Wood, Bricks and Rocks. Films reviewed: Black Bear, 18 to Party, Rocks

Posted in 1980s, Cabin in the Woods, Coming of Age, Family, Friendship, High School, Homelessness, Poverty, Suicide, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three new indie movies. We’ve got alienated teens in the 1980s standing by a wall of bricks, a homeless high school girl in London named Rocks, and a fractious ménage a trois in a cabin made of wood.

Black Bear

Wri/Dir: Lawrence Michael Levine

It’s summertime in upstate New York. Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is an actress, a director and a writer. She’s staying in a beautiful wooden house, completely off the grid as she tries to write a new screenplay. But she’s easily distracted from her work: there’s a ramp running down from the house into a wide wooden doc on a placid lake. Then there’s the attractive couple who own the house and live there: Blair (Sarah Gadon), a feminist and former dancer, pregnant with their first child; and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) her bearded husband who holds antediluvian views. But freindy banter over wine and dinner turns to bitter bickering, with Allison caught between the two. Blair is convinced that Gabe is cheating on her with Allison. Tension builds until it explodes… leading to a dangerous outcome.

But wait! It’s not over.

We now watch the same scene again, but this time Allison and Gabe are married and own the cabin and Blair is the visiting actress. And they’re no longer alone: they’re actually shooting a movie, which Gabe is directing, surrounded costumes, makeup, camera, script, continuity, ADs and everyone else. And Allison (the actress playing the role) thinks Gabe – the director not the character “Gabe” (played by a bearded lookalike) – is fooling around with Blair, both in the script they’re shooting and off-set. So Allison is guzzling Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, the crew is all stoned on cannabis, and a big black bear is lurking outside. Can they finish making the movie? Which part is real, the first act or the second act? Or is it all just a meta illusion?

Black Bear is a fascinating study of brain-twisting double-think, as well as a slapstick comedy and living room drama. But does it work? I think it does, and that’s because of the great acting by the three. Aubrey Plaza is the queen of indies, always great, and in this film playing a slinky and sly independent woman almost losing it. Abbott and Gadon are equally good, each playing two very different versions of the same role, almost like an exercise in acting school.

Black Bear is a marvelous intellectual exercise that’s also fun to watch.

18 to Party

Wri/Dir: Jeff Roda

It’s September in the mid-1980s in a small town in New York. A group of 14-year-old friends are gathering outside a club where a big party is supposed to happen that night. But the doorman says no entry until the older teens are there. So they meet around the corner in a vacant lot, to catch up after summer vacation. They don’t have to worry about being out late; all the grownups in town are at a meeting about UFOs. There are two computer nerds, two former best friends, Kira and Missy (Ivy Miller, Taylor Richardson), an introverted artist, and best buddies Shel and Brad. But these friendships are built on strict hierarchies. Shel (Tanner Flood) is self-conscious kid who idolizes Brad (Oliver Gifford) a star soccer player. But a girl has a crush on Shel not Brad. Will they make out? Kira and Missy both hold festering grudges. And one friend is missing from the picture: Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson). Something major happened over the summer, and rumours abound. Is he in prison? Reform school? Or is everything just like it used to be? And hanging over them all is a suicide epidemic, with half a dozen kids at their school dead. There’s bullying, sexual insecurities, internalized anger and alienation. And a gun someone brought that night. Can these fragile friendships last through the evening? And will they actually get into the party?

18 to Party is a social drama that draws on movies from the 80s, sort of a combination of The Breakfast Club (but not as commercial and retrogressive) and River’s Edge (but not as creepy).  It’s dressed up with the hairstyles, clothes and music from that era, but the story is all it’s own. It’s shot in a very small area, like a play, where people exit and enter and cross the stage, but the camera seldom leaves the brick-wall area. The characters work, because while some of them fit classic stereotypes, they’re all multi layered. And the film deals with prejudices and themes unique to that era. I haven’t seen any of the actors before but they play their parts very well, especially Ivy Miller as the rebel, Tanner Flood as the main character and James Freedson-Jackson as the loose cannon.

This film’s worth seeing.

Rocks

Dir: Sarah Gavron

Rocks (Bukky Bakray) is a young woman who goes to an all-girl London highschool. She’s warm, funny, clever and buoyant, with a close circle of friends. Her bestie Sumaya (Kosar Ali) helps her with her first tampon – they’re that close. She lives with her little brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) and their mom, originally from Lagos, Nigeria. (Their dad died years earlier.) But one day, her mom doesn’t come home from the bakery where she works. Turns out she was fired two weeks earlier.  Then Emmanuel notices the food in the fridge has gone bad – the power was cut off. And when, coming home from school, she notices some officials at their door, she realizes it’s time to get out of there.

So she heads out, exploring London while asking her school friends for sleepovers. She brings her brother everywhere, who, in turn, carries a little frog in a terrarium that he got from school. She takes care of Emmanuel he protects his friog. But as her money runs out and stress grows, she’s increasingly alienated from her friends. Will the social workers track her down? Will her mother ever come back? And what about Emmanuel?

Rocks – which debuted at TIFF last year – is an excellent high school drama told in that super-realistic European style.  It’s a different sort of coming-of-age drama, with kids facing much harsher conditions than you usually see in movies. But it’s not depressing. While there are some heavy tear-jerk scenes, its mainly funny, surprising and upbeat. It explores underground contemporary London, like sketchy hoods, makeup artists, pompous school teachers, and a fascinating portrayal of a Somali family. And Bukky Bakray is really, really good as Rocks.

I liked this movie.

