Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War 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.

Lots of Indies! Films reviewed: The Disaster Artist, Sweet Virginia, Wexford Plaza

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Film Noir, L.A., Mumblecore, Realism, Toronto, violence by CulturalMining.com on December 1, 2017

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

Indie movies are in this year, picking up prizes and heading for the Oscars. They are the most innovative films out there, flouting expected cinematic rules, sharing a sense of realism missing from big-budget movies.

This week I’m talking about three new indie movies opening today. There’s a hit man staying at a motel, a security guard working at a strip mall, and an indie movie about making indie movies.

The Disaster Artist

Dir: James Franco (Based on the book by Greg Sestero)

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a model and aspiring actor in San Francisco. He’s taking classes, looking for his big break. Problem is he’s a terrible actor: way too shy and withdrawn. Enter fellow student Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). He’s a body–builder with a redone face, a mane of long black hair and an unintelligible accent. (He says he’s from New Orleans). He’s entirely without talent, but brimming with self-confidence. Greg sees him acting in class, shouting and literally climbing the walls. The teachers all cringe, but Greg is dumbfounded. This is what he wants to do, this is what he wants to be like. Soon they move to Tommy’s LA pied a terre, find agents and start up the ladder toward movie stardom. At least that’s the plan. When the studios don’t come knocking at their door, they decide to shoot their own movie, called The Room. Tommy will direct and produce (he’s bankrolling the whole thing) while the two of them share top billing. But will The Room be any good?

The short answer is no.

But that doesn’t convey the awfulness of the film they’re making. It’s spectacularly, stupendously, unbelievably bad… but in a very distinctive way. (It has since become a major cult hit — so bad it’s good — seen everywhere.) Its humour derives from the bad acting and non-sensical script, and from Tommy Wiseaus total obliviousness to his own social ineptitude and to how bad the film actually is (he imagines it’s a masterpiece).

This movie — The Disaster Artist — isnt a remake, it’s a move about the making of The Room. It recreates and incorporates the funniest, worst parts of the original, but also what was going on behind the camera. It’s a bro comedy, starring real life bros Dave and James Franco, who is just so funny as Tommy. And though it is ostensibly an indie movie, it may have broken a record for the number of Hollywood cameos:  Hannibal Buress, Seth Rogan, Sharon Stone, JJ Abrams, and dozens of others.

The Disaster Project is a really funny movie.

Sweet Virginia

Dir: Jamie M. Dagg

Sam (Jon Bernthal) is a former champion bull rider who used to earn his living in the rodeo circuit, until he had an accident. Now he runs a motel called Sweet Virginia nestled somewhere between two foggy mountains. Lila (Imogen Poots) is his assistant helping out in his office. All is well until the town is shaken by an unexpected killing: three men gunned down at a late night poker game. Elwood (Christopher Abbott) a man with anger issues, is staying at Sam’s motel. Turns out he’s a hit man, the one that killed the three men, including Lila’s husband. He also killed the husband of Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is having a secret affair with Sam. Who hired him? Lila! She hated her husband and wants his money. She promises Elwood big bucks in exchange for his murder (The other men he kills are just “collateral damage”). But when Lila can’t get hold of the money, things take a turn for the worse. Will the bad guys pay for their crimes? Or will there be more violence to come?

Sweet Virginia has all the makings of an excellent movie. Great cast, good acting, wonderful locations, and beautiful cinematography. So why does it suck?

This movie is all wrong. It reveals everything in the first few minutes, ruining any suspense. It wastes a lot of screen time introducing characters who are killed off in the first 15 minutes. And the rest of the move just creaks along, revealing dull, pointless and violent lives, with no surprises. I get the feeling the only reason this movie was released is because Bernthal is starring in the Netflix series The Punisher right about now.

Wexford Plaza

Wri/Dir: Joyce Wong

Betty (Reid Asselstine) is a cheery and voluptuous 19-year-old starting her new job. She’s a security guard at a rundown strip mall in Scarborough called Wexford Plaza. She’s forced to wear a too-small uniform: black polyester pants with an ugly yellow polo shirt. Her high school friends have moved on; she only sees them on instagram. She works with Rich and Anton (Francis Melling and Mirko Miljevic) two immature asshats who smoke pot, leer at her breasts and tell off-colour jokes at her expense. Then she meets Danny (Darrel Gamotin), a bartender in the mall. He’s a nice guy, older, successful and self-confident, and seems interested in her. He has her back when she drinks too much, and she returns the favour (along with sexual benefits) when he gets sloshed. She forsees a long term relationship… until things go drastically wrong. He turns on a dime, from good guy to cold bastard. What’s going on? Is he just using her?

Wexford Plaza is a realistic comedy/drama that tells the same story twice, first from Betty’s and then from Danny’s point of view. Similar events occupy the same time and space but seem radically different. Words considered crucial by one – slurred out while drunk – are completely missing from the other one’s memories. Reid Asselstine is great, subtly exposing Betty’s burgeoning sexuality tempered by her self-doubt. This is a good coming-of-age drama set in the desolate strip malls of Toronto.

