Eccentric. Films reviewed: Ruben Brandt Collector, Greta, A Bread Factory

Posted in Animation, Art, Crime, Family, Movies, Mystery, psychedelia, Psychological Thriller, Psychopaths, Theatre, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

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

It’s March and Toronto’s spring film festival season has begun. The Irish Film Fest is on this weekend, and the WTF Fest starts showing “eccentric movies” at the Royal Cinema today. In this case, WTF stands for What the Film – great stuff. Also opening is What Walaa Wants, the NFB doc about a young Palestinian woman who wants to be a cop. Also opening is Gaspar Noe’s amazing film Climax, a movie that includes a fantastic dance performance and a stunning title sequence… followed by a horrific panoply of drug-addled sex and violence.

Keeping with the theme of the strange and unusual, this week I’m looking at offbeat movies with eccentric characters. There’s a a French widow with a yen for pocketbooks, a psychotherapist keeps fine art front and centre; and a two older women who want to save their arts centre from falling apart.

Ruben Brandt Collector

Wri/Dir: Milorad Krstic

Dr Ruben Brandt is a psychoanalyst obsessed by art. He lives and works in an isolated alpine chalet where he treats his rich but troubled clients, including a banker with an eating problem, and a former bodyguard.

Meanwhile Mike Kowalsky, a private detective from Washington DC, is in Paris chasing Mimi, a notorious cat burglar down the city streets. She’s carrying a priceless Egyptian artifact. But he can’t catch her; the former circus acrobat is just too fast. Mimi tracks down Dr Brandt and visits his clinic. She wants to get rid of her kleptomania, She can’t stop stealing. But in a strange turn of events, patients turn to doc tors and doctors to patients. You see, Dr Brandt is plagued with halucinations of people in famous paintings. Is Venus in Boticelli’s painting trying to kill him? How about Warhol’s double Elvis? Brandt’s patients, including Mimi, decide the only way to save their doctor is to steal all the paintings that obsess him. They begin a series of elaborate heists of the world’s best known paintings from the most famous galleries. Can Kowalsky solve the puzzle and catch the culprits? Or will Ruben Brandt, the art collector, triumph?

Ruben Brandt Collector is a simple, silly story told with amazing animated images. It feels like a cartoon guide to Janson’s History of Art… on acid. Characters are portrayed as cubists, as two-faced januses, or as two-dimensional pieces of paper. The plot may be flat and inconsequential but the animated art and psychedelic imagery sticks with you.

Greta

Wri/Dir: Neil Jordan (The Crying Game)

Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is depressed. She’s a recent college grad who works as a server in a fancy Manhattan restaurant. She shares a spacious condo with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) whose dad gave it to her as a gift. Ever since her mom died, Frances can’t have fun; she never seems to go out anymore. But her attitude changes when she finds a designer purse that someone left on a subway. Finally, she can do a good deed. Using the ID, she takes it to its owner’s home. Greta (Isabelle Huppert), is an older woman, a widow, who lives in an isolated cottage. Her home is like a piece of France right in the middle of NY city. She plays Chopin and bakes cookies.

It’s like at first sight. Greta needs someone to spend time with since her daughter moved away and Frances misses her mother terribly. They go for walks in Central Park, share intimate meals at her home, and even adopt a dog to keep Greta company. Greta worries Frances will go away, just like her daughter. Don’t worry Greta, I’m like chewing gum – I’ll stick around. Imagine, such good friends meeting at random.

But… everything changes when Frances discovers Greta’s secret. That “lost purse” wasn’t actually lost! Greta placed it there so they would meet. Is Greta just desperately lonely? A con artist? Or is she a psychopath? Even when Frances cuts off all contact with her Greta keeps showing up wherever she goes. She’s a stalker who can’t be stopped. Will Frances ever forgive her? And will Greta leave her alone?

Greta starts as a conventional drama but turns into an unexpected psychological thriller. It feels like a classic Grimm’s fairytale, with an innocent girl lured into a witch’s lair. Though not her best performance, Isabelle Huppert is credible as the (potential) villain, though Chloe Grace Moretz is wasted as the victim. It’s hard to picture Moretz as a helpless scaredycat. Greta is OK as a run of the mill, cat-and-mouse thriller, but it could have been so much more.

A Bread Factory

Wri/Dir: Patrick Wang (I interviewed him in 2012)

The Bread Factory is an arts centre in a small town on the Hudson Valley. Formerly an industrial bakery, it’s where the post-industrial townfolks go to see a movie, put on a play or attend a poetry reading. It’s been run by Dorothea and Greta (Tyne Daly, Elizabeth Henry) for more than 40 years. At the moment there are filmmaking lessons for little kids by an auteur (Janeane Garofalo); a greek tragedy starring an elderly shakesperean actor, and a Chekhov-like drama in production. It’s a hotbed of creativity and community life.

But everything is put at risk when a strange new group arrives in town. They are a pair of performers/conceptual artists known as May + Ray (Janet Hsieh, George Young), a sort of a Blue Man Group. They are vaguely associated with China, have a large international following, their videos are on youtube, and they even have a catchy logo on the T-shirts and totebags they sell. The problem is their work is shallow and pointless. And more important, the town school board is thinking of transfering all arts spending from The Bread Factory to May + Ray.

Can the town artists and performers save the bread factory? Or will corporate interests triumph?

