Solving problems. Films reviewed: Sometimes Always Never, The Laundromat, Chiko

Posted in Berlin, comedy, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Family, Games, Scandal, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 8, 2019

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

Toronto’s Fall Festival Season is in full swing this October. Look out for Toronto After Dark – scary and fantastic films; Rendezvous with Madness – films on addiction and mental health; Planet in Focus focussing on environmental films for its 20th anniversary; ImagineNative with movies by and about indigenous peoples around the world… and many more.

But this week I’m looking at three movies, from Germany, the U.K. and the US. There’s a gangster who turns to drugs to find success, a grandpa who turns to word games to find his missing son, and an older woman who turns to amateur sluething to find the bad guys.

Sometimes Always Never

Dir: Carl Hunter

Alan (Bill Nighy) is a dapper businessman in small town England. He likes Marmite, tea and scrabble. He’s meeting his estranged, adult son Peter (Sam Riley) to view a body at a remote village morgue. Alan’s other son ran away decades ago, disappearing without a trace. Could this be him? When the body turns out be the son of another couple, Margaret and Arthur (Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerney), Alan follows Peter home. It’s an excuse to finally meet his daughter-in-law Sue (Alice Lowe) and grandson Jack (Louis Healy). Won’t you stay for dinner? The evening turns into an extended visit as Alan insinuates himself into their homelife, sharing a bunk bed in Jack’s room. The teenager is a shy introvert who spends all his time gaming online. To change his life, his grandfather gets him a haircut and a custom-made suit. He’s a tailor, you see. The movie’s title refers to which buttons to button on a three-button suit. Top to bottom: sometimes, always, never.

Alan’s obsession with Scrabble has a lot to do with his missing son, who ran away in the middle of a game. It’s what separates him from his son – but will it bring them back together? – and influences his relations with Margaret and Arthur, the couple he met at the bed & breakfast. But can a board game bring his missing son home again?

Sometimes Always Never is a clever, funny and touching look at family life in small-town, northern England. Lots of twists in the plot, and enough wordplay to make the whole script feel like an ongoing Scrabble game. It does walk the fine line between charming and twee. The movie, though set in the present day, is drenched in sets, props, costumes, and style from an earlier era. But Bill Nighy, Alice Lowe and the rest are so good you can excuse a bit of excess quirky cuteness.

I like this movie.

The Laundromat

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Mossack and Fonseca (Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas) are a pair of rich lawyers who operate out of Panama. They like flashy tuxedos, palm trees and vodka martinis. Why are they so rich? Their firm holds the secrets of dictators, billionaires, drug dealers, corporations, celebrities and politicians the world over. Through the use of off-shore banking, shell corporations and absolute secrecy, they launder untold billions.

Enter Ellen (Meryl Streep), an everywoman who loses her husband in a freak accident on their wedding anniversary. Turns out the accident insurance on the boat tour they took (it sank) was bogus. Later the condo she buys in Las Vegas with her husband’s life insurance is snatched away by some Russian oligarchs. So she begins to investigate. All these companies – real estate, insurance, banking – seem to operate out of offices in the Caribbean. But when she goes to confront the CEO of the company giving her the runaround, she discovers it’s just a series of post office boxes. Can she follow their trail to Panama? And will the villains ever pay?

The Laundromat is a series of fables to explain the money laundering and tax evasion brought to light by the Panama Papers, a mammoth data haul leaked to the press by an anonymous whistleblower. Mossack and Fonseca themselves tell the story in episodic form, regularly turning toward the camera to look right at you. At the beginning of the movie I was giggling at its audacity and unexpected form – I couldn’t wait to see Soderbergh’s next trick. The trouble is, that were no other gimmicks. He flogs the same dead horse – this is just a movie, they’re all actors, that’s a green screen behind them – for the whole 90 minutes! Just when you start caring a bit, Soderbergh makes sure to remind you it’s not real, it’s just a game. I admit there’s one surprising twist near the end.… but it’s immediately followed by a slice of earnest Americana so cringe-worthy it would make a nine-year-old squirm in embarrassment.

