Histories. Films reviewed: Hollywood, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Academy Awards, Acting, documentary, Economics, Ensemble Cast, Hollywood, Movies, Poverty, Slavery, Wall Street by CulturalMining.com on May 8, 2020

(Home recording, no music)

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

History, they say, is written by the victors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other histories still out there. This week I’m looking at two stories, a doc and a TV drama. There’s a pessimistic, economic history of the world; and an optimistic, revisionist history of Hollywood.

Hollywood

Creators: Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy

It’s just after WWII in LA. Young people from small towns across the US are flocking to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune in the movies. People like Jack (David Corenswet), a handsome young actor who lines up each day at Ace studios on the chance of a day’s paid work as an extra. But a pretty face is no guarantee of steady work in Hollywood. So when a mysterious man named Ernie (Dylan McDermott) recruits him for a day job at a gas station he welcomes the extra income. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage with his pregnant wife who works at the famed Schwab’s Pharmacy (where actors hang out to get discovered). Camille (Laura Harrier) is a beautiful actress on contract at Ace, where she attends locution lessons to perfect her elegant mid-atlantic accent. Still she’s stuck playing demeaning roles as maids, simply because she’s black. Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) is a talentless but good looking actor who thinks his luck has changed when he is signed by an agent named Henry (Jim Parsons). But the power broker demands sexual favours from all his clients.

Luckily, these three actors all have love interests. Jack soon discovers his job isn’t about pumping gas. It’s a front for male sex workers to peddle their wares for Hollywood’s rich and famous. Powerful women, including an older woman named Avis (Patti LuPone), grant him a chance for a foot in the door in a real movie. At the gas station, he works beside Archie (Jeremy Pope) a black writer hoping Ace studios will produce his script about a failed actress

HOLLYWOOD

who kills herself by jumping off the famed Hollywood sign. His first client is none other than Rock Hudson, looking for male companionship. Camille is in a relationship with Raymond (Darren Criss) a director at Ace. He says he’s part-Asian but can pass as white. And he wants to direct that movie Archie wrote, bringing all the main characters of the series together in one production. But is Ace Studios – and America – ready for a multi-racial romance?

Hollywood is a TV mini-series that appears to give an insider’s view of the post-war movie industry, but actually it makes it all up. The infamous casting couch – where directors or producers forced woman to have sex with them in exchange for a part – is reversed here to make men both the victims and the objects of desire. In this fantasy world, 1940s Hollywood produces movies written by, directed by, and starring non-whites. Studios are headed by women, actors come out publicly as gay and the Academy Awards happily nominates lots of African-Americans. In reality, desegregation and repeal of Jim Crow laws was decades away, “miscegenation” – mixed racial marriage – was still illegal, homosexuality was a crime, and even today Hollywood (and the Oscars) are still as white as snow.

About the only true part of this series is the gas station used as a front for male hustlers. All of this was revealed in a book and a documentary featuring the late, great Scotty Bowers (I interviewed him here in 2018.) The Netflix series is the story of his career… but he’s never mentioned by name, even once. I don’t dislike the series – it’s never boring, it’s fun to watch and has beautiful production values along with many interesting new players in the cast – but, like most Netflix productions, historical accuracy applies to hairstyles but never to the script.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Dir: Justin Pemberton

Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

What is capital? How is it distributed? How has that changed over the past three centuries? These are just some of the questions dealt with in this new documentary. In the 18th Century 99% of capital – meaning wealth, money and land – was controlled by the aristocracy, less than 1% of the people. Life expectancy was low, and life for the poor was nasty, brutish and short. But revolutionis, in France and elsewhere, didn’t mean a transfer of power and weath from the top to the bottom. Government was still controlled by those with the most money and laws were passed to ensure they didn’t lose their wealth. The rise of colonialism in the Americas, Africa and Asia led to more wealth in Europe extracted from the lands and people they now controlled. Slave-based agriculture generated even more capital – in the form of human beings – now bought, sold and traded like commodities. And people working in factories could be arrested even for quitting a job, and imprisoned for being poor or in debt. But, following the widespread death and destruction of WWI and the following worldwide depression, came the first signs of a transfer of power and capital from huge corporate monopolies and the very rich to the rest of the people.

Following WWII, the remaining aristocracy was heavily taxed, and wealth was transferred to the average person in the form of housing, education, health and the welfare state. People were finally rewarded for study and hard work. They were able to move up from poverty. This lasted for a few decades, until it began to unravel with new ideologies introduced by Thatcher and Reagan. Unions and welfare were suddenly bad. Greed was good. And once again, wealth was transferred from the poor and shrinking middle class back up to the top 1%. That’s where we are now.

How can we reverse these awful changes?

This documentary is a fascinating — and fast-moving – condensed look at economic history over the past 300 years and how it affects us today. It’s narrated by Pickety and other economists in a very accessible and easy to understand way. And it’s beautiful to look at, filled with thousands of tiny, quick film clips, mostly one to three seconds long, of stately homes and Victorian factories, mints printing dollar bills, Thatcher talking to schoolgirls, and people breathing through face masks in a horribly polluted Beijing. The images and music are as meticulously researched as they are lovely. Constant eye-candy.

Even the talking heads, those usually dull academics interviewed in the doc, are enthusiastic and interesting, and uniformly filmed against lavish backgrounds and scenery. And it’s filled with cool sequences. l loved one about a psychological experiment where volunteers play Monopoly without a level playing field – it favours certain players at random. These newly “rich” players are recorded acting rude, scarfing pretzels and generally behaving entitled as soon as they discovered the rules were tilted in their favour. So if you want to learn about history and economics and what to do about it, but don’t feel like reading thousands of pages, Capital in the 21st Century is a great place to feed your brain without wearing it out.

Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix; Capital opens May 8 in Toronto at the Hotdocs Virtual Theatre; 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.

Good not good. Films reviewed: Bombshell, A Hidden Life, Cats

Posted in 2000s, Acting, Animals, Austria, Dance, Farming, Journalism, Movies, Musical, Nazi, Religion, Sexual Harassment, Theatre, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 20, 2019

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

Ever watch something that’s bad, but still has good parts? Or a beautifully rendered piece of art that doesn’t live up to its potential? This week, I’m looking at three new films, that I liked but didn’t like, or hated but still enjoyed. There’s one farmer in wartime Austria, three women at Fox News, and a hundred cats in London.

Bombshell

Dir: Jay Roach

It’s Fox News studios in New York City. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a top TV journalist and news anchor, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is co-host of Fox & Friends, Donald Trump’s favourite show, and newcomer Kayla Pospisal (Margot Robbie) is a committed conservative evangelical, trying to advance her career. What do these three women have in common? Theyre all smart, conservative and attractive (Carlson is a former Miss Minnesota.) And they were all hired by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Ailes is the highly profitable Fox News CEO, the man who singlehandedly shifted cable journalism from neutral news-source to a font of blatantly partisan right-wing talking points, leaving CNN in its dust. He’s also paranoid and hideously ugly, called Jabba the Hut behind his back.

