive tow truck driving?

22 Chaser is equal parts family drama and action movie with enough violence and street racing to keep it moving. The story’s a bit old fashioned… or classic, depending on how you view it. (It feels like the movie Nightcrawler, but with a tow-truck driver instead of a news photgrapher.) Smith and Horn are appealing as the troubled married couple, and the night time street views of downtown Toronto are a pleasure to watch.

Boundaries

Wri/Dir: Shana Feste

Laura (Vera Farmiga) is an eccentric single mom who lives with her son and a whole lot of dogs – she adopts any abandoned dog she sees on the street. She’s the pied piper of mange. She works for her rich best friend as a party planner, but she’s struggling to get by. Her son Henry (Lewis MacDougall) is an artist and a bit of an oddball too. He draws what he feels. His latest hobby is to draw naked pictures of adults he knows – including his mom’s boyfriends. But when he draws his school principal naked, he gets expelled. This means mom has to find a private school that takes non-conformist kids. And she has to pay for it. Which forces her to contact her estranged father Jack (Christopher

Plummer) who was just kicked out of a seniors home.

Laura blames him for her troubled childhood – he was never around when she was growing up. And though he’s in his eighties she still doesn’t trust him. But she really needs the money. So she agrees to go on a roadtrip down the west coast, from Seattle to LA, with her son and her dad in exchange for the money to pay for Henry’s school. And maybe Henry can finally bond with his grandpa. But what she doesn’t know is Jack is using the trip for nefarious reasons. Can the the three learn to get along? And will the trip solve their problems? Or lead to a terrible end?

Boundaries is a very cute move about family ties. It pulls a lot of the old hollywood road movie tricks – I mean who doesn’t like beautiful scenery, an oddball kid, wacky grandpa, neurotic mom, and lots and lots of adorable dogs? – but I enjoyed it.

Leave No Trace

Wri/Dir: Debra Granik

Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is a teenaged girl who lives with her dad Will (Ben Foster) in a forest near Portland, Oregon. He’s a war vet and she’s his only child. They live a sustainable, natural life, moving every few days, being sure to leave no trace – for both ecological and security reasons. Will suffers from severe PTSD – he’s kept awake by the sound of helicopters in his head – and is extremely antisocial. He doesn’t like being around other people, except Tom of course.

They start campfires with flint and steel, pick wild mushrooms, and drink rainwater captured in plastic tarps. He teaches her survival tactics and how to hide from the enemy, but also book learning. Thom likes her life — it’s the only life she’s ever known. But when their lives are disrupted – they’re arrested by the police and Tom is handed over to social services – they’re forced to rethink their entire way of life. Tom discovers she likes being around other people, while will can’t stand it. What will happen to their father daughter relationship?

Leave No Trace sounds like a simple family movie, but it’s so much more. It follows a script with actors but feels almost like a documentary at times. It follows Will and Tom on a picaresque journey through the Pacific north west, through forests, along highways, and with the people they meet on the way. Gorgeous scenery, fantastic acting, and a beautiful subtle story. It’s directed by Debra Granik who did the fantastic Winter’s Bone – (another great movie, and was Jennifer Lawrence’s first important film, and look at her now!) That’s why I made sure to catch this one. And though it’s not a thriller like Winter’s Bone, it’s just as good.

I recommend this movie.

22 Chaser, Boundaries and Leave No Trace 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.

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