Films reviewed: Swan Song, Beyond Monet, Respect

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, Art, Biopic, Black, France, Gay, Immersive Cinema, LGBT, Music, Ohio, Old Age, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2021

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

With the end of lockdowns finally reaching Toronto, people are itching to catch up on what they’ve been missing — from getting their hair cut, going to an art gallery, or listening to a concert on the big screen. This week I’m looking at two movies and one experience. There’s soul in Detroit, hairdressing in Ohio, and French impressionism in downtown Toronto.

Swan Song 

Wri/Dir: Todd Stephens

Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) was once known as the Liberace of Sandusky Ohio, known for his gaudy jewelry, his pastel pantsuits and his flamboyant style. The richest women in town flocked to his hair salon where he could accomplish miracles with just his fingertips and a can of hairspray. But now he’s long-forgotten, a penniless  old man living in a nursing home with puke-green walls and fluorescent lights. What happened?  

His protege Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge) opened up a larger salon across the street from his, poaching his longest clients, including Rita Sloan a millionaire and his oldest patron. Then his lover David died of AIDS. And since this was before same-sex marriage, their shared house was inherited by a distant relative, leaving him homeless. So for Pat,  Sandusky is just history. Until a lawyer named Mr Shamrock arrives at his room with a new development. Rita has died, and in her will she insists Pat be the one to style her hair in her coffin. And if he does he’ll inherit 25,000 clams. So Pat sets out on a long journey back to long-lost Sandusky, encountering strange people and places along the way. Will he get there in time for Rita’s swan song? And can he finish the job without any beauty supplies? 

Swan Song is a very gentle, low-key, and slow- moving homage to the gradually fading world of small town gay life in America. Though nostalgic, it doesn’t present a white-washed version. It features Pat (loosely based on a real person) as an inveterate shoplifter, Eunice his best friend who is known for loitering in public toilets, as well as the seedy gay bar where they used to lip-synch torch songs. Udo Kier, the great German actor, has fun with his role, injecting his own trademark campiness. Swan Song is a cute and gentle, (though too slow-moving) LGBT comedy.

Beyond Monet

Claude Monet was a fin-de-siècle French painter who daubed his canvases with bright spring colours. Critics at the time referred to his work derisively as impressionism, thus providing a name for the movement. But as his fame grew, his eyesight faded, and by the end his works veered to the nearly abstract. Today, though, his paintings of fields, gardens, water and most of all waterlilies are among the most famous of that era. Beyond Monet is an exhibition, not of his art, but rather an immersive experience. His works are projected on a circular, 360 degree wall and ceiling, about the size of a football stadium. The works themselves are constantly rising, falling, or gradually turning around inside the exhibition space, so you can see all of it without moving from your area. It’s constructed around a large wooden cupola in the centre, along with shiny, round landing pads spread all around to sit on. The images are softly animated: waves in his paintings rise and fall; in his winter scenes, snow seems to blow against the landscapes, while flowers and lillies bloom before your eyes. And a constantly-shifting — and at times quite lovely — original soundtrack of music and sound effects (like birds, crickets or waves) adds to the mood.

The exhibition is in three parts. The first consists 0f a few curved wooden bridges and some gossamer sheets hanging from the tall ceilings. It also has a series of bilingual signs explain the art. You pass through a hallway festooned with cheap mylar strips, into the main room where the actual show takes place.  

Is seeing an original canvas by Monet the same as a projection, however well-rendered and animated, in a large space? No… not even close. This isn’t art, it’s about art. It reminds me of those parks with miniature versions of the Eiffel tower and the Taj Mahal. 

What it is, though, is a pleasantly relaxing experience for those who want to appreciate Monet without the trouble of seeing his actual stuff. Interestingly, the entrance features an assortment of empty wooden canvas frames, to remind us, I suppose, that the real art is still on museum walls. But with the pandemic on, perhaps Beyond Monet is a way to get the feeling of his work without travelling far. And the show is well- ventilated, well-spaced and with a limited number of guests at any one time. 

Respect

Dir:  Liesl Tommy

It’s 1952. 10-year-old Aretha Franklin, known as “Ree”, lives in a middle class Detroit neighbourhood. Her father (Forest Whitaker) is a firebrand baptist preacher with a huge congregation.  He is a colleague of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, who Ree calls Uncle Martin. He holds Saturday night get-togethers where little Ree is the featured performer in a musical household. Still a child, she has the voice of a full-grown woman, and performs be-bop and scat singing, not just gospel. Her father intends to make her a star. By the late 50s he gets Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) signed with John Hammond at Columbia Records where she records old jazz standards with a full orchestra. But without any hits. 