The Fox News he runs is a place where cameras are positioned to show off female newscasters’ legs. Male employees advance because of their work. Female employees are also judged on looks, and work in a blatantly sexist office culture. And Ailes is the centre of it all, using his position power to exploit, harass and sexually assault young women. Kelly shares her concerns with her husband and Pospisal with her lesbian lover and Fox News staffer (Kate McKinnon) who says she doesn’t want to hear about it. But Carlson refuses to take this lying down. She launches a lawsuit against Ailes and Fox News. But will other journalists, like Kelly and Pospisal (a composite character based on real people) join her struggle, or stay loyal to Ailes?

Bombshell is a fast-paced news drama based on recent real-life events. It’s told in a light, punchy and easy-to-digest format, which makes the few dramatic scenes showing sexual harassment all the more powerful. Theron, Kidman and Robbie are all terrific and believable in their roles. On the ther hand, the movie barely touches on the awfulness and deceit of Fox News itself. And while it skewers Ailes it leaves the notorious Rupert Murdoch strangely untouched. Bombshell tells a great story, as seen by three strong women, around sexual harassment, but doesn’t concern itself with other political matters.

A Hidden Life

Wri/Dir: Terrence Malick

It’s WWII in Austria. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is a simple farmer deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). They live with his mother, her sister and their three little girls inthefoothills of a dramatic mountain range. Together with their neighbours they till the fields, harvest the grain and carry it, on the back of a donkey, to the miller. They go to church on Sunday and dress up in masks and costumes to honour the harvest. Their life is idyllic until… Franz gets drafted for army duty a second time. Enough, he says. I’m not going. No more Heil Hitler’s, no more military uniforms, no more separation from my wife and kids. Enough! Neighbours and government officials try to convince him to sign a loyalty oath, but he refuses. He is sent to prison, leaving his wife and sister-in-law to plow the fields among neighbours who aren’t friendly anymore. Only their constant letters keep them sane and I love. Will Franz sign the oath, or will he stay steadfast to his beliefs, even at risk of death?

A Hidden Life is a lush and beautiful rendering of a simple act of resistance in wartime anschluss Austria. It’s directed by Terrance Mallick, and is instantly recognizable by its swirling images, breathy voiceovers, lush music and stunning camerawork. People clutch earth in their fingers, and reap fields with scythes. Good passionate acting, featuring cameo performances by Matthias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski, and the late, great Bruno Ganz.

On the other hand… it’s three hours long. Three hours!  Why does it take so long to tell such a simple story? Why? It’s not exactly boring or tedious since it’s done so beautifully, but similar stories have already been told (and in a more dramatic fashion, like Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes/Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert). As a movie critic, I try to avoid terms like “self-indulgent”, but this movie is strictly for fans of Terrence Mallick.

Cats

Dir: Tom Hooper

It’s nighttime in a fantastical, pre-gentrified London, where abandoned alley cats rule the streets. The Jellicle Cats are gathered for their annual meeting, presided over by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench), who will choose one cat to be reborn. Each contestant performs before the queen: There are dancers (Francesca Hayward, Steven McRae) singers (Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson), comics (Rebel Wilson, James Corden), a magician dressed in black and white (Laurie Davidson) and even an old theatre cat (Ian McKellen). But the age-old ceremony is challenged by the evil Macavity (Idris Elba) who is kidnapping each cat after their performance. Who will be chosen to ascend to the skies? Will peace and order return to the Jellicle cats? And can newbie Victoria join the gang?

Cats is a strange hybrid of theatre, and movie special effects. Each act is performed on a vast soundstage, keeping close to how it would look before a live audience. The cat people’s faces and bodies are human, but augmented, using CGI, with cat ears, moving tails and furry bodies. Some of them wear elaborate costumes, while others run around “naked”, covered in sleek fur. But they’ve all been digitally neutered, with no sign of breasts or genitals anywhere. The script is abysmally bad, almost babyish, with “jokes” like cat got your tongue? and relentless fat jokes. Fat jokes? Really?

Music ranges from torch songs to chorus lines. There are a few great scenes, like cockroaches doing elaborate Busby Berkeley formations as Rebel Wilson eats them, one by one; and impressive dance routines, along with some good songs… but I can’t figure out who the movie is trying to appeal to? Small children? Theatre buffs? Taylor Swift fans? I don’t think it knows, either.

Still… I kinda liked it, if just for the spectacle of it all. It’s bad, but it’s watchable and loaded with great singers dancers and prize-winning actors all of whom are far, far more talented than the material they’ve been given.

And I think these weird cat people will haunt my sexual nightmares for years to come.

Bombshell, A Hidden Life and Cats 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.

Lower Budget. Films reviewed: Dead in a Week, Nothing Like a Dame, Clara

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Death, documentary, Movies, Romance, Science Fiction, Space, Suicide, Thriller, Toronto, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 30, 2018

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

There are lots of big-budget blockbusters and Oscar bait cluttering the theatres these days, but I thought I’d give you a break from all that. So this week I’m looking at three lower- budget films that might otherwise fall through the cracks. There’s a documentary on the hidden side of acting; a dark comedy about the humorous side of suicide; and a scientific romance about the spiritual side of astronomy and quantam physics.

Dead in a Week (or your money back)

Wri/Dir: Tom Edmunds

William (Aneurin Barnard: Dunkirk, Bigger, Bitter Harvest ), a brooding young English writer, is a total mess. He’s lonely and depressed, with a dead-end job, and daily rejection letters for his unpublished book. Things are so bad he wants to off himself. But he has terrible luck with that too. Each time he tries to kill himself something goes wrong, saving his life. In desperation, he hires an assassin to kill him. “Dead in a week or your money back.” His assassin, Leslie O’Neil (Tom Wilkinson: Selma, Denial, The Happy Prince ) was the country’s top hitman in his heyday, but no more. His homey wife and the Assassins League president are both pushing for him retire. But this hit could change his luck, putting him over the required minimum murders so he’s stoked and ready to kill. Everybody’s happy, until…

William gets an unexpected call from a publisher who wants to meet him. Ellie (Freya Mavor: The Sense of an Ending, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun), an editor, is intrigued by his book. She’s also bright, cynical and pretty. Suddenly William has a reason to live. Trouble is you can’t cancel a contract once it’s been signed. And through a series of mishaps, other assassins are also on their tail. Are they both doomed? Or will they find love beneath a dark cloud in the picturesque southern counties of England?

