Death and Life. Films reviewed: Broken Diamonds, Old, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

Posted in Dance, Dementia, documentary, Family, Fantasy, Horror, LGBT, Mental Illness by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2021

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

Movies in Toronto are taking off. I saw a press screening in a movie theatre this week for the first time in 16 months! It felt a little bit strange and awkward but I can already feel myself adjusting to it. TIFF has announced its first batch of movies, including the world premier of the musical Dear Evan Hansen to open the festival (I’m reviewing another movie starring Ben Platt today). The ICFF is now running a series of outdoor movies including the 1911 silent classic, L’Inferno from Danté’s Divine Comedy. And actual, indoor movie theatres are also open now, even in Toronto, showing new, trashy popcorn movies.

This week, I’m looking at three “deadly” American movies – a drama, a doc and a fantasy/horror – all opening this weekend on various platforms. There’s a brother and sister brought together after a death, a dance performance inspired by a death, and tourists at a beach resort facing death.

Broken Diamonds

Dir: Peter Sattler

Scott (Ben Platt) is a young writer with a goal. He’s quitting his day job, selling all his possessions and flying off to Paris to write his first novel. At least that was his plan until his estranged father suddenly dies. Which brings him together with his sister Cindy (Lola Kirke). Cindy was once the big shot in the family, pretty, smart, an aspiring actress. She was the apple of her father’s eye while Scott was always an afterthought. But she’s been living in a mental institution on and off since high school. But, perhaps because of the turmoil of losing her dad, she acts out and gets kicked out and now she’s suddenly homeless.  She moves back into the empty family home. Now it’s up to Scott to take care of his big sister… or at least until he moves to Paris.

But it’s not that simple. They have a long history to work out. And when Cindy goes off her meds, things start to spiral out of control.  Can Scott act like a grown up and take responsibility for once? Can he help Cindy adjust to life outside of institutions? Is he his sister’s keeper? And will he ever get to Paris?

Broken Diamonds is a touching movie about a few weeks in the lives of adult siblings. It deals with family issues like death and inheritance, living with mental illness, and other people facing their own hidden demons. Though largely told through Scott’s eye’s, it’s sympathetic toward Cindy’s plight. The acting is good and the tone is light. That said, I found the story overly simplistic — neither Scott not Cindy seem to have any friend, lover or relative in their lives other than each other, but they haven’t spoken in years. And did they have to portray schizophrenia as a disease where “split personalities” with different names and voices start to appear as soon as she’s off meds? It also has a painfully awful and unnecessary denouement tacked onto the credits,  so if you decide to see this movie — and it’s seriously not bad, it’s watchable, it’s touching, and well-acted — run out of the theatre when the closing titles start to roll!

Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

Dir: Tom Hurwitz, Rosalynde LeBlanc

It’s the 1980s in New York City. Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane have a dance company in which they both perform. They’re also lovers. They met in the apex of gay culture and abandon in the late 70s. But now it’s the 80s and the AIDS epidemic is decimating the gay community, including the world of dance. Many of the people they work with, including Keith Haring who does their sets, and Alvin Ailey who commissions their work, are dying. Then Arnie dies too, throwing their company into disarray. As part of the grieving process, Jones decides to create a totally different kind of dance. The dancers are multiracial, men and women, gay and straight, and people with different body types, not just the stereotypical “look” dancers usually have. It incorporates athleticism and the Aids crisis within a fusion of elements of traditional ballet and modern dance. He calls it “post-modern” dance.

This spectacular dance opens to rave reviews and packed audiences. And over the past 30+ years it’s been performed in hundreds of productions. And what a performance — bodies being tossed into the air;  diving off one dancer’s back into another’s arms. And despite it’s modernity, it’s set to 19th century music by Mendelsohn. 

The film shows footage from the original production in the late 1980s, and interviews with many of those dancers. It also follow a young group at a university, going through the process of auditioning, rehearsing and putting together a new version of the same dance. Bill T Jones is present both in the original production and visiting this new one to offer advice during their rehearsals. 

Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters is a documentary that traces the genesis and meaning of the original production and how it retains its relevance and dynamism today.  It’s both an historical document and an important work of art. Personally, I would rather have seen more dancing and less talking, but found it interesting nevertheless. 

