Tag Archives: based on a true story

Wind River

Cory is a seasoned tracker with the Fish and Wildlife service in Wind River Reservation. He hunts predators. But when he comes across the frozen body of a young woman in the snow, he gets conscripted by FBI agent Jane to help in her investigation. The cause of death hasn’t officially been listed as a homicide, but no one runs 6 miles barefoot into Wyoming’s snowy, sub-zero mountains unless she’s being chased by something REAL bad. Jane (Elizabeth Olsen) is suspicious, and Cory (Jeremy Renner) has some unresolved grief, so the two team up to uncover some very unsavoury things going on in this small community.

Avengers: Infinity War opens in theatres in just a couple of weeks. No, I haven’t randomly started writing a second review. It’s just that Sean and I have been cramming for the upcoming film by watching the Avengers back catalogue which means we’ve seen a lot of Olsen (known in the MCU as the Scarlet Witch) and Renner (Hawkeye) team up inside-movie-wind-river-renner-2-3-2cc2cc20-bc30-440c-88f6-1f5fdf320875an awful lot lately. Now here they are shivering the frigid scrub of one of the largest but least populated states in the country. Wind River Rez is served by a minuscule tribal police force – there are more Avengers than cops in Wind River. Well, that’s not saying as much as it used to, the Avengers continue to recruit to the point that they don’t all fit on the same poster anymore. But the Wind River cops you can count on one hand.

Anyway, Elizabeth Olsen has worn the wrong colour jacket in this one, so without her super powers, Jane’s restricted to good old fashioned detecting, and without much backup. Good thing Cory has no badge and no scruples – his methods are brutal, maybe, but the nature of the crimes here are so heinous they never seem out of bounds.

Writer-director Taylor Sheridan astonishes once again. His style, in many ways, is commendably economical. Every word and shot that makes it to the final cut is necessary but it never feels sparse. It just effectively delivers on the thrill inherent in the premise. The chill is bone-deep, it’s emotional, it’s felt not just seen. Sheridan wants you to experience both the snow and the silence the area is known for. Navigated by Renner’s casual competence, you’ll want to stick to this protagonist for shelter and protection. But there’s a psychological depth here so significant you’ll need snowshoes just to survive.

Yes, this is bleak stuff, but it’s also reality for the Indian tribes who live on and around Wind River. Every day, Indigenous women and girls go missing or are murdered and our law does very little about it. Sheridan paints a careful portrait of the power plays at work, and if bearing witness is the least we can do, then watch.

Advertisements

Miracles From Heaven

Can an atheist such as myself give an unbiased review of a movie with a distinctly Christian bent?

For reals: I don’t think I can. And I’m doing everything I can to be fair here, trying to look beyond the bible-thumping to find something else to focus on, and maybe even, to enjoy.

Okay, let’s talk about Jennifer Garner. It took me a long time to come around to her. Back in her Alias days, I kind of disliked her, for not big reason that I can relate. She married Ben Affleck in 2005 and that softened her for me. And now that they’re divorced, I like her even more, for being stoic and strong and not running her mouth. For putting her family first. For helping him get sober even as he runs around with a new girlfriend. For being a good person, too good for stupid Ben Affleck. I suppose her loving a man who didn’t deserve her makes her pretty damn relatable. And now that she’s “free” she’s a little more present on social media – and she’s funny, and dorky, and unselfconscious. She’s also very hands-on with her 3 kids, taking them to school, to get ice cream, to church.

So I suppose this movie kind of makes sense for her – it’s family-friendly, and it’s churchy, MV5BNDJjNjM2ZTQtMGZlOS00ZDAxLWEyZTMtODMwODY1MGM3MmU3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc3MjUzNTI@._V1_as evidenced by her rather large, Texan hair and the lively church services she attends, the kind with the “funny” pastor and the earnest rock band praising jebus. She plays a real-life mother of 3 named Christy Beam who goes through one of the very worst things a mother can experience: a sick kid. A very sick kid. Her middle daughter, Anna, comes down with one of those mystery illnesses that doctors can’t diagnose so they ignore, while a little girl writhes in pain and wastes away. And only because her mother is persistent does she eventually get a prognosis that isn’t very helpful: she has a severe and incurable disease where she basically doesn’t process food, and she will die from it.

