Back from the Dead. Films reviewed: Pet Sematary, The Invisibles, Amazing Grace

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Animals, Berlin, Christianity, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Germany, Holocaust, Horror, L.A., Music by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

We all know people are born and they die, things come and go. But every once in a while things and people we believe are long gone seem to come back to life. This week I’m looking at three very different movies about coming back from the dead. There’s Aretha’s gospel concert buried since 1972; a documentary about young German Jews who hide in Nazi Berlin till 1945; and a horror movie about pets who come back from their graves in small town Maine.

Pet Sematary

Dir: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer

(Based on the novel by Stephen King)

Louis (Jason Clarke) is a Boston doctor suffering from ER burnout. He’s overworked, overstressed, and overtired. So to relax and spend more time with his family he takes and easy job in the quaint small town of Ludlow, Maine. He’s there with his nervous, religious wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, little Gage, and his pride and joy Ellie. Ellie (Jeté Laurence) is an eight year old who loves ballet dancing and her furry cat Church (short for Winston Churchill). Their old wooden house is on a sprawling estate in a small forest with a high speed highway running through it. But their quiet lives are disrupted by some strange events. First, when a young patient of Louis dies in his care after a car accident, the dead boy seems to return, over and over to talk to him in his dreams.

Then Ellie sees kids from town in spooky animal masks burying dead pets on their property. It’s an ancient custom, explains kindly old Jud (John Lithgow) their nearest neighbour. He’s lived there all his life and understands the local lore. So when Ellie is despondent when her beloved cat is run over Jud tells Louis a secret. There’s powerful magic up on the mountain beyond the pet cemetery. Bury the cat under a cairn and he will come back to you from the dead. Sure enough, Jud is right. But it isn’t cute and loveable anymore. When you play with the the forces of good and evil, of life and death, bad things will surely happen.

Pet Sematary – a remake of the movie based on the Stephen King novel – is suitably scary. The small, excellent cast nicely contained in a single location give it a good cabin-in-the-woods quality, but it’s scariness is less adventurous. It uses the age-old techniques – spooky dreams, little “boo!” moments, even twists on the overused images of the mirror in medicine cabinet, and the dark room in the basement. And then it degenerates from scariness into outright, Bride-of-Chucky kitsch. I enjoyed Pet Sematary as a good, old-skool horror movie, just don’t expect anything new.

The Invisibles

Dir: Claus Räfle

It’s 1943, in Nazi Berlin, and Joseph Goebels has officially declares his Germany’s capital judenfrei – free of Jews. But he doesn’t realize that 7,000 Jewish Germans still lived their hidden in plain view. This docudrama tells four true stories about young people who survived the Holocause while living in Berlin. They don’t hide in an attic like Anne Frank’s family; instead they continue their lives right in the middle of everything.  Cioma (Max Mauff) sells all his possessions and poses as someone whose house was bombed in Köln, moving to new vacant rooms each day. He finds work for a high placed civil servant forging ID papers. Hanni (Alice Dwyer) bleaches her hair, calls herself Hannelore and hangs out in dark movie theatres in the Kurfürstendamm. Ruth (Ruby O. Fee) and a friend find jobs as maid and nanny for the kids of Nazi officers. And Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is placed with former colleagues of his dad a doctor, and dressing in hitler’s youth uniforms. But there are informants and Gestapo agents everywhere, searching for people like them. Who will survive?

The Invisibles is a fascinating retelling of largely unknown stories. It’s part documentary – the film regularly cuts to interviews in German with the actual people it happened to – and part drama with the thrilling stories replayed by well-known young actors.

Fascinating and thrilling stories, well told.

Amazing Grace

Dir: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott

Its 1972 at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA.

Reverend James Cleveland is leading a very special service for his devout parishioners. None other than the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin herself will be performing, alongside the Southern California Community Choir. The congregation is urged to feel the spirit, clap their hands, and get up from their seats and dance. But wait a minute — since when has pop sensation Aretha Franklin beena gospel singer? The answer is: all her life. Her father is the famous Detroit Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, and she was touring churches with her amazing voice since the age of six.

This concert became a huge hit album – many people say it’s Aretha’s best recordings – and the movie includes her back-up musicians, the choir, and the audience, including some very famous people, like Mick Jagger, gospel singer Clara Ward and lots of others I couldn’t quite recognize. A beautiful, intensely moving concert and church service. Interestingly, it’s been sitting in film cans, unscreened until now. For some reason, Aretha blocked its release her whole life, perhaps because it is so personal to her, perhaps because the sound and images were never synchronized. That’s all fixed now.

