In depth. Films reviewed: The Velvet Underground, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, The Power of the Dog

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, Addiction, Canada, drugs, Indigenous, LGBT, New Zealand, Uncategorized, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 20, 2021

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

We are all flooded each day with new images and stories, both broadcast and online, but don’t they all seem to be fleeting and ethereal, lasting no longer than the average news cycle or two. Rarely do we get in-depth examinations of anything. But movies can do that, opening your eyes to deeper thoughts. So this week I’m looking at three new movies — a western and two feature-length docs —that look at things up close. There’s cowboys in Montana, First Nations in Alberta, and avant-garde rockers in Greenwich Village.

The Velvet Underground 

Wri/Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the early 1960s. Lou Reed is a Brooklyn-born teenager who lives in suburban Long Island.  He’s depressed and his parents send him for electroshock therapy. He teaches himself guitar listening to doo-wop and rockabilly on the radio. Later at university in Syracuse, he studies under Delmore Schwartz. He goes to Harlem with his girlfriend to buy hard drugs and writes poems about furtive sex with men he meets in dark alleys. John Cale is the son of a coal miner in Wales who studies classical music in London. They meet in the Village and start a band within the  exploding world of avant-garde film, music, art and poetry. Velvet Underground plays long, drawn-out tones with a dark drone grinding in the background, combining Reed’s dark lyrics and Cale’s musicality (he plays viola in a rock band!) They perform at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Nico, the enigmatic European actress, completes their sound. Though never a huge success and breaking up after a few years, the Velvets influenced generations of musicians.

This two-hour doc looks at the band itself (Reed and Cale, along with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison) and where it fit within New York’s burgeoning underground scene. Aside from the usual suspects, it talks about or interviews unexpected faces, musicians Jonathan Richman and Jackson Browne, and experimental  filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith. Aside from its meticulous retelling of group’s history, it’s the look of this doc that really blew me away.  Todd Haynes exploits that era’s avant-garde film techniques, from split screens to three-quarter projections, along with a good dose of 60s pop culture. And there’s a constant stream of music from start to finish, including rare tracks of early songs before they found their groove. I had to watch The Velvet Underground on my laptop but this beautiful documentary deserves to be appreciated on a movie screen.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

Dir: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

It’s the mid-2010s and opioids are ravaging the Kainai Blackfoot First Nation in Alberta (that’s the largest reserve in Canada). Families are torn apart, and hundreds of lives are lost. The abstinence and cold-turkey programs just aren’t working, especially for the most marginalized, who end up homeless in cities.  So instead they start up harm reduction centres like those pioneered on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This highly-personal documentary follows a number of addicts — of both opioids and alcohol — as they enter harm-reduction treatments and through its various stages. It’s spearheaded by the filmmaker’s own mother, Dr Esther Tailfeathers, a physician, but also includes Social workers, EMS, nurses and councellors, in drop ins, detox centres, hospitals and clinics, both on the reserve and in nearby cities like Lethbridge.

As the title suggests, caring and empathy saves more lives than punishment, threats or abstinence. Rather than kicking people out, it embraces them while standing by to treat overdoses, and on a bigger scale helping them find purpose and meaning, along with food, shelter and medical care. The doc also looks at the intergenerational causes that led to these addictions, from broken treaties to residential schools. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is gruelling in parts — and not an easy film to watch — but it is one that turns despair into hope.

The Power of the Dog

Wri/Dir: Jane Campion

It’s the 1920s. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is durned mean cuss. He owns a ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), and regularly drives cattle with his posse of young cowboys. They always stop by a roadhouse run by the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her skinny sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil went to one of them Ivy League schools in the east, but they don’t know nuthin about the life of a cowboy. He learned everything from an older buckaroo when he was just a lad, and now keeps a shrine to him in his stables. But like I said, Phil is a mean bastard who directs his venom all around him. He calls his brother fatso, and when George marries Rose, Phil torments her and drives her to drink. And he calls her son Pete a pansy. Until… Pete discovers Phil’s secret. He finds his illicit porn stash and catches him in a hidden grove luxuriating in mud-covered self-love. That’s when Phil changes his mind and decides to mentor Pete in the old cowboy ways. But is that what Pete is really after?

I walked into The Way of the Dog at TIFF expecting a conventional Western, but I saw something much bigger than that. It’s a subversive twist on a classic genre. It’s set in the 1920s, avoiding the blatantly racist portrayals of indigenous people in most Westerns (the “Indians” in “Cowboys and Indians”) which take place in the 19th century when settlers were slaughtering them with impunity in their western migration. This one is set 50 years later.  There are also no hold-ups or show-downs; guns don’t play a major war in this Western. It’s directed by Jane Campion who won big time awards for The Piano thirty years ago, but I hadn’t heard much about her for a long time. So I wasn’t expecting much. But this film really shocked me with its gothic tone, complex characters and twisted plot. The interplay between Cumberbatch and Cody-Smit is fascinating. All of this played out against the wide, western skies (it was actually filmed in New Zealand) makes The Power of The Dog a really great movie.

The Velvet Underground  is playing theatrically in Canada for one night only, Sunday, Nov 28th at 8 pm, at the Rogers Hot Docs cinema in Toronto; and Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy opens today, also at Hot  Docs; and The Power of the Dog just opened at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

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

Berlin, Los Alamos, London. Films reviewed: Berlin Alexanderplatz, Adventures of a Mathematician, No Time to Die

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, Action, Espionage, Germany, Organized Crime, Poland, Refugees, Romance, Science, Sex Trade, Thriller, Uncategorized, US, War, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2021

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

This week, I’m looking at three new movies, all from Europe. There’s a Polish mathematician in WWII New Mexico, a refugee turned gangster in present-day Berlin, and a retired secret agent returning to his office in London.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Co-Wri/ Dir: Burhan Qurbani

Francis (Welket Bungué) is a young refugee from Guinea-Bissau who washes ashore on a beach near Berlin (leaving his lover drowned at the bottom of the sea). He’s young, intelligent, strong and ambitious, a handsome man with striking features. He wants to get ahead and live a good life as a good man. Easier said than done. He lives in a temporary housing bloc for refugees and carries no papers. He doesn’t exist in Germany., and is horribly exploited and demeaned at his job. So he leaves honest Labour and is seduced into a life of crime through a twisted friendship with Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch) a psychotic gangster who traffics in women and drugs. Francis — renamed Franz by Reinhold —  learns German, and works his way up the ladder under  kingpin gangster Pums. But he is betrayed by his so-called friend Reinhold who attempts to kill him. He is nursed back to help by Mieze (Jella Haase) a beautiful, no-nonsense sex worker, leaving his life of organized crime behind. Eventually they fall in love, and plan to have a family… but can they stay together? Can he resist the allure of treacherous Renihold’s world? And torn apart in two directions — between love and morality on one side and success, wealth and power on the other — which path will he choose?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a fantastic contemporary reboot of the classic 1929 German book by Alfred Döblin, sometimes described as one of the first modernist novels. And like any great novel it has a huge cast with tons of side characters and a nicely twisting plot. But also loads of ambiguity — Francis who is persecuted and abused always rises again from the ashes, declaring himself Deutschland – he is  Germany.   The story is told in five chapters, a cautionary tale narrated by Mieze, even though she doesn’t appear until halfway through. It’s a long movie — almost three hours — but it holds you captive till the end. It’s amazingly photographed by Yoshi Heimrath with images that will remain long after seeing them.

