Tag Archives: based on a true story

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.

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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.

I Am Michael

Based on a true story, Michael Glatze (James Franco) is a gay activist, a writer for a popular queer men’s magazine, and one half of a couple passionately in love. Yet in ten years’ time, Michael will have publicly denounced the LGBTQ community, “turned” straight, and married a woman. How on earth did this happen?

Zachary Quinto is just as baffled as you are. Well, okay, Quinto plays Bennett, 201507682_1_IMG_FIX_700x700Franco’s other half in this film. And Bennett gets left for another man, who happens to be God. Michael starts out curious about religion because some of the queer youth he advocates for have been spurned by parents and schools in the name of religious belief. But the more he studies, the more susceptible he becomes to some very old, out of date, uncompassionate teachings. And things twist around in his mind so much that he makes the decision to “stop” being gay. He becomes a pastor himself, the kind who will sit down in front of a vulnerable kid and tell him “gay doesn’t exist” and he’ll have to “choose heterosexuality in order to be with God.”

 

I Am Michael attempts to tackle this surprise conversion with as much fairness and balance as possible, but it’s still stifling and sad to watch a man learn to loathe himself. Franco slides from determined advocacy, to, well, madness. He convinces himself that the voice he hears is God giving directions, but I sure as hell wasn’t convinced. I thought he was clearly troubled and had mounts of unresolved grief, both parents having died when he was quite young. And while it’s natural to want to be reunited with one’s mother, the lengths he goes to in order to guarantee his ascension into heaven is really tragic. And it made me angry all over again, this presumption of the church to tell people that they are mistakes, and those mistakes are bad and sinful and that God can’t possibly love them or accept them as they are (as He Himself made them???).

But the truth is, the fire that I feel for this subject wasn’t enough to sustain me through this movie. I thought it blandly and boringly told. It felt more like a powerpoint presentation than a movie. Michael’s struggle is largely internal, so the drama just doesn’t manifest. And because we don’t see or understand what must be a torturous process, the film feels slight, inconsequential.

I Am Michael is a fascinating premise that didn’t really work for me as a film. The director works so hard at being fair that the movie never really has a point of view. For all the talk of spirituality, there’s no real fire. It’s an interesting story uninterestingly told.

Devil’s Bride

A new judge arrives in the small village of Åland, Finland to modernize it. The villagers are a superstitious people. They cast spells for love, search dreams for omens, use herbs to induce abortions when the priest rapes them, seek revenge through the evil eye, and ask the local beggar woman to “divine” the perpetrator of crimes. Judge Nils (Magnus Krepper) believes in higher things: judicial evidence, unbiased law, proper trials. But also, you know, witches. When his mother gets sick, someone must be blamed. And of maxresdefaultcourse his new and improved judicial system could use a steady stream of accused. Why not a good old-fashioned witch hunt (although to be fair, in 1600, it was simply just “the fashion”)?

Nils’ mother has a charming 16 year old chambermaid named Anna (Tuulia Eloranta) who’s in love with a married man. 16 year old girls who are in love for the first time are kind of jerks, but she’s at least kind and patient her charge. But she’s not oblivious when the mother’s stroke is blamed on the local healer, who is then banished as a result. Sure that’s kind of tragic, but Anna can see the benefits. After all, her lover does have a pesky wife, and it now seems that a few easy accusations do a pretty good job of getting rid of someone. And that is how a witch hunt starts.

Devil’s Bride is very atmospheric, playing up the tension and paranoia that ruled the day. Based on real historical events in Finland in the 1600s, the witch hunt snowballs as they always do, not just because of jealous young girls, but because of the church’s tacit encouragement. The film probably would have benefited from choosing either love triangle or witch drama. Instead if lets the two themes fight each other, and that weakens the overall effect. There’s not exactly a lot of new things to add to the witch hunt genre, but it’s fun enough to see Finnish pilgrim hats.