The Laudromat just doesn’t work.

Chiko

Wri/Dir: Özgür Yildirim

Chiko (Denis Moschitto) is a young Berliner trying to get ahead. His parents came to Germany from Turkey as Gastarbeiters in the 60s, and he still hangs with other Turkish Germans. Especially his two best friend, Tibet (Volkan Özcan) and Curly. Together they beat up and rob a local cannabis dealer. But instead of running away, Chiko asks to meet his boss.

Brownie (Moritz Bleibtreu — he’s in Bye Bye Germany, The Fifth Estate, My Best Enemy) is a crime boss living a comfortable middle-class life. He ends up hiring the scrappy Chiko on a trial run, moving ten keys of cannabis. Chiko exalts in his new wealth and woos the Turkish-German prostitite Meryam (Reyhan Sahin) in the apartment next door. Is it true love or just a financial transaction?

Meanwhile, Tibet, trying to save money for his mom’s kidney operation, short-changes customers. Brownie’s thugs arrive to punish him… by hammering a nail through his foot!  This leads to a series of escalating events. Chiko graduates to coke dealing, and buys a white Mercedes with gold hubcaps to match his new image. As Chiko rises to the top like Scarface, Tibet’s falls into a downward spiral, his seething anger getting worse and worse. Finally Chiko has to choose: kingpin Brownie or his former best friend Tibet? Which commands his loyalty – friendship or business?

Chiko is a cool and violent crime drama set in urban Germany. It’s a melodrama in the best sense. Moschitto is terrific as Chiko: the criminal, the lover, the anti-hero. I liked this film and found it very moving, both the acting and the realistic, almost documentary-like peek inside the mosques, corner-stores and restaurants of Berlin. Of course it also has what you expect from a good crime drama: chase scenes, shootouts, and fights. And it’s playing as part of the Goethe Film’s Stronger than Blood, a series of crime dramas.

Sometimes Always Never opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Laundromat starts today, with Chiko playing one night only, October 8th, also at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Families. Films reviewed: Before You Know It, Downton Abbey, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, 1970s, Canada, Class, documentary, Drama, Family, Music, Screwball Comedy, Theatre, TV, UK by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 2019

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

This week I’m looking at three movies exploring different families. There’s a band of brothers who form a band inside a big pink house; a pair of sisters who live inside a Greenwich Village theatre; and an extended family of aristocrats – and their servants – who live inside a stately mansion.

Before You Know It

Dir: Hannah Pearl Utt

Rachel and Jackie (Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock) are adult sisters who live inside a Greenwich Village playhouse. Homeschooled by their playwright Dad (Mandy Patinkin) since their mom died, their world is centred on their family theatre. Rachel, dressed in plain clothes and sensible shoes, is their always-reliable stage manager. Jackie – flamboyant, and self-obsessed – is an actress. Her impulsive behaviour gave her with an alcohol problem and a 13-year-old daughter named Dodge (Oona Yaffe). Rachel wishes she could date more, but she has too many responsibilities.

Life continues, until a major revelation shakes up their lives. Turns out their mom (Judith Light) is still alive, and has been living nearby under a stage name since they were kids! What’s more, she owns their theatre, and they might lose their careers, their home, their entire lives. Can Jackie and Rachel infiltrate a TV studio, meet their soap opera actress mom, and convince her to let them stay on at their theatre they call home? Or is this their final act?

Before You Know It is a delightful story of three generations of women in a theatrical setting. Written by Jen Tullock and Hannah Pearl Utt it veers between a gently screwball plot and a somewhat more serious coming-of-age story about growing up, both for Dodge and the two adult sisters. Nothing spectacular, just a pleasant and fun indie movie.

