Under the tree (Undir trénu)

In the 1929 comedy classic Big business, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen. Their potential client (played James Finlayson) becomes so annoyed by their repeated attempts to sell him a tree, that he starts clipping the tree. Stan and Ollie retaliate by doing some damage to the man’s house. The man then turns his attention to Stan and Ollie’s car. And they do that until there is no car and no house. I thought about Big business a lot as I was watching Under the tree, a dark comedy from Iceland. The feud this time is between neighbors. Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) and Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), an elderly couple, have a tree growing in their backyard. Their house is attached to Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and Eybjorg’s house. The tree is casting a shadow on their lawn, and Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) requests that the tree be trimmed so that she could sunbathe. But Inga hates the too perfect Eybjorg and refuses to have the tree trimmed. Meanwhile, Inga and Baldvin’s adult son, Atli (Steinþor Hróar Steinþórsson), has been kicked out by his wife when she caught him watching a video of Atli having sex with her best friend. So he moves back with his parents while he’s fighting for custody of his four-year-old daughter. Fighting is the right word. He shows up unannounced at the kindergarden, leaves with his daughter without permission, brings her back late and harasses his wife, Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) at work. Like mother like son. Inga becomes paranoid. Everything the neighbors do is suspicious, especially Eybjorg. The truth is that both Inga and Atli are still coping with the recent tragic death of the eldest son, Atli’s brother. When her beloved cat disappears, Inga is sure Eybjorg is responsible. Konrad and Eybjorg have a dog, she could maybe… Under the tree is full of bad people behaving badly. And, thanks to Edda Björgvinsdóttir’s deadpan performance, Inga is one of those classic neighbors from hell. But this is not as funny as Laurel and Hardy’s Big business (Not even close). It is definitely more drama than comedy, but its strong suit is the dark humour. And the last shot is one of the funniest ending I’ve ever seen. Some people might not like the darkness (Warning: Not for every stomach.), but I did find Under the tree to be most refreshing.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Plays at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema from August 17 – 23
http://www.bytowne.ca/movie/under-the-tree

Under the tree (Undir trénu)

Directed by:
Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

Screenplay by:
Huldar Breiðfjörð
Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

Starring:
Steinþor Hróar Steinþórsson
Edda Björgvinsdóttir
Sigurður Sigurjónsson
Þorsteinn Bachmann
Selma Björnsdóttir
Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir

89 min.

In Icelandic with English subtitles.

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McQueen

Most of us know next to nothing about British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. But after seeing Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary we now perceive McQueen as a brilliant conceptual artist, and not simply as a fashion icon. His runway shows were so dark and controversial. He titled his graduation collection Jack the ripper stalks his victims. The clothes had been sewn with bright red threads, lines of blood was running through the fabric. A later collection called Highland rape had models wearing ripped clothes, their hairs dishevelled. In the film we discover that as a child, Lee (as family and close friend called him. His full name was Lee Alexander McQueen.) was sexually abused by his brother-in-law, his sister Janet’s husband. Janet, who is interviewed in the film, confirms that. Other family members, close friends, lovers, boyfriends and collaborators talk about the darkness he carried with him throughout his life. Later, when he went to Paris to work for Givenchy, he was a bit more conventional. A bit! If you can call a double amputee model walking down the catwalk on carved wooden legs “conventional”. In one spectacular moment a model wearing a strapless white dress is standing on a rotating section of the catwalk and, while she is rotating, the dress is being sprayed by two robotic paint guns. VOSS, his 2001 catwalk, was insane. It was set in a padded room with mirrors, the models were acting as if they were crazy, pieces from the clothes were falling on the floor. A glass room was in the middle of the runway. Inside, it was revealed later, (when the glass walls came crashing down and breaking on the floor) there was a naked obese woman on a chaise longue wearing only a gas mask. One reviewer called it “the best pieces of fashion theatre I have ever witnessed.” “Fashion theatre” is I think a fitting description for what McQueen was doing. But McQueen was a troubled man. Troubled by too much drugs, the failure of his love life and the suicide of his mentor, Isabella Blow. What is clear in McQueen is that he was a genius and that, at 40 in 2010, he died too soon. We are grateful, through this documentary, to get a peek into his artistry and his brilliant mind.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

McQueen

 

Directed by:
Ian Bonhôte
Peter Ettedgui

Screenplay by:
Peter Ettedgui

111 min.

