On the media. Films reviewed: A Wounded Fawn, Spoiler Alert, Empire of Light

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Death, Depression, Disease, Feminism, Gay, Greece, Horror, Mental Illness, Movies, Racism, Revenge, Romance, Theatre, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 10, 2022

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

It’s December, but not everything is about Christmas. This week I’m looking at three new movies with themes set in the arts: there’s a woman who works at a cinema but never watches movies; a serial killer who finds himself part of an ancient greek play, and a writer for TV Guide who thinks his life is like a sitcom.

A Wounded Fawn

Co-Wri/Dir:Travis Stevens

It’s a fine art auction in NY City, and the collectors and dealers are in fighting mode tonight. The prized item is a small bronze sculpture from ancient Greece showing the Furies seeking revenge on a prone man. Kate (Malin Barr) gets the high bid and returns home triumphant with the piece  in hand. So she’s surprised to see Bruce (Josh Ruben) a rival bidder, show up at her door. His boss still covets the statue and is willing pay double. Doubling her money in 24 hours seems like a good deal. She invites him in for a glass of champagne. But before long, she is dead on the floor in a pool of blood, and the sculpture — and Bruce — are long gone.

Later, Meredith, another beautiful young woman (Sarah Lind) is excited over an upcoming weekend in the country with her latest paramour. Her last boyfriend was abusive, but her new one seems nice, generous and attractive.  And he’s into fine art just like Mer (she works in a museum).They set off for a fun filled adventure at his isolated cottage in the woods. She is thrilled to see the cabin is actually a finished home overlooking a dense forest, and decorated with modern art. But something is strange: she hears a woman’s voice in her ear warning her to leave. And she recognizes the Greek sculpture of the Furies on his coffee table — she authenticated it for an auction just a few weeks ago. (It’s just a copy, says Bruce) What she doesn’t know is that Bruce is a serial killer… and she might be his next victim. (Bruce is waiting for directions from a gigantic man-owl with blood red feathers who tells him who he should kill). Can Mer fight him off? And where do those strange voices come from? 

A Wounded Fawn is a low budget, exquisitely-crafted art-house thriller horror. What starts as a simple slasher, soon turns into a revenge pic about halfway through, where Meredith, Kate and a third victim return as the Furies to visit punishment upon Bruce. What’s really remarkable is how it incorporates greco-roman aesthetics, mythology and theatre into what could have been a simple scary horror movie, to turn it into something totally original. While it’s not always clear whether something happens for real, or just inside Bruce’s damaged brain, it doesn’t matter.  A Wounded Fawn is weird and fascinating, either way.

Spoiler Alert

Dir: Michael Showalter

It’s the 1990s. Michael Ausiello (Jim Parsons) is a nerdy gay guy who lives in NJ but works in Manhattan. He grew up obsessed by TV, living his life as if he were a character on an 80s sitcom. Now he’s a writer for TV Guide, where he devotes himself to work and remains perpetually single. Until he meets Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge) at a dance club — he’s handsome, fit and popular and says Michael is just his type —a tall geek. Kit’s also in the media — he’s a professional photographer. They hit it off, but keep certain secrets to themselves. Kit lives a free-wheeling sex life — he’s not one to settle down. And Michael never came out to his small-town parents (Sally Field and Bill Irwin); he’s afraid they won’t accept him. And he’s afraid to show Kit his apartment. What is he hiding there? His Smurf collection; a veritable fuzzy blue tsunami filling every nook and cranny. But after settling their deferences, they eventually move in together. Most of the Smurfs are packed away, Michael comes out to his parents (they still love him) and they settle into domestic bliss. 

Flash forward 15 years, and their relationship is on the rocks; the spark has died and they’ve grown a bit distant toward each other. But everything changes when — spoiler alert! — Kit discovers he has terminal cancer. Can they handle his imminent death? Will their love be rekindled? And how will they spend what might be their last year together? 

