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Recent Movies: The Diary of a Teenage Girl; Mr. Holmes; Suite Française; Old Movies: Les Ordres; Musical Theatre: Kinky Boots

October 18, 2015

Recent Movies

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

San Francisco, 1976: Minnie (Bel Powley) is a 15-year old who initiates a sexual affair with the boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard) of her mother (Kristen Wiig).

“Diary” has much in common with “Fish Tank”, a 2009 British film in which Michael Fassbender played the role of the boyfriend.  But “Diary” can’t be accused of copying the other film as it is based on the biographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.  Each film has its own strength and uniqueness.

There is much discomfort in the early sex scenes for obvious reasons.  At least, Powley was an adult when the film was being made.  But while the film clearly goes into taboo territory, it does so in a way that surprisingly comes off as moving rather than cheap and exploitative.

The story is told through Minnie’s (Gloeckner’s) perspective so, as it turned out, there seem to be no belief in victims or predators.  While there are consequences for the very unconventional liaison, there is no sense of melodramatic punishment that would be expected in other current stories.

Director Marielle Heller does a great job in recreating the carefree attitude of San Francisco in the 1970s as she does in getting fine work from Powley and Skarsgard.  The constant partying and indulgences in sex, booze, and drugs was simply the way of life back then and the lightness in attitude comes through in a way that is almost nostalgic.  This attitude would crash later after the onset of AIDS, the Reagan years, and real estate speculation (the single-parent family lived in a big apartment in downtown San Francisco on a librarian’s salary – something that couldn’t happen today).  There is also the enjoyable bonus of animated images that accompany Minnie’s thoughts and reflections.

This movie succeeds in taking a controversial subject and expressing it convincingly with heart.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *

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Mr. Holmes

In the late 1940s, Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) is in his 90s.  He has just returned from a trip to Japan and is settling in his beautiful farmhouse on the southern England coast where he maintains a bee colony enthusiastically.  His only companions are his housekeeper (Laura Linney) with whom he has a cordial but cold connection; and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) with whom he bonds quite amicably.

Based on the novel “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin, the story is much different from what one would expect in a Holmes film. It does include a mystery story but it is briefly told in flashback. In addition to another flashback story (the recent trip to Japan ), the focus is more on Holmes’ deteriorating health including a fading memory of a once brilliant mind.

Director Bill Condon also worked with McKellen in the superb “Gods and Monsters” (1998) in which McKellen gave a brilliant performance. While the role in “Mr. Holmes” is much less dramatic, the collaboration works well again as McKellen is very convincing as a former champion having to adjust to more modest circumstances while occasionally showing that his astute and observant mind still works well on occasion.

Overall, there is a beautiful mood of melancholy in the film which matches its lovely setting. Other themes include regret, guilt, and loss – both past and impending. While it does not have the thrills of a suspenseful murder mystery, it is still a pleasant and enjoyable film.

RATING:   * * *

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Suite Française

During the German occupation of France in World War 2, a small French town is turned upside down as Nazi officers are billeted in the residents’ homes. Among the various stories, the one most highlighted involves a young married woman (Michelle Williams) whose husband is away at war, her overbearing rich mother-in-law (Kristen Scott Thomas) who has an arrogant streak, and a handsome Nazi officer (Matthias Schoenhaerts) who is artistic and shows more humanity than one would expect. The film is based on one of the short stories in the novel by Irène Némirovsky.

Némirovsky’s novel itself is brilliant. Likewise, the circumstances of its creation are so astounding that they could be the subject of another film. The writer, a French Jew, wrote it with the intention of having five related short stories. Only two were written before she was captured and murdered by the Nazis. Her partial manuscript was left in a trunk and was discovered by her daughters in 1997 and published in 2004.

The intense and immediate mood of the book isn’t fully felt in the film. While such an adaptation would be difficult, a more clever and unique direction might have helped. Director Saul Dibb does a competent job though less inspirational than one might have expected for the novel’s fans. The decision to film in the English (rather than French) language is also questionable though for the most part, it does pay off as the story is so unique and rich.

So, despite the unfulfilled expectations, this is still a respectable film.

RATING: * * *

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Great Old Movies Seen Again

Les Ordres (Orderers)  (1974 – Canada/Quebec)

In October, 1970, Canada’s War Measures Act allowed authorities to arrest and imprison anybody that they suspected of domestic terrorism in association with the FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec).  As a result, over four-hundred innocent Montreal citizens were wrongly incarcerated.  Fifty of them gave their stories to director-writer Michel Brault.  From their stories, five composite characters were created for “Les Ordres”: a unionized labourer (Clermont Boudreau) and his wife (Hélène Loiselle) who are raising three school-age daughters; an unemployed father (Claude Gauthier) who cares for a baby and toddler at home; a social worker (Louise Forestier) who advocates for welfare recipients; and a doctor (Guy Provost) who has been involved in socialist politics.

Even before the arrests have begun, the story shows how bleak life is for the working-class and the poor.  However, this appears relatively mild compared to the shocks that are yet to come.  Brault shows brilliance in his subtlety during the arrest scenes.  His level of detail for nuanced yet important actions have at least as much impact as violence does in other films especially the situations where children are to be left without a caretaker at home.  And his intermingling of the various arrest scenes is done perfectly.  Not only do they flow well together; they even have more impact when shown simultaneously.

The second half of the film takes place in the men’s and women’s prisons.  While these scenes have less impact than those in the first half, the theme of a shocking injustice continues especially the abuses in the men’s prison.

The performances are uniformly strong and moving.  The actors convey to the audience what it would be like to enter an unexpected nightmare with apparently no end in sight.

One of the reasons this docudrama feels like a thriller is that it took place in Canada, let alone under the popular Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.  Considering similar incidents during the past few years (the scandalous G20 Toronto conference and the recently passed Bill C-51), it shows that certain freedoms can never be taken for granted.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:  Directing by Michel Brault

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Outstanding Musical Theatre

“Kinky Boots” at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto

In a small English town, an unlikely heir to a shoe factory tries to overcome financial problems by designing shoes for drag queens. His inspiration is a drag queen whom he meets while briefly living in London.

Through various characters and storylines, “Kinky Boots” covers some interesting contrasts: young men with their own ambitions vs. fathers who have something else in mind for them; life in a small town vs. the temptations of London; a simpler working-class life vs. a materialist one in the field of high-end real estate; and ultimately, outrageous drag queens vs. those who are anything but.

Whether in song or the spoken word, many of these conflicts are movingly portrayed. There are occasional moments in the second half when the storyline seems less genuine than other times but the show still comes off as a winner.

The upbeat songs by Cyndi Lauper are superbly on display with a great cast and terrific staging and choreography by director Jerry Mitchell. The fast and co-ordinated pace during scene changes maintain a high energy throughout the show.

In a featured role, AJ Bridel is hilarious as a factory worker who has a crush on her boss.  As the factory heir, Graham Scott Fleming does well in what is a relatively ordinary role.  But the highlight of the show is Alan Mingo Jr. as Lola the drag queen who is royal in every sense of the term. All of her musical numbers are grand especially when accompanied by the “Angels”, her fellow drag queens. Mingo proves that one of world’s most loveable archetypes is a sassy black drag queen with talent and attitude to spare.

The most exceptional numbers are the group show-stoppers that end the first act and the grand finale. During the finale, there is an interaction among four characters who appeared only briefly in the beginning. The gesture and symbolism are so touching, they could make a stone weep. It was the perfect finishing touch on a finale whose collective heart could move mountains. The exhilaration lasted well after leaving the theatre.

RATING: * * * 1/2

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