Heists and Outlaws. Films reviewed: Widows, The Whiskey Bandit, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs PLUS Instant Family

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, Crime, Family, Heist, Hungary, Movies, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Being robbed is everyone’s nightmare… so why do we love heist movies so much? Maybe it’s the excitement and audacity of their heroes and antiheroes. This week, I’m looking at three movies with sympathetic thieves. There’s a professional bank robber in Budapest, four female thieves in the Midwest, and outlaws and gunslingers in the old west.

Widows

Wri/Dir: Steve McQueen

Veronica (Viola Davis) lives in a Chicago penthouse with her loving husband Harry (Liam Neeson), a successful businessman. But when he is killed in a car crash, she discovers the source of his wealth: he’s a professional thief. He – and three other men – died on a job that ended with millions of dollars going up in flames when the getaway van exploded. And some not-so-nice people tell Veronica they want those millions back. What to do? She decides to learn from her husband and form her own gang of thieves for a single, grand heist of their own. But first she needs a team. So she turns to the widows of the men who worked with her husband – total strangers all. Veronica has to convince them all to join in with her plan.

There’s Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) a hardworking mom raising young kids while running her dress shop. With her husband gone she could lose everything. And tall, beautiful Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has been working as a high-end escort since her abusive husband died. They agree to join Veronica. When the fourth widow pulls out of the scheme they recruit Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a tough cookie from the projects who can run like lightning. But can four inexperienced women pull off a complex home robbery and outsmart organized criminals who hold all the cards?

Widows is a complex thriller, involving not just the four women but also corrupt Chicago politicians, gangsters, preachers, and power brokers. It portrays the city as rotten to the core. It co-stars Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Daniel Kaluuya, but the men in this movie are just distractions; women are the core, unusual for a crime thriller. This is artist-turned-director Steve McQueen‘s first mainstream genre movie. Widows is sophisticated, well-acted and skilfully made, but… it’s just a movie. It isn’t deep or emotionally jarring like his earlier movies Hunger, and Twelve Years a Slave.

It kept me interested but left me feeling hollow inside.

The Whiskey Bandit

Wri/Dir: Nimród Antal

It’s the 1980s in Transylvania, Romania. Atilla Ambruzs (Bence Szalay) is a poor young man, neglected and beaten by his father, sent to juvie for petty theft, and enlisted into the army, where he’s an excellent marksman. As an ethnic Hungarian in Ceaucescu’s Romania he has no future. So he escapes across the border by strapping his belt to the bottom of a train and holding on for dear life.

In Budapest, he’s welcomed with open arms and given a job, a home and status. No, just kidding. He’s penniless, homeless and without legal status. Worse, in Hungary he’s derided as Romanian! He finally finds work: as a combination goalie and janitor for a pro-hockey team. No pay, but at least he has a place to live.

One night, drinking beer with his buddies, he spots the woman of his dreams. He chases her to the subway, and offers her flowers. Is this love at first sight? But Kata (Piroska Móga) is educated from a rich family, while Atilla is a penniless alien. He needs the proper papers to get ahead, but they require a hefty bribe. So he turns to bank robbing… and he’s very good at it. He never fires a shot, never hurts anybody, just leapfrogs the tellers and grabs the cash from the banks safes. And he always avoids the cops– He climb walls, jump from buildings, even swim across the Danube to escape. He disguises his appearance with caps, aviator glasses and a fake moustache, leaving nothing behind but the smell of alcohol on his breath. As his exploits pile up, so does his infamy, dubbed the Whiskey Bandit in the news media and adored as a folk hero. And he lives lavishly – telling Kata and his teammates he made his fortune importing bear skins. But how long will his luck hold out?

The Whiskey Bandit is a great crime/action movie, from the director of the great sci-fi action movie “Predators”. Most of the film is narrated by the Bandit telling his story to a crooked detective (Zoltan Schneider). Szalay and Móga have great chemistry, and the story really grabs you. This is a great, rollicking action/adventure. And turns out, it’s based on a true story.

