Women in the Arts. Films reviewed: Wild Nights with Emily, The Souvenir, Mouthpiece

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Addiction, Drama, drugs, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, Romance, Toronto, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 7, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues with the Toronto Japanese Film Festival which starts today and the Italian Contemporary Film Festival beginning on Thursday.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about women in the arts. There’s a poet in New England who can’t get published, a filmmaker in Sunderland who can’t finish her movie, and a writer in Toronto whose mind is torn asunder.

Wild Nights with Emily

Wri/Dir: Madeleine Olnek

It’s the 1860s in Amherst Massachusetts. Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) is an unmarried woman who rarely ventures outside. She has everything she needs her big wooden home. She can wear the same white dress every day, listen to piano music, and bake shortbread, which she gives to the local kids who gather outside her window. And whenever a thought occurs to her she scribbles it down on a scrap of paper. But these are more than random thoughts, they are poems, and ones that flout conventional writing. They don’t have titles, they don’t rhyme and they’re written in free verse (before that term even existed).

That’s what she does during the day. Night time is whole other ball game. You see, far from reclusive and repressed, Emily Dickinson has a passionate ongoing relationship with her sister in law, Susan. Susan (Susan Ziegler) is a childhood friend who married her brother Austin, but has a sexless marriage. Instead she shares her bed with Emily. And much of Emily’s poetry consists of love letters sent to Susan. But despite all her efforts, just a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. Instead they were gathered together by her brother’s mistress Mabel (Amy Seimetz).

Wild Nights with Emily is a historical comedy, but it’s far from a spoof. It’s a meticulously reworked view of Emily Dickinson. It restores her same-sex relationship that had previously been expunged and erased – literally – from her original manuscripts. The actual handwritten poems appear on the screen in this movue, at times word by word. While at times the film has an academic, PBS feel to it, and the acting is somewhat mannered, I liked it anyway.

It manages to render her wonderful poetry to the big screen while keeping a light and irreverent tone.

The Souvenir

Wri/Dir: Joanna Hogg

It’s the early 1980s in England.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a well-to-do young filmmaker in her early twenties. She’s smart and cute with an asymmetrical boyish haircut. She’s trying to shoot her first movie in the northern port of Sunderland. She observes all, quietly taking snapshots and recording film footage all around her, presenting her plans to the profs and producers she has to deal with. And she rents out space in her beautifully mirrored whitewalled apartment. But when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke) her world changes.

Anthony is older and more worldly than Julie, a louche dandy into velvet robes and pocket squares. He’s tall, pale and speaks in a blasé, elongated drawl. He gives her gifts of scanty lingerie and garters that fit his fantasies. They escape by train to Venice for sexy romps among renaissance frescos. She’s in his thrall.

But something is not quite right. She comes home early one day to find a stranger wandering around her home. Anthony is in constant need of cash. And unknown burglars ransacked her apartment stealing her jewelry and movie camera. Something’s off about Anthony. Hmm… worldly, pale, intense, elaborate clothing, secretive. Is Anthony a vampire? Nothing so exotic. He’s just a run-of-the-mill junkie, and threatens to pull her into that world. What will happen to their relationship? And will Julie ever complete her film?

The Souvenir is a beautifully shot, well-acted, semi-autobiographical drama. It incorporates long takes of natural scenes, uses mirrors and reflections, great period costumes and a nice eighties soundtrack. It combines Joana Hogg’s older film work and photos with new footage. So why don’t I like it?

It could be the genre – I’m not a great fan of addiction movies. Or it could be the endless conversations about nothing in particular. Or the lack of humour. Or the overly-restrained dialogue. But my main problem is it’s boring. While I can sympathize with the main character, there just isn’t enough going on. The filmmaking scenes and cuts to the movie-within-the-movie detract from the main story… which isn’t all that interesting to begin with. Two hours of nothing, however well executed, is just too long.

Mouthpiece

Dir: Patricia Rozema

It’s winter in downtown Toronto. Casandra (Amy Nostbakken, Nora Sadava) is a 30-year-old punk. Her idea of dressing up is a black sweater without moth holes. She greets her dates with a snarl and tells sex partners she isn’t into comitment. She works as a writer/bartender. But when her mother (Maev Beaty) dies suddenly from a stroke she is faced with her hardest piece ever… She has two days to write a eulogy for her mother’s funeral. Can she overcome her guilt, anger and self doubt in time to give a sweet heartfelt eulogy? Or will the upcoming funeral turn into the fiasco that everyone dreads?

Mouthpiece sounds like a conventional drama, but it’s anything but. Cass is played by two women simultaneously, noticeable only to themselves and the audience. The two halves of Cassandra’s soul sleep together in spoon fashion, share a bath and keep each other in check. But when there’s a crisis or internal debate all breaks loose, with the two Casses wrestling, punching and shouting, doing practically anything to get the other side to shut up. It’s a constant pas de deux, at times moving in absolute symmetry, or scrambling and climbing over each other like puppies.

Mouthpiece was originally a stage play written and performed by the two Cassandras, Nostbakken and Sadava. This explains their flawless fluidity of movement, their perfect give and take as the two sides compete and coalesce into one soul, movement that only comes from repeated performances. And as a movie, Rozema manages to capture a closeup intimacy you might not catch on stage. Mouthpiece works perfectly on the screen as a beautiful, funny and moving film.

Mouthpiece and Wild Nights with Emily all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Souvenir playing as part of a Joanna Hogg retrospective with TIFF Cinematheque.