A Bread Factory sounds ordinary but it’s actually a great movie. I really liked it. Dozens of characters and a complex, twisted plot manages to keep you interested but not distracted, with each storyline and character carefully constructed and allowed to develop. There’s a teenager (Zachary Sayle) interning at the town paper, a kid who functions as the projectionist (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a critic and an actor who hold a 50 year grudge… and many more. It feels like a great John Sayles movie.

I’ve only seen the first two hours (Part 1) so far but now I can’t wait to see Part 2.

A Bread Factory is a delightful treat.

Greta and Ruben Brandt Collector both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Bread Factory is playing this weekend at the WTF Festival at the Royal Cinema.

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

Nannies. Films reviewed: Mary Poppins Returns, Roma

Posted in 1930s, 1970s, Family, Kids, Mexico, Musical, Protest, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 28, 2018

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

It’s holiday season, between Christmas and New Year, a good time to catch up on all those movies you’ve been meaning to see. This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a period drama, about nannies. There’s an ageless nanny in London with a magical touch, and a young nanny in Mexico City with a touch of sadness.

Mary Poppins Returns

Dir: Rob Marshall

It’s the 1930s in London, the time of The Great Slump. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a recently widowed father of three adorable kids – Anabel, John, and Georgie. They’ve lived in the house for generations, right beside an eccentric Admiral who fires cannons off his roof. Michael wants to be an artist, but works as a bank clerk to make ends meet. The kids struggle to act like grown-ups now that their mother is gone. And his sister Jane is doing her part as a social activist and union organizer. But an unexpected visit by two lawyers from the bank he works for throws the family into disarray. Turns out Michael defaulted on a loan and has until midnight Friday to pay it back or the entire family will be evicted from their own home.

What to do? Who can they turn to for help? Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), of course!

Michael and Jane have almost forgotten that she saved the two of them when they were kids, and here she is back again, aged not a day. There is something magical about her, but only if you allow the impossible to happen.  The kids are much too mature to fall for her tricks… or are they? Soon they’re swimming in the ocean via their bathtub, and travelling to a music hall in an animated world inside a chipped bowl. They visit Topsy (Meryl Streep) a flibbertigibbetty repair woman who lives upside down, to fix the bowl.  They race through London piled up on a bicycle driven by Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda) who lights the city’s gas lamps. And they buy magic balloons from an old woman (Angela Landsbury) in the park. But can magic save their home before the bank’s evil Mr Wilkins (Colin Firth) takes it all away?

Mary Poppins Returns is exactly what the title promises: a continuation of the original story, one generation later. Jack was the chimney sweep’s son in the original, now he’s a lamplighter who narrates the story in song and dance. Michael and Jane are grownup versions of the original kids. The costumes – in bright yellows and fuscias with white boater hats – are pure Disney.The music, songs and dances, even the combination of flat cel animation with real people is just like it used to be. The score, the art direction, everything was a spot- on recreation of the original. The only differences are this Mary Poppins is decidedly sexier than the original, (Emily Blunt is amazing) and the cast isn’t lily white anymore. Lin Manuel Miranda is nicely endearing as Jack, though never having seen the hit broadway musical Hamilton I didn’t quite get the camera’s adulation of him.

I didn’t grow up with Mary Poppins, so I hold no deep sentimental attachment, but even so it scored high on my nostalgia meter, tugged at my heartstrings and made me feel warm inside. This is a wonderful G-rated musical and a genuine kids’ movie that also appeals to grown ups, a rarity these days.

Roma

Wri/Dir: Alfonso Cuaron

It’s 1970 in Mexico City. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) lives in a beautiful house with a grand staircase, and walls lined with bookshelves. There’s a narrow tiled passageway that serves as a garage, where a big dog runs around. And four cute kids — Toño, Paco, Pepe and Sofi — who happily play spaceman games. Cleo lives there but it’s not her house. The kids pet their dog while Cleo shovels the poop. She’s the nanny and also the maid, the one who gets blamed when there’s trouble. And there’s lots of trouble these days, with Señora Sofía (Marina de Tavira) the mom, trying to run the house with Papa on a long business trip to Quebec. She has help from the grandmother, Señora Teresa, but it’s a world without men, at least until Papa comes back.

Cleo is from a village and not yet used to city life. She spends her free time with the cook and her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). Fermin is a Kendo fanatic – martial arts saved my life, he says – prone to bouts of kicking and punching the air in the nude following sex. But when Cleo tells him she’s pregnant with his child, he disappears without a trace. What will happen to her baby? Who will take care of the kids? And will the family’s father ever come home?

Roma is a slice-of-life look at Mexico City in the tumultuous early 70s. It follows Cleo, a poor indigenous girl who speaks Spanish as a second language, and Sofía’s upper middle class family, as they try to understand one another, even while they both face family crises. It’s a slow-moving drama with normal, mundane family problems alternating with episodes of violence, terror and natural disaster. Cleo is viewing gurgling babies in the maternity ward just as an earthquake hits. She travels with the family to a hacienda where family dog heads are mounted on a wall like hunting trophies and forest fires break out. A simple trip to a downtown furniture store coincides with a government attack on student protesters.

Watching Roma is an immersive experience, filled with sound and unexplained images appearing on the screen. It’s shot in exquisite black and white – Cuaron is the cinematographer, as well as writer and director. Long, low shots almost always from far away: looking longingly down long corridors, at figures in a field before a spacious mountain range, or watching Cleo and Fermin from behind as they watch a movie on a screen even further away.