Spoiler Alert is a touching dramady about love and loss, based on a true story — Michael Ausiello’s own memoir of his life with Kit. Like the book, the movie begins with the death of Kit in Michael’s arms, hence “spoiler alert”. The director Michael Showalter, previously made The Big Sick, also about a couple and their family facing a serious illness. So is this the gay Big Sick? Not exactly — it’s a new story with a different style, like his version of Michael’s childhood as a sitcom, complete with laugh-track. And there are lots of funny parts. The bigger question is, is Jim Parsons up to playing a dramatic role, or is he forever stuck in peoples’ minds as Sheldon on the Big Bang? In this case, I think he pulls it off. He fits the role and manages to make him quirkily sympathetic. So if you’re into terminal illness comedies, here’s a good one to try on for size. 

Empire of Light

Wri/Dir: Sam Mendes

Its the winter of 1981 in a sea-side city in southern England. Hilary (Olivia Coleman) is a middle-aged woman who works at the Empire Theatre as the front of house manager. It’s an art-deco movie palace, but like the town, it’s long past its prime. Half the screens are closed and the third floor ballroom has been taken over by pigeons. Hilary is lonely and depressed, on meds, recovering from a hospital stay. Her social life consists of ballroom dancing with old men, and her sex life is furtive encounters with her sleazy, married boss (Colin Firth) in his darkened office.

But her life changes when a young man, Stephen (Michael Ward) is hired to work there. She finds him attractive, ambitious (he wants to study architecture at university)` and compassionate: he nurses a wounded pigeon back to health. He’s mom’s a nurse, from the Windrush generation, but he wants more. Hillary may be his mom’s age but there’s something there. After a few intimate moments they start a clandestine relationship. But Michael’s real ambition is to leave this town — to escape increasingly racist street violence (he’s black), and to become more than just an usher.  Can their relationship last? And if they break up, can the fragile Hilary handle it?

Empire of Light is a romantic time capsule of life in Thatcher’s England. It’s also about the joy and troubles of an intergenerational, mixed-race love affair.  And it’s also about sexual harassment and anti-black racism in everyday life. And it’s also about Hillary’s mental illness, including her sudden, manic episodes. And it’s also about the rise of skinheads and the National Front, and the concurrent anti-racist ska revival.  And it’s also about the collective friendship that develops among the people working at the Empire theatre. (Maybe too many ands for one movie?)

Like many of Sam Mendes films (which I generally don’t like), it’s pandering and emotionally manipulative and has a  meandering storyline, that keeps you watching while it’s on, but leaves you feeling vaguely unsatisfied afterwards. But the acting is really good, especially Olivia Coleman and Michael Ward, who rise above the movie’s many flaws. Maybe even good enough to make Empire of Light worth a watch, despite all its problems.  

Empire of Light and Spoiler Alert both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And A Wounded Fawn is now streaming on Shudder. 

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

Good dramas. 1917, Uncut Gems, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão

Posted in 1910s, 1950s, Brazil, comedy, Drama, Gambling, Judaism, melodrama, New York City, Sex, Sports, UK, War, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on December 25, 2019

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

A good drama is hard to find, and this week I’ve got three of them. There’s an action drama set in Europe in WWI, a melodrama set in Rio in the 1950s, and a dark comedy set in present-day Manhattan.

1917

Dir: Sam Mendes

It’s April, 1917 in the trenches. Two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) are summoned by an officer with an important mission. The Germans seem to be retreating and frontline soldiers are preparing to cross over no man’s land. But it’s a ruse. If the troops try to cross the fields they’ll be gunned down like lambs to the slaughter. And the telegraph lines are down. It’s up to Blake and Schofield to take a crucial letter to the isolated troops before they’re all wiped out. And to get there, they have to pass through enemy territory, inside German trenches, and across enemy lines. Why are two ordinary soldiers chosen for this impossible task? Blake has a brother in the squadron they’re warning. And Schofield? He happens to be nearby when Blake is summoned. Can the two men young men make it there in time? Or are they just another couple of casualties in this War to End All Wars?

1917 is a thrilling action movie set during WWI. It’s full of narrow escapes, shootouts, explosions and hand-to-hand combat, with our heroes riding, running, flying and swimming, all to get to their goal. It uses lots of tricks you’d expect to see in horror movies: from sudden encounters with piles of rotting corpses, to shocking encounters with rats. It’s also a “War is Hell” movie but it’s a bit foggy on the Us and Them narrative of a war from a hundred years ago. Should WWI German soldiers still be portrayed as evil, drunken cowards while British soldiers are brave, kindly, steadfast and resolute? Still, you do find yourself rooting for the heroes hoping beyond hope that they’ll survive.The acting, especially MacKay, is fantastic and it’s fun to spot all the famous actors with bit parts as military brass include Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Colin Firth. But the best part of this movie is in an unexpected area. Roger Deakins camerawork is incredible, with shadow and searchlight, glowing candles and burning flames throwing chiarascuro images across the screen. It’s stunning to watch.

Uncut Gems

Dir: Josh and Benny Safdie

It’s the diamond district in present-day Manhattan. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a successful Bling jeweller peddling pricy kitsch to therich and famous in a small boutique encased in bullet-proof glass. He supports an unhappy suburban Jewish family, also setting aside money for his own peccadilloes: a mistress in a midtown apartment and tickets to NBA games. But he’s also a compulsive gambler throwing money at bookies. He’s in debt up to his neck, and the gangsters are circling. Two thugs in particular. Loan sharks, pawn shops, bookies, and legit business associates are all asking for their cut. But when Howard lands a lump of Ethiopian opals – the “uncut gems” of the title – he thinks all his problems are solved. By gazing into the glowing, coloured rocks he loses himself in a fantastical universe. He embarks on a complex plan: sell the gem to a superstitious star basketball player, pawn the priceless gaudy ring the player leaves as a deposit, and bet it all on a mammoth Las Vegas sports gamble. Will his plan pan out? Or will it all come a-tumbling down?

Uncut Gems is the latest Safdie Brother’s look at sympathetic, small-time losers and petty criminals, and the destruction they leave in their path. There’s a bit of excitement, but it’s more like a dark, absurdist comedy than anything else. They say Adam Sandler makes one credible acting movie for every ten horrible comedies. He proves his bona fides in this one, hands down. He’s great as the irrepressible and irritating Howard Ratner, complete with fake crooked and gummy teeth. But he’s a hard character to like…his problems are all of his own making, and his adulation for celebrity, sportsteams, cars and The Big Win is unattractive. I kinda sympathize with Howard but not really; I saw this four months ago at TIFF and remember feeling bothered and a bit angry by the end. But the humour, great acting, music, images, and elegant plot – from start to finish – helps redeem the unfomfortable feeling it leaves you with.

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão

Dir: Karim Aïnouz

It’s 1950 in a middle class family in Rio de Jeneiro. Guida and Euridice are inseparable sisters who do almost everything together. Guida (Julia Stockler) is 20 years old, small, buxom, adventurous and mature. She’s looking for love in all the wrong places, where she meets Iorgos, a handsome sailor from Greece. She leaves a note with her sister that she’s off on a ship to Europe to marry her love and will be back in Brazil soon. Euridice (Carol Duarte) is 18, the good daughter, tall with long, curly hair. She devotes all her energy to practicing the piano, with the hope that someday soon she’ll be accepted into the conservatory in Vienna.

But both of their plans are stymied by unwanted pregnancies. Guida comes home, pregnant and alone. Iorgos is a rat, with a wife and kids in Greece and a girl in every port. But when she walks through her door, her father throws her out, saying, “you’re dead to me, I never want to see you again”. She’s forced to move to a working class neighbourhood, get a job (she works as a welder at the docks) and raise her son.

Meanwhile, Euridice gets married to Antenor (Gregório Duvivier) the son of a business partner of her dad who owns a bakery. He’s a boor and an inconsiderate lover. She’s preparing for her Vienna audition in a few months but despite her church-sanctioned birth control methods, she ends up pregnant too, scotching any plans to study in Vienna. Guida assumes her sister is in Europe, and Euridice thinks Guida has disappeared without a trace (their parents block any communication with Guida, and both sisters have no idea the other is living in Rio.) Will the sisters ever see each other again? And will their ambitions be realized?

The Invisibie Life of Euridice Gusmao is subtitled, “a tropical melodrama” and that’s what it is: a passionate, lush story about the lives of two strong-willed women, torn apart against their will. Guida forging a new life as a single, working class mom, as Euridice navigates Brazil’s repressive middle class life in the ’50s. I loved this movie.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao is now playing in Toronto, and Uncut Gems and 1917 both opened on Christmas Day; 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.

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