Not-So-Mellow Melodramas. Films Reviewed: Une Chambre en Ville, Byzantium

Posted in Cultural Mining, Goth, Horror, melodrama, Movies, Protest, Secrets, UK, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 12, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Melodrama has a bad rep: corny, overacted, fake-y, too emotional… People think of swooning and fainting women batting their eyelashes. These stories are not hip enough, and cynical viewers feel obliged to roll their eyes in disgust. But they’re wrong. A good melodrama, done right, can be moving, exciting and memorable. So this week I’m looking at two women-centred melodramatic movies. One’s a classic look back to love and loss in postwar France in the 1950’s; the other’s a contemporary look at some women holed up in a ramshackle hotel who may have been alive in the 18th century.

Chambreenville_frl_01_mediumUne Chambre en Ville

Dir: Jacques Demy

It’s 1955, in the French industrial city of Nantes. Francois (Richard Berry) is a tool-and-die maker who rents a room – the chamber en ville mentioned in the title. It’s in the home of a stuck-up, but faded, bourgeois widow (Danielle Darieux). Francois calls her the Baroness. Her husband, a Colonel, died in Indochina – France’s Vietnam war — so she needs a tenant to help pay her bills.

Francois has a beautiful, working-class girlfriend. The fresh-faced Violette adores him, but une-chambre-en-ville-poster2.jpdark-and-brooding Francois finds her too ordinary.

Meanwhile, the Baroness’s daughter Edith (Dominique Sanda) is married to a much older man Edmond (Michel Picolli). He’s pulling in the francs, hand over fist, selling these new things called TV sets to eager buyers. She likes the mink coats he buys her but he’s a dud in bed. Edith’s a sexual animal who turns for sex outside their marriage. Edmond is intensely jealous and prone to threatening her with a straight razor.

Well, somehow, Edith and Francois meet and sparks fly. They end up sleeping together, une chambre en villeanonymously, with neither knowing their connection: that he actually lives with her mother in Edith’s old room! But what are the consequences of their newfiound connection?

But wait — there’s more! I should mention that, while it’s not exactly a musical, the entire movie is sung… sort of like the libretto in an opera. Listen. (on MP3: Francois and Violette having an argument)

This is all set against a background of a city strike, with the strikers and protesters standing on one side of the main street, and the riot police facing them, shouting orders just outside Eugene DelacroixFrancois’s window. In scenes that look uncannily like a Delacroix painting  (or anything from Les Miserables) you have strikers waving red flags as they march by the barricades for the ultimate confrontation.

This is a really good movie, with shocking plot turns, secrets and retribution. It’s seldom seen – it’s been a few decades since last shown in Toronto – and this is a new colour print. Jacques Demy (he was married to director Agnes Varda, and died in 1990) is a director who deserves to be seen by more people. Although he’s better known for his song-and-dance musicals in the 60s, in films like Les demoiselles de Rochefort, Une Chambre en Ville shows a lesser-known side of his work.

Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley, Uri Gavriel, Thure Lindhardt Photo Patrick RedmondByzantium

Dir: Neil Jordan

Eleanor and Clara (Saorise Ronan and Gemma Arterton) are two young women who share a council flat. Porcelain-featured Eleanor is an innocent-seeming teenaged schoolgirl. She likes sitting in a garret dropping her scribbled writing out the window. Clara wears scarlet lipstick and is tough as nails, and works as a prostitute to support them. It’s the classic dual stereotypes of women: the virgin and the whore. They’re forced to flee the city, leaving dead bodies in their wake, when they’re discovered by some mysterious detectives. They end up in a remote coastal town, bunking down in a seedy, rundown hotel called the Byzantium. (MoreByzantium Saoirse Ronan Photo Christopher Raphael flocked wallpaper and fringed lampshades than you can shake a stick at.) Clara smells cash to be made and immediately sets up a brothel while Eleanor wistfully plays the piano. But all is not what it appears to be.

Eleanor is convinced she’s immortal, over 200 years old. She’ll tell you her story if you want to listen. And she’ll suck your blood afterwards — consensually, of course, and only if you’re ready to die. She has no fangs, just a sharp fingernail, but she’s still pretty vampiric.

Then Eleanor meets an anaemic, ginger-haired boy named Frank (played by the leonine Caleb Landry Jones). He loves her music and wants to hear her life story. Through a series of flashbacks she tells her story: her time in an orphanage, her rescue, a horrific incident that changed her life… and the part Clara played in all of this. Will Frank believe her stories? Will the Byzantium_ Caleb Landry Jones Photo Patrick Redmondtwo women outrun their dark stalkers? And what is the real story of Clara and Eleanor’s relationship?

Byzantium is a beautifully-shot, dark gothic drama. It alternates between historical drama, roiling romance, and contemporary sexual noir. It looks like that, too, with scenes of Spartan orphanages and horses on the beach sharing screentime with heavy industrial hallways and endless tunnels to nowhere. I was expecting a sequel to Neil Jordan’s painfully awful Interview with a Vampire (starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise) from a few years ago, but this one is much, much better.

Byzantium opens today, and Une Chambre en Ville is playing on July 15th at 6:30 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, as part of Bitter/Sweet, the amazing Jacques Demy retrospective. Also opening today is the absolutely fantastic Danish drama The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg. It’s about a divorced small town teacher (Mads Mikkelson) who wants to take his son for his ritual coming-of-age hunting trip, but finds himself the object of a different kind of hunt when he is accused of an unspeakable crime.  I reviewed this during TIFF last fall, and it’s finally being released – fantastic movie!