It’s a grainy hyper-realistic verité-style film that shows everything: retakes, the cameramen, the soundboard, the director running around pointing, and Aretha in a sparkling white gown, sweating under the hot lights. If you’re a fan of Aretha Franklin, and want to experience those two days of 1972, you must see Amazing Grace.

Pet Sematary and The Invisibles both open today in Toronto; check your local listings, and you can see Amazing Grace beginning next Friday.

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

Deep. Films reviewed: Destroyer, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, Ratcatcher

Posted in 1970s, 1990s, African-Americans, Coming of Age, Crime, documentary, Kids, L.A., Scotland, Thriller, Uncategorized, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2019

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

Tired of fantasy? How about some gritty realism? This week I’m looking at three deep, realistic movies — a documentary, a drama and a thriller — about working class characters living their lives. There are African Americans in the deep south, an LA detective in deep cover, and a young man in Glasgow knee-deep in trash.

Destroyer

Dir: Karyn Kusama

Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) used to be a young, pretty and ambitious uniformed cop in LA. Pulled from her division for an undercover operation, she was meant to infiltrate a notorious and deadly ring of bank robbers. She posed as a couple with Chris (Sebastian Stan) another cop which led to a relationship. And she made friends with the robbery team, including the sinister Silas (Toby Kebell) a long-haired man with a cruel streak a mile wide; and the friendly Petra (Tatiana Maslany).

But things didn’t go as planned. People died, and the thieves got away with bags of loot. Look at her now. She’s a burnt-out husk of her former self. Bell doesn’t walk, she staggers. Her lips are wrinkled, her hair looks like it was cut with garden shears and she talks like Jeff Bridges on a bad day. But when she finds evidence the robbers are at it again, she takes the law into her own hands. Will she stop the killers? Or will they destroy her first?

Destroyer is a fantastic crime thriller about an angry worn out cop on her quest for retribution. It keeps you glued to the screen, heart racing, as you try to figure out what’s going on. It’s told during three time periods, jumping back and forth between them, and as you watch it you constantly have to change your assumptions. No spoilers but there are some big shocks along the way. It’s very violent, though from a female point of view: men punching women, women strangling women, women attacking men. Not for the faint of heart. Nicole Kidman totally transforms herself – physically and emotionally – from the naive young woman into the hardboiled cop she ends up as.

Destroyer is a great LA crime thriller.

Hale County, This Morning, This Evening

Dir: RaMell Ross

Hale County, Alabama is in the deep, deep south. You can still find white-pillared mansions built on the backs of slave labour on cotton plantations. It’s named after a Confederate officer whose statue still stands. It’s also where the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr once sought refuge from the KKK. It’s a rural, mainly black area where people stay on with their daily lives: sports tournaments, childbirth, funerals. There’s a catfish factory, a school, a hospital and churches.

This fascinating documentary is a series of beautifully composed, very short – from five seconds to three minutes – and highly personal scenes. A woman tapping her thigh with a flyswatter, a man playing blues on an electric guitar. A baby learning to walk, fritters frying in a pan, kids drinking coca cola. We see teenaged boys talking in the basketball locker room, families baptized at a church, people hanging at a beauty salon or a bowling alley. Rolling clouds with electrical storms, the first drops of rain on the pavement, a deer caught in the headlights, and a solar eclipse. The filmmaker RaMell Ross who started photographing there when he moved to the town, records what’s going on all around him in an impressionistic collage of portraits, time lapse, and tableaux: a joyous celebration of African American life in rural Alabama.

This beautiful film is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.

Ratcatcher (1999)

Wri/Dir Lynne Ramsay

It’s 1973 in Glasgow, Scotland. James (William Eadie) is a gawky lad with ears that stick out who lives with his working- class family in a crumbling flat.   His father (Tommy Flanagan) has a scar on his cheek from a fight, his mother (Mandy Matthews) has holes in her nylons. The yard outside is piled high with trash – the garbagemen are on strike – so the mice and rats are having a ball. James lives his life carefully, avoiding dangerous gangs of teenaged bullies who dominate the streets.

He sometimes visits a stagnant canal nearby, badly in need of a dredging. There he meets a much older and sexually active teenaged girl. The bullies have thrown her glasses in the water, but James doesn’t fish them out – perhaps he thinks he has a better chance if she can’t see him clearly? She seduces him, inviting him to spend the night. But the canal also brings him horrible feelings of guilt: a friend of his drowned there when they were fighting in the water.

