Off the Beaten Track. Movies Reviewed: Serena, Gemma Bovery, Corner Gas: the Movie

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Books, Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, Horses, Movies, Satire by CulturalMining.com on December 5, 2014

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.

Urban life getting you down? Here are three movies set in small towns. A gothic drama in the Smoky Mountains of Carolina; a comedy in a Saskatchewan town where there’s not a whole lot going on; and a comic drama in Normandy… with a literary twist.

67934-SERENA_D1-190_R_CROPSerena
Dir: Susanne Bier

George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is a lumber baron in the roaring 20s. He’s also a big-game hunter, searching for the elusive panther. He dreams of clear-cutting the smoky mountains of North Carolina, and, with the profits, expanding into the rain forests of Brazil. But he’s a good guy — you can tell because he chops his own wood and saves his workers’ lives. There would be no SERENA_D11-2819.CR2problems at all, if it weren’t for those meddling government types. They want to make it into a national park, just because of its breathtaking scenic beauty, and the rare flora and fauna living in those foggy, tree-covered mountains.

But everything changes when he spots a blonde woman at a horse show. Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) is a strong and independent woman from out west and born to the wood. Beautiful, glamorous and tough as nails, she’s as comfortable in an evening gown as she is on horseback. She can SERENA_D18-4906._R_CROPjpgkill a rattler with an axe from across a field and is handy with a rifle. He proposes on the spot and makes her a full partner in his business… to the chagrin of his male colleagues. But Wall Street crashes and tough times follow. Things start to fray at the edges. There’s Galloway (Rhys Ifans) a sketchy ex-con with “the sight”: Serena once appeared in a vision so he’ll protect her to the death. And there’s talk George might have an illegitimate son in the village. And his partners are losing faith in the business. Can Serena and George find happiness in a lumber camp? Or will it drag them into a spiral of jealousy, revenge and madness?

Susanne Bier is a well-known Danish director, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence scored in two big hits: Silver Lining Playbook and American Hustle. Is this three for the win? Not a chance. It’s a clunky potboiler with a confusing and messy story, and extremely uneven acting. Lawrence plays it to the hilt as a deranged, screeching devil-woman, while Cooper sticks to the single-emotion style of acting. Whether it’s shock, lust, anger, or bewilderment, he just stares off into space with his mouth slightly open. Serena is not awful, it kept me watching and interested, but it’s just not very good.

GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne FontaineGemma Bovery
Dir: Anne Fontaine

Martin (Fabrice Luchini) is an intellectual from Paris. He moves to small-town Normandy, near Rouen, to take over his dad’s bakery. He likes kneading dough and pondering great literature. His wife is a world-weary realist, and his teenaged son prefers Call of Duty to French culture. But dad’s thoughts are still filled with the 19th century novels of Flaubert. So imagine his surprise when a young English couple that moves into the dilapidated house next door, shares the names of the characters in Madame Bovery! Down-to-earth Charles repairs furniture, while his bored wife Gemma (Gemma Atherton) decorates homes with trompe d’oeil to make them appear older. And just like Madame Bovery, she craves a more exciting GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne Fontainelife.

Martin, though, knows the book well and feels he can predict every thought they will have and every word they will say. Soon enough, he sees her making eyes at the town rake, handsome Hervé (Niels Schneider: J’ai tué ma mère, Les amours imaginaires) a local squire living in a nearby castle. Don’t go with him, it can only lead to ruin! Martin thinks. In his mind he sees them in period costume, dancing in the ballroom. In reality, the quaint town, including the aristocracy, is crumbling all around him. Martin tries to manipulate the local characters – using secret methods – to save them from their novelistic fates. But will it work?

GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne FontaineThe entire film is narrated, at times directly to the camera, by Martin himself. He takes us through the story, mainly to the various dinner parties, where people speak fractured English and French. He is especially incensed by a nouveau riche couple, an English/French marriage who see French culture as merely wine and Camembert.

Gemma Bovery is two movies in one. There’s Flaubert’s novel reenacted in Martin’s head, and there’s a satirical look at contemporary France. Because of the meta- aspects of the film, you don’t feel as deeply invested in the characters’ lives; you’re always a step away from what’s happening. But it more than makes up for that with its cleverness. And because it’s an Anne Fontaine movie, it carries that sensual, erotic tone she’s so good at.  And the actors, especially the beautiful Gemma Atherton, are a joy to watch. I like this movie.