Old

Wri/Dir:M. Night Shyamalan

Prisca and Guy (Vicky Krieps and Gael Garcia Bernal) are a married couple with two precocious kids: daughter Maddox, age 7 and Trent who is 6.  Guy is an actuary and Prisca is a museum curator. They’ve just arrived at a luxury resort, for what might be their last time together. Prisca is facing a medical condition and  their marriage is on the rocks. Maybe a few days on a beautiful tropical island can solve all their problems? Soon they’re in a minibus headed for a private beach for a day of sun and fun. The resort has even packed huge picnic hampers of food for them to enjoy. And it’s a stunning beach with white sand and crystal waters, surrounded by steep cliffs, reached only through a passageway in the rocks. Joining them on this excursion are an angry doctor with his elderly mother, his model-like wife and their little girl; another couple — she’s a psychologist and he’s a nurse; and a famous rapper with his girlfriend.But strange things start happening. A dead body washes up on shore. And something’s wrong with the kids — they’re growing up. As in puberty! In just an hour they’ve turned into teenagers with Trent and the other former 6-year-old sneaking away to make out in a tent. They’re in love, and before you know it she’s pregnant! What is going on?

It seems that on this beach they’re all aging at the rate of 10 years an hour, which means they could all be dead of old age by the end of the day. Their cel phones don’t work, and anyone who tries to leave becomes dizzy and faint at the border of the beach. What is happening… and why? And will anyone escape?

Old — based on a graphic novel — operates on a really neat sci-fi fantasy premise. It’s not just horror, there are lots of intriguing and unexpected parts. There are some impossible missteps, most of which I can’t mention without revealing the ending. For example, a psychologist with epilepsy has a tonic clonic seizure at the hotel but doesn’t bother bringing her anti-seizure meds with her on a trip the next day? Lot’s of little errors like that. But even so, I found it a surprising and fascinating story, beginning to end. M Night Shyamalam has been churning out a series of not-so-great movies since The Sixth Sense (1999), but maybe Old means he’s getting better again.

Old and Broken Diamonds both open this weekend, either theatrically or VOD check your local listings; and you can now watch Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters at the Digitall TIFF Bell Lightbox and at Virtual Hotdocs. 

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

Summer movies. Films reviewed: Summer of Soul, The Boss Baby: Family Business, Black Conflux

Posted in Animation, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Kids, Newfoundland by CulturalMining.com on July 3, 2021

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

Summer is here and it’s hot, hot, hot! Normally I’d say go sit in an air conditioned movie theatre and go watch something, anything, right now. But as of today, (I’m recording early because of the holiday weekend) the indoor theatres are still closed. But here’s a selection of films to please almost everybody who wants to watch at home.

This week, I have a music doc, a family cartoon and an art house drama. There are musicians in Harlem in the ’60s bringing the house down, babies around the world trying to bring the government down, and a girl in ’80s Newfoundland trying to stop her life from crumbling all around her.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Dir: Questlove

It’s the summer of ’69 in Harlem, where 50,000 people are crowded into Mt. Morris Park for a series of six outdoor concerts all summer long. The images and music were captured on film for TV, but were never broadcast; they sat in a vault for 52 years until now. This new documentary replays some of the best songs of that summer, and talked to the performers and the fans about how they remembered it. What’s remarkable is the array of talent and the enormous peaceful crowds in Harlem, a neighbourhood vilified as a violent ghetto. But it was actually a safe, black neighbourhood, beloved by its residents as their home, and as a centre of culture, commerce and political foment.

This film is a time machine, showing fashion, hair styles, and faces in the crowd — one viewer remembers the pervasive aroma of AfroSheen. There are incredible performances on the stage, in a wide range of styles: soul, R&B, gospel, pop, jazz and psychedelic. There’s an amazing moment when young Mavis Staples shares a mic with the great Mahalia Jackson for the first time to sing Oh Happy Day. There’s Nina Simone at the piano, reminding the crowd they are “Young, Gifted and Black.” Motown stars like Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips alternate with salsa bands. It’s really surprising to see mainstream groups like The Fifth Dimension, letting loose on stage — their top 40 hits were always classified as “white pop music” — I never even knew they were black. Luminaries like Sly and the Family Stone and Hugh Masakela from South Africa light up the stage.

Summer of Soul works as both a documentary and as an excellent concert film; what a shame it was never shown until now.

The Boss Baby: Family Business
Dir: Tom McGrath

It’s a suburb, somewhere in America. Tim is a stay-at-home dad, who takes care of his two daughters Tabitha and Tina, while his wife is at the office. Tabitha is in grade 2 at an elite private school, while Tina is still just a baby. He tells them stories, sings songs and plays games. But he’s worried that he’s losing his bond with Tabitha — the 7-year-old spends all her time studying and says she doesn’t need childish things anymore. Alone in the attic Ted wonders how things ended up this way disconnected from his kids and no contact with his little brother Ted. If only he could go back in time and fix things. Next thing you know, Ted arrives at their doorstep by helicopter (he’s a rich CEO now) and the two of them are magically transformed into their childhood selves. Who engineered all this? It’s little Tina, the new Boss Baby, behind it all. Still in diapers she talks like a grown up with a brain to match. She works for Baby Corp, a secretive organization that keeps the world safe. But there are evil villains working all around the world at schools just like the one Tabitha goes to. It’s up to Tim and Ted, in their new kid and baby forms, to infiltrate the school and stop their fiendish plans. But are they too late?

