Almost human. Films reviewed: Shin Ultraman, M3GAN plus the best movies of 2022!

Posted in AI, Fantasy, Horror, Japan, Monsters, Robots, Science, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on January 7, 2023

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

Happy New Year, everybody!

As we move closer to an uncertain future, we’re finding it harder to tell the difference between a human and a robot, or human thoughts vs artificial intelligence. This week, I’m looking at two new movies about almost humans. There’s a semi-human superhero who comes from outer space, and a cute little robot doll with a very dark side.

But before that, I’m going to run through what I think were some of the best movies of 2022.

Best movies of 2022

Every year, I see hundreds of movies so it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few, for that reason only I don’t include documentaries, like Laura Poitras’s fantastic All the Beauty and the Bloodshed; nor cartoons, like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinnochio, only movies that I saw on a movie screen and reviewed last year. There are many  other good, or even great movies I saw, but here are what I think are the best movies of 2022, in alphabetical order:

All Quiet on the Western Front, Dir: Edward Berger

Armageddon Time, Dir: James Gray

Broker, Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

EO, Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

The Innocents, Dir: Eskil Vogt

Memoria, Dir: Apichatpong Weerasathakul

Nope Dir: Jordan Peele

The Northman, Dir: Robert Eggers

Tár, Dir: Todd Field

Triangle of Sadness, Dir: Ruben Östlund

The Whale, Dir: Darren Aronofsky

 

 

Shin Ultraman

Dir: Shinji Higuchi

It’s present-day Tokyo, and things are not going well. Previously unknown monsters  — or “S-Class Species” — keep appearing from nowhere and wreaking havoc across Japan. They’re drilling holes, smashing dams and sucking up electrical power like slurpees. Luckily, there’s a government body that handles cases like this. They’re the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol, or SSSP. The head guy, Tamura, gives the orders, while the scientists investigate. Strategist Kaminaga (Saitoh Takumi) is a nerdy, introvert who speaks with no inflections or emotions. He works with newcomer analyst Asami (Nagasawa Masami) his exact opposite, an assertive woman who wants Kaminaga to be her buddy. And two more members round up their team.

Fortunately, whenever the Kaiju monsters appear, a strange giant man, dressed in a silver and red suit, arrives to save the day. He is dubbed Ultraman, protecting Japan from these strange invaders. But why does Kaminaga always disappear when Ultraman arrives? And is he human, alien, or somewhere in between?

The Japanese government — and the rest of the world — takes notice. They want to find out where Ultraman comes from and what his secret powers are. Things get more complicated when a benevolent-seeming alien arrives on earth, saying he will handle international relations from now on. But no one realizes his real aim — to take over and kill all the homo sapiens on the planet… unless Ultraman and the SSSP stop him first.

Shin Ultraman is a purist reboot of the classic Japanese 1960s TV show. I remember seeing reruns as a kid, and really liking it. This new version is a re-creation set in present-day Japan, but with nothing particularly contemporary or different from the original. It does include some political content — government politicians and bureaucrats who repeatedly make the wrong decisions — and the other characters are modernized.  Watching this movie — which I enjoyed! — it seemed identical to what I remembered, until I re-watched bits of the original, and was shocked at how bad and campy the special effects had been. Here the CGI and costumes are much, much better. But it preserves the sombre and earnest tone that geeky, sci-fi devotees demand. If you’re a fan of Ultraman, or of Japanese kaiju movies in general, you won’t be disappointed — this is the real thing.

M3gan

Dir:  Gerard Johnstone

Gemma (Allison Williams) is an inventor who, as part of a team, develops toys at a conglomerate called “Funki”. Their last big success was a Furby knock-off, but it’s losing market share, so they need a new hit. All their hopes lie on a project she’s been secretly working on for a long time, but it’s not quite ready yet. It’s code-named M3gan — Model 3 Generative Android — and is a robot in the form of a smart and pretty little girl. With a titanium core and sophisticated AI memory, she can talk, walk and act like a real human. 

More than that, Megan’s artificial intelligence lets her learn and change as she grows up. By bonding with her primary owner, she’s not just a toy, she’s a friend for any little girl. But she wouldn’t come cheap — she’s priced more like a car than a toy. Gemma’s boss is pushing her to finish Megan’s prototype, ASAP, to attract new investors, when, suddenly, disaster strikes. In a freak accident, her sister and brother-in-law are killed by a snowplow on a ski trip, leaving their 10-year-old daughter — Gemma’s niece — an orphan.  Cady (Violet McGraw) needs someone to turn to in her hour of grief, and Gemma, as her closest living relative, is appointed her guardian. But she knows nothing about parenting;  she lives alone and devotes all her time to her career.