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

Bustin loose. Films reviewed: Ma, Rocketman PLUS ReelAbilities Film Festival

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Disabilities, drugs, High School, Horror, Music, Musical, Psychological Thriller, Thriller, UK by CulturalMining.com on May 31, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues in Toronto with Inside Out and Reelabilities playing through Sunday. ReelAbilities is a film festival showing shorts and features (along with panel discussions) dealing with disabilities. They are made by actors and filmmakers with disabilities, and the characters or topics of the films touch on issues relevant to people with a wide range of abilities. This includes physical disabilities, deafness, and many others areas, ranging from Tourette’s to one of the most segregated and discriminated groups: people with intellectual disabilities. And the festival itself is designed and planned to make the movies accessible to all viewers, with subtitles on the screen and locations fully accessible to people who use wheelchairs.

This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a thriller/horror. There’s a man who turns to music to overcome his stodgy and repressive upbringing; and some teenagers who turn to a surrogate mom to escape their restrictive parents.

Ma

Dir: Tate Taylor

It’s winter in small town America. Maggie (Diana Silvers) is a 16-year- old girl from San Diego starting at a new school. She just moved there so her single mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) could start a job as a cocktail waitress in a nearby casino. Luckily she quickly makes friends with the popular kids at school, a clique that includes the take-charge girl Haley (McKaley Miller), and their designated driver Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). A typical Saturday night consists of convincing a random adult to buy them alcohol, and then getting drunk at an abandoned rock pile on the outskirts of town. (Lots of fun.)

But things take a turn for the better when they meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a middle-aged assistant at a veterinary hospital. She says they can use her basement as their party headquarters, a place to listen to music, dance and get drunk. Word spreads quickly until every kid in town knows that’s the place where they can par-tay without grownup supervision — except Sue Ann, of course, whom they all call “Ma”. It’s a kids’ paradise. Or is it?

Maggie feels something is not quite right.

What they don’t realize is that all of their parents, even Maggie’s mom, went to high school together back in the 80s. Sue Ann went there too, something bad happened, and she wants payback. Is Sue Ann just lonely and enjoys reliving her teenaged years with local kids? Or is there something more sinister going on? And will the sins of the parents fall on their children?

Ma is a pretty good psychological thriller / teen horror movie. The casting is good, not just the main roles but even the small parts, like Allison Janney as the foul-mouthed animal doctor, Dominic Burgess as a flamboyant casino manager, and Luke Evans as Ben, a dickish security exec. But the story is a bit muddy, with the point of view shifting from Sue Ann, to Maggie to Erica. It’s not a spoiler to say this is a thriller/horror, so you know something bad is going to happen, but most of the movie is suspense leading up to the violence rather than the violence itself. Is it scary? More creepy than scary. Is it gory? A little, toward the end. And the story seems a bit lopsided, almost as unbalanced as Sue Ann herself.

While Ma is not perfect, I did enjoy watching it.

Rocketman

Dir: Dexter Fletcher

It’s England in the 1950s. Little Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) lives with his standoffish RAF dad, his self-centred mum and his kindly grandmother. He’s an ordinary kid until the day his fingers touch the keys of a piano, and suddenly everything changes. He discovers he can play perfectly, by ear, any song he hears on the radio. He enrolls in the Royal Academy of Music and starts on the path to be a professional musician.

Later, in his twenties, he works as a backup musician for a touring American soul band. He learns about rock and roll and gets his first kiss… from a guy! And he learns to reinvent himself. Reginald Dwight becomes Elton John (Taron Egerton), and the pudgy, shy boy gradually becomes the flamboyant pop star. Together with his writing partner and platonic best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) they head to London and then on to Los Angeles.

There he meets the handsome manager John Reid (Richard Madden), who takes Elton under his wing, promising incredible fame, fortune and success. But is it true love? Soon Elton John rises to the top, becoming the world’s biggest pop star playing to stadium-sized audiences… even as his personal life spirals into a decadent morass of depraved sex, drugs, alcoholism. Will Elton ever find peace with his parents, overcome his self doubt, come out publicly as gay, and find true love?

Rocketman is a biopic about Elton John from his life a a child until a low point midway through his career at a drug rehab centre. It’s also a musical. By musical, I mean an actual, old-school musical, one where the characters at any moment might burst into song accompanied by elaborately choreographed dance numbers. The dance scenes include everything, from 50s rock’n’roll dance routines, to abstract modern dance in a swimming pool, to writhing bodies at a 70s sex orgy.

The songs they sing tell Elton’s life by singing his (and Bernie Taupin’s) actual hit songs, rearranged chronologically to fit the storyline. I’m not a fan, to say the least, of most music biopics, and had very low expectations for Rocketman, but I actually really liked it. It’s a beautifully produced, seamlessly directed and highly stylized movie that moves without pause from start to finish. It has outrageous costumes, and great music – with the actors doing their own singing. And they’re really good at it, especially Taron Egerton.

If you like Elton John’s music – and even if you don’t – you won’t be disappointed by Rocketman.

Rocketman (which opened Inside Out) and Ma both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. ReelAbilities and Inside Out are both on through Sunday.

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

Getting away. Level 16, Triple Frontier, The Panama Papers

Posted in Action, Adoption, documentary, drugs, Heist, Morality, post-apocalypse, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 8, 2019

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

It’s international Women’s Day, a great time to check out some movies directed by women. If you haven’t seen the great Colombian film Birds of Passage, see it now. And Objects of Desire, a retrospective of French master Claire Denis’s films is also playing now at TIFF. She’s one of my favourites.

This week I’m looking at people trying to get away with something. We’ve got orphan girls running for their lives, war vets running off with sacks of loot, and journalists rushing to publish the biggest data dump in history

Level 16

Wri/Dir: Danishka Esterhazy

Vivien and Sophia are two teenagers at an all-girls boarding school for orphans. They wear identical uniforms: skirts, shirts and ties during the day, and floor-length cotton gowns at night. Classes consist of B&W educational films from the 1950s shown on flatscreen TVs. Their teacher, the strict but beautiful Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), visits each unit to teach them feminine virtues like cleanliness, subservience, obedience and silence. And their most important exams are not about reading or math but applying cold cream to their cheeks and taking their vitamins.