The Boss Baby: Family Business is a funny family film, aimed at kids, but equally enjoyable by grown-ups. It’s animated, and features the voices of Alec Baldwin as Ted, the original Boss Baby, James Marsden as Tim, Ariana Greenblatt as Tabitha and
Amy Sedaris as Tina. I tend to avoid sequels, because they’re usually second rate, but never having seen the original Boss Baby I have nothing to compare it to. And (though clearly not a cinematic masterpiece) I was fully entertained by this one.

Black Conflux
Wri/Dir: Nicole Dorsey

It’s the 1980s in a small town in Newfoundland. Jackie (Ella Ballentine) is a 15-year-old girl with ginger hair and a good singing voice. And she’s seeing a new boyfriend. She’s bright, pretty and optimistic: she believes people are basically good. But her upbeat nature is threatened by reality. She has lived with her alcoholic aunt since her mom went to jail for DUI (her dad’s out of the picture). She spends most of her time hanging with Amber and her other two best friends, smoking behind the school, shoplifting makeup at the mall, or going to bonfire parties. They get around by hitchhiking along the single highway that passes through the town. But Jackie is forced to deal with the increasingly bad and gritty aspects of her life which keep intruding on the fun of growing up.

Dennis (Ryan McDonald) is an introvert in his late twenties with a fetish for porn. He’s also a firebug who gets off on lighting matches. He lives with his adult sister and works loading and delivering 24s at a local brewery. He’s also a brooding loner with anger and resentment building up deep inside. He has no social skills to speak of and his occasional dates always seem to end up as disasters. He prefers to peer at women at night through their open bedroom windows over actually speaking to them face to face. He spends most of his time with a bevy of imaginary women he fantasizes are living in the back of his delivery truck. Sometimes he can’t tell the difference between reality and his hallucinations. Is he just a misunderstood guy or a nascent serial killer?

Black Conflux is a slow-building drama that follows these two characters in their separate but parallel lives, like two rivers that eventually merge. For Jackie, it’s a coming-of-age story, while for Dennis it’s a brooding drama. They come close to meeting throughout the movie, but it’s kept till the very end to reveal what happens when they do. Ella Ballentine and
Ryan McDonald both give remarkable performances as two alienated people in rural Newfoundland in the 1980s. Beautifully shot, and skilfully directed by Nicole Dorsey (her first feature), I first saw Black Conflux at TIFF two years ago, and like it even better the second time through.

Boss Baby, and Summer of Soul opened this weekend on VOD and digital platforms with Black Conflux now at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

When I grow up… Films reviewed: Fighting With My Family, Never Look Away

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Art, Biopic, comedy, Communism, Disabilities, Germany, Nazi, Sports, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 22, 2019

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

One question every kid hears is What do you want to be when you grow up? When I was three I wanted to be a fire truck. But how many stay true to their earliest ambitions? This week I’m looking at two movies about people who stick to their childhood passions. There’s an historical drama from Germany about an aspiring artist and a biopic from the UK about a perspiring wrestler

Fighting with My Family

Wri/Dir: Stephen Merchant

Saraya Knight (Francis Pugh) is a thirteen-year-old girl in a working-class neighbourhood in Norwich. Her mom and dad (Lena Headey, Nick Frost) run a business: the WAW, or World Association of Wrestlers. But like everything else in that world, it’s a bit of an exaggeration. They have one gym where they train local kids to wrestle, and take their family’s matches on the road in their shiny white van. Her life is fully immersed in the sport. Black haired and petite, Saraya uses black eyeliner and dresses in heavy metal gear. She has posters of her wrestling heroes on her wall and even made her own championship belt out of cardboard. But she has one problem: she chokes under stress.

So her big brother Zack (Jack Lowden) takes her into the ring and teaches her how to wrestle. He is her sparring partner, and they soon become an accomplished tag team. She’s a natural. But they have bigger ambitions: to be make it to the top. So when the WWE is coming to the UK they sign up for the tryouts. This is Zack and Saraya’s one chance to make it big. The auditions are led by Coach (Vince Vaughan) a hard-boiled veteran who takes no prisoners. Will Zack get in? And will he take Saraya with him? Turns out, Coach chooses her, not him!

