Tag Archives: based on a true story

Maudie

Maudie was born “funny” – sharp in her mind but infirm in her body. She is discounted, invisible to the world. Abused then neglected by her brother, his monthly sum to her caretaker aunt doesn’t mean the aunt is nice to her, not at all. So it shouldn’t be surprising when Maudie seeks to improve her situation by lending herself out as a housemaid. The only person who’d have her is an ornery (possibly autistic, in a time way before that would be diagnosed) fishmonger who lives out in rural Nova Scotia.

maudie_01Maudie (Sally Hawkins) and Everett (Ethan Hawke) are a couple of odd socks – the world has discarded them and they do not belong together but for lack of anything better have somehow become a pair. Their relationship doesn’t exactly blossom into romance but their mutual tolerance and sometime thoughtfulness or generosity does translate into a partnership of sorts, and marriage. And while Maudie may neglect her household chores, she blossoms in Everett’s house as a painter. Her arthritis makes it increasingly hard to even hold a brush but her joyful spirit paints their modest, one-room home in bright, colourful designs. Soon the community around her will embrace her for it. Maud Lewis (1903-1970) is one of Canada’s best known folk artists.

Sally Hawkins is phenomenal. She underplays everything because she can, because she can rely upon her talent to communicate big things in small ways. Her eyebrows alone are Oscar worthy. Her smile is reminiscent of the real Maud – wide and innocent. She gives such dignity to this character who really led a simple life, a life of poverty, but a life that was more than enough for a woman who needed only some space and a paint brush in her hand to feel happy. Maudie is not just a tribute to the artist, but to her way of life. I was moved by this film, for Maud specifically and women generally, for anyone who was marginalized and squashed and found a way to bloom anyway.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I read this book not long ago and was really taken by it, inspired by it, moved by it. It’s non-fiction by Rebecca Skloot about a woman named Henrietta Lacks who had cells taken from her without consent while she was in the hospital being treated for cancer. She died shortly after but her cells lived on and live on still. They’re known as HeLa cells and they’ve been sold to labs the world over because hers were durable and prolific. Nearly every medical breakthrough since 1951 has used her cells in research and trials. Hela cells are the oldest immortal cell line in medical history. But Henrietta never knew, MV5BZjkxMTVmMDQtYTE3OS00NjBhLWJlNjQtYjI1M2VkNzE3ODA2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAyNzI2OTY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1444,1000_AL_was never asked. Her family didn’t know either. And when they found out, decades later, they were mortified. Without the education to understand what those cells really meant, they wondered if part of their mother was indeed still alive, being kept alive cruelly in labs, being shot into space, or injected with disease. And why had so many profited from the sale of HeLa cells while Henrietta’s family languished in poverty?

The book tackled issues of informed consent, and ethics of race and class in medical research. The film, starring Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta’s haunted daughter, Deborah, and Rose Byrne as writer Skloot, loses some of what makes the book such a great read. But it’s still a great if upsetting introduction to Henrietta and the family that still grieves her. Deborah grew up without a mother, while thousands of scientists handled her cells on a daily basis. She knew almost nothing about her mother but now learns that her legacy includes the vaccine for polio, gene mapping, and cloning. Scientists have grown some 20 tonnes of HeLa cells, which have featured in over 60 000 research papers and 11 000 patents. Not a dime ever went to the Lacks family.

Winfrey gives a stirring performance as a heartbroken woman. Byrne is commanding as well. But for my money, the book is where it’s at – pick it up.

TIFF 2017: Chappaquiddick

I contemplated walking out on Chappaquiddick before it even started.

Those who’ve been following TIFF this year may know that the festival chose this year to experiment with assigned seating for their Roy Thomson Hall and Princess of Wales screenings. I really hope they don’t try it again.

The Roy Thomson Hall screen looks surprisingly tiny from the second to last row of the furthest balcony. I know because that’s where I got stuck sitting despite arriving nearly two hours early and waiting near the front of the line. From that distance, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy or even follow a complex political drama. I was afraid it would be like trying to watch my neighbour’s TV from a living room across the street.

It turns out I was able to follow the film just fine but I’m not nearly as confident in my review of Chappaquiddick as I am in my scathing review of the assigned seating policy. Following a complex political drama from that distance takes concentration and every time someone takes a bite of popcorn or unwraps a candy counts as a distraction that threatens to take me out of the movie.

I’m still pretty sure that director John Curran (Tracks, The Painted Veil) intended his docudrama about Ted Kennedy and his team’s handling of the drowning of aide Mary Jo Kopechne to be far more gripping than it turned out to be. Jason Clarke does a pretty good Kennedy and Kate Mara is heartbreaking in Kopechne’s terrible final hours. Ed Helms is especially good as Kennedy’s cousin, lawyer, and conscience. But there’s something missing.

