Tag Archives: based on a true story

The Banker

Bernard Garrett (Anthony Mackie) grew up overhearing white people’s business schemes as he shined their shoes, so he knows he’s just as smart and just as capable. In Texas in the 1960s, however, the world is designed to limit his ambition and rob him of power. But still, he dreams, and he follows those dreams to Los Angeles, where he meets Joe Morris (Samuel L. Jackson), a potential partner with as much audacity as he.

Joe is already a successful businessman; he owns several properties. Bernard, however, wants to get in on the real profit. He wants to own buildings in white neighbourhoods. Even in L.A. there are many barriers to this happening, so they convince their handyman Matt (Nicholas Hoult) to become the white face of the company. They teach him algebra and golf, the white man’s business necessities, and he basically becomes their puppet, the representative who shakes all the hands and signs all the contracts while his mysterious business partners remain names on a ledger, though both remain hidden in plain sight – as a chauffeur, and a janitor. This strategy is incredibly fruitful for them, but Bernard won’t really feel successful until he can do the same in Texas, so eventually they go back, and they buy a bank. A bank! A bank that will be the first in its area to give loans to Black clients, business owners and first time home owners. They have to do this work incredibly surreptitiously of course, because it’s still Texas, but this endeavour really has the power to transform the entire community, which of course has never had this kind of opportunity for upward mobility, which is to say, the same kind that white folks take for granted. Which is why some 1960s Karen feels the need to intervene. In 1960s Texas, Black audacity is just about the biggest crime there is, so they don’t just get a police response, but the FBI as well. Of the three men involved, can you guess which two are arrested and charged? Yes, go ahead and assume this will be based solely on the colour of their skin.

The Banker is a safe movie that leaves all the risks to its bold lead characters. Director George Nolfi is content with a pretty standard biopic, which in this case is fine, as the revolutionary entrepreneurs depicted are so vivaciously brought to life by both Mackie and Jackson. Proper credit goes to Nia Long also, who portrays Garrett’s wife, Eunice. Happily Long is given actual work to do, the wife not just content to stay in the home, but very much involved in the family business. Eunice was always the first to recognize her husband’s genius and her support must have meant the world, but that would have been a very big deal, to risk her family’s stability in order to indulge his ambition. Eunice was a trailblazer herself, and Nia Long makes the most of it.

Based on a true story, the pursuit not just of the American dream, but of equal access to said American dream, is a story worth telling every time. The magnetic banter between Mackie and Jackson is just surplus on the ledger.

All My Life

Jennifer (Jessica Rothe) and Solomon (Harry Shum Jr.) are a happy young couple. They’ve had their share of ups and downs like anyone else, and he’s struggled to balance his desire to pursue his passion for food as a career and do the responsible thing, keeping his stable but uninspired job to provide for his new little family. Because oh yes: they’re making a go of it. Sol’s asked Jen to marry him, and she’s said yes, and they’ve got happily ever after twinkling in their eyes. Wedding plans are in the works but you know they didn’t make a movie about this couple because everything was easy for them.

Inspired by a true love story, Jennifer and Sol’s relationship is about to get tested, big time. Sol’s got liver cancer, which means wedding plans are put on hold and every last penny is poured into life saving treatment rather than cakes and dresses. But their supportive friends and family take pity on them, pitching in and asking for help from strangers to grant Jen and Sol their dream wedding, a beautiful bright spot during an otherwise terrible time.

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. True love tested by tear-jerking terminal cancer. But All My Life is helped considerably by charismatic leads with chemistry, a supporting cast that truly uplifts, and a story that may not be original, but is nonetheless well-executed. If you’re in the mood for a weepie, this one’s going to fit the bill.

Safety

Safety plays it pretty safe as far as inspirational sports movies go. Following in the footsteps of Remember The Titans or The Blindside, Safety tells the true story of a freshman college football player who’s got a lot more on his plate than just practice.