Then everything changes in the late 60s when she is taken under the wing of producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, the man who coined the term Rhythm and Blues. He introduces her to the back-up players at Muscle Shoals, men who know how to feel the music. Aretha brings in her sisters as back up singers, and the rest is history. She becomes the queen of soul and her songs internationally famous. 

This music biopic follows her career over a 20 year period, from 1952 to 1972. And it’s not a smooth and steady ride. It’s called Respect partly because of her hit single but also to point out the lack of it she experiences from both her domineering father and her tempestuous relationship with the often violent and manipulative Ted (Marlon Wayans) her sometime husband and manager. It also exposes the harsh underbelly of her stable, middle-class life. She is raped at an early age (this is implied not shown) and gives birth to a number of sons while still in her teens (her grandma takes care of them.) Her father says she has “demons” inside, but maybe it’s just her trying to break free, whether through her music or alcoholism, from the relentless disrespect and physical and mental abuse she suffers for much of her young life.  

Respect is part performance, part melodrama, alternating between a near constant flow of music interspersed with re-enactments with her family, business, and love life. We see her ups and downs (mainly her downs), along with many — maybe too many — fights, tantrums and meltdowns. Biopics have two choices: either hire great actors with mediocre or dubbed voices, or great singers. Hudson is the latter. She has a fantastic voice, featured here in so many genres — gospel, jazz, soul and pop — which holds the movie together. The melodramatic scenes are a mixed bag, some very moving, others cringe-worthy. Whitaker is really good as CL Frankin, and Hudson is in nearly every scene.  While Respect is not a great movie, I greatly enjoyed watching it.

Look for Swan Song on VOD and digital formats.  Respect opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend — check your local listings. And Beyond Monet is exclusively showing at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre now.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Cynthia Banks about The Caregivers Club

Posted in Disabilities, documentary, Family, Mental Illness, Old Age, Toronto, TV by CulturalMining.com on January 12, 2018

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

A malady is sweeping the nation, an illness with no effective medication, no clear cause and no known cure. It starts out mild but its effects get worse and worse, ultimately leading to death. More than half a million Canadians suffer from it. What is this plague? HIV? Opioid addiction? Bird flu? No, I’m talking about dementia caused by Alzheimers. And patients with dementia need constant care.

The Caregivers Club is a new documentary that looks at three patients with early-onset dementia and the very different decisions made by the people who care for them. It follows a mother who lives in her own home with caregivers hired by her adult daughter; a wife assisted by her husband; and a man who lives in a nursing home as his wife raises their three young kids. The film was written and directed by noted Toronto documentarian Cynthia Banks.

I spoke to Cynthia by telephone from CIUT.

The Caregivers Club is playing on CBC Docs-POV at 9:00 pm on Sunday, and streaming online beginning today.

 

Vulnerable. Films reviewed: Songs my Brother Taught Me, The Lady in the Van

Posted in Addiction, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, Drama, First Nations, Movies, Old Age, Poverty, Suspicion by CulturalMining.com on February 7, 2016

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

8qzGkl_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_02_o3_8934485_1453302729You can tell a lot about a culture by looking at how it treats its most vulnerable members. This week I’m looking at two dramas, one from the US, another from the U.K. There’s a teenaged bootlegger in a pickup truck in a badlands state; and an old lady in a van in Camden in a bad state of mind.

Songs My Brother Taught Me
Dir: Chloe Zhao

Johnny Winters (John Reddy) is a teenager living in a Sioux Nation reserve in the Badlands, Northwestern US. He helps care for his sister Jashaun (Jashaun St John) and their mom (Irene Bedard) who stays in bed all day. NxKlQm_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_05_o3_8934624_1453302723She’s depressed. And there’s an older brother in prison.

Johnny’s still in high school, but he plans to cut out as soon as he graduates. He’s saving money so he can buy a pickup truck and drive to LA with his girlfriend. She’s going to University in the fall, and he hopes to make it as a boxer. So he turns to a bootlegging as a source of income. The reserve he lives on is officially dry, but there’s still a black market for beer and alcohol. k5jYyY_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_03_o3_8934502_1453302704He meets with an older woman who brings in the bottles and he distributes them for cash. But he faces trouble and potential violence from rivals who think he’s poaching on their territory.