Or maybe I missed it. Maybe that missing element that would have made Chappaquiddick truly powerful was a line that was uttered while my neighbour distracted me with a coughing fit or by checking their phone. Probably though, the missing element is truth. There’s just so much that we don’t know about the Chappaquiddick incident and so much of what happens onscreen is conjecture. The story feels incomplete and maybe that’s the point. It just makes for an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable movie.

 

Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent lives up to its name: a team of over 100 artists hand-painted each and every frame in this beautiful animated film. What better way to pay tribute to one of the most iconic artists the world has ever known?

The film takes place a year after Van Gogh shot himself and died of the wounds. In life, Van Gogh had painted a portrait of his post master. After his death, a letter of his, perhaps the last he’d ever MV5BNzFhNTMyYTYtYjBkNC00MTIwLWJhMDktZGI0NWZiNWIxYjYzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjg4MjE2MzU@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1383,1000_AL_written, was returned, so the post master sends his son to deliver it. The post master is fully aware of the special relationship between Vincent and his brother, Theo, and is adamant the letter be placed in his hands, or in the hands of the doctor who cared for him in the last months of his life.

The young man’s special delivery unearths the events that led up to Vincent’s death. His suicide seems to have caught most who knew him off guard – he’d seemed particularly well right before it happened. The story unfolds in beautiful images done in Vincent’s own familiar, fanciful style – over 65 000 oil paintings were made for the film over seven years. That’s quite an act of love, and the first of its kind.

The movie is augmented with excellent voice work by Saoirse Ronan, Douglas Booth, Aidan Turner, Chris O’Dowd and more. The neat thing is the artists have incorporated their likenesses into the film without losing the authenticity of the characters who peppered Van Gogh’s life. The actors actually were filmed playing their parts, and all of this informed the artistic process. This is a really lovely film that treats its subject reverently, with the same sensitivity embodied by the man himself. There was so much more to him than what history remembers, and this movie restores some of what’s owed to his legacy.

 

Victoria & Abdul

31victoriaandabdulIs there anything more awkward than finding out the guy you recruited as a token Hindu is actually Muslim? There is, actually – it’s far more awkward when the guy you literally shipped from India as a parlour trick starts getting special attention from the Queen, more attention than you and all your fellow white sycophants combined. The worst part? He doesn’t even seem to be trying to play your game, yet he’s still beating all of you at it.

Victoria & Abdul tells the (mostly) true tale of the unlikely friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, the former being the head of the Empire that oppressed India for nearly 100 years, and the latter being the guy who was sent on a two month boat ride to present a ceremonial coin to the Queen.

Director Stephen Frears and writer Lee Hall do their best to find humour both in Victoria’s self-involvement and in the shockingly blatant racism that Abdul is subjected to at every turn. That approach works very well, mainly because of the strong performances by Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the titular roles. Dench’s Victoria is smart and self-aware even in her self-indulgence and stubbornness, and Fazal’s Abdul is such a capable, charismatic individual that at every turn he exposes the ridiculousness of the hate directed toward him. Perhaps in another hundred years our great-grandchildren will find today’s racial turmoil similarly humourous, ideally without seeing similarities to their time’s headlines. One can only hope.

One shortcoming, though, is that we are left to guess at Abdul’s motivations. Presumably, he would rather put up with cold, prejudiced England than live in impoverished, subjugated India, but we don’t ever see his home life so never really know why he puts up with being treated like dirt by every white character other than the Queen. Even so, Abdul is still a character I invested in despite knowing so little about him.

Beyond the stellar core performances, Victoria & Abdul is fairly by-the-numbers, playing out exactly as it must. There are no narrative surprises here but despite its predictability, this film kept me invested from start to finish, and that’s not an easy task for a 9 a.m. screening five days into a film festival!

Victoria & Abdul likely won’t end up in my top tier of films from Venice but I’m glad I saw it, especially for Oscar pool purposes – Dench should be a strong contender for Best Actress. And while the rest of the film doesn’t match the high standard that Dench sets, it’s an entertaining film that you won’t regret watching.

Nico, 1988

nico-1988-trine-dyrholmYou may not know Nico by name, but I bet you have heard of some of her friends, people like Andy Warhol and Lou Reed. Nico, born Christa Päffgen, was part of the Velvet Underground for their first album (getting co-billing in fact) and, as a musician, that would seem to overshadow anything else one might do from then on. Nico, 1988 joins Christa in 1986 as she tours in support of her latest solo album. Understandably, Christa would prefer to keep the focus on her new music, but the press keeps asking about her past.

Nico, 1988 makes the viewer feel the weight of that past. This film gives a revealing and honest look at Christa’s life, stitched together from memories of those who knew her, including her son. It feels like a documentary, in large part due to a great performance by Trine Durholm in the lead role. Durholm shines both offstage as well as onstage, handling vocal duties herself.

The music is the beating heart of Nico, 1988, which is entirely appropriate for a biopic about an avant garde innovator whose music Rolling Stone called “a really worthwhile venture into musical infinity”, music that others have described as desolate, terrifying and unlistenable.

Judging from the soundtrack in Nico, 1988, all those descriptions are accurate. Sometimes, Christa sounds horrible, but once in a while, it’s magic. One ill-fated concert in Prague shows the heights that Christa can hit. Her energy and the crowd’s mesh perfectly and draw the viewer into the front row. Not coincidentally, that’s the only performance in the film that Christa delivers drug-free. Christa’s struggles with addiction are part of her story, and they feature in this film just as they did in her life.

For music lovers in particular, Nico, 1988 is essential viewing. It provides a behind the scenes look at the life of a true artist, a musician’s musician who cast a shadow too large for herself to escape from. Catch it if you can!

The Zookeeper’s Wife

On Saturday we brought our sweet little nephews to the Capital Fair, where we watched a stunt dog show, rode rides, played games on the Midway, and visited a petting zoo where the kids and I hand-fed llamas. On Monday I watched a llama get shot, point blank.

Do not confuse The Zookeeper’s Wife with We Bought A Zoo. This is no light-hearted tale. It’s about real-life couple Antonina and Jan Zabinski, who used their posts at the Warsaw Zoo to save hundreds of Jews during the German invasion. Of course I’ve read both The a6oYy417yHHP01DGIDZUeEzH7JFZookeeper’s Wife, and We Bought A Zoo, and more recently I was reading another book about a woman who led an underground railroad of sorts to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto, wherein the zookeeper’s wife was specifically mentioned. It was an especially brutal place to be during the war. Terrible, unspeakable things happened every day, and it’s kind of a miracle to see\hear these stories about ordinary people who couldn’t live with what was happening, so they didn’t [it’s sort of awful that these words sound very applicable even today].

Glimmers of light do not eliminate all the darkness. The Zookeeper’s Wife is not an easy watch. The film makes the stakes clear, yes for the zookeepers taking enormous risks themselves (they would surely die if discovered), but especially for the people they are helping, who would otherwise be dead – or worse.

Jessica Chastain as the zookeeper’s wife is of course fantastic. There’s no CGI used int he film; those are real lion cubs she’s cuddling, with not a shred of hesitancy. Fitting, I suppose, when she’s sitting in the middle of a war where much scarier things are happening on the streets. WW2-era films always inspire a bout of siderodromophobia in me (the fear of trains).

This movie gets some things right, and some things wrong. In the end, I think it’s just not terrible enough, which I realize is a weird thing to say. What I mean is: it doesn’t have the power to haunt you the way Schindler’s List did (does). It feels a little cold, without the emotional gravitas you’d expect. I expected to cry. What does it mean that I didn’t? Perhaps what this movie needed was a meaningful connection to just one victim. Heroics are all well and good, but they’re only important because they’re necessary. Heroes are only half the equation: both must be compelling.

The Glass Castle

Jeannette Walls lived a turbulent childhood: her parents bustled her and her 3 siblings from town to town, evading bill collectors, never quite having enough money for both food and her father’s insatiable thirst. Poverty and addictions pock her youth, but for all their struggles, her mother would never leave her father, and the kids soon realized they’d need to fend for themselves, each disappearing to the big city as soon as it was feasible (a real challenge when someone is constantly drinking up all the money).

Walls went on to write a memoir detailing the hardships she lived through, and that tgc_d02_00156_00157_comp_r2.jpgbook became this movie, though something was lost getting from A to B. The book pulls no punches. Her parents are complex characters, and their children have conflicted feelings toward them. The movie’s a little more pat, the trajectory a little more Hollywood. Someone decided to apply some spit shine to this story, a story that’s naturally very dark and brooding now has themes of hope and redemption that maybe don’t belong.

I can’t say what exactly is wrong with the film except it’s just too easy. The grit is gone. Sure Jeannette’s father Rex is charming but he’s also kind of a monster. He’s a negligent parent who abuses his wife and kids and helps keep family molestation on the down low. And of course he wants deathbed forgiveness. Meanwhile his wife is a “free spirit” who chooses homelessness over independence from the man threatening her family’s well being. Neither parent is capable of putting their children’s needs first, or of meeting those needs even if they ever did. Which they don’t.

But The Glass Castle is worth a watch for the performances alone. As Jeannette, Brie Larson lives up to her previous Oscar win, but it’s Woody Harrelson as Rex who you’ll remember. He’s tortured and endearing and inspiring and hateful. Is this the film he’ll win his Oscar for? I wouldn’t be disappointed if he did. But shame on Hollywood for trying to put gloss and a positive spin on childhood poverty. These kids were failed not just by their parents but by the system. And now their brave story is being watered down to make it more palatable for film audiences. Shame.

