Men on the Run. Films reviewed: Flee, Red Rocket, Nightmare Alley

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1990s, Afghanistan, Animation, Circus, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, Drama, melodrama, Movies, Refugees, Sex Trade, Texas, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on December 18, 2021

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

With Award Season quickly approaching — from the Golden Globes to the Golden Turkeys — the studios are releasing a lot of its big ticket movies in hopes of being considered for some of the major prizes up for grabs. This week I’m looking at three potential Oscar nominations, all stories about men trying to flee from their dark pasts for a potentially better future. There’s a man who leaves a burning house to join the circus, a middle-aged porn star who leaves LA to find a job in small-town Texas, and a young man who runs for his life from Afghanistan in hopes of finding a better one in Europe.

Red Rocket

Co-Wri/Dir: Sean Baker

Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex) is down on his luck. He was an LA porn star in his heyday, along with his wife, 

Lexi (Bree Elrod). But the good times are long gone. Now he’s back home in Texas City, Texas, with no money, no possessions, no reputation, the prodigal husband knocking at his ex-wife’s door. Naturally she and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss) want nothing to do with him, but he manages to sweet talk his way into letting him sleep on their couch. And after an exhausting search for employment — no one will hire a former sex worker — he falls back on his teenage job as a pot dealer. And soon enough, with the help of his blue happy pills, he’s sleeping wth Lexi again each night.  But everything changes when he meets a beautiful naive young woman with red hair, who works at the local donut shop. Her name is Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who loves pink hearts and everything sweet. Mikey becomes infatuated by her, both as a focus of his lust and his imagined ticket to wealth. He tells her he’ll take her away from this dead-end town and introduce her to the top names in Hollywood porn, after, of course, she turns 18. Wait… what?

Red Rocket is an outrageous  comedy about the misadventures of a former male porn star, including an extended across town by a panicking naked Mikey brandishing his Sabre. This is Sean Baker’s third such film — Tangerine about two black transwomen in LA, and The Florida Project, told through the eyes of kids in Orlando — shot, guerilla-style, on location on a budget using mainly first-time actors (who, I have to say, are all great!) And he helps normalize marginal sex workers by defying the usual stereotypes. At the same time, a movie about a predatory 40-year-old guy seducing a Lolita-like teenaged girl is not the same as rambunctious kids in Florida or wisecracking transwomen in LA. Don’t worry, everyone gets their comeuppance in the end, but Red Rocket will make you squirm and cringe uncomfortably along the way.

Flee

Co-Wri/Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Amin is born in Kabul where he grows up under communist rule, watching Bruce Lee movies and dancing to pop music on his walkman. Now he lives in Copenhagen with Kasper, his lover — they’re thinking of buying a house in the countryside. After that is, he finishes his post-doctoral work at Princeton. But how did he get from Afghanistan to Denmark? When the US-backed Mujahideen invaded Kabul his family is forced to flee. Russia is the only place offering a tourist visa — but Moscow is a mess; the the Soviet Union has just collapsed and is now run by oligarchs and corrupt police. Now they’re stuck in limbo, supported by his older brother a janitor in Sweden. Can the family stay together? Can they ever make it to somewhere safe? Or will unscrupulous human traffickers lead them to disaster?

Flee is a deeply moving drama about one man’s journey as a refugee from danger to sanctuary, and all the moral compromises he is forced to make along the way. It’s sort of a documentary, in that it’s a true story told by the man it happened to, even though it’s voiced by actors using animated characters. And by animation, I don’t mean cute animals with big eyes, I mean lovely, hand-made drawings that portray what actually happened. Far from being the heavy, ponderous lesson I was dreading, Flee has a wonderfully surprising story, elegantly told.

Nightmare Alley

Co-Wri/Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s the dustbowl during the Great Depression. Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a bright and fit young man with great ambitions and a shady past. Leaving a dead man in a burnt house behind him, he sets out to find his fortune He comes upon a circus, and makes his way through the tents to Nightmare Alley, the area where the carnies do their work out of sight. He gets hired as a roustabout, hammering nails, pitching tents, but soon rises quickly within the circus ranks. Zeena  the Seer (Toni Collette) seduces him, and in return she provides access to her partner Ezra (Richard Jenkins) an aging alcoholic. Ezra holds a little black book outlining exactly how to con strangers out of their money by convincing them you can read their minds and talk to the dead. But he warns Stan, don’t fall into the trap of believing you it’s real — that can kill you. Meanwhile, Stan only has eyes for the beautiful and innocent Molly  Cahill (Rooney Mara), the electric woman. She’s fiercely defended by the other carnies, but they let her go when she says they’re in love. 