This is a lovely rich movie but one that intentionally keeps the audience from getting too close to any of the characters. We’re observers, but the action is far away, through a window or behind a closed door. No close ups, reaction shots, or gushing movie score, even with Cleo. But the cumulative effect – the sounds, music, images characters and historical events based on Cuaron’s own childhood – gives it a powerful impact.

See it in a movie theatre while you still can.

Mary Poppins Returns is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. And you can see Roma on Netflix or at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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.

Other people’s danger. Films reviewed: Blaze, Ben is Back, The Quake

Posted in Addiction, Biopic, C&W, Christmas, Disaster, Family, Morality, Music, Norway, Romance, Texas by CulturalMining.com on December 14, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

 

With all the trouble in the world, some people like to safely observe other people’s problems, as a kind of catharsis. This week I’m looking at three new movies about people putting themselves in danger. There’s an opiate addict at Christmas, a quake spotter in Oslo, and an alcoholic musician in a bar.

Blaze

Dir: Ethan Hawke

It’s the 70s in the deep south. Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey) is a hefty, bearded Texan from San Antone, living in an artsy, hippy commune. That’s where he meets a beautiful woman with kinky hair named Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). He’s a musician and a raconteur, she’s a writer and aspiring actress. The two decide to shack up together in a treehouse for some sweet, summer lovin. When they’re not in bed they’re singing songs to each other. But Sybil – or Tsibele, as her parents call her – sees something more. Blaze, she says, you gotta go to Austin to make it big. And Blaze says I don’t wanna be a star, I want to be a legend.

But he agrees to tour blues bars while she works as a waitress. Problem is, when he’s lonely he drinks – he’s a boozehound – and when he drinks he gets angry, and when he gets angry he gets into fights – not a good career move for a budding musician.

Can their relationship survive? And will people ever get to hear his music?

Blaze is a meandering biopic about a musician you’ve probably never heard of. It jumps back and forth over a twenty year period tracing his highs and lows… mainly the lows. (Like the time when a trio of Texas Oilmen — played by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell — who think they’ve discovered the next big thing and put up the money to record an album.)  And there are lots of concerts in small bars. Blaze’s story is narrated by Towne Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) recalling his life and his music. Blaze was dead by age 40, but now, 30 years later, he’s finally getting listened to.

It sounds super depressing… but it’s not. It’s actually a very gentle, pleasant movie, mainly because the music – folk, blues, country – never stops for the whole two hours. Lots of plucking of guitars and Ben Dickey’s sweet voice. And Alia’s, too.

OK, it is a bit too long and the plot isn’t that interesting (though the stories Blaze tells are), but if you go to this movie to feel it, not to think about it… well, you just might like it.

Ben is Back

Wri/Dir: Peter Hedges

Holly (Julia Roberts) is happily married to her second husband (Courtney B Vance) and fond of her three kids who live at home. She’s preparing for Christmas: trimming the tree and wrapping the presents. But then a surprise visitor shows up. It’s Ben (Lucas Hedges), the eldest from her first marriage, the return of the Prodigal Son. She over him dearly, but he also makes her nervous. He’s an addict,

and he’s supposed to be at rehab. But she welcomes him for dinner, after carefully hiding all the prescription drugs, money and valuable jewelry. She loves him, but everyone knows addicts lie, cheat and steal… the boy can’t help it.

But maybe this time is different. He’s been clean for 80 days now, and he promises he won’t do anything to hurt his family. He seems back to normal. But when Ben is back, all his history, his baggage, all his friends and enemies are there with him, metaphorically. And some literally: when they go to sister Ivy’s Christmas pageant, they come back to a burglarized home… and Ben’s pet has been dog-napped.

Who dunnit? It’s up to him to visit all the ghosts of his past – people he stole from, families of overdose victims, druggies, dealers and gangsters – until he finds the one with his dog. But Holly won’t let him do it alone. She’ll stick by his side until he’s safe again. Will they find the dog? Or die in trying?

Ben is Back is one of a creepily popular genre: addiction movies. And like many of them it’s not about the addicts, it’s about the harm they bring to their parents or lovers. (The recent Beautiful Boy is a good example – it should have been called Dithering Dad.) While Ben is Back’s story kept me interested, the movie as a whole was both moralistic and grueling to watch… why are moviegoers forced to sit through yet another reenactment of a 12-step meeting? Ugh. That’s not entertaininment. And as if that’s not enough, you also have to sit through an interminable Christmas show.

Equal doses of saccharine and grime… No thanks.

The Quake

Dir: John Andreas Andersen

It’s present-day Norway. Gaunt, bearded Kristian (Krisoffer Joner) lives in the picturesque, fjord-filled town of Geiranger. Three years ago a deadly tsunami swept through there but Kristian saved many people including his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) his son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and his darling daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). He’s a national hero… and a broken man, far away from his family who moved to Oslo. Why? Because Kristian hears tremors everywhere – he’s in a constant state of panic, just waiting for the next earthquake. Perfect for an emergency but unfit to be a normal husband and father.