So that’s terrible to watch. If you have kids, or, scratch that, any loved one at all, you know how hard it is to watch them be so sick when you are powerless to help. Even 24 hours of vomiting can undo a family – imagine if that became your life. [And side note: does everyone have a “sick bowl” – that special bucket that Moms seem to keep on hand specifically for those times you can’t quite make it to the toilet? Is that a thing in other families?]

So Christy’s faith is tested, because why would a loving god allow her innocent child to be sick? And her faith is further tested when other “Christians” accuse her of deserving it – whether through her own sins, her husband’s, or potentially even Anna’s. It’s the kind of thing that makes even a hardened atheist such as myself roll her eyes and whisper “Oh lord.” Even poor little Anna is starting to wonder why god hasn’t healed her. Is it possible he doesn’t care (or, um, exist?).

But no. This is a Christian movie, destined to be screened by church groups and almost no one else. So of course, a miracle must occur, and if possible, perhaps even the voice of god himself could make itself known. And if that doesn’t stun you into prayerful submission, someone will offer that miracles are god’s way of letting us know he’s here (don’t ask yourself what god is telling us when he lets other little kids die left and right).

So as much as I might praise Garner for her performance, I can’t really look past the message of this film, which is preaching to the choir at best, and downright insulting at worst. They wring this story for all it’s worth, and while I was sorry for the real Anna’s pain, and happy that she survived (make no mistake: there is no doubt that she will survive – the only question is how long they’ll string us along for first), I find it dangerous to label something a “miracle from heaven” when it really seems like a “coincidence on earth” and “an accident in an old tree”. Because otherwise we’d have to ask ourselves what makes one child more worthy of a miracle than any other, and I really, really, really hate where that takes us. That kind of fear and competitiveness makes nice, casserole-toting, big-haired church ladies into real bitches – so where would that leave the rest of us?

 

Wild Nights With Emily

Emily Dickinson, that is.

This movie started and I was like: ugh. They’re really flaunting their teeny-tiny budget. This is a period piece but the costumes look rented and the sets are old (but not old enough) houses and the accents are atrocious and the props are vintage perhaps but certainly not antiques. But once I let go of my authenticity bias, I relaxed and could appreciate that no, this film can’t afford to look like an ethereal Austen period piece, but it does have something important to say.

Emily Dickinson was a brilliant American poet who was never published or recognized during her lifetime because her lifestyle was not “becoming.” In order to publish them MV5BOGIyNjg0NWItYjMzMS00N2I0LTllYjUtMzBhMjJkMDgzMWM3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTc5OTQwMzk@._V1_posthumously, a narrative was created about her that has ever since called her a recluse, a virgin, a socially awkward spinster, which are all words attributed to women who just didn’t fit the mold. In reality, Emily had a passionate love affair with her brother’s wife, Susan. Many of her fieriest poems are dedicated to her – and name her. Traces of their relationship were of course literally erased from history in order to sell her poems to a conservative market. Dickinson was a woman ahead of her time in so many ways and this movie’s ambition is to have us reconsider the things we think we know about her.

Director Madeleine Olnek knows that letting Dickinson’s true flag fly may prove controversial, and that people generally don’t enjoy lectures about feminism, so she’s made a film that we can laugh at. And the best signal that this movie will be tongue-in-cheek is her casting of Molly Shannon as Ms. Dickinson. Molly gives Emily an energy and a joie de vivre that has been absent in our conception of her. But it’s clear from her poetry that Dickinson was in fact a woman of real passion – she loved and was loved. She was also constrained by her gender, class, and status, and all of those things have shaped our image of her. It’s only thanks to Susan’s daughter that we know of their great love and lifelong relationship, and to dedicated scholars who have uncovered the clues that were of course there all along. Don’t watch this movie if you can’t think outside the box. But do watch if you think the world needs more feminist, lesbian heroes – they’ve always existed, they just need our acknowledgement.

SXSW: American Animals

american-animals-128159American Animals is billed as a true story, and I have no reason to doubt that claim. The problem for me is an ethical one. I don’t feel good about helping people profit from their illegal activities, because it feels I am encouaging them and others to repeat that behaviour. On a related note, I also don’t want to spend any time with people who commit crimes, get caught, and then sell their stories, because they give assholes a bad name.