Dead in a Week is Tom Edmunds’s first film, and it’s a very enjoyable, twisted comedy. It starts with a ridiculously implausible premise, but manages to ride it to a fun and unexpected conclusion. It twins bland, small town life – budgies and needlepoint – with bloody violence and an almost supernatural “League of Assassins”. And the main actors stick to their oddball characters in absurd situations without resorting to mugging or hamming.

This would make a perfect date movie for an emo and a goth.

Nothing Like a Dame

Dir: Roger Michel

What do actors Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins have in common? They are longtime actors of the London stage, and good friends since the 1950s. They are also all addressed as “Dame” a title awarded by the Queen, the equivalent of Sir for men. This documentary follows them at their retreat in the English countryside as they reminisce about life on the stage, and reveal untold stories about what really was going on; their homelives and marriages. They talk abut naturalism, stagefright, forgotten lines, and whether they read critics of their work. And what it’s like growing old before the cameras.

I’m not a big celebrity hound, so a lot of what they say that might be common knowledge to you was all new to me. I never realized Joan Plowright was married to Lawrence Olivier. (How could I have missed that?) I remember as a kid seeing Maggie Smith as Lady MacBeth at Stratford… but until now I never knew that the reason she was in Canada was she was scared to perform Shakespeare in England. And that all four of them protested the Vietnam War at demos in London.

Nothing like a Dame is an enjoyable look at famous actors chatting. There’s also amazing footage of stage, film and TV performances spanning their careers. But if you’re expecting salty stories about clandestine romances and shocking backstage sex scandals, you’re not going to find them here. Everything they say is guarded and carefully worded, suitable language for a Dame.

Clara

Wri/Dir: Akash Sherman

Dr Isaac Bruno (Pattrick J Adams) is a young astronomy prof at a Canadian University, who works in a lab beside his best friend Charlie (Ennis Esmer: Sex after Kids). Isaac is a sweater nerd with wire rimmed glasses and a neck beard. He hates teaching, preferring to study the stars using Extremely Large Telescopes, continents away. He feels angry and adrift since his marriage collapsed. His only obsession? His search for evidence of life on a distant planet. And he needs to find it soon, before the WEBB telescope is introduced, opening the universe to amateur star searchers.

But when he loses his research priveleges he hires an unpaid research assistant to help analyze data in his home. But she’s not like his normal students. Clara (Troian Bellisario) is a free spirit in a duffelcoat with long black hair. She travels the world, carrying a pouch of small stones, one from each continent, to plot out her next journey. She’s a study in contradictions, a highschool dropout who can speaks five languages. And whenever she closes her eyes, she’s overwhelmed with images of galaxies, stars and planets… Can Clara’s spiritual views coexist with Isaac’s die-hard science-based research? Do they share a cosmic entanglement? And could there be a populated planet like Earth somewhere far, far away?

Clara is a nicely-made first film set in Toronto. It’s filled with amazing telescopic footage of quasars, meteors, galaxies and stars rushing through space, as visualized in Clara’s brain, and as seen through super telescopes. And I’m no astronomer, but the film seems accurate in its reading of space data. This is not a perfect film — some of the characters’ motivations seem too simplistic – but I still liked it.

Clara, Nothing Like a Dame, and Dead in a Week 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.

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd. Films reviewed: Border, The Drawer Boy

Posted in 1970s, Acting, Canada, Crime, Fairytales, Farming, Folktale, Horror, Intersex, Sex, Supernatural, Suspicion, Sweden, Theatre, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on November 23, 2018

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

Fall festival season is coming to an end in Toronto but there’s still some left to see. This weekend, watch out for Blood in the Snow. Not literally. BITS is the all-Canadian film fest that shows horror, genre and underground films at the Royal Cinema. And at the ROM this weekend, presented by Ekran and The Polish Filmmakers Association, you can see films with historic themes celebrating 100 years of Poland’s Regained Independence, featuring Andrej Wajda, Roman Polanski and other great Polish directors.

This week, I’m looking at two movies set far from cities. There’s a Canadian actor who thinks a farmer’s stories don’t smell quite write; and a fairytale-like Swedish customs officer who can sniff out crime.

Border

Dir: Ali Abbasi

(Based on a short story by John Lindqvist, author of Let the Rght One In)

Tina (Eva Melander) is a customs officer at a remote ferry dock in rural Sweden. She lives in a cabin in the woods. She feels a kinship with the local foxes and reindeer, more so than with people. She shares her home with a redneck dog trainer named Roland, but rejects his

sexual advances. It just doesn’t feel right. She’s resigned to a life of celibacy, partly because of her very unusual appearance. She’s kind and friendly, but… pretty ugly. She looks almost neanderthal, with her heavy brow, scarred skin, scraggly hair, and a nose like a lion’s. And with that nose comes an amazing sense of smell. She can detect the hidden emotions – shame, cruelty, and evil intent – of smugglers and criminals passing through her customs line. When she sniffs out kiddy porn on a businessman’s cel phone, the local police begin to take notice. They ask her to help them uncover a kidnapping ring.

Meanwhile, one day at the customs house, she sniffs out a strange man. Vore (Finnish actor Eero Milanoff) looks like her and sniffs like she does. She’s suspicious at first but notices a definite attraction. When they finally get together, their sex is explosive! He urges her to run away with him and stop living “like the humans”. Wait… what?!

If they’re not human what are they, exactly? And what other secrets is Vore hiding?

Border is a fantastic Swedish movie, a combination horror and supernatural thriller that manages to be funny, repulsive, touching and shocking (not for the faint of heart). It also deals with a wide range of unexpected topics, from intersexuality and gender transformation, to ostracism, folklore, mental illness, and a whole lot more. The acting is fantastic, the look and feel of this movie is amazing.

If you want to see something truly different, this is a film for you.

The Drawer Boy

Dir: Arturo Pérez Torres, Aviva Armour-Ostroff

Based on the play by Michael Healey

It’s the early 1970s in rural southern Ontario. Miles (Jakob Ehman) is an earnest young actor, part of a Toronto theatre collective that wants to create a play about farmers and farm life. He arrives with a bunch of other actor/hippies, each staying on different farms, who get together, every so often, to rehearse and compare notes. Miles’s new home is run by two men who have lived there since 1945 after serving together in the army.  Angus (Stuart Hughes) bakes bread in the kitchen and keeps the books. He seems a bit touched in the head. In fact he has no short term memory – there’s a metal plate in his brain from a wartime explosion. Morgan (Richard Clarkin) is more like the boss, handling the heavier farm work. Morgan lets Miles stay there as long as he adapts to farm life. That means 3:00 a.m. wake-ups, hard work, and “don’t ask too many questions”. Angus doesn’t like thinking about troubling memories… it gives a headache.