Rated 14A

Rodin

In 1880 French sculptor Auguste Rodin is 40 year-old. That year, he gets a commission from the French government to produce The gates of hell, which will include two of his most famous masterpieces The kiss and The thinker. Although Rodin (Vincent Lindon) loves his wife/partner, Rose (Séverine Caneele), he has a ten years tumultuous affair with his student Camille Claudel (Izïa Higelin). Rodin and Claudel seems to be fighting a lot. Elsewhere, many of Rodin works are monuments of French literary figures of the time. A commissioned monument of Victor Hugo was unfinished. It is interesting to see Rodin attempting to make a statue of French novelist Honoré de Balzac. First the rotund Balzac is represented naked, with his genitals fully exposed. Then Rodin has the bizarre instinct of covering the naked plaster-cast with a cape drenched with plaster. This monument was controversial at the time (1891), probably because it was outside of the norm. I found Rodin mildly interesting when we see him at work. But the off and on love affair between Rodin and Claudel is boring. There is too much talk. A unintereting talk-fest.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Plays at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema from August 10 – 26
http://www.bytowne.ca/movie/rodin

Rodin

Directed by:
Jacques Doillon

Screenplay by:
Jacques Doillon

Starring:
Vincent Lindon
Izïa Higelin
Séverine Caneele
Edward Akrout

119 min.

In French with English subtitles

Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot

Gus Van Sant’s new film is a biopic of paraplegic, alcoholic, politically incorrect cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix). At 21, after a day of drinking with his new buddy Dexter (Jack Black), Callahan’s life is changed forever by an auto accident. The cruel irony is that Dexter (real name? don’t know), who was driving Callahan’s car and fell asleep at the wheel, comes out of the accident without a scratch. At the hospital Callahan has a hard time facing the news that he won’t walk again. The only thing that calms him is physiotherapist Annu. Rooney Mara is Annu, and the way Gus Van Sant films her (in close-up, surrounded by sunshine and pastel colors) she looks more like a dreamy angel than a physiotherapist. Once out of the hospital and in a wheelchair, Callahan resumes his drinking and his whining. Most of the time he’s in a state of self-pity because his mother gave him up for adoption, and he drinks. A lot. That’s until he goes to an AA meeting at age 27 and stops drinking. His sponsor is Donnie, a gay, AA’s 12 steps guru. With a beard, hippie-like long blond hair and having lost some weight, Jonah Hill gives the best and most surprising performance of his career. After sobering up, Callahan starts his career as a cartoonist. Some of his cartoons were called racist by some while others found them funny. He also made fun at the physically disabled, and sometimes himself, as can attest the title of this film (also the title of Callahan’s book). It’s not an entirely satisfying movie experience. The screenplay and Van Sant’s direction makes it impossible to follow. It is confusing because it goes back and forth in time. Is it before he joined AA or did he relapse? A scene where he is sober is followed by one where he is drunk without any clue for the audience. It’s a shame. But you can still enjoy the superior performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Jonah Hill, Rooney Mara and Jack Black. You could not find better casting.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot

 

Directed by:
Gus Van Sant

Screenplay by:
John Callahan
Gus Van Sant
Jack Gibson
William Andrew Eatman
Based on Callahan’s memoir

Starring:
Joaquin Phoenix
Jonah Hill
Rooney Mara
Jack Black

114 min.

Rated 14A

Boom for real: The late teenage years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

In 1976 Jean-Michel Basquiat was a homeless 16 years old. With his friend Al Diaz he started to spray paint graffiti on New York’s Lower East Side buildings, They called themselves SAMO (short for “same old”). Their designs included inscribed messages. But Basquiat’s street art was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. His reputation started to build and soon he would become one of the most important American artist. Driver interviews friends, lovers and fans of his work. The film is often more about them and their impression of Basquiat than it is about Basquiat himself. He is seen in film archives and photos as an enigmatic, evasive presence. In some weird photos he has shaved the front half his head. Sarah Driver’s documentary is a glimpse into his surroundings and the New York underground art scene (including early Hip Hop) in the late 70s. Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a drug overdose in 1988 at 27. The film is a fitting tribute.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Boom for real: The late teenage years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

 

Directed by:
Sarah Driver

79 min.