Downton Abbey: The Movie

Dir: Michael Engler

The Crawley’s are an aristocratic family living in a stately mansion on a vast manor estate in post- Edwardian England. It takes a village to keep things going smoothly, and it’s almost as self-sufficient community living inside the walls. This includes the extended family and their in-laws but also the multitude of servants, footmen, groomsmen, maids, kitchen help, grounds keepers, valets, a butler and more. But the normal social order is threatened by some unexpected guests. The King is coming! The King is coming!

Amd this brings all sorts of problems. Violet, the dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has a longstanding inheritance feud with Maud Bagshaw, a lady in waiting (Imelda Staunton) for theQueen. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), an Irish socialist and widower who started as a chauffeur but later married into the family, is suspected by a mysterious government agent as being disloyal to the King. Meanwhile, amongst the other half of the house, other troubles are revealed. Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera) wonders whether longtime boyfriend William is right for her, especially since a handsome young plumber arrives on the scene. And when the Kings servants barge in and take over everything, they must concoct a plot to get back their rightful place within their own house. Meanwle Thomas Barrow (Robert James Collier) the usually secretive and conniving butler seizes the chance to explore his sexuality in a nearby town.

Downton Abbey,the movie is a continuation of the popular British nighttime soap that ran for many years. I remember watching the first two seasons of it before giving up.It concentrated on a dull patriarch andhis faithful butler, his bickering daughters and various servants seen skitting around behind the scenes. It felt like a Leaveit to Beaver sitcom superimposed ona feudal estate. Deadly dull, politically loathesome – I hated it. But I found the movie much more interesting. It concentrates as much on the “Downstairs” as on the “Upstairs”, there are real surprises, and the characters are allowed to grow and progress.

I’m as surprised as you that I actually enjoyed this movie.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Dir: Daniel Roher

It’s the late 1950s in Toronto. Robbie Robertson is a teenaged boy and aspiring musician who learns to play chords on visits to his mom’s family at Mohawk Six Nations. When Southern rocker Ronnie Hawkins brings his band to town, Robbie is mesmerized by their energy, showmanship and confidence, especially their stick-twirling drummer Levon Helm. He writes some tunes and joins the Hawks at age 16, alongside other multitalented Canadian musicians: Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. They travel down south to perfect their style, playing alongside blues artist and country musicians. The Hawks outgrow their front man and set out on their own,

They tour Europe as Bob Dylan,s band rght when he goes electric.They are booed on every stage, but realize they have something special. They move into a big pink house in woodstock NY where they prefect their unique boendof folk,country, rock,blues and R&B. Robbie writes most of the songs while the entire band, one with the three vocalists, crafts each song. They start releasing their own songs under the name The Band and become one of the most influential North American groups of the ’60s and ’70s.

Once Were Brothers is a great music doc about the Band, as told through Robbie Robertson’s eyes. Through old photos, magazine clippings, period footage, and new interviews, it explores their brother-like friendship through its ups and downs, including jeolousy, addiction and car crashes. And looks at the rivalry between him and Levon Helm which eventually tore the band apart. It looks at their music, the pele they knew even their look — long hair and bearded, country gentlemen farmers, dressed like in 19th Century photos. It follows them from the early 60s through their Last Waltz, a giant concert filmed by Martin Scorsese. This is a beautiful, compelling story of the – can I say it? – legendary band.

Before You Know It (at the Tiff Bell Lightbox) Once Were Brothers and Downton Abbey all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Toronto’s fall festival season continues through the weekend with the Toronto Palestine Film Fest.

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

Minors and Miners. Films reviewed: After the Wedding, Mine 9, Good Boys

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Disaster, Drama, Drones, drugs, Family, Friendship, India, Kids, Movies by CulturalMining.com on August 16, 2019

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

Mountains can grow out of moleholes. This week I’m looking at three movies – a disaster, a family drama, and a comedy with kids – about minors facing major difficulties. There are three tweens caught up in adult-type problems, coal miners caught in a disaster, and a woman who works with orphans in India facing major problems back in New York.

After the Wedding

Wri/Dir: Bart Freundlich

Isabel (Michelle Williams) is an American woman grudgingly back in New York for the first time in decades. She fled the country as a teen after an unplanned pregnancy, and has lived in India ever since. She works at an orphanage in Tamil Nadu, raising the kids there, including Jai, a little boy she found abandoned on a street. But she’s forced to travel to The States for the sake of the kids; to secure a large donation to the orphanage. The donor insists she come, not anyone else.

Theresa (Julianne Moore) is a ruthless media magnate preparing to sell all her assets and retire. She wants to donate to various charities – including the orphanage. But when she meets Isabel she says she’ll only confirm the donation after her daughter Grace (Abby Quinn)’s wedding . And Isabel must attend.

But Isabel is in for a shock. Turns out the father of the bride is Oscar (Billy Crudup) Isabel’s teenaged boyfriend, and the father of the unwanted child they put up for adoption so many years ago! He’s why she moved India in the first place, to erase her past and start again. He seems as shocked to see her as she is to see him. Is this just a coincidence? Could the bride possibly be the baby she gave birth to? And if Theresa finds out that Isabel and Oscar were once lovers will she cancel all the money the orphanage needs so badly?

After the Wedding is a remake of Danish director Susanne Bier’s film from 2006. I’ve never seen the original but I’m told in Bier’s film Isabel and Theresa are male roles and Oscar is a woman. This switch seems to work. And I found the continuous revelations fascinating – I wanted to know what would happen all the way till the end.

That said, the script was so clunky it felt, at times, like it was written by Google Translate. Williams’s main emotion was being perturbed, and the whole film lasted 30 minutes longer than it should have. I didn’t love this movie but I didn’t hate it either: good story, bad script; great actors but who are not at the top of their game here.

Mine 9

Wri/Dir: Eddie Mensore

It’s a mining town in West Viriginia. The coal mine is the only steady employer, but it’s a dangerouns place. Some of the old timers, like Kenny (Mark Ashworth), Daniel (Kevin Sizemore) and John (Clint James), have lived most of their lives underground. The black dust is ground into their skin, their hair, their beards. They don’t like it, but it’s their livelihood, and their only source of health insurance. But when they narrowly escape a methane leak, they wonder if it’s safe to go back down into mine #9. And with no outside foreman or rescue team, if there is an accident, who will save them?

But management insists so down they go, along with Ryan (Drew Starkey) a newbie fresh out of high school. It’s his first time in a mine, though his family has been doing it for centuries. Things seem to be going alright until a short circuit leads to an explosion and a collapse. The mine is filling with poisonous gas with only an hour’s worth of oxygen left. They have to battle fire, rushing water, smoke, dust, methane gas and collapsing tunnels all around them. It’s up to Zeke (Terry Serpico) their dependable leader, to bring them to safety. Who will escape and who will be left two miles down?

Mine 9 is an indie action/ disaster movie about West Virginia coal miners. It has a realistic, gritty feel to it, capturing the dirt, darkness and claustrophobia of coal mining, along with the excitement of escape. Unfortunately it’s also full of problems, both big and small.

I understand why they have to wear oxygen masks to breathe and hard hats for safety, but how can you care about characters when you can’t see their faces for much of the movie? And, seriously, do miners really break into miners’ songs each time they go underground? Their names aren’t Sneezy, Dopey and Doc.

Still, if you’re in the mood for a short trip into a coal mine, you might want to look at Mine 9.

Good Boys

Co-Wri/Dir Gene Stupnitsky

Max, Lucas and Thor are the Bean Bag Boys, three best friends and grade sixers. They’re a team that does everything together. Thor (Brady Noon) pierces an ear to be cool, but is labelled “sippy cup” by the popular kids for not trying beer. Lucas (Keith L. Williams) is a God-fearing boy who cannot tell a lie, but whose beliefs are shaken when his parents announce their divorce. Max (Jacob Tremblay) is a lover not a fighter, and is crushing on a girl he’s never actually met in lunchroom. But when Max is invited to a kissing party, he realizes he has to learn how to kiss before he can go there. These foul-mouthed boys can say the dirty words, but they don’t know how to do them. They can’t ask their parents and they find internet porn too disgusting to look at.