If you want a taste of contemporary German cinema, you should not miss this one.

Adventures of a Mathematician

Wri/Dir: Thor Klein

It’s the late 1930s in America. Stan Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski) is a mathematician who lives with his younger brother Adam at an ivy league university. Their family is well off, and still living in Lvov Poland, despite the troubling rise of totalitarian regimes all around them.  He likes gambling, debating and telling jokes with his best friend, the physicist  Johnnie Von Neumann (Fabien Kociecku). It’s all about the odds, Stan says, and house always wins. His life is comfortable but precarious. Then he meets an outspoken young writer named  Francoise (Esther Garrel), another refugee from Europe, and sparks fly. But before he has taken  their relationship any further, Johnnie invites him to join a highly secretive government enterprise in the rocky plateaus of Los Alamos New Mexico. Siblings are not allowed, just spouses and kids. Giving a tearful goodby to his needy brother, proposed marriage to Francoise, so they could stay together. It’s the Manhattan Project, and he’s there to on a team including Edward Teller (Joel Basman) to build the hydrogen bomb. But shocking news leads to a cerebral swelling treated with a drill into his skull. Will he ever recover?

Adventures of a Mathematician, based on  Ulam’s biography of the same name, is not an action thriller or a passionate romance. It’s a straightforward telling of  the highs and lows of a lesser-known genius’s life. He was instrumental in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, something he did not want to make.  But he was also responsible for crucial mathematic advances,  including his “Monte Carlo Method” (named after the famed casino) still essential in computer and statistical projects.  He also came up with amazing theories of space exploration not yet tested. Though mainly in English, this is a Polish movie, which perhaps explains the odd accents of some of the characters (For example Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist speaks with a heavy French accent). And story is told at a very slow pace. Still, I found Ulam’s story (someone I’d never heard of before) and the ideas behind his tale, intriguing. 

No Time to Die

Co-Wri/Dir:Cary Joji Fukunaga

His name is Bond…James Bond (Daniel Craig) and he’s retired as a British spy. Now he enjoys sitting around fishing in a lakeside cabin. Five years earlier he said farewell to his one true love, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), after — he believes — she betrayed him. What he doesn’t know is she’s the daughter of an infamous hitman who once killed a supervillain’s family. But his peace and quiet is interrupted by an urgent call from the CIA. Sceptre, the evil international criminal organization is having a meeting, and if he’s not there, maybe the world will end. Something known as The Heracles Project — the creation of a DNA-linked poison — is in danger of being released. But it’s not as simple as that.  It seems both the CIA and MI6 including M (Ralph Fiennes) himself, might be involved in a conspiracy. Should he return to his old job? Who can he trust? And will he ever see Madeleine again?

I’ve been watching James Bond movies since I was a kid, and to tell the truth, they bore me silly with their formulaic storylines, tedious characters and repetitious conventions. So I was very surprised to find how good No Time to Die really is. This is the best 007 I’ve seen in decades. It feels like a real movie, not just a franchise. No spoilers but I can say this one has a black, female 007 (Lashana Lynch) a Q (Ben Whishaw) coming out as gay (more or less) and a marvelous trio of supervillains, played by Rami Malek, Christoph Waltz, and Dali Benssalah. Also great are the hero (Daniel Craig), and his erstwhile lover, the mysterious Madeleine (Léa Seydoux). It has the usual cars, gadgets, fights, beautiful women and exotic scenery, but it also has characters you actually care about. If you’re willing to go back to a movie theatre, and you want something fun, I think you should see No Time to Die.

Adventures of a Mathematician is available on VOD and digital platforms this weekend, No Time to Die opens in theatres next week — check your local listings. And Berlin Alexanderplatz is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for the Canadian Premier, one screening only, on October 7th, 6.30PM as part of the Goethe Films series History Now: Past as Prologue.

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

 

Mums and their sons. Films reviewed: Code 8, Brotherhood, In Fabric

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Action, Canada, Death, Drama, Fashion, Horror, Science Fiction, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 6, 2019

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 mums and their sons. There’s a historical drama about fatherless boys facing disaster at summer camp; a sci-fi action/thriller about a guy with secret powers and a dying mom; and a retro horror movie about a divorced mom and her sinister red dress.

Code 8

Dir: Jeff Chan

It’s the future, a dystopian America patrolled by drones that terrorize ordinary people in the war on drugs. Conner (Robbie Amell) is a young guy livng with his mom in a big city. He’s a day labourer who does pickup construction work for cash, while she stocks shelves at a corner grocery store. They’re in debt and can’t pay their bills. Worse than that, his mom (Kari Matchett) needs medical care… badly. She has a science-fictiony disease that has you bleed fluorescent blue gunk, but they can’t afford the treatment. What can they do?

Opportunity knocks when a criminal named Garrett (Stephen Amell) hires him to help with a job. He needs someone with high level electrical skills… and he doesn’t mean wiring. Conner is a guy with special powers – he can shortcircuit a generator with his bare hands. But in this world, mutants are kept down by the cops and forced to take menial jobs. So it’s poverty or a life of crime. His mother raised him to be honest and hide his powers, but he needs to cure her illness. If he can help the criminals secure the scarce narcotic Psyke – made from human spinal fluid – maybe they’ll give him the cure his mom so desperately needs.

Code 8 is a fast-moving action-thriller about a future world where power is shared by corrupt cops and organized criminals. It was shot in Toronto, with recognizable locations – Regent Park! – in many scenes. Good special effects and music, and recognizable actors – Stephen Amell is TVs The Arrow, and Robbie Amell his real-life cousin. (Sung Kang co-stars as a good cop). I enjoyed this movie, but I gotta say: Code 8 feels more like the pilot for an upcoming TV series than a one-off movie.

Brotherhood

Wri/Dir: Richard Bell

It’s the summer of ’26 in Ontario’s cottage country. Arthur Lambdon (Brendan Fletcher) is a WWI vet who lost his wife and kid to the Spanish Flu. He’s a counsellor alongside Mr Butcher (Brendan Fehr) who walks with a cane. He busted up his leg in the war. They’re at a summer camp for fatherless teens on placid Lake Balsam in the Kawarthas to provide leadership role models. And the kids there are really into it. There’s a whole crew of eager kids: Waller (Jack Manley) the quick-to-anger alpha dog; brothers Jack and Will who are always fighting, one kid with a runny nose – I’m allergic to trees! – , and another who likes to sing dirty camp songs. They are all very excited by an upcoming trip across the lake in a long, war canoe that can fit them all.