But his panic starts to escalate when a series of clues – unexplained seismic data, a collapsing tunnel, rats running away – tell him the next earthquake is coming to Oslo. He has to get there fast and warn his family.. and everyone else. Has Kristian gone bananas? Or is he right? The Quake is a disaster movie so of course he’s right. Once the tremors start the real action begins, mainly in a glass and steel highrise in downtown Oslo. Somehow Dad, Mom, Little Julia and Marit (Kathrine T Johansen) a woman helping Kristian find the truth, all end up there, at the very top of a skyscraper, when the earthquake hits. Who will survive?

The Quake is a terrific disaster flic, mainly because the characters are interesting enough to care about. And the special effects are amazing. You believe they’re hanging onto wires in elevator shafts or sliding toward the edge as the skyscraper starts lean. The director of this movie is actually a cinematographer so its very visual: aerial views, long tunnels, fjords, and collapsing new buildings. I had to watch it on a computer screen, but you should try to see it in a theatre with a big screen, and loud rumbles.

Blaze, Ben is Back, and the Quake 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.

Heists and Outlaws. Films reviewed: Widows, The Whiskey Bandit, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs PLUS Instant Family

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, Crime, Family, Heist, Hungary, Movies, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Being robbed is everyone’s nightmare… so why do we love heist movies so much? Maybe it’s the excitement and audacity of their heroes and antiheroes. This week, I’m looking at three movies with sympathetic thieves. There’s a professional bank robber in Budapest, four female thieves in the Midwest, and outlaws and gunslingers in the old west.

Widows

Wri/Dir: Steve McQueen

Veronica (Viola Davis) lives in a Chicago penthouse with her loving husband Harry (Liam Neeson), a successful businessman. But when he is killed in a car crash, she discovers the source of his wealth: he’s a professional thief. He – and three other men – died on a job that ended with millions of dollars going up in flames when the getaway van exploded. And some not-so-nice people tell Veronica they want those millions back. What to do? She decides to learn from her husband and form her own gang of thieves for a single, grand heist of their own. But first she needs a team. So she turns to the widows of the men who worked with her husband – total strangers all. Veronica has to convince them all to join in with her plan.

There’s Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) a hardworking mom raising young kids while running her dress shop. With her husband gone she could lose everything. And tall, beautiful Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has been working as a high-end escort since her abusive husband died. They agree to join Veronica. When the fourth widow pulls out of the scheme they recruit Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a tough cookie from the projects who can run like lightning. But can four inexperienced women pull off a complex home robbery and outsmart organized criminals who hold all the cards?

Widows is a complex thriller, involving not just the four women but also corrupt Chicago politicians, gangsters, preachers, and power brokers. It portrays the city as rotten to the core. It co-stars Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Daniel Kaluuya, but the men in this movie are just distractions; women are the core, unusual for a crime thriller. This is artist-turned-director Steve McQueen‘s first mainstream genre movie. Widows is sophisticated, well-acted and skilfully made, but… it’s just a movie. It isn’t deep or emotionally jarring like his earlier movies Hunger, and Twelve Years a Slave.

It kept me interested but left me feeling hollow inside.

The Whiskey Bandit

Wri/Dir: Nimród Antal

It’s the 1980s in Transylvania, Romania. Atilla Ambruzs (Bence Szalay) is a poor young man, neglected and beaten by his father, sent to juvie for petty theft, and enlisted into the army, where he’s an excellent marksman. As an ethnic Hungarian in Ceaucescu’s Romania he has no future. So he escapes across the border by strapping his belt to the bottom of a train and holding on for dear life.

In Budapest, he’s welcomed with open arms and given a job, a home and status. No, just kidding. He’s penniless, homeless and without legal status. Worse, in Hungary he’s derided as Romanian! He finally finds work: as a combination goalie and janitor for a pro-hockey team. No pay, but at least he has a place to live.

One night, drinking beer with his buddies, he spots the woman of his dreams. He chases her to the subway, and offers her flowers. Is this love at first sight? But Kata (Piroska Móga) is educated from a rich family, while Atilla is a penniless alien. He needs the proper papers to get ahead, but they require a hefty bribe. So he turns to bank robbing… and he’s very good at it. He never fires a shot, never hurts anybody, just leapfrogs the tellers and grabs the cash from the banks safes. And he always avoids the cops– He climb walls, jump from buildings, even swim across the Danube to escape. He disguises his appearance with caps, aviator glasses and a fake moustache, leaving nothing behind but the smell of alcohol on his breath. As his exploits pile up, so does his infamy, dubbed the Whiskey Bandit in the news media and adored as a folk hero. And he lives lavishly – telling Kata and his teammates he made his fortune importing bear skins. But how long will his luck hold out?

The Whiskey Bandit is a great crime/action movie, from the director of the great sci-fi action movie “Predators”. Most of the film is narrated by the Bandit telling his story to a crooked detective (Zoltan Schneider). Szalay and Móga have great chemistry, and the story really grabs you. This is a great, rollicking action/adventure. And turns out, it’s based on a true story.

I really enjoyed this one.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Wri/Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

It’s the mid 19th Century in the wild, wild west. Picture: wagon trains and prospectors, cowboys and bank robbers. Outlaws and bounty hunters. Their stories are told in a series of short episodes, each its own complete film. Genres change, film by film – musical, serious drama, near horror, or comedy, nicely balanced over a two hour show. They’re tied together by the turning pages of an old book of illustrated western tales, but they owe more to Hollywood westerns. The title story is about a singing cowboy all dressed in white… who turns out to be a serial killer. Like most Coen brothers movies this one doesn’t skimp on guns, violence and dark, dark humour.