Rated 14A

Three identical strangers

Three identical strangers tells a weird story of a “separated at birth” type. It all started in 1980 when 19-year-old Bobby Shafran discovered he had a twin brother. You could not get more “indentical” than Bobby and his brother Eddy Galland. An article is published in a newspaper and David Kellman sees the photos of his two twins. Of course the three boys became media sensations. We see clips from The Phil Donahue show where they list their similarities. Even though they were adopted by couples of different economic classes (a blue collar, a middle class, and an upper class), they practiced the same sports when they were younger, smoked the same brand of cigarette, dated the same type of girls. The triplets and their parents had a lot of questions. When they compared notes they realized that the boys had been placed by the same adoption agency. Louise Wise services placed children with Jewish families. When pressed for answers the directors responded that it was too hard to place triplets or twins, so they had to be separated. It was later revealled that their separation, along with the separations of thousands of twins, had been deliberate in order to conduct a study about twins. Why? That’s the mystery at the heart of this film. The study was never published and the results are locked until 2066. Many of twins suffured from depression or some form of mental illness, leading some to suicide. Although Three identical strangers is interesting mostly because the story is so gripping, it is very well made. We feel for Bobby and David, the two surviving twins, who are at the centre of the film.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Three identical strangers

 

Directed by:
Tim Wardle

96 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Leave no trace

Will (Ben Foster) and his daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live outdoors in a public park in Portland, Oregon. They’ve set up a camp under a tree with a small tarp covering their heads. They can either cook on a fire, when it’s not raining, or on a propane BBQ they have brought with them. This is their home. Tom is 13-year-old. They must be careful not to be seen, as it is illegal to live in a public park. Occasionally they have military drills as a practise in case they are discovered. Will is an army veteran, probably suffering from some form of PTSD. During his sleep he has nightmares, and he wakes with the sounds of helicopters ringing in his head. Then it happens. The cops find them. Authorities get involved. They are submitted to a series of stupid psychiatric tests with stupid questions. A social worker finds them a home where they can live. It’s on a farm where they grow Christmas trees. Will  works at the farm. But “civilization” is not Will’s thing. In a telling scene, he unplugs the TV set and puts it away in the closet. He rejects society and its values. So it’s not long before he decides that they have to leave. By that time Tom has made friends with a local boy who raises rabbits and started to get accustomed to school and a more regulated life. She reluctantly packs up and leaves with him. A series of accidents will make the journey back to wilderness difficult. Debra Granik’s assured direction is remarkable here. She does not need to over-dramatize. She only observes without judging. The characters are already infused with baggage that is so rich. These are people with very few words. There are no long speeches. Although it doesn’t sound like it, it makes it harder for actors to do. McKenzie and Foster have the added task of playing father and daughter, to create a bond out of thin air. I thought that Ben Foster has always been unappreciated, and I hope that he will finally get the acclaim that he deserves. His work here, as well as Granik’s and McKenzie’s should be applauded.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Leave no trace

 

Directed by:
Debra Granik

Screenplay by:
Debra Granik
Anne Rosellini
Based on the novel My abandonment by Peter Rock

Starring:
Ben Foster
Thomasin McKenzie
Jeff Kober
Dale Dickey

109 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Boundaries

It doesn’t take a very long time before you realize that road-movie Boundaries is one mother of a messy film. It’s a shame because I really like Vera Farmiga, Lewis MacDougall and Christopher Plummer, the film’s three main actors. Farmiga plays Laura Jaconi, a woman who finds comfort in picking up stray dogs and cats. There’s too many in the house, but every time she sees one, she can’t resist. Laura lives with her 13-year-old son, Henry (Scottish teen actor Lewis McDougall), who got kicked out of school for drawing his female teacher in a sexy pose…  naked. He does that to everyone including his mom lovers. And then there is Jack, Laura’s estranged father. She’s trying to avoid answering his insistent phone calls because she knows he’s trouble. And because she knows he never really loved her. But when she does answer he tells her that he’s been kicked of the retirement home because he was caught selling marijuana. He needs her help. She needs money to send Henry to private school. As played by Christopher Plummer, Jack has the air of a person you cannot help but love even though you damn well know you shouldn’t trust him. And of course he’s got perfect timing. The plan is to drive from Portland to Los Angeles (but it was filmed in Vancouver, BC), where Jack is supposed to stay with his other daughter JoJo (Kristen Schaal), who seems to occupy herself walking dogs. But Laura doesn’t know that in Jack’s luggage there is $200,000 worth of pot. To help him sell it he strikes a deal with Henry, his grandson. The pot is to be carried in adult diapers (Got it? As geriatric humour it’s not very subtle.). Along the way they visit some old friends (Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda) and Laura’s ex and Henry’s father (Bobby Cannavale). During the trip Laura starts to reconnect with her dad again. But the whole time he’s taking advantage of her, and enlisting her son to do the same. I found the film mean-spirited, and frankly not funny enough. Yes, I like Farmiga and Lewis MacDougall. and Christopher Plummer is great, as always. The characters are supposed to be quirky, but they are just messy people in a messy movie.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Boundaries