I really enjoyed this one.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Wri/Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

It’s the mid 19th Century in the wild, wild west. Picture: wagon trains and prospectors, cowboys and bank robbers. Outlaws and bounty hunters. Their stories are told in a series of short episodes, each its own complete film. Genres change, film by film – musical, serious drama, near horror, or comedy, nicely balanced over a two hour show. They’re tied together by the turning pages of an old book of illustrated western tales, but they owe more to Hollywood westerns. The title story is about a singing cowboy all dressed in white… who turns out to be a serial killer. Like most Coen brothers movies this one doesn’t skimp on guns, violence and dark, dark humour.

I usually dislike anthology films, but in this film, it works. The dramas are tiny, perfect and very pessimistic. Standout performances include Zoe Kazan as an indecisive young woman on the Oregan trail (this is her second wagon train movie, after Kelly Reichardt’s great Meek’s Cutoff); Tom Waits as a prospector looking for Mister Pocket, his streak of gold; and Harry Melling (from the Harry Potter movies) as an armless, legless orator travelling from town to town. It’s very much a traditional Hollywood western with cowboys, stand-offs, and shootouts – and, regretably, indigenous characters still portrayed as “noble savages”, even in 2018. (But in fact all the other characters have stereotypical, largely negative personalities, too.)

Still, it feels like much more than the sum of its parts. superior acting, wonderful music and scenery… This is a great Coen brothers movie.

Also opening today is…

Instant Family

Dir: Sean Anders

Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) are a happily married, middle-aged couple. They design and renovate houses, and play golf in their spare time. But something is missing… kids! But if they start a family now, they’ll be old folks by the time the kid grows up. But what if they adopt? They join a foster care class run by two social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavio Spencer) who teach them the ins and outs. But when they decide to give it a go, they somehow end up with three foster kids, Lita, Juan and Lizzie. An instant family. Lita (Juliana Gamiz) is a wild child who only eats potato chips. Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) is a scared, accident-prone introvert. And Lizzie (Isabela Moner), age 15, is their surrogate mother, and won’t listen to anything her foster parents tell her. They were abandoned by their birth mother, an addict and petty criminal. Pete and Ellie decide they’ll be their new mom and dad. But will the kids accept them? And when their birth mother is released from prison will they lose these kids they’ve been trying so hard to raise?

Inspired by the director’s own story, Instant Family is equal parts comedy, tear jerker, and realistic look at adoption. It alternates between Ellie, Pete and the kids, the couple’s various relatives (the two grandmas are hilarious, the rest of the relatives just irritating); and the foster parent support group they attend regularly to compare notes. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of movie I would normally go to if I weren’t a film critic. but once there, I did laugh, tear up or cringed, depending on the scene. So if you like inspiring and occasionally funny movies about struggling through parenthood, this is a film for you.

Instant Family, and Widows open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see The Whiskey Bandit tonight at 8:30 at the Royal Cinema as part of the EU Film Festival.

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

Everything. Films Reviewed: 12 Years a Slave, The Motherload, Starred up.

Posted in African-Americans, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Family, Feminism, Movies, Prison, Slavery, Uncategorized, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 2, 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.

Welcome to an icy cold 2014! People tend to think in big terms with the New Year. They hope everything will improve. So, this week I’m looking at an historical drama about a man who loses everything, a documentary about women who want everything, and a prison drama about a guy with nothing to lose.

DF_02828.CR212 Years a Slave

Dir: Steve McQueen

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a nice, middle-class guy in mid-nineteenth century America. He’s a professional (plays the violin) owns a home, is married with children and is an upstanding member of his community in New York state. And he’s black.

So when he’s offered a well-paying gig in Washington DC, he can’t resist and follows the recruiters south. But soon after, he finds himself kidnapped, thrown into a bare cell and beaten. His captors strip him of his fine clothes, his family, his dignity, his status, and even his name. Based solely on the colour of his skin, he’s sold as a slave. A slave!

He’s no longer considered a human being, now he’s just chattel.DF-02238.CR2

And so begins his nightmare. The movie follows the next twelve years (it’s based on Northup’s own memoirs) as he is sold to various southern plantation owners. Some are relatively kind and humane, some monstrously cruel, but none consider that it is fundamentally wrong for one man to own another. He sees slaves being beaten, tortured, raped or even murdered at their owner’s whim. None of this is against the law. They have no rights, no legal standing, no recourse to justice.

On the way, he acquires a violin (from a kindly slave owner). But far from lightening his burden, music is shown as part of the whole slave system. Slaves driven to sing to a pounding drum as they pick cotton. And in one of the most painful scenes in the movie, he has to play ditties on his fiddle as the others are forced to perform grotesque high-stepping cake-walks to entertainer the planters.

Work is a constant danger. If he politely corrects an error or suggests a more efficient alternative he risks being beaten or lynched.

DF-03057.CR2 DF-03057.CR2At a cotton plantation he meets a pretty young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). She is the fastest worker in the cotton fields (most of the rest got flogged each day for not picking enough). She’s also a “favourite” of Epps, a cruel plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) and a captive to his wishes. But Patsey has to fear equally Epp’s, wife who has it in for her. Solomon observes it all.

Gradually they grind down his pride until he too walks hunched over, never looking a white man in the eyes. Will Solomon ever escape from this hell? And if so, how? And can he grant Patsey request to save her from her hopeless existence?

This is a great film, and you should definitely see it if you haven’t already. It’s painful, shocking, realistic and explicit. It gives a new visual meaning to slavery in most people’s minds. It’s also a tense but satisfying thriller about rescue and escape. Ejiofor and N’yongo are both amazing, as is director McQueen’s usual leading man Fassbender. It won the TIFF People’s Choice award and hopefully many others.

motherload_2The Motherload

Dir: Cornelia Principe

Some recent books and articles ask “why can’t women have it all?” The “all” being a top job combined with raising kids. Anne-Marie Slaughter (policy advisor to Hillary Clinton) and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook, COO) both wondered if woman can achieve both of these goals. Why aren’t women allowed the same opportunities to succeed as men?

These works received a lot of criticism. Is evening-out  the playing field in the top 1%  really the goal of feminism? And why should success be viewed in an acquisitive context of greed and possessiveness?

motherload slaughter-4

This documentary avoids some of these problems by looking at a broader range of subjects. In addition to the super-rich and powerful, it also shows middle-class women and one single mother with two jobs. It points out that paternity leave (in Canada, it’s routine only in Quebec) would help even out the discrepancies in the division of work by sex. And it shows how some motherload_1families are thinking about redistributing roles.

The Motherload is an interesting doc dealing with a broad topic in less than an hour. And director Principe, who also produced the fantastic doc The World Before Her, clearly knows her stuff. Still, I’m a bit surprised that it never even touches on the issue of public daycare. While perhaps not an issue for CEOs, isn’t affordable daycare the crucial step in allowing mothers to work and raise children simultaneously?

And finally, I want to mention a fantastic movie — a sleeper that played at TIFF13 – that I really hope will open later this year in Canada. It’s called

starredup_01Starred Up

Dir: David MacKenzie

Eric (Jack O’Connell) is an 18 year old who’s been “starred up”. That means he’s sent direct from juvie to a real, live adult prison. He seems at first like a vulnerable kid who’s going to die on his first day there. But things aren’t what they seem. His street smarts and prison savvy keep him safe but his high starredup_04threshold for brutal violence and volatile temper could prove to be his undoing. So he joins a special therapy group within the prison walls to help him handle his anger. But he keeps running into trouble with an older, “head” prisoner called Neville (played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn). Neville keeps taking charge, instead of discussing and compromising. And here’s the twist – Neville is Eric’s real-live father serving a life sentence! O’Connell and Mendelsohn give unbelievably dynamic performances as the fractious father and son. This is a fantastic movie – look out for it.

12 Years a Slave is now playing in Toronto, The Motherload will air on CBC TV’s Doc Zone next Thursday, and Starred Up should open in 2014. 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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