Morgan talks slow and low, like a farmer, but he’s smarter than he looks. He feeds gullible Miles lots of halftruths and impossibilities, which Miles dutifully scribbles down in his ever-present notebook. Things like “dairy cows eat pigs”, and are terrified of humans, knowing they could be slaughtered any day.

Morgan also tells a story to Angus each day, to restore his lost memories. It’s about a boy who draws, two tall sisters, and a house on the farm they were all supposed to share. But when the actors perform their workshop in a barn for all the local farmers, including Angus, something clicks. Seeing his own story performed on the stage, suddenly, like a knock on the head, unleashes a flood of memories. Memories that Morgan doesn’t want Angus to know…

The Drawer Boy is a film adaptation of the famous Canadian play from the 1990s, which itself was about the making of an earlier play in the 1970s. I’m always cautious about plays turned into movies – sometimes the media just don’t match. But don’t worry, this play makes a wonderful movie. It incorporates the drama of the original while adding special effects and scene changes hard to show on stage. The three actors are all excellent, and seeing it in a real barn with real cows, tractors and bales of hay just adds to the realism. The Drawer Boy is a great movie about storytelling, memory, loss, and relationships… a perfect dose of Canadiana on the big screen.

The Drawer Boy and Borders both 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.

Dynamic duos. Films reviewed: Dim the Fluorescents, Call Me By Your Name

Posted in Acting, Art, Canada, Cultural Mining, Drama, First Love, Italy, LGBT, Movies, Romance by CulturalMining.com on December 15, 2017

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

I like movies with two strong central characters… as long as they have good chemistry. This week I’m looking at two new movies featuring dynamic duos that work well together. One’s a romantic drama about two young men set in northern Italy; and the other is a comedy drama about two women set in downtown Toronto.

Dim the Fluorescents

Dir: Daniel Warth

Audrey (Claire Armstrong) is a struggling actress in Toronto. She’s passionate and tempestuous, with rosy cheeks and curly hair, a statuesque figure and a pierced nose. She takes anti-depressants daily so she pour her everything into her work. She goes to frequent readings and auditions, but still hasn’t landed her big break. She lives with Lillian (Naomi Skwarna), her friend and fellow theatre person. Lillian acts too, but she she devotes herself to writing scripts and screenplays, and to helping Audrey’s career. Lillian has a severe demeanor, with glasses and black hair pulled back. The two see all their friends moving up the ladder while they’re stuck at the bottom. And not earning any money from it, either.

So, instead of taking a day job, sitting in a cubicle between auditions, they decide to stick to the craft but in an unusual form and location. They take their acting to the offices, performing short pieces or worker safety on sexual harassment to add some life and excitement to the incredibly dull powerpoint lectures. They manage to turn each corporate banality into a scene from King Lear.

And their efforts are noticed, at least within the offices. One young exec, Bradley (Brendan Hobin), shows up after a show like a stage door groupie to heap praises on Audrey’s fine performance. Instead of asking for her autograph he asks her to dinner.

Meanwhile Lillian is trying hard to make her dramatic business plan pay off. Their big break, at least financially, finally arrives in the form of a contract: an eight minute show before 300 conventioneers. There are a few conditions – they have to include an executive’s niece, Fiona (Andreana Callegarini-Gradzik) in the show, and they have to end on a positive note. But as art reflects life, the drama of the characters spills onto Audrey and Lillian’s own lives, ending in an explosive crisis. Will they get it back together in time for the big show?

Dim the Fluorescents starts as an ordinary Canadian comedy: I get it, I thought, it’s about artists sacrificing their ideals to meet corporate demands. But after the first half hour it really takes off and just gets better and better. By the end it’s Wow – this is a surprisingly powerful movie! The cast is all new faces, all great. Especially Claire Armstrong – man, that woman can act her ass off!

Check this one out.

Call Me by Your Name

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

Wri: James Ivory (based on the novel by Andre Aciman)

It’s 1982. Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is a 17 year old Italian American who spends his summers and Christmas vacation at his family home in Northern Italy. It’s a beautiful villa located in a lush orchard beside a slow-moving river. His parents are academics with a passion for the arts. Mom (Amira Casar) translates medieval poetry, while Dad (Michael Stuhlbarg) is into ancient Greek and Roman bronze statues. Elio spends most of his time transcribing classical music on guitar and piano. He also hangs with Marzia (Esther Garrel), his longtime friend and semi-girlfriend, reading poetry and exploring sex. Elio speaks French to his mother, English to his father and Italian to everyone else. It’s a polyglot family.

Each year, Elio’s dad chooses a gifted American grad student, to come stay with them for the summer. They help catalogue his father’s writings and, presumably, provide a role model for Elio. This year, it’s Oliver (Armie Hammer) a grad student from small town New England. He’s handsome, athletic, preppy and arrogant. And smart as a whip. He dominates any room he enters, and will leave whenever he wants with a simple “later”.

Eliot is put off by Oliver’s manner but impressed by his confidence. And as he gets to know him better – at a village dance, a family dinner, and bike rides in the country – his interest runs into attraction. Are the feelings mutual? Both have girlfriends from the town, but this seems new. They begin a delicate pas de deux, simultaneously flirting, arguing and testing their limits, each trying to determine the other one’s feelings. Are they friends, or something more? Will this turn into a summer bromance or a lasting love?

Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful and clever romantic drama. It’s as interesting for what it has as it is for what it leaves out. The usual gay themes — coming out, bullying, abusive parents, fear, religious guilt, gay bashing, homophobia and HIV AIDS – aren’t part of this movie. It’s also not a typical boy-meets-girl (or boy meets boy) romance. What it does have is fantastic acting, a great screenplay, beautiful location, music and art. From the calligraphy of the opening credits to the devestating, single-shot finish, this movie is flawless.

Dim the Fluorescents is now playing. Call Me By Your Name opens 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.

Lots of Indies! Films reviewed: The Disaster Artist, Sweet Virginia, Wexford Plaza

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Film Noir, L.A., Mumblecore, Realism, Toronto, violence by CulturalMining.com on December 1, 2017

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

Indie movies are in this year, picking up prizes and heading for the Oscars. They are the most innovative films out there, flouting expected cinematic rules, sharing a sense of realism missing from big-budget movies.

This week I’m talking about three new indie movies opening today. There’s a hit man staying at a motel, a security guard working at a strip mall, and an indie movie about making indie movies.