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

August 31, 2012. TIFF! Victims and Rights. Movies reviewed: The Hunt, West of Memphis, Blackbird PLUS The Central Park Five

Posted in 1980s, Canada, Cultural Mining, Denmark, documentary, Drama, Good Ol' Boys, Goth, Movies, Prison, TIFF, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on September 1, 2012

VICTIMS AND RIGHTS

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Ever heard of Victims’ Rights? It’s a government policy within the justice system to consider the victims of the crimes, not just the crimes themselves – an admirable idea. But what happens when the only victims are the accused? This week I’m looking at three movies playing at TIFF that touch on this topic. There’s a Danish drama about a town’s reaction to a Kindergarten teacher accused of a crime; a Canadian movie about a high school non-conformist who finds himself unfairly trapped within the youth justice system; and an American documentary about the West Memphis 3 – high school students charged with Satanic, ritual murder of children.

The Hunt

Dir: Thomas Winterberg

Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) teaches at a small town Danish kindergarten. Since his divorce he’s been a bit lonely. He goes to drinking parties with his buddies, plays with his dog Fanny, and goes hunting for deer. But things are looking up: his son Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrøm) is preparing to move back in with him, and he’s preparing him for the coming of age ceremony where boys are first allowed to join in The Hunt. And Lucas has a new girlfriend, a Swedish-speaking woman who works at the same school. But when his best friend’s daughter, Klara, an imaginative five-year-old he’s been helping, gets mad at him, she sets off a series of events with an accusation that changes his life. She tells a teacher Lucas “showed her his willy” at school – a serious crime.

The accusation spreads like wildfire in the small town, until everyone knows the rumour – except Lucas, who is kept in the dark. Her story continues to escalate as it’s passed around, until soon all the kids are saying terrible things happened to them too. Lucas must be some kind of monster – except that he didn’t do anything! He is successively baffled, offended, angered and terrified when, in a kafka-esque series of events, his friends, neighbours, and even the local shop-keepers lash out at him, violently and filled with venom. And they transfer their anger to his teenaged son, who is attacked by a thuggish, blond giant. Can Lucus ever be cleared of a non-existent crime so he can return to his normal life? Or will his former friends continue to serve as the judge, jury, and executioner?

Mads Mikkelsen as Lucas, is terrific in this subtle movie, a harrowing and upsetting fable about misguided anger.

West of Memphis

Dir: Amy Berg

Two decades ago, the bodies of three young boys who had been brutally murdered were found in the woods near West Memphis, Arkansas. But when supposed experts were brought in by the police prosecuters, they somehow decided the children were killed in a satanic ritual. And they quickly arrested, tried and convicted three local boys who dressed in black, and liked heavy-metal music and posters. The documentary series Paradise Lost (Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky) exposed this miscarriage of justice to the world. Since then, widespread interest in the case has led to the first “defense by crowd-sourcing’, with countless people investigating online and exposing all the consistencies of the original case.

While this new documentary offers little new evidence, it is compelling nonetheless. It’s long but very well done, very methodical. I’ve been following the case since the first documentary came out, so I found it fascinating. It brings the story up to date. It shows what happens to the politicos and police  behind the prosecutions; what is the fate of the three accused boys – Damien Echols, John Byers, and Jessie Misskelly; who the potential, new suspects might be; and it talks to the original witnesses, all of whom have since recanted their testimony. And new evidence – like a forensic sequence about animal bites – is quite amazing and terrifying.

(I have to say, though, it’s seems strange for a documentary-maker to make a new film on a subject made famous by someone else’s documentaries…)

Blackbird

Dir: Jason Buxton

Sean (Connor Jessup) is a gothy-looking adolescent who goes to school every day wearing a spiky leather jacket torn-up skinny jeans, and a cloud if attitude. He likes his pet lizard, red wiccan stars, and camo sheets. He’s actually a big city boy, but his mom has pawned him off on his small town Nova Scotia dad, now that she’s remarried. Dad’s lives for hockey and works as a Zamboni driver; he’s not comfortable with his son always dressing up for Hallowe’en as he calls it. He says it’s not a smart thing to do in a small town. It also attracts the school bullies – the alpha-dog hockey players. He could just stay away from them but he really likes hockey bunny Deanna (Alexia Fast) who rides the bus with him. He’s attacked and humiliated by the school bullies, and Deanna doesn’t defend him. But when his guidance counsellor tells him to express his anger in story form, things turn from bad to worse. The police get a hold of his notebook, his website, and the short films he made on his cell phone and he’s arrested for supposedly plotting to kill everybody. And his lawyer tells him to plead guilty to cut down his jail time.

Blackbird is divided between a very realistic portrayal of life as a pariah in a small town, the even rougher stay in a juvenile detention centre, and his ongoing relationship Deanna. Equally compelling is the in-prison run-ins with the unstable psycho-killer Trevor (Alex Ozerov) who labels Sean “Columbine”. Jessup is fantastic as Sean, as is Ozerov as Trevor, and the understated performances of Alexia Fast and Michael Buie as Sean’s girlfriend and dad serve as good foils for the main character. I really like this movie. And it’s the first Canadian film I’ve seen about the youth justice system. (It looks like it was actually filmed on location at the Waterville Detention Centre).

These movies leave you with a lot to think about… as does another doc at TIFF, The Central Park Five, about the five black and hispanic youths from Harlem who were wrongly blamed for the terrible rape of a woman jogging in Central Park in Manhattan in 1989.

West of Memphis, Blackbird, and The Hunt are all official films at TIFF. Check out these and all the other movies playing at TIFF this year, at tiff.net. They also have daily last-minute deals for tickets and special offers for people under 25. And two movies I talked about last week, Lawless and For a Good Time, Call… open today 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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