Women in the Arts. Films reviewed: Wild Nights with Emily, The Souvenir, Mouthpiece

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Addiction, Drama, drugs, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, Romance, Toronto, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 7, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues with the Toronto Japanese Film Festival which starts today and the Italian Contemporary Film Festival beginning on Thursday.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about women in the arts. There’s a poet in New England who can’t get published, a filmmaker in Sunderland who can’t finish her movie, and a writer in Toronto whose mind is torn asunder.

Wild Nights with Emily

Wri/Dir: Madeleine Olnek

It’s the 1860s in Amherst Massachusetts. Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) is an unmarried woman who rarely ventures outside. She has everything she needs her big wooden home. She can wear the same white dress every day, listen to piano music, and bake shortbread, which she gives to the local kids who gather outside her window. And whenever a thought occurs to her she scribbles it down on a scrap of paper. But these are more than random thoughts, they are poems, and ones that flout conventional writing. They don’t have titles, they don’t rhyme and they’re written in free verse (before that term even existed).

That’s what she does during the day. Night time is whole other ball game. You see, far from reclusive and repressed, Emily Dickinson has a passionate ongoing relationship with her sister in law, Susan. Susan (Susan Ziegler) is a childhood friend who married her brother Austin, but has a sexless marriage. Instead she shares her bed with Emily. And much of Emily’s poetry consists of love letters sent to Susan. But despite all her efforts, just a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. Instead they were gathered together by her brother’s mistress Mabel (Amy Seimetz).

Wild Nights with Emily is a historical comedy, but it’s far from a spoof. It’s a meticulously reworked view of Emily Dickinson. It restores her same-sex relationship that had previously been expunged and erased – literally – from her original manuscripts. The actual handwritten poems appear on the screen in this movue, at times word by word. While at times the film has an academic, PBS feel to it, and the acting is somewhat mannered, I liked it anyway.

It manages to render her wonderful poetry to the big screen while keeping a light and irreverent tone.

The Souvenir

Wri/Dir: Joanna Hogg

It’s the early 1980s in England.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a well-to-do young filmmaker in her early twenties. She’s smart and cute with an asymmetrical boyish haircut. She’s trying to shoot her first movie in the northern port of Sunderland. She observes all, quietly taking snapshots and recording film footage all around her, presenting her plans to the profs and producers she has to deal with. And she rents out space in her beautifully mirrored whitewalled apartment. But when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke) her world changes.

Anthony is older and more worldly than Julie, a louche dandy into velvet robes and pocket squares. He’s tall, pale and speaks in a blasé, elongated drawl. He gives her gifts of scanty lingerie and garters that fit his fantasies. They escape by train to Venice for sexy romps among renaissance frescos. She’s in his thrall.

But something is not quite right. She comes home early one day to find a stranger wandering around her home. Anthony is in constant need of cash. And unknown burglars ransacked her apartment stealing her jewelry and movie camera. Something’s off about Anthony. Hmm… worldly, pale, intense, elaborate clothing, secretive. Is Anthony a vampire? Nothing so exotic. He’s just a run-of-the-mill junkie, and threatens to pull her into that world. What will happen to their relationship? And will Julie ever complete her film?

The Souvenir is a beautifully shot, well-acted, semi-autobiographical drama. It incorporates long takes of natural scenes, uses mirrors and reflections, great period costumes and a nice eighties soundtrack. It combines Joana Hogg’s older film work and photos with new footage. So why don’t I like it?

It could be the genre – I’m not a great fan of addiction movies. Or it could be the endless conversations about nothing in particular. Or the lack of humour. Or the overly-restrained dialogue. But my main problem is it’s boring. While I can sympathize with the main character, there just isn’t enough going on. The filmmaking scenes and cuts to the movie-within-the-movie detract from the main story… which isn’t all that interesting to begin with. Two hours of nothing, however well executed, is just too long.

Mouthpiece

Dir: Patricia Rozema

It’s winter in downtown Toronto. Casandra (Amy Nostbakken, Nora Sadava) is a 30-year-old punk. Her idea of dressing up is a black sweater without moth holes. She greets her dates with a snarl and tells sex partners she isn’t into comitment. She works as a writer/bartender. But when her mother (Maev Beaty) dies suddenly from a stroke she is faced with her hardest piece ever… She has two days to write a eulogy for her mother’s funeral. Can she overcome her guilt, anger and self doubt in time to give a sweet heartfelt eulogy? Or will the upcoming funeral turn into the fiasco that everyone dreads?