 

Oranges and Sunshine

In the 1980s, British social worker Margaret Humphreys uncovered a secret. Her government had sent hundreds of children to Australia. Supposedly orphaned, these kids were sent to be adopted by Australian parents, though some wound up in orphanages instead. Turns out, the kids weren’t necessarily orphans. If their parents turned up to reclaim them, they were told their kids had already been adopted. In fact they’d vanished into a child migration scheme that was kept quiet for decades. Humphreys set out to reunite these displaced children,  scattered across Australia over decades, with parents who might still be living in Britain. Neither country wanted to take any responsibility, of course.

Margaret Humphreys is a real woman who took this on herself because she saw the MV5BNTk2MzYyMDA2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTAxMjg0NA@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,740_AL_injustice, and people’s pain, and she decided to do something about it. She was threatened and abused because she was exposing some very dirty secrets covered up by some very powerful people. The only help she ever got was from the adoptees themselves, all of them different shades of broken, harbouring the wounded children within. The real Margaret was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1993, and Commander of the British Empire in 2011 for her work, but as this film can attest, life was not made easy for her.

I believe that we can’t start healing from a trauma until the truth of the injury is admitted. This story was quite shameful on Australian and Britain, but they’re not the only ones with blemishes. Here in Canada we have our own sorrow. We call it the 60s scoop though it’s much broader than that. It refers to the over-eager removal of Aboriginal children from their homes. In some cases removal may have been appropriate, but others not, and in any case, the children weren’t just taken from their parents, but from the culture. They were raised off-reserve, losing their language and their identity, breaking social and familial bonds. Although not deported, these kids also lost more than just their parents.

In Oranges and Sunshine, Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys, and she does the formidable woman justice. Watson always does, doesn’t she? Hugo Weaving plays Jack, the adoptee through whom we experience the grief and loss of the process. Seeing it from both their perspectives keeps the film balanced; this is not merely an interesting case, but a personal and painful journey that doesn’t guarantee a happy ending for everyone. It’s not a flashy movie. It’s mostly fact-based. But it is sincere and at times quite powerful.

Christine

As often happens in Hollywood, two films came out around the same time about the same subject, in this case Christine Chubbuck,  a real-life reporter who took her life during a live broadcast in the 1970s. I reviewed Kate Plays Christine previously, and didn’t much care for its treatment of the subject. I needed a breather so have only now braced myself for the second film, Christine.

And this one is better, if I’m still not entirely sure we’ve gotten to the bottom of who she was and why she did what she did. If you do research on her as I have, much has been hqdefault.jpgmade of the fact that she (played by Rebecca Hall) was 30 and horrified of it, still a boyfriendless, childless virgin. I’m sort of offended on behalf of women everywhere that this is seen by anyone as the reason for her suicide. She was a troubled woman who’d struggled with depression and had left a job and life behind elsewhere in order to ‘rebuild.’ But this new place wasn’t going much better. A year in, she pined for the news anchor (Michael C. Hall) yet pushed him away when he got near. She yearned to do important investigative reporting but the station manager insisted on a “if it bleeds, it leads” policy. She couldn’t get promoted and wasn’t being taken seriously. She lived with her mother, sometimes happily, sometimes not.

Her on-air personality was quite cheerful but she was much more socially awkward in real life. Hall portrays her as troubled and disappointed, but not depressed beyond repair. So when the suicide comes, as you know it inevitably will, it still caught me off guard. Certainly we’d need to see her mental state unravel far more before this point arrives? I was shocked by it, and am not sure if the director, Antonio Campos, is trying to tell us that perhaps she wasn’t truly suicidal, or if the story was just lacking. I can’t rule christine-rebecca-hall.jpgout the former since I’ve always found the circumstance of her death a little fishy. Before she put the gun to her head, she read out a brief statement, basically accusing the station of pushing her to do this drastic, bloody thing. She’d also prepared a statement for a colleague to read out afterward, though none did. In that, she described her actions as a “suicide attempt” and reported that she’d been taken to hospital alive but in serious condition. Had she not planned or wanted her suicide to be “successful”? We’ll never know.

