Everyone told us this film needed to be booked and so here it is. You’d have to have a heart of bauxite not to appreciate the extraordinary talent of Amy Winehouse. From the get go, the film reveals the power of that voice, the singularity of her talent. As a child, she really had it going on. Eventually she found her way to a recording studio and then to Camden Town with bad boy Blake with whom she had an obsessive drug-fueled relationship. We know how it all tragically ends, but AMY revives the singer in all her life-affirming glory through reams of archival footage. It’s hard to describe the effect of this film. You have to see it in all its heart-wrenching graphic realism to get the message.
In these obsessively commemorative times, as we look back at a century of war and conflict, it is well worth our time to see this ambitious and decidedly unsentimental story of WWI. Mercifully, there are no battle scenes, no acts of great heroism, even if you hear about these indirectly. Yes, we see the mud, the trenches, the relentless rain and misery, but largely this is a story about a young woman who really owns the narrative. She is Vera, an emerging feminist who comes to recognize the absurd horror of it all, especially the world of men who push off for war as if great stuff awaited them. A terrific cast of characters populates this epic tale of love in wartime.
Film series were invented for directors like Ken Loach. We happily return him to the screen in this story about Jimmy Gralton, an ardent socialist and freedom fighter returning to Ireland from America to set things right. Notably, he aims to convert the favourite old dance hall into a centre of revolutionary vibrancy. But not all the spirits are willing and before you can say kiss my blarney the priests and enemies are circling, threatening Jimmy‘s dream. In many ways, Loach’s career is a study in the life cycle of good intentions and the failed realities of socialist idealism. His films cast unknown actors and are set in real places, and they rely on the kind of urban grit we have to recognize as his signature style. Although based on a well-known stage play, JIMMY’S HALL is pure Loach—hard on the head, but with spirited Irish music.
This is a totally delicious story about a girl named Minnie, the teenager of the title. It’s California 1976, when the trinity of belief was sex, drugs and rock and roll, a far cry from today’s less liberated zeitgeist. Fifteen-year old Minnie is on a familiar journey of self-discovery, one that takes her through some pretty hard-partying nights. Her mom, brilliantly played by Wiig, is dating a bit of a sleazeball (the uncannily creepy Skarsgård), but that doesn’t stop him or Minnie from getting it on. The film refuses to judge. It’s a chronicle of time and experience, and the effects of a questionable relationship on a young woman’s psyche as she grows into herself. The preternaturally talented Powley plays Minnie with utterly persuasive force, giving voice to the longing and addle-headedness of youth. What a trip, what a feeling.
f you like French thrillers you will love this seductive psychological journey into the lives of others. Based on one of Ruth Rendell’s creepier short stories, the film follows the fate of two blood-bound girlfriends, Claire and Laura, both of whom grow up to marry into bourgeois complacency. But illness suddenly overtakes Laura, leaving her husband to raise the child and Claire to step in to help with the future. Desire happens, but not as you might expect. Claire learns something about Laura’s husband that changes the course of her feelings and shakes up her own identity. To say more would be to spoil the endless amount of fun director Ozon has with this twisted tale of all-too human strangeness. Settle in for a walloping dose of sexual ambiguity.
Where it says heart-warming on our series inventory it says LA FAMILLE BELIER. Everyone in the family is deaf but Paula, on whom everyone also depends to interpret the world. She works hard on their farm, but is confronted one day with the possibility of auditioning for a singing contest. In fact, actor Louane Emera had competed on “The Voice” on French television and so she definitely has the goods. The film follows her struggle to realize her talent while feeling so desperately bound to the family that relies on her for its own survival. Tough call, indeed, but the film tracks the kind of challenges that so many young people have, and the pressures to do the right thing in a decidedly complicated world. Yes, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you know it.
Brought to you by the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival, now in its 26th year, MAVIS! deserves its exclamation point. This lively doc is all about the gloriously energetic 76-year-old Mavis Staples, still belting it out after all these years. You are guaranteed to feel uplifted by her fascinating story, growing up on the south side of Chicago, becoming one of the Staple Singers, and eventually going solo as the only and only Mavis. This is also a doc about the civil rights movement, and how music, as someone once sang, joins the “bourgeoisie and the rebel.” For your pure entertainment pleasure Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and Julian Bond also appear on screen to help our understanding of music and political movements. Director Edwards knows what she’s doing with this irresistible human force and all that rich archival material, offering us a hand-clapping, foot-thumping treat of an experience. It doesn’t get much better. Oh, happy day.
There are two words to explain why you should see this movie: Lily Tomlin. How lucky are we that she has returned to the screen after decades of withdrawal. Perhaps fittingly, here she is as Elle Reid, a socially grumpy grandma, cantankerous and hard-edged, but she has her reasons. Indeed, the film explores her character in all its complexity as she takes her granddaughter on a road trip. Young and vulnerable Sage needs an abortion and so they take to the road to find them some funds. It’s a terrifically humorous and moving journey that shows off all of Tomlin’s famous talent, giving ‘er when she has to, but showing us the inner woman with a life of challenge under the hood. The cast is spectacular but they all benefit from the sheer comic genius of the main character. You get the feeling this film was a pleasure to make. It’s certainly a pleasure to watch.
Remember the dynamic duo, director Zhang Yimou and his muse Gong Li? Well, here they are back in a moving story, made in China and set at the moment of the Cultural Revolution—and no one is partying like it’s 1966. Lu is in a work camp along with millions of others alleged to have swerved from Maoist doctrine. He escapes eventually and reunites with his wife. Their grown-up daughter has been completely brainwashed by Communist propaganda and so she does the unthinkable. Back to the camp. Years later he returns again, only to find his wife has amnesia. The struggle to reunite with the family and to find a home at last is set against the almost unthinkable turmoil of the Revolution. What were they all thinking? This is a slice of history that sears your heart but reminds you, as well, how much things have changed.
Well, here’s a twisted tale of intrigue and history. Everyone said this was the best film last year at TIFF—amazing how long it takes to get to our screen. Nina Hoss plays Nelly Lenz, who was severely disfigured during the Holocaust. Her face is reconstructed almost entirely – with emphasis on almost. On a mission to face the past, Nelly sets out to find her husband whom she believes might have betrayed her to the Nazis. They meet. Stuff happens. If you know Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” you will recognize the tropes of desire and memory. The husband fashions Nelly after the wife he believes to be dead in order to claim her fortune. She goes along with it for a host of complicated reasons. You really have to experience this masterpiece to appreciate its hypnotic hold on its characters and, in turn, on us. As with Hitchcock, you will be taken on a very powerful ride, whose destination will leave you breathless.
Perhaps only the Swedes could have come up with a title like this, at once amusing and provocative. The film is set in Gothenburg, but flips from time frame to time frame with a kind of understated drollery. We are in the theatre of the absurd, yet it all makes sense once you recognize these 39 or so short vignettes comprise the very stuff of the human condition. If you want linearity then go to another theatre. Director Andersson continues his exploration of that condition without regard for narrative continuity. He is more interested in the fine line between dream and reality, the place where mystery gurgles. There’s humour here, to be sure, especially in our shared shock of recognition of some truths about history, and life and death. But you just need to surrender to the vision. It’s a glibly amusing one once you stop worrying about the order of things.
We love Patricia Clarkson and so here she is again, this time as a NY writer seeking meaning after a bad marriage. None other than the formidable Ben Kingsley, he who can act no wrong, plays her Indian-American driving instructor. Conspicuously turban-headed Darwan has his own challenges, destined to enter an inevitably disappointing pre-arranged marriage. The contrast of cultures and experiences, especially around love and marriage, freedom and responsibility, informs the lively dialogue and much of the tension between the two leads. There is no sentimental attachment here: the film lets its two strong characters develop at their own mature pace, learning a lot more than how to change lanes in the middle of Manhattan.
Don’t let the phrase experimental documentary fool you. This is a highly accessible, moving doc by one of the world’s greatest living musicians, Laurie Anderson. This is a study of life post 9/11, a eulogy for a beloved dog, a meditation on love, a thoughtful cinematic tone poem on meaning and mortality, on loss and life, and perhaps most of all on story-telling itself. That’s a mouthful, but if you know Anderson’s extraordinary compositions you will not be surprised that she takes us on a cerebral yet moving journey that raises all the important questions. It feels like a privilege to share Anderson’s mind. Surrender to the film’s inner logic, and don’t worry about what you are seeing, at first: you’ll get it soon enough—that is, if you have the heart of a dog.