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

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