I usually dislike anthology films, but in this film, it works. The dramas are tiny, perfect and very pessimistic. Standout performances include Zoe Kazan as an indecisive young woman on the Oregan trail (this is her second wagon train movie, after Kelly Reichardt’s great Meek’s Cutoff); Tom Waits as a prospector looking for Mister Pocket, his streak of gold; and Harry Melling (from the Harry Potter movies) as an armless, legless orator travelling from town to town. It’s very much a traditional Hollywood western with cowboys, stand-offs, and shootouts – and, regretably, indigenous characters still portrayed as “noble savages”, even in 2018. (But in fact all the other characters have stereotypical, largely negative personalities, too.)

Still, it feels like much more than the sum of its parts. superior acting, wonderful music and scenery… This is a great Coen brothers movie.

Also opening today is…

Instant Family

Dir: Sean Anders

Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) are a happily married, middle-aged couple. They design and renovate houses, and play golf in their spare time. But something is missing… kids! But if they start a family now, they’ll be old folks by the time the kid grows up. But what if they adopt? They join a foster care class run by two social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavio Spencer) who teach them the ins and outs. But when they decide to give it a go, they somehow end up with three foster kids, Lita, Juan and Lizzie. An instant family. Lita (Juliana Gamiz) is a wild child who only eats potato chips. Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) is a scared, accident-prone introvert. And Lizzie (Isabela Moner), age 15, is their surrogate mother, and won’t listen to anything her foster parents tell her. They were abandoned by their birth mother, an addict and petty criminal. Pete and Ellie decide they’ll be their new mom and dad. But will the kids accept them? And when their birth mother is released from prison will they lose these kids they’ve been trying so hard to raise?

Inspired by the director’s own story, Instant Family is equal parts comedy, tear jerker, and realistic look at adoption. It alternates between Ellie, Pete and the kids, the couple’s various relatives (the two grandmas are hilarious, the rest of the relatives just irritating); and the foster parent support group they attend regularly to compare notes. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of movie I would normally go to if I weren’t a film critic. but once there, I did laugh, tear up or cringed, depending on the scene. So if you like inspiring and occasionally funny movies about struggling through parenthood, this is a film for you.

Instant Family, and Widows open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see The Whiskey Bandit tonight at 8:30 at the Royal Cinema as part of the EU Film Festival.

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

Young and Old, New and Old. Films reviewed: mid90s, What They Had, Summer with Monika

Posted in 1950s, 1990s, Chicago, Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Family, L.A., Romance, Skateboards, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on October 26, 2018

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

Mark your calendars folks, as Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season continues in November. ReelAsian has great anime, dramas, docs and comedies from South, East, and Southeast Asia. Ekran Polish film festival opens with Pawel Pawlikowski’s fantastic Cold War — about two lovers seperated by the Iron Curtain — and Toronto’s own 22 Chaser. And the EU film festival has one film from each country in the European Union, with some real treasures waiting to be discovered… and all screenings are free!

This week I’m looking at movies new and old, about people young and old. There’s a love story about young adults in Stockholm made in the 1950s, a coming-of-age story about a young LA teenager set in the 1990s, and a family drama about an elderly Chicago couple set in the right now.

mid90s

Wri/Dir: Jonah Hill

It’s LA in the mid 1990s. 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives with his single mom and frustrated big brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). Ian uses him as his personal punching bag so Stevie stays away from him. Out in the city he discovers a skate shop and cautiously approaches the older kids who hang there. There’s Ruben (Gio Galicia) is a brooding kid, a bit older than Stevie, who tells him what’s what. Ray (Na-Kell Smith) is the group’s rudder who tries to keep them out of trouble. Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), is a skinny nerd who records everything with his video camera. And then there’s the daring and reckless one with blonde dreads (Olan Prenatt) whose name is made up of two words I can’t say on radio (but rhyme with Truck Spit).

At first, they think of Charlie as just a kid, but he proves his mettle by doing the most dangerous rides and jumps… and ends up in hospital for it! Soon he’s a real member of their nameless club. Together they own the streets with their boards. But can a 13-year-old have a good time without ending on drugs, in jail, or dead?

Mid90s is a fun and light coming-of-age story, seen through the eyes of a kid with much older friends. He encounters sex, drugs, and Jackass-style extreme exploits, for the first time, all projected against a non-stop blanket of 90s music.  I’m always dubious whenever a Hollywood moviestar decides to make a film, but Jonah Hill does a great job on this one. It’s low budget, an enjoyable story, simple but effective. It’s moving, funny and believable. without trying too hard or trying change the world. Sunny Suljic is great as Stevie, as are the rest of the gang, mainly played by non-actors who skate.

I like this one.

What They Had

Wri/Dir: Elizabeth Chomko

It’s a snowy Christmastime in Chicago. and Bridget (Hillary Swank), is flying there from sunny California to spend the holiday with her family. She’s travelling with her daughter Emma on college vacation, and is met at the airport by her grumpy brother Nick (Michael Shannon). He owns a bar and lives in the back room with his on-again off-again girlfriend. But they’re mainly there to see their parents, a retired couple in their 70s. They’re devout catholics. Burt (Robert Forster) reads the obits each day yo make sure he’s not in them, while Ruth (Blythe Danner) has simpler pursuits. They’re a happily married couple, in sickness and in health, till death do they part.