 

Directed by:
Shana Feste

Screenplay by:
Shana Feste

Starring:
Vera Farmiga
Christopher Plummer
Lewis MacDougall
Peter Fonda
Kristen Schaal
Christopher Lloyd
Bobby Cannavale

104 min.

Rated 14A

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (Gaugin – Voyage de Tahiti)

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti is about Paul Gauguin’s first trip to Tahiti. Gauguin (Vincent Cassel) left Paris in 1891 in the hopes of coming back a rich man. But soon after he gets there he becomes very sick. The doctor (Malik Zidi) orders him to stop smoking and change his diet. He doesn’t, but instead he falls for a local girl, and with her parents consent, they move together in a small hut. And with her love he is now cured. The girl is known today as Tehura, Tehamana or Teha’amana. In the film she is played by Tuheï Adams. Tehura will become one of Gauguin’s most important Polynesian model. (his painting D’où venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Où allons-nous? is thought to be his most beautiful Polynesian work) But Gauguin is unable to sell his paintings and they get so poor that they can’t feed themselves. So he goes to seek work. By that time Tehura is in love with Jotépha (Pua-Taï Hikutini), a boy closer to her age. Gauguin is jealous and he locks her in the house while he’s gone to work. I found the film to be too slow and, beside the splendid French Polynesian landscape, it did not have anything interesting to say. In doing my research I learned that Tehura, who really existed, but in the film is probably a composite of all of Gauguin’s Polynesian “wife”, was only 13 years old, while Gauguin was 43, and all his companions were about the same age. While it is probably consistent with the mores of Tahiti at the time, today that information is not good material for a biopic. The filmmakers knew it and there is no mention of Tehura’s age. Neither did they tell us that Gauguin suffered from syphilis, probably a deadly disease at the time. In the film the disease is diabetes. I found the filmmaker to be dishonest. Was Gauguin a great artist? Yes. Should his paintings be seen by more people? Yes. But there is no reason to mask the truth. We should see a person for what they are and were, warts and all. Plus the film is a bore.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti (Gaugin – Voyage de Tahiti)

 

Directed by:
Édouard Deluc

Screenplay by:
Édouard Deluc
Étienne Comar
Thomas Lilti
Sarah Kaminsky

Starring:
Vincent Cassel
Tuheï Adams
Malik Zidi
Pua-Taï Hikutini
Pernille Bergendorff

102 min.

In French and some Polynesian languages with English subtitles

The gospel according to André

André Leon Talley (AKA as ALT) is the in-your-face, larger-than-life gay African-American fashion journalist and former editor-at-large of Vogue. Kate Novack’s camera follows Talley for several months. He’s a big man who now mostly wears classy and colorful capes and caftans. Although he was born in Washington, D. C., Talley was raised by his grandmother, Binnie Francis Davis, in North Carolina in the Jim Crow South during the segregation era. After working at Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York in 1974, André started volunteering at Metropolitan museum of art for Diana Vreeland, than worked at Vogue in various functions from 1983 to 2013. With photos, film archives and interviews from his collaborators (among them Anna Wintour from Vogue) The gospel according to André gives us a mildly interesting portrait of what made André a fashion icon. But there’s another dramatic arch that takes over the film. The gospel according to André was shot during the 2016 American election. All I will tell you is that there is devastation the morning after the election. For that and for André Leon Talley, some may want to see it.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The gospel according to André

 

Directed by:
Kate Novack

94 min.

Rated Parental Guidance