But once they reach the middle of the lake disaster strikes in the form of a freak summer storm. Heavy winds roil the waters and capsize the boat. Someare lost and the rest forced to spend the night, in the dark, in the cold water, taking turns hanging onto the upsidedown canoe. Who will survive the night? And who will make it back to shore?

Brotherhood is a well-made look at a real-life tragedy from the distant past. It has all the right period costumes, authentic language and historical details, beautifully photographed panoramas of scenic lakes… The problem is I just couldn’t connect with any of the characters. There was nothing surprising or intriguing about the story – you know from the start that they will drown. In fact, most of the movie is a self-imposed spoiler, a series of flashbacks leading up to the inevitable accident, as seen through the opaque eyes of uninteresting Arthur. It’s based on a true story (in real life the victims were as young as 6, not all teenagers like they are in the movie), but, perhaps because of its suspense-free method of storytelling, this tragic movie didn’t pluck a single heart string.

In Fabric

Wri/Dir: Peter Strickland

It’s London, in the 1970s. Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste: Secrets & Lies) is a middle-aged divorced woman, who lives with her adult son, a student. She works full time but wants more out of life. So she’s preparing for a blind date with a gentleman she met through the Lonelyhearts column in the newspaper classifieds. She wants it to be a night to remember so she stops by an exclusive women’s store to buy a dress. There she’s greeted by Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) an enigmatic saleswoman with pointy red nails, dramatic black hair and an uncanny way if speaking. She insists Sheila buy only the best, a blood-red satin dress with a plunging neckline. It’s a one of a kind, Miss Luckmoore says, and despite being the wrong size (“size 36”), it fits Sheila like a glove. Her date is less than elegant – a chips-and-kebab house – but the dress takes on an increasing importance. It leaves strange marks on her body, inspires horrible nightmares, and leads to increasingly awful incidents – like the dress had a mind if it’s own. Is it just her imagination or is it trying to kill her?

In Fabric is a bizarre, haunting horror film, with loads of dark comedy, stylized violence and perverse sex. Sheila’s story intertwines with that of Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) a newly-married washing machine repairman (and other side plots) all centred on that insidious, satanic red dress and the witch-like saleswoman who controls it. With its intentionally stilted dialogue, amazing production design, jarring editing, brilliantly spooky music, and perfect deadpan acting, In Fabric is like nothing you’ve ever seen before (unless you’ve seen Peter Strictland’s other movies.) It’s disturbing, and you may wonder what the hell is going on, but if you like art, sound, design and fashion; if you like horror/comedy without too much gore, this avant garde film is a must-see.

In Fabric (at the TIFF Bell Lightbox), Code 8, and Brotherhood all open today in Toronto; 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.

Families. Films reviewed: Before You Know It, Downton Abbey, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, 1970s, Canada, Class, documentary, Drama, Family, Music, Screwball Comedy, Theatre, TV, UK by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 2019

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

This week I’m looking at three movies exploring different families. There’s a band of brothers who form a band inside a big pink house; a pair of sisters who live inside a Greenwich Village theatre; and an extended family of aristocrats – and their servants – who live inside a stately mansion.

Before You Know It

Dir: Hannah Pearl Utt

Rachel and Jackie (Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock) are adult sisters who live inside a Greenwich Village playhouse. Homeschooled by their playwright Dad (Mandy Patinkin) since their mom died, their world is centred on their family theatre. Rachel, dressed in plain clothes and sensible shoes, is their always-reliable stage manager. Jackie – flamboyant, and self-obsessed – is an actress. Her impulsive behaviour gave her with an alcohol problem and a 13-year-old daughter named Dodge (Oona Yaffe). Rachel wishes she could date more, but she has too many responsibilities.

Life continues, until a major revelation shakes up their lives. Turns out their mom (Judith Light) is still alive, and has been living nearby under a stage name since they were kids! What’s more, she owns their theatre, and they might lose their careers, their home, their entire lives. Can Jackie and Rachel infiltrate a TV studio, meet their soap opera actress mom, and convince her to let them stay on at their theatre they call home? Or is this their final act?

Before You Know It is a delightful story of three generations of women in a theatrical setting. Written by Jen Tullock and Hannah Pearl Utt it veers between a gently screwball plot and a somewhat more serious coming-of-age story about growing up, both for Dodge and the two adult sisters. Nothing spectacular, just a pleasant and fun indie movie.

Downton Abbey: The Movie

Dir: Michael Engler

The Crawley’s are an aristocratic family living in a stately mansion on a vast manor estate in post- Edwardian England. It takes a village to keep things going smoothly, and it’s almost as self-sufficient community living inside the walls. This includes the extended family and their in-laws but also the multitude of servants, footmen, groomsmen, maids, kitchen help, grounds keepers, valets, a butler and more. But the normal social order is threatened by some unexpected guests. The King is coming! The King is coming!

Amd this brings all sorts of problems. Violet, the dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has a longstanding inheritance feud with Maud Bagshaw, a lady in waiting (Imelda Staunton) for theQueen. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), an Irish socialist and widower who started as a chauffeur but later married into the family, is suspected by a mysterious government agent as being disloyal to the King. Meanwhile, amongst the other half of the house, other troubles are revealed. Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera) wonders whether longtime boyfriend William is right for her, especially since a handsome young plumber arrives on the scene. And when the Kings servants barge in and take over everything, they must concoct a plot to get back their rightful place within their own house. Meanwle Thomas Barrow (Robert James Collier) the usually secretive and conniving butler seizes the chance to explore his sexuality in a nearby town.

Downton Abbey,the movie is a continuation of the popular British nighttime soap that ran for many years. I remember watching the first two seasons of it before giving up.It concentrated on a dull patriarch andhis faithful butler, his bickering daughters and various servants seen skitting around behind the scenes. It felt like a Leaveit to Beaver sitcom superimposed ona feudal estate. Deadly dull, politically loathesome – I hated it. But I found the movie much more interesting. It concentrates as much on the “Downstairs” as on the “Upstairs”, there are real surprises, and the characters are allowed to grow and progress.