His little sister knows all and sees all. She likes to draw, paint and dance. She begins to follow a tattoo artist to study his crafts and learn about her culture.

Jashawn looks at her brother almost like a father. Then their real father, Carl, dies in a fire, and Jashawn and Johnny realize they don’t know who he was. They get to know their extended family. Carl was a champion bull riderGZX1PQ_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_04_o3_8934563_1453302713 who followed the rodeo circuit. They all share Carl’s last name, along with lots of others at the reserve, but Johnny and Jashawn barely knew him. So they are jealous of his “real” family. Will knowing his relatives help him get a job? Or will he move to the big city and leave his mom and sister behind?

Songs my Brother Taught Me is a realistic look at life on a Lakota reserve, and pulls no punches. It’s not a Hollywood feel-good movie. It has a low-key, almost documentary feel to it, and shows a lot of sad and depressing scenes about scraping by with not enough money or jobs. But the realistic acting — especially the appealing performances of John Reddy and Jashawn St. John — help mitigate its downer feel. And the scenery — the dramatic crumbling white cliffs of the badlands — give it a stark and timeless immediacy.

1cf24d8d-9a27-480a-a622-172fc82728a7The Lady in the Van
Dir: Nicholas Hytner

Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is a writer living on a quaint, middle-class street in Camdentown, north London. His life is a quiet one until an eccentric old woman enters the scene. Miss Sheppard (Maggie Smith) is a nearly homeless woman who lives in a VW van. She’s ornery and smells bad. And she doesn’t mince words: she needs a place to park her home so she can live in peace. And after some deliberation with nosy neighbours, Alan agrees it’s his turn to help Miss Sheppard. So she moves into his driveway takes up residence and lives there for the next THE LADY IN THE VAN15 years.

For Alan Bennett the character, Miss Sheppard is a pain in the ass: a disputatious, mentally ill old lady who gets in the way. She infringes on his private space, interferes with visiting sex partners, and interrupts his writing. And the smell! Plastic bags serve as her toilet. But for Alan Bennett the writer, she’s a fascinating character, dying to be explored and studied.

Turns out Miss Sheppard has a hidden past. The reason she lives in London is to escape a witness to a possible hit-and-run incident decades earlier. Alan also discovers she was once a concert pianist, and later joined a French convent. She’s a bullying, difficult woman with a “derelict nobility”.

THE LADY IN THE VANIronically, the more time he spends trying to learn about Miss Sheppard, the less he spends with the other old woman in his life – his own mother. She is neither glamorous nor mysterious not frightening, and he can’t bring himself to visit her. He’d rather think about the woman in the van in his driveway.

This is a great movie. Maggie Smith is just fantastic, not given to grandiose gestures. She plays it straight as a homeless woman with a strong personality. And Jennings plays Alan Bennett as two characters: the man and the narrator, who appear on the screen together to debate what to do about the woman in the driveway. It’s a theatrical conceit but it works reallyTHE LADY IN THE VAN well. Alan Bennett’s books and memoirs often have internal dialogue that doesn’t work in plays or on the big screen.

He’s a really witty and fun writer and playwright – he writes books like Smut and plays like History Boys – so it’s neat to see him as a character. The Lady in the Van is part memoir (it’s a true story) and part imagined drama. It’s a difficult comedy, one that makes you think and squirm while you laugh. Great movie.

12647247_223040471366833_8306883834731885620_nThe Lady in the Van opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Songs my Brother Taught Me is showing next weekend at Toronto’s Next Wave festival. Next Wave shows films by, for and about young adults, including many free screenings. Go to tiff.net for details. Also playing now is the sometimes hilarious parody 50 Shades of Black. If you like the Wayans’ style of comedy, this one’s for you.

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

Sexy Strong Seniors! Movies Reviewed: Cloudburst, Still Mine

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.