CGTM_100_Brent Butt (as Brent Leroy). Photo by Steve WilkieCorner Gas: The Movie
Dir: Brent Butt

If you’ve ever watched Canadian TV, you’re probably familiar with Dog River, Saskatchewan. It’s an uneventful prairie town known mainly for its gas station, its coffee shoCGTM_109_Fred Ewanuick (as Hank Yarbo). Photo by Steve Wilkiep, and its wise-cracking locals. There’s dry Brent at the gas station (Brent Butt), his dad and mum — cranky Oscar and rational Emma (Eric Peterson, Janet Wright), pretty Lacey at the coffee shop (Gabrielle Miller), and the local police. CGTM_113_Janet Wright (as Emma Leroy). Photo by Steve WilkieThen there’s the incorrigible Hank (Fred Ewanuick) and the trickster Wanda (the very hilarious Nancy Robertson).

Nothing ever happens there, right? Wrong! To turn a sitcom into a feature film, you need an epic plot. In this film the town goes bankrupt, the people run amok, and Tim Horton’s starts sniffing at the real estate. Their only hope? A Toronto contest looking for the quaintest town in Canada. Can they pull it all together in time? Not bloody likely… it’s aCGTM_117_Nancy Robertson (as Wanda Dollard). Photo by Steve Wilkie comedy, folks.

Believe it or not, I only saw the TV show once. It felt too slow paced, so I couldn’t get into it. Clearly, I’m not one of its fans (who are legion). But the movie? It was surprisingly funny. There are corny parts and some gags fall flat of course, but on the whole the humour is clever, inventive, ironic… even subversive. And it does all this without any potty laughs, frat boy nudges, boobies, four-letter words, dumb blondes, racial and ethnic stereotypes or fat jokes. Not a small accomplishment.

So if you’re looking for Canadian humour, here it is, and then some.

spiceworld_imageGemma Bovery and Serena both open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. And Corner Gas: the Movie is playing now through the weekend. Also in Toronto,  look out for the MUFF society — specializing in girl-tastic pics for women —  kicks off their monthly series with Spice World (yes, I do mean that Spice Girl movie) only at the Royal. And First to Fall – a documentary about two students in Canada who volunteered to fight with the rebels in Libya — is finally screening in Toronto, tonight at the Jayu Human Rights Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  I interviewed the directors last summer.

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

June 1, 2012. Bad Dads. Movies Reviewed: A Beginner’s Guide to Endings, Lovely Molly PLUS In the Family

Posted in Canada, comedy, Crime, Cultural Mining, Family, Fighting, Horror, Horses, Movies, Supernatural, Uncategorized, US, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 2012
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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Hundreds of thousands of students are on the streets of Montreal protesting the old-guard government’s plan to double university tuition and for enacting new laws that let the police arrest almost anyone they want. Does this mean we’re having another 1960’s style youth revolt against the patriarchy? Are Dads bad?

As always, life reflects art and art reflects life. Later on this morning I’m talking with director and star Patrick Wang and young actor Sebastian Blane about their moving new pro-dad film, In the Family, about a father’s fight to hold on to his son when the biological father (his same-sex spouse), dies. But, before that, I’m talking about some bad dads and what happens to their kids. One’s a Canadian comedy about three brothers who learn their late father was the cause of their own imminent deaths; and the other’s an American horror movie about a young woman who thinks her dead bad dad has come back to get her.

A Beginner’s Guide to Endings

Dir: Jonathon Sobel

Duke (Harvey Keitel) is an inveterate gambler in Niagara Falls Ontario, who throws himself into the Niagara River, leaving his three sons in a bit of a tangle. He’s the movie’s narrator and as he attempts to end it all he says only a Hail Mary pass or a genuine miracle could save his three oldest sons. It turns out, he had farmed them out to Big Pharma testing program when they were younger, but never told them about the side effects. This means they’re all as good as gone. So how do they handle their new mortality?

Nuts is the oldest (The Daily Show’s Jason Jones, wearing a Viva Zapata moustache). He has to fight an impossible heavyweight boxing match with an undefeated champ if he wants to save chowderhead bro number four from being punched to a pulp. Cal (Scott Caan), #2, the womanizer, decides to stop picking up girls and instead marry his highschool crush Miranda (the statuesque Tricia Helfer). Unfortunately all her three husbands had died unexplained violent deaths. Straight laced #3, Cob (Paulo Costanzo), vows to quit his job and do all the fun things on his bucket list, instead. But this lands him in a precarious position too.

Can they and will they ever get out of their messes?