They live under a panopticon with surveillance cameras recording every move and thedisembodied voice of a Doctor (Peter Outerbridge) who tells them what to do. They’ve never been outside this drab institution, since the air and sunlight out there are “hazardous”. Besides, it’s important to stay pretty and clean so a nice family will adopt them some day. And now that they’re at Level 16, that someday is coming soon.

Headstrong Vivien (Katie Douglas) is excited to hear she might be leaving this place; she’s been counting the days. But all her hopes and dreams are shattered when the nearsighted Sophia (Celina Martin) tells her a secret: don’t swallow the vitamins! When Vivien takes her advice she is shocked by what she finds out. The “vitamins” are actually sedatives and what happens to their limp bodies at night is not nice at all. What is this place? Why are they there? What is it like outside its walls? And can they ever escape?

Level 16 is a scary and weird speculative fiction look at a distopian future as seen through the eyes of teenaged girls. It’s full of strange anomalies: why do the guards speak Russian? Where did all these fake-happy educational film clips come from?  Does this movie take place in the past… or in the future? It feels like a cross between Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale.  It’s a low budget film shot on a single location (and one that is bland, industrial and and claustrophobic to look at), but it had enough shocking twists to keep me fascinated until the end.

Triple Frontier

Dir: JC Chandor

Santiago (Oscar Isaac) is a paramilitary cop working in an unnamed Latin American country. His police team raids low level drug traffickers… but they are also on the take. Any witness who tries squeal on Lorea’s — the fugitive drug kingpin — whereabouts is immediately executed to keep him quiet. But Santiago (an American) has his own informant in Lorea’s HQ. He discovers for himself where the big man is hiding. Rumour has it there are millions in cash just sitting in the jungle, waiting to be taken. So he flies back to the States to meet with his former special-ops army buddies. They loved their time in the military, but it hasn’t treated them well as veterans.

Miller (Charlie Hunnam) is a low-level army recruiter with a bad goatee who delivers the same speech over and over. Davis (Ben Affleck) tries to support a teenaged daughter from a failed marriage with the pittance he earns flogging condos. Morales (Pedro Pascal) is a helicopter pilot whose license was taken away for drug offenses. And Ben (Garrett Hedlund), Miller’s brother, is an MMA cage fighter — not a great long-term career plan.

Santiago says, let’s get what the government never gave us but that we deserve: millions in cold hard cash. And don’t worry, it’s a flawless plan. Sure enough, the heist works great. In fact, it works too well. They are faced not with millions of dollars but hundreds of millions, far too heavy for them to carry. Their momentary greed makes their exit plan impossible. Can they lug their bags of loot through the jungle, over a mountain pass and down to a the ocean (through the multinational “triple frontier” of the title)? Or will mother nature – and the vengeful locals who inhabit it – kill them first?

Triple Frontier has strikingly beautiful scenery, famous-name actors and a well known director and scriptwriter. So how come it sucks?

Well, it’s a boring and sexless buddy action flick with inane, bro dialogue: I got your back… I love you man… we deserve this. Do you really care if they get away with the money they stole? More than that, it reeks of exceptionalism. It’s co-written by Mark Boal, who brought us the vile Zero Dark Thirty, a movie which said we Americans are always the good guys, torture is useful and all Muslims are potential terrorists. For this movie just substitute drug traffickers for terrorists, and South Americans for Muslims. Almost every person they encounter is corrupt, dangerous, and out to kill us. It’s up to our heroic soldiers to stop these caravans of latino drug traffickers from invading our border.

OK, I admit there is a good chase scene near the beginning, but the rest of it is a total waste of two hours and five minutes.

Ugh.

The Panama Papers

Wri/Dir: Alex Winter

It’s 2016 in Munich, Germany. Bastian Obermayer, an investigative journalist at the Süddeutcher Zeitung receives a mysterious message. A whistleblower calling himself John Doe says he has some information to send him. But because of its importance and sheer volume he has to be sure his identity is kept secret and the information gets released, What is this information, where did it come from, and why is it so important? The data leak is from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama law firm known for its secrecy. Their clients include both organized crime and upstanding world leaders all hiding their money so they don’t pay taxes. The amount of money lost in taxes worldwide is stupendous: it’s the reason social services have been cut and why the wealth distribution gap between the ultra rich and everybody else is the highest it’s been in a century.

The Panama Papers tells this story through the eyes of the journalists involved in its release. It feels like a chapter of All the Presidents Men, but on a much bigger scale. The papers were shared – in secret! – with over 300 investigative journalists worldwide. And the outcome and blowback that followed changed the world. The Prime Minister of Iceland, top figures in FIFA, Argentina, Pakistan and Spain were forced to resign. Others in Russia, the US and Syria were also implicated in the multinational scandal. And top journalists like Malta’s Daphne Gaizia, were murdered because of their role in exposing these crimes.

The Panama Papers is a great documentary that churns politics, investigative journalism and conspiracies into a potent brew.

The Panama Papers is now playing at Hotdocs Cinema, you can catch Triple Frontier’s stunning cinematography on the big screen before it moves to Netflix, and Level 16 opens next Friday; 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.

Popcorn Movies. Films reviewed: Cold Pursuit, What Men Want, The Prodigy

Posted in comedy, Crime, drugs, Horror, Psychology, Sex, Snow, Sports, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on February 8, 2019

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

It’s the middle of winter, and all the highbrow pics have been released. So this week I’m looking at regular, popcorn movies – a comedy, a revenge thriller and a horror movie. There’s a psychic sports agent looking to land a killer client, a man out to find his son’s killers… and a young couple worried their 8-year-old son might be a killer himself.

Cold Pursuit

Dir: Hans Petter Moland

It’s winter at a ski resort in Colorado. Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is the town snowplow driver, clearing the roads for drivers from nearby Denver. He lives a respectable unremarkable life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and his snowplows. But his life turns sideways when their only son turns up dead from a drug overdose. At least that’s what the police detective (Emily Rossum) says. But his son doesn’t do drugs. Turns out he accidentally disrupted a drug deal involving lots of cocaine.