Suddenly she finds herself in Florida surrounded by palm trees, suntans and bikinis while Zack is left in Norwich taking care of his new baby. Saraya — now called Paige — is overwhelmed by the gruelling, boot-camp workouts and the loneliness she faces. Zack feels abandoned so he cuts her off. And the fledgling wrestlers she’s paired with are all former models, dancers and cheerleaders… who don’t know how to wrestle. Professionals finesse their jabs, throws and punches so they don’t hurt so much.

Her parents and all the kids at the gym back home are rooting for her, but Paige is filled with doubt. Can the little “freak from Norwich” ever make it in pro-wrestling?

Fighting With My Family is a very cute, palatable and easy-to-watch comedy biopic, about the real female pro wrestler known as Paige. I have to admit I knew next to nothing about pro wrestling before I watched it.

What did I learn? That this sport is “fixed”, but it’s not “fake”… the wrestling part is real, and it can really hurt. That it’s a theatrical performance, much like a circus. That you have to win over an audience if you want to make it. And that your persona, while a big exaggeration, has to have some truth in it or no one will believe it. The movie is filled with salty language but no sex or violence (except in the ring). Pugh and Lowden are great as the brother and sister. Yes, it’s predictable and sentimental and I’m not going to call it a “great movie”, but I had a good time watching it.

Never Look Away (Werk Ohne Autor)

Wri/Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

1937, Germany.

Little Kurt, with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), visits an exhibition in Dresden filled with avant-garde art. He loves the beautiful colours of fauvism, the strange distortions of cubism, and challenging images by Grozs, Kandinsky, Mondrian. But is he too young to understand the art show was put on by the Nazi government to condemn this art as bad and “degenerate”? No, he understands perfectly what they’re saying, and rejects it all.

But he listens to his aunt when she warns him to keep his drawings secret. Later, when the lovely but eccentric aunt has a strange episode they lock her up in a mental hospital. While she is there, top-ranked Nazi doctors decide to throw away not just “degenerate” art but imperfect people. Anyone with a mental illness, physical disability or a developmental handicap is sent to the gas chambers. Doctors write either a blue “minus” (keep) or a red “plus” (kill) on their files. This includes Elisabeth, condemned to death by a top Nazi gynecologist (Sebastian Koch).

Later, after the war, Kurt (Tom Schilling) is accepted into the Dresden Art Academy. But now his talent is stifled by the communist government who only want him to paint socialist realism: stern men and rosy-cheeked women harvesting wheat as they stare toward a brighter future. At the academy he meets the kind and beautiful Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), and wins her heart. Even under communism, Ellie is a “golden pheasant” from a rich, high-ranked family. They fall in love and meet for secret trysts. But when her parents come home they have to be extra cautious. While her mother is sympathetic, her father, Professor Karl Seeband, tries his best to break them up. But what no one realizes, this professor is the same doctor who sent Kurt’s aunt Elizabeth to her death!

Kurt and Ellie eventually make it to West Germany, where he joins the prestigious art academy in Düsseldorf, and lands a private studio to create the art he really wants to make. The art professor tells him his work is good but not yet special, but he still detects the talent hidden there. Will Kurt ever find his true calling? Will Seebald’s hidden war crimes be exposed? Can Ellie emerge from beneath her oppressive father’s shadow?

Never Look Away is an epic, fictionalized drama about the life of a well- known artist, spanning German history from the Nazi era, to the communist east, and to the changes in the west in the 50s and 60s. It stars some of Germany’s biggest names: tiny Tom Schilling with his high-pitched voice is still playing young men in his late thirties (and he’s great as Kurt). Paula Beer (Transit) is sweet as Ellie, Sebastian Koch is suitably sinister as the hidden Nazi Zeebald, and Saskia Rosendahl (who was amazing in Lore) once again wins as Elisabeth. The cinematography and music are all wonderful. But something seems missing from this huge drama.

At one point Kurt makes an interesting point: Take six random numbers. On their own they have no meaning. But if they are the winning numbers on a lottery ticket suddenly they become important and beautiful. I went into this movie blind, knowing nothing about it. While watching it, I kept thinking what’s the big deal about Kurt? But when he starts experimenting with smeared, black-and-white, photorealist paintings, I thought, wait a minute, those look like Gerhard Richter’s paintings! And suddenly the movie makes sense. It becomes a winning lottery ticket. Not a perfect movie – not as good as this director’s Lives of Others – but definitely worth watching.

Oscar nominee Never Look Away and Fighting With My Family both open today in Toronto; 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.

%d bloggers like this: