Mind Games. Films reviewed: Spiderhead, Chess Story, In the Wake

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spring film festival continues through June with Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival showing films for another week.  Also on now is the Future of Film Showcase, Canada’s premiere festival for short films. It also has panels, coffee sessions and workshops, covering everything from casting to funding, from locations to issues like equity.  

This week, I’m looking at three new movies about people forced to play games. There’s a prisoner playing chess in WWII Vienna, another prisoner forced to play mind games in a secretive American facility; and a detective playing cat-and-mouse with a murderer… ten years after an earthquake in Japan.

Spiderhead 

Dir: Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) 

Jeff (Miles Teller) is an inmate in a remote, high-security prison. Located inside a brutalist cement building on a placid lake, it can only be reached by boat or pontoon prop plane. But inside it’s a virtual paradise. Doors are kept unlocked, prisoners chat on colourful sofas while eating canapés, and are free to pursue their favourite pastimes. They can even become friends  with other prisoners — like Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). No violence or distrust here; the benevolent warden Steve (Chris Hemsworth) makes sure of that.

So what’s the catch? 

All prisoners are kept placid by a little gadget attached to their bodies, which — through remote control — releases chemical serums directly into their bloodstreams which controls their moods. They are also forced to attend sessions — controlled by Steve and his assistant behind a glass wall — where they test the potency of their pharmaceuticals. Sometimes it’s as simple as making them laugh at deliberately unfunny jokes. Other times they’re placed in the room with a stranger — a female prisoner in Jeff’s case — to see if drugs can make them so thirsty and the other seem so attractive  (like “beer goggles” times 1000) that they can’t help having sex on the spot. But things take a sinister turn when Jeff is taken behind the glass wall and ordered to remotely inject painful drugs into other prisoners’ bodies. Can Jeff resist the psychological and chemical pressures put on him? What is Chris’s motive behind these experiments? And is there anything Jeff can do to stop him?

Spiderhead — the title is the name of the prison — is a sci-fi psychological thriller,  about the dangers of pharmaceuticals and whether we can resist authority if it goes against our beliefs. The film is partly based on the Milgram experiment of the 1960s, where volunteers behind a glass wall were ordered to send increasingly painful electric shocks to actors pretending to be patients. In Spiderhead it’s taken to even greater extremes.

Is this movie good? It’s not too bad — I actually enjoyed it, loved the location and sets (it’s shot in Australia), the cheesy 1980s soundtrack, and the fun concepts, along with some huge movie stars… but the ending is as predictable as it is implausible. The concept is much better than the story. But if you just want be entertained for a couple hours, you could do worse.

Chess Story (Schachnovelle)

Dir: Philipp Stölzl

It’s 1939 in Vienna, and Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) is living the high life. He always dressed in formal black and white, and only the finest scotch and the best cigarettes ever pass through his lips. He loves telling jokes with his friends, and waltzing with his beloved wife Anna. As long as the Viennese keep dancing what could go wrong? But that night German soldiers march into Austria declaring Anschluss; it’s all one Reich now. Jacob springs into action, scanning through his ledgers and memorizing the codes before throwing them into a blazing fire. You see, his job is to keep the riches of the Austrian royalty safe from the Nazis in numbered Swiss bank accounts. Hours later he is arrested, but not killed, by the Gestapo and locked in a hotel room. If he tells them the numbers they say they’ll let him go — they just want the money. But solitary confinement can play tricks on your brain. He stays alive by studying a chess book he smuggled into the room.

Later, he is on a ship with Anna heading to America and freedom. But he can’t resist playing chess against Mirko, an unusual world chess champion, who is illiterate and can barely form a sentence. But as reality begins to warp, he can’t help wonder if he’s on a ship or still a captive of the nazis. And where is this chess game really taking place?

Chess Story is an historical drama based on a story by Stefan Zweig, the last thing he wrote. He died during the war, in Brazil not Austria, but clearly he was damaged before he left. Everything you see in this film is filtered through Josef’s mind, so you’re never quite sure what is real and what is imaginary. Oliver Masucci who plays him is excellent, portraying a man’s descent from carefree joker to broken soul. It feels almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone episode, but with the emphasis on the characters, not on the twist. 

In the Wake (Mamorarenakatta mono tachi e)

Dir: Zeze Takahisa

Det. Tomashino (Abe Hiroshi) is a policeman in northeastern Japan. He is investigating the mysterious death of two middle-aged men, both found starved death in different locations. Is there a serial killer out there, and if so, what are his motives? Turns out they both worked out of the local welfare office. He turns to a young welfare case worker Mikiko (Kiyohara Kaya) to help him put the pieces together. This is also the site of a mammoth earthquake and tsunami,  ten years earlier. The detective remember it well, as he lost both his wife and his young son. Now he’s a loner who has yet to deal with his losses. 

Meanwhile, Tone (Satoh Takeru) a troubled young man, just out of prison for arson, gets a job in a welding factory. And he wants to get in touch with his makeshift family former after the earthquake: a little kid, and an elderly woman  named Kei (Baishô Mitsuko) who cared for the two lost orphans. But things have clearly changed. Could they have driven him… to murder?

In The Wake is a Japanese drama set immediately after an earthquake and a decade later. While it’s ostensibly a police procedural, about a detective trying to catch a killer, it’s also a surprisingly powerful and moving drama, that takes it much deeper than your usual mystery. It shifts back and forth between the two periods, as all the major characters were also survivors of the quake. And it delves into the terrible inadequacies of Japan’s  austerity cutbacks to to their already inadequate welfare state. The movie features Abe Hiroshi, a huge star from Kore-eda’s films;  Baishô Mitsuko , who was in movies by  the most famous Japanese Kurosawa and Imamura; and Satoh Takeru best known for the Rurouni Kenshin series. I was expecting something simple, and lucked into a really good movie instead.

Spiderhead is now streaming on Netflix; Chess Story is now playing digitally at TJFF, The Toronto Jewish Film Festival; and In the Wake is playing at the other TJFF, the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, on one day only, June 25th, at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

 

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