Tag Archives: based on a true story

Angelique’s Isle

Sault Saint Marie, 1845: a trading post. A beautiful young Ojibway woman named Angelique (Julia Jones) marries a French-Canadian voyageur named Charlie (Charlie Carrick). The newlyweds sign up to work at a camp during the copper rush and set sail for Lake Superior’s Isle Royale in search of a more prosperous future. Fortunately or unfortunately, they’re a little too successful. They find a whole boulder’s worth of copper, only it’s too big to take back on their little barge. The company men leave Angelique and Charlie behind to ‘guard’ their find. Two weeks, they’re told, though Angelique is reluctant – that boulder has sacred carvings on it, and she knows it shouldn’t be removed.

Alone on the island, Angelique is haunted by nightmares of residential school and her life before. She and Charlie tough it out with minimal food and dwindling hope, but as you might have guessed, those Detroit folk were not exactly honourable. Weeks turn into months. The no longer wait for a boat, they wait to die – of starvation or cold is the only question.

As she waits for death to claim her, surrounded by the undeniable beauty but also savagery of the land, she is visited by the spirits of her ancestors and her inner demons. Angelique isn’t the only one to be visited. It’s going to be a long winter for everyone involved.

Directors Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Michelle Derosier obviously have a feel for and a respect for the land. A Canadian winter can take your breath away both literally and figuratively. As this particular winter drags on (and all Canadian winters feel about 16 months too long), Angelique will have to rely on traditional ways to ensure her survival, and her spirituality to guide her. Cousineau and Derosier have chosen well with Jones as their heroine; Angelique is strong and fierce. She is worthy of our attention.

Advertisements

Operation Finale

This movie is a tribute to the unsung heroes of post-WW2 Nazi hunting.

When notorious SS agent (the architect of the final solution, no less) Adolf Eichmann suddenly pops up on the radar, Israel puts a crack team of secret agents on the case. Peter Malkin, in particular, is the loose cannon of the operation, but ten short years after the war, emotions run high for the whole team because everyone who wasn’t in a camp personally lost someone, or several someones, or everyone to Germany’s ethnic cleansing machine.

MV5BNGQ0YmVkMWItOGVlYS00ZWE2LWFhOTgtYzk1ZTAyZGQ5ZjFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_Malkin (Oscar Isaac) and company manage to pick up Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) thanks in part to his indiscreet son who still hates Jews all the way from Argentina. They sweat it out in a safe house. For safe travel they require Eichmann’s signature, and Malkin vows to get it. The interrogation is heated; Eichmann is emotionally manipulative and he knows exactly which buttons to push. The agents have agreed to bring him back to Israel for a public trial, but not killing him proves to be a very big challenge for almost every single one of them. Eichmann knows this trial is not likely to rule in his favour, so he delays endlessly, which is also to the benefit of the Nazi rescue party determined to find him.

Oscar Isaac is terrific, of course. Malkin plays it cool, almost sympathetic, but he’s always on the verge of an emotional outburst. Isaac draws a haunted man, bent under the weight of his own grief, and the loss of a whole nation. Ben Kingsley strikes the exact right chord – reprehensible. His hypocrisy rankles. I felt it so personally it was easy to feel for the agents and to admire them for their restraint. But overall, director Chris Weitz’s ability to humanize his characters makes for some very watchable performances.

The scenes between Isaac and Kingsley are the best the film has to offer. Operation Finale is otherwise a little still, a little familiar, a little predictable. It has good intentions but you see them coming from a mile away.  At times it can be surprisingly complacent for a ‘thriller’. It’s an Argo wannabe that doesn’t quite achieve its potential, but it’s nice to hear from this side of history, and it’s fantastic to see Kingsley do what he does best.

 

TIFF18: Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy

If you were present in the literary world of the early 2000’s and you have a sharp memory, you may remember JT (Jeremiah Terminator) LeRoy as the author of a New York Times best-seller, Sarah. That is a true thing that happened.