Rocks, 18 to Party, and Black Bear are all playing theatrically in select theatres today – check your local listings, or are available digitally or Video on Demand

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

Surfaces. Films Reviewed: Ghost Hunting, Battle of the Sexes, Beach Rats

Posted in 1970s, drugs, Feminism, LGBT, Movies, Palestine, Sex, Sports, Tennis, Torture by CulturalMining.com on September 22, 2017

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

Toronto’s fall film festival season has begun. This week I’m looking at three movies that played at festivals: Sundance, TIFF and the Toronto Palestine Film Festival — two of which are directed by women. There’s a drama on the boardwalk, a biopic on the tennis court, and a documentary on a cold prison floor.

Ghost Hunting

Dir: Raed Andoni

Raed is Palestinian movie director who sends out a strange request. He’s looking for steelworkers, set builders, carpenters and painters to recreate a notorious Israeli prison inside an abandoned warehouse. The strange part is these builders and architects will also play the prisoners and their interrogators in the film he’s making. And stranger still, all the cast — including the director — were once prisoners at this very prison.

The interrogation centre is in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem known to prisoners as Al-Moskobiya (Moscow). They recount what happened to them. Many endured days or even weeks of nonstop interrogation in small cells. They were chained to walls, hung on their tiptoes suspended by pulleys or forced to kneel on the ground. Some were shaken, choked, hit, and denied sleep, water, or toilet access.

Hunting Ghosts has a complex artistic structure. Its partly a verite documentary, showing the construction of the set while the former prisoners candidly tell their stories. It’s partly a drama, the scripted re-enactment of the interrogations themselves. It’s partly meta – where the people working on the set become caricatures of themselves (i.e. the cruel director, the angry set-builder). Explicitly scripted scenes – often moving and disturbing – are always presented in a way you know it’s just a film. We see the actors putting on their makeup before they’re locked into the cells. The real drama often begins after the director yells cut, when the actors start talking.

The movie is also part fantasy, with animated scenes reflecting the thoughts running through their heads during long interrogations, their heads covered in cloth bags. One man thinks he sees his dead mother walk through a concrete wall to bring him water to drink.

Hunting Ghosts is a powerful look at the treatment of Palestinian prisoners and a tribute to the reported 750,000 arrested since 1967.

Battle of the Sexes

Dir: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

It’s the early 1970s in California. Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) is the top women’s tennis player in America. She’s happily married to her husband Larry (Larry King, but not the CNN journalist) but her real devotion is to the game. She’s shocked to discover prize money on an upcoming tour will be one eighth what the men get. The women threaten a walkout, but Jack Kramer — President of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) — tells them that men deserve more money because they have to support families, because they sell more tickets, and because women are “too emotional” to be thought of as real athletes. So the women start a League of Their Own.

Bobbie Riggs (Steve Carell) is a former national tennis champ twenty years earlier. Now he works at a desk job for his very rich wife’s dad. He’s a compulsive gambler who wins big bucks – including a golden Rolls Royce — by challenging rich country clubbers to heavily handicapped tennis games.

But Bobby wants to be really famous again. So he dubs himself a Male Chauvinist Pig and says women should stay in the kitchen and the bedroom, not on a tennis court. And he challenges Billie Jean King to a Battle of the Sexes, man vs woman. King smells a media circus, but finally agrees when she thinks it will advance pay equality between the sexes. Who will win?

Meanwhile,  unbenownst to the outside world, Billie Jean is having a clandestine affair with a woman named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) her hairdresser. A chance meeting sparks new feelings in Billie Jean King… but will her love affair interfere with her game?

I’m not a tennis buff, but I found Battle of the Sexes a thoroughly enjoyable, feel-good movie. I was even interested in watching the the game itself, which uses actual sports footage and historical commentary (by Howard Cossell) worked into the film. The side roles are also well-cast, from Bill Pullman as the condescending Jack Kramer, to Sarah Silverman as the feminist manager. Steve Carell is funny as the dog-and-pony showman, and Emma Stone is just great as the pretty and determined Billie Jean King.

Beach Rats

Wri/Dir: Eliza Hittman

It’s a hot summer in a hipster-free section of Brooklyn. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a white, working class guy who lives with his parents and his little sister. He likes handball, vaping and posting weight-lifting selfies online. He spends most of his time at the Coney Island boardwalk, hanging with three local yahoos who like to make trouble.

One night, he meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein) a pretty girl who tells him he’s sexy. She thinks the fireworks are romantic. Frankie is not so sure. His own parents met on the boardwalk too.  But his dad is dying of cancer and his mom is on edge. He’s unhappy about it too, but at least his dad’s cancer keeps him well supplied with prescription opiates he shares with his beach rat buddies. Aside from his home and the beach there’s a third universe Frankie visits, but only after dark. It’s an online date site called Brooklyn Boys where he posts his selfies. There he meets older men for anonymous sex. He considers himself straight but enjoys having sex with men.

But when his father dies, everything falls apart. Simone dumps him — he’s too much of a “fixer upper”. His Oxy supply is cut off, so he’s reduced to pawning his mom’s jewelry to buy drugs. And he’s worried his pals — the Beach Rats — might find out about his sex life. Can Frankie come clean with his mom, cut down on his drug use, and reconcile his self image with his sexuality? Or will his whole life crash and burn?

Beach Rats is a terrific coming-of-age drama set against the carnival lights and phosphorescent waves of nighttime Coney Island. Dickinson is a new face but is perfect as the enigmatic Frankie, a young man simultaneously self-obsessed and self-doubting. Beautifully photographed, Beach Rats blends an up-to-the minute topic with a classical indie feel.

Battle of the Sexes launched at TIFF and Beach Rats at Sundance; both open today in Toronto — check your local listings. Ghost Hunting is one of many films and cultural events on now at the Toronto Palestine Film Fest. Go to tpff.ca for details.

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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