One day, James jumps onto a bus and takes it to the end of the line where a new housing development is being built. It’s on the edge of the city, right where oatfields meet the streets. He explores the empty construction site – will this be his new home?

Ratcatcher is a slice-of-life, coming-of-age drama about life in an urban slum as seen through the eyes of a young man. The characters are mainly played by local residents, non-professional actors who bring a gritty realism to their roles. This is Lynne Ramsay’s first film (from 1999) and one I’ve always wanted to see, but never had a chance until now. You should, too. It’s a realistic and touching movie about hard times… but with an uplifting finish.

Destroyer is now playing in Toronto, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening opens tomorrow, and Rat Catcher plays next Thursday as part of the 1999 Millenial Movies program playing this month (until Feb 12) 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.

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.

Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water 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

 

Daniel Garber talks to Louis Theroux and John Dower about My Scientology Movie

Posted in Docudrama, documentary, Interview, L.A., Mind Control, Movies, Psychology, Religion by CulturalMining.com on February 17, 2017

mv5bnza0ndc2mjcxml5bml5banbnxkftztcwntk1mjcxnq-_v1_sy1000_cr006641000_al_Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Church of Scientology, founded by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, is an organization now led by David Miscavige.  Miscavige was raised as a Scientologist and has been a practitioner since he was a child. It attracts followers from around the world partly drawn by John Dowerthe success of its celebrity members. But its secrecy — along with rumours of mind control and corporal punishment — also attracts investigative journalists who want to find out what goes on behind closed doors.

Louis Theroux is one of these journalists, stymied from entering the inner sanctum of Scientology. Instead he decides to shoot Louis Theroux_My Scientology Moviehis own Scientology movie in LA,  auditioning actors to play the roles of Tom Cruise and Miscavige, with former members on hand to give first-hand guidance.

My Scientology Movie is a new feature documentary about Scientology, about making a film about Scientology, and about Louis Theroux_My Scientology MovieScientologists doing everything they can to stop him.

It’s presented by Theroux and directed by John Dower.

Louis Theroux is an award-winning BBC writer/broadcaster known for his intriguing but controversial subjects.  John Dower creates acclaimed documentaries like Thriller in Manila. The two of them co-wrote this film which opens today in Toronto at the Hot Docs Cinema.

I spoke to them in London from CIUT in Toronto via Skype.

Christmas movies. Films reviewed: Julieta, Fences, La La Land

Posted in African-Americans, Drama, Hollywood, L.A., Musical, Spain by CulturalMining.com on December 23, 2016

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

It’s Christmas weekend with lots of movies to choose from. This week I’m talking about three excellent movies to see. There’s a woman in Madrid haunted by her past, a married man in Pittsburgh fighting off his demons, and a young couple in LA looking for love in a city of lost souls.

207c9f5a-c8b2-4684-84b8-e2ca620e5350Julieta

Dir: Pedro Almadovar

Julieta (Emma Suarez) is a middle aged woman who lives in Madrid. She is making a big change, leaving her longtime lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) and moving to Portugal after countless years of waiting. What is she waiting for? Word from her daughter Antia, who disappeared without a trace many years earlier. She’s all ready to go when she runs into her daughter’s childhood friend Beatriz on a street corner, who says she saw Antia in Lac Como. And so begins the telling of a mysterious story divided into three chapters.

As a young woman, Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) is a brilliant and beautiful prof. Her c1bbda5d-7ad7-43d0-8743-6fd52f0acf0dstudents all love her. But when she meets Xoan — a handsome and rugged fisherman — on a train, her life is turned upside down. A man is killed, a deer runs past the train, and she falls heavily for Xoan. Is it love at first sight? She visits Xoan (Daniel Grao) at his home by the water. But he’s not at home, just a suspicious and protective housekeeper (Rossy de Palma) who won’t let Julieta wait for him inside. Eventually they live as a couple and raise their daughter Antia together. Julieta meets Xoan’s friends, including the sultry 47c1af05-dbf2-4911-b667-2e6504d2be42sculptress Ava (Inma Cuesta),

But after a tragic turn of events, Julieta is back in Madrid, raising her daughter alone. She falls into a deep depression, and young Antia spends more and more time with her best friend Beatriz. Still later, Julieta retraces her steps, trying to explain why she lost her daughter so many years ago.