Now here’s where it immediately gets messy. JT LeRoy was a teenage truck stop prostitute who idolized his mother Sarah, also a hooker. Except JT wasn’t actually a real person, he was just an “avatar” used by the book’s real author, Laura Victoria Albert, who developed the pseudonym in the 90s while calling suicide hotlines. She found it easier to talk about her pain if she attributed it to someone else, and she MV5BZjI3NDk1NWUtMmQ4NS00MWMzLTljMmQtZjBhNWU0NWU0ZDFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI0MTEwNTY@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_found male identities received more sympathy. Eventually she found a way to turn it into art, and several stories and books were published under the name. She wouldn’t be the first writer to write under an assumed name, but she might be the first to have gone to such great lengths to present a pseudonym as a real person. She recruited her boyfriend’s androgynous sister Savannah to “play” JT in person, granting interviews and posing for pictures as him – even signing the rights to a movie contract. Of course, when the truth comes out, as it nearly always does, the world was kind of mad about being duped, and there was a big backlash.

So that’s the true, and truly weird, story explored in the film, where Laura is played by Laura Dern and Savannah/JT is played by Kristen Stewart. Laura does all the talking over the phone (as a phone sex operator, she has a knack) and Savannah plays it cool and quiet in public. But both of them grow increasingly attached to the character and are possessive of him – particularly when a beautiful actress/director gets involved (Diane Kruger). Of course, the fun doesn’t stop there. Laura develops other personas, like Speedie, JT’s obnoxiously British manager who mysteriously and confoundingly does a lot of his talking for him during interviews.

Every year at TIFF, there are certain themes that pop up. This year it’s addictions, and also cops killing black kids. But a third, and quite odd theme, is literary hoaxes. Melissa McCarthy plays a forger in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays controversial memoirist James Frey in A Million Little Pieces. Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy provides two very juicy roles for Dern and Stewart, and the tension it creates between them is pretty addictive in itself. Stewart is cast to perfection and in JT’s gender-neutral shoes, themes of sexism and identity leap out so easily. Laura Dern is similarly well-matched, and she somehow makes the juggling of personas look easy. We get the sense that Laura feels her limitations in the field keenly, while Savannah embraces this shadowy second life, perhaps feeling a bit freer in a wig and dark glasses.

I thought Laura deserved a bit more from the script, and the end in general needed a little more oomph in order to match the intensity that comes before it, but this is an interesting story you have to see to believe, with 2 out of this world performances. You should take all of your personalities to the cinema to see this one.

TIFF18: The Front Runner

Jason Reitman has been busy lately. It’s been just four short months since the release of the bizarre but undeniably interesting Tully but the Oscar-nominated director was at the festival this year with a new movie and a very entertaining live read of the original Breakfast Club script to host.

Tully was the kind of movie that takes a couple of days to digest and decide how you feel about it. The Front Runner is a much more straightforward, Altmanesque look at three dramatic weeks during the doomed Presidential campaign of Gary Hart. I’m just young enough to be too young to remember Hart (played here by a fantastic Hugh Jackman) but even I know that his campaign was derailed after a story broke that he’d been cheating on his wife (Vera Farmiga).

When we first meet Hart, it’s 1987 and he’s the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination to run against George Bush. Hart just wants to talk about the issues and resists the distractions of talking about his private life and pandering to voters with cheap campaign stunts. His campaign manager (a rarely better JK Simmons) supports this approach and watching he and his staff debate strategy and plan campaign events while twelve things seem to happen onscreen at once is just a blast. Both Altman and Sorkin would be proud. Even as scandal begins to dampen everyone’s spirits, the pace rarely slows down. Intimate character moments of two people alone on screen tend to be so few and far between in this movie that it makes those moments resonate all the more.

I try not to read too many reviews before I post one but I can already see that critics have tended to respond to The Front Runner less enthusiastically than I have. On the one hand, I can understand why. It’s easy to get burnt out at this point on movies and conversations about how much political campaigns and political discourse has changed so much. Despite its clever dialogue, fast pace, and excellent acting, I can’t claim The Front Runner has much to add to the discussion nor does it give its audience much to debate or think about after.

I would argue that there is one very important subplot that keeps The Front Runner from being a classic case of all style and no substance. Hart’s scandal didn’t just affect Hart, his family, and his campaign. Young Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was thrust into the public eye with little support from anyone except for one sympathetic Hart campaign volunteer (very well played by Molly Ephraim). A lesser movie wouldn’t have given Rice so much screen time (or at least have lost interest in her after the sex scenes).

Still, I’ll concede that maybe we didn’t need this movie. It’s less an Important movie than it is an impeccably made one. Which is really all I need. I plan on seeing again next chance I get.

TIFF18: Hotel Mumbai

On November 26, 2008, 10 members of a terrorist organization stormed Mumbai, targeting multiple busy, touristy places for maximum impact. They set off bombs and shot wildly into crowds. They entered the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and kept guests there hostage for four days. Many died. Hotel Mumbai is the story of that hotel’s siege, and of the people trapped inside, waiting to die.

MV5BMjMzMTAyMDEzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODQ5NTQ0MTI@._V1_Arjun (Dev Patel) is part of the wait staff at the prestigious hotel restaurant. He misses out on serving one of the night’s big spending VIPs, Vasili (Jason Isaacs) when it’s discovered by his boss that he forgot his proper shoes at home. Guest is God, Arjun is reminded, but instead of going home for the night, he borrows ill-fitting shoes and will spend the next 4 days regretting it deeply.

Beautiful Zahra is also dining among the guests that evening, newly arrived in Mumbai after a shotgun wedding to David (Armie Hammer) and the subsequent birth of their child. David is awestruck by the hotel’s luxury, but as they cower behind an upturned table when the shooting starts, the thread count of the tablecloth hardly matters as the new parents panic about the status of their newborn in an upstairs suite with their nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Hotel Mumbai is tense pretty much from its second or third minute, and it never lets up. It’s difficult to sustain such a pace – difficult for actors, for film makers, and for the hearts of all who watch. 125 minutes is a long time to be hanging on the edge of your seat, jaw clenched, barely remembering to breathe. But the cast collectively does such a good job reminding us that these are real people: people tired from travel, people just trying to earn a pay cheque, people just wanting to make it home alive to their families and friends who are watching events unfold at home, helplessly.

The stakes are of course very high as Hotel Mumbai does not flinch away from the unspeakable violence. The script of course dials up tension with the addition of a baby who could cry at any moment, giving them away to killers with no conscience. But for me it was the hotel workers, people who are paid a pittance to treat their guests like actual gods, who could have escaped themselves but chose instead to stay behind to help keep their guests safe. That said, I did wonder why, out of the 164 people dead and 308 wounded, the film chooses to focus on 3 white people, possibly the only 3 white people there. Does director Anthony Maras not trust that I will be sufficiently horrified by the deaths of brown people?

I’m a little squeamish about what this means. The movie criticizes the Indian government for inadequate resources and features a throw-away white English lady who accuses her rescuers who “speak their [the terrorists’] language” and wear turbans, of being terrorists themselves. Is this enough commentary on the inherent racism of such a movie? This story should be about the many Indian men and women who died that day, and the Indian heroes who helped others to survive. But it’s hard to believe in that premise when the camera lingers longingly on action hero Armie Hammer, while brown people fall behind him, like extras in their own movie.

TIFF18: Boy Erased

Jared is a good guy. He goes to church with is parents, where his father is the pastor. He plays on the high school basketball team. He’s kind to his girlfriend. But when he gets to collage, the world isn’t quite so good to him in return. He makes fast friends with a fellow runner, but that leads to a surprise sexual tryst one night that the other guy can’t live with. So, he tries to destroy Jared’s life, forcibly outing him to his deeply religious parents.

Jared (Lucas Hedges) respects his parents (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe) so he goes to gay conversion camp as instructed, in the hopes that they can turn him straight.  Conversion therapy is nuts. I mean, it just is, on principle. What kind of whack jobs really believed this would work? And what kind of whack jobs wanted it to? It would almost MV5BMjQ4MDM0MjMxOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTkzNzY1NTM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1555,1000_AL_make a handy queer dating service, as it is probably the biggest concentration of homosexual folk any of these kids has seen before, if it wasn’t so nasty and abusive. That’s what it really boils down to. The head instructor, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton), blames your “problem” on some member of your family who made you gay. He wants you to pick someone to focus your anger on. He wants you to learn to “act” “straight” (did you know that the triangle is the straightest shape?). He focuses on behaviour – if you stop playing football, you are no longer a football player. Problem solved.