A Beginner’s Guide to Endings is a cute, screwball-type idea, and not too bad a movie. It is writer-director Sobel’s first film,  and the jokes are hit or miss. He has a bad tendency of killing good lines: Whenever there’s a funny joke, he tells it, then explains it, then has the characters laugh at it, and then brings it up again later in the movie. Doesn’t work. But the comic actors are fun to watch, especially Jason Jones, Tricia Helfer and J.K. Simmons, and it’s good to see Niagara Falls on the big screen again. Not bad for a first try…

Lovely Molly

Dir: Eduardo Sánchez

When Molly (Gretchen Lodge) moves into her old family home with her new husband, Tim the trucker, everyone tells her it’s a bad idea. The karma’s not right, there. The Feng Shui is way off. Never mind that her father is dead. You see, Molly keeps hearing noises, beckoning her to come out and play. Scary voices. Haunting voices. Voices that might make er do bad things. Molly… lovely Molly… It’s all very strange for her. Tim goes away for a few days on some cross country trucking trip when he should have been at home helping her fight her demons. He keeps coming home to see her sitting naked staring at a closet door that reminds her of something bad from her childhood.

So Molly decide to investigate on her own. She finds old photo albums with pictures of her Charles Manson-like father. And then there are all these satanic-looking horse head designs in the garage. What’s up with that? And she keeps hearing knocks and bangs and footsteps – it must be her father coming to get her! But no one else sees him (although everyone notices the smell of noxious rotten flesh in the house). Creepy Pastor Bob’s no help, neither is big sister who looks like a crackhead, and Tim’s never around. And there seems to be a stalker with a video camera ,too.

So what’s the deal? Is Molly crazy? Is she on drugs? Or is she just reliving some psycho-sexual trauma from her childhood? On the other hand, maybe it is a ghost doing all this. Or a possession. Or maybe Satan the horse-demon himself?  Molly says “I saw something but it doesn’t make sense and no one believes me…!” I believe you Molly – I saw something too, and no, it doesn’t make sense.

Lovely Molly is trying, I guess, to reclaim some of the Blair Witch thunder that started the whole genre of found footage films. (Sanchez directed that movie). This one isn’t “found footage” but, like Chernobyl Diaries, includes some of its elements: Molly tries to document the bad guys with her handheld video camera so she can prove they’re really there.

The problem is, it’s a total failure of a horror movie. It tries to be everything and ends up just a confusing mess. It’s got good gore, thrills and chills and some shocking moments and a few unexpected plot twists, but these odds and ends don’t make for a coherent movie.

A Beginner’s Guide to Endings, Lovely Molly, and In the Family all open today in Toronto – check your local listings. The CFC Worldwide Short Film Festival opens on Tuesday, The Toronto Japanese Film Festival starts Thursday, NXNE begins on the 13th, and it was just announced today that Toronto’s first annual Italian Contemporary Film Festival, featuring films by Nanni Moretti, Ivan Cotroneo, and the Canadian Premier of Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, will be launched on June 26th. Check out icff.ca for more information.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, with podcasts and complete reviews available on my web site CulturalMining. com.

December 23, 2011 Christmas Flicks. Movies Reviewed: The Adventures of Tintin, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse

Posted in 1970s, Drama, Espionage, Family, Horses, Steven Spielberg, Tintin, UK, Uncategorized, US, WWI by CulturalMining.com on December 22, 2011

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

It’s holiday time once again, and there are lots of good movies out there to see. I’m just going to tell you about three of them, all period movies – one set in the 1910’s, one in the fifties, or thereabouts, and one In the 70’s — all with mainly British casts, and two out of three, directed by the same guy – Steven Spielberg.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Dir: Tomas Alfredson

It’s the 1970’s, in the middle of the Cold War between the Soviet Bloc and the West, when a British agent is shot in Budapest in a failed mission. Why? Because, says a young agent, there’s a mole somewhere in the highest ranks of The Circus (as the agents refer to MI6 headquarters). The wife of an enemy general told him. So they let the disgraced spy, George Smiley — John Le Carre’s most famous character — to come back in to find the leak.

This is an amazingly complex spy movie, with three or four plots going on simultaneously, along with various flashbacks gradually filling in the missing details. (I gave only the most bare-bones details, so as not to spoil the film.) Some of the scenes are fantastic – like an insiders’ view of the spy division’s office Christmas party, where the agents sing out songs from the various nations they are spying on as they guzzle vodka-stoked punch. It’s also a visually stupendous movie, with period costumes, and lighting that somehow makes all the sombre faces look like chiseled (or grizzled!) stone statues.

The acting is all-around amazing, with Gary Oldman as Smiley, and especially the less well-known actors like Mark Strong, Kathy Burke, and Tom Hardy. Warning – this is not a high-concept film like a 007 action movie. It’s not so easy film to absorb: you have to think about it as you watch. But it’s very satisfying to see.

The Adventures of Tintin

Dir: Steven Spielberg

Based on comics by Herge

Tintin is a young journalist who travels around the world with his dog Snowy. When his model ship is stolen, he discovers a secret message left behind, and vows to track down the other clues. But he’s being chased by a mean man with a sweet-sounding name — Sakharine. Tintin is shanghaied, and on board the cargo ship he meets Captain Haddock, a drunk who also has a connection to the missing model ship, the Unicorn. Together, they set out on an orientalist journey to a North African sheikhdom – travelling by plane, boat and on foot — to find the secret message, solve the mystery, and catch the evil villain. Part of the puzzle is written down, but part is lost somewhere in Haddock’s hazy memory – the only way to find the treasure of the villainous pirate Red Rackham is for Captan Haddock to remember the story. Billions of blue bilious blistering Barnacles!

Tintin and Snowy are Herge’s beloved characters who travelled around the world, speaking the same language as everyone he met, and always doing the right thing. I loved reading those comics. Never mind that Herge continued to publish during the Nazi occupation, affably drawing his villains evil Jews; never mind that he used racist caricatures in depictions of the Congo (where, ironically, it was Belgium’s King Leopold who had slaughtered millions as he plundered their wealth). These things are all Herge’s faults, not Tintin’s. He is always true, brave, clever, kind hearted, and adventurous.

I always loved the clear detailed lines, the amazing adventures, and the exotic locales of Herge’s comics. But some of it’s lost on the big screen. The 3-D movie version is shot in my least favourite type of animation: Motion Capture. This is the type where actors move around with little cameras hanging all over them, to give a combination of live action but animated characters and background. But it’s uglier and less elegant than the original, simpler versions. This one gives Tintin a sort of a globe head with fuzzy hair (could you imagine someone doing a motion capture movie, of, say Charlie Brown and giving him a bulbous head and one giant curled hair?) And the clips of ocean waves and fire look totally out if place – they don’t match the rest of the images. Some scenes are perfect – like Haddock drinking blobs of floating alcohol on board a prop plane. But the sword fights are way too long; the opera singer, Bianca Castafiore, is given a beautiful voice (instead of a terrible one). And worst of all, they hijacked a Tintin story and almost turned it into a Haddock story. Great Snakes! Tintin and a sidekick? You can’t do that…

The voices – Andy Bell and Andrew Sirkis as Tintin and Cap’t Haddock – are great, no problems there. Anyway, it’s a fun adventurous drama… but it left me hollow — not with the great thrill I felt reading the comics gave me.

War Horse

Dir: by Steven Spielberg

Albie, a poor farmer’s kid in the rolling hills of Devon, trains and raises his beautiful colt Joey. They grow up together, but when his father is close to losing the farm on the eve of WWI, he sells the horse to an officer to use in the war. Albie is heartbroken, but ties his dad’s regimental flag from the Boer War to Joey’s bridle to remember him.

This is where the focus shifts from the kid, to the horse himself! Horses played a vital part in WWI, and Joey the horse finds itself drifting across battle lines in France, between the British and the Germans. He’s taken in by German soldiers who also recognize his strength and beauty. Later he’s found by a young French girl who wants to hide him from the soldiers. And he makes friends with a bigger, black horse. But it’s a war, and Joey is sent back to the front lines, back to the trenches, facing death as a dray horse. Will he make it through the war? And will he ever get back to Albert and his peaceful farm in Devon?

When I heard about this movie, I put a giant X across it, and said BLLLLEEEEAAAAAAGGGHHH! I am not watching a movie about a horse! NO WAY! That’s a definite. But you know what? I went, I saw it, and… oh my God! It turned out to be an amazingly touching movie: Sentimental but not smarmy, unorthodox, exciting, unusual, and a total tear-jerker – at least three genuine sob-scenes. OK, it’s partly formulaic – everyone likes kids and animals – but it’s so much more than that. It avoids anthropomorphizing the animals – they are horses not people. Spielberg also shows war as a cruel and bad place, with the Germans and the British equally suffering.

Acting was great, the cinematography looks like an old Hollywood western, and even the somewhat cloying music rarely spoiled the feel.

I thought they couldn’t make great G-rated movies anymore, just Chipmunk Squeakquels… but they can. This is a wonderful, beautiful, tear-wrenching, and exciting movie.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is now playing, The Adventures of Tintin just opened, and War Horse on Christmas Day. Check you local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

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