Julieta is a great drama, the product of an unexpected combination. It pairs Almadovar – known for his lush, passionate melodramas and over-the-top comedies — with Canadian author Alice Munro’s quirky, understated stories about women in small town Ontario. Does it work? Yes, yes, yes. With its small fishing boat on a lake, classrooms, caribou running past a train, along with jealousy and infidelity, it’s an intrinsically Canadian story… and yet perfectly Spanish. I really liked this movie.

14707023_1121134524668241_6064690716005417326_oFences

Dir: Denzel Washington

It’s the 1950s. Troy Maxton (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage man for the city of Pittsburgh. Each Friday, he comes home from work with the same things: a sack of potatoes, a piece of lard, a mickey of gin, and his pay envelope. The money goes to his wife Rose (Viola Davis) but he shares the gin with his best friend Bono. Troy met Bono in jail as a young man. It’s also, where he learned to play baseball, and where he met Rose a kindly visitor. He has two sons: Lyons who is a jazz musician (Troy calls it Chinese music) and Cory (Jovan Adepo) a high school athlete. His brother Gabriel – with a metal plate in his head — carries a trumpet to play for St Peter at the pearly gates. Troy, though, is more worried about the Devil.

Troy and Rose are deeply in love, Cory’s doing great in school, everything seems perfect… but it isn’t.. Troy wants to show he’s the man of the house, and everyone’s afraid of him. He tries to stop Cory from going to college on a football scholarship. (He once was a pro baseball player once but now he’s hauling rubbish.) Gabe has moved out, and best friend Bono says Troy is looking too closely at other woman. Can this family stay together? Or is it teetering on the brink of total collapse?

Fences is a small movie that feels more like a filmed play. Great dialogue — adapted from his own script by August Wilson – and basically one setting, with little action other than crossing the floor or sawing a board.  Flashbacks are talked about, not shown. But the grandness of the characters and the stories they tell does come through. Director Denzel Washington doesn’t hog the screen; instead he lets all the other actors bloom before the camera. Davis and Adepo are outstanding, in fact all of them are great. But this film is more stage-worthy than cinematic. Fences is a moving and revealing look at an African-American family in the 1950s.

LLL d 29 _5194.NEFLa La Land

Dir: Damien Chazelle

Mia and Sebastian are strangers in LA. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress. She commutes to a major Hollywood studio each day, to work not as an actress but as a barista at a coffee chain. She lives with other actresses who enjoy the party scene but none of whom has made it big. Each audition Mia goes to is worse than the one before. But she’s hoping her one woman show wi’ll convince Hollywood she’s ready for stardom. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a serious musician who composes grand jazz opuses on his grand piano. He’s a jazz purist who would rather die than perform with a fusion band. He pines for the old jazz joints, now rapidly turning into tapas bars. Ironically he ends up working in a rundown piano bar where his hard-ass boss (JK Simmons) makes him play Jingle Bells, over and over again.

Mia and Sebastian first meet in an LA traffic jam, and it’s hate at first site. Later, when he rescues her from a bad date, they hit it off. This leads to more meetings where together they explore the classic sites of old 16426304_660736417446295_5158240061357564169_nHollywood: like the planetarium from Rebel without a Cause.

Together, supporting one another, they think they can conquer the world. But will their success be what tears their relationship apart?

La La Land is a very good movie that’s also a musical. That means extras singing and dancing their hearts out on the LA freeway. Gosling and Stone use their real voices and legs, but they’re not Gene Kelly or Julie Andrews. They’re popular actors trying hard to sing and dance. It makes their performances real and touching, but not super fantastic. It combines fantasy, a complex plot, extended flashbacks, and touching moments of love, with beautifully shot images and catchy songs. It’s a tribute to a forgotten Hollywood by young people yearning for purer days. A very good movie.