Mouthpiece sounds like a conventional drama, but it’s anything but. Cass is played by two women simultaneously, noticeable only to themselves and the audience. The two halves of Cassandra’s soul sleep together in spoon fashion, share a bath and keep each other in check. But when there’s a crisis or internal debate all breaks loose, with the two Casses wrestling, punching and shouting, doing practically anything to get the other side to shut up. It’s a constant pas de deux, at times moving in absolute symmetry, or scrambling and climbing over each other like puppies.

Mouthpiece was originally a stage play written and performed by the two Cassandras, Nostbakken and Sadava. This explains their flawless fluidity of movement, their perfect give and take as the two sides compete and coalesce into one soul, movement that only comes from repeated performances. And as a movie, Rozema manages to capture a closeup intimacy you might not catch on stage. Mouthpiece works perfectly on the screen as a beautiful, funny and moving film.

Mouthpiece and Wild Nights with Emily all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Souvenir playing as part of a Joanna Hogg retrospective with TIFF Cinematheque.

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

Acting white. Films reviewed: Whitney, Sorry to Bother You, Mary Shelley

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, documentary, Feminism, Movies, Music, Poetry, Politics, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 13, 2018

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

The scorching heat shows no sign of letting up, but you can always wait till dark and watch free screenings in Toronto parks. There are screenings at Yonge/Dundas Square each Tuesday, in Corktown each Thursday, and a special TPFF screening at Christie Pits in August.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies playing only in air-conditioned theatres. There’s a man in Oakland told to talk white, a musician from Newark made to sing white, and a woman in 19th century England… who just wants to write.

Whitney (a documentary)

Dir: Kevin McDonald

Whitney Houston is a middleclass churchgoing girl born into a musical family in Newark, New Jersey. Her mom Cissie Houston sings backup for Aretha Franklin and her cousin is Dionne Warwick. She has many supportive aunts and brothers – including an NBA player – and her stepdad is a municipal bureaucrat. They put her into a private Catholic school to avoid urban strife and riots. She’s pretty and talented and professionally trained. By age 18 she is accompanying her mom at a Manhattan nightclub, until the night she takes the stage on her own. Her beautiful voice blows the audience away, soon record execs are banging at her door, and she never looks back. She moves in with her best friend, Robyn Crawford, in a committed relationship.

Soon she’s chalking up consecutive number one hits, eventually breaking records for a female vocalist. And she puts her entire extended family on the payroll. Despite her intimate relationship with Robyn – a woman — she meets and marries popstar

Bobby Brown and does her best to please him – and their cute little daughter. But all is not well.

Even as her fame grows, some fans object to the homogenized, MOR tunes provided by a studio that wants her to sing “white”. Whitney becomes a real superstar when the movie The Bodyguard – and its theme song – attract worldwide attention. But she’s too big to survive. She start on a downward spiral of drug addiction, depression and isolation. She’s exploited, abused and her career collapses, as do her vocal chords and her family life.

Whitney is a new documentary that, through interviews with her family members and work mates – virtually everyone in her life (except Robyn) — unveils her hidden history: her drug use, her fluid sexuality and even, possibly, sexual abuse as a young girl (no spoilers here). Personally, I was never a fan of Whitney’s bland musical style, but I found this documentary totally engrossing (and sickening). Along with all the interviews, it has amazing montages that combine 80s music videos, TV commercials and violent news footage –  it’s worth watching just for that. Whitney is a celebration of crash-and-burn celebrityhood that you don’t want to watch, but can’t take your eyes off of.

Sorry to Bother You

Wri/Dir: Boots Riley

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young, everyman in Oakland in a bad situation. He’s jobless, penniless, and nearly homeless: he lives in his uncle’s garage and drives a rust bucket. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a political performance artist who is also perpetually broke.

So he jumps at the chance to work for a telemarketing company and gradually learns the ropes. It’s stressful and depressing with a high turnover rate. Worse than that, salary is commission-based, meaning if you don’t close a deal, you don’t get paid. And he can’t get anyone to buy from him until an old timer (Danny Glover) tells him the secret: talk white. It’s not just an accent, it’s the whole lifestyle, talking like you don’t have a worry in the world. Sure enough, he begins to earn some cash. At the same time a union rep named Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is organizing a wildcat strike. And behind the scenes, bay area zillionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is urging labour sign up as indentured servants — virtual slavery, in other words. He owns the company. Which direction will Cassius go… join the strike or cross the picket line?

Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant political satire that combines science fiction, black american culture, experimental movie making and delightful comedy. Filmmaker Boots Riley reinvents movies in unexpected ways: like tearing down the fourth wall in one scene – literally! He portrays gangsta rap as modern day minstrelsie while keeping political issues – like homelessness and precarious employment – at the forefront. This is an excellent indie movie.

Mary Shelley

Dir: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning: Ginger and Rosa, Neon Demon, 20th Century Women, The Beguiled) is a teenaged girl in 19th century London. She wears her blond hair braided and her dresses loose. She can be found curled up against a gravestone reading a book. She’s the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecroft (who died when she was an infant), and political philosopher Charles Godwin, so she’s always open to new ideas, both scientific and literary.

Her dark-haired, half-sister Claire (Bel Powley: Diary of Teenege Girl, ) is her constant companion, until she meets a poet at a reading. Handsome, young Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth: The Riot Club) sweeps her off her feet with his amorous verse. Is it love? Mary thinks so… until she meets his estranged wife and child. (Turns out Shelley is a bit of a player.) But she agrees to run off with him, accompanied by the faithful Claire. And when deby collectors chase them out of their Bloomsbury flat, they flee to the continent, where sex-addicted poet Lord Byron lives in a grand mansion.

To while away the rainy days Byron proposes the four of them – Mary, Shelley, himself and a young doctor, but not Claire – to write some scary stories. That’s where Mary pens the classic Frankenstein. Can a woman get her work published in 19th century England? And is “free love” just an excuse men use to exploit gullible women?

I enjoyed Mary Shelley but didn’t love it. It can’t seem to decide where it’s going: is it a gothic, Brontë romance? An intellectual feminist historical biopic? Or a witty, Jane Austen drama? You can’t be all three.

As for Frankenstein, the only monsters here are the loathesome poets Mary Shelley has to deal with.

Whitney, Sorry to Bother You and Mary Shelley 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.

Making history. Films reviewed: Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Goodbye Christopher Robin, BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, 1990s, France, H.I.V., Kids, LGBT, Poetry, Politics, Pop Culture, Protest, Watergate, WWI by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2017

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

It’s festival season in Toronto: Reel World film festival brings the world’s untold stories to the big screen; and Toronto After Dark has horror, sci-fi and fantasy pics that make you laugh your ass off or will scare your pants off. Toronto after Dark and Reel World are both on right now.

But this week I’m looking at historical dramas based on real events. We’ve got protests in Paris, politics in Washington, and Pooh in East Sussex.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Dir: Peter Landesman

It’s June, 1972 in Washington DC. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) a top-ranked FBI agent, notices something strange: burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel. And they weren’t stealing money, they were looking for files. And the burglars are former Federal agents. Who is behind it all? Felt investigates. The trail leads to the White House where Richard Nixon is running for reelection. But his investigation is stifled by a suspicious political appointee named Gray. He’s the provisional head of the FBI – J. Edgar Hoover just died — and seems to be taking orders from the White House. This is a no-no. And the White House seem to know everything the FBI is doing – is there a leak in the Bureau? So Felt decides to do some leaking himself. He secretly meets with reporters from Time Magazine and the Washington Post to pass on crucial information. Will the truth about Nixon and Watergate come out and can Felt keep his identity a secret?

No spoilers here: you’ve probably heard of the Watergate scandal that brought down Nixon. And about Deep Throat – the mysterious source journalists Woodward and Bernstein used to break their stories. And the Senate Watergate Hearings which investigated it all. This movie, though, looks at it from an entirely new perspective: as a power struggle between the White House and the FBI, personified by Felt a career federal agent.

It’s also about Felt’s private life, with his depressed, alcoholic wife Audrey (Diane Lane), and his hippy daughter who disappears and who Felt thinks is a member of the Weathermen Underground. At its worst, this film seems to paint the FBI – which has plenty of its own skeletons in its closet — as the saviour of a nation. But at its best it captures the mood of a superb thriller, based on a huge, real-life conspiracy.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Dir: Simon Curtis

A.A. Milne (Domhnal Gleeson) is a popular playwright in London’s west end just back from WWI. On the surface he’s full of witty patter, all whizbang and tiddley poo. But he’s actually he’s shell-shocked: Champagne corks or popping balloons send him diving for cover. He’s so shaken up he moves out to the country where he hopes to write an anti-war book in peace. His flapper wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) makes it clear she would much rather be partying in London. Milne has writer’s block. And the crying baby makes the situation even worse. They hire a nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to help raise their son Christopher Robin whom they call Billy Moon. But when Daphne moves back to London, and Olive to her dying mother’s bedside, Milne is suddenly left alone with a son he barely knows (Will Tilston). He has to talk to him, cook for him and entertain him.

And that’s when some serious father-son bonding kicks in. They go on adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, climb trees, make up stories and play with Billy Moon’s stuffed animals – a teddy bear, a piglet, and a donkey. He invites his friend — an illustrator — to draw pictures of it all. And Milne begins to write poems. He sends one, Vespers, about their son praying before bed, to Daphne in London to show her he’s writing again. She submits it to Vanity Fair and soon it’s a huge hit. Milne publishes his poems and stories and, suddenly, his son and the toys he plays with – Winnie the Pooh, and Kanga and Roo – become celebrities, famous around the world. The boy is dressed up and trotted out for book tours and toy stores and radio interviews. And this upsets him. Strangers know everything about his private life and his imaginary inventions. They think he’s a fictional character come to life, but he’s not Christopher Robin. He’s Billy Moon. Can the family stop this tide of fame before their lives are ruined?

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a touching story about the reality behind the beloved childrens’ books. It’s also the contrast between the British stiff upper lip – no touching or showing emotion – and all the humour and imagination yearning to escape. The movie is a bit slow in parts, and sometimes succombs to nostalgia and sentimentality, but I liked it anyway. And it also has beautiful locations and great costumes.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Dir: Robin Campillo

It’s the early 1990s in Paris, AIDS is at its peak and people are in a panic. The government makes speeches but does nothing and big pharma is sitting on crucial medication. Meanwhile, people are dying every day. So a group of activists launch a protest group called Act Up Paris (after its US counterpart) and spring into action.

They storm into government meetings and pharmaceutical offices, throwing plastic sacs of fake blood at the walls. Then they stage mass die-ins, falling to the floor until they’re dragged away by police. They meet in university lecture halls to hash out their disagreements: men and women of all ages and sexualities. But will their actions fall on deaf ears?

BPM is a story about the group, but especially two of its members, Sean –a scrawny, cynical latino (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart ) and Nathan, a student from a small town (Arnaud Valois). After a spontaneous first kiss – when they take over a high school to teach safe sex – they move in together: Sean is HIV positive, Nathan negative. Their relationship is intense and passionate, partly because Sean might die at any moment. BPM is a long and detailed – but very moving – look at a civil disobedience movement. It captures the fluidity and uncertainty of life and love in the midst of a crisis.

BPM, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House and Goodbye Christopher Robin 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.

Heimat Films. Movies reviewed: Schultze Gets the Blues, Window Horses

Posted in Animation, Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Germany, Iran, Movies, Music, Poetry by CulturalMining.com on March 10, 2017

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

Heimat is the German word for home, homeland and fatherland… with hints of blood and soil. It’s also the name of a particular postwar film genre. Backed with strong American encouragement it helped Germans forget their economic problems and troublesome past, and look blithely forward toward a better tomorrow. Heimat films were made in southern Germany and popular in Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland, depicting traditional small towns filled with girls in blonde pigtails. Heimat films are having a comeback in contemporary Germany, perhaps in response to Conservative governments and feelings of turmoil and insecurity. They concentrate on a mixture of traditional, homogeneous, smalltown Germany, so-called authentic culture, and a longing for a simpler past. Toronto’s Goethe Films: Heimat Now series is running until March 14th.

This week I’m looking at movies about home. There’s a comedy about German man whose accordion leads him to zydeco; and an animated feature about a Canadian woman whose poems lead her to Shiraz.

Schultze Gets the Blues

Wri/Dir: Michael Schorr

Schultze (Horst Krause) is a miner in a small town Germany. This town is so small that the radio traffic report is just a long pause. The village is dominated by a railroad crossing, a motorcross track and an enormous slag pile, expelled from the mine where Schultze works with his two friends Jurgen (Harald Warmbrunn) and Manfred (Karl Fred Muller). But when the three men retire they find they have nothing to do. Chess games end in fights, and trips to the local pub means just the same old faces, over and over.

At least Schultze has his garden gnomes and his trusty accordion. Like his father before him, he’s been entertaining townsfolk with his polkas for two generations. They’re even planning on sending a cultural emissary to its twin city in Texas. Nothing ever changes, until one day, out of nowhere, he hears accordion music on his radio that isn’t quite right. It disturbs him. It’s not a polka, it’s faster, jumpier, and catchier. What is this Amerikanische music? It has entered Schultze’s brain and will not go away. Locals listen in horror and shout the N-word at him. So Schultze sets off for the swamps and bayous of America in search of Zydeco. And he finds the people in small town Texas a whole lot like the ones he left back home.

Schultze Gets the Blues is a simple, endearing comedy about a big-bellied man looking for meaning in music. I have to admit watching this movie felt, at first, like watching paint dry. I guess I’m a city boy used to a faster pace. But once I adjusted to the slower small-town rhythms, it was funnier, fascinating, almost profound. I ended up liking it.

Window Horses

Wri/Dir: Ann Marie Fleming

Rosie Ming (Sandra Oh) is a young woman with pigtails who lives in Vancouver but dreams of Paris. Her mom died, and her dad abandoned her when she was just a little girl so now she lives with her kind but overprotective grandparents.

She works in a fast food joint, and loves poetry, berets and the romance of far-off France. She writes down the words that come to her as she strums at her guitar, and publishes a collection of these poems at a vanity press. Imagine her surprise when she’s invited to a poetry festival far away. Not in Paris, France, but in Shiraz, Iran. With her grandparents consent she arrives there, a Chinese-looking Canadian dressed in a black chador, the most conservative type of Iranian dress, a combination black hijab and full-length gown.

At the poetry festival, she seems out of place. Iran is a land of poetry and Shiraz its poetic capital. At poetry slams she tries to understand what she hears, but the poems in Farsi, German and Chinese evade her. Gradually she meets people who had heard of her… through her father. Far from abandoning her, she discovers her dad was forced to leave her and kept away from her by outside forces. Not only that, but he was Iranian, loved poetry and once lived in Shiraz. His story, and its connection to Rosie May is gradually revealed through the music, the poetry and the people who seek her out. But will she ever discover the truth about her Iranian father?

Window Horses is a visually and musically beautiful movie, portraying a naïve Canadian woman exposed to a colourful and culturally rich country. This is an animated film with simple drawings. Rosie is a stick figure with two lines for eyes, who almost disappears in her Chador. Others have faces decorated with oblong jowls and curlicue eyes. Animation shifts from traditional two dimensional figures to sepia -coloured 3-D frescoes. Voices are provided by Sandra Oh as Rosie, with Don McKellar, Ellen Page and Shohreh Aghdashloo in other roles.

I like this movie.

Window Horses starts today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Schultze Gets the Blues is playing at the Heimat Now series at the Goethe Institute in Toronto.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Ross Sutherland about his new documentary Stand By for Tape Back-Up at Hot Docs

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, Movies, Poetry, Pop Culture, TV, UK by CulturalMining.com on May 22, 2015

Ross Sutherland interview with Daniek Garber 1 © Jeff Harris for culturalminingHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Alladin had his magic lamp, King Arthur his Excalibur. What do we have to define ourselves? What talismans can protect us against outside forces? Or can our lives be summed up as a list of “likes” on Ross Sutherland interview with Daniek Garber 3 © Jeff Harris for culturalminingFacebook?

Well one man in the UK discovered his lost history and the meaning of life in a most unusual place: a dusty, plastic VHS tape at his grandfather’s house. It was viewed, reviewed and pondered. It contained the fears, memories and nightmares of his childhood, as seen on broadcast TV.

Stand By for Tape Back-Up is the title of a new autobiographical documentary having its world premier at Hot Docs, Toronto’s international documentary film festival. But it’s not like any conventional documentary you’ve ever seen.

It consists entirely of VHS footage of movies and Ross Sutherland interview with Daniek Garber 2 © Jeff Harris for culturalminingtv shows — from Michael Jackson music videos to clips from Ghostbusters and Fresh Prince of Belair — played again and again with the unseen filmmaker’s voiceover. Rewinds, pauses and fast forwards guide the viewers to new heights of psychedelic rapture and to the depths of abject confusion. It’s hilarious, haunting, terrifying, profound, poetic… and extremely whack.

I spoke to Ross Sutherland in Toronto on location at the Hot Docs Media Lounge.

Photos © Jeff Harris for Cultural Mining.

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