Ray (Jay Reeves) is just like any other athlete at Clemson University, until things back home start to fall apart. His mother is an addict, and little brother Fahmarr (Thaddeus J. Mixson) has been alone since her most recent arrest. And things are about to get worse: the good news is, Ray’s mom is going on to a rehab facility to get help. Bad news? That leaves Fahmarr alone, and he’s just a kid. There’s no one else to take him, so it’s either a group home, or…. Or Ray decides to sneak him unto campus where he secretly cares for him for the next month or so, just barely managing between class, football, and childcare, plus the burden of a pretty big secret.

Remember that Ray McElrathbey was a real kid who took on the raising of his younger brother while attending school on a full sports scholarship. He couldn’t really afford to risk his full ride by becoming distracted, nor could he afford to risk his brother’s life. For a while he manages both, but eventually his school and those darn NCAA folks who are sticklers for rules.

Safety skirts around its darker corners, focusing instead on the importance of family and community; if you were feeling cynical you might call it sanitized, but if you were feeling generous of heart you might just find it admirable for its sense of duty, sacrifice, support, and good old fashioned taking care of each other. It’s formulaic and completely unsurprising but it’s also the kind of heart warming stuff that’s hard to resist, especially around the holidays. Director Reginald Hudlin knows he’s got a good story, and tells it in a low-frills, straight forward kind of way, and if it’s a little saccharine, well, we could all use a little extra sweetness this year, couldn’t we?

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance has a story to tell – his own. Many would call it a rags to riches story, or perhaps a successful escape from an impoverished childhood; director Ron Howard and the movie studio went with “inspiring true story” but all of these seem slightly condescending. Vance himself went with “elegy,” a tribute to the place he came from and perhaps a lament to its end.

Older J.D. (Gabriel Basso) has overcome some rather humble beginnings to attend law school at Yale. It’s interview week, especially crucial to him because even with financial aid and 3 jobs he can’t afford next semester’s tuition without a summer internship. Meeting prospective employers over dinner, he’s overwhelmed by the trappings of etiquette and fine dining that seem to come so easily to others. It’s clear he doesn’t feel he belongs, and a phone call from back home only cements it. It’s his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), calling to say that mom Bev (Amy Adams) is in the hospital. Again. A heroin overdose. His help is needed, urgently.

Over the next 24 hours of trying to install Bev in yet another rehab manage a facility despite Bev having let her insurance lapse, J.D. is flooded with difficult memories from his challenging childhood.

Critics have been plenty harsh about Hillbilly Elegy, and I can appreciate their concerns. It delivers heavily on the Oscar bait melodrama, and instead of inspiring important conversations about cultural and economic gaps, it’s got some pretty soft platitudes instead of real insight. Not that a Netflix movie was going to solve the wage gap or cure the generational impacts of trauma.

No one can deny that Glenn Close and Amy Adams give everything to their roles. Close manages a bark that bites, with just a nibble of vulnerability, a terrific performance that just doesn’t have anywhere to go, there’s no arc, it’s mostly just an act of observation. Amy Adams’ character, on the other hand, is more like a series of attacks. She gnarls and gnashes her teeth and we get small glimpses or what triggers her explosions, but it’s not enough to piece together something truly satisfying. The characters lack insight and we can only guess that this cycle will be very hard to break.

True History of the Kelly Gang

The ‘true’ in the title is false of course, or debatable anyway, which I suppose means the ‘history’ part is too, although our story does take place in the past. Peter Carey’s vital and vigorous novel is a work of fiction, using many true aspects of the Kelly Gang story but inventing others as well. The film poses as Ned Kelly’s autobiography, mostly written and narrated by himself to an unborn child that Carey made up. But if Ned Kelly had had a pregnant wife, if she had half a brain she would have wondered if Ned would live to meet his daughter, and might have encouraged him to leave behind a written legacy, just in case.

The film is a departure not only in story but in tone and in telling, the violence crazed and stylized but the main concern more character than plot. You may already be familiar with the banks that were robbed and the cattle stolen, but this “true history” is more interested not in what they did but why they did it. The class struggle is palpable enough, the sense that there is no place for these young men, no future. There is real rage here, and a dangerous accumulation of testosterone with no constructive outlet.