Julieta starts today and Fences and Lala Land open on Christmas Day 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

Halloween Mansions. Movies reviewed: Jem and the Holograms, Crimson Peak, The Hexecutioners

Posted in Canada, Gothic, Halloween, Horror, L.A., Movies, Music, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2015

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

Hallowe’en is a time of ghosts, ghouls and the walking dead. But it’s also a time for costumes, wigs and other disguises. This week I’m looking at three movies. There’s a gothic-horror melodrama about a woman trapped in a haunted mansion in England; another scary pic about two women trapped in a haunted mansion in Ontario; and a kids’ movie about four sisters who form a rock band in disguise and move to a mansion in L.A.

tumblr_nr8saftnQK1tv61rvo1_1280Jem and the Holograms
Dir: John M. Chu

When Jerrica (Aubrey Peeples) was just a little girl, her dad, an inventor in Los Angeles, died. All he left her was his final invention, a mysterious, white contraption. Now she and her sister Kimber (Stephanie Scott) live in a small town with her two half-sisters, and her aunt (Molly Ringwald). This mix-and-match family gets along swimmingly — no evil step-sisters here. tumblr_nr8sg2DJX41tv61rvo1_1280They’re into fashion, music and social networking online. They make their own music, too, but Jerrica is too shy to show her talents to the world. But she records a private tape as “Jem” using a fake wig with pink stripes painted on her face. Kimber posts the tape online, and Jem is suddenly web-famous.

Who is this mysterious songster, viewers want to know? Within days top LA record exec Erika Raymond (Juliette Lewis) is knocking at her door, ready to sign her to her label. But not without the rest of my band Jem, insists. Jem packs up her father’s tumblr_nr8sfdJW7c1tv61rvo1_1280invention and the four of them relocate to an LA mansion under the care of Rio (Ryan Guzman), Erika’s son.

They perform at key locations to adoring crowds, even as they follow the clues her dad’s invention provides her. Will the band survive success? Can record exec Erika be trusted? Will Jem get a swelled head as the leader of the band? And is something tumblr_nr8scclpo41tv61rvo1_1280happening between pretty Jem and handsome Rio?

Jem and the Holograms is a movie for teen girls, based on a Saturday morning cartoon from the 1980s. On the plus side, it gives girls a chance to dream of becoming rockstars not just princesses. And the songs are catchy. But for grown-ups like me, the story is hackneyed and predictable, with not much to offer aside from a chance to see 80s and 90s stars Juliette Lewis and Molly Ringwald have it out.

cpt_photo_0Crimson Peak
Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s turn of the 19th Century in boomtown Buffalo, NY. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is a free-thinker and the heiress to a fortune.  She lives with her protective father and is visited by her late mother in the form of a dark wraith warning of future perils: Beware the Crimson Peak! Lovely Edith wears angelic dresses with winglike shoulder pads, and her pale blonde hair falls in ringlets on her face. She wants to becpt_photo_12 a professional writer and hones her skills at the local press. And she is relentlessly courted by the dependable Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam).

But then a stranger appears in town with his sister. Lucille and Thomas Sharpe (Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston) are baronets, here to raise money. Thomas has cpt_photo_2invented a steampunk contraption that mines clay for bricks, a sought-after commodity. Edith’s father turns him down, but Edith, is drawn into his air of mystery. And after a romantic waltz they fall hopelessly in love, marry, and head off to his mansion in the English moors.

But all is not well. Her father dies in mysterious circumstances. Thomascpt_photo_5 seems to spend more time with his sister than with her, and they have yet to consummate their marriage. And Edith is growing steadily weaker and more tired, her face becoming pale with dark circles under her eyes. But she can still see the ghosts haunting the cpt_photo_15strange mansion, and she is shocked to discover the secrets the haunted mansion holds.

I liked this gothic melodrama. It follows Guillermo del Toro’s usual pattern of young women discovering ghosts hiding in draughty haunted mansions. Though this one seems a bit campier than usual. The look is amazing, especially the scarlet clay that bleeds through the white snow around the mansion. It has its cheesy parts, for sure, and Jessica Chastain, as the scheming sister, isn’t as good as the other three. But a good watch if you like period gothic horror.

Liv Collins as Malison McCourt in The HexecutionersThe Hexecutioners
Dir: Jesse Thomas Cook

Malison (Liv Collins) is a prim and proper career woman who lives in a threadbare apartment with just her cat to keep her company. Her neighbour Mr Poole (Walter Borden) is her landlord, a bible thumper who curses her name. She works for a euthanasia corporation assisting voluntary suicides since they changed the laws a few years earlier. But her first assignment goes terribly wrong, so she is sent on her next job with an old pro. Olivia (Sarah Power) is a vamp in black stockings who smokes, drinks, cusses and carries a sixgun. Nudity and death don’t faze her.