And that’s why the family is really there.

Ruth is prone to wandering, walking off aimlessly into the snow, and showing up in a hospital or at the railway tracks. And she mistakes a stapler for the telephone. She has Alzheimer’s and Nick wants to ship her off for “memory care” and Burt to assisted living, alone somewhere. Burt says no way. Life’s not bells and whistles, it’s hard work and we’re still very much in love. But Bridget has her Mom’s power of attorney. Whose side will she take — her father’s or her brother’s? And will the secrets uncovered by this family reunion lead to a permanent rupture in all of their lives?

What They Had is a low-key family drama with a powerhouse cast. Any movie

Away From Her

with Michael Shannon, Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner and Robert Forster in it is worth seeing just for that. But I can’t help comparing Blythe Danner to Julie Christie in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, that great drama, also about Alzheimer’s. (They even look the same!)

This one is much easier to watch, though, trading heavy drama for family nostalgia.

Summer with Monika (1953)

Dir: Ingmar Bergman

It’s the 1950s in working class Stockholm. Harry (Lars Ekborg) is a 19 year old at his first job, delivering boxes of glass by bicycle cart. (He looks like Tintin.) Harry lives with his ailing dad in the family home. At work, he is constantly yelled at for being late or filling in the wrong forms. Not fun. Monika (Harriet Andersson) is even younger, and from a poor part of town. At home she’s bugged by her drunken dad, or teased by the little brats. And her workplace could be used as a textbook for sexual harassment laws 50 years later. She’s assaulted, groped and insulted all day long.

So when Monika sees Harry, a total stranger, in a bar, she takes the plunge. I hate this job, I hate this city, and I hate my life, let’s just get the hell out of here! Harry, though shocked by her forwardness, realizes he doesn’t like his life much, either. And he does like Monika. So soon, they’re off in a motorboat to a distant place. They set up camp on a rocky shore, and spend their time picking wild mushrooms and frolicking naked on the rocks. Is this love? But reality rears its ugly head. Lelle (John Harryson), Monika’s ex-boyfriend, is stalking them. There’s no clean clothes and their food is running out. And Monika discovers she’s pregnant.

Summer with Monika is 65 years old, but Ingmar Bergman’s timeless love story still feels fresh and vibrant. It’s shot in beautiful black and white in a realistic style. There are a few seconds of discreet nudity but apparently was very shocking when it was released in the US. (Didn’t help that the distributor marketed it as “The story of a bad girl” who was “Naughty and 19“!) But in Europe it proved highly influential for generation of filmmakers. Try to catch this movie while it’s still playing.

What They Had and mid90s both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Summer with Monika is now playing as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Bergman 100, showing virtually all of his movies, in a beautifully programmed series.

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 Michael Del Monte and Janae Marie Kroczaleski about Transformer

Posted in Bodybuilders, Canada, documentary, Family, LGBT, Sports, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 19, 2018

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Janae Marie is a Michigan pharmacist, originally from Ypsilanti, divorced with three sons.

Matt was a high school football player, a former marine who rose to fame as a competitive bodybuilder and power lifter. What brings the two together?

Jenae used to be Matt.

She’s a transwoman facing the unusually difficult transition from titanic 250 pound man into her current status. This transformation is documented in a new feature film called Transformer.

The documentary is directed by Toronto native, award-winning filmmaker Michael Del Monte.

It follows Janae both at home with family and friends, and inside the hypermasculine world of competitive weightlifting. It shows her life both as Matt and as Janae while she makes the difficult decisions and myriad changes faced by all trans people, as well as those unique to her world. Transformer is an eye-opening, surprising, touching and always respectful movie.

I spoke to Janae Marie Kroczaleski and Michael Del Monte on location during Hot Docs.

Del Monte’s Transformer won the won Hot Docs Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award and the Rogers Audience Choice Award for Best Canadian Doc. It starts its theatrical run today.

Daniel Garber talks with Ann Shin about her new documentary The Superfood Chain

Posted in Africa, documentary, Eating, Economics, Environmentalism, Family, Fishing, Food, Globalization, Indigenous by CulturalMining.com on October 5, 2018

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

What do walnuts, goji berries and garlic have in common? How about quinoa, teff, virgin coconut oil and wild salmon? They’re all “superfoods” full of vitamins and minerals, and great traits like anti-oxidents Omega-3, high protein, gluten-free, or high fibre. As soon as a newly-marketed food is dubbed a superfood, it flies off the shelves of our grocery stores. But what happens to the people who grow these superfoods and who consider them a staple when the demand for a superfood skyrockets? What happens – good ot bad – to the people at the other end of the superfood foodchain?

The Superfood Chain is the title of a fascinating new documentary that follows four families whose local food has become an international commodity: teff growers in Ethiopia, coconut processors in the Philippines, quinoa farmers in Bolivia and salmon fishers in Haida Gwai. The film is directed and narrated by noted Toronto filmmaker Ann Shin, whose powerful documentaries like Escape from North Korea and My Enemy, My Brother use personal stories to tackle major issues.

I spoke with Ann Shin in Toronto by telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Superfood Chain premiers on TVO Docs on Monday, Oct 8 at 10 pm and is also playing at the upcoming Planet in Focus Film Festival.