An ever increasing proportion of our population is made up of seniors, so it makes sense that more movies are made about them. They share certain themes: wisdom, loss, history and memory, dissatisfaction with change, along with infirmity, dementia or death. But, so far, not many are about old men and women as fully sexual, dynamic and heroic figures (exceptions include Haneke’s Amour and Sarah Polley’s Away from Her). So this week I’m looking at two new movies that do just that. They’re both told from the point of view of older couples fighting the system. As an added bonus, they both are set in scenic Atlantic Canada. One has a pair of older women escaping to Canada so they can get married; the other has a farmer and his wife fighting the system to build a house on their own land.

cloudburst dukakis frickerCloudburst

Dir: Thom Fitzgerald

Stella and Dottie (Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker) are lovers. They’ve been together for decades, in small-town Maine. They know each other inside and out and like playing things like “hide the vibrator’ in bed. Stella has a foul mouth, a mannish haircut and a cowboy hat. Dottie is blind, plump, ailing, and motherly, with billowy dresses and curly white hair. Life’s a peach.

But when Stella isn’t looking, Dottie’s uptight granddaughter gets her to sign away her power of attorney. Then, with the help of her husband, the town policeman, she trucks her grandma away to an old-age home and takes possession of her house. Naturally, when Stella find’s out she’s furious. But there’s nothing she can do, since she’s not Dollie’s blood relative, just her lover. What to do? Stella has a plan…

She reconnoiters the old-age home, loads Dottie into her car, and heads off north to the Canadiancloudburst ryan doucette border. If they can get up there they can get married and everything will be OK again. On the way, they see a hitchhiker, a young, modern dancer named Prentice (Ryan Doucette) showing some skin by the side of the road. Stella invites him on board but sets him straight “Pull up your pants kid — you’re humping the wrong fire hydrant!” He’s their third wheel, but adds a new flavour to the mix, as he tells them about his own home troubles. He also lets them have some private time when they’re caught in a cloudburst. Will they make it to Canada? Are they fugitives from the law? And can they pull off the wedding in time?

This is light, comical road movie, full of jokes and radio music. All three of the leads are fun to watch as they play out their characters. It takes place in an Atlantic Canada that’s an idyllic, rustic place, full of tolerant, friendly folks. It’s not meant to be a serious story, more of a light comic fantasy. Funny and tender in some parts, sad in others, but never too deep. I think it’s director’s Thom Fitzgerald’s try at a mainstream crowd-pleaser– as opposed to his earlier, more experimental films, like Hanging Garden —  and it works.

STILL MINE_cromwellStill Mine

Dir: Michael McGowan

Craig and Irene (James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold) live on a sprawling, 2000 acre family farm near St Martins, N.B. They’ve been married 60 years and have seven kids, and raise chickens, cows and strawberries. And they still live at home. They are very much in love, and still sleep together. Craig is tall, stern and gaunt; Irene has flowing long white hair that she lets loose on her slim body. (The movie makes a point at showing them bioth partially naked)

Irene’s memory is going, and she’s increasingly hard to handle in their old home. But Craig’s a stubborn old cuss, and there’s no way he’s leaving that place, despite their childrens’ entreaties.

So he decides to build a new house. By himself. By hand. He’s been schooled in the art of building since he was a lad, and St Martins was an old ship-building port, so he’s inherited all the rules: cutting and aging wood, building joists, making it all just right. He’s building a perfect, one story home, as tight as a ship, overlooking the Bay of Fundy. One where Irene will STILL_MINE bujoldnever have to worry about climbing or falling down staircases again.

But things start to go wrong. He never bought a refrigerated truck to transport his strawberry harvest – a new rule. So he can’t sell them. His cattle have wandered away since he didn’t fix a hole in a fence. And worst of all, Mr Daigle, at the licensing desk, says he didn’t follow the proper rules in building the new house, and posts WORK STOP notices all over the skeleton of the house he’s building. If he disobeys the law he could go to jail. Will the house be torn to the ground? Or will Craig and Irene win and get to live in their lovely new house?

Based on a true story – stubborn NB. farmer fights the bureaucrats — this is a nice movie with excellent performances by Bujold and Cromwell (He just won the best actor prize in a Canadian film this past weekend.) Some of the scenes looked similar to ones in Away from Her, with pretty Irene wandering unchecked, in a daze, with her long white hair blowing in her face.It’s modeled on rural life, and they both seem like real farmers, but it also shares the very slow, largely uneventful feel (I’m guessing here) of rural life. So it’s a bit sloooow, not so exciting. But it is a nice, gentle satisfying film to watch.

Cloudburst starts today, check your local listings, and keep your eyes out for Still Home which opens a few months from now, in May.

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

%d bloggers like this: