Suburban types. Films reviewed: Eighth Grade, Under the Tree, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Posted in Addiction, comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Drama, Family, Feminism, Iceland, LGBT, Scandinavia, School, Suburbs by CulturalMining.com on July 20, 2018

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

Movies needn’t be about famous people. This week I’m looking at three domestic dramas about ordinary, suburban types. There’s a girl in 8th grade deciding what to do with her future, Icelandic neighbours fighting over a tree, and a quadriplegic alcoholic learning to draw.

Eighth Grade

Wri/Dir: Bo Burman

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a modern eighth grader who lives with her dad (Josh Hamilton). It’s the end of her last year of junior high and kids are looking at the time capsules they buried three years earlier, to see how much they’ve changed. On youtube and instagram she’s a success and she shares her thoughts on a vlog, ending each podcast with the word “Gucci”! But at school she’s the opposite of famous. She’s the kind of girl who shows up at a pool party in a little kid’s one piece when the rest of the girls are wearing bikinis. Kayla has zits, she doesn’t understand fashion and has no friends.

The guy she’s crushing on, Riley, just wants sex. And popular girls – like the snobby Olivia – won’t even acknowledge she exists. But things look up when she’s invited to Olivia’s birthday party, and even better when a much older highschool girl agrees to be her mentor. Can Kayla create a new personality, make friends and find a boyfriend? Or will high school just bring more of the countless humiliations a 12-year-old girl faces each day?

Eighth Grade is a warm and funny coming-of-age story about a girl approaching — but not yet entering — adolescence. Elsie Fisher is totally believable in the lead role. And Bo Burman, the filmmaker, started as a youtube presence himself. The thing is, a lot of the movie feels like a stereotypical boy’s coming-of-age story superimposed on a girl. Things like: whenever Kayla ogles her crush Riley she pictures him walking in slow motion to loud pop music, leaving her tongue-tied; or when her dad catches her masturbating to porn on her smartphone. (Also… what’s with all these single dad movies? In real life, 80% of single-parent families are headed by moms, not dads, but you wouldn’t know it.)

On the other hand this film deals with real contemporary issues – like consent, snobbery, bullying, sex-education and the very new, very real phenomenon of shooting drills; what kids should do if a shooter comes into the school.

Eighth Grade is a very cute and touching comedy, and one that’s worth seeing.

Under the Tree

Dir: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

It’s suburban Iceland. Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is a married guy with a three-year-old daughter, until… his wife catches him watching porn on his computer. Not only that, it’s him in the video, with his ex girlfriend. It’s not how it looks, he says. We made the tape years before I met you – I’ve never cheated on you. No, she says, that’s exactly how it looks, and you’re out of here.

He ends up at his parents’ house, a retired couple named Baldvin and Inga (Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Edda Björgvinsdóttir). The family is already dealing with the disappearance and presumed death of his brother. They live in a big blue townhouse with a shady tree in the backyard. Inga has a silky cat, and Baldvin fills his free time with choir practice. They get along well with their neighbour – a divorced professional — but less so with his fitness-obsessed second wife. The shade from their tree interferes with her suntan. A small disagreement.

But just like Atli’s sex tape, little things left unchecked can grow into big problems. A series of unexplained incidents – slashed tires, salacious garden gnomes found in a planter, a missing cat – grow more and more dangerous. Can the feuding neighbours settle their crisis? And will Atli move back home with his family?

Under the Tree is a very dark comedy about life in contemporary Iceland . But don’t expect hotsprings and rustic fishing boats. It’s filled instead with classrooms, Ikea stores and government offices. The acting is excellent as the story progresses to its ultimate conclusion.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

Dir: Gus Van Sant

It’s the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest. John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) is a redhead who likes drinking and picking up girls. An adopted kid from small town Oregon he goes to California to sow his wild oats. But his life changes dramatically when a weekend bender ends with his car wrapped around a tree. He’s left quadriplegic, with little chance of recovery. But with the help of a Swedish caregiver named Annu (Rooney Mara), he learns to operate a wheelchair and eventually how to draw with one hand. His personality stays intact and so does his alcoholism.

So he joins a 12-step AA group held in a mansion. It’s hosted by Donnie (Jonah Hill) an irreverent rich gay man with long hair and beard. Donnie always has time for his piggies what he calls the men and women he sponsors. And as John passes through the twelve steps of recovery he finds a meaning in life: drawing obscene, politically incorrect and hilarious cartoons.

Normally, if someone says a movie is about Alcoholic Anonymous meetings I’d say let me out if here. These kind of movies are both gruellingly depressing and painfully earnest. But this is a Gus Van Sant movie and he makes it work. This movie is funny, surprising, shocking and very enjoyable. Yeah, it’s sad at times, but it offers so much you rarely see. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals with the bad sides of living with a disability, just as it’s not afraid of celebrating a disabled person’s sex life.

Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as John, And Jonah Hill is great – and totally unrecognizable — as Donnie. Smaller roles like Jack Black as a drunk driver, Tony Greenhand as John’s caregiver and Kim Gordon, Udo Kier and Ronnie Adrian, as some of the piggies – keep the movie going, The film is done cut-up style, jumping around over a 20-year period, which makes it a bit disorienting. Even so, it leads you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Eighth Grade, Under the Tree and Don’t worry, He Won’t Get far on Foot, 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.

Made for the Big Screen. Films reviewed: Suburbicon, Human Flow, Faces Places

Posted in 1950s, Anthropology, Art, Clash of Cultures, Crime, documentary, France, Migrants, Refugees, Rural, Suburbs, War by CulturalMining.com on October 27, 2017

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

Do you find it hard to keep up with all these Fall Film Festivals? Here’s some coming in November whose names are nearly self-explanatory: EstDocs shows documentaries from Estonia – This year is Estonia’s 100th anniversary since it first declared itself a republic. ReelAsian is one of Toronto’s biggest festivals, showing features from East and South Asia and their diasporas. And guess what Black Star shows? It’s a curated series of classics at TIFF featuring black movie stars: Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, Sidney Poitier in In The Heat of the Night, and Denzel Washington in Malcolm X.

This week I’m looking at some movies — a thriller and two art documentaries – with strong visual elements that deserve to be seen on the big screen. These films are about migrating across continents, driving across France… or just staying put in the suburbs,

Suburbicon

Dir: George Clooney

It’s the late 50s in a cookie-cutter suburb. Nicky (Noah Jupe) is a twelve year old boy who lives with his mom and dad in a middleclass, white, Episcopalian home. His father, Mr Gardner (Matt Damon) works at a middle management office job, while his mom (Julianne Moore) stays at home. She uses a wheelchair to get around since she was almost killed in a car accident a year earlier. Her sister (also played by Juliane Moore) helps out around the house. Life is bland, suburban and normal.

Then two big things happen.

First, a middle class black family moves into the house behind theirs. This makes Nicky happy because they have a son his age– someone he can play baseball with. His all-white neighbours, though, didn’t like it one bit, and try to intimidate them into moving away. The second thing is a home invasion by a pair of lowlife criminals. They tie up the family to chairs at the dinner table and knock them out with ether. And when Nicky wakes up, his mom is dead and the killers are gone. Stranger still, his aunt quickly moves in to take her place and dyes her hair to look exactly like his real mom. What’s going on?

Then things get worse. White violence scalates against their new black neighbours escalates. A detective visits Gardner at his office investigating his wife’s murder. He’s suspicious. So is an insurance investigator. Then the killers themselves show up again making new demands. What do they want from him? When Nicky catches his Dad and his fake-mom in a compromising position on the pingpong table he realizes something is very wrong.

Suburbicon is a zany — but violent – mystery/thriller that looks at the dark side of a 1950s suburb, as seen through the eyes of a little boy. It also deals with segregation, but that’s really just a subplot — an attempt to give it relevance. It’s written by Joel and Ethan Coen, with the usual over-the-top violence and absurdist comedy, but it doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers movie. This is George Clooney’s work. Aesthetically, it’s amazing, with incredible art direction that brings to life a stylized version of suburban America.

It’s a fun story, but that’s all it is — entertaining fluff.

Human Flow

Dir: Ai Weiwei

Millions of people around the world are housed temporarily in makeshift shelters. These refugees flee their homes or villages in fear for their lives. Many more are migrating across borders looking for a place to call home, now that war or famine or poverty has made their previous homes uninhabitable. This human flow, these crowds of people risk their lives qs they walk through deserts, through fields and cities, crossing oceans in leaky boats, as they search for sanctuary.

This movie follows refugees and migrants around the world: Rohingya in Bangladesh, Syrians walking through Europe, central Americans climbing those walls at the US/Mexican border. It takes us to Gaza, Kenya, Afghanistan, Turkey and Hungary, looking at how these people fare in unwelcoming environs.

Human Flow is huge, epic in scope and very long for a documentary – almost 2 ½ hours. It takes you to different locations without any narrative or order, punctuated with poetic quotes and info scrolling across the screen. There are some exciting parts — like the rescue of migrants in boats on the Mediterranean – but much of the film has a constant “flow”, just drifting to scene after scene. Ai Weiwei is primarily an artist so the filming is gorgeous and grandiose. It uses drone shots looking down from way, way up in the air where refugee camps look like tiny white pills arranged in neat rows. Then it zooms down, until you gradually see what looks like ants and then finally, real people with faces. Human Flow is visually stunning and informative.

I just wish it were an hour shorter.

Faces Places (Visages Villages)

Wri/Dir: Agnes Varda and JR

Agnes Varda is the Belgian-born artist and filmmaker who rose to fame in the French New Wave. JR is a contemporary artist known for his postering. He plasters his work — giant-sized, black and white paper photos – onto outdoor walls. Together they travel across France taking pictures of ordinary people they meet on their way: a coal miners daughter, a waitress, a farmer, and a woman who raises goats. They also pay homage to important figures from Agnes’s past: a man who modeled for her on the beach, the grave of photographer Cartier-Bressson, and Jean-Luc Godard’s home.

They make strange pair. Agnes is short, with a pageboy haircut, her white hair partly dyed with a red halo around the fringe. She’s 88. JR is tall and lanky. He won’t reveal his real name and keeps his face disguised with a fedora and dark glasses. He’s 33. They travel in JR’s little truck that has the image of a camera lens on the side. It functions as a photobooth that prints out the huge paper photos he take. And Agnes films it all, recording the process and people’s honest reactions to JRs art. The posters might wash off of walls by the next high tide , but they will remain longer on film.

Faces Places is a delightful personal documentary about art and photography, both still and in motion.  It shows us the transience of people and images.

Human Flow is now playing, and Suburbicon and Faces, Places 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.

Love vs Sex. Movies reviewed: The Best of Me, White Bird in a Blizzard PLUS TIFF Cinematheque Free Screen

Posted in Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Drama, Romance, Suburbs, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on October 17, 2014

99ada23afcc96f7a37df270ff635a7c4Hi, 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, helpingf28bb1f7988be1aeeafed4a48f550325 you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Some things in life are free.

TIFF Cinematheque has a program of experimental and avant-garde film called Free Screen. The fall season opens tonight featuring, new films by Canadian director 26dcb0a8be64f52a691beb4793335eb1Barbara Sternberg and work by Cliff Enns. Both fimmakers will be at the screening. These art films are shot with unusual techniques. Sternberg uses rotoscope animation (that’s projected photographic images traced and redrawn, frame-by-frame, into animation). Enns’ film uses Fisher-Price PixelVision, a 1980s B&W toy video camera. Very cool and aesthetically pleasing stuff. For details go to tiff.net/cinematheque.

This week, movies about about  “free” things, like love, friendship and family.

There’s a teary, romantic drama about lovers torn apart in the bayous of Louisiana, and a mystery drama about a disappearing mama in a 1980s suburbia.

The Best Of MeThe Best of Me
Dir: Michael Hoffman (based on the Nicholas Sparks novel)

Dawson Cole is a shy kid at a Louisiana High School. He likes science and is good at fixing things — like cars. And when he helps his perky classmate Amanda with car trouble, sparks fly. She invites him on a date. The problem? Amanda is rich and popular, while Dawson comes from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s a member of the notorious Cole clan, under The Best Of Methe sway of his evil daddy and his two mean brothers. Most kids sneak alcohol or contraband past their parents. Not in this family: he gets punished for sneaking homework into their shack when he should be getting drunk and playing cards with his pappy! You think you’re better than us? You ain’t better than us, you’re white trash and don’t you forget it! Daddy beats him up so he runs away. And misses the first date.

He ends up in the garage of an old man named Tuck, who takes pity on the good kid from the bad family. Dawson and Amanda stare into each others’ limpid eyes by the The Best Of MeSpanish moss, ‘neath the twinkling stars. He picks a red rose…they have their first kiss. Together they spin plans for an idyllic future… until an unexplained event splits them apart.

Decades later, they meet again in their small town, after the death of a mutual friend. Dawson works as a roughneck now on an oil rig in the Gulf. Amanda is a housewife with a weasel-y, unloving husband. She adores her teenage son but he’s heading off to college. Though both are haunted by sad memories, can they rekindle their romance? Or are they just captives of class and destiny, never to The Best Of Melove again?

Dawson and Amanda are played by two sets of actors. Luke Bracey (he co-starred in the recent action thriller November Man) and Liana Liberato play the dewy-eyed teens. She’s the fiery, sharp-tongued one matched with his strong and silent type. Grown-up heartthrobs James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan play the same characters as adults, but more wistful and filled with regret.

This movie is a totally weepie romance. It’s got everything you expect: true love – unrequited; innocent teens burdened with their families’ prejudices; and passions left to smolder for decades. Total cheese, clichés, and stock charicatures. What’s its point? To tug at your heartstrings and make you cry. It’s a weeper. And I did. Not my cup of tea, but if you’re into classic romances, this one does it right, serving up love on a silver platter in the deep, deep South.

Shailene Woodley as Kat Connor and Shiloh Fernadez as Phil in White Bird in a BlizzardWhite Bird in a Blizzard
Dir: Gregg Araki (Based on the novel by Laura Kasischke)

It’s the 1980s – that means kids have big hair and wear bright colours that don’t match. Kat (Shaileen Woodley) has an OK suburban family, taken directly from a TV sitcom. Mom’s a glamorous model-type (French actress Eva Green) who always puts her down. Hapless Dad (Law and Order’s Christopher Meloni) is a total loss – he looks like John Cleese on Fawlty FawltyTowersS1_06-ep-1_OPTowers (complete with bad moustache and receding hairline, but without the witty repartee.) Kat hangs with her two best friends – both self-described fat chicks. One’s black the other a skinny gay Shailene Woodley and Christopher Meloni in White Bird in a Blizzardguy, who has a “fat chick deep inside”. Kat self-identifies too, even though she recently lost weight and grew breasts, She discovers sex and can’t wait to try it out with Phil, the good-looking chowderhead next door. Phil lives with his nosey blind mom.

Then suddenly Kat’s mom disappears and her life starts to change. Did she run away and abandon her family? Is she coming back again? Or is she dead? She is Shailene Woodley in White Bird in a Blizzardhaunted by dreams – her mom and other people appearing in blinding white snowdrifts. She sees a therapist (Angela Basset) and talks with the police – one detective in particular. She’s crushing on him, and tries to seduce him. Meanwhile she follows the clues like an amateur detective, to find out what happened to her mother. Her boy-next-door boyfriend Phil seems to have flirted with her mom! Does he know where she is? Even her dad seems to have a secret to hide… What’s going on?

Gregg Araki is known for his stylized indie films, that offer a queer look at coming-of-age and sexual awakening in the suburbs. He’s good about shifting sexual and ethnic mixtures. This one fits his style, with an attractive cast, a quirky main actress, and lots of sex, nudity, music and nostalgic looks at the counter-culture. It doesn’t quite hold together. It jumps from painfully wooden family tableaux, to fresh and realistic portrayals of 80s youth culture. Are they part of the same movie? The acting ranges from the dreadful (Meloni) to great (Woodley and Gabourey Sidibe as her BFF). Still, White Bird in a Blizzard is pleasant to watch, with a great ambient soundtrack, and a few whopper surprises.

The Best of Me opens today, and White Bird in a Blizzard starts next week 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 with director Sean Garrity about his new film BLOOD PRESSURE

Posted in Canada, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, Family, Guy Maddin, Hitchcock, Movies, Psychological Thriller, Suburbs, Suspicion by CulturalMining.com on March 18, 2013

directorWhat would you do if you lived in house with your husband and two kids… and you suddenly started getting letters from a secret admirer?

Letters from someone who seems to know you better than your own family… And what would you do if they could almost read your mind? If they cared about you? And what if they asked you to do something that might be taboo, or maybe immoral, or possibly… illegal?

Would you be thrilled? Intrigued? Scared? Indifferent?

An unusual new movie, a dramatic, psychological thriller asks just these questions. It’s called Blood Pressure, and it’s directed by a well-known Canadian filmmaker from Winnipeg. (The movie opens today in Toronto.)

Director Sean Garrity talks about how the film’s story developed, whether it’s a thriller or a family drama, an identifiable Winnipeg style, his run-in with government censorship… and more!wall

Scary and Scarier. Movies Reviewed: Dark Skies, Act of Killing PLUS Oscar predictions

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow oscarmovies, 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.

Oscar is back – and I’m not talking about Pistorius the Paralympics star’s trial. This weekend, the good and the bad compete for the most important prizes in the industry.

So, once again I will make my Oscar predictions – but a warning: I’m almost always completely wrong.

I have a feeling Amour, Haneke’s devastating film about the final years of an elderly couple, will come out on top. Zero Dark Thirty – the CIA torture-fest about the hunt for Bin Laden – will be largely shut out. And Silver Linings Playbook, the bi-polar rom-com, and Argo, a light, revisionist history about the Iranian hostage crisis, will divide the rest if the spoils.

Best Movie: Amour should win, but Argo will win. Best Actor: I haven’t seen Lincoln yet, so I can’t judge Daniel Day Lewis, but of the other four, Joaquin Phoenix did the best performance. He should win. Best Actress: Emmanuel Riva should and will win. Supporting actor? Robert De Niro in Silver Linings should win, but Christopher Waltz will win. Supporting actress: I liked Amy Adams in The Master, but I think Anne Hathaway will win. I think Michael Haneke will win best director and he deserves it.

The documentaries are all fantastic. I have a feeling Looking for Sugarman will win. And the foreign language films this year – Rebelle, No, Amour, Kon Tiki (plus Royal affair, which I haven’t seen) – are all outstanding. Three of them are on my 2012 best ten list, and No would be as well, if it had been released in time. You should see them all. And finally best original and adapted screenplays: I think Amour and Silver Linings will win that.

Some of the Oscar choices are scary, and so are their song and dance numbers. Even scarier are two movies: a Spielberg-style family thriller-chiller, and an unbelievably strange documentary out of Indonesia.

DARK_SKIES_POSTERDark Skies

Dir: Scott Stewart

It’s a hot summer, and the fourth of July is a couple days away. In the best of times, the Barrets are not a perfect family. Mom and Dad (Keri Russel and Jeff Hammond) are in trouble: their mortgage payments are three months overdue. Daniel’s out of work, and Lacey’s real estate sales aren’t doing well. Then there’s their two kids, Jesse and Sam (Toronto-native Dakota Goyo and Kadan Rockett). Jesse is hanging out with an older, “bad” friend, Ratface, who introduces him to long guns, bong-smoking and vintage porn videos (Jesse’s 14.) They hang out in one of the fixer-upper houses Lacey’s trying to sell. And little Sam is having nightmares – the sandman keeps coming to him at night. Still, the family likes their nice suburban neighbourhood, with its swimming pools, American dark skiesflags and backyard barbecues and don’t want to move. Jesse calms the waters by staying up late, talking to Sam by walkey-talkey.

But things go from bad to worse. Birds smash into the windows. The family starts having absence seizures, wetting their pants, and walking into walls. Strange bruises and marks are appearing on the kids’ bodies – is someone calling Children’s Aid? They open their mouths wide and start screaming, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They wake up in the middle of the night to find strange, little tricks left behind by a Poletrgeist-like being. And humming sounds and bright white lights appear under doors, just like in ET and Close Encounters. (Get the picture?)

dark skies 2Dad is perturbed, so he puts video camera in all the rooms to see of there is any Paranormal Activity at night. And sure enough, he finds something… but what are they? Can they fight off the enemy and keep together as a family unit? Or will they disappear, one by one?

I love the pseudo-retro quality of the movie as they plunder all the scary movies from 70s and 80s. The kid actors are all great, and the adults are usually good. And there are some wicked semi-psychedelic dream sequences popping up all through the movie. They almost make the whole film worthwhile. Almost.

But the story is a mess, some of the characters are lame, and the dialogue waivers between good to chokingly awful. So even though I felt like I should like this kind of film – it was really disappointing, especially the ending. It almost feels like they ran out of money before they could rewrite flubbed dialogue, and re-shoot missing scenes, and just decided to release it half edited. Too bad.

Act of Killingactofkilling_02_medium

Dir: Joshua Oppenhemier (and another director remains anonymous)

This is one of the weirdest documentaries I’ve ever seen, and has to be seen to be believed. Apparently, a group of former militants from Sumatra, Indonesia, decide to produce a fun, action film portraying the torture and murders it carried out in the 1960s. And they want to play themselves and their victims on the original sites where they murdered them. But they want to make it enjoyable, so they add musical numbers, dancing girls, a man in drag (one of the killers) for comic relief, and all sorts of additions to make it “entertaining”.

Historical context: In 1965-66, there were riots and mass-killings of about half a million ethnic Chinese Indonesians and Communist Party members in the mid-sixties around the fall of President Sukarno.

Those killers are still associated with a paramilitary security force and right-wing political group there which proudly actofkilling_04_mediumrecalls their deeds to the locals.

This is simultaneously the western filmmaker’s a first-hand record of the mass murderers unapologetically admitting their war crimes, and a film-diary of a bizarre low-budget Indonesian pop production. Jaw-dropping film.

Dark Skies opens today, check your local listings; Act of Killing is playing at the Human Rights Watch film festival in Toronto – go to tiff.net for details; and the Academy Awards are on TV this Sunday. Also opening tonight in Toronto is the very cool, experimental film Tower, directed by local Kazik Radwanski, who I interviewed last week. Check that one out.

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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