Ned’s (George McKay) legacy has of course had a lasting impact on Australian culture; this film gives him a punk rock makeover for the 21st century and adds to the myth if not the man. With stunning cinematography, a gritty feel, and anarchic energy, there is much to be admired in Justin Kurzel’s film. Too bad I just didn’t like it. There was a lot of muck, a lot of exaggerated portrayals of machismo, and for me it was just too much crazy and not enough cohesiveness. But, if you’re looking for a western with a distinctly Aussie flavour, this one’s got that, plus lads in dresses, Russel Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie, and Nicholas Hoult, if you needed more convincing.

Misbehaviour

Sally Alexander (Keira Knightley) and Jo Robinson (Jessie Buckley) have little in common, and they even fail to bond over their mutual cause when they meet at a women’s meeting. But though they usually take a different path toward their ideals, they unite over the upcoming 1970 Miss World beauty competition which will be held right in their backyard – London.

It’s extremely upsetting that women have been protesting the sexism inherent in such a pageant for 50 years now, and yet they continue to happen, judging women on the height of their hair and the curves in their bikinis.

Okay, technically the women were still competing in one-piece bathing suits in 1970, but their measurements were recorded and announced during the broadcast, which leaves even less to the imagination than even the skimpiest swimsuit. Sally, Jo, and their cohorts plan to attend the live broadcast, and to disrupt it.

Meanwhile, feminism isn’t the only movement on the rise. Racism is too, and this year, for the first time, South Africa is impelled to send a woman of colour in addition to the ubiquitous white one, and Grenada sends a Black woman to compete as well. Sally et. al believe that a “family” show judging a woman based on appearance alone shouldn’t exist, but Miss Grenada, Jennifer Hosten (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) knows what her presence will say to little girls of colour all over the world. They both have a point, and unfortunately, this is a good illustration of how feminism has routinely left its sisters of colour behind. Misbehaviour isn’t about to shy away from that unpleasant fact, and it isn’t afraid to tackle difficult or unpopular topics.

Case in fact: Bob Hope. Legendary, beloved Bob Hope, fondly remembered for his numerous USO trips, on which Miss Universe would sometimes join him, the mere sight of her deemed a boost to morale. Bob Hope had hosted the Miss Universe pageant back in 1961 and was tapped to host again in 1970, to the disapproval of his wife, since in ’61 he’d started a 30 year long affair with the winner. Bob Hope (portrayed in the film by Greg Kinnear, his wife Dolores by Lesley Manville) was a more legendary womanizer than he was a comedian; he carried on more affairs than he could probably count. Knowing that “women’s libbers” were protesting the pageant, he thought it wise to work some extra misogyny into the pageant with remarks like “It is quite a cattle market here tonight and I’ve been back there checking calves.” Har har.

These different story lines help tell a fuller truth and give the events a proper context. The lesson here is a little complicated, but it’s told in an entertaining way by an extremely talented cast and I’m quite pleased if a little surprised to confirm that Misbehaviour strikes the right balance and delivers a movie you’ll actually be glad you saw.

Operation Christmas Drop

Let the barrage of cheesy holiday movies begin!

Netflix comes out of the gate strong with Operation Christmas Drop, a heart-warming instant classic that might just crack your Christmas Top 5 and start a new holiday tradition at your house.

Haha, just kidding. It’s a total cheesefest, oozing Gruyère faster than a leaky fondue pot.

Congressional aide Erica (Kat Graham) gets sent to Guam over the Christmas holidays to find “efficiency” deficits that will allow her boss (Virginia Madsen) to defund a beachside Air Force base. Captain Andrew Jantz (Alexander Ludwig) gets assigned against his will to escort her during her visit, and by “escort” I of course mean distract and/or thwart her at every turn. The base’s worst kept secret, and the main reason behind Erica’s visit, is Operation Christmas Drop, wherein service members volunteer their time and solicit donations to air drop on the more isolated of the neighbouring islands. But despite this being a truly good-hearted endeavour, leave it to government to see wasted resources instead of humanitarian aid.

