Top to Bottom. Films reviewed: The Kindness of Strangers, The Two Popes, Knives Out

Posted in Argentina, Catholicism, comedy, Crime, Family, Homelessness, Movies, Mystery, New York City, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on November 29, 2019

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

With the awards season coming up, Hollywood is starting to release the big ones with famous stars and directors. This week I’m looking at three such movies. There’s a drama about the downtrodden, a biopic about religious leaders at the top, and a comedy mystery about a large group of suspects caught in the middle… of a possible murdet.

The Kindness of Strangers

Wri/Dir: Lone Scherfig (An Education, The Riot Club, One Day)

Manhattan is a lonely place, especially for people down on their luck. Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is an empathetic ER nurse who volunteers at a soup kitchen and moderates a forgiveness group. But her long hours are taking a toll on her psyche. Clara (Zoe Kazan: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Big Sick) is a wide-eyed young mom from Buffalo on vacation with her two boys _ well thats what she tells them. In fact she’s penniless, fleeing her husband, a cop Richard (Esben Smed: Lykke Per) who beats up their kids. She keeps them fed by shoplifting, dumpster diving and stealing hors d’oeuvres from parties. Marc (Tahar Rahim: A Prophet, The Past) is an ex-con, recently freed from prison by a lawyer, who lands a job managing a Russian restaurant. And Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones: ByzantiumContraband, The Last Exorcism) is an earnest simpleton who can’t hold onto a job. If he doesn’t pay his rent soon, he’ll be out on the street.

Luckily, some strangers are kind. But will Alice find happiness, Clara find refuge, Marc find friends, and Jeff find a job? Or are they just more victims in the Naked City?

The Kindness of Strangers follows seemingly unrelated stories as they gradually come together in unexpected ways. Danish director Lone Scherfig’s movies are always good, even the bad ones. And this is a good one. It’s basically a Christmas movie but without any santas or angels. Lots of snow, but no presents. Church basements but no preaching. Some criticism: Only 7% of homeless in NY City are white, but in this movie it’s 100%. Although it veers into corn territory once or twice, this tear jerker is miles beyond any Hallmark movie, and seems genuinely sympathetic to the downtrodden. It deals with real problems, and leaves you feeling warm inside.

The Two Popes

Dir: Fernando Meirelles

Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathon Pryce) is a popular priest in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He loves soccer, pizza and dancing the tango. He preaches humility and compassion to the poor, and though he’s a Cardinal, dresses in plain clothes. He is flying to the Vatican to request early retirement. Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) is a conservative German, whothis the Vatican was moving in the wrong direction and has to be fixed. He loves the pageantry and finery of the Vatican, from the fancy clothes to the elegant trappings. He likes eating alone, a bowl of plain broth with Knödel. And he invites Bergoglio to join him at his country retreat. There conversation goes nowhere, with one asking to retire, and the other refusing. They disagree on practically everything. Why are they meeting and will they ever find common ground?

The Two Popes is a dramatization of a meeting between – not a spoiler! –  two Popes: Benedict who stepped down amid scandal, and Francis, the first pope from the Americas, who took his place. It’s a highly visual film, shot in a semi-documentary style. It gives us a “Pope’s-eye view” of the inside of the Vatican, with all its sumptuous finery and grandeur. I once saw Pope John Paul II appear at the window; in this movie you’re inside the window looking down at the crowd, which is very cool. And the larger-than-life characters – as imagined by Welsh actors Hopkins and Pryce in effective performances – are humanized and normalized. They’re just like you and me.

But I think you have to deeply care about the doctrine, policies, politics and rituals of the Catholic Church to truly appreciate this movie.

Count me out.

Knives Out

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a hugely successful mystery novelist. He lives in a gothic mansion with his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). All of his descendents are in town to celebrate his landmark birthday. There’s hard-boiled Linda, a real-estate agent with her hanger-on hubby and playboy son (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans). Flaky, new-age entrepreneur Joni (Toni Collette) with her college-age daughter (Katherine Langford) and alt-right son (Jaeden Martell). Goateed Walt’s family (Michael Shannon) handles the publishing side of his dad’s burgeoning book empire. And Greatnana (K Callan) who observes all but says nothing. There are the usual family squabbles, But by morning, everything has changed. Thrombey is found dead in his bedroom in a pool of blood, an apparent suicide… but is it? And if it’s murder, whodunnit?

Investing the crime are two hapless cops (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc has an eagle eye and a deep southern drawl. Everyone is a suspect and has something to hide. Everyone but Marta, who is allergic to lying. She actually throws up if she says anything untrue.

Knives Out is an extremely entertaining mystery comedy, in the style of Agatha Christie and Murder She Wrote. Almost every line is clever, overflowing with biting cultural references: Benoit Blanc is referred to as CSI from KFC, and there are pastiches of everyone from Gwynneth Paltrow to Ben Shapiro. I’ve seen this one twice already and I could easily watch it again next year.

Knives Out is now playing in Toronto, and The Two Popes opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The Kindness of Strangers opens next Friday; 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.

August 3, 2012. Movies Reviewed: 360, Blue Like Jazz. PLUS Queen of Versailles, The Invisible War

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Countless fairytales about travellers include a scene where a character comes to a fork in the road, and has to decide which way to go. One direction could bring happiness and good fortune; the other way – danger. This week I’m looking at two movies about people making life decisions and where that path takes them. One’s a low-budget American movie about a young, conservative Texan who ends up in liberal Portand, Oregan; the other’s a multi-lingual drama with an international cast about people facing life-changing decisions that end up affecting dozens of strangers they’ll never meet.

360
Dir: Fernando Meirelles

In a series of apparently unrelated stories in Vienna, Paris and London, we see men and women falling in love, and falling out of it, having illicit affairs, purchasing sexual acts, stalking strange women, resisting temptation, breaking up and starting all over again.

(This is a difficult movie to describe without giving away the stories and relationships which provide the main reason for watching this movie… but I’ll try) In just one of the linked stories, a
middle-class, somewhat selfish London couple, (Jude Law and Rachel Weisz) have a fragile relationship but, depending on which direction they each decide to take it, they will affect lots of people – a sex trade worker in Eastern Europe, a Brazilian woman stranded in a US airport (alongside an old man seeking his daughter’s dead body, and a sex offender recently released from prison) as she heads home to Rio.

These and many other stories come looping back in a 360 degree turn, just like the ring roads in the grand European capitals – Vienna, London and Paris. Since these are all strangers who meet at random, we see the characters in hotel bars, airport lobbies, cafes, internet sites, and AA meetings, the sorts of places strangers meet. We get a glimpse of their problems and decisions, then — zoom! — it’s on to the next city.

All the individual stories are loosely woven together, but not in the neat circle the title suggests. It’s not even like the hub in a wheel with lots of spokes heading out. It’s more like throwing a bunch of shoes into a bag, shaking them up, and then wondering how all the laces got so tangled and knotted. It’s definitely interesting, and neat, and the plot is never predictable (lots of the characters don’t take the paths you expect them to)… but I was left wondering if I was duped by complicated junk or had just witnessed a masterpiece. Or more simply: is it a good movie?

A movie doesn’t have to be great and perfect, but this one seems to be a smaller film than the grandiose themes it’s tackling. On the positive side, it’s not encumbered with a weepy, Hollywood violin soundtrack; instead it skips from city to city with old local pop songs. And it does have a great international cast (Jamel Debbouze, etc), a well-known Brazilian director who did City of God, and the UK writer Peter Morgan.

Hmm… is it just pandering, “Oscar Bait”? No, that’s not quite fair, although it does have that grave, sombre tone of too many film festival movies. But it’s also fascinating, a bit thrilling and tense, with a bit if ironic humour. Even if the movie as a whole left me feeling cold and devoid of satisfaction (that 1960’s, angsty European feel) it’s still a unique piece of work.

OK, I give in. I liked it. It wasn’t bad. Go see it.

Blue Like Jazz
Dir: Steve Taylor

Donny (Marshall Allman) is a good Texan. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t cuss. He tucks in his short-sleeved shirt, and goes to Baptist church every Sunday, and does whatever his divorced mother tells him to. But right when he’s about to go off to Baptist College he discovers two things: his layabout Dad who lives in a trailer park is ready to bankroll his tuition at a liberal arts school in Portland(ia); and his bible-ready Mom isn’t quite the goody-goody church lady he thought she was. He decides the church has betrayed him, so he heads off to open his mind to new ideas.

So the movie follows his experiences as a Fresher at college, as he gradually adjusts to student life. He falls in with Lauren (Tania Raymonde), a genuine lesbian who looks like Amy Winehouse; The Pope, an older college rabble-rouser given to dressing in a robe and mitre; and Penny, an earnest politically active blonde woman
who is fighting plastic water bottles. His shirts get untucked, then he switches to T-shirts, stops shaving and soon enough he’s throwing beer bottles out of windows and popping MDMA at outdoor raves. Portland is not without its rules. Umbrellas are considered “uncool” and Penny warns him that, in these parts, Christians are expected to stay in their religious closets – they don’t “come out” as born again.

It’s up to Donny to decide if he should permanently ditch the church in favour of new ideas, or to fall back on his childhood upbringing.

Blue like Jazz is an extremely low-budget drama, paid for through crowd-sourcing. It’s actually a fun, coming-of-age college movie, with interesting characters, a nice story and good acting. Worth watching.

Also opening this weekend are the two documentaries The Invisible War, and The Queen of Versailles.

The Invisible War (Dir: Kirby Dick) tells about the estimated one million rapes or sexual assaults that have happened within the US armed forces over the past half century, how the perpetrators are let off even as the victims face punishment. It’s an important look at a shocking subject. (Listen to my interview with director Kirby Dick)

And on a much lighter note, is the Queen of Versailles, a hilarious documentary by Lauren Greenfield about a pneumatically equipped compulsive shopper with many children and little yappy dogs; and her husband, an elderly time-share mogul, who, together, attempt to build themselves a replica of the Palace of Versailles in the Florida everglades — the biggest home in the world — but are caught in a lurch by the sudden bursting of the real estate bubble. (Read my Hotdocs review here.)

The dramas 360 and Blue Like Jazz, and the documentaries The Invisible War and the Queen of Versailles 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 .

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