So the Bean Bag Boys concoct a plan: to spy on Hannah (Molly Gordon) the much older, girl next door as she makes out with her drug-dealer, frat boy boyfriend. But how? Using Max’s dad’s drone – something Max is forbidden even to touch. Caught in the act, Hannah and her friend Lily (Midori Francis) seize the drone from the boys. Then they steal her purse. But the purse contains the MDMA the women planned to take that night. Can the three boys escape their pursuers and rescue the drone? Can Max kiss the girl he thinks he loves? Or will the big problems they all face destroy their unbreakable friendship?

Good Boys is a hilarious coming-of-age comedy about extremely naïve kids encountering adult situations – like drugs and sex – for the first time, and deal with them from a child’s perspective. The laughs are constant, with very few misses. A lot of the humour rests on believing the kids are so sheltered they’ve never seen or encountered anything adult.  For example they find Thor’s parents’s sex toys but use them as weapons and kids’ toys. They’re afraid tasting beer will turn them into alcoholics. They’ve heard grown-up words but don’t know their real meanings: Nymphomania means having sex both on land and at sea. Misogyny means giving massages.

The three main kids are great, especially Tremblay (Room), but so are all the other roles. And despite the fact it’s being marketed as an R-rated movie, except for some foul language and innuendo, it’s not outrageously offensive. No serious violence and no sex, just some 11-year-old kids being extremely funny.

After the Wedding, Mine 9, and Good Boys 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.

 

Rivals. Films reviewed: Hobbs & Shaw, Luce PLUS Canadian films at #TIFF19

Posted in Action, Adoption, African-Americans, Canada, Cars, CBC, comedy, Drama, Family, High School by CulturalMining.com on August 2, 2019

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

The Toronto International Film Festival has just announced its upcoming Canadian film programme, so I’m going to talk about that. I’m also looking at two new movies: an action thriller and a psychological drama. There’s a rivalry between a respected teacher and a prize pupil that threatens their futures; and a futuristic rivalry between two secret agents fighting a threat to world destruction.

Canada at #TIFF19

If you’re looking for some brand new, home-grown movies, docs and short films, there’s lots to see at TIFF this September. I haven’t seen anything yet, but I’ve been looking around and there are a few that caught my attention. The program features many indigenous directors who have made great movies so, chances are, these will be great too. In Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger, Alanis Obomsawin continues to document – started in We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice – the struggle of First Nation kids on reserves to get the same medical treatment as in the rest of Canada. Zachariah Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) brings us One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, a drama set in the 1960s when the government was forcing nomadic Inuit hunters to assimilate and give up their way of life. And, in a totality different take, Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum pits a Mi’gmaq nation against a new zombie-like plague… that only infects white people.

Sometimes it’s just the title that attracts, so listen to some of these Canadian movies coming to TIFF: The Last Porno Show (Kire Paputts) This is Not a Movie (Yung Chang); Tammy’s Always Dying (Amy Jo Johnson); And The Birds Rained Down (Il pleuvait des oiseaux); and The Body Remembers when the World Broke Open.

Conversely, there are some short films whose titles are very long. Like I am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain; or how about Speak Continuously and Describe your Experiences as They Come to You. I bet you’ll remember those.

And finally you can look at some of the big names of Canadian cinema, with new work by Alan Zweig, who has a documentary about the police called Coppers; Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour, starring David Thewlis as a food inspector; Albert Shin’s Clifton Hill, a psychological thriller set in Niagara Falls; and a new doc co-directed by Ellen Page, about environmental racism in Nova Scotia called There’s Something in the Water.

I just flooded you with more names than anyone can absorb, but maybe some of it will stick. Tickets are on sale now, including the cheaper packages, so check them out.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Dir: David Leitch

Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a hugely muscled single dad in LA formerly with the CIA. Shaw (Jason Statham) is a well dressed wiry assassin from a family of London criminals, headed by his mother. But when Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) an MI6 agent goes rogue, the two men are ordered to work together to bring her in.

