Critical Mass. Films reviewed: Dolittle, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Les Misérables

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, Animals, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, Family, Fantasy, France, Kids, Language, Morality, Movies, New York City, Police, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies. There’s a man who talks to monkeys; a kid who steals a lion, and a movie critic who monkeyed with the way we look at movies.

Dolittle

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s early 19th Century England, in a village called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Young Stubbins (Harry Collett) a boy out hunting with his dad  accidentally shoots a squirrel. But instead of “putting it out of its misery” as his father suggests, he tries to save it. Stubbins stumbles on a derelict hospital run by the reclusive Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) the legendary animal doctor. The hospital is full of steampunk devices and wild animals — gorillas and polar bears, insects and parrots — wandering around just like people. And even more surprising, Doctor Dolittle can speak all their languages. Stubbins wants to convince the doctor to take him on as an apprentice so he can talk to the animals, too.

But trouble is brewing at Buckingham Palace. Someone has poisoned the Queen! And only the doctor knows the cure, a panacea found in a distant land.  Dolittle and the gang set sail to find it. Can they trick the evil King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) into giving them the map? And will they defeat a tiger, a  dragon, and various palace villains, and manage to cure the Queen in time?

I grew up surrounded by Hugh Lofting’s books, TV cartoons, and movies, and though I wasn’t a devotee, I knew all about the stories and characters. And I don’t love Robert Downey Jr. So I was all set to be disappointed: where’s the chimp? And what happened to my favourite animal, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu?

But you know what? I liked it! It was cute, full of adventures, close escapes, exciting trips to exotic lands, and all the quirky animals (voiced by Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, John Cena, and Emma Thompson). Keep in mind, this movie is for little kids, not grown ups, who may find the jokes too stupid, but the exciting scenes and the fast-moving action kept me satisfied. Not a terrific movie, but a very cute one.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Wri/Dir: Rob Garver

Pauline Kael was a single mom who grew up on a California ranch during the time when movies were still silent and B&W. Her first published review was Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight — she hated it. She ran a movie theatre in Berkeley where she wrote the reviews and descriptions of the films playing there, encouraging locals to see them. She wrote for Macall’s but was fired for not loving big-budget cinema. And she quit her job at The New Repulic because they edited out her writing. She finally found a post at The New Yorker, where she became one of the most influential movie critics in the world.

She’s is known both for the movies she hated (she described The Sound of Music as asexual revisionist treacle, and trashed Kubrick’s 2001!) and those she loved (Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Scorcese’s Mean Streets, Spielberg’s Sugarland Express). Some directors’ careers were made by her patronage, while others lived in dread of her columns.  She rejected the ennui-ridden academic view of Auteur theory, without falling for manipulative Big-budget schlock. She liked trash, mind you, but it had to be good trash.

What She Said is an immaculately researched,spot-on look at Pauline Kael’s reviews,and her influence on audience and filmmakers. It delves into her fascinating life and and undeniable influence without resorting to endless kiss-assery. This movie is a labour of love,  combining vintage TV interviews with Dick Cavett and Brian Linehan, and talking heads — from Tarantino to David Lean — with readings from her work by Sarah Jessica Parker. Best of all, these voices are illustrated by a barrage of 2-3 second film clips from hundreds of movies over the past century that I haven’t seen in a documentary since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2002). (I grew up reading her reviews in The New Yorker — that and the cartoons were all  read — and while I disagreed with her half the time, I always wanted to see what she had to say.)

If you love movies, I strongly recommend this doc.

Les Misérables

Co-Wri/Dir: Ladj Ly

It’s Paris in the high-rise banlieue that circle the city. It’s 35 degrees outside and the crowds are high on the country’s win on the soccer pitch, singing la Marseillaise at train stations. But trouble is brewing…. it seems a lion cub is missing from a travelling Roma circus and the four brothers that run it are threatening a rumble with the locals.

Power here is shared by the secular — led by community leader called Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu); the religious — Salah (Almamy Kanouté), an Imam who runs a kebab shop; and the criminal — a gang of thieves who work directly with the cops. Attempting to keep the peace are the feckless police who mainly harass kids and sex workers. The regular team — an abrasive white guy Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his calmer black partner Gwada, who grew up in the hood (Djebril Zonga) — is joined by a newbie. the wide-eyed Stephane/Pento (Damien Bonnard) is a hick, straight from the farm. But the only ones who really know what’s going on are the local kids, who know every broken fence, every fire escape and back alley — they are watching everything. Especially Issa (Issa Perica) a feisty 10 year old, and his pal the nerdy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Issa is the one who liberated the cute lion cub, and Buzz who records everything from the rooftops with his trusty drone.

But when the cops overstep their bounds and use weapons — which is caught on camera — things start to go really wrong. Chaos reigns.

Can the trouble be defused by the cops and community leaders? Or will the kids triumph? And could this lead to a repeat of the Paris riots of 2005?

Les Misérables (this is not Victor Hugo’s novel, but the location is the same) is an amazing dive into the lives of Parisians in the outer suburbs, their alienation, and the tension brewing there. The acting and story are superb, and I love the way multiple strands are woven together into a seamless whole. It’s nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and, though violent at times, it holds a real love and understanding of the characters portrayed. This is a great movie.