Sweet Virginia, The Disaster Artist and Wexford Plaza 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

 

Film noir. Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck. Films Reviewed: Double Indemnity, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers PLUS Tracers

Posted in Crime, Cultural Mining, Film Noir, Movies, Parkour, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 20, 2015

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Barbara StanwyckHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Film Noir. Those dark, mysterious B&W thrillers from the 1940s, full of intrigue, lies, murder, and adultery. They abound with low-lifes, power-hungry toughs, private eyes and femmes fatales. And one of the key players was Barbara Stanwyck.  Strong, sexy and smart, she ruled the Hollywood screen. A retrospective, Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck is now playing at TIFF.  I’ll admit I’d heard her name but hadn’t seen her films until now. Wow! I get her now: She played powerful women in an era when that meant you’re either evil, immoral, or psychotic.

So this week I’m going to look at two of her film noir movies from the 1940s: there’s a seedy seductress testing the waters of insurance fraud, and a female industrialist with a secret past who might have an affair; and a new release, a noir-ish crime thriller about a young bike courier who jumps, feet first, into organized crime.

98LxN8_DoubleIndemnity_001_(FRL)_o3_8515542_1421266065Double Indemnity
Dir: Billy Wilder, Wri: Raymond Chandler

Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an insurance agent in L.A. He’s a bachelor, devoted to his job. The one man he looks up to is the firm’s investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G Robinson). Keyes is the one who uncovers the crooked scammers trying to push through dubious claims on their accounts. He says “the little man inside” him can always detect when something’s fishy.

One day, when Neff visits an oil man to renew his insurance policy, he instead encounters the man’s wife. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is a vivacious blonde in a bathrobe who isn’t shy about her good looks. She flirts openly with him, but he smells a scam brewing so he brushes her off. But soon enough they’re together again, making love and plotting an insurance scheme. It would pay her “double indemnity” — a huge amount of money — if the husband dies accidentally in a particular way. He goes for it like a dumb dog, blinded by lust. But after the deed is done, he finds himself in a double bind as the result of his actions. Keyes is suspicious, so Neff can’t see the woman he wants to be with. And Neff begins to suspect there is more to Phyllis than meets the eye.

This is a fantastic, dark story told by a dying man.

98LxVZ_Strange_Love_Martha_1946_2_o3_8516142_1421266090The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Dir: Lewis Milestone

Martha Ivers is a teenaged orphan in Iverstown, a city that bears her family name. She lives with her rich and powerful aunt and an ineffectual boy named Walter, her tutor’s obedient son. Her only friend is a blustering ruffian itching for a fight. Sam is from the wrong side of town but Martha’s attraction transcends class. She tries to run away with him but is brought back by her cruel aunt. But on the very night that they plan to escape Iverstown forever, something happens. In a fit of anger Martha strikes and kills her aunt. Walter sees it happen, but helps her cover up the crime. And in return for his silence she later marries him.

Flash forward 20 years. Sam (Van Heflin) comes back to Iverstown, almost by accident. He discovers his old love Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) now rules the place. She’s a powerful woman who turned her aunt’s small fortune into a huge legacy. Her husband, Walter (Kirk Douglas – his first film), is the District Attorney. Walter is a depressed alcoholic, still madly in love with Martha, who merely puts up with him. They live in separate wings of her mansion. Sam, meanwhile, meets a pretty ex-con on parole named Toni (Lizabeth Scott) and vows to help her out. He asks Walter for a hand, for old times sake.

But when Martha and Sam meet again, an old love is rekindled. Walter attempts to nip it in the bud by having Sam roughed up and driven out of town. But nobody kicks Sam around without paying the consequences. This menage a quatre, involving the highest of the high and the lowest of the low, is played out in a rough urban setting. This is an amazing film, largely forgotten, from an era where the poor and downtrodden were more sympathetic than the rich and powerful. Barbara Stanwyck is amazing, as this self-made powerful woman… and potential psychopath.

Tracers
Keyart_TracersDir: Daniel Benmayor

Cam (Taylor Lautner, the wolf-boy in the Twilight series) is an orphan in New York City who works as a bike courier. One day on a ride, he notices some ninja-types bouncing on top of the buildings he zooms past. But when one of them, a woman named Nikki (Marie Avgeropoulos) jumps down from a rooftop, he ends up in an accident. He flies through the air,_12A7632.CR2 landing right on top of her. It totals his bike, which puts his sole income in jeopardy: he holds a debt to a loan shark. He needs money … and he really likes Nikki.

After passing a complex test he ends up joining her secretive gang. Turns out they work freelance, pulling off carefully-planned jewel heists and drug deals. Their secret weapon? They’re all skilled in parkour, the French sport of running, climbing and jumping of buildings, which renders them unbeatable. _12A6381.cr2But they all have to answer to Miller (Adam Rayner), the self-proclaimed “alpha dog” of this pack. And he doesn’t want anybody messing with his plans… or his girlfriend Nikki. Can Cam pay off his debt, escape this criminal life, and get together with his new true love?

Tracers is a feeble action-thriller, with plot holes so big you could drive a convoy of trucks through them. Teen idol Taylor Lautner is as one-dimensional as always, though Rayner and Avgeropoulos (and some of the actors in smaller roles) are better. A silly movie for sure but I really liked the jumping, climbing and the rest of the parkour chase scenes, They’re great! And I hear Lautner did his own stunts. Is Tracers worth seeing? If you like parkour, definitely. If not, don’t bother.

Ball of Fire: The Films of Barbara Stanwyck is playing at TIFF through the month. And Tracers opens today in Toronto and on Pay on Demand. Check your local listings. Also opening today is the Water Docs Festival at Jackman Hall at the AGO – a documentary series… about water!

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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