Summertime and the viewing is usually easy and ephemeral. Still, there are movie releases that deserve a deeper look.
Les innocents (originally titled Agnus Dei) is a masterwork that premiered at the Sundance festival. An article in the July 27 Prairie Messenger featured an inspiring interview with its director, Anne Fontaine. The story, based on true events in 1945, takes place in a Polish convent where a number of nuns have been raped by invading Red Army soldiers, the resulting concealed pregnancies provoking both medical and spiritual crises. Taking big risks to come to their aid are two non-Christian doctors from the French Red Cross, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), the daughter of “die-hard communists,” and the Jewish Samuel (Vincent Macaigne). The stern Mother Abbess (Agata Kulesza) sees only shame and dishonour. She tries in vain to keep it all under wraps and suffers even more from a terrible sense of guilt. “They (Soviet soldiers) should have killed us,” she says at one point. She has been violated too and in desperation commits an act by a cross that seems unforgivable. Accepting damnation, she cannot forgive herself.
Yet out of this dark winter ordeal that has so shaken the nuns’ faith comes a spring of God’s mercy and promise of new life. The convent takes in homeless orphans of war to be raised along with the babies born from its violence. Mathilde and Samuel may not be believers but it is through them that the spirit of innocence survives.
Earlier this month I had what was in effect a private screening of writer-director Stephen Dunn’s Closet Monster, a multiple award winner including being chosen best Canadian feature at last year’s Toronto film festival. It was in a big theatre in a crowded mega-multiplex, and I was the only one in the audience. Just as I had been heartened by a small independent homegrown film getting such a release, here was evidence of their usual lonely fate, not only beside competing blockbusters like Star Trek Beyond and Jason Bourne playing to packed houses, but in comparison to crud like Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates.
Closet Monster features a terrific performance from Connor Jessup as Oscar Madly, a Newfoundland teen torn between divorced parents and wrestling with his sexual identity. As a young boy (played by Jack Fulton in these early scenes), Oscar is encouraged by his father, Peter (Aaron Abrams), to dream, but also haunted by witnessing a brutal anti-gay hate crime, the instrument of violation becoming a nightmarish recurring vision of internal torment. Oscar also has an imaginary friend, a talking pet hamster (voiced by Isabella Rossellini no less) named “Buffy.” As a teen his best friend, but not girlfriend, is Gemma (Sofia Banzhaf), with whom he shares offbeat costuming interests. His ambition, ultimately frustrated, is to get into a New York cinema makeup program.
As Oscar is increasingly alienated from Peter, a hotheaded homophobe whom he blames for driving away his mother, Brin (Joanne Kelly), he retreats into his room, the closets of which still have her clothes. Another refuge is the treehouse he built with his dad. It’s there that he’s forced to confront his attraction to Wilder (Aliocha Schneider), a co-worker at the hardware store where both have part-time jobs, and the cool kid with the look and locks of a young Greek god.
Oscar is afraid of what he feels inside. He’s struggling with the monster coming out of the closet. When relations with his dad reach a crisis point, he’s fortunate to have a sympathetic mother to turn to. He might not be able to escape to the Big Apple, but as the last scenes on Fogo Island suggest, he finds a place to be himself and pursue his art. Dunn brings an impressive intense and imaginative visual style to this coming-of-age/coming-out story that, for all its surreal elements (not just the hamsters), brilliantly captures the raw experience of a troubled adolescence.
On the much lighter side is octogenarian Woody Allen’s 47th feature Café Society that opened the Cannes film festival. As usual it features a nebbishy New York Jewish character who falls for alluring young women. The former is Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), the son of working class-parents who has higher ambitions than toiling in a butcher shop. His mother Rose’s brother Phil Stern (Steve Carell) is a big-shot Hollywood producer in the late 1930s heyday of studio pictures. So it is that the affable, if rather shy and awkward Bobby, lands in L.A.’s enchanted surroundings petitioning Uncle Phil for a job, any job. Meanwhile back in the Big Apple, gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) is taking care of business in the manner of a cement-suit crime drama.
Bobby’s persistence pays off, and even better he finds himself attracted to Phil’s ever-so-lovely personal secretary Veronica, “Vonnie” for short (Kristen Stewart). Claiming to disdain Tinseltown’s pretensions, she humours Bobby with a supportive casual companionship while dampening any romantic hopes because she already has a “journalist” boyfriend. The problem is, her lover is actually the married Phil who goes back and forth about whether to leave his wife and children. There’s trouble in Phil’s posh poolside paradise and when he breaks off the relationship with Vonnie she seeks comfort in Bobby’s arms. Forget any happy Hollywood ending, however, because Phil does abandon his family and Vonnie chooses him and fabulous fortune.
A heartsick Bobby returns to New York and goes to work in Ben’s nightclub. Turning it into an upscale destination for the rich and famous, he becomes an impresario of this gilded café society, showing a talent that a visiting Phil and Vonnie can admire. Indeed when Ben, convicted on multiple charges including murder (becoming a Christian on death row because it offers an afterlife), the notoriety seems only to increase the venue’s popularity with the in-crowd. Bobby still holds a flame for Vonnie but settles instead for the charms of another Veronica, a gorgeous divorcée (Blake Lively) happy to stay home and have his children. Of course, this being a Woody Allen picture, any sweetness and light has a fatalistic edge, summed up in the philosophy that “life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer” and “live every day like it’s your last because some day you’ll be right.” Bathed in the golden cinematography of master Vittorio Storaro, the movie flits by as a series of frothy sketches, as evanescent as the pleasures of a summer’s night.
Another richly imagined period piece set in 1944 New York is Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins (http://www.florencefosterjenkinsmovie.com/) based on an actual person who lived to sing. Florence (Meryl Streep) was an aging wealthy heiress, society matron and patron of music who had survived for decades with the effects of syphilis contracted from her first husband. Her second, an English actor named St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), appeared devoted while living in a separate apartment he secretly shared with a young and beautiful lover. Florence’s fame as the “world’s worst singer” was enabled by St. Clair using her money to pay off audiences and critics. Blissfully unaware, she acquired an accompanist on piano, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), pursued vocal lessons, gave concerts and made bestselling recordings, ultimately fulfilling her dream to sing at Carnegie Hall — packed with well-lubricated war veterans given free tickets. Streep, a good singer, is brilliant as a laughably bad one. Moreover her performance balances the humour with moments of real tenderness and pathos up to the last earthly bow.
Also based on actual events is the wartime thriller Anthropoid, directed by Sean Ellis who is also co-writer, producer and cinematographer. Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan (Mr. Fifty Shades of Gray) play Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, Czech resistance fighters parachuted into their occupied homeland on a mission, codenamed “Operation Anthropoid,” to assassinate the high-ranking Nazi overlord Reinhard Heydrich, the “Butcher of Prague” and an architect of the final solution. Over months of preparation conflicts emerge with the local resistance. Tensions also arise between Josef and Jan, who falls in love with one of the women in the circle that supports and shelters them. The operation obviously exposes everyone to deadly risks and if successful will certainly bring savage reprisals.
Although filmed in Czechoslovakia, the casting of Hollywood actors in main roles (with passable Czech accents) is no doubt a commercial compromise. Everyone speaks English except of course the dastardly Germans. That reservation about authenticity aside, the movie shifts into high gear with the staging of the messy, apparently botched, assassination attempt (on May 27, 1942) followed by acts of betrayal and torture leading up to the ferocious finale in a church where Josef and Jan have been hidden with five other parachutists. This was a heroic real-life suicide squad, in contrast to the dreadful movie of that name about supervillains saving the world.
Finally, a welcome family-friendly fantasy adventure from Disney is David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon (http://movies.disney.com/petes-dragon-2016), a superior remake of the 1977 animated original. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is an orphan boy lost for years in the forest whose friend and protector is a magical green dragon he names Elliot. There’s a “green” message too in that Pete’s return to human society involves a forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), working to preserve the habitat and its endangered species, threatened by the lumber and hunting interests of her own fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his brother Gavin (Karl Urban). Screen legend and passionate environmentalist Robert Redford, who’s just turned 80, also stars as the storyteller who believes in the boy. Highly recommended for all ages.