Will Erica write the report that shuts down the base? Will under-privileged island kids get their medicine and school supplies? Will the evil American government find a new way to ruin Christmas? And will Erica and Andrew ever think up a solution to their mutual holiday solitude?

Kat Graham is luminous while Ludwig is a miscast lunk. The tropical setting of Guam is remarkably beautiful, even if it’s a deviation from the usual snow-covered small town setting of a holiday romance. The real-life inspirational counterpart should lend this thing a whiff of authenticity, but it’s all just so earnest it’s painful. Although I’m not the biggest fan of these Hallmark-esque Christmas movies, I’ll admit Netflix has had a couple of stand-outs that very nearly transcend the genre. This isn’t one of them. Operation Christmas Drop has Graham going for it and nothing else. The beaches are beautiful but the story is boring and the formula so carefully and precisely toed that you’ll wonder if you haven’t seen it before. You haven’t, and if I were you, I’d keep it that way.

Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder is a 2003 film by recent Oscar darling Bong Joon Ho. A remastered version is coming out this month, a perfect excuse to revisit this remarkable classic.

In 1986, Park (Song Kang-ho) and Cho (Kim Roi-ha) are two humble detectives assigned to a double murder investigation in their small South Korean province, already an unusual occurrence. But when the murderer strikes several more times with the same pattern, the inexperienced detectives realize that they are chasing the country’s first documented serial killer. Their skills and gear are rudimentary, so it’s good old fashioned detecting for these two, piecing together the clues in an attempt to solve this important case.

Bong Joon Ho has a unique and inimitable cinematic voice. The film starts out almost bumbling, with a tendency toward slapstick. His signature satire is ever-present, nuanced and cleverly hidden in plain sight underneath broad comedy. Genres blend and tone veers wildly from the expected course, but neither undermines what is ultimately a serious theme. Bong Joon Ho is slowly building to some very real thrills not to mention one hell of a climax.

The detectives’ increasing desperation is well played by a talented cast, including BJH’s frequent collaborator, Song Kang Ho, reflecting tragedy, futility, and humanity. It’s a complex and gripping story about the people tortured by a case well after the victims’ suffering has ended, with consequences that leak beyond professional borders.

Bong Joon Ho takes the time to find beauty, even amid such a brutal emotional and political landscape. The way he juxtaposes images can be as startling as it is brilliant, the effect culminating in a truly unusual film that transcends genre and communicates a fragile and subtle sympathy.

Memories of Murder is a modern masterpiece; look for the remastered release in select theatres beginning this weekend.

TIFF20 Penguin Bloom

The Blooms are a happy Australian family on vacation in Thailand when life changes forever. A broken rail on a rooftop lookout is nearly deadly, leaving Mom Sam (Naomi Watts) paralyzed and when eventually back home, terribly depressed. Both ailments keeping her confined to bed, husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) is basically a single father, barely handling life with 3 rambunctious boys, at least one of whom blames himself for his mother’s life-altering injury. Sam’s mother Jan’s (Jacki Weaver) support is of questionable value and Sam sinks deeper and deeper into an identity crisis told deftly between flashbacks to her active part in life and motherhood, and disturbing dream sequences that illustrate the yawning gulf between Sam Now and Sam Then.

Would you believe me if I told you that a magpie named Penguin is what healed her? Well, a wounded bird named Penguin AND a human woman named Gaye (Rachel House) who got Sam out of her chair and into a kayak. The kayak gave her freedom of movement and some independence; Penguin gave her hope.

It sounds like Oscar bait because it IS Oscar bait. Do I say that like it’s a bad thing? Maybe just a little. I hope Penguin won’t take this the wrong way, but you know that old saying, birds of a feather flock together? Well, so do movies about people overcoming catastrophic injury. There are a LOT of them.

This isn’t a bad one, and surprisingly, not an overly sappy one (note: I said overly). Sam is privately bitter and sometimes selfish. Son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) is harbouring secret guilt and putting way too many eggs into one penguin’s basket. But the emotional trajectory is trending upward since that little magpie first chirps with only a few unconvincing, by-the-book pauses along the way. Watts is terrific. The magpie is terrific, if just a little too cute to be entirely believed. Director Glendyn Ivin isn’t doing a darn thing wrong, he’s just another guy telling an inspiring, heart-warming story about churning anger into triumph through the redeeming values, of hope, faith, and family.