Still more TIFF. Films Reviewed: Fahrenheit 11/9, The Wife, The Man Who Feels No Pain

Posted in Action, documentary, Drama, Family, Found Footage, India, Movies, Politics, Protest, Sweden, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 21, 2018

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

TIFF is over now, but you’ll have lots of chances to catch up on films you missed as they release them over the next few months… or years. This week I’m looking at three movies that played at TIFF. They look at secrets in Stockholm, mayhem in Mumbai, and what went wrong in Washington DC.

Fahrenheit 11/9

Dir: Michael Moore

Torch-bearing Nazis, tax cuts for the richest Americans, and a president who brags about assaulting women, who makes friends with dictators and throws the country’s allies under the bus. How did this happen? Michael Moore is back again, attempting to explain what brought a celebrity-obsessed, egotistical racist to the White House. He talks to a few experts and travels to places like West Virginia, but most of the film is devoted to news clips, recordings and and photos. He tells the story as a series of concentric circles: the country, the state of Michigan, the city of Flint and Michael Moore himself.

He doesn’t spare anyone from criticism. That means Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and even Barak Obama all get a drubbing. News media – and not just Fox news — are rightly blamed for the endless free publicity they gave Trump. And it was Moore who predicted Trump’s victory… and is praised for it by the likes of Steve Bannon, Fox News, Jared Kushner and Trump himself.

The juiciest clips are about the president, including some that make your skin crawl. Like the lewd sexual comments he makes about his own daughter Ivanka, starting when she was just a little girl.

He also deals with the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Flint water scandal, the Stoneman Douglas protesters, and a whole lot more. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a funny, entertaining and fast-moving doc that keeps you glued to the screen for over two hours. It’s not perfect – it seems to “end” a couple times before its actually over; and he should retire his trademark schtick of the little guy Michael Moore confronting famous people at their homes (especially when he’s more famous than they are).

But as a whole, if you want a smart, sharp and funny take on American politics, this is the movie to watch.

The Man Who Feels No Pain

Dir: Vasan Bala

Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani) is a brave little boy in Bombay. Raised by his father and grandpa (his mother was killed by a chain snatcher the day he was born) he fears nothing. Along with his best friend, a girl named Supri (Radhika Madan) they stand up to bullies, and stage impossible escapes, jumping off rooves when there’s no other way out. Surya thinks they’re heroes with superpowers. In fact, his only superpower is a dangerous medical conditional known as CIP (Congenital Insensitivity to Pain). Surya risks illness or death from not noticing the bruises, burns, broken bones and internal injuries that make most kids cry out in pain. And when their adventures lead to the near-death of Supri’s abusive father, Surya is rushed away to avoid jail time.

Over the next 12 years his worrisome dad and hippie grandpa keep him safe indoors, checking his body daily for injuries, and always keeping him hydrated (he wears a water sac on his back with a plastic tube he can drink from). His only pastime is watching old VHS tapes of Bruce Lee and action movies. He teaches himself martial arts by imitating what he sees on the screen. His goals? To find his childhood friend Surya, to catch the chain snatchers, and to meet his VHS hero, a one-legged, Indian master known as Karate Manni who once fought and beat a 100 men! He thinks two of his goals have been reached when he spots a grown-up Surya putting up Karate Man posters. But first he must win back Surya’s heart, gain Karate Man’s trust and defeat a Scarface-like super villain. Will his self-taught fighting moves – and imperviousness to pain – save him against an army of enemies?

The Man Who Feels No Pain is a delightful new mash-up, a novel combination of comedy, Hong Kong Shaolin, Bollywood musicals, and found-footage videotapes. Dasani and Madan make a wonderful pair of fighters – and love interests? – and the fast-moving plot, saturated with pop culture movie references, is fun to watch.

This movie won the TIFF 18 Grolsch Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award.

The Wife

Dir: Björn Runge

It’s 1992, somewhere over the Atlantic. Joe and Joan Castleman (Glenn Close, Jonathon Pryce) a happily married retired couple, are flying to Stockholm, first class. Joe is preparing his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize for literature. And Joan? Well, she’s his wife, his plus one. Also on the plane is their adult son David (Max Irons) an aspiring writer. Joan told him she liked the story but he needs his father’s approval. But their conversation is interrupted by Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater) an aggressively obsequious journalist who wants to pen Joe’s biography… and who is looking for some inside dirt.

Part of their story becomes clear in flashbacks to the 1950s where they met. At the time, Joe is still a young, married English prof at Smith, where Joan is a student. He woos her with a walnut. True love? He divorces his wife and marries Joan. She wants to be a writer, but her plans are quashed by a bitter, female novelist who says women like them will never succeed in a man’s world. So she devotes herself to her husband’s career instead, and overlooks his frequent peccadilloes. And now he’s in Sweden, about to win the Nobel Prize. So why is Joan so resentful? Is it Joe’s infidelity? Or is there a deeper secret? And what is the scandal the biographer threatens to reveal?

The Wife is a good, small drama about marriage, women and the secrets that they keep. It’s also about writers. And it’s full of royal references: the writer is named Castleman, Joan dubs herself a “king-maker” and the screen is filled with the regal opulance, music and grandeur surrounding the Nobel prize. I liked this movie.

Fahrenheit 11/9 and The Wife open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Man Who Feels No Pain played at TIFF’s Midnight Madness and is coming soon. And don’t forget about the Toronto Palestine Film Festival which is on now through the weekend. 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.

