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.
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.
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.
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Happy New Year! It’s the sesquicentennial. You’ll be hearing that word a lot. It means it’s been 150 years since Canada’s Confederation in 1867.
CRTC chief Jean Pierre Blais thinks Canadian TV should be designed to appeal on the world stage – we shouldn’t worry about Canadian culture. Writer Charles Foran, in the Guardian, calls Canada the world’s first post-national country. He’s quoting Justin Trudeau, but I think they’re missing the point. There is a strong national identity. It’s just not an ethnic-based nationalism. It’s not a jingoistic nationalism. It’s not an exclusive identity, it’s an inclusive one that is welcoming and tolerant and multifaceted. But we do have a distinctive Canadian culture.
And part of our identity is Canadian literature, art, music and film. In this Sesquicentennial year look out for lots of chances to consume Canadian culture. The NFB has put thousands of films and documentaries online. And there’s Canada on Screen, a nationwide retrospective running all year with 150 of the best docs, animation, features and TV. All screenings are free!
This week I’m looking at Canadian movies playing as part of the annual Canada’s Top Ten series. We’ve got a hockey drama out of the far west, and a western from the extreme north.
Wri/Dir: Kevan Funk
Tyson Burr (Jared Abrahamson) is a minor league hockey player in Prince George, BC. He’s a rookie at his first job. He’s welcomed by a hazing where the players hold down the newbies while they forcibly shave their heads and pummel them. It helps them feel “part of the team”. Violence builds manhood and comradery. He’s known as a destroyer, an enforcer who keeps the other teams’ players at bay – fighting on the ice is just another part of the game. Tyson is at his physical peak and on top of the world. But he admits to another rookie that he has doubts and fears of his own.
The coach (Kurt Max Runte) tells the team they should aim to be heroes. You’ve got to hammer your steel into excalibur! We are fighters, brawlers, men! That’s when they’re winning. But when they are losing he bawls them out and tells them to fight back – aggressively. Tyson does just that, and sends a player to hospital.
The coach and team lawyers, rather than reaching out to him, throw Tyson beneath the proverbial bus. They make him read a prepared statement talking all the blame, all the responsibility. Suddenly he plummets from hero to pariah. He gets kicked out of his home, suspended – temporarily they say – from the team, and is forced to move back in with his parents.
He’s also plagued with guilt – he wants to apologize to the guy he hurt, to tell him he didn’t mean to, but that doesn’t fit with the league’s plans. From beating players on the ice, his new job at a slaughter house, hacking at bloody carcasses in the cold.
He seeks solace and solitude with another guy who has fallen on hard times, and doesn’t hold it against him as they salvage an old shack. Can Tyson face his doubts and regain his self-respect, or will he continue in a downward spiral of loss and self-destruction?
Hello Destroyer is a moving look at violence and self doubt in the world of professional sports. But don’t expect to see a conventional, movie of the week type drama. This is an impressionistic, introspective art-house movie. No slow-mo punch fights or zooms at key moments. No reaction shots. The camera always stands back, following Tyson from behind, or capturing a conversation through a half-open doorway. Dialogue might be muffled or turned off entirely. Jared Abrahamson carries the whole movie – the frustration, anger and self-loathing – on his shoulders, and pulls it off admirably. This is a good first film.
Dir: Zacharias Kunuk
It’s 1913, in Igloolik. There’s a party going on in a large igloo with singing, storytelling and all around good times. But there’s friction as well. A couple of foul mouthed men are openly groping The father’s wife and not sharing the food they caught. Those are both against Inuit law. The offenders are kicked out, and ride off on their dog sleds. But they haven’t seen the last of them.
Following a spiritual forecast, the hunters – father and son – head out to catch caribou, leaving the kids, women and elderly behind. And while the hunters are away they hear dogs barking and strange noises outside. Is it a bear attack? No it’s something worse. The bad men are back, breaking down the walls of their home, attacking and killing almost everyone. They rope up the mother and daughter and tie them to their sleds, as bounty. But the women refuse to cooperate and “be nice”. They fight back.
Our heroes spot their home through a telescope and know something is terribly wrong. There’s a gaping wound in its side. In the igloo, dying grandfather passes him a bird talisman. He summons the bird’s call to help him track the attackers. Who will survive this life and death battle?
Maliglutit is a great movie — part mystery, part western, part historical drama — with information you might only get in a documentary. It captures an era after western contact and technology – they use a telescopes and rifles, and drink tea – but before Christianity, snowmobiles, forced resettlement and the killing of dog teams. It loosely follows the classic John Wayne The Searchers, a so-called Cowboy and Indian movie, but this time from the indigenous point if view. Like all of Kunuk’s movies it is stunning to watch with its arctic vistas and intense whites, blacks and blues, punctuated with the occasional splash of red blood or the glow of fire.
See NFB movies at nfb.ca; Canada’s Top Ten starts on January 13th – go to tiff.net/seethenorth for details; and for information about the year-long, sesquicentennial retrospective go to tiff.net/canadaonscreen.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Someone asked me recently what I like about movies. I gave the usual answers: story, emotions, acting, images, themes, novelty… but she said she likes the places movies can take you, countries you otherwise wouldn’t get to visit. So this week I’m looking at dramas that take you to new places. There are celebrities in the Mediterranean, cowboys in Brazil, and farmers in northeast Scotland a century ago.
