Far from home. Movies reviewed: Greed, Wendy, Blame Game

Posted in comedy, Corruption, Espionage, Germany, Greece, Kids, Satire, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on March 6, 2020

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

It’s International Women’s Day, and you can see films directed by Women all weekend long at FEFF, the Female Eye Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This week I’m looking at three new movies – one from England, one from Germany, one from the United States — about people who willingly travel far from home. There’s a German agent meddling in Central Asia, little kids running rampant on a volcanic paradise, and a filthy-rich tycoon planning a birthday party in a coliseum he’s building on a Greek island.

Greed

Dir: Michael Winterbottom

Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan) is a vulture capitalist and a tycoon in the rag trade. His M.O. is to take over successful clothing stores, selling all its real estate, moving factories to Sri Lanka and hiding all the profits in a European tax haven. McCready is filthy rich — Fleet Street calls him McGreedy – catering to the endless demand for ready-made, disposable fashion. He’s also insufferable. His pearly whites look factory- made and his tan is as fake as Donald Trump’s.

For his 60th birthday he plans a mammoth celebration on a Greek island, complete with a newly-built colliseum, gladiators, and a lion. He also wants to rescue his reputation and his brand from scandal. But things aren’t going the way they’re supposed to. Members of his family and his ex-wife keep getting into trouble. There’s a reality show being shot there, Syrian refugees living on the public beach “spoil his view”, and his various servants and employees find him impossible to work with. But when he foces his employees to dress as Roman slaves, the tide turns.

Can money buy happiness? Or are the peasants revolting?

Greed is a political satire about the immense wealth and greed of the richest few, and the suffering of everyone else. It’s a complex story chronicled by his  official biographer’s eyes (David Mitchell). It jumps back and forth from his days at an elite boarding school, his rise to fame, and the people he trampled on on the way to the top. It also includes scenes in his Sri Lankan factory, with allusions to the the horrors of similar places in Bangladesh. I will see anything directed by Winterbottam and anything starring Steve Coogan, so I had great expectations. Which also meant  I automatically enjoyed this movie. But I was mildly disappointed that it wasn’t as funny nor as outrageous as I’d hoped. They could have done so much more — it felt almost like Coogan and Winterbottom were holding back.

Greed is a fun movie but not a great one.

Wendy

Dir: Benh Zeitlin

Wendy (Devin France) lives above a whistle-stop diner in Louisiana, with her mom and her twin brothers . It’s always Egg O’Clock at the Darling’s restaurant. Wendy draws pictures while Dougo and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin) do elaborate dances and poses by the jukebox. Kids have hope while the Olds are all miserable. Who would want to grow up? So the three of them jump aboard a freight train for a chugga-chugga, choo-choo, down by the bayous.

Their tour guide is a mischevious boy named Peter Pan (Yeshua Mack), who takes them to a secret island inhabited only by kids known as the Lost Boys. There’s a volcano, steep cliffs, spouting geysers, and hidden caves — a great place for exploring, playing, and having a kickass good time. It’s a place where you never have to grow up. They are ruled by an ancient deity, deep in the ocean, called Mother. As long as they believe in her nothing bad can happen. But when Doug disappears his twin loses faith… and as soon as you lose faith, you start to age, and are forced join the old codgers on the other side of the island. Things in Never Neverland might not be the paradise she expected. Does Wendy have faith in the ocean mother?  Can she find her twin brothers and take them home? Or is she stranded forever on this island?

Wendy is a new spin on the classic Peter Pan story told through Wendy’s eyes, and transferred from Victorian London to the Gulf Coast with a multiracial cast. It uses experimental, handheld camera work and first-time actors to give the film spontaneity and authenticity. Problem is the movie isn’t fun. The characters don’t seem that interested in where they are, and the storytelling is too slow. But the biggest problem is the musical score: it’s orchestral and lush and traditional but totally at odds with the film’s experimental look.

It just doesn’t work.

Blame Game (Das Ende der Wahrheit)

Wri/Dir: Philipp Leinemann

Martin Behrins (Ronald Zehrfeld) is a spy. He poses as a translator for the German refugee board, and uses his position to recruit assets from the middle east and central asia by blackmailing them into compliance. In the fight against terrorism’ he arranges for the assassination of an anti-western figure. Martin is divorced — his ex wife and son couldn’t handle the constant  threat of death and danger.  So he spends his off hours at a beautiful lakeside cottage with his girlfriend Aurice (Antje Traue). She’s an investigative journalist focussing on government corruption. They’re at odds but agree to keep their work separate from their home lives. But when she uncovers a story about the assassination that Martin planned, things go south. The “simple” drone killing turns out be not simple at all. And then a terror attack kills someone Martin knows very well.

A new bureaucrat named Lemke (Alexander Fehling) – a pencil pusher from another department – is brought in to take over. He knows nothing about the world of espionage, but he lords his authority over Martin. Martin, meanwhile is trying to figure out what’s really going on. Is there a private corporation involved? Was this all a set up with him as the patsy? Who is corrupt and who can be trusted?

Blame Game is a fascinating look at international espionage, the “war on Terror”, the international politics, shady arms deals and the CIA. It has a juicy conspiracy at its core, and enough twists and turns to the plot to keep you guessing. While I found the camerawork and editing pedestrian, the acting and the gripping suspenseful story more than made up for it. If you’re into German film you’ll recognize Zehrfeld from Phoenix and Babylon Berlin, with Traue and Fehling also everywhere. Blame Game is a great political thriller reminiscent of Three Days of the Condor, Homeland, or 24. And the upcoming screening will be its North American debut. I liked this spy thriller a lot.

Wendy and Greed both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Blame Game is playing on March 17 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of a Goethe Film series called The End of Truth.

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

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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