Dunkirk

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We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

-Winston Churchill, June 1940

Has anyone ever been better than Winston Churchill at giving motivational speeches?  He had a way of rising to the occasion and here, the stakes had never been higher.   This speech was given immediately after the British and their Allies had been run out of France by the invading Germans.  Victory over the Nazis was not on the horizon and must have seemed impossible at the time.  That’s more or less what Churchill said, after all: he is not describing a plan to win.  He is describing a last-ditch effort to survive when the Nazis try to conquer Britain after they finish in France, and a cry for help to the New World to save the day in that bleak scenario (Canada was, of course, already part of the Allied forces at the time, but the U.S. would not be until Pearl Harbor).

The devastating outcome of the Battle of Dunkirk gave good reason for Churchill’s pessimism.  It is a fascinating historical event because it was a loss that could well have broken the Allies, but instead, it galvanized them, particularly in the way that the British survived: hundreds of civilian vessels sailed from Britain to France to help rescue over 300,000 Allied soldiers from the Nazis.

Time and time again, Christopher Nolan has proven himself to be as adept a director as Churchill was a speaker.  Tonally, Nolan’s Dunkirk captures what must have been the prevailing mood on the ground, at sea, and in the air as the Battle of Dunkirk was fought.  Nolan makes an inspired structural choice by intertwining three different stories over three different time periods, and as only Nolan can do, effectively explains a complex structure using only three small titlecards at the very beginning.  Dunkirk is reminiscent of The Prestige in that way – in both, Nolan always provides enough cues so the viewer knows exactly where a particular scene fits into the overall timeline and story, even as he tells the story in a complex, non-linear fashion.

With Dunkirk, Nolan has outdone himself.   Given how consistently great he has been throughout his career, it is incredible to think that he has gotten better, but that is clearly the case.  Dunkirk is absolutely masterful filmmaking from start to finish.  Above all else, Nolan’s film captures the essence of Dunkirk and gives us a true sense of the anguish of war, the desire to survive, and the fear of the unknown that soldiers must deal with constantly.  In particular, I am reminded of the scenes featuring Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot, all of which inserted me into the battle and truly made me feel how claustrophobic a Spitfire’s cramped cockpit would be, and how difficult it would be to spot, identify, and track an enemy fighter, let alone shoot it down.

For the viewer, this is a vital, visceral, and draining experience.  Dunkirk is a 106 minute movie that feels like it’s four hours long (which Nolan would take as a high praise, I think, if he ever read this review).  From start to finish, it is tense, it is devastating, it is awful and it is brilliant.  Dunkirk is filmmaking at its finest and a fitting tribute to one of the defining events of the 20th century.

 

 

The Lost City of Z

Percy Fawcett is a hard-working man but promotion eludes him due to his “unfortunate choice of ancestors.” This provides the desperate motivation in him agreeing on a mapping “adventure” deep in the Amazonian jungle. If disease doesn’t kill him, the hostile “savages” are likely to, but to restore his family name and support his family, off he goes…never to return.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunam) was a real British explorer who did get sent to the Amazon. While surveying there he believed he found a previously unknown, unfathomed advanced civilization. Back home he is ridiculed by his peers, but he’s obsessed, not just with a potentially huge discovery, but with proving himself. His fire is lit, his wife (Sienna Miller) supports him and his aide de camp (Robert Pattinson) enables him until one day he just disappears into the jungle.

Shooting a movie in an honest to blog jungle is difficult and uncomfortable. Director James Gray asked Francis Ford Coppola (who did the same for Apocalypse Now) for advice, and he was told “Don’t go”, which, incidentally, is the same thing Roger Corman told Coppola. Nobody listens, but it’s probably solid advice. If you do disregard it and trek to the steamiest of locations, make sure you don’t plan to film digitally. Gray was shooting 35mm thankfully, as the humidity shut down all the laptops and would have done the same to digital cameras. The actors and crew withstood and great deal of hardship – was it worth it?

The Lost City of Z (it’s pronounced Zed, you filthy Americans) has a meandering pace that reminds me of the epic adventure movies of 50 years ago or more. I can’t justify its runtime (141 minutes!) and I know exactly what I would have left on the cutting room floor, but I do love lots about the movie. I love the complexity that Hunam brings to the role. I love the subtlety and the refusal to exploit that Gray insists upon. I love the authenticity of the script, the honest portrayal of sacrifice, the bold ambition of the story. There aren’t exactly a lot of surprises to be had. It’s about finding oneself while literally losing oneself. But there’s a lot to enjoy along the way. The jungle itself plays a stunning role; tip of the old safari hat to cinematographer Darius Khondji who captured things no CGI could hope to emulate.