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Recent Movies: Tower; Florence Foster Jenkins; The Handmaiden; Live Concerts: Loreena McKennitt

December 4, 2016

Recent Movies


On August 1, 1966, a sniper climbed to the observation deck of the clock tower at the University of Texas – Austin. From there, he randomly shot and killed fourteen people and injured thirty-two others. The story is retold in this film which is mostly a documentary but also a drama where some events are re-enacted in rotoscopic animation.

The shooting spree lasted about an hour and a half which is close to the length of this movie. As events seem to be happening in real time, this film succeeds in having the effect of a thriller – at least to those of us who did not know the final outcome of the tragedy.

Director Keith Maitland has made some unique choices that pay off fabulously. The available footage is compelling; the use of animation to continue the story (where footage is not available) is also very effective.

This movie is more powerful than most documentaries in that it places viewers in the moral dilemma of some of the bystanders: what does one do upon seeing someone wounded who is in clear view from the tower? While helping is the right thing to do, how does one do so without risking getting shot?

Once the main narrative of the event is complete, the post-script takes on a life of its own. It includes interviews with some of the survivors, police officers, and observers including archived interviews of those who have died since the event. This satisfies a curiosity especially when they speak openly of the traumatic memories followed by a healing process.

Maitland has deliberately excluded much information about the assassin with an exception being a photo which generates many mixed feelings. The inclusion of a commentary by the revered Walter Cronkite is also very well chosen especially considering the many mass shootings that have happened in the half-century since. This is a superior documentary.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * * 1/2

Florence Foster Jenkins

Based on a true story: in 1944, the title character (played by Meryl Streep) is wealthy patroness of the arts in New York. She has a chaste marriage to St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) who has a secret relationship on the side but adores Florence to the point of being co-dependent. He and others encourage her to take singing lessons and perform despite the fact that she cannot sing.

There is a charm and entertainment value in this movie and how can it not be considering the talent involved. In addition to engaging performances by Streep and Grant (plus Simon Helberg as Florence’s pianist accompanist), the movie is well directed by the brilliant and seasoned Stephen Frears (“My Beautiful Launderette”, “Dangerous Liaisons”, “The Grifters”, “The Queen”, “Philomena”).

To take on this true story is quite challenging. As fiction, it would be easily dismissed as unbelievable. Yet again, truth is stranger than fiction here. While the viewer is taken through the events, we are given too little information about St Clair and others for setting Florence up for possible humiliation. She seems spared by her naivete and some occasional sitcom-like attempts to keep the truth from her.

It’s hard to pin down what exactly is missing in a movie with such potential. Maybe, it needed an approach that is at least as surreal as the story itself. Plus more understanding of some very unusual characters. By the end, it felt like it could only go so far despite the talent involved.

RATING:   * * 1/2

The Handmaiden

A con artist (Ha Jung-woo) courts a wealthy heiress (Kim Min-hee) with the intention of marrying her and stealing her fortune. He enlists the help of a pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) to act as the heiress’ handmaiden. Unbeknownst to him, the women fall for each other. Another barrier is the heiress’ evil uncle (Cho Jin-woong) who has dominated her for many years. The film is based on the novel  “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters and updates the story from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20thcentury.

There are various plot twists to keep this movie intriguing throughout. The first two (of three) parts are the same narrative while the second is more of a revision of the first with a different perspective. These are the best parts of the film.

The third part wraps things up well enough but with some difficult violent scenes. Also, at the risk of giving away a spolier, the story has too many resemblances to the superb American indie film / lesbian love story “Bound” (1996).

In addition to “Bound”, “The Handmaiden” takes cues from another more recent lesbian love story “Blue is the Warmest Colour” from France. Both films had sex scenes between two women that began as erotic but ended by being (or at least bordering on) pornographic. The less-is-more approach would have been more effective.

Overall though, director Park Chan-wook has crafted a fine film with a fine mix of great performances and stunning photography, settings, and music. The two and a half hours go by with the viewer’s full attention.

RATING:   * * *

Live Concerts

Loreena McKennitt at Massey Hall, Toronto

For the first time ever, I treated myself to the renowned acoustics at the historical Massey Hall. To combine the hall’s beautiful sound with the McKennitt’s magnificent talents (as well as those of her accompanists) was a match made in heaven.

McKennitt’s voice is ethereal which goes without saying. Her charming personality also showed in various anecdotes from the comical (busking in London, England and an odd character at the airport in Shannon, Ireland) to the serious (the sad state of how technology changes were too rapid and are robbing children of a more simple childhood and adolescence). The highlight was a series of songs and prose that told the story of Irish refugees leaving the famine in the 1840s and arriving near Quebec City followed by Ireland’s fight for independence.

When a concert gives me a happy vibe for so long afterward, it is truly exceptional.

RATING: * * * *

Upcoming movie reviews:  Being 17, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, Moonlight, The Eagle Huntress, Elle, Queen of Katwe, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, Things to Come


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