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

And two more: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, The Florida Project

Posted in 1930s, Cultural Mining, Feminism, LGBT, Movies, Polyamory, Poverty, Psychology, Romance, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2017

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

I’m back again because it’s a bumper crop this week, and there are two more great movies opening today that deserve to be seen. One takes place in the shadows of Disneyworld, the other reveals the origins of Wonder Woman.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Wri/Dir: Angela Robinson

It’s the 1920s at a prestigious University. William Marston (Luke Evans) is a Harvard-trained psychologist who lives and works alongside his brilliant wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). They are both outspoken advocates for women’s rights and create the world’s first lie detector. But when William takes on a young research assistant named Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), Elizabeth suspects hanky-panky. So what a surprise when they all answer intimate questions about their truest feelings and desires using the lie detector: Olive desires both William and Elizabeth! And the feelings are mutual. They form a triad – a polyamorous relationship – among the three of them. To the outside world they are a married couple with their widowed relative, but behind closed doors anything goes. The three move into a large house and raise their children together, exploring new sexual avenues – including role play and BDSM — while the kids are away at school. But when their secret is revealed and he loses his job, Marston is forced to look for new ways to earn a living. So he creates the world’s first feminist superhero, Wonder Woman, based on the two women in his life. Her outfit is inspired by clothing they see at Greenwich Village fetish shop, and the Lasso of Truth is a combination of bondage and lie detectors.

Professor Marston and the Womder Women tells the delightful and always surprising love story about the origins of a superhero before she was whitewashed into blandness and conformity.

The Florida Project

Dir: Sean Baker

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) Jancey (Valeria Cotto) Scooty (Christopher Rivera) are three little kids who live in the giant pink motels that dot the highways around Disneyland in Orlando Florida. They spit off balconies, explore junk piles and panhandle tourists for ice cream. Though rundown, the motels serve as a community and home for the nearly homeless and marginal. They are forced to vacate their rooms weekly and relocate – they’re not allowed to call their homes home. They are all looked after by the stern but benevolent manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe)

Halley, Moony’s mom (Bria Vinaite) earns her living reselling wholesale perfume bottles or turning the occasional trick. Other moms work as waitresses or as de facto daycare, just trying to keep the kids fed and out of trouble. And boy do these kids get in trouble. Abut when something serious happens, the delicate balance between parents and kids quickly falls apart.

The Florida project is a fascinating look at the poor and marginal people around Orlando, in a private hotel that functions like a housing project, Florida-style The kids are great, although occasionally prone to cuting-it-up for the camera. And the raw, beautiful camerawork, crumbling houses against a tropical sunset, give it an immediate, authentic feel. Great movie.

The Florida Project and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women both open today in Toronto. This is Daniel Garber at the movies each Friday morning for CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

Scoundrels, Nazis and Pimps — the world’s worst lovers. Movies reviewed: Tangerine, Madame Bovary, Suite Française

Posted in 1940s, African-Americans, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, L.A., Romance, Sex Trade, Trans, WWII by CulturalMining.com on July 3, 2015

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

Some relationships just don’t work – you look back and wonder what possessed you. But then there are the ones that everyone knows should never have happened. This week I’m looking at new movies about women who make terrible choices in lovers. There’s a middle-class woman in 19th century France who falls for rich scoundrels; a woman in 1940s France who falls for a Nazi, and a woman in contemporary LA who falls for a pimp.

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp.Tangerine
Dir: Sean Baker

It’s Christmas Eve in LA. Sin-Dee and Alexandra (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor)
are best friends who work in the sex trade on the streets of Hollywood. Alexandra wants to be a professional singer, while Sin-Dee (short for Cinderella) just wants her Prince Charming. But Chester (James Ransone) is hardly a prince. He’s a white pimp/ drug dealer in an electric blue hoody, as skeezy as theyMickey O’Hagan and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp. come. But he says he’ll marry her. So she is not a happy camper when she hears he’s been sleeping with another woman. And not just any woman –one who’s white and cis-female (both Sin-Dee and Alexandra are black and transgender). So she heads out to find Dinah, the strung-out blonde (Mickey O’Hagen) and set her straight.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp.Meanwhile, Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is an Armenian cab driver who frequents the same hood. He’s married with a kid, but would rather spend Christmas with people like Sin-Dee and Alexandra. His wife doesn’t care, but his mother-in-law suspects something is up. So she heads out to catch Razmik  in the act. Things come to a head when all the characters converge on a Hollywood donut shop.Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone and Mya Taylor in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp. release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp. Will the cheaters come clean and the liars tell the truth?