The film has a yellowed look to it, no doubt added afterward to achieve a vintage feel authentic to a 1970s era. It’s also well-acted by both Halls (no relation), with Rebecca Hall adopting a lower and more formulated voice, and Michael C. Hall slipping into a shiny-haired broadcaster’s charm. Although I don’t feel like the film offers us a complete (or at least a true) look at her life, the convincing and often gripping performances make Christine worthwhile.

 

 

Casting JonBenet

The case of murdered 6 year old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey still fascinates today. Originally reported as a kidnapping, her strangled body was eventually found in the family home. Her parents were publicly if not legally tried but the case remains unsolved. In ‘Casting JonBenet’, streaming now on Netflix, director Kitty Green uses members of the Ramseys’ Colarado hometown to recreate JonBenet’s last hours. But more than that, the film documents the actors’ reflections on the crime, their theories, their impressions, and their own personal connections and recollections.

Green explores the mythology surrounding the 20-year-old crime, and palpates the collective memory, to which even we, the viewer contribute. It makes for a very different, almost hybrid documentary, that doesn’t so much shed light on the JonBenet case but reminds us of how we’ve all coloured our own recollections over time. The movie’s casting call includes the following characters:

MV5BMTY3NDU3ODUwNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjE3NTE5MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1738,1000_AL_The Mother, Patsy Ramsey, seen by many as suspect #1 since the kidnapping note was determined to have been written on her stationary with her pen from inside the home. Was she jealous of her beauty queen daughter? Frustrated by another bed wetting episode? Did she accidentally kill her, then try to cover it up? Interviews with the press were defensive and unsympathetic. Do you identify with her grief or crucify her for her mistakes?

The Father, John Ramsey, destroyed vital evidence when he moved his daughter’s body, despite being cautioned not to. There were no signs of an intruder. His intuition in finding the body struck police officers as suspicious – did he know too much? And then rumours of sexual abuse circulated. Plus, the family let the ransom note’s 10am deadline slip by without a word, and John was booking tickets for the family to fly to Atlanta that same day.

The Brother, Burke Ramsey, was shielded by his parents from the press as a child but recently came off as creepy if not culpable in an interview. A flashlight in the family home fits perfectly with a gash on her head, and could explain a skull fracture. A piece of undigested pineapple found in JonBenet’s stomach seems to have come from Burke’s nighttime snack – did he strike out in anger? And marks on her back are consistent with toy train tracks in his room. Did her brother kill her and his parents cover it up?

A convicted pedophile living in the area was found with a picture of her in his possession. He also had a stun gun – could this explain those marks on her back? He’d also placed a call to a friend not long after, confession to having “hurt a little girl”. And the knots in the garrote used on JonBenet were consistent with knots used when he tried to choke his own mother with a telephone cord.

Santa, actually a friend of John’s dressed as Santa, visited the home just days prior to the Boxing Day murder, for a party at which the children each sat on his lap. He seemed to pay particular (too much) attention to JonBenet, and even arranged a “secret” meeting with her later.

The only new information in this documentary is the dirty laundry being aired by the actors, about themselves. But it’s a compelling look back and a bracing reminder that JonBenet’s killer was never brought to justice.

 

An Israeli Love Story

Margalit meets Eli on a bus and – zing! – for her, it’s love at first sight. He takes a little convincing, his head already crowded with ideas and responsibility. The catch in this little love story is that it’s Israel 1947. Things are…complicated.

Eli (Avraham Aviv Alush), son of the second President of the State of Isreal, lives on a kibbutz where he works all day every day. When Margalit (Adi Bielski) pursues him An-israeli-love-story-1-1024x576there, she finds that he’s also helping the Palmach to smuggle Holocaust survivors into Palestine. This only make her love him harder, but his reality is very different from hers, a drama student and theatre lover who is reluctant to give up a life of creativity. Her love is strong enough to make the necessary sacrifices, but the turbulent state of things in Israel means that love will not be enough to overcome all.

This is the true story of the love affair between Pnina Gary (who contributes to the script) and Eli Ben-Zvi. The film sets this passionate love story amid the political turmoil of pre-state Israel.