Nels decides to take the law into his own hands, work his way up the chain of command and get revenge on the criminal ultimately responsible for his son’s death. On the way Nels kills and disposes of each man he meets. The head gangster is Viking (Tom Bateman) a detestable, effete millionaire whose lackies all look like models in fine suits. His territory is split with an aboriginal Chief named White Bull (Tom Jackson) of the Ute Nation. But when dead bodies show up, Viking thinks his indigenous rivals, starting a major drug war. With a kidnapped boy, the local police, the Feds, and Nels himself all converging on a single spot, who will survive the ultimate showdown?

Cold Pursuit is an exact, scene-by-scene remake of the 2016 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance. Same director, same stunning snow scenes, but this time shot in Canada, not Norway, and the script is in English. I’m not a big fan of Liam Neesen action movies, but he plays this part perfectly: the single-minded revenge killer out for blood. It’s bloody, it’s violent and while somewhat comic, it seems to be missing the sardonic, Norwegian irony of the original.

But I still liked it.

What Men Want

Dir: Adam Shankman

It’s present day Atlanta.

Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) is a manager at Summit Worldwide a highly competitive pro-sports management agency. She’s an alpha dog in an all-male office. Her dad (Richard Roundtree), a former boxer, raised her to be a winner in both her work and her private life. When she takes men home for the night she’s always on top. She’s ambitious and self-centred. And with her gay personal assistant Brandon’s help (Josh Brenner) she’s close to landing a huge client – Jamal a star college basketball player. But she still can’t break through the glass ceiling and make full partner.

Until… her life changes after a party with her closest girlfriends when a psychic gives her a secret potion, and later that night she gets bonked on the head by a huge inflatable penis. When she comes to, she realizes she has a new secret power: she can read men’s minds. Suddenly a whole world is open to her, with all its potential benefits. Like finding out if a guy she’s crushing on has a thing for her. Or what men say to each other when women aren’t around. And where those men-only poker games are taking place. Is this new power the key to her success? Can she penetrate the locker-room bro culture that is holding her back? Can she turn a one night stand with single-dad bartender Will (Aldis Hodge) into a real relationship? Or is all this ESP stuff less of a blessing than a curse?

What Men Want is a remake of Mel Gibson’s comedy from 20 years ago, but with a role reversal. If you’re into pro sports and TV comedies there are tons of celebrity cameos to keep you happy, from Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Jones, Tracy Morgan, Pete Davidson, Mark Cuban, and many, many others. Eryka Badu is great as the psychic, and Taraji P. Henson – who starred in Hidden Figures – carries the show as Ali. But is it funny?

It’s OK, but not that funny. It’s disturbingly full of product placements in almost every scene. They could have so done so much more, but in this movie a black woman who reads minds finds out white men may be sex obsessed, devious, condescending and insecure, but none of them are actually racist. (“Yay! — no one’s racist!“) It does talk about the problems inherent in pro sports, but steers away from bigger issues just begging to be addressed. This movie may be facile, safe and predictable, but I enjoyed it anyway.

The Prodigy

Dir: Nicolas McCarthy

Sarah and John (Taylor Schilling, Peter Mooney) are a young married couple in suburban Pennsylvania with a gifted son. Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) seems older than his years. He spoke his first words after just a few months, and at age eight is excelling at a school for exceptional students. And he has an angelic smile he shows his mom and dad. But there’s something not quite right about him. He seems to speak an exotic language in his sleep. And people nearby keep having strange accidents, which Miles claims he knows nothing about.

But when he violently attacks another boy in science class, his parents are disturbed. A specialist named Arthur (Colm Feore) says there might be someone else controlling Miles from somewhere deep inside him. Is he possessed by Satan? Does he have a split personality? Or is it something else? And what is little Miles’s connection to a notorious serial killer with a fetish for cutting of women’s hands? Sarah doesn’t know exactly what’s behind Miles strange behaviour but decides it’s time to act… before it’s too late!

If you like extremely scary horror movies, this is one to see. A disturbing Bad Seed-style story of a parent’s worst nightmare: that their nice kid might actually be evil. Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) is totally believeable as the mother, and young Jackson Robert Scott is extremely creepy as Miles – watch out for him. I still have shivers in my gut. The Prodigy is classic horror.

Prodigy, Cold Pursuit and What Men Want 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.

Kinship. Films reviewed: Vox Lux, Shoplifters

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Japan, Movies, Music, Terrorism, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 21, 2018

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

The holiday season is a time when families get back together, for good or for ill. So this week I’m looking at two movies about family and kinship. There’s a pair of sisters turned pop musicians, where one holds the scars of a terrible incident; and a makeshift family that rescues a small girl with scars.

Vox Lux

Wri/Dir: Brady Corbet

Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a god-fearing high school student in Staten Island, New York. She likes music, church and her big sister Eleanor (Stacey Martin) who always looks out for her. But her world turns upside down when a non-conformist kid pulls out a gun in music class, and starts shooting people down. Celeste tries to reason with him; she ends up wounded but not dead. She recovers with a scar on her neck. At the memorial for the mass shooting she performs a song which soon goes viral.

She and her sister are quickly signed to a major label by their manager (Jude Law) and whisked off to Sweden. There they experience the heady brew of extreme wealth, celebrity and number-one hits. But it also exposes them to the cruel scrutiny of tabloids and paparazzi that accompany celebrity.

Still a teenager, she loses her virginity to another musician, tries drugs and alcohol for the first time, and begins a gradual downward spiral toward addiction and paranoia. But she also establishes herself as an international icon, with her sparkling makeup, severe haircuts, and sequined outfits mimicked by devoted fans. She always wears a band around her neck both to hide and commemorate the scars of the shooting.