Visuals. Films reviewed: Papillon, We the Animals, Madeline’s Madeline

Posted in 1930s, Coming of Age, Dance, Drama, Family, France, LGBT, Prison, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 24, 2018

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

All movies need good sound and pictures, but in some films the visual aspects are especially notable. This week, I’m looking at three, new, visually-oriented movies, with two approaching the avant-garde.

We’ve got three brothers exploring their home, two men escaping from a desert island, and one young actress channelling her inner self.

Papillon

Dir: Michael Noer

It’s 1930s Paris and Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charley Hunnam) is living the life of Riley. He’s fit, smart and well-to-do, and is passionately in love with his beautiful wife. He figures at this current income he could retire in six more months. His job? An expert safe-cracker, working freelance for the mob. But his luck runs out when he is sent down for a murder he didn’t commit. Papillon is a good fighter but not a killer. They send him off to an inescable prison in French Guyana but he is already planning on how to get out. On board the ship he meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek) a small but snobbish counterfeiter with glasses. Dega is rich – he keeps a roll of bills hidden up his rectum – but can’t defend himself, and Papillon needs money to get away. Together they form a grudging alliance that deepens as their friendship grows.

Prison life – including hard labour – is brutal, with violence coming both from other inmates and from the guards. Any escape attempt means two years in solitary, with absolute silence required Repeated attempts mean permanent exile to Devils island a cliff covered desert. Papillon – his nickname comes from a butterfly tat on his chest – takes the fall for dega when he blows an escape attempt. He keeps from going insane in solitary by keeping his inner mind awake. The warden wants to break him, but Papillon never gives up.

Can he ever escape this hell-hole? And can Dega make it out too?

Perhaps because I’ve read Papillon’s true prison memoirs, and seen the 1970s film (starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman) this version seems too long and two slow… almost like a prison sentence. Still, it is visually gorgeous with period costumes, exotic settings, and epic scenery. Hunnam and Malek – two actors I really like — carry their roles well. So I ended up liking it, mainly as an adventure/action movie.

We the Animals

Dir: Jeremiah Zagar

It’s the 1980s. Manny, Joel and Jonah (Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Gabriel, Evan Rosado) are three biracial brothers in their tweens who live in a country home in upstate New York. Their Ma (Sheila Vand) has pale skin and long black hair – she works in a bottling plant. Pops (Raul Castillo) is Puerto Rican and looks like Freddie Mercury with his buzzed hair and black moustache. He keeps the boys’ hair buzzed short just like his, but Jonah, the youngest, has his mother’s blue eyes. Mom wants him to stay with her and never grow up and turn bad. Always stay nine years old, she says. Together the three boys run rampant around the house in the woods, though Jonah is shyer than his brothers, and afraid to go swimming.

Their playful and fun lives are interrupted by reality when Paps beats up mom, and drives away. She locks herself in her bedroom, so there’s no one to feed them. They become like wild animals exploring local stores and farms for food they can steal. On their travels they meet another kid. Dustin, who shows them their first porn videos and shares their first smokes. He’s from Phillie, and Jonah adores him. Will he and Dustin run away to somewhere they can be together?

We the Animals is an amazingly beautiful movie about growing up, as seen through a young boy’s eyes. He narrates the story, and keeps a record of everything in his secret journal along with bold crayon drawings. These drawings are animated in the film, and together with handlheld camera shots and aerial optics, we feel like we’re part of Jonah’s thoughts and dreams. The three, first-time actors are fantastic as the brothers, as are the parents.

We the Animals is a gorgeous, surreal film.

Madeline’s Madeline

Dir: Josephine Decker

Madeline (Helena Howard) is a young, biracial stage actress in NY City. She lives with her mom (Miranda July) and little brother She has her own bedroom decorated with fashion photos of models with their faces cut out and replaced by skies, clouds and sunsets. She sometimes sneaks in friends and prospective boyfriends to chat and maybe maybe more, but she’s always on the lookout for her overprotective mother… ready to intrude into her private life. But there’s a reason her mom is so intrusive. Madeline is prone to undiagnosed “episodes”, brought on by God knows what. She behaves erratically, inappropriately possibly even violent, so her mom tries not to upset her.

Currently Madeline is cast in an avant-garde stage project directed by Evangeline (Molly Parker). The actors – think yoga outfits and man buns – enter the minds of animals they imagine. It’s part acting, part movement, part dance, performed wearing masks. Evangeline is a Jungian, and longs to share in her actors’ thoughts and dreams, especially Madeline’s. She is obsessed by her, perhaps because Evangeline is pregnant and she sees Madeline as her baby (Evangeline’s unborn baby is also biracial).

So now it’s up to Madeline to negotiate her fraught relationship wihth her mother, a new one with her surrogate mom, and her inner turmoil that torments her dreams. All this while playing a version of herself in the project. Can Madeline, and the inner-Madeline she’s channelling – survive the daily stress of a scriptless production? Or is it too much for a 17 year old to handle?

Madeline’s Madeline is a semi-mystical look at the process of putting on an avant garde play. You have to accept the premise of experimental theatre to get the movie, but once you do, it works. The three main actors – supported by a group of almost mute performers – makes a great mom-daughter-mom rivalry, but Helena Howard especially stands out with her great and unpredictable acting.

Papillon, We the Animals and Madeline’s Madeline 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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