The problem is Hobbs and Shaw loathe each other, and would rather die than be in the same room. But there’s a bigger issue at stake: Hattie absconded with a terrible man-made virus which, if activated, could wipe out every human in a week.. and she carries it imbedded in her body. Even worse, they have to beat Brixton (Idris Elba), Shaw’s former partner, who is now an unkillable cyborg who works for a criminal organization that controls the world’s media. Can the two agents overcome their differences, capture Hattie, recover the virus, defeat Brixton, and save the world?

Hobbs and Shaw is a silly, comic-book-like action movie in the style of the Fast and Furious series, and though ridiculous, it’s a lot of fun to watch. It doesn’t take itself very seriously, instead just provides endless chase scenes – we’re talking cars, motorcycles and helicopters here — extended fistfights against nameless enemies, and epic battles with guns, missiles and spears (but without any visible death or blood).

As I said, it’s ridiculous, concerned purely with the images. There’s a chase scene at a Chernobyl-like nuclear reactor, but the characters blast at each other not caring about meltdoen. The towers are just there for decoration. The story takes you from an amazing vertical chase scene involving ropes and an elevator on the side of a glass and steel skyscraper in London… to an eventual battle royal in Samoa!

The banter between Johnson and Statham is silly, almost to the point of boredom, but there is some humour and, most important, the movie is loaded with superior special effects. Take it for what it is – a simple action movie – and you’ll probably love it. I gave up on the Fast and Furious series after Number 3 or 4, but I would probably watch another Hobbs & Shaw. With Idris Elba, and cameo roles by a sinister Helen Mirren and a campy Ryan Reynolds… what more can you ask for for 14 bucks?

Luce

Dir: Julius Onah

Based on the play by J.C. Lee

It’s an middleclass suburb in the Midwest. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is the school’s golden boy. He’s a star athlete, manager of the track team, head of the debating club. He’s handsome, popular, athletic and very bright. So much so, he’s invited to give inspirational, Obama-style speeches to the school. His white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) couldn’t be happier. They adopted him as a refugee from war-torn Eritrea, and moulded him into their idea of the perfect all-American son, with a new name, history, and identity. His friends may have troubles, but not Luce. Everyone, even his ex, Cynthia (Andrea Bang: Kim’s Convenience) loves Luce. Everyone except his teacher Ms Wilson (Octavia Spencer).

She is suspicious of his motives. She is disturbed enough by an essay he wrote (about Marxist anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon) to search his school locker, where she finds an unmarked bag of firecrackers. She calls his mother in to talk, leaving Luce out of the equation for now. But it plants a seed of doubt in his parents’ minds. Luce isn’t stupid; he knows something is going on. And so begins a hidden game of cat and mouse between pupil and teacher. Is he just a normal, nice guy… or a psychopath? And is Ms Wilson honestly concerned? Or is she just jealous and wants to bring him down?

Luce is a complex, multifaceted and ultimately ambiguous drama about identity, history and blackness. (Interestingly, another work by Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, was surely lurking at the back of Luce’s mind). It’s also about parents digging too deeply into their kid’s private lives, without realizing they’ll expose facts they didn’t want to know about. It brings in other issues, too – mental health, sexual consent, and drug use. Tim Roth and Naomi Watts are appropriately annoying as the well-meaning but namby-pamby parents. Octavia Spencer just gets better and better, and Kelvin Johnson Jr  (though he doesn’t look even vaguely Eritrean!) is great as Luce. He also a very different son in another movie, It Comes at Night, which, in retrospect, adds even more dimensions to this role. Can’t wait to see what he does next

Luce, though not perfect, is a very well-done indie movie that leaves you with a lot to think about.

Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Luce opens next week (August 9th). And for more information on TIFF go to tiff.net.

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

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.

%d bloggers like this: