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.

Real / Not Real. Movies Reviewed: Frank, The Trip to Italy PLUS The Dog

Posted in Brooklyn, comedy, Crime, Cultural Mining, Ireland, Movies, Music, Travel by CulturalMining.com on August 15, 2014

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 films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Ever heard of “native advertising”? Well, you should. It’s when newspapers or websites – like the Globe and Mail and the New York Times – plant advertisements disguised as journalism right alongside real news articles. So it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between what’s real and what’s made up. Well, this week, I’m looking at movies that cross the line between fiction and reality. There’s a comedy from the UK about actors on a trip who play themselves, a comedy from Ireland about a musician who hides his face, and a documentary about a bank robber who inspired a movie.

Domhnall Gleeson in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.Frank
Dir: Leonard Abrahamson (based on an article by Jon Ronson)

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a ginger-haired nerd in his twenties who still lives with his parents. He lives in a seaside English town and works at a boring desk job. But he imagines himself as a successful singer-songwriter and keyboardist. He spends his free time recording feeble, unfinished verses on his computer… He’s of the Twitter generation and can’t think longer than 140 characters. But one day he witnesses an attempted suicide on a beach by an actual deranged musician – a keyboardist. And just because Jon is in the wrong place at the right time he is asked, spontaneously, to take his Michael Fassbender in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.place at a gig.

The show is a disaster. He’s terrible, the band can’t play, and the performance generates an on-stage fight. But Jon is mesmerized by the lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender). Frank is a charismatic man, with huge blue eyes, neat black hair and enigmatic features. He has a friendly, enthusiastic style that everyone likes. He’s everything Jon would want to be.

The thing is, his features are enigmatic because they never change. His big blue eyes are entrancing because they are enormous. In fact, Frank wears a gigantic, painted papier-mache globe over his real head. What does his face look like? Nobody knows. He never takes it off and eats his food through a straw.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.John invited to join them in a cabin in the woods to record an album. But he soon discovers this group is a strange bunch. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays the Theramin ad looks like a smouldering heroin addict, with her pale skin and art-school hair. She’s outright hostile to John. She thinks he’s the Yoko Ono, tearing the group apart. The rest of them include a sneering Frenchman, a burnt-out American, and others, who come and go. Days turns to weeks, then months. They’re broke. Will they ever finish it? But without telling the others, John posts clips on youtube and reports their progress on Twitter. Soon they have a solid fanbase without ever performing beyond the cabin. Newfound success draws them to SXSW in Texas. Will they have a hit? Will the people adore them? And will Frank ever take off his fake head?

Frank is a great movie, strange quirky and funny. It’s a new look at sex and fame and rock and roll. As Frank, Fassbender is a combination Jim Morrison and Mr Dressup, with his music morphing from prog rock to silly electric piano pop. Maggie Gyllenhall is terrific as the brooding musician and love interest and Gleeson is a new Michael Cera. This is a good movie to watch.

Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon 63718-trip to italy_01The Trip to Italy
Dir: Michael Winterbottom

Steve Coogan is an English movie actor, at a slow point in his career. So he sets out with his travel companion, Welsh comedian Rob Brydon, for a drive down the coast of Italy. You see, they’ve been hired to relax at exclusive resorts, putter around on yachts, and enjoy meals at 3-star restaurants. All they have to do is comment on the experience. And along the way they retrace the steps places visited centuries earlier by British poets (and early tourists) Keats, Shelley and Byron. Steve is divorced with a teenaged son and considers himself a bit of a womanizer, while Rob is happily married with two small children, who he talks to by phone each day. But who will pick up the most beautiful women for casual sex? This is a sequel to an almost identical movie set in England a few years back.

This sounds awful and boring as hell, right? No! it’s absolutely hilarious. Basically, the two Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan Trip to Italy 2 63721-_CRX6989actors play exaggerated, fictional version of themselves, while, the rest of the cast – the photographer, tour guide, family members – are all other actors cast in the roles. Aside from views of gorgeous scenery and delicious looking cooking scenes for foodies, what this movie is really about is two guys in a car, singing along to songs from the 90s by Alanis Morisette. And they re-enact entire scenes from The Godfather, Part II (another sequel), reciting every line in the voices of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Arguing about who was the best James Bond. Commenting about people at the next table at a restaurant in Rome or amongst the ruins of Pompeii. Not every joke hits the mark – I’m at a loss when it comes to comments about, say, European sportscasters – but there’s a cumulative effect, with all the jokes, comments, plays on words, competitive punning and imitations of Michael Caine, each building on the one before, until it’s just wipe-the-tears-from-your-eyes hilarious. It’s a particular style of improvized, spoken humour. There’s no pratfalls, no racial jokes, no gross-outs, no silly comments on “those crazy foreigners”, no stand-up comedy humour that depends on a punchline… It’s just two guys engaging in caustically funny conversations. It’s just great.

The Dog stacks_image_236And finally, I want to recommend The Dog, a great documentary by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren. It’s the true story of folk hero / criminal John Wojtowicz. A self-described pervert, John is the guy who robbed a bank and took hostages in Manhattan in the early 1970s to pay for his girlfriend’s sex change. They were soon surrounded by cops but he entranced the crowd – and the news media — by talking to them, to his mom, and to his wife Carmen. It’s one of the earliest TV as-it-happens news stories, with a twist. It inspired Dog Day Afternoon, but his story is even wilder, encompassing his bisexuality and his early role in queer politics. This funny-looking guy is an amazing, absurd character, filled with Brooklyn bravado. And his story is amazing and well-worth seeing.

Frank, The Trip To Italy and The Dog all open today in Toronto: check your local listings for details.

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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