They move to the big city where they find great success in their psychic act. Stan loves their new rich lifestyle, while Molly pines for her previously life at the circus. But trouble brews in the form of a femme fatale, a beautiful blonde woman with an ivory-handled gun who attends one of their acts. Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is a successful psychoanalyst who listens to — and records — the confessions of the richest and most powerful men in the city… and she is intrigued by Stan’s psychic abilities. (She completely ignores Molly). Perhaps they can combine their resources for even greater success? 

Nightmare Alley is a dark movie about an ambitious but ruthless man in his quest for success. Bradley Cooper is credible in the lead, but even better are all the supporting actors, from Willem Dafoe to Cate Blanchett. It has a novelistic storyline with a plethora of characters, almost like a classic Hollywood film, which makes sense.  Based on a novel, it’s a remake of the 1949 film noir of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. And it fits perfectly in del Toro’s body of work, with his love of freaks, legerdemain, underdogs, young women with pageboy haircuts, and of course many actors who appeared in his previous films. Guillermo del Toro (who shoots his movies in studios and locations around Toronto) has a troupe of actors he uses over and over, like Ron Perlman, dating back to his earliest movies. NIghtmare Alley is quite long — two and a half hours — but kept my attention all the way to a perfectly twisted finish. It’s a good, classic drama.

I quite like this one.

Red Rocket, Flee and Nightmare Alley all theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings.

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

Grinch: Please steal some of these. Movies Reviewed: The Impossible, Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away, Jack Reacher

Posted in Canada, Circus, Cultural Mining, Disaster, Drama, Movies, Thriller, UK, Uncategorized, US, violence by CulturalMining.com on December 21, 2012

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.

I don’t want to be a Grinch stealing Christmas cheer from moviegoers, but I gotta say, these mainstream December movies are a definite mixed bag. This week I’m looking at a detective action thriller, a disaster melodrama, and … um… a circus.

NAOMI WATTS and TOM HOLLAND star in THE IMPOSSIBLEThe Impossible

Dir: Jack Antonio Bayona

Mom and Dad (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) are spending Christmas at a luxury hotel on a small, tropical Thai island with their three boys. Then a tsunami strikes, and they’re all separated and swept away. The two teams – headed by mom and dad – don’t know if the others are still alive but they hold out hope as they struggle to survive the odds and reunite. Will they all make it? And will they somehow find each other again on this tiny island?

After some wicked disaster special effects, most of the rest of the lines in the movie consist of Mom? … Mom? Lucas? Where are you? HELP! Is that you Dad? where’s Dad – I think I see him over there!? Henry, where are you Henry…? Plus a series of crowd scenes where they can’t quite find each other, other characters lying in hospital beds going I must… hold on… until I see them again… unnngh, and near misses in bus stations.

OK, a lot of people at TIFF just loved this heartfelt movie, so what do I know? But, to me, this was just a gooey, gluey dreadful lump of treacle. Painful to watch.

Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away Zaripov LinzCirque du Soleil: Worlds Away in 3D

Dir: Andrew Adamson

A pretty young woman (Erika Linz) goes to the county fair and makes eyes with a scruffy carnie roustabout. It turns out he’s also an aerialist with the circus. But when she goes to see him perform, the daring young man (Igor Zaripov) falls off his flying trapeze. She runs into the ring to help him but they both get sucked into a rabbit-hole vortex, and she spends the rest of the movie trying to find him. So much for the plot.

This is sort of a K-Tel medley of all the Cirque du Soleil shows floating around the Las Vegases of the world. The acts range from extremely cool – people climbing around on a swinging, giant boat suspended in midair — to pervy Mongolian contortionists forming weird, soft-core kamasutra-like body formations. The stage suddenly tilts and everyone slides off in a flood of sand… groups of gymnasts form Busby Berkeley square formations in the water… synchronized swimming…flying carousel horses…Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away -contortionists

Most of this movie is completely incomprehensible. Why is a yakuza with Kabuki face makeup brandishing a metal hotpot as he sadistically tortures a chained athlete? I haven’t a clue. And why, why, why are people in top hats swarming in rhythm across the stage to the recorded sounds of Paul McCartney singing Mr Kite? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. Shoot me now.