The criminals we meet in American Animals are a little different than expected, because they were students when they committed their crimes. I’m not sure whether their status as privileged college kids makes them more sympathetic than the average criminal, or less. It is clear that these students were not in financial need, were not stealing to feed their families and were not trying to pay off a big gambling debt to a leg-breaking mob boss. They essentially do it for kicks and, actually, I’m now sure their circumstances make them much less sympathetic. No matter how charming they are, and the real people are very charming indeed (they all feature prominently in the film in a neat hybrid documentary choice), I kept hoping they would get what was coming to them.

What made this movie work anyway, and work well, was that the script doesn’t take sides. We are allowed to feel how we want about these guys, to make up our own minds, and interestingly, to decide which of them to believe when their stories told to writer-director Bart Layton conflict with each other (which is a running gag within the movie). I did not feel at any time that Layton cared whether I liked, hated, or was indifferent to the protagonists, and it helped immensely that this movie did not gloss over or minimize these criminals’ naivete and stupidity.

American Animals is a very stylish, humourous and original film that I recommend in spite of my general misgivings about the true crime genre. My only complaint is the film dragged a bit, as by the end I just wanted them to get caught already, but that may have arisen from my desire to see the characters punished rather than any flaw in the pacing.

The film is scheduled for release on June 1 so you will soon be able to check out (and harshly judge) these (American) assholes for yourself.

Something The Lord Made

Everyone says that heart surgery is impossible. One doctor, a woman, thinks otherwise, and she challenges Dr. Alfred Blalock, a gifted surgeon, to think on it. He leaves for Johns Hopkins to undertake the trials, and he brings along Vivien Thomas to assist. Thomas is Blalock’s African-American lab technician. Thomas has all the makings of a great doctor but never had the opportunity. Blalock sees his brilliance and uses him to run the whole lab while conducting important research, but Thomas remains poorly paid, a Class-3 employee, like the maintenance crew, who are of course largely black.

It’s Thomas’s hands and tool-making that lead to the big breakthrough that will save blue babies and invent bypass surgery. Blalock defies custom and Jim Crow to bring Thomas into the surgery with him, but when credit is being doled out, Thomas is passed over.

Of course, in 1941, it’s not just professional but also personal prejudice that must be conquered. Theirs is an unlikely partnership and a difficult friendship – one that will MV5BYjI4YTIyNDQtZTBlZS00YmU0LTlhMzMtNzg4NDY1MjA2N2JkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDQzMTk1ODU@._V1_be tested when social pressure doesn’t care how many lives are saved if it’s black hands doing the saving. Alan Rickman and Yasiin Bey (credited as Mos Def) star in the lead roles, and their chemistry is appropriately strained and tetchy. Arrogance, subservience, and expectations make such an interesting dynamic (for those of us watching anyway – I’m assuming much less so for those living it). This movie made me miss Rickman and admire Bey for how restrained and humble he could be in a role that must have been difficult.

This is a true story that was suppressed for many many years and obviously we owe a huge debt to this partnership and its fruit. They invented cardiac surgery. If you know anyone who’s had heart surgery, it was only possible because of these two. If this movie is at times a little slow, it’s also quite compelling, and you’ll find yourselves pulling for so many facets at once.

 

Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour should maybe be called Darkest Month. In 1940, Winston Churchill was asked by the King to take over as Prime Minister. It was a shitty time to get the job: Hitler was marching his Nazi army across Europe, and the threat of invasion was uncomfortably close. During this particular month, Churchill’s first on the job, he’s got an impossible task. He must decide whether to negotiate a treaty with Hitler, or whether to stand firm against the Nazis but in so doing risk his country. And he had to do this without his party’s support or the public’s understanding or any help from the King.

Winston Churchill is an iconic and influential figure in British history and he’s been portrayed with varying success by some truly venerable actors:  Albert Finney, lead_960Brendan Gleeson, Timothy Spall, Robert Hardy, and most recently by John Lithgow in The Crown. He is not a saintly figure. He was a great orator but had some problematic positions that hindsight can’t afford to be kind about. Portrayals of him often emphasize his omnipresent cigar, and his particular style of speech (his custom dentures helped cover up a lisp). Gary Oldman is the gentleman tasked with bring old Winnie to life in Darkest Hour, and though he’s seen chomping on the necessary cigars, he turns the performance into something truly remarkable.