Years later Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) plans for a comeback, culminating in a stadium concert back in the hometown she left after the shooting. Now she’s brittle and bitter, addicted to drugs, and full of anger and pain. And she has a daughter (played by Cassidy, the young Celeste) brought up by the more responsible sister Eleanor. As she works toward the ultimate concert, a disturbing incident hits the headlines. Halfway around the world, fans wearing her distinctive makeup and clothing commit a random act of terrorism. Is she to blame? Will her career crash and burn? And if she performs her stadium show in her home town, will this lead to yet another massacre?

My brief description of the film suggests a music biopic crossed with an action movie. It’s neither. It’s actually a visual and audio collage of the impressions of a teenaged girl in the high pressure world of pop music, and the adult who emerges from it. Vox Lux is a short film, and at least a third of it is taken up by music performed on a stage before an actual audience. The music is by SIA and actually sung by Natalie Portman. The plot is mainly a background for the director’s experiments with sound and image filtered through the cruel world of social networks. Recurring shots of endless tunnels and aerial views of cities give it a hypnotic effect, and the music gives it a haunting feel. Though the movie feels incomplete, I liked the look and sound of it.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)

Wri/Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

It’s present day Tokyo. Shota (Jyo Kairi) is a young boy living in an urban paradise. He’s smart, resourceful and brave. He studies at home – where he learns not just reading and writing, but also essential survival skills and the ways of the world. He lives with his grandma, his mom and dad and his big sister Aki, a family brimming with love. They are always there to rescue him from trouble and help him through bad times. They share responsibilities and eat dinner together. No one tells Shota to clean his room or wash the dishes. This is a life rich in traditions, superstitions, and family lore. And there’s lots of time to tell stories, go to the beach, or go fishing.

Or

Shota lives in a filthy, ramshackle house, a Dickensian den of petty criminals, thieves and con artists. This so-called family of vaguely-related misfits shoplifts their dinners and daily needs to stay alive. Dad (Lily Franky) works as a casual labourer, Grandma (Kiki Kirin) receives payments from an unknown source, teenaged Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) performs behind glass at a peepshow arcade, and mom, sometimes called auntie or Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) makes do with a parttime job pressing garments in a small factory. Even young Shota helps them all by pocketing food and shampoo while dad distracts the clerks.

But homelife takes a subtle shift with the newest family member.

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is a little waif, horribly abused and neglected by her young parents… they always see her staring whistfully through her balcony bars, like a prisoner hoping to be rescued. They adopt her into their family, after discovering scars and burn marks all over her arms.

She immediately adapts to her new life, especially the love, attention and lack of fear she never experiences at home. They ask her if she wants to go home, but she adamently refuses… she likes it better here. But when her case becomes known as a kidnapping, it spells trouble. Can the family survive this a brush with authority? Or will it all come tumbling down? And would government intervention make their lives better or worse?

Perhaps I’m biased: I’ve interviewed Kore-eda four times, more than any other director, because I love all his films. But in my opinion Shoplifters is a fantastic movie, definitely one of the year’s best. It deals with poverty, nonconformity and precarious lives coexisting within one of the richest cities in the world. It explores what a family really is: is it something designated by law, or could it be a family by choice, where the members designate their own names and roles.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, TIFF17, photo by Jeff Harris

It stars many of his past actors – Lili Franky, and the late Kiki Kirin – and replays some themes from his early films. Our Little Sister was about whether a half-sister can be accepted into a complete family. Like Father, Like Son, where a family discovers their son was switched at birth, explores whether it’s nature or nurture that makes kinship real (Lili Franky plays the “bad dad” in that film.) After the Storm is about a delinquent dad trying to rebuild his family (also co-starring Lili Franky and Kiki Kirin). The Third Murder, a courtroom drama, deals with an accused murderer and his role as a surrogate parent to a high school girl. And in Nobody Knows, there’s a family made up of abandoned kids living in a highrise in central Tokyo.

Shoplifters (or Shoplifter Family, the more accurate Japanese title) is a culmination of all these films, a distillation of all their best elements.

It’s also exquisitely laden with relics of an older Japan – filled with glass bottles, printed cotton, paper calenders, snow men and fishing trips – that impart a soft, glowing light to all the scenes.

Detailed and nuanced, I strongly recommend Shoplifters to all.

Vox Lux and Shoplifters both 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.

Daniel Garber talks with Nicole Maroon and Vladimir Jon Cubrt about their new film Luba

Posted in Addiction, Canada, drugs, Family, Hockey, Movies, Poverty, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

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

Luba and Donnie are a married couple with a young son, Matty. Their marriage faltered when Donnie’s drug use got out of hand, but since rehab things are looking up. Little Matty commutes between Lou’s flat and his grandma’s home where Donnie is living. They’re barely staying afloat with precarious jobs — he’s in construction while she’s serving jell-o shots for tips. Will poverty, depression and crack grind them into the dirt? Or can a family be saved by the hope and determination of a strong young woman named Luba?

Luba is also the name of a heartfelt family drama that looks at life in Toronto through the eyes of a family left behind. It stars Nicole Maroon as Luba and Vladimir Jon Cubrt as Donnie. Nicole is a master of Fine Arts whose range includes everything from Shakespeare to City TVs Meet the Family; while Vlad is celebrated on stage, screen and on TV’s Hannibal. The two co-produced Luba and Vlad wrote the script.

I spoke with Nicole and Vlad in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM. They talk about Acting, Luba, Hockey, Ukrainian-Canadians, Jack Nicholson, Toronto, the film’s genesis, why Nicole was cast in the title role… and more!

Luba had its Canadian premier on Saturday, March 24th at 5:30 PM at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre as part of the Canadian Film Fest.

At CFF Luba won both the Audience Choice Award for Best Picture and the Reel Canada Indie Award.