Dir: Terence Davies (based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon)
It’s the early 20th century in rural northeastern Scotland. Chris (Agyness Deyn) is happy and bright, a schoolgirl who lives on her family farm. She’s one with the land, but holds future ambitions of a career, maybe a schoolteacher. But her family life is less than nice. Her mother is depressed, her father (Peter Mullan) is a brute. She’s closest to her brother, Will, who hates their dad for good reason. Their father is quick with the whip and will bloody Will’s back for the slightest infraction, even a play on words using the name Jehovah. It’s a rough life.
And when Mum survives an incredibly painful childbirth – it’s twins — she loses it and the family falls apart. Will leaves for greener pastures, Mum’s out of the picture, Dad has a stroke. Chris has to run the farm basically by herself, plowing the fields and harvesting the grain. She marries for love to a kind and gentle man named Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). Their post-honeymoon life is idyllic until WWI. Then, suddenly, it’s loud sermons from the pulpit saying the Kaiser is the antichrist and anyone who doesn’t join up to fight in the muddy trenches is both a coward and a traitor. He signs up. The next time she sees Ewan he’s been replaced by a horrible creature she doesn’t recognize.
Sunset Song is a coming-of-age novel about a strong and independent woman and the troubles she faces. But, being directed by the great Terence Davies makes it a different movie than you might expect. Time passes and scenes change like memories recalled much later. Chris is the narrator but she speaks in the third person. And as in most of his movies, characters are as likely to start singing songs or reciting poetry or quoting biblical texts as they are to have “normal” dialogue. But it never feels odd or affected, it’s just how they talk. Sex and violence, fury and pain, anguish and celebration are all played out… by candlelight. Beautiful.
Wri/Dir: Gabriel Mascaro
Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) is a vaqueiro – literally a cowboy – in Brazil. He’s tough and swarthy with a black beard. He lives among the cows, feeding, washing and shoveling manure. His job is to tend the bulls used in a type of rodeo match called a vaquejada. Two men riding horses with a bull running between them have to take him down and cut off the end of his tail. Iremar is the one who powders the bull’s tail and pushes him into the ring. His work is rough, dirty and badly paid. But a more interesting life exists in the creative part of his mind. He sees images and fantasies which he brings to life, in the form of clothing and costumes.
He lives on the road as part of a travelling, impromptu family. There’s model-like Galega, his boss (Maeve Jinkings), her young daughter, the unfortunately-named Caca (Alyne Santana), and others. In his free time he observes and collects: A mannequin he finds in a dump; surfing fonts he sees on a sign; the hair bobbed off the bulls tails at the rodeo… he keeps them all. And he sketches his designs over pictures of nude women in skin mags. He “dresses” them.
And he translates these into outfits for Galega to wear and perform in. But what outfits they are: a sexy mixture of horse and human.
And there lies the crux: they work with cows but dream about horses. Caca wants to own a horse, Galega dresses like one, and Iremar either wants to become one or have sex with one – it’s never completely clear. He certainly has erotic dreams involving horses, as well some real-life sexual interactions of a sort between man and beast. (I’ll say no more about that; you have to watch the movie yourself to understand what I’m saying.)
There’s not much of a story; see it for its images and ideas. It’s beautifully shot, alternating between explicit sex and amazing documentary-style animal scenes with the screen completely filled with white bulls. This is the kind of movie that gradually grows on you long after you’ve seen it.
A Bigger Splash
Dir: Luca Guadagnino
Marrianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) lives in a secluded villa on a rocky Italian island in the Mediterranean. She’s a former rock star used to preforming in glam makeup and sequins before thousands of adoring fans. Until she lost her voice. Now she’s doted on by her much younger, faithful husband Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). They spend each day playing in bed or relaxing in their serene swimming pool.
Paul was introduced to Mariann by her first husband, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) who felt a change was needed. Harry is a larger-than-life celebrity in his own right, a rock producer, who loves recalling his adventures with Mick Jagger. So Paul is in awe of both Marianne and Harry. Which is why he can’t really object when Harry arrives uninvited at their doorstep with a blasé young woman named Penelope (Dakota Johnson). She lives with her mom in Connecticut but recently discovered she has a dad – Harry, of course. And here they both are.
Harry loves it. He’s the kind of guy who always needs a dramatic entrance. And once he’s on stage he walks around naked for most of the movie. Penelope is looking for sex, and has her eye on both her putative father (she wants to see a DNA test) and Paul. Marianne is less than pleased by the interlopers. It opens up old wounds and unfinished business. She also prefers centre stage, she doesn’t want to be a side kick in her own home. And Paul is overwhelmed by the uncomfortable situation, but keeps it to himself. Until things explode.
This movie feels like a stage play with four characters played by four great actors. They’re all fascinating but in a grotesque, hateable sort of way. As celebrities they’re used to being watched but they also need privacy. We get to watch them how they really are, and it ain’t pretty.
Some of the camera work bothered me – too show-offy and distracting — but the scenic beauty of a Mediterranean isle that’s also a landing point for asylum-seekers more than makes up for it. Luca Guadagnino also directed I Am Love in 2010; A Bigger Splash is less stylized, more mature.
Neon Bull, A Bigger Splash, and Sunset Song 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.