They arrive at a spooky, three-storey mansion lit by candles and 24347_320_470heated by a blazing fire. It’s surrounded by a foreboding hedge maze filled with hideous statues. They have to spend three nights there, until their assignment is complete. The house has a single servant, Edgar (Wil Burd), a creepy and skinny man with a shock of long black hair. His hobby is strangling pregnant possoms. And their client is an old man with a terribly deformed face. He wants to die, but in a very specific way. Mal begins to suffer night terrors – a common symptom of this job – and has a recurrent nightmare. She keeps seeing a strange, suicidal ritual repeated by a death cult wearing hideous masks. Then she begins to see them even when she’s awake! Are these hauntings related to the house — or are the two women to blame for their appearance?

The Hexecutioners is a good example of a slow-build horror. It’s more spooky than scary for most of the film. Its not perfect: some scenes felt repetitive, and I wasn’t crazy about the music-video-style montages that pop up here and there. But the small cast is uniformly excellent,  and it’s great to see a home- grown horror movie that harkens back to early Cronenberg.

Crimson Peak is playing now, The Hexecutioners premiered at Toronto After Dark, a festival of horror, action, fantasy and sci-fi movies, that continues through tonight; and Jem and the Holograms open today. Check your local listings. Also opening is Room, a fantastic movie about a mom and her little boy who live together in a hidden room. I reviewed Room during TIFF, and it’s a must-see. Don’t miss it.

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

Names. Films reviewed: Beeba Boys, Meet the Patels, The Last Saint

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, Crime, drugs, Gangs, India, Indigenous, L.A., Movies, New Zealand, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2015

12087961_10153304148320345_3900218976445656359_oHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival is on right now, with over a hundred works by indigenous artists and filmmakers. Where else could you enjoy tea ‘n’ bannock while checking out virtual reality and video games by First Nations artists? Go to imaginenative.org for info, or, better yet, drop by the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see it in person. Experience indigenous culture and be sure to remember the names of these artists filmmakers.

Names are important, so this week I’m looking at some movies about names and families. There’s a documentary about a man named Patel, a crime drama about a gangster called Jeet, and a coming-of age drama about a Polynesian-Kiwi named Minka.

d49101d5-8581-4eba-9138-f91214bab2edBeeba Boys
Dir: Deepa Mehta

Jeet (Randeep Hooda) is a charismatic criminal from Vancouver. He lives with his gossipy Mamaji and woebegone Papaji but makes a living trafficking drugs and guns. His underlings dress in garishly-coloured suits, as he carries out his business in a flashy nightclub. And he spends his spare time with Katya (Sarah Allen) 927ebef0-1c64-408d-b8dc-071f838a8b4aan old-skool gangster’s moll he keeps locked away in a luxury condo.

The movie starts with a bang, involving a dead groom and a parking lot shooting. But his rise in power is challenged by a more powerful Sikh gang headed by a man named Grewal. Jeet is sent to a local jail where he meets a petty gangster named Nep (Ali Momen) just in from Toronto. And he wants to join Jeet’s crew. But 6ebfb0be-b20d-44fe-aa5d-a62400ecbca0he has a secret: he’s dating Grewal’s pretty daughter even as he makes his name with the Beeba Boys. Which kingpin will triumph – the upstart Jeet or the powerful Grewal? And where does Nep’s loyalty really lie?

Beeba Boys is a stylized gangster pic typical in every way except for its players – all Desi Canadians – and its locale, Vancouver. Except for a few scenes, it lacks humour (despite a character who insists on telling bad jokes). And the women are all hanger-onners, surprising for a film from a female director. This is a guy’s gangster movie. But the action is good, with plenty of gratuitous violence. It holds your attention, and there are even a few truly surprising plot twist. And the acting is mainly good, including a surprising appearance by Paul Gross as a bad guy. If you’re in the mood for an all-Canadian Sikh gangster pic, this one’s for you.

f07310_6ffd442f4712499c81614a8e1ab773b3.jpg_srz_p_732_1089_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzMeet the Patels
Dir: Geeta Patel, Ravi Patel

Ravi Patel is 29 and single. He’s not a doctor, but he’s played one on TV (He’s an actor working in LA). His childhood sweetheart recently dumped him for his fear of commitment. And he foresees a rootless future if he doesn’t do something soon. So he agrees to give in to his parent’s advice and find an Indian woman to marry. Soon he’s plunged into a visit to f07310_ebf8fdfaf18149debdac59e1ef2a06ba.png_srz_p_647_359_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_png_srzGujarat and a lesson in his heritage.