I mean, this whole thesis feels strangely out of date. Why is Hollywood still trying to convince people that gay is okay? I think societally we’ve moved past this point, except all these scripts that have been languishing for years are only now getting produced, and they’re already obsolete. You have to check out indie cinema to see some truly of-the-moment lgbt themes. But okay, gay conversion therapy is a horror. Of course it is. But the thing that’s great about Boy Erased is that Jared is such a strong character. Everyone and everything in his life is trying to make him feel wrong and ashamed and dirty, but he doesn’t. When he confirms to his parents that he thinks about men, he knows it goes against everything they believe, but it doesn’t seem like he’s internalized that self-hatred. It can’t be easy, in that house particularly, to know that his very being is not only repugnant but blasphemous to the people he loves most. And yet when he consents to the therapy, it’s for them, not for him. We never get the sense that he believes he needs to change. And that’s kind of astonishing to see.

Eventually Jared need to come to terms with disappointing the people he loves. And maybe he’ll need to cut out the people who are adding toxicity to his life. Those are hard choices, but they’re the right ones. This movie is really more about his parents needing to learn that they’re the idiots, and they’re the ones in need of education and re-conditioning. But while Nicole Kidman, in all her church lady big-hair, bejeweled glory, sort of comes around, there’s not a lot of remorse on the part of Russell Crowe’s character. And that’s where the movie falls short. Jared is surprisingly at ease with himself but the movie doesn’t give him nearly enough credit. Director Joel Edgerton, perhaps unsurprisingly, spends more time on his own character, than he does on the ones with real influence in this story.

Boy Erased is a good, competent little movie that will fail to make a big impression.

TIFF18: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

If you’re asking for forgiveness, Melissa, you’ve got it. Not that I really believe you have anything to be sorry for. The Happytime Murders was a misfire, but hardly your fault, and I admire any attempt to do something different.

With this movie, both Melissa McCarthy and the character she plays are trying something different. McCarthy is trying on a more dramatic role, and though Lee Israel has a teriffic wit, she’s got no slapstick about her at all. canyoueverforgiveme_0HEROMcCarthy only has her own skin to live in, face naked save for an inept smear of lipstick on only the most special of occasions (ie, when asking for money), hair constantly overdue for its next dye job, frumpy clothes in various shades of poop. But it’s Israel’s personality that poses the real problem. She’s abrasive and reclusive and just doesn’t really know how to exist among people, so she’s basically stopped trying. It’s just her and her cat – a daunting thought when it’s just her and a blank page. A once-celebrated writer of biographies, her agent nowadays can’t get so much as a $10 advance for a book on Fanny Brice that nobody wants.

Living in semi-squalor, Lee finds there’s good money selling literary mementos from great authors. Is it her fault that better content fetches higher prices? Isn’t it just good business sense to exploit her natural gift for writing and put it to use making money again?

Crime pays, for a while. And then the FBI gets curious about all the fraud and forgery and whatnot.

I love this script. McCarthy’s very first line earns a laugh out loud, and the script continues to reflect Lee’s caustic humour throughout. And McCarthy is just brilliant in the role, aggressively unpersonable, but also sympathetic. There’s a whole framework of supporting cast to admire too, particularly Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith, and Marc Evan Jackson.

This isn’t just a film about forging letters, it’s about loneliness, and friendship, and purpose. It’s hard to say which Lee needs more – human connection or the sense that she is creatively fulfilled. Of course, when you’re crediting your best work to someone else, it’s plagiary of the heart and perhaps this is what hurts her most in the end. Lee Israel is not anyone’s idea of a hero, but her flaws are all-too-human, and it’s fascinating to slide down the rabbit hole with her.