Can depression lead to great sex? Films reviewed: Axolotl Overkill, Entanglement, Fake Tattoos

Posted in Berlin, Depression, Drama, drugs, Montreal, Movies, Punk, Romance, Sex, tattoos, Vancouver by CulturalMining.com on February 9, 2018

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

Feeling blue? Don’t worry, things will get better, and bad events, even depression, can sometimes lead to great sex. This week I’m looking at three movies (from Berlin, Montreal and Vancouver) where a chance meeting offers new hope to depressed people.

There’s a brooding introvert picked up by a girl at a thrash concert; a teenaged girl who encounters a middle-aged woman in a coke-filled haze; and a depressed guy who wants to have sex …with his sister?!

Axolotl Overkill

Wri/Dir: Helene Hegemann (Based on her novel Axlotl Overdrive)

Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) is a student at an alternative high school in Berlin, and she’s depressed. Her parents are divorced, with her mom in hospital, brain dead, and her rich dad gallavanting around with no time for his kids. She’s forced to live with her adult half-sister and half-brother, in an uneasy arangement. She hates school and acts out, upsetting everyone she meets. She even gets in a food fight with the lunch lady. Turns out this lunch lady is an equally rude TV star named Ophelia (Mavie Hörbiger) who is working at the school because she was sentenced to community service. She’s beautiful, famous, and occasionally psychotic. Mifti attaches herself to Ophelia and her entourage to explore and discover the mysteries of Berlin’s nightlife. This involves exotic pets, throbbing music, cigarettes and handguns. She goes on weekend-long benders, snorting coke in men’s rooms, and picking up cab drivers for furtive sex. Somewhere along the way she meets a strikingly beautiful, but mysterious, woman named Alice (Arly Jover), who is at least three times her age. They embark on an intense sexual relationship. Can Mifti survive her dysfunctional family, her nihilistic nature, and her crash-and-burn lifestyle? Or will it all come tumbling down?

Helene Heggemann is 25 now, and a sensation in contemporary Germany. This is her first directed feature, but she’s been writing novels and plays for a decade. I like the picaresque structure of the movie, journeys from place to place with Mifti absorbing it all, taking it all in. At the same time, Mifti is self-centred, rude and offensive — and comes from a privileged background — so it’s hard to sympathize with her. Lots of passion and emotion in this movie but no love, just alienation. The plot’s confusing too, so it’s hard to tell what’s real, what’s imaginary and what’s a flashback. Still, I enjoyed this unsparing look at underground Berlin seen through a teenager’s eyes.

Entanglement

Dir: Jason James

Ben (Thomas Middleditch) lives alone in an apartment in BC. He was married and successful, until his wife ran off with another guy. Now he’s severely depressed, to the point of suicide. He’s seeing a child psychologist (he’s 30) and takes anti-psychotic meds. Only his neighbour Tabby (Diana Bang) is looking out for him. He has hit rock bottom… until two random events change everything.

First his parents tell him a family secret. He has a sister he’s never met… well almost a sister. In fact she was an infant adopted by his childless parents but taken back on the first day when his mother discovered she was pregnant. Ben decides to find his almost sister. Next he meets a woman at random who is everything he’s not. Ben is gangly, ginger haired and shy. Hanna (Jess Weixler) is vivacious and spontaneous, willing to break into a swimming pool for a late night skinny dip. She is sexy and wild, with bleached-blonde hair. She’s a pick-pocket and also a bit of a stalker – she pursues Ben with a vengeance. She even wants to have sex with him. Tabby warns Ben to take it slowly… she might not be what she says she is. But Ben is totally into her… even though Hanna might be that almost sister he’s looking for. He’s convinced it’s all quantum physics, random events are all connected and we should let the universe figure it out.

Entanglement is a fun and comic look at a dark subject – depression, attempted suicide and psychotic breakdowns. It shifts from simple comedy into psychedelia, as Ben sees the world in his own way. It also has a very surprising ending – no spoilers. Middleditch and Weixler make a great yin and yang couple, while Bang is perfect as the “straight man.”

I liked this movie a lot.

Fake Tattoos (Les Faux Tatouages)

Wri/Dir: Pascal Plant

Theo (Anthony Therrien) is a shaggy-haired guy in Montreal, celebrating his 18th birthday. He’s broody and intense, into hardcore black Tshirts and tattoo designs. He quaffs a six pack of beer – bought legally for the first time – and heads to a thrash punk concert by himself. He’s a loner, but lets loose in the crowd, just another moshing body.

Afterwards a young woman approaches him about a tattoo on his arm. It’s a fake, she says, but a good one. Mag (Rose-Marie Perrault) has a nose ring and blonde hair with pink tips. She’s getting over a bad breakup. She’s a funny extrovert, and tries to break through Theo’s standoffish attitude. They end up sleeping together, which quickly turns from a one-night stand into an intense serious relationship. This may be love. Alas, like a cup of yogurt, it’s due to expire in just a few weeks. He’s moving to LaPocatiere a small town way up the St Lawrence, to get away from something terrible in his past. Why is Theo a loner? What is he escaping? Can Mag recover from a previous bad relationship? And will their love endure?

Fake Tattoos is a wonderful story about young summer lovers in Montreal. The pair have amazing chemistry that comes through in this short and simple love story. It’s a sweet look at first love. This is Pascal Plante’s first feature – it played at Slamdance and at the Berlinale this year — and I can’t wait to see his next one.

Entanglement opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Fake Tattoos and Axlotl Overkill are both playing at the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival that’s on next week. And if you’re 25 or under, tickets are free – go to tiff.net for details. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Strong female roles. Films reviewed: In the Fade, The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches PLUS Forever My Girl

Posted in C&W, Depression, Drama, drugs, Family, Germany, Nazi, New Orleans, Quebec, Terrorism by CulturalMining.com on January 19, 2018

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

It’s funny. A few years ago I was wondering what happened to all the female movie stars? They had been pushed into the margins, with hardly any good female roles. This year, though, there are more great female performances than you shake a stick at. Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, Francis McDormand in Three Billboards, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman, Claire Armstrong in Dim the Fluorescents, Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and so on.

So this week I’m looking at some more powerful performances by women in very intense movies. There’s a woman in Hamburg confronting Nazi terrorists, and an isolated teenager in rural Quebec reacting to the outside world.

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes)

Wri/Dir: Simon Lavoie

It’s some point in the distant past in rural Quebec. Two brothers with dirty faces and scruffy hair (Marine Johnson and Antoine L’Écuyer) live with their father on an isolated farm in the woods. They’re close enough to the next village to hear churchbells in the distance, but they never go there. It’s a grand old stone manor filled with empty rooms and whole sections blocked off. The teenaged boys are forbidden from seeing them. If you go there, says their father (Jean-François Casabonne) you will die.

The house is lit by church candelabra arranged on altars with lanterns carried through the dark halls. The boys can read but most books are forbidden. They listen to liturgical records on their wind-up gramophone. And the younger brother sometimes visits a terrible monster, locked up in a dark shed. He feeds it apples and pieces of bread through gaps in a wooden cage.

The boys dress in frontier clothes and priest’s hassocks. Younger brother has to keep watch – his bullying older brother often jumps him in the woods and does something to him he doesn’t understand. He keeps his chest tightly wrapped in cloth – his father insists. But he still has questions. He has seen pigs mating in the sty. Why don’t I have a penis? His father says, I told you, it fell off when you were younger. He also believes babies are made out of clay.

It’s a rough life, but it’s all they know, save for faint memories of a beautiful woman in a white dress, and two little girls in pinafores. In fact they can’t remember ever seeing someone from the outside. Until one day when a young man (Alex Godbout) drives to the house on a motorcycle. The town needs to survey the property, he says, but Père and Frère chase him away with their rifles. Is he a knight in shining armour? Or does he signal an invasion by the churchgoing villagers? And when something happens to Père, the two boys discover the house’s secrets, and some of their own. Like the fact that the younger brother… is pregnant!

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is a powerful, surreal drama with an almost fairytale feel. It tells the story of naïve teenagers whose father (who went mad) is their only source of information. It’s shot in stunning black and white, and is filled with sinister images of the all-pervasive Québec church. It’s creepily fascinating with fantastic acting by L’Écuyer and Johnson. This is a great — but highly disturbing — movie.

In The Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

Wri/Dir: Fatih Akin

It’s present-day Hamburg. Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) is a happily married woman with a young son named Rocco. She likes artistic tattoos, going to saunas with her best friend Brigitte and making love to her husband. Nuri is of Kurdish ancestry, but wears his hair like a samurai. They were married when he was still in prison. Now he runs a translation office in a Turkish section of town.

Katja’s life is nearly perfect until something devestating happens. An explosioin levels her husband’s office killing him and their son. It turns out it was a bomb, possibly the work of terrorists. And Katja thinks she knows who did it. She saw a blonde woman park her bike right in front of the office on the day of the explosion. In fact she even spoke to her so she knows she’s German. But the police, the press, even her own mother, keep looking at the victim as the cause of the killing. Is it the Turkish Mafia. Islamic terrorists? Drugs?

Katie talks with Danilo her lawyer and good friend (Denis Moschitto) to make sense of it all. They realize it must be be a right wing terrorist — a nazi — who did this. Eventually the police make an arrest based on her description, and two Nazis, a young couple named Edda and Andre Möller (Hanna Hilsdorf, Ulrich Brandhoff) are put on trial for the killings. But will they be convicted?

In the Fade is a great dramatic thriller that combines Katja’s grief and sorrow with her need for vengeance. It’s told in three chapters: her interactions with her family, in-laws and the police; the trial itself; and the heart-pumping aftermath, when she decides to track down and punish the killers. Diane Kruger is just fantastic as Katje, the best I’ve ever seen her, and she puts her whole body and soul into the part. You can really feel her anger, grief and frustration, but she never overacts.

I liked this movie a lot.

Also opening today is this romantic drama:

Forever My Girl

Wri/Dir: Bethany Ashton Wolf (based on the novel by Heidi McLaughlin)

Liam Page (Alex Roe) is a Country & Western superstar. He writes and performs his own songs with a back-up band. He can fill a New Orleans stadium with adoring fans.  Teenaged girls will chase him, screaming, down a city street when he appears in public. They love his smooth voice, handsome face and his sentimental songs. But offstage Liam is a real prick. He’s emotionally vapid, sleeping with different groupies each night. He’s rude and abusive toward his affable, bearded manager Sam (Peter Cambor) and his LA publicist Doris. And he’s addicted to alcohol and drugs.

He carries only one thing to remind him of his life as a smalltown boy: an old flip phone with a recorded message. But after a tragic turn of events, he finds himself back in his hometown, St Augustine, LA, for a funeral. He may be famous, but in “the Saint” his name is mud. You see, he was engaged to marry his highschool sweetheart Josie (Jessica Rothe) eight years earlier, but left her standing at the altar, without an explanation or apology.  When she sees him now, Josie greets him with a sucker punch. And he discovers he has a 7-year-old daughter named Charly (Abby Ryder Forston) that Josie has been raising on her own.

Can Liam change his ways and conquer his demons? Will Josie ever talk to him again? Can he spend time with his precocious daughter? And can his father, the town preacher, forgive his selfish son?

I’m not a big fan of country music or conventional romances involving small-town churchgoers — this is not the kind of movie I rush to see.  It takes few risks and most of the characters walked straight out of Central Casting. But I found it entertaining anyway. I assumed the aw-shucks, southern boy Liam was played by a non-actor, a country singer who basically played himself — woodenly, at that — and performed his own tunes. Turns out I was way off the mark. This UK actor had me convinced he was a real country singer from the Deep South!