An Israeli Love Story makes its Canadian premiere as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Check below for dates and times – added bonus: director Dan Wolman will be in attendance.

Through the presentation of international and Canadian films, the Festival aims to be both a window to and a mirror of Jewish culture.  The Festival strives to be inclusive of all aspects of the Toronto community, regardless of age, affiliation or income.  We undertake to show films for their contemporary, popular value, and for their ability to address the subject of Jewish identity.  That is, to be a Jewish Film Festival, and not a film festival for Jewish people.

 

TJFF screenings for An Israeli Love Story:

Thursday 11 May, 6:15 PM – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Saturday 13 May, 9:00 PM – Famous Players Canada Square 2

 

SXSW: The Disaster Artist

Before we talk about this movie, we have to talk about another: The Room. Not Room, the Brie Larson kidnap drama, but The Room, the worst movie ever made. Even better: the BEST bad tumblr_megxu99K4x1ry10fwo1_500movie ever made, the Citizen Kane of bad movies, a movie so bad it’s achieved cult status. Tommy Wiseau was obsessed with movies and had enough cash to get one made, so he did. And he did it with such earnestness and such a complete lack of talent that people love to watch it. Ottawa’s own Mayfair Theatre, one of Canada’s oldest surviving independent movie houses, an official heritage building in our fair city, champion of 35mm film, screener of indies and classics, has been showing it for 92 consecutive months now. Each midnight screening is a riot; this cult film draws fans that know the drill. Matt wrote a great review of it a while back, almost nothing about the movie itself, which defies reviewing, but about the experience of seeing, the rituals that go along with it, the things you yell at the screen, hell, the things you chuck at the screen, it’s all a wild ball of fun.

Greg Sestero, co-star in The Room and Tommy Wiseau BFF wrote a book about making this weird movie with its even weirder director. It’s called The Disaster Artist. Ever a sucker for a great Hollywood story, James Franco read this book one day and immediately got a boner. He brought the script to Seth Rogen on the set of their ill-fated movie The Interview, and the rest is history. Well, future history. I saw the one and only screening of The Disaster Artist at SXSW where it was still billed as a “work in progress.” Tommy Wiseau was in the house, and also seeing it for the first time. Big gulp.

Two things struck me about The Disaster Artist: 1. This film was made with love. It could easily mock The Room, as many have, but it doesn’t. This is a loving ode to The Room, and to the friendship that gave birth to it. 2. This film is fucking hilarious.

Even having never seen The Room, The Disaster Artist is still accessible and relevant. Tommy Wiseau is a goddamned character and James Franco is just the man to play him (although Wiseau pushed for Johnny Depp). Franco got into the part so deeply that he directed while in character too. He was in deep enough to fool Seth Rogen’s grandmother when she visited the set, and in more than deep enough to constantly annoy his little brother “Davey” who co-stars MV5BMjA4ZDZkNjEtNTFkZi00YjhjLWFjZTctNDZlOWVmYzZmZjhhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTM2Mzg4MA@@._V1_with him.  James and Seth debuted Sausage Party at SXSW last year, and for me it was a disappointment. The Disaster Artist, however, gave me continuous giggles. They’ve amassed an impressive cast, some with just bitty walk-on parts, which only proves the love Hollywood has for underdog Tommy Wiseau. Or perhaps for James “I’ll try anything once” Franco. Or maybe James Franco as Tommy Wiseau. In any case, I laughed until I cried, and then I slammed some Diet Pepsi just so I could cry-laugh some more. And I did! This movie will make you rabid for The Room but it stands on its own, a complete movie that probably benefits from NOT being written by Franco or Rogen. It’s an affectionate behind the scenes look at Hollywood gone wrong, but it’s also a kind of heart-warming tale about outsiders who can’t break in so they plow their own field, and even if it’s bad, at least they have potatoes. Know what I’m saying? Oh, hi Mark.

 

 

 

p.s. Check out the comments section for a delightful Q&A with James, Dave & Seth.