This movie feels a lot like a classic Broadway musical, but without the singing, dancing, acting… or plot.

Seriously, the whole movie is a non-stop, 3-D IMAX spectacle culminating in periodic, orgasmic fountain bursts and fireworks. I guess it’s meant for people who have seen and love the stage acts. They intentionally keep all the wires and cables visible, so you know they’re really doing these tricks – no special effects. And they’ve added faint canned applause between acts, along with a multi-bowed curtain call at the end, so the movie theatre audience can know exactly when to spring to their feet and cheer at the screen. I just don’t get it.

It sounds like I hated it – I didn’t. It’s got lots of watchable eye-candy. It just didn’t do it for me.

Jack Reacher Rosamund Pike Tom CruiseJack Reacher

Dir: Christopher McQuarrie

Jack Reacher is a hobo. He drifts, aimlessly, across America with just the shirt on his back. He’s cold, emotionless, and physically indestructible. So what’s he doing in Pittsburg? He’s there to right a wrong.

You see, he used to be in the army where he was a police detective who always caught his suspects by use of his perfect memory, dogged persistence, and attention to minute details. And some crazed army sniper he remembers from his time in Iraq is in the news now: he shot some random strangers.

But he is hired by the defense attorney (!) an equally stubborn young lawyer to investigate the case. Did he really do it, and why? Or could this be another “grassy knoll” conspiracy? It’s up to Jack to connect the dots, fight the shady figures conspiring behind the scenes – a cyborg-like killer (Jai Courtney), a shady, Siberian cipher, a hidden mole – physically fend off the thugs hired to stop him, and protect and save the Zatoichi Monogatariinnocent.

Okay, I read the whole airport paperback series, all 16 of ‘em. (Jack Reacher’s like another unofficial detective, Zatoichi, the Japanese blind swordsman, who travels from town to town not looking for trouble, but always ending up in the middle of it, and always beating the bad guys.) The books are interesting, violent mystery-thrillers about this super-hero-like character who is physically huge, 6’6” –Jack Reacher Jai Courtney– an intimidating, Schwartzeneggar- type. And I wanted to see how badly Tom Cruise (at least a foot shorter with a squeaky, high-pitched voice) would blow it.

But he didn’t blow it — he pulled it off. The movie is good, interesting and suspenseful, with excellent car chases, shoot-outs, and some not-bad fistfights. I could do without the weird scene of Tom Cruise taking his shirt off and posing for the camera, and an insipid segment with him punching out five guys in an alley, but other than that, it works.

The international supporting cast – Brits Rosamund Pike as the lawyer, David Oyelowo as the cop, Aussie Jai Courtney who is terrific as the psychopathic killer, and even Werner Herzog! — were all fantastic.

The question is, what’s with all these nutbars and their gun culture? And will people want to see a violent Jack Reacher Tom Cruise with Riflemovie about a random sniper just a week after the terrible killings in Newtown, Connecticut? We’ll soon find out.

The Impossible, Jack Reacher, and Cirque Du Soleil: Worlds Away all open today. Check your local listings. Also opening today is the great French drama Rust and Bone – don’t miss it.

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

September 7, 2012, TIFF! Love Stories in French. Movies Reviewed: Amour, Rebelle PLUS Comrade Kim Goes Flying

Posted in Canada, Circus, Drama, France, North Korea, TIFF, Uncategorized, War by CulturalMining.com on September 7, 2012

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.

TIFF 2012, the huge film festival that starts tomorrow, is readily apparent in downtown Toronto. People here are usually withdrawn and polite. But with so much glitz and glamour in town, everyone wonders if that person in dark glasses is really an actor or director. Usually I’m anonymous — I’m a radio broadcaster — but suddenly every passerby around the TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Hyatt Hotel (that’s where the TIFF registration offices are) seems to study my face… just in case I am famous.

If you’ve never been there, let me tell you a few things about it, First, it’s huge, with more than 300 movies from 65 countries playing over the next ten days. I just saw a totally surprising film from one of those 65 countries: North Korea!

I wandered into one unusual film today, Comrade Kim Goes Flying. It’s a comedy-drama about a young coal miner’s daughter with her head in the clouds. She wants to be a trapeze artist, so she goes to Pyonyang to spend a year near the circus. It’s a fascinating glimpse at an idealized vision of North Korea where everyone is rich, well-fed and ecstatically happy just to mix cement or dig up coal. The characters have unusual lines that sound like: “But the willpower of the working class will always save us, Comrade Secretary!” And yet, it works as a classic hollywood drama, something like Rocky. It just goes to show you that (although not all the movies are perfect), even picking a film at random might lead to an unexpected surprise.

So don’t be intimidated by the magnitude of TIFF. Just find a few you really want to see, pursue them and you should be able to land a screening. Check online (tiff.net) at 7 am to see what new tickets are on sale.

Today I’m going to talk about two great French language movies. One’s an Austrian film about an elderly French couple who choose to live out their lives in their own home; a Canadian film about a child in central Africa torn from her home to fight in a war.

Amour
Dir Michael Haneke

Georges and Anne, a retired married couple in their eighties (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva) have a nice apartment, attend concerts, read books, share meals, and generally just enjoy their lives. They used to teach classical music and are pleased to see their former pupils becoming musical superstars. Life is peachy until one day… everything changes. Over lunch Georges tells Anne the sat shaker is empty, expecting her to refill it. But, instead, she just sat there, unresponsive. Although she later snapped out of whatever it was, it shook up the power dynamic of their traditional roles. Soon, following doctors’ tests, they discovered she is ill. But Anne makes Georges promise never to send her back to a hospital. She wants to live at home.

She entrusts her future with Georges – he’s a monster sometimes, she says, but a very kind one.

Gradually, she begins to deteriorate, physically, mentally and in her ability to communicate, due to a debilitating stroke. Georges is unrelenting in his devotion to her, but is heartbroken watching the formerly regal pianist, Queen-like even, slide from a connoisseur of Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G minor to a child chanting sur le pont d’avinon. Anne is deeply humiliated by her failure at maintaining perfection. She doesn’t want anyone seeing her in that state. Isabelle Hupert appears occasionally as their sanctimonious but ineffectual daughter, but most of the movie is just the two of them in their apartment. Like a lost pigeon that flies into their home, Georges realizes he holds both the power and the responsibility over the fate of his wife.

Austrian director Michael Haneke’s movies (Funny Games, White Ribbon, Cache) are always demanding, but often just thumb their collective nose at the characters, as if to say there is no morality, and even if their were, people are just selfish, evil hypocrites. (Haneke’s a bit like Lars von Trier.) That’s why I was surprised by the level of love and despair apparent in this mainly uncynical movie. And the acting by the two stars is absolutely flawless.

Amour is a crushingly devastating study of love, age and death. Unforgettable.

Rebelle
Dir Kim Nguyen

Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is a young girl, about 12 years old, living with her parents in a village central Africa. But she’s torn away from that life when a rebel army passes through and whisks her away to fight against the government. But she’s haunted by what happened to her parents, and they appear for her now, as painted white ghosts of the dead. They warn her whenever government troops are about to attack. Komona thinks they appear whenever she drinks “magic milk”, the baby formula she squeezes out of plastic bags. Word gets out and the local military leader takes her under his wing, as a protected one, since, he believes, she is a witch with magical powers.

She is schooled by another boy, a storyteller known as Le Magicien (the magician: Serge Kanyinda) who knows which shamanistic talisman to use, and how to place them, just so. He is albino and hence an outcast from his village, a witch, but also a target of bounty hunters. He wants to marry her (he’s maybe 14), but first she sends him off on a wild goose chase – well, actually a white rooster chase. If he can find her one of those, she’ll believe in his valour. The two of them escape from the rebel camp and its leader, the violent but superstitious rebel leader (Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien), and make their way back to her home village.

Their picaresque journey is mystical, absurd and surprising, with children’s games and lovely scenic shots interspersed with terrible violence on her slow trip home to face her ghosts.

These are three original, loving movies.

Rebelle, Amour, and Comrade Kim Goes Flying are all playing at the Toronto Film festival this year – go to www.tiff.net for details, showtimes and tickets.

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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