I’m as surprised as you that I actually enjoyed this movie.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Dir: Daniel Roher

It’s the late 1950s in Toronto. Robbie Robertson is a teenaged boy and aspiring musician who learns to play chords on visits to his mom’s family at Mohawk Six Nations. When Southern rocker Ronnie Hawkins brings his band to town, Robbie is mesmerized by their energy, showmanship and confidence, especially their stick-twirling drummer Levon Helm. He writes some tunes and joins the Hawks at age 16, alongside other multitalented Canadian musicians: Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. They travel down south to perfect their style, playing alongside blues artist and country musicians. The Hawks outgrow their front man and set out on their own,

They tour Europe as Bob Dylan,s band rght when he goes electric.They are booed on every stage, but realize they have something special. They move into a big pink house in woodstock NY where they prefect their unique boendof folk,country, rock,blues and R&B. Robbie writes most of the songs while the entire band, one with the three vocalists, crafts each song. They start releasing their own songs under the name The Band and become one of the most influential North American groups of the ’60s and ’70s.

Once Were Brothers is a great music doc about the Band, as told through Robbie Robertson’s eyes. Through old photos, magazine clippings, period footage, and new interviews, it explores their brother-like friendship through its ups and downs, including jeolousy, addiction and car crashes. And looks at the rivalry between him and Levon Helm which eventually tore the band apart. It looks at their music, the pele they knew even their look — long hair and bearded, country gentlemen farmers, dressed like in 19th Century photos. It follows them from the early 60s through their Last Waltz, a giant concert filmed by Martin Scorsese. This is a beautiful, compelling story of the – can I say it? – legendary band.

Before You Know It (at the Tiff Bell Lightbox) Once Were Brothers and Downton Abbey all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Toronto’s fall festival season continues through the weekend with the Toronto Palestine Film Fest.

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

Runaways. Films reviewed: Across the Waters, Wonderstruck

Posted in 1920s, 1940s, 1970s, Denmark, Fantasy, Jazz, Kids, Manhattan, Movies, Nazi, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 20, 2017

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

Film Festival season continues in Toronto. Planet in Focus is an environmental film festival that bring eco heroes – like astronaut Roberta Bondar – to Toronto along with amazing documentaries from around the world. Everything from a grocery co-op in Brooklyn to a plastic recycling plant in Shandong, China to Genetically Modified Organisms, which are, well, everywhere. Go to Planetinfocus.org for more information.

ImagineNative is indigenous films and media arts, including an art crawl around the city, a wall is a screen, and many workshops, breakfasts and events. It has scary movies, westerns, docs, dramas, animation and so much more. Go to imaginenative.org for details.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people running away. One has a boy and a girl running away to New York City to find family. And the other has a father fleeing Copenhagen to save his family.

Across the Waters

Dir: Nicolo Donato (Brotherhood)

It’s 1943, in German-occupied Copenhagen. It’s an uneasy peace, but because of an agreement the Germans leave the Danes alone. Arne (David Dencik) is a guitarist in a jazz band. He is passionately in love with his wife Miriam (Danica Curcic) and they spend all their free time having sex. But only after they put their 6 year old son to bed. Jacob (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz) likes listening to Danish poems and playing with his teddy bear. Everything is going fine – no need to worry about the Nazis; this is Denmark, not Poland. Until that knock on the door comes one night – the Germans are coming! Run! Now!

The family is Jewish and the Nazis are there to take them away.

There’s only one way to escape; and that’s by boat to neutral Sweden. But how? They make their way north to a small port called Gilleleje, where they hear the fisherman are helping people across the sea. But when they get there things aren’t as good as they hoped.

One fisherman named Kaj is demanding high fares. But Arne and Miriam are nearly broke. There are way too many refugees in the town to keep them a secret from the Nazis. While some of the locals – the police chief, the pastor – are risking their lives to save fellow Danes, others have questionable motives. Who can be trusted, and who is collaborating? And will the family escape to Sweden?

Across the Waters is a fictional retelling of a true story. The movie is Danish but it was shot in Ireland to give it that period, seaside look. I always like a good WWII drama, and there have been some great Danish films, like Flame and Citron and Land of Mine, that deal with the topic. This one is smaller and more of a family drama than an action thriller, but it does keep the tension and suspense at a high level. (Including a scene reminiscent of Melville’s Army of Shadows.)

Worth seeing.

WonderStruck

Wonderstruck

Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the late 1970s in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 12 year old boy who lives with his aunt’s family. He suffers from strange dreams since his mom, a librarian, was killed in a car accident. Some nightmares involve being chased by wolves, but others are stranger still. They tell a continuous story, night after night, and they’re silent, and in black and white — just like an old movie.

These dreams tell a parallel story about Rose (Millicent Simmonds) a 12-year-old girl who lives in her father’s mansion in 1927 like a bird in a gilded cage. He’s a rich, divorced man in Hoboken, New Jersey. Rose’s head is in the stars – she spends most of her days reading title cards at silent movies or collecting photos she cuts from magazines. She’s obsessed with a certain pale-skinned movie actress named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Rose doesn’t go to school. But when she discovers her local theatre is switching to talkies she she knows it’s time for a change. She’s deaf and can only communicate by writing things down or reading words on a screen. So she bobs her hair and takes the ferry into Manhattan where she hopes to find the legendary actress.

Ben, meanwhile, is an orphan. His mom never told him who his birth father was. But looking through her things he finds an old bookmark with a message. It was tucked into a book about a museum collection, and the message was written by someone named Danny who visited their town before he was born. Could this be his dad?

But when he tries to call him up long distance, lightening strikes — literally. The electric shock travels through the phone line, leaving Ben deaf (just like Rose). But he catches a bus to New York City anyway, arriving at the Port Authority carrying just the name of a bookstore and a handful of cash. There he meets another 12-year-old named Jamie (Jaden Michael) who befriends him and says he’ll help him find his (possible) dad.

Jamie gives Ben a place to stay… a storage rooms at the Museum of Natural History (where Jamie’s father works). Will Ben find his dad? And will Rose find the movie star? Can two deaf 12-year-olds survive in a huge city? And what connects the two runaways?

Wonderstruck is a wonderful kids movie about seeking the unknown. It’s full of dreams, coincidences, and flashbacks, too many for it to be a real story. But it works great as a kids’ fantasy. It’s also beautifully made, using amazing animated paper models to tell part of the story. And through ingenious special effects, it incorporates the two main characters into what looks like period footage — of streetlife in New York in the gritty but colourful 70s,  and the fuzzy black-and-white 20s.

Just wonderful.

Wonderstruck opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Across the Waters is playing Sunday afternoon as part of the Chai Tea and Movies programme. Go to tjff.com for details.

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

Making history. Films reviewed: Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Goodbye Christopher Robin, BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, 1990s, France, H.I.V., Kids, LGBT, Poetry, Politics, Pop Culture, Protest, Watergate, WWI by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2017

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

It’s festival season in Toronto: Reel World film festival brings the world’s untold stories to the big screen; and Toronto After Dark has horror, sci-fi and fantasy pics that make you laugh your ass off or will scare your pants off. Toronto after Dark and Reel World are both on right now.

But this week I’m looking at historical dramas based on real events. We’ve got protests in Paris, politics in Washington, and Pooh in East Sussex.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Dir: Peter Landesman

It’s June, 1972 in Washington DC. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) a top-ranked FBI agent, notices something strange: burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel. And they weren’t stealing money, they were looking for files. And the burglars are former Federal agents. Who is behind it all? Felt investigates. The trail leads to the White House where Richard Nixon is running for reelection. But his investigation is stifled by a suspicious political appointee named Gray. He’s the provisional head of the FBI – J. Edgar Hoover just died — and seems to be taking orders from the White House. This is a no-no. And the White House seem to know everything the FBI is doing – is there a leak in the Bureau? So Felt decides to do some leaking himself. He secretly meets with reporters from Time Magazine and the Washington Post to pass on crucial information. Will the truth about Nixon and Watergate come out and can Felt keep his identity a secret?

No spoilers here: you’ve probably heard of the Watergate scandal that brought down Nixon. And about Deep Throat – the mysterious source journalists Woodward and Bernstein used to break their stories. And the Senate Watergate Hearings which investigated it all. This movie, though, looks at it from an entirely new perspective: as a power struggle between the White House and the FBI, personified by Felt a career federal agent.

It’s also about Felt’s private life, with his depressed, alcoholic wife Audrey (Diane Lane), and his hippy daughter who disappears and who Felt thinks is a member of the Weathermen Underground. At its worst, this film seems to paint the FBI – which has plenty of its own skeletons in its closet — as the saviour of a nation. But at its best it captures the mood of a superb thriller, based on a huge, real-life conspiracy.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Dir: Simon Curtis

A.A. Milne (Domhnal Gleeson) is a popular playwright in London’s west end just back from WWI. On the surface he’s full of witty patter, all whizbang and tiddley poo. But he’s actually he’s shell-shocked: Champagne corks or popping balloons send him diving for cover. He’s so shaken up he moves out to the country where he hopes to write an anti-war book in peace. His flapper wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) makes it clear she would much rather be partying in London. Milne has writer’s block. And the crying baby makes the situation even worse. They hire a nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to help raise their son Christopher Robin whom they call Billy Moon. But when Daphne moves back to London, and Olive to her dying mother’s bedside, Milne is suddenly left alone with a son he barely knows (Will Tilston). He has to talk to him, cook for him and entertain him.

And that’s when some serious father-son bonding kicks in. They go on adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, climb trees, make up stories and play with Billy Moon’s stuffed animals – a teddy bear, a piglet, and a donkey. He invites his friend — an illustrator — to draw pictures of it all. And Milne begins to write poems. He sends one, Vespers, about their son praying before bed, to Daphne in London to show her he’s writing again. She submits it to Vanity Fair and soon it’s a huge hit. Milne publishes his poems and stories and, suddenly, his son and the toys he plays with – Winnie the Pooh, and Kanga and Roo – become celebrities, famous around the world. The boy is dressed up and trotted out for book tours and toy stores and radio interviews. And this upsets him. Strangers know everything about his private life and his imaginary inventions. They think he’s a fictional character come to life, but he’s not Christopher Robin. He’s Billy Moon. Can the family stop this tide of fame before their lives are ruined?

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a touching story about the reality behind the beloved childrens’ books. It’s also the contrast between the British stiff upper lip – no touching or showing emotion – and all the humour and imagination yearning to escape. The movie is a bit slow in parts, and sometimes succombs to nostalgia and sentimentality, but I liked it anyway. And it also has beautiful locations and great costumes.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Dir: Robin Campillo

It’s the early 1990s in Paris, AIDS is at its peak and people are in a panic. The government makes speeches but does nothing and big pharma is sitting on crucial medication. Meanwhile, people are dying every day. So a group of activists launch a protest group called Act Up Paris (after its US counterpart) and spring into action.

They storm into government meetings and pharmaceutical offices, throwing plastic sacs of fake blood at the walls. Then they stage mass die-ins, falling to the floor until they’re dragged away by police. They meet in university lecture halls to hash out their disagreements: men and women of all ages and sexualities. But will their actions fall on deaf ears?

BPM is a story about the group, but especially two of its members, Sean –a scrawny, cynical latino (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart ) and Nathan, a student from a small town (Arnaud Valois). After a spontaneous first kiss – when they take over a high school to teach safe sex – they move in together: Sean is HIV positive, Nathan negative. Their relationship is intense and passionate, partly because Sean might die at any moment. BPM is a long and detailed – but very moving – look at a civil disobedience movement. It captures the fluidity and uncertainty of life and love in the midst of a crisis.

BPM, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House and Goodbye Christopher Robin all open today in Toronto; 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.

Western-ish. Films reviewed: Lucky, Hostiles, Sweet Country

Posted in 1800s, 1920s, Australia, Indigenous, Movies, Music, US, violence, Western, Wilderness by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 2017

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

If the western seems like an old, tired genre to you, there are some new movies you should take a look at. They reinvent the western by changing key elements and points of view.

This week I’m looking at three new movies that are westerns (or at least western-ish). There’s justice in the outback, a northbound trail, and a lonesome cowboy in the great southwest.

Lucky

Dir: John Carroll Lynch

Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) is a very lucky man. He’s 89 years old, smokes a pack a day, lives on milk, coffee and bloody mary’s – and not much else – and is still in perfect health. He’s a crotchety old coot who wears cowboy boots and a straw hat. He lives alone in a small town in the great southwest, amidst giant Seguara cacti and hundred-year-old tortoises. He likes yoga calisthenics, mariachi and crossword puzzles. He hangs out at the local diner by day and at the corner bar at night. So why is Lucky so sad?

The other day he fell in his kitchen for no reason. His doctor says that’s just what happens when you’re old. This makes Lucky reexamine his long-held attitudes and his stubborn ways. But can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Lucky is a nice and gentle look at an old cowboy in a multi racial southwestern town. It’s an arthouse film, full of music, stories, and funny, quirky characters, (played by David Lynch, Tom Skerrit and others.) It also functions as a tribute to Harry Dean Stanton himself, who plays the music and provides the backstories for the anecdotes Lucky tells. Stanton died earlier this year, but the film is less of an epitaph than a wry celebration of his life.

I like this movie.

Hostiles

Wri/Dir: Scott Cooper

It’s the 1890s in New Mexico. The Indians have all been killed or jailed under an army led by Captain Blocker (Christian Bale). Blocker is widely known for his fighting prowess and his cruelty – they say he’s scalped more natives than anyone. So he’s surprised when the President himself orders him to protect and accompany his sworn enemy on a trip to Montana. Blocker fought and jailed Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) a decade earlier. But now the Chief is dying of cancer and wants to be buried in his ancestral lands. Blocker sets off with the Chief, his family and a squad of soldiers. On the way they meet Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) a dazed mother still holding a dead baby to her breast. Her entire family was wiped out in a Comanche raid a few days earlier. She joins the group. The Chief offers to help them fight the Comanche but Blocker doesn’t trust him – he keeps him shackled to his horse. Is the enemy of his enemy his friend? But as the soldiers travel ever northward they begin to understand their captives, and overcome the fear, bigotry and hatred that killed so many.

Hostiles is a good, traditional western, shot against breathtaking scenery. It’s a bit slow, and there are way too many long-winded apologies as each character asks for forgiveness when he confesses his crimes. (One dramatic mea culpa would have been enough.) Though told from the white point of view, it is sympathetic toward the plight of First Nations. It satisfies as a Western with the horseback riding, shoot-outs and lots of dramatic tension. And Christian Bale makes a great silent soldier who sees the light.

Sweet Country

Dir: Warwick Thonrton

It’s 1929 in Northern Territory, Australia with three homesteads not far from a small town. They’re owned by whites, but worked by aboriginal families. Sam (Hamilton Morris) works for a kindly preacher (Sam Neill); Cattleman Archie (Gibson John) is indigenous but comes from far away. And mixed-race kid Philomac (Tremayne Doolan) lives near — but not with — his white father.

In comes Harry March, a deranged WWI veteran demanding some “black stock” – how he describes aboriginal workers — to repair a fence. Sam and his family volunteer, but March gives them no food or money for their work, and then sexually assaults Sam’s wife.

They flee back to the preacher’s house, pursued by March, armed and dangerous. Sam defends himself but ends up killing March, a white man (as secretly witnessed by Philomac). So Sam and his wife flee into the bush pursued by a posse that includes Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and Archie as their guide.  The sergeant is the de facto law in these parts and plans to lynch Sam whenever he finds him. But things changes when Sam ends up saving the Sergeant’s  life and turning himself in. Then an actual judge shows up to conduct the trial. But can an Aboriginal man receive justice in a white, frontier town?

Sweet Country is an excellent western set in 20th century Australia. It gives a raw and realistic look at brutal racism and frontier justice. It’s also a subtle examination of identity, and the uneasy give-and-take among the different aboriginal groups, the white settlers and their mixed race descendents.

I recommend this movie.

Sweet Country won the Platform Prize at TIFF and the Special Jury Prize at Venice.

Lucky starts today in Toronto, check your local listings, with Hostiles opening later on. You can catch Sweet Country on Thursday, Oct 19th at the Imaginenative film festival. Go to Imaginenative.org for show times and tickets.

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

Schocken and Scribner’s. Films reviewed: Vita Activa — The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, Genius

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, Biopic, Books, Cultural Mining, Germany, Manhattan, Nazi, US, WWII by CulturalMining.com on June 10, 2016

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

Movies based on books are a dime a dozen: there’s a movie option for every bestseller. But what about movies about the books and writers themselves? This week I’m looking at movies set in the mid-20th century when books really were important. There’s a documentary about a philosopher who pulls her observations together; and a biopic about an editor who cuts lengthy manuscripts apart.

Vita Activa PosterVita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Dir: Ada Ushpiz

It’s 1963 in Jerusalem. Adolph Eichmann is on trial there as the primary architect of the mass murder perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Covering the trial for the New Yorker  is Hanna Arendt noted German-Jewish philosopher. She observes the ultimate bland bureaucrat in a glass box who claims he has no hatred of the Jews he slaughtered and says he is not an ideologue. Arendt observes it all, and coins the term the Banality of Evil to describe it. This sets off a huge controversy. Critics accuse her of minimizing the enormity of Nazi crimes, humanizing the criminal and even partially blaming the victims.

How did she go from a girl from Hanover to a philosopher/journalist inHannah Arendt 1 Jerusalem? The path was not direct. This documentary covers the history of her life, both academic and personal, and her philosophy and writings.

Arendt lived through what she wrote about. Born in Hanover, Arendt was raised by her mother. She studied at the University of Marburg under philospher Martin Heidegger (her sometime lover) just before the Nazis came to power in 1933. She was kicked out of  school and suddenly found herself — an ordinary German — as part of a group denounced and dehumanized by government propaganda: the refugees who had fled war and revolution across Europe.  What disheartened her Hannah Arendt 2most was to see German intellectuals (including Heidegger), the very people she revered and was devoting her life to study,  incorporating Nazi rhetoric into their own writing and speeches.

She fled to Paris and continued her work. There she witnessed the rise of extremism and totalitarianism across Europe. Imprisoned in a concentration camp by the French, she escaped and made it to New York, where she wrote about totalitarianism, guilt and responsibility.

This film is a historical document that uses recorded interviews – in English, French and German — to explain her ideas and the events in her Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa, Zeitgeist Filmslife. It’s illustrated by newsreel footage, government propaganda as well as film from the Eichmann trial. Her writing and letters are read by off-screen actors. And both her critics and supporters — including Karl Jaspers and Judith Butler — are given airtime.

This is a rich and beautiful look at the work and life of Hannah Arendt.  It also deals with the debate on her philosophy and the controversies around her coverage of the Eichmann trial. I think this films does a better job than the dramas made about her life.

Genius PosterGenius

Dir: Michael Grandage

Max Perkins (Colin Firth) is a top editor at Scribners and sons, a major New York publisher of fiction. He’s known for championing an unknown writer. He picks up a messy pile of paper, cuts out the unnecessary parts and rewrites it Boom – instant bestseller. Max – known for the fedora he never takes off his head — is the invisible force behind F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He’s the one who edited The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.

When he’s not at work he’s commuting to the outer suburbs, a bastion of Anglo privilege and conservatism with his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters.

But suddenly something upsets the apple cart. A manuscript 7X2A4831.cr2arrives, courtesy of Broadway costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman). She’s married with children but champion an unknown writer whose work has been rejected across the industry. He reads it it and is blown away. And who appears his door but Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), a youngish man with messy hair and a brown suit with a heavy southern drawl. He shouts and performs rather than converses. As soon as they meet, the older, bookish Max and the young undisciplined Tom become fast friends and devote all their time trying to convert 1000s of messy pages a pile into a coherent readable novel. Cut, cut, cut says Max. But this is my life! 7X2A3167.cr2protests Tom. The book is published to phenomenal success. And then on to the next manuscript to the chagrine of their famileis and livers But will their bromance outlast Tom’s brush with fame?

13416962_1731661510436823_7285708826814410368_oGenius is an interesting film about writing and editing. That’s what I liked about it.

(Full disclosure: when I’m not reviewing movies I’m editing books – that’s my other job.) I love editing… but is it ever exciting? The movie is filled with writers typing and scribbling, and scribbling away passages with a red pencil. But what the movie really needs is a good edit! It’s filled with tons of speechifying and grandstanding (and dare I say overacting?) Do real writers, even famous ones, talk like they write? Of course not. But in this movie they do.

It’s done as a period piece, complete with beautiful interwar cityscapes, 13418669_1732542140348760_2521662994238663257_operiod costumes and cars, and a great cast. But somehow this movie manages to be both bookish and overwrought.

Spring festival season continues with ICFF, the Italian Contemporary Film Festival and the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, and NIFF, the Niagara Integrated Film Festival. Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; Genius starts next week in Toronto and Vancouver.

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

European movies without subtitles. Films Reviewed: Every Thing Will Be Fine, The Danish Girl, Youth

Posted in 1920s, Canada, Cultural Mining, Denial, Denmark, Depression, Drama, Subtitles, Switzerland, Trans by CulturalMining.com on December 11, 2015

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

If you want to see a European movie, but can’t stand reading subtitles, have I got some movies for you! This week I’m reviewing three movies by famous European directors with multinational casts but only using English dialogue. There’s a Quebec writer trying to forget a terrible accident, a Danish painter who moves to Paris trying to escape her gender, and some artists at a Swiss spa who just want to while away the hours.

937bf644-3b7d-46c3-afbe-2a31f9fc5010Every Thing Will be Fine

Dir: Wim Wenders

Tomas (James Franco) is a novelist in Quebec. He’s gone ice fishing to clear his mind, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. He has writers’ block, severe depression and marital problems. And his elderly father (Patrick Bauchau) is even worse. Tomas’s partner Sara (Rachel McAdams) really wants to help him, 84ae3573-1ae0-47b2-8096-2f80afa9120fbut he doesn’t seem to want to be helped. And then disaster strikes: driving home in a blizzard he doesn’t see two kids tobogganing down a hill right in front of him. After the accident he brings the older boy, Christopher, home to his mom Kate’s home (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It wasn’t Tomas’s fault but it messed up his life, Sara’s, Kate’s and even little Christopher’s. He hits rock bottom and tries to kill himself. It doesn’t work. But things do get better. Gradually.

His sorrows provide new material for his next book, and at 514025f3-9433-4f89-8c51-d373855a4ddea meeting at his publisher he encounters Ann (Marie-Josée Croze) a woman with a young daughter. And over the next dozen or so years, things really do become fine for Tomas. But what has become of the other people affected by the accident?

This is a movie about relationships, guilt and memory. It’s also about writing and the ownership of eba43d3e-47f0-4377-8f51-60673f8c9c2aevents and ideas. Who controls the way a story is told? The writer or the subjects? And it’s shot in beautiful Quebec locations. But is it a good movie? For the first half hour at least, Wim Wenders’ film is almost unbearably slow. Slow as molasses on a cold winter’s day. Slow as sap dripping out of a maple tree. Pauses between each line so long you could step outside for a break and not miss a thing. That kind of depressing slowness. But everything becomes much better as the movie goes on until, by the end, it’s actually a very interesting movie.

The second half redeems the first.

pgLRWV_danishgirl_01_o3_8707307_1441409186-1The Danish Girl

Dir: Tom Hooper

Einer Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a young, successful landscape artist 100 years ago, in turn-of-the-century Copenhagen. He’s married to another artist a portrait painter named Gerda (Alicia Vikander: Ex Machina). Gerda is a feminist and an artist, but can’t reach the fame of her husband. Probably because she’s a woman. One day Gerda has him pose with his legs together, wearing stockings and high heels, as a stand-in when her female model can’t Eddie Redmayne The Danish Girlcome. Something clicks on deep inside him, and the “Danish girl” of the title is born. She names herself Lili Elbe. Gerda is a bit surprised but takes it in stride. But for Lili this means big changes. She ventures out-of-doors and encounters a man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw). But Lili is distressed to discover he’s gay and desires her as a man, not as a woman.

x900 copyLater Lili takes a break as Einer moves with Gerda to Paris. He consults doctors and psychiatrists there; he’s worried he may be going crazy. Lili comes back into their lives. Suddenly Gerda becomes the talk of the town with her unusual paintings and their enigmatic subject. Who is that woman in her portraits? Lili of course. Einer is more and more sublimated as Lili comes to the surface. His childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) appears in their lives again. He is very sympathetic to Lili’s plight but at the same time helps Gerda with their marital difficulties. Which one is he closest The Danish Girlto now? Lili suffers attacks on the street by thugs and even more terrible treatment by cruel doctors and psychiatrists. Will she ever meet a doctor who believes her? One that can transform her body to match her gender?

The Danish Girl is a visually beautiful, highly emotional historical drama, based on Lili Elbe’s memoirs as one the first famous, transgendered women. But it doesn’t work as a movie. It’s overwrought, melodramatic, even operatic in parts. It feels dated and stiff.

Redmayne’s performance is totally believable both as Einer and as Lili. And I understand that movies like this are made with potential Oscars and ticket sales in mind. But with the flood of big-budget movies and TV shows — Transparent, Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl — aren’t they ever going to cast a trans actor in the lead role?

image-5586e5b5-a28e-42df-9115-006940b63cd5Youth

Dir: Paolo Sorentino

Fred and Mick (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel) are two old friends spending some time at a luxury spa in Switzerland. They’ve known each other for 60-odd years and are so close that Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weiss) is married Mick’s son. They’re family now.

Fred is an English composer and conductor who, though retired, still has melodies bouncing around his brain. He sounds them out using a candy wrapper between two fingers. He’s being pursued by a representative of the Queen, who wants him to conduct, in her presence, his most famous composition known simply as a Simple Song. He refuses.

Mick is a famous Hollywood director. He’s at the spa with his writers and image-abbd6cc0-ab01-4225-8103-55f195eec116actors, hammering out his latest, and perhaps last, film script. He’s waiting to hear from Brenda, an over-the-hill Hollywood diva (Jane Fonda) about appearing in this movie.

But they are far from alone at this exclusive resort. There’s also a young actor (Paul Dano) rehearsing a part in a German movie; an overweight soccer star, a mountain climber, a beautiful Italian model, and a Tibetan lama.

This is a great movie. The film is a series of vignettes, ostensibly about two old guys assessing their whole lives,

YOUTHdiscussing what they should have done, and what to do next.

But more than that, it’s also an incredibly beautiful movie to watch and listen to. It’s funny, surprising, a bit bombastic, and occasionally predictable. But above all it’s subtle. It’s not a high-concept movie, just a beautiful montage.

The director, Paolo Sorentino, is famous for his last film, A Great Beauty. But I like this one much better, because it’s not as plotty as that one, heading toward some supposedly profound ending.

This one just is.

Youth, The Danish Girl, and Every Thing Will be Fine all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And if subtitles don’t bother you, be sure to catch the a free screening at Innis Town Hall of the classic Kurosawa movie Ikiru, playing for free (Dec 15, at 6:30), courtesy of the Japan Foundation.

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

Off the Beaten Track. Movies Reviewed: Serena, Gemma Bovery, Corner Gas: the Movie

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Books, Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, Horses, Movies, Satire by CulturalMining.com on December 5, 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.

Urban life getting you down? Here are three movies set in small towns. A gothic drama in the Smoky Mountains of Carolina; a comedy in a Saskatchewan town where there’s not a whole lot going on; and a comic drama in Normandy… with a literary twist.

67934-SERENA_D1-190_R_CROPSerena
Dir: Susanne Bier

George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is a lumber baron in the roaring 20s. He’s also a big-game hunter, searching for the elusive panther. He dreams of clear-cutting the smoky mountains of North Carolina, and, with the profits, expanding into the rain forests of Brazil. But he’s a good guy — you can tell because he chops his own wood and saves his workers’ lives. There would be no SERENA_D11-2819.CR2problems at all, if it weren’t for those meddling government types. They want to make it into a national park, just because of its breathtaking scenic beauty, and the rare flora and fauna living in those foggy, tree-covered mountains.

But everything changes when he spots a blonde woman at a horse show. Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) is a strong and independent woman from out west and born to the wood. Beautiful, glamorous and tough as nails, she’s as comfortable in an evening gown as she is on horseback. She can SERENA_D18-4906._R_CROPjpgkill a rattler with an axe from across a field and is handy with a rifle. He proposes on the spot and makes her a full partner in his business… to the chagrin of his male colleagues. But Wall Street crashes and tough times follow. Things start to fray at the edges. There’s Galloway (Rhys Ifans) a sketchy ex-con with “the sight”: Serena once appeared in a vision so he’ll protect her to the death. And there’s talk George might have an illegitimate son in the village. And his partners are losing faith in the business. Can Serena and George find happiness in a lumber camp? Or will it drag them into a spiral of jealousy, revenge and madness?

Susanne Bier is a well-known Danish director, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence scored in two big hits: Silver Lining Playbook and American Hustle. Is this three for the win? Not a chance. It’s a clunky potboiler with a confusing and messy story, and extremely uneven acting. Lawrence plays it to the hilt as a deranged, screeching devil-woman, while Cooper sticks to the single-emotion style of acting. Whether it’s shock, lust, anger, or bewilderment, he just stares off into space with his mouth slightly open. Serena is not awful, it kept me watching and interested, but it’s just not very good.

GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne FontaineGemma Bovery
Dir: Anne Fontaine

Martin (Fabrice Luchini) is an intellectual from Paris. He moves to small-town Normandy, near Rouen, to take over his dad’s bakery. He likes kneading dough and pondering great literature. His wife is a world-weary realist, and his teenaged son prefers Call of Duty to French culture. But dad’s thoughts are still filled with the 19th century novels of Flaubert. So imagine his surprise when a young English couple that moves into the dilapidated house next door, shares the names of the characters in Madame Bovery! Down-to-earth Charles repairs furniture, while his bored wife Gemma (Gemma Atherton) decorates homes with trompe d’oeil to make them appear older. And just like Madame Bovery, she craves a more exciting GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne Fontainelife.

Martin, though, knows the book well and feels he can predict every thought they will have and every word they will say. Soon enough, he sees her making eyes at the town rake, handsome Hervé (Niels Schneider: J’ai tué ma mère, Les amours imaginaires) a local squire living in a nearby castle. Don’t go with him, it can only lead to ruin! Martin thinks. In his mind he sees them in period costume, dancing in the ballroom. In reality, the quaint town, including the aristocracy, is crumbling all around him. Martin tries to manipulate the local characters – using secret methods – to save them from their novelistic fates. But will it work?

GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne FontaineThe entire film is narrated, at times directly to the camera, by Martin himself. He takes us through the story, mainly to the various dinner parties, where people speak fractured English and French. He is especially incensed by a nouveau riche couple, an English/French marriage who see French culture as merely wine and Camembert.

Gemma Bovery is two movies in one. There’s Flaubert’s novel reenacted in Martin’s head, and there’s a satirical look at contemporary France. Because of the meta- aspects of the film, you don’t feel as deeply invested in the characters’ lives; you’re always a step away from what’s happening. But it more than makes up for that with its cleverness. And because it’s an Anne Fontaine movie, it carries that sensual, erotic tone she’s so good at.  And the actors, especially the beautiful Gemma Atherton, are a joy to watch. I like this movie.

CGTM_100_Brent Butt (as Brent Leroy). Photo by Steve WilkieCorner Gas: The Movie
Dir: Brent Butt

If you’ve ever watched Canadian TV, you’re probably familiar with Dog River, Saskatchewan. It’s an uneventful prairie town known mainly for its gas station, its coffee shoCGTM_109_Fred Ewanuick (as Hank Yarbo). Photo by Steve Wilkiep, and its wise-cracking locals. There’s dry Brent at the gas station (Brent Butt), his dad and mum — cranky Oscar and rational Emma (Eric Peterson, Janet Wright), pretty Lacey at the coffee shop (Gabrielle Miller), and the local police. CGTM_113_Janet Wright (as Emma Leroy). Photo by Steve WilkieThen there’s the incorrigible Hank (Fred Ewanuick) and the trickster Wanda (the very hilarious Nancy Robertson).

Nothing ever happens there, right? Wrong! To turn a sitcom into a feature film, you need an epic plot. In this film the town goes bankrupt, the people run amok, and Tim Horton’s starts sniffing at the real estate. Their only hope? A Toronto contest looking for the quaintest town in Canada. Can they pull it all together in time? Not bloody likely… it’s aCGTM_117_Nancy Robertson (as Wanda Dollard). Photo by Steve Wilkie comedy, folks.

Believe it or not, I only saw the TV show once. It felt too slow paced, so I couldn’t get into it. Clearly, I’m not one of its fans (who are legion). But the movie? It was surprisingly funny. There are corny parts and some gags fall flat of course, but on the whole the humour is clever, inventive, ironic… even subversive. And it does all this without any potty laughs, frat boy nudges, boobies, four-letter words, dumb blondes, racial and ethnic stereotypes or fat jokes. Not a small accomplishment.

So if you’re looking for Canadian humour, here it is, and then some.

spiceworld_imageGemma Bovery and Serena both open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. And Corner Gas: the Movie is playing now through the weekend. Also in Toronto,  look out for the MUFF society — specializing in girl-tastic pics for women —  kicks off their monthly series with Spice World (yes, I do mean that Spice Girl movie) only at the Royal. And First to Fall – a documentary about two students in Canada who volunteered to fight with the rebels in Libya — is finally screening in Toronto, tonight at the Jayu Human Rights Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  I interviewed the directors last summer.

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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