Oldman is transformed by makeup and prosthetics; his jowls are considerable. His tics and posture help render him unrecognizable. He dissolves into character. As Churchill he delivers some of history’s most famous and familiar speeches and he is electrifying. Kristin Scott Thomas as his tell-it-like-it-is wife, Lily James as his newbie secretary, and Ben Mendelsohn as the King help round out the cast but Darkest Hour feels like a one man show and Oldman is equal to the cast. Truthfully I don’t know many others who could carry 125 minutes of infamy, but Gary Oldman deserves his frontman status in all the Oscar pools. His portrayal is vigorous and complex and maybe even a little bit compassionate.

As for the movie itself, it’s not quite as formidable. The events are told simply, without a lot of cinematic flair, and it sometimes feels sluggish. There’s not a lot of imagination on display, and perhaps that’s an unfair criticism with the burden of historical accuracy weighing heavily, but director Joe Wright is more precise than entertaining. It’s Oldman who kept me in my seat, and I’m sure it’ll be Oldman bounding out of his on Oscar night to collect his well-deserved award.

All The Money in the World

In 1973, masked men kidnapped a teenager off the streets of Rome. He was the favourite American grandson of J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world. Nobody gets that rich by being nice, and Getty is not. And of all the shitty things he is, miserly is one of them. You don’t get to be a billionaire by spending your money, after all. So when the kidnappers demand $17 million for him, Getty refuses. “Very little in life is worth paying full price for” he says, but he doesn’t plan to negotiate, he plans on just not paying. “It’s an awful lot of money for such a young boy.” But you can imagine how well that goes over with Junior’s mother.

JPG III, 16 at the time of his kidnapping, has a strong-willed mother, Gail, and thank god. But Gail (Michelle Williams) has no money of her own and no access to her allthemoney2former father-in-law’s fortune. Getty (Christopher Plummer) is pretty set in his ways, and to avoid dealing with his mouthy daughter-in-law, he sends his “security guy” Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to do the dealing for him. But will this weird and uneasy alliance be enough to save Junior (Charlie Plummer, no relation)? If you were alive at the time you likely already know the answer.

If you’re alive right now and not willfully burrowing under some very thick boulders, you’ve probably heard that Kevin Spacey was originally tapped to play Getty Senior. Spacey’s creepy past caught up with him just a month before this film was to be released, which left producers scrambling. Ultimately, director Ridley Scott decided to reshoot Getty’s 22 scenes with another actor who had read for the part, Christopher Plummer. They filmed for 10 days and then frantically re-edited, and what results is a role for which Plummer received an Oscar nomination. Mark Wahlberg had costar approval built into his contract, and he refused to approve Plummer unless he got paid an additional $1.5M to come in for the reshoots. This eventually blew up in his face when it was reported that Michelle Williams only received her per diem of $800 per day. Wahlberg ended up donating the $1.5M to the #TimesUp campaign to stem the backlash. It’s fair to say this movie was under a lot of scrutiny before it was ever released, and I admit I wondered if Plummer’s nomination was perhaps just a reward to the film’s production crew for so quickly doing the right thing, but now I just think it unfairly overshadowed what is indeed an Oscar-worthy performance – by Michelle Williams.

All The Money In The World obviously has a lot to say about the soul-suckingness of money, at its centre is an old man with a corroded heart, but Christopher Plummer manages to play him with just a touch of warmth, which is an interesting surprise. There’s a compelling story here with great acting (with the exception of Wahlberg, who isn’t so much bad as just useless, extraneous), but the movie is just a little muddled (and a little fond of unadorned exposition). It flits between genres – family drama, crime, thriller. At its core though it’s really about this epic tug-of-war between a frantic mother and a cold grandfather, the struggle between love and money, and that’s a story that never gets old.

 

 

Miles

Ron’s heart bursts while reading the Saturday morning paper in his lazy-boy. He leaves behind a wife, Pam (Molly Shannon), and a teenage son in his senior year of high school, Miles (Tim Boardman). His family is devastated, but not in the usual way. Miles is desperate to escape the confines of his small town for film school in Chicago next year, and Pam has been slowly asphyxiating in her crappy marriage for years. Turns out Ron wasn’t a very nice person, and he recently used his son’s college fund to buy his mistress a Corvette. The mistress is the only one without dry eyes at the funeral.

Pam copes by flirting with a widower (Paul Reiser) in her grief group, and by threatening the mistress, and the mistress’s mother. Miles copes by joining the girl’s volleyball team. Apparently it’s the only scholarship he’s eligible for.