The Patel’s are more than just a common last name and a lot of motel owners. It’s a gujarati-speaking caste, not a family, per se. And it has an amazing networks of connections in North America with a registry of singles spanning the globe. Their “bio-data” includes their shade of skin (“wheat-coloured” women — whatever that means — are, apparently, considered more desireable), their education, family f07310_bfd6b3bf34c64d8f984b2e1387b31b17.jpg_srz_p_619_357_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srzbackground and ancestry.

Followed by his sister Geeta behind the camera, Ravi begins an amazing series of blind dates, speed dates, and online match-ups. But will he ever find love among the Patels?

Meet the Patels has some cool animated sequences, and it told me a lot I didn’t know about a hidden world in North America. But it gets bogged down by endless family discussions and Ravi’s confessions that felt too much like a reality TV show. It’s not the comedy it’s advertised as, but more of an intimate portrait of an insecure, single man.

The_Last_Saint1The Last Saint
Dir: Rene Naufahu

Minka (Beulah Koale) is a young Polynesian guy who lives with his mum Lia in Aukland, N.Z. He enjoys spinning disks and hanging with his only friend, a nihilistic girl named Xi (Like the Warrior Princess, she says).

Lia (Joy Vaele) is a recovering addict, given to terrifying bouts of insane violence involving sharp knives. Minka pleads with social services to help take care of her but they turn him down. So he’s forced to look elsewhere for money. In walks a shady-looking man in black (Calvin 10562543_684630048257143_34249033864046524_oTuteao) who offers him a job at his nightclub. It’s a seedy joint but he does his work. He refuses his boss’s offers of drugs, alcohol or prostitutes, and shuns all violence.

His boss is impressed and reveals his connection to Minka and his mum: he’s his missing father! Still, he sends him out on a dangerous mission to make a delivery in the middle of the night. Minka encounters a musclebound, tattooed Polynesian dealer named Pinball (Joseph Naufahu). In the midst of 10491062_673180262735455_383628263760875119_n‘roid rage Pinball demands to know Minka’s “real name” and threatens to kill him.

Later, he encounters a gang of intimidating, torturing Tongans and other unexpected strangers. Can he survive the night? And will his family ties save him or drag him deeper into a life of crime.

The Last Saint is an excellent coming-of-age look at a good guy driven to crime. The acting is great, with nearly every portrayal compelling, especially Koale.

Beeba Boys and Meet the Patels both open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. The Last Saint screens tonight as part of ImagineNative.

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

Scoundrels, Nazis and Pimps — the world’s worst lovers. Movies reviewed: Tangerine, Madame Bovary, Suite Française

Posted in 1940s, African-Americans, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, L.A., Romance, Sex Trade, Trans, WWII by CulturalMining.com on July 3, 2015

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

Some relationships just don’t work – you look back and wonder what possessed you. But then there are the ones that everyone knows should never have happened. This week I’m looking at new movies about women who make terrible choices in lovers. There’s a middle-class woman in 19th century France who falls for rich scoundrels; a woman in 1940s France who falls for a Nazi, and a woman in contemporary LA who falls for a pimp.

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp.Tangerine
Dir: Sean Baker

It’s Christmas Eve in LA. Sin-Dee and Alexandra (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor)
are best friends who work in the sex trade on the streets of Hollywood. Alexandra wants to be a professional singer, while Sin-Dee (short for Cinderella) just wants her Prince Charming. But Chester (James Ransone) is hardly a prince. He’s a white pimp/ drug dealer in an electric blue hoody, as skeezy as theyMickey O’Hagan and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp. come. But he says he’ll marry her. So she is not a happy camper when she hears he’s been sleeping with another woman. And not just any woman –one who’s white and cis-female (both Sin-Dee and Alexandra are black and transgender). So she heads out to find Dinah, the strung-out blonde (Mickey O’Hagen) and set her straight.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp.Meanwhile, Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is an Armenian cab driver who frequents the same hood. He’s married with a kid, but would rather spend Christmas with people like Sin-Dee and Alexandra. His wife doesn’t care, but his mother-in-law suspects something is up. So she heads out to catch Razmik  in the act. Things come to a head when all the characters converge on a Hollywood donut shop.Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone and Mya Taylor in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp. release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp. Will the cheaters come clean and the liars tell the truth?