The Disaster Artist

Dir: James Franco (Based on the book by Greg Sestero)

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a model and aspiring actor in San Francisco. He’s taking classes, looking for his big break. Problem is he’s a terrible actor: way too shy and withdrawn. Enter fellow student Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). He’s a body–builder with a redone face, a mane of long black hair and an unintelligible accent. (He says he’s from New Orleans). He’s entirely without talent, but brimming with self-confidence. Greg sees him acting in class, shouting and literally climbing the walls. The teachers all cringe, but Greg is dumbfounded. This is what he wants to do, this is what he wants to be like. Soon they move to Tommy’s LA pied a terre, find agents and start up the ladder toward movie stardom. At least that’s the plan. When the studios don’t come knocking at their door, they decide to shoot their own movie, called The Room. Tommy will direct and produce (he’s bankrolling the whole thing) while the two of them share top billing. But will The Room be any good?

The short answer is no.

But that doesn’t convey the awfulness of the film they’re making. It’s spectacularly, stupendously, unbelievably bad… but in a very distinctive way. (It has since become a major cult hit — so bad it’s good — seen everywhere.) Its humour derives from the bad acting and non-sensical script, and from Tommy Wiseaus total obliviousness to his own social ineptitude and to how bad the film actually is (he imagines it’s a masterpiece).

This movie — The Disaster Artist — isnt a remake, it’s a move about the making of The Room. It recreates and incorporates the funniest, worst parts of the original, but also what was going on behind the camera. It’s a bro comedy, starring real life bros Dave and James Franco, who is just so funny as Tommy. And though it is ostensibly an indie movie, it may have broken a record for the number of Hollywood cameos:  Hannibal Buress, Seth Rogan, Sharon Stone, JJ Abrams, and dozens of others.

The Disaster Project is a really funny movie.

Sweet Virginia

Dir: Jamie M. Dagg

Sam (Jon Bernthal) is a former champion bull rider who used to earn his living in the rodeo circuit, until he had an accident. Now he runs a motel called Sweet Virginia nestled somewhere between two foggy mountains. Lila (Imogen Poots) is his assistant helping out in his office. All is well until the town is shaken by an unexpected killing: three men gunned down at a late night poker game. Elwood (Christopher Abbott) a man with anger issues, is staying at Sam’s motel. Turns out he’s a hit man, the one that killed the three men, including Lila’s husband. He also killed the husband of Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is having a secret affair with Sam. Who hired him? Lila! She hated her husband and wants his money. She promises Elwood big bucks in exchange for his murder (The other men he kills are just “collateral damage”). But when Lila can’t get hold of the money, things take a turn for the worse. Will the bad guys pay for their crimes? Or will there be more violence to come?

Sweet Virginia has all the makings of an excellent movie. Great cast, good acting, wonderful locations, and beautiful cinematography. So why does it suck?

This movie is all wrong. It reveals everything in the first few minutes, ruining any suspense. It wastes a lot of screen time introducing characters who are killed off in the first 15 minutes. And the rest of the move just creaks along, revealing dull, pointless and violent lives, with no surprises. I get the feeling the only reason this movie was released is because Bernthal is starring in the Netflix series The Punisher right about now.

Wexford Plaza

Wri/Dir: Joyce Wong

Betty (Reid Asselstine) is a cheery and voluptuous 19-year-old starting her new job. She’s a security guard at a rundown strip mall in Scarborough called Wexford Plaza. She’s forced to wear a too-small uniform: black polyester pants with an ugly yellow polo shirt. Her high school friends have moved on; she only sees them on instagram. She works with Rich and Anton (Francis Melling and Mirko Miljevic) two immature asshats who smoke pot, leer at her breasts and tell off-colour jokes at her expense. Then she meets Danny (Darrel Gamotin), a bartender in the mall. He’s a nice guy, older, successful and self-confident, and seems interested in her. He has her back when she drinks too much, and she returns the favour (along with sexual benefits) when he gets sloshed. She forsees a long term relationship… until things go drastically wrong. He turns on a dime, from good guy to cold bastard. What’s going on? Is he just using her?

Wexford Plaza is a realistic comedy/drama that tells the same story twice, first from Betty’s and then from Danny’s point of view. Similar events occupy the same time and space but seem radically different. Words considered crucial by one – slurred out while drunk – are completely missing from the other one’s memories. Reid Asselstine is great, subtly exposing Betty’s burgeoning sexuality tempered by her self-doubt. This is a good coming-of-age drama set in the desolate strip malls of Toronto.

Sweet Virginia, The Disaster Artist and Wexford Plaza 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

 

War and Peace. Movies reviewed: À la vie, Dheepan

Posted in 1960s, Acting, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, Movies, Thriller, War, WWII by CulturalMining.com on May 20, 2016


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

The War and Peace Report is Democracy Now’s morning news show – it’s on the radio right after this one. Be sure to stay tuned because todayScreen Shot 2016-05-20 at 2.01.43 PM
host Amy Goodman is broadcasting from Toronto. So my theme this week is war and peace, and I’m looking at two new dramas from France. There are three war survivors who carry their emotional baggage to the beach, and three other war survivors who arrive with minimal baggage at a crime-filled housing complex.

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À la vie

Dir: Jean-Jacques Zilbermann

It’s the early 1960s in Calais, France. Hélène and Lili are good friends meeting up to spend three days relaxing on the beach in Berck in northern France. Hélène (Julie Depardieu) is a wispy, ginger- haired woman, always loving and giving. She works as a men’s tailor in Paris. Lili (Johanna ter Steege) arrives by bus from Amsterdam, a smartly-dressed modern woman with blonde hair. And she brings a surprise: their third friend, the voluptuous but petulant Rose (Suzanne Clément). She flew in all the way from Montreal for this get-together. And what is it that connects these three woman and why haven’t they seen each other since 1945?

They’ve been separated because they were all prisoners at Auschwitz. They survived IMG_4811together thanks to Lili getting them work in the kitchen. But in the death march at the end of the war they were separated, and thought the youngest one, Rose, died there. Now the three of them are together again, and all three married other survivors. Lili is divorced, Rose has a troubled marriage in Quebec, and Helene, though she loves her husband, Henri, lives a sexless life. She’s still a virgin since her husband suffered horrible mutilation in the camps.

They are staying at a beachside apartment courtesy of Raymond, a handsome communist IMG_8653from the French Resistance during the war. He still has a thing for the married Hélène. Haunted by their past the three friends save every scrap of food and reuse teabags over and over. They catch up on their missing history as they play in the waves. The beach is filled with girls in bikinis and boys in trunks, Club Mickey, and everyone dancing the twist. Especially a young animateur, a camp counsellor on the beach named Pierre. He likes Hélène, and he’ll kiss her if she lets him. Will Helene be faithful to her husband, forge a relationship with a rich communist or a try a fling with the Club Mickey counsellor?