In the Fade and Forever My Girl open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is playing at Canada’s Top Ten festival; go to TIFF.net for details. Also opening today is Hostiles (read my review here) and My Piece of the City  (listen to my interview with director Moze Mossanen here). 

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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Surfaces. Films Reviewed: Ghost Hunting, Battle of the Sexes, Beach Rats

Posted in 1970s, drugs, Feminism, LGBT, Movies, Palestine, Sex, Sports, Tennis, Torture by CulturalMining.com on September 22, 2017

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

Toronto’s fall film festival season has begun. This week I’m looking at three movies that played at festivals: Sundance, TIFF and the Toronto Palestine Film Festival — two of which are directed by women. There’s a drama on the boardwalk, a biopic on the tennis court, and a documentary on a cold prison floor.

Ghost Hunting

Dir: Raed Andoni

Raed is Palestinian movie director who sends out a strange request. He’s looking for steelworkers, set builders, carpenters and painters to recreate a notorious Israeli prison inside an abandoned warehouse. The strange part is these builders and architects will also play the prisoners and their interrogators in the film he’s making. And stranger still, all the cast — including the director — were once prisoners at this very prison.

The interrogation centre is in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem known to prisoners as Al-Moskobiya (Moscow). They recount what happened to them. Many endured days or even weeks of nonstop interrogation in small cells. They were chained to walls, hung on their tiptoes suspended by pulleys or forced to kneel on the ground. Some were shaken, choked, hit, and denied sleep, water, or toilet access.

Hunting Ghosts has a complex artistic structure. Its partly a verite documentary, showing the construction of the set while the former prisoners candidly tell their stories. It’s partly a drama, the scripted re-enactment of the interrogations themselves. It’s partly meta – where the people working on the set become caricatures of themselves (i.e. the cruel director, the angry set-builder). Explicitly scripted scenes – often moving and disturbing – are always presented in a way you know it’s just a film. We see the actors putting on their makeup before they’re locked into the cells. The real drama often begins after the director yells cut, when the actors start talking.

The movie is also part fantasy, with animated scenes reflecting the thoughts running through their heads during long interrogations, their heads covered in cloth bags. One man thinks he sees his dead mother walk through a concrete wall to bring him water to drink.

Hunting Ghosts is a powerful look at the treatment of Palestinian prisoners and a tribute to the reported 750,000 arrested since 1967.

Battle of the Sexes

Dir: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

It’s the early 1970s in California. Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) is the top women’s tennis player in America. She’s happily married to her husband Larry (Larry King, but not the CNN journalist) but her real devotion is to the game. She’s shocked to discover prize money on an upcoming tour will be one eighth what the men get. The women threaten a walkout, but Jack Kramer — President of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) — tells them that men deserve more money because they have to support families, because they sell more tickets, and because women are “too emotional” to be thought of as real athletes. So the women start a League of Their Own.

Bobbie Riggs (Steve Carell) is a former national tennis champ twenty years earlier. Now he works at a desk job for his very rich wife’s dad. He’s a compulsive gambler who wins big bucks – including a golden Rolls Royce — by challenging rich country clubbers to heavily handicapped tennis games.

But Bobby wants to be really famous again. So he dubs himself a Male Chauvinist Pig and says women should stay in the kitchen and the bedroom, not on a tennis court. And he challenges Billie Jean King to a Battle of the Sexes, man vs woman. King smells a media circus, but finally agrees when she thinks it will advance pay equality between the sexes. Who will win?

Meanwhile,  unbenownst to the outside world, Billie Jean is having a clandestine affair with a woman named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) her hairdresser. A chance meeting sparks new feelings in Billie Jean King… but will her love affair interfere with her game?

I’m not a tennis buff, but I found Battle of the Sexes a thoroughly enjoyable, feel-good movie. I was even interested in watching the the game itself, which uses actual sports footage and historical commentary (by Howard Cossell) worked into the film. The side roles are also well-cast, from Bill Pullman as the condescending Jack Kramer, to Sarah Silverman as the feminist manager. Steve Carell is funny as the dog-and-pony showman, and Emma Stone is just great as the pretty and determined Billie Jean King.

Beach Rats

Wri/Dir: Eliza Hittman

It’s a hot summer in a hipster-free section of Brooklyn. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a white, working class guy who lives with his parents and his little sister. He likes handball, vaping and posting weight-lifting selfies online. He spends most of his time at the Coney Island boardwalk, hanging with three local yahoos who like to make trouble.

One night, he meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein) a pretty girl who tells him he’s sexy. She thinks the fireworks are romantic. Frankie is not so sure. His own parents met on the boardwalk too.  But his dad is dying of cancer and his mom is on edge. He’s unhappy about it too, but at least his dad’s cancer keeps him well supplied with prescription opiates he shares with his beach rat buddies. Aside from his home and the beach there’s a third universe Frankie visits, but only after dark. It’s an online date site called Brooklyn Boys where he posts his selfies. There he meets older men for anonymous sex. He considers himself straight but enjoys having sex with men.

But when his father dies, everything falls apart. Simone dumps him — he’s too much of a “fixer upper”. His Oxy supply is cut off, so he’s reduced to pawning his mom’s jewelry to buy drugs. And he’s worried his pals — the Beach Rats — might find out about his sex life. Can Frankie come clean with his mom, cut down on his drug use, and reconcile his self image with his sexuality? Or will his whole life crash and burn?

Beach Rats is a terrific coming-of-age drama set against the carnival lights and phosphorescent waves of nighttime Coney Island. Dickinson is a new face but is perfect as the enigmatic Frankie, a young man simultaneously self-obsessed and self-doubting. Beautifully photographed, Beach Rats blends an up-to-the minute topic with a classical indie feel.

Battle of the Sexes launched at TIFF and Beach Rats at Sundance; both open today in Toronto — check your local listings. Ghost Hunting is one of many films and cultural events on now at the Toronto Palestine Film Fest. Go to tpff.ca for details.

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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