Dolittle opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is opening today at the Hot Docs Cinema, as is Les Misérables at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Destinies and Destinations. Films Reviewed: Toni Erdmann, Gold, The Red Turtle PLUS Isaac Julien

Posted in Animation, Belgium, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Drama, Family, Finance, Germany, Movies by CulturalMining.com on January 27, 2017

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

British filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien has two film installations on three screens each at the ROM, that follow parallel impressionistic journeys. One with migrants ijs105_western-union-series-no5_ghosts_they-build-their-lives_2007travelling from North Africa to southern Europe, the other following Matthew A Henson the African American explorer heading to the North Pole with Robert Peary.

So this week I’m looking at movies about destinies and destinations. There’s a prospector looking for Gold in Indonesia, a man stranded on a deserted island, and a German trickster in Romania.

c6006c5e-b388-4432-a637-9499a701e432Toni Erdmann

Dir: Maren Ade

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is an elderly man who lives in Germany with his little dog. He still teaches but his main hobby is practical jokes, especially elaborate routines with him at the centre. He always carries a set of crooked teeth to slip over his own for the shocking effect.

Winfried has an adult daughter named Ines (Sandra Hüller). She’s in her thirties who dresses conservatively, with plain blonde hair. She works for a dda3ca6c-37d5-4322-8070-aeb2af566f08multinational corporation in Bucharest Romania. Ines is an uptight, by-the-book careerist, rising quickly to the top levels of her company. She’s also brimming with angst, loneliness and depression.

Who shows up at her corporate 01533d11-1237-4a24-9475-0bdfe53eed02office? It’s Winfried her dad, on a surprise visit. She loves him, but finds him awkward and uncomfortable to deal with, so she’s relieved when he leaves. Only he doesn’t. He’s still in Bucharest, but in character, complete with fake teeth, Richard Branson wig and dark suit. He says his name is Toni Erdmann, and, he shows up at every party, meeting and get together. And to Ines’s dismay, he’s very popular at her workplace. She has to play along with his joke or risk her job and career.646540f8-a2a1-47f6-a981-99169e9c5cfa

But the story gets really interesting when Ines starts to pick up on her dad’s playful nature and learns to relax, laugh and let herself go.

This is a long movie – almost three hours – and it’s a comedy but it’s never boring. It reveals the story at its own pace, and — no spoilers! — but it does include a nudist party, impromptu karaoke, and an enormous mythical yeti. Great movie!

bryce-dallas-howard-and-matthew-mcconaughey-in-goldGold

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s the 1980s. Kenny Wells (Matt McConaughey) is a fourth generation prospector who lives in Reno, Nevada. His grandpa headed west to get rich on silver and gold. Prospectors say they can smell gold a mile away. But Wells seems to have lost that magic touch. Now he works in a cramped office, and he takes meetings at a rundown bar. Each of his investment schemes promise riches but GOLDend up in ruin. And his charm is in the eyes of the beholder. He’s balding with a pot belly, greasy hair and a snuggle tooth. His girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) still believes in him, but investors don’t.

Until he hears about a man from South America with a new theory. GOLDMichael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) is a dashing prospector with an air of mystery about him. He says there’s a ring of fire in Southeast Asia loaded with precious metals from ancient meteors. Wells and Acosta venture into the jungles of Indonesia looking for treasure. And just when Wells is about to give up, just when he is on deaths door with malaria… Acosta strikes gold. It’s GOLDthe motherload! Core samples say it’s the richest gold mine on the face of the earth. Now they need to face investors, Wall Street brokers, mining moguls and tinpot dictators to hold onto their claims and to make billions. Can Wells keep his indignation and ego under control? Will his relationship with Kay – and his bromance with Acosta — endure under pressure? And can they survive the dog eat dog world of high finance?

Though loosely based on a real story, Gold is strictly fiction. The movie doesn’t deal with things like environmental degradation or horrible work conditions that can accompany mining. And it’s a bit long. But it’s also a fun and fascinating story of the ups and downs of prospecting.

13340241_233264913726993_7447487803385711803_oThe Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

Dir: Michael Dudok de Wit

A man is awakened on a beach by a crab skittering past. What happened? Where is he? He’s stranded on an island somewhere, a rock with sparkling white sand and pristine blue water. Exploring the island, he finds a lush bamboo forest on one side, a clear freshwater pond in the middle, and at the far end a high rocky precipice. Huge fruits hang from trees, 13415485_234005173652967_7596049063021961426_oready to pick and the beaches teem with fish, and clams. No one around to keep him company, just a wailing seal, fluttering birds and those annoying little crabs that follow him everywhere. Clearly he must escape.

14362673_288284511558366_2379912415219863982_oHe fashions a raft out of bamboo poles tied together with vines and sets off into the waves. Before long something enormous smashes raft to pieces from below. A shark? A whale? He can’t tell, but each attempt to escape the island ends in the same way… disaster. He unnamedfinally discovers the source: a huge red turtle. Eventually the turtle goes aground and walks on the beach, and in a fit of anger, the man flips it on its back and beats it with a stick. Feeling guilty, he tries, without success, to nurse it back to health. But the shell cracks open revealing a beautiful woman inside with long, red hair.

13316884_231361350584016_4940529898495944572_oThe red turtle is a beautiful animated film about a man and his family who form a symbiotic relationship with the sea. it’s produced by Japan’s famous Ghibli Studios – which may explain the Urashima Taro references, a classic story about a man and a turtle. But the look of the movie is purely northern European – the characters have dots for eyes, just like Tintin. This is a beautiful and poignant animated movie. I really liked this one.

Toni Erdmann has been nominated for best foreign film, and The Red Turtle for best animated film Oscar. Along with Gold, they all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Isaac Julien’s Other Destinies is now screening at the Royal Ontario Museum. Go to rom.on.ca 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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