Highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow. Films reviewed: The Hustle, Tolkien, Be My Star

Posted in 1910s, 2000s, Berlin, Biopic, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Germany, Orphans, UK, War, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on May 10, 2019

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

Some people mistake upper-class and working-class characters with highbrow and lowbrow films. This week I’m looking at three movies with upper-class and working class-characters. There’s a middlebrow biopic about an orphan at a private school, an arthouse drama about working-class kids in Berlin, and a lowbrow comedy about a boorish con artist at an elite resort.

The Hustle

Dir: Chris Addison

Josephine (Anne Hathaway) is a British aristocrat who lives in a cliffside mansion in Beaumont-sur-mer, a casino resort on the French riviera. Fluent in many languages, the high-stakes gambler and seductress knows all the shakers and movers on the Côte d’Azur. But her life of luxury is disrupted by a hefty and boorish Aussie named Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who is passing through town. Penny is a small-time con artist whose M.O. involves catfishing men online using stock photos, then tricking them out of more money when they meet face to face. Penny is arrested mid-scam, tossed into prison and kicked out of town. What she doesn’t know is she’s been played– the policewoman who arrested her worked actually for another con artist, none other than Josephine! When she discovers the truth, Penny and Josephine agree on a competition: whoever succeeds in scamming a random man out of half a million dollars can stay in the resort, and the other one must leave. Their victim is an innocent, Mark Zuckerberg look-alike (Alex Sharp). Which of them will win over the tech millionaire?

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because The Hustle is a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but with Anne Hathaway in Michael Caine’s role and Rebel Wilson replacing Steve Martin. Recasting successful comedies with women in formerly male roles is popular these days, but doesn’t always work. But in this case it sure does. The Hustle is better, funnier and more subversive than Scoundrels. Hathaway is clever as the multilingual aristocrat, but it’s Rebel Wilson who steals every scene with her physical humour, facial contortions and bawdy language. She is brilliant. Maybe the concept of con artists on the Riviera is a bit dated, but it still had me laughing loudly during most of the movie.

I rarely endorse comedies, but I found this one hilarious.

Tolkien

Dir: Dome Karukoski

It’s the early 20th century in Birmingham, England. Young J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult: The Favourite, Warm Bodies) is an orphan who finds himself in impecunious circumstances. Luckily, a wealthy Catholic priest, Father Francis (Colm Meaney) takes him under his wing and sponsors him to study at a prestigious school called King Edward’s. He was home schooled by his mother before she died, leaving his head filled with stories of mythical dragons and elves. He may be the poor kid, but he immediately impresses everybody with his knowledge of Latin, Old English and mythical languages he creates just for himself.

After initial misgivings, he falls in with three other boys: Christopher, Geoffrey and Robert. Together they form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, a four-man group that hangs out in tea shops discussing art, music and poetry as well as concepts of bravery, fellowship and loyalty. He meets a beautiful young woman named Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), also an orphan, who lives in his boarding house. His friendship with the boys grows, even as his love for the piano-playing Edith deepens.

He is eventually accepted to Oxford on a scholarship, but is separated from Edith and some of his friends. And his world is torn apart by WWI, when they are all sent off to the trenches, where he witnesses carnage and total destruction. Who will live and who will die? And will he ever see Edith again?

Tolkien is about the boyhood and youth of JRR Tolkien, long before he wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The movie flashes back and forth between memories of his growing up, and the film’s “present day” when he is stuck in the trenches of The Battle of the Somme in WWI. And it gives a a few hints at his future as a writer of the famous fantasy books. He imagines fire breathing dragons on the battle front, with the scenery like Mordor. The four friends are like Frodo, Sam and the gang in The Fellowship of the Ring. It also touches on Wagner’s Ring Cycle’s influence on Tolkien’s Ring trilogy. So it’s kind of interesting to watch if you’re into his books. And I liked the period costumes, scenery and good acting.

But the movie never seems to go anywhere. It falls into the category of biopics about revered subjects where you can’t show passion, adventure or sex, at the risk of tarnishing his pristine image. (Ironically, Tolkien’s heirs still refused to endorse the film.) No sparks in this hagiography, just a few kisses and some unrequited, longing glances.

Be My Star (Mein Stern) 2001

Wri/Dir: Valeska Grisebach

Nicole (Nicole Gläser) is 14-year-old girl who lives in Berlin with her two sisters, Monique and Janine. She’s at a turning point in her life. It’s the age when you try out a job (she chooses to intern at a bakery because she likes the way it smells). She’s also becoming sexually aware. First she dates any guy who asks her, but later becomes more discerning. She approaches Schöps (Christopher Schöps) a soccer-playing teen to give it a go. He’s interning as a plumber and gets his own apartment. They have cigarettes, alcohol and privacy to share, but they don’t quite know what to do. Is this love, and are they a real couple? Or just a couple of kids?

Be My Star is a very sweet and beautiful coming-of-age story made 20 years ago. It’s acted by kids using their real names, in a verité style and setting, but it’s clearly a drama not a documentary. It’s also an excellent example of the Berlin School of filmmaking. This tender and intimate examination of first love (and first break up) is realistic and moving. Its showing as part of Past Forward: German Directors Before Cannes, a series of seminal works by German directors who later became famous.

I really liked this one.

Tolkien and The Hustle both open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. And Goethe Films is showing Be My Star one time only at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 14th at 6:30.

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

Women, famous and infamous. Films reviewed: Lizzie, Anthropocene, Colette

Posted in 1800s, Biopic, Crime, documentary, Elephants, Environmentalism, Feminism, France, Lesbian, LGBT, melodrama, Poverty, Psychological Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 28, 2018

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

This week I’m looking at three movies about famous — and infamous — women. There’s a psychological thriller about an axe murderer; a biopic about a French novelist, and a documentary… about Mother Earth.

Lizzie

Dir: Craig William Macneill

It’s 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) lives with her sister Emma, her stepmother Abby, and her rich and successful father (Jamey Sheridan). He’s a successful financier resented by the neighbouring farmers. Lizzie is a pale woman with curly red hair and an uptight manner. She whiles away her hours reading poetry and cooing with the pigeons she keeps in a wooden dovecote.

But trouble is brewing in this family. Father is outwardly kind but with evil intent. Cryptic notes show up at their home, promising blood and damnation. And then Lizzie has a tonic-clonic seizure at the opera house. Her father calls epilepsy “showing off”, but agrees to hire Bridget (Kristen Stewart) an irish maid as her caregiver. Meanwhile, feeling left out in a house of four women, he invites his brother John to stay with them. John is untrustworthy and might be embezzling money. And as the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget turns sexual, they try to rebuff the aggressive creepiness from the men inthe house. What will happen to this disfunctional family?

Well, it’s not a spoiler that the parents are going to die, as anyone who has heard of Lizzie Borden knows that her mother and father were brutally murdered. This is also made clear in the first scene of the film. But you don’t know who actually did it till a shocking scene near the end. Lizzie is a slow moving, slow-build psychological drama. Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart are both good in their roles, but a thriller it’s not. It’s just too slow.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky

Picture a mountain of garbage in Kenya as far as the eye can see. A marble quarry in Italy, carved out of a shear cliff. An open pit mine in Germany. A heavily polluted city in Siberia. Or the rising water gradually flooding the streets and piazzas of Venice. These are not what you normally think of as natural phenomena. Rather they’re part of a new phenomenon, a period some geologists are calling the Anthropocene Epoch, when nature is shaped by humans.

Anthropocene throws a lot of new terms at you, words like anthroturbation – the scarring of the earth’s surface—and concepts like the stages of extinction, as more and more animals exist only in captivity. Visually it’s a treat, but there are so many scientific concepts bombarding the viewer that the message sometimes gets buried in the content. And some of the visual metaphors are too obscure to understand. Why is a bonfire first portrayed as a scary inferno (suggesting forest fires caused by climate change), when it’s later revealed to be a “good thing” — saving elephants by burning their tusks? And what do a million churchgoers in Nigeria have to do with climate change or pit mining?

Still, this stunning documentary combines the photography of Burtynsky – known for his vast and brutal industrial landscapes — with the filmmaking of de Pencier and Baichwall. It’s like the worlds biggest coffeee table book projected onto a big screen. It’s gorgeous.

Anthropocene is definitely worth seeing, perhaps more as a work of art than as a documentary.

Colette

Dir: Wash Westmoreland

It’s the 1890s in Bordeaux, France. Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly) is a headstrong young woman with long black braids who lives with her parents in a country home. She’s smart, pretty and creative. She’s also a country girl without a dowry. Enter Willy (Dominic West) a much older Parisian man, visiting her parents. Sparks fly, and soon they rendezvous in the barn for a roll in the hay. Literally. Willy sweeps her off her feet and presents his new wife to the consignienti of Paris; they are unimpressed. He’s a celebrity there, known as much for his flamboyant persona as for his writing (He’s actually a talentless hack who employs a stable of ghost writers.) He encourages her to write too, and then publishes her semi-autobiographical stories about “Claudine” a country school girl.

It’s a smash hit, with Claudine lookalikes popping up all across Paris. And Gabrielle is famous now too… but for her looks, not her writing, since it was published under Willy’s name.

And they are still plagued with financial troubles. Where is all the money going? Mainly to pay for Willy’s mistresses, Willy’s prostitutes, Willy’s gambling debts. Willy can’t keep his willy out of trouble. But my dear, he tells Gabrielle, it’s just what men do.

Gabrielle is pissed that he’s wasting her money and playing with her emotions. So she embarks on her own adventures, a series of affairs: a sex triangle involving a rich woman from Louisiana, known for her auburn hair and come-hither glances. Later she falls for Missy (Denise Gough) an aristocrat who dresses only in men’s clothing and military garb. Is this true love? And will she ever find fame for her writing?

Colette is a fun, historical biopic about the writer who became known as Colette. It’s filled with campy scenes of fin-de-siècle Paris – from shirtless men carrying women on a palanquin, to secret lovers hiding behind velvet curtains. This film is more of a romp than a serious take. But it’s enjoyable nonetheless. And director Westmoreland takes pains to include queer politics in his look at early lesbian feminism, providing a multiracial cast and a proto-trans character (in the current, 21st century sense).

Lizzie, Anthropocene and Collette all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And opening Thursday is Bad Banks — a gripping German TV drama about high finance in Frankfurt — showing on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Light Box. 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.

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