Serious and sexual. Films reviewed: Seberg, The Jesus Rolls, Beanpole

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, comedy, Crime, Drama, Espionage, France, Friendship, Hollywood, Russia, Sex, USSR, WWII by CulturalMining.com on February 28, 2020

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

Want to watch some grown up movies? This week I’m looking at three unusual films dealing with serious topics — crime, war and surveilance — in a sexualized context. There are best friends in post-war Leningrad, movie stars and activists in 1960s Hollywood, and sex-starved ex-cons in present day New York.

Seberg

Dir: Benedict Andrews

It’s Paris the 1960s, a time of antiwar demonstrations and sexual revolution. Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart), is a movie star of the French New Wave. She is beautiful a striking face framed with short blonde hair. She lives in Paris with her husband, the writer Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and their young son. And now she’s making her triumphant return to Hollywood. But in the first class airplane cabin, she noticed a kerfuffle . A young man named Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a member of the Black Panther Party, objects loudly to the fact that well-known civil rights activist Betty Shabbaz (Malcolm X’s widow) is sequestered in economy class.  Jean offers to exchange seats, calming the waters. They meet up again in LA and sparks fly, leading to a secret affair. But what neither of them realizes is the FBI is photographing and recording everything they do. J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro program considers activists on the left – and particularly Black activists – as enemies of the state.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed agent Jack (Jack O’Connell) and his conservative partner Carl (Vince Vaughan) follow the two from inside a painted van, listening in on their most intimate conversations. Soon the FBI’s focus shifts from Hakim to Jean, as the leak salacious details to Hakim’s wife and Hollywood gossip columnists, in an attempt to ruin his status and her career. As Jean becomes increasingly paranoid (and for good reason – she’s being gaslighted by the FBI!) she grows more and more frantic, all observed by agent Jack. His consience is pricked. But will he  do something to stop this persecution of Jean Seberg?

Seberg is a fascinating drama, based on a true story, about the FBI spying on its own citizens regardless of the consequences and moral cost suffered by their victims. It also gives a good look at Hollywood in the 1960s and the interplay among black activists and their white sympathizers. Seberg is part fashion and glamour, part intrigue and espionage.  It feels a bit like The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), where you get to know both the spies and those spied on. While the dialogue and acting seems wooden and clugey at the beginning, it gets better as it moves along, as you get to know and feel for the characters.

I liked this movie.

The Jesus Rolls

Wri/Dir: John Turturro

Jesus Quintano (John Tuturro) is a Puerto Rican American known for his skill at bowling, his sexual prowess and his penchant for pointy purple shoes. He’s on his prison bowling team, and when the Jesus bowls, Jesus rolls. But his term has finished and he’s being released. His old pal Petey (Bobby Cannavale) is at the gate to help him adjust to life outside. But Jesus doesn’t want to adjust; he wants to live his life to the fullest. He immediately steals a vintage, orange muscle car and starts cruising the streets of his small town. He visits his mom, a sex worker, and then hooks up with his ex-girlfriend Marie, a French hairdresser (Audrey Tautou: Emélie). Petey is with him all the way. The three of them embark on a spree of petty crime across the state. They steal and ditch vintage cars, run away from diners without paying, and hold up doctor’s offices.  At night they experiment in bed… but there is one factor missing. Marie enjoys frequent sex but has never had an orgasm. Can Jesus and Petey bring Marie to satisfaction before they are all thrown in jail?

The Jesus Rolls is one unusual picture. It’s a sex comedy, a bittersweet crime drama, and a buddy movie/road movie. Judging by the fashions, hair styles and vintage cars, it seems to take place in the late ’80s, but suddenly an iPhone or smart car will appear dragging it back to the present. It takes a character from one film – Jesus in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski – and transplants him into the plot line of another one: Les Valseuse  (1974, Betrand Blier). Many of the characters are half-naked, half the time, the Jesus character is always over the top, while others are more subtle.

Does it work? Kinda. Depending on the scene and your mood, it’s moving, it’s over-acted, it’s strange, it’s awful, it’s bizarre, and it’s funny. And there are great cameos by the likes of Susan Sarandon, Pete Davidson, Jon Hamm, Christopher Walken, and Sônia Braga.

Beanpole (Dylda)

Co-Wri/Dir: Kantemir Balagov

It’s Leningrad in Autumn, 1945. The war is over, and soldiers are returning home from the front into a bombed out shell of a city. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed “Beanpole”, is a young woman discharged from the army after a head injury. She is extremely tall and gangly, with pale skin and white-blonde hair. And she is prone to absence seizures, frozen in place, incommunicado, until they pass. She lives in a crowded, decrepit apartment with a young boy named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) whose she treats like her son. She sometimes brings him to her workplace, a hospital for injured soldiers. They play animal charades with the kid who has probably never seen a live animal (food is very scarce.) And everyone is on their best behaviour whenever a glamorous Communist party official named Lyubov (Kseniya Kutepova)  drops by the hospital to congratulate soldiers and offer gifts.

But things change for Iya when her best friend and fellow soldier comes back from the front. Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) is as outgoing as Iya is shy, sexually promiscuous (Iya shies away from contact with men), and short with auburn hair, not tall and blonde like Beanpole. And when Masha discovers Pashka is missing she gets an unshakeable need to to have a new baby, immediately if possible. They meet a couple of young men in a fancy car – the sons of Communist Party apparatchiks. Masha pair up with Sasha (Igor Shirokov) with hope of a future marriage and a normal family. But Iya feels left out. Will Masha and Sasha become a couple? Can Beanpole survive on her own? What is her real relationship with her best friend? And what really happened at the front?

Beanpole is a fantastic story of two young women getting by in Stalinist Leningrad just after WWII. Loaded with pathos but devoid of kitschy sentimentality it exposes the harsh realities people faced. It also shows the unsurmountable class divisions in the Soviet Union, extreme poverty, and the horrors of war. The acting is superb, and the candlelit warmth of the images helps to modify the movie’s dark tone. Beanpole is a wonderful movie you can’t forget. I recommend this one.

Seberg, The Jesus Rolls and Beanpole 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.

Heists and Outlaws. Films reviewed: Widows, The Whiskey Bandit, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs PLUS Instant Family

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, Crime, Family, Heist, Hungary, Movies, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Being robbed is everyone’s nightmare… so why do we love heist movies so much? Maybe it’s the excitement and audacity of their heroes and antiheroes. This week, I’m looking at three movies with sympathetic thieves. There’s a professional bank robber in Budapest, four female thieves in the Midwest, and outlaws and gunslingers in the old west.

Widows

Wri/Dir: Steve McQueen

Veronica (Viola Davis) lives in a Chicago penthouse with her loving husband Harry (Liam Neeson), a successful businessman. But when he is killed in a car crash, she discovers the source of his wealth: he’s a professional thief. He – and three other men – died on a job that ended with millions of dollars going up in flames when the getaway van exploded. And some not-so-nice people tell Veronica they want those millions back. What to do? She decides to learn from her husband and form her own gang of thieves for a single, grand heist of their own. But first she needs a team. So she turns to the widows of the men who worked with her husband – total strangers all. Veronica has to convince them all to join in with her plan.

There’s Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) a hardworking mom raising young kids while running her dress shop. With her husband gone she could lose everything. And tall, beautiful Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has been working as a high-end escort since her abusive husband died. They agree to join Veronica. When the fourth widow pulls out of the scheme they recruit Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a tough cookie from the projects who can run like lightning. But can four inexperienced women pull off a complex home robbery and outsmart organized criminals who hold all the cards?

Widows is a complex thriller, involving not just the four women but also corrupt Chicago politicians, gangsters, preachers, and power brokers. It portrays the city as rotten to the core. It co-stars Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Daniel Kaluuya, but the men in this movie are just distractions; women are the core, unusual for a crime thriller. This is artist-turned-director Steve McQueen‘s first mainstream genre movie. Widows is sophisticated, well-acted and skilfully made, but… it’s just a movie. It isn’t deep or emotionally jarring like his earlier movies Hunger, and Twelve Years a Slave.

It kept me interested but left me feeling hollow inside.

The Whiskey Bandit

Wri/Dir: Nimród Antal

It’s the 1980s in Transylvania, Romania. Atilla Ambruzs (Bence Szalay) is a poor young man, neglected and beaten by his father, sent to juvie for petty theft, and enlisted into the army, where he’s an excellent marksman. As an ethnic Hungarian in Ceaucescu’s Romania he has no future. So he escapes across the border by strapping his belt to the bottom of a train and holding on for dear life.

In Budapest, he’s welcomed with open arms and given a job, a home and status. No, just kidding. He’s penniless, homeless and without legal status. Worse, in Hungary he’s derided as Romanian! He finally finds work: as a combination goalie and janitor for a pro-hockey team. No pay, but at least he has a place to live.

One night, drinking beer with his buddies, he spots the woman of his dreams. He chases her to the subway, and offers her flowers. Is this love at first sight? But Kata (Piroska Móga) is educated from a rich family, while Atilla is a penniless alien. He needs the proper papers to get ahead, but they require a hefty bribe. So he turns to bank robbing… and he’s very good at it. He never fires a shot, never hurts anybody, just leapfrogs the tellers and grabs the cash from the banks safes. And he always avoids the cops– He climb walls, jump from buildings, even swim across the Danube to escape. He disguises his appearance with caps, aviator glasses and a fake moustache, leaving nothing behind but the smell of alcohol on his breath. As his exploits pile up, so does his infamy, dubbed the Whiskey Bandit in the news media and adored as a folk hero. And he lives lavishly – telling Kata and his teammates he made his fortune importing bear skins. But how long will his luck hold out?

The Whiskey Bandit is a great crime/action movie, from the director of the great sci-fi action movie “Predators”. Most of the film is narrated by the Bandit telling his story to a crooked detective (Zoltan Schneider). Szalay and Móga have great chemistry, and the story really grabs you. This is a great, rollicking action/adventure. And turns out, it’s based on a true story.

I really enjoyed this one.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Wri/Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

It’s the mid 19th Century in the wild, wild west. Picture: wagon trains and prospectors, cowboys and bank robbers. Outlaws and bounty hunters. Their stories are told in a series of short episodes, each its own complete film. Genres change, film by film – musical, serious drama, near horror, or comedy, nicely balanced over a two hour show. They’re tied together by the turning pages of an old book of illustrated western tales, but they owe more to Hollywood westerns. The title story is about a singing cowboy all dressed in white… who turns out to be a serial killer. Like most Coen brothers movies this one doesn’t skimp on guns, violence and dark, dark humour.

I usually dislike anthology films, but in this film, it works. The dramas are tiny, perfect and very pessimistic. Standout performances include Zoe Kazan as an indecisive young woman on the Oregan trail (this is her second wagon train movie, after Kelly Reichardt’s great Meek’s Cutoff); Tom Waits as a prospector looking for Mister Pocket, his streak of gold; and Harry Melling (from the Harry Potter movies) as an armless, legless orator travelling from town to town. It’s very much a traditional Hollywood western with cowboys, stand-offs, and shootouts – and, regretably, indigenous characters still portrayed as “noble savages”, even in 2018. (But in fact all the other characters have stereotypical, largely negative personalities, too.)

Still, it feels like much more than the sum of its parts. superior acting, wonderful music and scenery… This is a great Coen brothers movie.

Also opening today is…

Instant Family

Dir: Sean Anders

Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) are a happily married, middle-aged couple. They design and renovate houses, and play golf in their spare time. But something is missing… kids! But if they start a family now, they’ll be old folks by the time the kid grows up. But what if they adopt? They join a foster care class run by two social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavio Spencer) who teach them the ins and outs. But when they decide to give it a go, they somehow end up with three foster kids, Lita, Juan and Lizzie. An instant family. Lita (Juliana Gamiz) is a wild child who only eats potato chips. Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) is a scared, accident-prone introvert. And Lizzie (Isabela Moner), age 15, is their surrogate mother, and won’t listen to anything her foster parents tell her. They were abandoned by their birth mother, an addict and petty criminal. Pete and Ellie decide they’ll be their new mom and dad. But will the kids accept them? And when their birth mother is released from prison will they lose these kids they’ve been trying so hard to raise?

Inspired by the director’s own story, Instant Family is equal parts comedy, tear jerker, and realistic look at adoption. It alternates between Ellie, Pete and the kids, the couple’s various relatives (the two grandmas are hilarious, the rest of the relatives just irritating); and the foster parent support group they attend regularly to compare notes. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of movie I would normally go to if I weren’t a film critic. but once there, I did laugh, tear up or cringed, depending on the scene. So if you like inspiring and occasionally funny movies about struggling through parenthood, this is a film for you.

Instant Family, and Widows open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see The Whiskey Bandit tonight at 8:30 at the Royal Cinema as part of the EU Film Festival.

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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