Maybe you’re in the market for an uplifting movie with lots of heart and some solid performances. Maybe you’ve got a surplus of tissues and are looking for any excuse to cry. Maybe you just always thought it would be cool to see a bird wear underwear on its head. For me this was too pat and predictable. I always hope for something a little meatier from a world-renown film festival (no offense, Penguin, poultry is fine too), but a bird with a broken wing is just about as ham-fisted (or should I saw chicken-winged) a metaphor as you can get.

Jumbo

I’ve been trying all day to figure out how to break this to you, and I’m no further ahead now that I was this morning, and you’ll see from the time stamp that it very very late in the evening now. Assuming I get something put on the page and hit publish tonight, which is assuming a lot since I still have bupkis. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Not the bupkis, the bupkis is spot-on. It’s just that by “all day” what I really mean is “intermittently, for the past 13 hours, for a total of probably not more than 90 minutes.” Which is still quite a lot as I can usually bang these out with great efficacy.

But this is what you get when you attend the Fantasia Film Festival, a festival dedicated to the weirdest and most wonderful corners of the wide world of cinema. It’s not for blockbusters, and not generally for Oscar bait, although it has hosted its share of contenders, including South Korea’s A Taxi Driver, Japan’s The Great Passage, and our own Tom of Finland. It’s been visited by the finest film nerds, including Ben & Josh Safdie, Guillermo del Toro, Mark Hamill, John Carptenter, James Gunn, Nicolas Winding Refn, Eli Roth, Takashi Miike, Ben Wheatley, and me. It’s funny because it’s true.

I have seen lots of strange stuff at this festival: people pooping out their living, breathing, emotional baggage; humanoid cockroaches; sex cam horror; an impregnated bathtub; a frog-man serial killer; a hunt for bigfoot; cannibal grandparents… and I could go on but won’t, for both our sakes.

But Jumbo…is in a category all its own. It’s about a woman, Jeanne, bit of a weird duck that one. Still lives with her mother. Kind of a loner. Works at an amusement park. Falls in love with a carnival ride. Typical French woman, eh?

So yeah. She calls him Jumbo because his real name (slave name?) is vulgar (and let’s face it, it’s more of a descriptor than a name). It’s one of those tilty-whirly rides that make kids squeal and/or turn green. And it’s dead sexy. Well to Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) he is. He’s very attractive, smart, funny…well, okay, it’s hard to see what exactly she sees in him, other than he’s just about the only one who hasn’t called her a weirdo. At least not to her face. And he does seem responsive: he flashes his lights, he takes her for a spin, he blows smoke and leaks oil…oil that is sometimes good and sometimes bad. It’s a bodily fluid I suppose, which at times makes Jeanne orgasmic and elsewise makes her anxious.

You know who else is anxious? Everyone who knows about Jeanne’s little crush. Suddenly being “a little odd” is seeming a bit more pathological. Her mother (Emmanuelle Bercot) is not exactly lucky in love herself, yet she still feels empowered to criticize Jeanne’s choice of beau. And the human male coworker (Bastien Bouillon) who up until quite recently had a crush on our Jeanne feels a little stupid for coming in second to a garish attraction that plays 80s songs while stirring up puke.

Writer-director Zoé Wittock deserves an award for the pure audacity to take such a story to the screen, to present it to an audience and say “Yes, I made this. On purpose.” But we can’t help who we love. Unless it’s an inanimate object, in which case we should really, really try. I can’t help but admire a movie that subverts even the modern romance, I can’t help but love Jeanne for her genuineness, her sincerity, but I can’t quite get on board with Jumbo. It’s an experiment, a bold one, yet still reminds me of things I’ve seen before (Under The Skin!). Jumbo and I are not a perfect match, which is find and dandy with us both – after all, Jumbo’s already got a girl, and despite what I felt was a marked lack of chemistry, they seem to be quite serious about each other. Quite.