Tangerine is a low-key, low-budget indie look at the streets of LA. It concentrates on the funnier aspects but doesn’t shirk on the grittiness and precariousness of people’s lives. The cast is uniformly good, especially stately, elegant Mya Taylor and wild-child Kitana Kiki Roidriguez. Does Tangerine perpetuate negative stereotypes of transwomen? Perhaps, but since the performances are so sympathetic and well-rounded it feels real, not exploitative. This is a good one.

X6qlRg_madamebovary_03_o3_8649075_1434144833Madame Bovary
Dir: Sophie Barthes

19th century Normandy, near Rouen. Beautiful but naïve Emma (Mia Wasikowska) is a woman raised in a convent who is married to a simple country doctor. He’s boring, unambitious and a bit of a prig. He says beds are for patients, not doctors. And Emma soon discovers that means beds are for sleeping, not for good sex. So she’s left alone all day with nothing to do.

Soon enough there is a parade of men at her door promising a better life. vgRvz5_madamebovary_02_o3_8649010_1434144830Monsieur Lhereux (Rhys Ifans) is an oleaginous salesman who tempts her with Parisian fashions and golden candlesticks. She has to look good if she wants her life to improve. And never mind the cost – she can buy whatever she wants on credit! Uh oh…Leon (Ezra Miller) is the last romantic, an aesthete with delicate features. Won’t she go for a walk with him? Cynical Homais (Paul Giamatti) says he will help them climb the ladder to success, if they just take some risks. Then there’s the Marquis 58V4EY_madamebovary_01_o3_8648982_1434144827(Logan Marshall Green), a local rake who takes her for hunting, with horn and hound. He sends her love letters and says she can run off and live in his castle. Will Madame Bovary find her true love? Or will she succumb to trickery… and inescapable debt?

Madame Bovary – based on the famous novel by Flaubert — is a cautionary tale about the dangers of upward mobility. This film is a straightforward retelling of the story. But it reveals the tragic ending in the very first scene. I guess the director assumes everyone knows the story already so it can’t be a spoiler… but at least she should pretend to be interested. As it is, this movie is devoid of suspense, humour and passion. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters – they aren’t even particularly likeable. Though visually stunning and rich in detail (it’s like a work of art to watch), this movie doesn’t have much else going for it.

(L-R) MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS and MICHELLE WILLIAMS star in SUITE FRANÇAISE

(L-R) MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS and MICHELLE WILLIAMS star in SUITE FRANÇAISE

Suite Française
Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s France in the 1940s, right after the German invasion. Pretty, young Lucille (Michelle Williams) lives in Bussy, a suburban town just east of Paris. She barely knew her husband Gaston before he was sent off to fight in the war. Now she lives with her unfriendly mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas), a prosperous landholder, on her country estate. And – despite the refugees pouring out of Paris, scared for their lives – Lucille’s mother-in-law is doing quite nicely, thank you. She has even raised the rent of her long-time tenant farmers, even pushing them out of their homes to make room for desperate refugees with more money. But when the Germans arrive, everything changes. They are forced to share their home with Lieutenant Bruno, a handsome aristocrat (Matthias Schoenarts). He seems like a nice man, fond of classical piano music. He plays one song – the Suite Française of the title – that she’s never heard before. (Lucille studied music before the war.) She is forbidden to speak with him… but sharing intimate quarters leads to an increasing familiarity between the two.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS stars in SUITE FRANÇAIS

MICHELLE WILLIAMS stars in SUITE FRANÇAISE

Meanwhile, farmers Madeleine and Benoit (Ruth Wilson, Sam Riley) are forced to accommodate their own lieutenant, the cruel and vindictive Kurt (Tom Schilling). Benoit wasn’t drafted because he walks with a limp, but he hates the Germans with a passion. And when he sees the officer making passes at his own wife, he’s furious. He locates a hidden rifle, and sets out to defend both his honour and his country.

And as the story develops, the true nature of the characters reveal themselves, and we begin to question our first impressions of who is good and who is bad.

The film is an adaptation of the novel by Irene Nemirovsky written while the war was still going on. She was killed in a Nazi concentration camp but the manuscript was hidden for 60 years. It was rediscovered and published as a bestseller just ten years ago. It makes an engrossing romantic historical drama. The acting is terrific, especially Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother-in-law, as well as the farm family.  It’s a rare look at the war seen while it was taking place. I liked this film a lot.

Madame Bovary and Suite Française starts today in Toronto, check your local listings; Tangerine opens next Friday. Also now playing is the documentary Deep Web, about the dark side, online. I interviewed director Alex Winter during Hot Docs.

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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