The movie is set in 1999, which means the AV club consists of rolling a large tube TV around on a trolley and chatting looks boxy and pixelated and awful. But it still encompasses a pretty big chunk of the plot. There’s really to recommend setting the movie in 1999 except it’s based on a true story, which is also an awkward implication.

But anyway: we’re going to rock the boat in small town wherever, circa 1999, when boys didn’t play on girls teams and coming out to your parents was still an occasion. So maybe there’s still room for this kind of courage, whatever that means. There’s an effort here to be relevant but the truth is, our protagonist is narrow-minded in his own way. He sees only his own needs and wants, not the larger picture, so it’s hard to really extrapolate the kind of meaning that would make this film feel satisfying.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

I wonder in what ways the world would have been different if Alan Milne had not married a perfectly horrid wife. Daphne is an excellent socialite but not terribly prone to marital bliss. She waited for her husband to come back from war and is not impressed with the man who comes back. Her advice to just “not think” about the war is not exactly practical, and then she has a son she doesn’t want or know how to love to cheer him up, and that doesn’t work either!

But of course it’s their son, C.R., aka Christopher Robin, aka Billy, whose stuffed animals and wild imagination inspire the very thing he’ll become known for. And it’s his wife’s abandonment of the family that allows father and son to spend meaningful time together, time enough to write the stories that will enchant the world and change their family forever.

goodbye-christopher-robin-domhnall-gleeson-slice-600x200

Domhnall Gleeson plays the famous author A.A. Milne, a man ravaged by war, confused by his wife, haunted by the characters he created. Winnnie the Pooh is a beloved story for children, but the people behind it are much darker than I’d imagined. This is not really a happy story. Margot Robbie plays his flitty wife, a woman easy to scorn but Robbie humanizes her, has compassion for her. Kelly Macdonald plays the woman who actually cares for young C.R., a nanny her charge calls Nou but the world will know as Alice, from the books. She’s the one who bears the burden placed upon a little boy upon whom the whole world has expectations. The cast is quite wonderful; even the little kiddo (Will Tilston) playing Christopher Robin is good, as he must be.

But as you can imagine, it’s difficult to flick back and forth between the horrors of war and the child-like wonder that inspired a favourite picture book. It adds little pops of whimsy to lighten the mood, but make no mistake: it is a dark mood in need of lightening. At times the movie really hits the right note, but it’s a tone that’s hard to keep – especially since the point is not really Winnie the Pooh OR war, but the nasty consequences of celebrity. Goodbye Christopher Robin surprised me and moved me, but it’s not a water-coloured, feel-good picture, just the sad truth behind a story you thought you knew all too well.

Professor Marston And The Wonder Women

William Marston was a professor of psychology; his wife Elizabeth was an equally and likely superior mind, but being female, was relegated to assistantship. Professor Marston  (Luke Evans) was developing lots of new ideas about behaviour, and had a new theory based on  dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance. He and Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) were looking among their students for a young apprentice, and found what they were looking for and more in Olive (Bella Heathcote).

The Marstons both fell in love with her, and a polyamourous relationship was born. They had children together and continued to work and invent together – the modern lie detector test is thanks to them. But what may be most remarkable about this MV5BNzMwYmUzZjItNDVjMy00YWE5LWE0MWUtNWZlYThlNmQ1NTQ1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1499,1000_AL_relationship, taboo and reviled in the 1930s and 40s, was that it inspired the creation of the Wonder Woman comic. Marston’s original stories (written under a pseudonym) incorporated the feminist ideals embodied by his wives. Wonder Woman was a strong woman who needed no man. His early comics also involved a fair amount of bondage and submission, which he pursued in his own bedroom and thought more young men should be turned onto. You can imagine the sort of censorship and uproar he faced.

With Wonder Woman so fresh in our cultural memories at the moment, it’s interesting to witness her birth, to see the surprising and sometimes literal inspirations that Marston drew upon. The performances are strong and the three have a nice chemistry that, despite accusations of “sexual perversity,” feels very honest and sometimes nearly wholesome. Rebecca Hall in particular shows the conflict and the consent and the curiosity that pushes her character toward an unconventional life. I must say, however, that I’m a little disappointed in the title. Though the film makes clear enough that Marston is bested by his lovers, they still seem to take second seat in this story, and that feels like a let down to our hero, and her real counterparts.