A La Vie is a light friendship drama set against a heavy topic – Holocaust survivors. Aside from the period nostalgia – beach life in 1960s France — the best thing about the movie is the three friends and the actors who play them so well. Julie Depardieu as hesitant Helene Gerard Depardieu’s daughter, Dutch actress ter Steege is excellent as Lili, and Suzanne Clement (as Rose) who’s featured in Xavier Dolan’s movies – she’s fantastic as Rose. A light movie, but well done.

0b6aad33-d486-4749-be33-21de49ba6dedDheepan

Dir: Jacques Audiard

Dheepan and Yalini (Jesuthasan Antonythasan and Kalieaswari Srinivasan) are a young Tamil couple in France. They arrive in France with their cute daughter Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) and are resettled in a public housing complex. They are refugees from the Sri Lankan civil war. At last they have escaped the horror of death and violence, and can live like a normal family in France. The thing is, they’re not actually a family at all. Dheepan is a former Tamil Tiger who needed to get out of Sri Lanka, fast. They put together a fake family, strangers from the refugee camp786e87f9-026a-451d-9176-35521ac38e49
that would match the description on his visa – a married couple with a young daughter. It worked, but what will their life be like in France?

Not great. Far from paradise, their lives are cold, dark and miserable. They soon discover their housing complex is a haven for Russian gangsters, and a hangout for sketchy teenage druggies. Dheepan works as a caretaker for the buildings and Yalini finds work as a caregiver for a dying old man. Their fake daughter is doing worst of all, with no support at home; her parents are at best indifferent to her problems, and at worst outright mean to her.

But they face even more trouble from the outside. Yalini’s patient is the father

c723b322-db43-42ff-a48d-c7120aee231eof an especially violent gang leader, holed up in his apartment, facing attacks from rival gangs. She’s Hindu but wears a make-shift hijab to stop unwanted sexual advances. Dheepan, though he keeps his head low, gets involved in conflicts between the buildings. And Tamil Tigers based in France want him to return to the fold and act as a gun runner for them. With a major gang war on the horizon, and violence escalating, Dheepan is forced to return to his past role as a soldier and fight b08630ed-2462-4179-be6b-307a1b54905afor his family’s lives.

Dheepan is a dramatic action/thriller with a good story, but it didn’t exactly grab me. It was interesting to watch, but I could only observe, not connect with the main characters. I was troubled that it portrays refugees as potential sleeper-cell terrorists. It’s directed by Audiard – who made two fantastic French movies,  The Prophet and Rust and Bone — so maybe I set my bar especially high. Dheepan isn’t as good as those two, but it’s definitely still worth seeing.

Dheepan is playing now and À la vie opens 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.

Women and their Discoveries. Movies reviewed: The Kindergarten Teacher, Diary of a Teenage Girl, She’s Funny That Way

Posted in Acting, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Drama, Israel, Movies, Screwball Comedy, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2015

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 women and their discoveries. There’s a drama about an Israeli kindergarten teacher who discovers her 5-year-old student is a poetic genius; a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in San Francisco who discovers what sex is all about; and a screwball comedy about an escort who longs to be discovered as a Hollywood star.

Kindergarden_Teacher_TheThe Kindergarten Teacher

Wri/Dir: Nadav Lapid

Nira (Sarit Larry) is a kindergarten teacher in Israel who attends a poetry group. She leads a lackluster life: her kids have moved out and her husband is dull. But then she notices a kid in her class named Yoav (Avi Shnaidman). She sees him pace back and forth, almost in a trance, and recite an amazing poem he had composed in his head. Not a kid’s nonsense rhyme – a dramatic, spare masterpiece with biblical allusions, and profound observations.

His nanny Miri (Ester Rada) says it’s just something the kid does. His father – a rich, divorced restaurateur — is unimpressed. To him, poetry is a952 waste of time.

But Nira is blown away by his poems and feels she has to do something more. Mozart was composing symphonies in his head at the age of four. If no one records Yoav’s masterworks and shares them with the world, a poet of a generation could be lost. Yoav becomes the centre of all her attention, in and out of class. He gives her a new sense of purpose. She realizes her reaction doesn’t quite make sense – especially in an era where poetry has lost its importance — but she vows to “save” Yoav and his poems, whatever the consequences.

The Kindergarten Teacher is an excellent drama with an unexpected twist. It may have a simple premise, but it’s a subtle, disturbing and complex film. Nira’s character in particular touches on a wide range of troubling issues: racial discrimination, morality, sexuality, misrepresentation, and art.  The Kindergarten Teacher is a very good movie.

e8acff96-2532-4295-a01b-6f7b36599697Diary of a Teenage Girl
Wri/Dir: Marielle Heller

It’s the mid-1970s in San Francisco, and the city is rife with hippies, underground comix and free sex. And right in the middle of all this is Minnie (Bel Powley), the 15-year-old girl of the title. She lives with her mom (Kristen Wiig) and her little sister. Mom dresses to kill and thinks of Patty Hearst as her model. She drinks and parties till she passes out. Mom’s current boyfriend is Morgan (Alexander Skarsgård), a tall guy with a goofy blonde moustache. Mom likes to think of Minnie as her friend and confessor – no secrets between them.

But there is a secret: Minnie’s first sexual experience – and her 19976004-14bc-45a8-aefe-cca85b70056aongoing relationship – is with Morgan. She chronicles her story (and all her other newly-awakened sexual adventures) using a tape-recorder she keeps hidden in her closet. She also hones her comic book skills with explicit, black and white drawings, modeled on the work of underground comic artist Aline 7327ebd5-d2fa-4664-8c9e-ffc254758144Kominsky. Together with her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) she explores the sex, drugs and counterculture of San Francisco. She’s quick to undress and loves teaching the guys she meets new tricks. But can her secrets stay secret?

Bel Powley is excellent as Minnie, a quirky, adventurous girl testing the waters between childhood and adulthood as she comes to terms with her family. Diary of a Teenage Girl is a nice, light story with an adult theme, made beautiful with animated sequences of her drawings.

SN_D1_075She’s Funny that Way
Dir: Peter Bogdanovich

Izzy (Imogen Potts) is a young sex worker and aspiring actor from Brooklyn. She has a devoted following as an escort, (including a judge who stalks her) but less so as an actress.  When she spends the night with Arnold (Owen Wilson) a successful director in town from L.A., her life changes. He says I’ll never see you again but here’s $30,000 (he hands her a suitcase of money) to pursue your goal as an artist and leave prostitution behind. She agrees. The next day her agent gets her an audition for a Broadway play – in the role of a prostitute. She’s a natural! Everyone loves her audition except the play’s director – it’s SN_D24_011_11Arnold from the night before!  The other lead actors in the play are Arnold’s wife (Kathryn Hahn) and her possible ex-lover (Rhys Ifans) – both of whom are staying in the same hotel. Add an angry psychiatrist (Jennifer Anniston) a stalker and a private detective to the mix, and you get lots of confusion, fake names and lovers hiding in bathrooms.

SN_D4_166She’s Funny that Way is funny that way, in the manner of an old-skool screwball comedy. Imogen Potts’s (with a hit-and-miss Brooklyn accent) is wonderful as Izzy, and the rest of the cast is loaded with dozens of stars in cameo roles.

Now screwball comedies are a neglected genre, and one I really like. But even more interesting is the backstory for this film. Peter Bogdanovich was a huge director in the 70s, with What’s up Doc, Paper Moon, and The Last Picture Show, all either set during the depression, or else – like this one — done in the style of old Hollywood movies.

Maybe you remember the name Dorothy Stratten. (Her story has been toldDorothy Stratten in films like Star 80.) She was a sex worker from Vancouver, a Playboy centrefold, very pretty, who wanted to become a Hollywood star. And Peter Bogdanovich gave her her big break, casting her in a movie called They All Laughed. But her ex-husband was still obsessed with her and stalked her… and murdered her before the movie was released. A tragic story. But there’s more:  Bogdanovich paid for the schooling of Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, and after she graduated, he married her. She went on to write the script for this movie. This movie is a tribute to Dorothy Stratten told not as a tragedy but as a classical Hollywood comedy with a happy ending.

She’s Funny that Way, Diary of a Teenage Girl and The Kindergarten Teacher 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

Spring Film Festival Season. Movies Reviewed: Next time I aim for the heart, Tomorrow is always too long, Clouds of Sils Maria

Posted in Acting, Art, Drama, France, Movies, Scotland by CulturalMining.com on April 10, 2015

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM. It’s Spring Film Festival Season. Cinefranco is a festival of French language movies from countries like Canada, France, Tunisia, and Belgium. Images Festival shows art expressed in the form of moving images: films and videos, showing off-screen in galleries, and on screen at the AGO. So I’m combining the two this week, shaking the pot, and adding a bit extra. A French art film in English; an English art film in Scottish; and a French crime thriller… en Francais. 269b36e876e375e05083f78293992209_S

Next Time I Aim for the Heart / La prochaine fois je viserai le cœur

Dir: Cedric Anger

It’s the late 1970s in France. Out on lonely highways and suburban streets all is not well. Young women are being shot and some killed by an unknown man in a car. The serial killer sends hand-written notes to the police after each killing. Still, the cops are stymied, no one can describe the man or the car he drives, and he always gets away. Enter Franck (Guillaume Canet) He’s not a policeman, but a member of France’s gendarmerie — the national force (much like the RCMP) that operate in small towns and rural areas across the country. Gendarmes (the la-prochaine-fois-je-viserai-le-coeur-guillaume-canetones who wear that distinctive round top hat) are controlled by the Ministry of Defence, and comes through in Franck’s formal, militaristic manner. He’s gaunt, thin-lipped, tense. Always polite, he follows the rules and catches the criminals. He’s seeing the Sophie (Ana Girardot) the gorgeous young woman who does his laundry. She is smitten by him – a true gentleman – not like the slovenly men she knows. He’s also a prized detective, praised by la-prochaine-fois-je-viserai-le-coeur-ana-girardot-1his chief and respected by his squad. And they are all on the lookout for the crazed, vicious serial killer, whose crimes are escalating, but who always seems to escape. The gendarmes need to catch him before their rivals, the police force. Seems like a typical policier, right? The good cop searching for the deranged killer. But there’s a twist (and this is not a spoiler): Franck, the gendarme is also the serial killer! Whoa!

This is based on a true story and makes for a pretty good thriller. It has a dark and brooding tone to it, and leaves the viewer unsettled – who can you trust? And the whole story is told solely la-prochaine-fois-je-viserai-le-coeur-guillaume-canet-1from Franck’s point of view – the rest of the characters, including Sophie, are opaque. So you’re forced to sympathize with Franck – and you do – but he’s a troubled soul, and a loner/ nutbar/killer too, so how sympathetic can you be? Also, the guy’s psychotic – you wonder why it isn’t obvious to his fellow cops. Visually, the movie is great, shot in rural fields and forests, or in offices and homes, always with blow up colour photos subtly placed on the walls. Neat effect. And Canet is excellent as Franck. tomorrow is always too long

Tomorrow is always too long

Dir: Phil Collins

It’s an ordinary day in Glasgow, Scotland. People go to school, to the pub or to jail. But on a normal day, do you suddenly break into complex dance steps, and start singing wonderful indie pop sings by Cate Le Bon, accompanied by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra? This is a very strange movie, filled with ordinary people doing extraordinary things, the complex mixed with the mundane. It’s like watching TV with someone else holding the remote control, and constantly changing channels. Now you see Mindy the bored psychic touting for calls; a tawdry male phone sex line; an infomercial selling products for women who enjoy being patted down by security guards at airports; three people in sparkling glam makeup answering trivia questions; or a grizzly guy in a garish tam o’shanter buttering bread.

Huh? Exactly.

These scenes alternate with silhouette animation (by Matthew Robins) giving a stylized look at Glasgow’s underground: with nightclubs, drugs, and furtive sex in the bushes. This is definitely art, but it’s also great fun. You can tell it’s art because the performers all keep blasé, chill expressions as they dance. No jazz hands or smiley faces here. But it’s also a thoroughly entertaining portrait of one day in the life of the city of Glasgow, and a lot of the people who live there. Art you can love. 52501167-6576-45cc-a057-e4f607bf0e35

Clouds of Sils Maria

Dir: Olivier Assayas

Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is a very famous French actress, who is heading by train for Switzerland. She’s going to a town near Zurich to honour a playwright who, twenty years earlier, wrote the first play she ever performed in. The play is about a young woman who works at a company, and her older boss – actually the head of the firm. The older woman becomes infatuated with her, leading to tragic end. When the play premiered, Maria was a brash, young woman – totally unknown. Now she’s a seasoned professional. She owes Melchior, the playwright, a lot. But when circumstances change she’s asked to be in the play again… but this time as 3cc6e467-ae1e-4c7c-9f22-8fb65ae63788the older woman. This jars her. She thinks of herself as a beautiful young actress, but, while still beautiful, she’s clearly middle aged now.

All her emotions and worries are confessed to her young PA (personal assistant) Valentine (Kristen Stewart). And once Maria takes the part, she decides to stay in the Swiss town to learn her role. So Val plays the other part when the two of them rehearse. But Val senses a weird change, where Maria seems to be losing her grip – is she the boss in the play in love with the younger woman? Or is she an actress boss, obsessed with her PA? Val’s patience is also running low. 52e4e874-5796-45ed-94e1-073d90b85524

And a third woman Joanne (Chloë Grace Moretz), enters the picture. She’s the tempestuous teenaged actress playing Maria’s former role. She’s a Lindsay Lohan-type, chased by paparazzi, in and out of rehab. And all three acting out their roles against foggy, stark Alpen scenery. This is an intimate portrait of Juliette Binoche. The three actors were all convincing and absorbing. And I can appreciate the film intellectually. But it’s a bit too “meta” – play within a play, actors playing actors playing characters – to be deeply moving.

The Clouds of Sils Maria opens today in Toronto; Tomorrow is Always Too Long opened the Images festival which continues all week: go to imagesfestival.com for times and galleries. Next Time I Aim for the Heart plays next weekend at the Bloor Cinema. Go to cinefranco.com for times and locations of these and many other French language films.

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

Mommies and Dollies. Films Reviewed: Mommy, Annabelle

Posted in 1960s, Academy Awards, Acting, Canada, Cultural Mining, Family, Horror, Mental Illness, Movies, Quebec by CulturalMining.com on October 3, 2014

ncr_not_criminally_responsible_1Hi, 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.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week – John Kastner’s NFB documentary NCR: Not Criminally Responsible (listen to my interview with John here) is playing at the Bloor Cinema, and Rendezvous the-maze-poster-courtesy-of-nick-youngwith Madness and the Psychiatry Department at U of T is showing William Kurelek’s: the Maze by filmmakers Nick and Zack Young (listen to my interview with Zack Young here), at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This week, though, I’m talking about innocent-sounding movies about mommies and pretty dollies. But they’re not as innocent as you might think. One’s a Quebec drama about a mother trying to control her ADHD son; the other’s an American chiller about a mother trying to save her baby from an evil doll.

64634-MOMMY_Poster_27x39_EnglishMommy
Dir: Xavier Dolan

Diane (Anne Dorval) is enjoying her life as a single woman in suburban Montreal. Her son’s away at boarding school, she has a steady job, and she’s flirting with that rich lawyer who lives around the corner. She dresses for flash-effect, with lots of shiny and pink. But calamity strikes. Her son Steve is kicked out of school after a violent incident and she loses her job.

Steve-o (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) is a foul-mouthed teenager with ADHD. He wears his blond hair in a retro style, with a neck chain, T-shirt and jeans. He’s hyper-sexualized with pale skin and rubbery features. The kind of guy who looks as likely to punch you in the face as to kiss you. He’s a foul-mouthed, socially misfit, sexually charged and violent. But you can see where he 62558-000060890018 MOMMY_AOPilon1-CreditPhoto_Shayne Laverdièregets it from – Diane is as gutter-friendly as he is. It’s up to her to get him to settle down and pass his tests. Trouble is he’s virtually uncontrollable, and she’s not big on parenting skills, so their lessons end up in violent fights.

In walks the psychologically-damaged ex-school teacher who lives next door. Kyla (Suzanne Clement) is shy, withdrawn and speaks with a severe stammer due to something bad in her past. Her husband’s a dull computer programmer, her daughter equally reserved. But she soon finds her place as the 65106-ADorval1 MOMMY_ADorval1_CreditPhoto_Shayne Laverdièrethird element in Diane and Steve’s dysfunctional family. She becomes his teacher and dog trainer. But can the fragile bonds holding them together last?

Mommy is a reworking of Xavier Dolan’s simple, perfect, and highly personal first film J’ai Tue Ma Mere, made when he was still a teenager. Four films later, Mommy is far more sophisticated and complex in plot, script and character. Dorval replays the mother, but in a performance that is more three-dimensional, less camp. Dolan was sympathetic playing a bullied gay teen, but, with Pillon as the teenager, we get a kid who is as much misunderstood victim as bully. I get the feeling Dolan the director (necessarily) restrains Dolan the actor, but when he’s just behind the camera, he can let his characters loose. Steve is free to forge forth, like a river bursting a dam. This movie has dynamic, shocking and hilarious performances from all three actors. It’s a great film.

Mommy is Canada’s choice for Best Foreign Language movie at the Oscars, and I hope it wins — it really deserves it.

Annabelle-movie-posterAnnabelle
Dir: John R. Leonetti

It’s the late 1960s in central California. Mia and John (Annabelle Wallis, Ward Horton) are a perfect-looking, church-going blond couple. New home, new car, he’s finishing medical school, she’s expecting their baby really soon. Mia collects antique dolls, so John buys her one to complete her set. And everything is just perfect, until…

…their lives are shockingly disrupted by an unexpected visit by Annabelle, their next door neighbours’ daughter. Anabelle ran away from home and joined a Charles Manson-style satanic cult. After that horrific incident, Mia says she tumblr_naxuq2kn0J1tgg8wlo1_500no longer feels safe there with the new baby. And the huge doll she used to like so much is creeping her out. Strange things start to happen around it, involving a sewing machine, a rocking chair, and a package of jiffy pop. So they move out of the suburbs and into a downtown apartment.

Hubby is away most of the time, so he’s oblivious but accommodating. He thinks his wife’s gone whack from post-partum depression, but Mia knows there’s evil tumblr_nckmr45Wtb1tgg8wlo1_1280around her. And it wants her baby. She sees scary things everywhere: strange noises… the sign of the bull… a girl in a white nightgown… a rocking chair… an old-fashioned elevator… and that damned doll that keeps coming back! It seems to turn everything bad, somehow. So she turns for advice to kindly Father Perez (Tony Amendola) and Evelyn, a mysterious bookstore owner, with a penchant for the occult (Alfre Woodard). But are they all too late? And is Mia strong enough to overcome the evil forces that have invaded her once-happy life?tumblr_ncs2p2jlcH1tgg8wlo1_1280

I saw this movie because it’s a prequel to The Conjuring, a movie that scared my pants off last year. So how does it copmpare? Not as scary, the acting not as compelling, the plot has lots of holes in it, and the script is weak with some unintentionally awful lines. It has few visual effects (though the sound effects are fantastic, one of the scariest things about the movie). And the story is a bit too Jesus-y for my taste. But is Annabelle scary? You bet it is.

Annabel Wallis is good as Mia — picture Madmen, but from Betty Draper’s point-of-view – beautiful but suspicious, lonely, paranoid and petulant. Annabelle is not perfect, but it works as a good and scary chiller-thriller — perfect for a late-night date.

sam-coleman-and-jennifer-grausman-1-art-and-craft-interview-daniel-garber-c2a9-jeff-harrisMommy and Annabelle both open today in Toronto – check your local listings. Also opening is the wonderful documentary Art and Craft about an eccentric art forger who gives his paintings away. (You can listen to my interview with filmmakers Sam Coleman and Jennifer Grausman here).

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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