Tangerine is a low-key, low-budget indie look at the streets of LA. It concentrates on the funnier aspects but doesn’t shirk on the grittiness and precariousness of people’s lives. The cast is uniformly good, especially stately, elegant Mya Taylor and wild-child Kitana Kiki Roidriguez. Does Tangerine perpetuate negative stereotypes of transwomen? Perhaps, but since the performances are so sympathetic and well-rounded it feels real, not exploitative. This is a good one.

X6qlRg_madamebovary_03_o3_8649075_1434144833Madame Bovary
Dir: Sophie Barthes

19th century Normandy, near Rouen. Beautiful but naïve Emma (Mia Wasikowska) is a woman raised in a convent who is married to a simple country doctor. He’s boring, unambitious and a bit of a prig. He says beds are for patients, not doctors. And Emma soon discovers that means beds are for sleeping, not for good sex. So she’s left alone all day with nothing to do.

Soon enough there is a parade of men at her door promising a better life. vgRvz5_madamebovary_02_o3_8649010_1434144830Monsieur Lhereux (Rhys Ifans) is an oleaginous salesman who tempts her with Parisian fashions and golden candlesticks. She has to look good if she wants her life to improve. And never mind the cost – she can buy whatever she wants on credit! Uh oh…Leon (Ezra Miller) is the last romantic, an aesthete with delicate features. Won’t she go for a walk with him? Cynical Homais (Paul Giamatti) says he will help them climb the ladder to success, if they just take some risks. Then there’s the Marquis 58V4EY_madamebovary_01_o3_8648982_1434144827(Logan Marshall Green), a local rake who takes her for hunting, with horn and hound. He sends her love letters and says she can run off and live in his castle. Will Madame Bovary find her true love? Or will she succumb to trickery… and inescapable debt?

Madame Bovary – based on the famous novel by Flaubert — is a cautionary tale about the dangers of upward mobility. This film is a straightforward retelling of the story. But it reveals the tragic ending in the very first scene. I guess the director assumes everyone knows the story already so it can’t be a spoiler… but at least she should pretend to be interested. As it is, this movie is devoid of suspense, humour and passion. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters – they aren’t even particularly likeable. Though visually stunning and rich in detail (it’s like a work of art to watch), this movie doesn’t have much else going for it.

(L-R) MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS and MICHELLE WILLIAMS star in SUITE FRANÇAISE

(L-R) MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS and MICHELLE WILLIAMS star in SUITE FRANÇAISE

Suite Française
Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s France in the 1940s, right after the German invasion. Pretty, young Lucille (Michelle Williams) lives in Bussy, a suburban town just east of Paris. She barely knew her husband Gaston before he was sent off to fight in the war. Now she lives with her unfriendly mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas), a prosperous landholder, on her country estate. And – despite the refugees pouring out of Paris, scared for their lives – Lucille’s mother-in-law is doing quite nicely, thank you. She has even raised the rent of her long-time tenant farmers, even pushing them out of their homes to make room for desperate refugees with more money. But when the Germans arrive, everything changes. They are forced to share their home with Lieutenant Bruno, a handsome aristocrat (Matthias Schoenarts). He seems like a nice man, fond of classical piano music. He plays one song – the Suite Française of the title – that she’s never heard before. (Lucille studied music before the war.) She is forbidden to speak with him… but sharing intimate quarters leads to an increasing familiarity between the two.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS stars in SUITE FRANÇAIS

MICHELLE WILLIAMS stars in SUITE FRANÇAISE

Meanwhile, farmers Madeleine and Benoit (Ruth Wilson, Sam Riley) are forced to accommodate their own lieutenant, the cruel and vindictive Kurt (Tom Schilling). Benoit wasn’t drafted because he walks with a limp, but he hates the Germans with a passion. And when he sees the officer making passes at his own wife, he’s furious. He locates a hidden rifle, and sets out to defend both his honour and his country.

And as the story develops, the true nature of the characters reveal themselves, and we begin to question our first impressions of who is good and who is bad.

The film is an adaptation of the novel by Irene Nemirovsky written while the war was still going on. She was killed in a Nazi concentration camp but the manuscript was hidden for 60 years. It was rediscovered and published as a bestseller just ten years ago. It makes an engrossing romantic historical drama. The acting is terrific, especially Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother-in-law, as well as the farm family.  It’s a rare look at the war seen while it was taking place. I liked this film a lot.

Madame Bovary and Suite Française starts today in Toronto, check your local listings; Tangerine opens next Friday. Also now playing is the documentary Deep Web, about the dark side, online. I interviewed director Alex Winter during Hot Docs.

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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