So, to kill two birds with one stone, she brings M3gan home to take care of Cady, even while she works on the toy’s programming in time for the big launch. She observes them interacting through a one-way mirror in a glassed-in playroom at the company. Megan has only one overriding rule: to protect Cady from any danger, both physical and emotional. Cady loves M3gan, who is very protective of her best friend. But when she allows them outside of the lab, things turn dark. And when the dead bodies start piling up, Gemma realizes something is terribly wrong with her design. Can she fix Gemma before she goes rogue? Or is it too late?

M3gan is a thriller-horror take on the classic story — dating back to Frankenstein — about the bad things that can come out of a benevolent scientist’s experiment. It’s also about bad grown-ups and evil kids — in addition to M3gan — facing their comeuppance. For a movie that doesn’t ever take itself top seriously,  it succeeds in being both kinda scary and funny. It has lots of kitschy, fake toy ads, and your usual stock characters, like grumpy boss, noisy neighbour, spoiled kids. Beware: there is a fair amount of violence, including a disturbing scene where a boy assaults M3gan thinking she’s a doll, so definitely not suitable for everyone, but I liked it. Allison Williams is excellent as Gemma, and Megan (composed of actor Amie Donald, the voice of Jenna Davis and lots of CGI) is a doll villain that’s weird enough that I think we’ll be seeing lots more of her.

M3gan opens this weekend; check your local listings. And you can see Shin Ultraman on January 11th and 12th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

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

On the media. Films reviewed: A Wounded Fawn, Spoiler Alert, Empire of Light

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Death, Depression, Disease, Feminism, Gay, Greece, Horror, Mental Illness, Movies, Racism, Revenge, Romance, Theatre, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 10, 2022

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

It’s December, but not everything is about Christmas. This week I’m looking at three new movies with themes set in the arts: there’s a woman who works at a cinema but never watches movies; a serial killer who finds himself part of an ancient greek play, and a writer for TV Guide who thinks his life is like a sitcom.

A Wounded Fawn

Co-Wri/Dir:Travis Stevens

It’s a fine art auction in NY City, and the collectors and dealers are in fighting mode tonight. The prized item is a small bronze sculpture from ancient Greece showing the Furies seeking revenge on a prone man. Kate (Malin Barr) gets the high bid and returns home triumphant with the piece  in hand. So she’s surprised to see Bruce (Josh Ruben) a rival bidder, show up at her door. His boss still covets the statue and is willing pay double. Doubling her money in 24 hours seems like a good deal. She invites him in for a glass of champagne. But before long, she is dead on the floor in a pool of blood, and the sculpture — and Bruce — are long gone.

Later, Meredith, another beautiful young woman (Sarah Lind) is excited over an upcoming weekend in the country with her latest paramour. Her last boyfriend was abusive, but her new one seems nice, generous and attractive.  And he’s into fine art just like Mer (she works in a museum).They set off for a fun filled adventure at his isolated cottage in the woods. She is thrilled to see the cabin is actually a finished home overlooking a dense forest, and decorated with modern art. But something is strange: she hears a woman’s voice in her ear warning her to leave. And she recognizes the Greek sculpture of the Furies on his coffee table — she authenticated it for an auction just a few weeks ago. (It’s just a copy, says Bruce) What she doesn’t know is that Bruce is a serial killer… and she might be his next victim. (Bruce is waiting for directions from a gigantic man-owl with blood red feathers who tells him who he should kill). Can Mer fight him off? And where do those strange voices come from? 

A Wounded Fawn is a low budget, exquisitely-crafted art-house thriller horror. What starts as a simple slasher, soon turns into a revenge pic about halfway through, where Meredith, Kate and a third victim return as the Furies to visit punishment upon Bruce. What’s really remarkable is how it incorporates greco-roman aesthetics, mythology and theatre into what could have been a simple scary horror movie, to turn it into something totally original. While it’s not always clear whether something happens for real, or just inside Bruce’s damaged brain, it doesn’t matter.  A Wounded Fawn is weird and fascinating, either way.

Spoiler Alert

Dir: Michael Showalter

It’s the 1990s. Michael Ausiello (Jim Parsons) is a nerdy gay guy who lives in NJ but works in Manhattan. He grew up obsessed by TV, living his life as if he were a character on an 80s sitcom. Now he’s a writer for TV Guide, where he devotes himself to work and remains perpetually single. Until he meets Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge) at a dance club — he’s handsome, fit and popular and says Michael is just his type —a tall geek. Kit’s also in the media — he’s a professional photographer. They hit it off, but keep certain secrets to themselves. Kit lives a free-wheeling sex life — he’s not one to settle down. And Michael never came out to his small-town parents (Sally Field and Bill Irwin); he’s afraid they won’t accept him. And he’s afraid to show Kit his apartment. What is he hiding there? His Smurf collection; a veritable fuzzy blue tsunami filling every nook and cranny. But after settling their deferences, they eventually move in together. Most of the Smurfs are packed away, Michael comes out to his parents (they still love him) and they settle into domestic bliss. 

Flash forward 15 years, and their relationship is on the rocks; the spark has died and they’ve grown a bit distant toward each other. But everything changes when — spoiler alert! — Kit discovers he has terminal cancer. Can they handle his imminent death? Will their love be rekindled? And how will they spend what might be their last year together? 

Spoiler Alert is a touching dramady about love and loss, based on a true story — Michael Ausiello’s own memoir of his life with Kit. Like the book, the movie begins with the death of Kit in Michael’s arms, hence “spoiler alert”. The director Michael Showalter, previously made The Big Sick, also about a couple and their family facing a serious illness. So is this the gay Big Sick? Not exactly — it’s a new story with a different style, like his version of Michael’s childhood as a sitcom, complete with laugh-track. And there are lots of funny parts. The bigger question is, is Jim Parsons up to playing a dramatic role, or is he forever stuck in peoples’ minds as Sheldon on the Big Bang? In this case, I think he pulls it off. He fits the role and manages to make him quirkily sympathetic. So if you’re into terminal illness comedies, here’s a good one to try on for size. 

Empire of Light

Wri/Dir: Sam Mendes

Its the winter of 1981 in a sea-side city in southern England. Hilary (Olivia Coleman) is a middle-aged woman who works at the Empire Theatre as the front of house manager. It’s an art-deco movie palace, but like the town, it’s long past its prime. Half the screens are closed and the third floor ballroom has been taken over by pigeons. Hilary is lonely and depressed, on meds, recovering from a hospital stay. Her social life consists of ballroom dancing with old men, and her sex life is furtive encounters with her sleazy, married boss (Colin Firth) in his darkened office.

But her life changes when a young man, Stephen (Michael Ward) is hired to work there. She finds him attractive, ambitious (he wants to study architecture at university)` and compassionate: he nurses a wounded pigeon back to health. He’s mom’s a nurse, from the Windrush generation, but he wants more. Hillary may be his mom’s age but there’s something there. After a few intimate moments they start a clandestine relationship. But Michael’s real ambition is to leave this town — to escape increasingly racist street violence (he’s black), and to become more than just an usher.  Can their relationship last? And if they break up, can the fragile Hilary handle it?

Empire of Light is a romantic time capsule of life in Thatcher’s England. It’s also about the joy and troubles of an intergenerational, mixed-race love affair.  And it’s also about sexual harassment and anti-black racism in everyday life. And it’s also about Hillary’s mental illness, including her sudden, manic episodes. And it’s also about the rise of skinheads and the National Front, and the concurrent anti-racist ska revival.  And it’s also about the collective friendship that develops among the people working at the Empire theatre. (Maybe too many ands for one movie?)

Like many of Sam Mendes films (which I generally don’t like), it’s pandering and emotionally manipulative and has a  meandering storyline, that keeps you watching while it’s on, but leaves you feeling vaguely unsatisfied afterwards. But the acting is really good, especially Olivia Coleman and Michael Ward, who rise above the movie’s many flaws. Maybe even good enough to make Empire of Light worth a watch, despite all its problems.  

Empire of Light and Spoiler Alert both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And A Wounded Fawn is now streaming on Shudder. 

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

Unexpected adversaries. Films reviewed: White Noise, Violent Night, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Posted in 1980s, Addiction, Art, Christmas, comedy, Conspiracy Theory, Crime, documentary, drugs, Family, Horror, Mental Illness by CulturalMining.com on December 3, 2022

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

It’s December now with snow on the ground, time for movies to get your blood boiling. This week I’m looking at three new movies about unexpected adversaries: there’s an artist vs a philanthropist, Scrooge vs Santa… and Elvis vs Hitler?

White Noise

Wri/Dir: Noah Baumbach,

It’s the 80s in a small rustbelt college town.  Jack (Adam Driver) is a professor in the new field of Hitler studies. Along with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) they raise their children, from babies to teens, in a modern, blended family. The kids Denise, Heinrich, Steffie and Wilder, are inquisitive  and precocious, and come from various marriages. At work, Jack lectures to worshipful students, and has intellectual discussions with his colleagues. His closest is Murray (Don Cheadle), a prof who specializes in cinematic car crashes, wants to raise Elvis studies to the level of Hitler studies. 

But there is trouble at home. Babette is obsessed with death and dying, and suffers from memory loss and unexplained absences. Denise suspects she’s on prescription drugs — she found a hidden bottle of Dylar, an unheard of medicine.  Meanwhile Jack is terrorized by nightmares and at times actually thinks he’s going to die. All these troubles are pushed aside when a real disaster happens: a truck crashes into a train carrying dangerous chemicals. The result? A toxic cloud floating above the area with unknown effects. The town is evacuated, the family forced to flee by station wagon to Camp Daffodil a weirdly-named military base. Rumours abound at the camp, and no one knows for sure what is happening. Can life return to normal? Will the toxic cloud blow away? Is Babette an addict? Will Jack’s academic secrets be revealed? And where does Dylar come from?

White Noise is a satirical look at dread, suspicion and alienation within an academic setting. It also looks at pop culture, art and the omnipresent consumer economy. I read Don Delillo’s novel when it first came out and I was captivated by the way it captured the dark mood at the time. Noah Baumbach takes a different path, treating the film as a comical period piece where people dress in funny 80s clothes and use obsolete technology. It looks for laughs in scenes like Jack getting tangled up in a kitchen phone cord. I have mixed feelings about this movie. Some parts just seem like running gags about those wacky 80s, turning serious scenes into absurdist jokes. Other parts are brilliant — like the pas-de-deux between Jack and Murray in a joint Hitler-Elvis lecture. Or an actual dance sequence down the aisles of a supermarket in the closing credits. And a cameo by the great Barbara Sukowa as a German nun in a hospital, should not be missed. While I couldn’t get emotionally into the characters or plot — Driver and Gerwig are both good actors but never seem real in this movie — and I felt detached from the film, I did find it interesting and visually pleasing. 

Violent Night

Dir: Tommy Wirkola

It’s Christmas Eve, and the Lightstone family are  gathered on their vast, private estate. Gertrude (Beverley D’Angelo) their autocratic matriarch, puts on an elaborate dinner each year with servants dressed as Nutcracker Suite characters. Her adult two adult children Cam and Alva, their spouses, and the grandkids Gertrude and Bertrude, (known as Trudy and Bert)outdo one another sucking up to her, to get their share of the family’s wealth. Everyone, that is, except little Trudy (Leah Brady), who doesn’t want any money or presents from Santa. She just wants her estranged parents back together again. 

This year, though, something goes terribly wrong: the costumed caterers turn out to be highly-trained paramilitary criminals, there to murder everyone and steal millions from the safe. They’re headed by a bitter man, nicknamed Scrooge (John Leguizamo) who hates Christmas. Little Trudy escapes from the family, hides in the attic, and calls to Santa Claus by walkie-talkie for help. And, to everyone’s shock, a drunken, bearded man in Christmas gear (David Harbour) comes to their rescue. He’s the real thing, but only Trudy believes in him. Can Santa and Trudy fight off dozens of ruthless killers? Can her parents overcome their differences? And can a worn-out, depressed and alcoholic Santa hang on for one more year… or is this the end of Christmas for everyone?

Violent Night is a comedy/action movie about a good little girl and a hard-ass Santa fighting cruel killers using horrific violence of their own. It’s a combination of two Christmas classics: Home Alone and Die Hard, but with the gore-level pumped up a few notches. Trudy’s booby traps turn out to be deadly, while Santa channels his past life as a Viking to wreak havoc with a hammer named Skullcrusher. Does this movie work? Totally! David Barbour (from Stranger Things) is great as a nasty Santa who pukes and pisses off his sleigh. He takes a licking but keeps on kicking. Newcomer Leah Brady as Trudy is cute — maybe too cute — but good enough. And most of the rest of the characters are sufficiently unlikeable to keep the story going. So if you’re looking for a fun and twisted action movie in time for Christmas, Violent Night fits the bill. 

All the Beauty and The Bloodshed

Dir: Laura Poitras

Nan Goldin is an artist known for her photographic portraits of the demimonde, with louche images of drugs, sex, and self-destruction. She rose to fame in the 1980s with her ever-changing performances of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, which combined music and a slide show of her pictures. But far from being a dispassionate observer of the lives of strangers or, worse, an ogler of outcastes, Goldin explicitly documented the lives of her closest friends and herself, including drag queens, junkies, artists and musicians, in various stages of undress. This was also the era of AIDS, which decimated the NY City art scene. Goldin recorded this, too. It was also the start of Act Up and other movements demanding attention from the government and Big Pharma.

Flash forward to the 2000s, when pharmaceutical corporations, through doctors, were strongly pushing prescriptions of opiates as non-addictive relief from the worst levels of pain. In fact they’re highly addictive, and one addict was Goldin herself. Though she kicked the habit, many were still dying from overdoses of opioids. And she noticed something strange. A major sponsor of the galleries and museums that displayed her work were sponsored by noted philanthropists The Sackler Family. And the Sacklers made their fortune through Purdue Corporation, peddling drugs like Oxycontin.  We’re talking the Louvre, the Met, Tate Modern, and the Guggenheim, among others. So she started a protest group called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) which stages protests in the Sackler wings of museums world-wide.

All the Beauty and The Bloodshed is a fantastic documentary that records Goldin’s life and art, and her battle with the Sacklers. It’s engrossing and revealing, a work of art in its own right. The film includes contemporary footage as well as snapshots and films from Nan Goldin’s own personal history. She’s the cinematographer while the director is Laura Poitras, responsible for the world-changing doc Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a rare case of a political documentary that is also respectful of art. It’s visually and audibly stunning and though almost two hours long, it’s totally engrossing; one of the best documentaries of the year.

White Noise is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto; All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, is playing there and at Hot Docs cinema; while Violent Night opens this weekend across North America; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Daniel Stamm and Jacqueline Byers about Prey for the Devil

Posted in Bulgaria, Catholicism, Christianity, Horror, Nun, Supernatural, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 22, 2022

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

Sister Ann is a nun who works as a nurse in a Catholic hospital. It’s a training hospital, with classes held with in its walls. There are doctors and psychiatrists there to observe and treat the patients. But there is something unique about this medical centre: the patients are possessed and treatment involves an exorcism. Ann believes she has special experience dealing with possession dating back to her childhood. And she wants to train alongside the priests — but that is not allowed. And when she attempts to help a little girl named Natalie, she is chastised by the church for putting herself and the patient in danger. Can she help cure little Natalie? Or will she end up as Prey for the Devil.

Prey for the Devil is a new horror film about possession, exorcism, the supernatural and the Catholic Church. It harkens back to classic films like the Exorcist, but this time from a woman’s point of view. The film is directed by Daniel Stamm, an award-winning German-born filmmaker and documentarian. The film stars Jacqueline Byers an accomplished actress who you may have seen at the Toronto Fringe festival, in movies and in the hit sci-fi series Salvation.

I spoke to Daniel Stamm and Jacqueline Byers in person, on site, in Toronto.

Prey for the Devil had its world premiere at Toronto After Dark on March 19th, and opens in theatres on March 28th. 

Women in trouble. Films reviewed: Halloween Ends, Tár

Posted in Berlin, Drama, Horror, LGBT, Music, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 15, 2022

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

Toronto Fall Film Fest season continues with ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival from the 18th to the 23rd for in-person movies, with online screenings continuing till the end of the month. ImagineNative, celebrating indigenous works from Canada and around the world, features 19 full-length films and over a hundred shorts.

And there are some real goodies to watch; here are four I really like: Slash/Back is about a group of teenaged girls who fight back against mysterious zombie aliens in Nunavut. We Are Still Here tells eight stories from Australia and Aotearoa; Rosie, set in Montreal in the 1980s, looks at a 6-year-old indigenous girl adopted by an aunt she’s never met; and Bones of Crows is an epic, 100-year-long drama about the life of a Cree woman who barely survives a residential school as a piano prodigy, later becomes a code operator in WWII, and what happens in the years to follow. Bones of Crows, Rosie, We Are Still Here, and Slash/Back or just four of the many fantastic films, videos, games and art at ImagineNative.

This week, I’m looking at two new movies about women in trouble. There’s a Berlin conductor facing increasing setbacks, and a small-town woman in Illinois facing a serial killer… and decides to fight back.

Halloween Ends

Co-Wri/Dir: David Gordon Green 

It’s Halloween night in a small town in Illinois. Haddonfield is famous for all the wrong reasons: it’s the site of repeated attacks by a demented and violent serial killer. He has terrorized the locals for half a century, wearing a white mask and carrying a long blade. But Michael Myers has disappeared, possibly forever, and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) — who survived his first incarnation as a young babysitter, and has fought him off countless times since then — is glad to see him gone. Now she lives with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) who works as a nurse at a local medical centre. With her parents (Laurie’s daughter) gone (both killed by Michael Myers, along with dozens of others) Alyson sticks around to keep her grandma company. Laurie spends her time writing a book about the essence of pure evil, based on her own experiences fighting the monster. And she also wants to stop this malaise from infecting the whole town. 

But there’s a new factor in the equation. Former college student Corey Cunningham (Canadian actor Rohan Campbell) also experienced bad times as a babysitter in this benighted town. But unlike Laurie and Allyson who emerged as fighters and survivors, Corey has a different reputation. The kid he babysat was killed one halloween night in a terrible accident that locals blame on him. Now his life is confined to working in his dad’s junkyard on the edge of town. But Laurie recognizes him as a kindred spirit and introduces herself to Corey. (Dubbed Psycho meets Freakshow by a gang of high school bullies.) Allyson and Corey hit it off — could they build a future together? But when the bullies throw Corey off a bridge and leave him for dead, and an unknown man drags him into a drain pipe, something changes in his psyche… signalling the return of the notorious Michael Myers. Can Corey be saved and will he and Laurie escape this town forever? Or has he been infected by the same evil that drives the monster? And who will triumph in their final showdown: Laurie or Michael Myers?

Halloween Ends is the final chapter in David Gordon Green’s trilogy, after Halloween, and Halloween Kills, based on John Carpenter’s original classic. This one is missing much of the humour of the first chapter and the unbelievable hysteria of crowds in the second film. This one is extremely dark, violent, bloody and gory. That said, I liked the introduction of Corey and his nihilistic, crash-and-burn relationship with Allyson. Myers plays a much smaller role, almost a cameo, this time. It also lets Jamie Lee Curtis have her final, final, FINAL Halloween showdown… well, at least in this trilogy. 

The entire film takes place in the present, but is firmly set in a retro environment: cars, houses, clothing, hair — even the soundtrack, titles, art direction, and camerawork — all come from decades past, giving it a very cool look. If you’re craving a dystopian, nihilistic “burn-it-all-down!” thriller/horror then Halloween Ends will probably satisfy your urges, but otherwise, you may find the pessimistic violence and gore too much to handle.

Tár

Wri/Dir: Todd Field

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a musician at the peak of her career. Not only is she one of the world’s only female conductors — Leonard Bernstein was her mentor — but she’s also a noted composer. She conducts the Berlin symphony orchestra, and is working on her magnum opus — a recording of Mahler’s fifth symphony, the only one she hasn’t yet tackled — to complete her legacy. Lydia enjoys jetting around the world in a private plane, always accompanied by her assistant. Francesca (Noémie Merlant) is a doe- eyed young woman who worships the ground Lydia walks on, making sure her complex life is run smoothly. There is no husband in the picture — she calls herself a U-Haul lesbian — but she does have a family life. In Berlin,  she lives with her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their young daughter. She sees Sharon at home and at work — she’s First Violin, who holds a special bond with a conductor without which a symphony can’t operate. 

But things start to go wrong when Lydia becomes infatuated with a new cellist in the orchestra. Olga (Sophie Kauer) is a 25-year-old Russian with a fiery temperament and dark hair; she’s a passionate player. She wears green suede boots and Lydia can’t stop staring at her. She wants to get to know her better. But Lydia is a conductor with all eyes on her, all the time; Francesca, Sharon, and even the entire orchestra can clearly see what’s going on. Ghosts from her past misdeeds start to appear again. A former protege commits suicide. A music student she insulted at a Julliard master class accuses her of racism. Is Lydia’s carefully-constructed image and career just a house of cards waiting to collapse?

Tár is a stunning movie that explore the labyrinthine world of classical music and the people who inhabit it. Cate Blanchett gives a nuanced portrayal of a character that walks the fine line between confidence and arrogance, creativity and uncontrolled behaviour.

Is she a free thinker or a sexual predator? A natural-born leader or an authoritarian dictator? And would she be in hot water if she were a man? The supporting actors — Merlant, Hoss, and Kauer, as well as Mark Strong and Zethphan Smith-Gneist — all portray characters as deeply developed as Blanchett’s. Tár is an uncomfortable movie but a fascinating one to watch. 

TAR and Halloween Ends both open in theatres this weekend; check your local listings.

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

Smiles and frowns. Films reviewed: Smile, Triangle of Sadness

Posted in Class, Horror, Mental Illness, Psychiatry, Psychological Thriller, Psychology, Supernatural, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on October 8, 2022

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

Weather changes with the seasons and so do our moods: one minute it may be sunny, the next dark and overcast. So this week I’m looking at two new movies about changing emotions. There’s a comedy about a frown and a horror movie about a smile.

Smile

Wri/Dir: Parker Finn

Dr Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a therapist who works in the emergency psych ward at a large New Jersey hospital. She’s always prim and proper, wearing buttoned shirts, with her hair neatly pulled back from her face. She spends most of her time at work, up to 80 hours a week, but on her free time she likes nothing better than sipping white wine in her bungalow, cuddling her fluffy cat Moustache or just chatting with Trevor, her nondescript fiancé. She is devoted to helping her patients, having survived her own mother’s mental illness and suicide when she was a little girl.

It’s just a normal day when she examines a new patient in intake. Laura is a grad student showing signs of paranoid delusions. She is terrified that someone is out to get her. “I’m not crazy, I’m a PhD candidate!” says Laura (as if the two were mutually exclusive).  She’s not sure whether it’s an evil spirit, a ghost or a satanic possession, but whatever it is, it’s been haunting her since she witnessed her prof commit suicide just a few days earlier. It takes the form of people closest to her, that only she can see. And worst of all, it has a horrible smile. And before Rose can do anything, Laura violently kills herself right in front of her… with that awful smile plastered on her face. And from that moment on things feel different for Rose. 

Her nightmares turn into daydreams. She begins to hallucinate — with figures from her past, including a dead patient, reappear before her, smiling. She has very few people to talk to outside of the hospital: Trevor, and her older sister Holly, who only talks about family and real estate. She visits her own former therapist, who refuses to prescribe anti-psychotics, saying it’s just stress and overwork. But Rose knows it’s something more. Everything that happened to Laura — and her professor before her — seems to be inflicted on Rose now. She finally turns to her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner) for help. He’s a police detective now, investigating Laura’s death; perhaps he can find out what’s causing these suicides. Because Rose is sure she’s either going insane, or is controlled by an evil entity… or both! And if she doesn’t do something fast, she’ll be dead in three days. Can Rose figure out what’s happening to her, and stop her impending, smiling suicide? Or is she out of time?

Smile is a good psychological thriller/horror. While it’s occasionally predictable — with some dubiously freudian plot turns — it’s mainly a gripping, scary flick. Great spooky music and some cool visuals, like disorienting, upside down drone shots of a cityscape, and a delightful scene change using the camera’s iris. And lots of cute, smiley-face images popping up everywhere in the background. I’ve never seen Sosie Bacon before, (she’s second generation Hollywood, the daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) but she’s quite good as Rose, gradually transforming from uptight doctor to terrified heroine. 

If you’re in the mood for a good screamer, check out Smile. 

Triangle of Sadness

Wri/Dir: Ruben Östlund

Yaya and Carl (Charlbi Dean, Harris Dickinson) are a millennial power couple. Carl is a fashion model who is featured shirtless in perfume and underwear ads. He is known for his looks. But he still has to show up for cattle-calls. Yaya, though, is an influencer — her posts and selfies are followed by millions, and sponsors are constantly sending her money and goods to promote. But their unequal status spurs an argument. Why does he have to pick up the cheque when they go out to dinner? He’s the man in the relationship but Yaya is much more famous and earns way more money than Carl. It’s just not fair. So she invites him to join her on an elite cruise ship, all expenses paid.

The boat is an exclusive luxury liner, and the passengers are some of the richest people in the world. One couple made billions selling bombs and landmines. Another oligarch, named Dimitri (Zlatko Buric) proudly says he earned his fortune selling shit — literally. He cornered the market in fertilizer. And the staff are trained by Paula, the head of the crew (Vicki Berlin), to fulfill any whims or demands of the passengers no matter how outlandish or nonsensical. And Carl and Yaya soon find out that any casual complaint or criticism of a staff member they might make may lead to their instant dismissal. But the ship hits trouble on the high seas, and the captain (Woody Harrelson), an alcoholic communist, can’t stay sober long enough to prevent a disaster. 

Later, the passengers and staff regroup on a tropical isle, situated somewhere between Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies. But with a new power structure in place, who will make it out of there alive?

Triangle of Sadness — the title refers to that part of the face from the brow to the bridge of the nose that supposedly conveys happy or sad emotions — is a scathing satire about the state of the world. Told in three chapters — in the city, on a ship, and on a remote island — it follows a young couple as they navigate life among the powerful and super-rich. It also shows what could happen if existing power structures (and the money that reinforces them) ceased to exist. Did I mention this is a comedy? I found it bitingly and bitterly hilarious, though at times disgusting. For humour’s sake, it reverses many presumptions: by presenting men — not women — as sexual objects subject to exploitation; and by pulling away the curtains hiding  the transgressions of the rich and powerful.

The acting in this dark comedy — especially by the late Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson, as well as Zlatko Buric and Dolly De Leon as Abigail a former toilet cleaner who suddenly finds herself as the big fish in a small pond — is excellent all around. The story is told as a comic fable, intentionally never realistic, with settings, costumes, and music, all reinforcing its farcical nature. This is not Swedish director Ruben Östlund first dark comedy — he previously directed such great movies as The Square and Force Majeure — but Triangle of Sadness is the most extreme of all his films, one that takes his themes beyond the expected limits. Though not universally loved, in my opinion this is one great movie.

Smile is now playing and Triangle of Sadness, which played at #TIFF22 earlier this year, opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this weekend.

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

Family matters. Films reviewed: I Love My Dad, Easter Sunday, The Innocents

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Family, Horror, Kids, L.A., Norway, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on August 6, 2022

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

There’s lots to see in Toronto this week, but here’s a few films you might not know about. The 15th edition of The8Fest small-gauge film festival, showing super 8s, loops, zoetropes and their kin, is on till August 11th. It’s National Indigenous Peoples’ month and the NFB has posted over 200 indigenous-made films on their website.  There’s  a new collection of short docs on CBC Gem, called Mi’kma’ki, showing the indigenous experience in Newfoundland and Labrador, beginning August 19th. And the Japan Foundation Toronto is screening the film Ainu: Indigenous People of Japan for free online, on August 9-11th.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about families.  There’s a divorced dad who drives his estranged son to meet a non-existent girlfriend; another divorced dad who drives his estranged son to attend a wacky family reunion; and four little kids who discover they have secret powers.

I Love My Dad

Wri/Dir: James Morosini

Chuck (Patton Oswalt) is a bad dad. Franklin (James Morosini), his son grew up with constant disappointments and false promises.  Later, Chuck  missed his high school graduation and crucial birthdays. Worst of all, when Franklin contemplated suicide and needed someone to talk to, Chuck was just too busy. Now divorced, Chuck lives in another state, his only contact through social networks. Franklin, now an adult in his twenties, having just finished his psychological recovery from self harm and depression, as a final gesture, he blocks his father from his site. Chuck is shocked — his own son severs all ties. What can Chuck do to solve this problem? Send an apology? Explain his pathological lies?

No!

Ever the grifter, he takes the easy way out by joining Franklin’s Facebook page, not as himself, but as Becca (Claudia Sulewski) a friendly young waitress at his local diner. He uses her photos he steals online, and changes her last name. Franklin, who is lonely and depressed, enters a long-distant relationship with Becca, confessing his problems and professing his love via texts. And as things heat up and he decides to meet her in person, Chuck volunteers to drive his son there (Frank can’t drive), in hope of some father/son bonding.  But how long will this catfish scheme last? What will happen if Franklin finds out the truth? And can Chuck ever change?

I Love My Dad is a dark, indie comedy about fathers and sons, depression and deception as told by way of texting. It’s written and directed by Morosini who also plays the son. And in an interesting sleight of hand, he alternates the focus between him and his dad, because reading texts on a movie screen is boring. Instead, Chucks texts turn into face-to-face conversations — and eventually sex — between Franklin and the imaginary Becca. You see them together on the screen, while Chuck is lurking somewhere else thumbing away on his cel, which reaches its extreme in a motel room. This is a deeply uncomfortable comedy that makes you squirm as you watch this untenable situation heading for disaster, but you still want to know what’s going to happen next.  I Love my Dad is a pretty good movie, both funny and clever, but hard to watch.

Easter Sunday

Dir: Jay Chandrasekhar

It’s springtime in LA. Joe Valencia (Jo Koy) is a successful stand-up comic waiting for his big break. So far he’s most famous for a beer commercial he did. He’s divorced but still cares about his son, Junior (Brandon Wardell), a high school student and camera buff. But Joe never seems to have enough time to spend with him. Like missing an important school meeting to attend an audition for a leading role in a sitcom pilot. The reading goes great, except they want him to put on a funny Filipino accent… which he refuses to do. He needs to clear this up with his agent But it’s also Easter weekend, time to get together with his extended family. So to mend relations with his alienated son, he offers to drive Junior up north to Daly City, outside San Francisco. There they encounter all their wacky relatives, the people Joe grew up with. There are eccentric uncles, ne’erdowel cousins, and feuding aunties. They go to a picnic in the park, and services at church, all culminating at his Mom’s (Lydia Gaston) Sunday dinner. But before that can happen, he has to help his cousin Eugene return a wad of cash he borrowed from a petty gangster… or heads will roll. Can Joe handle his family, clear things up with his agent and pay back the thug? Or has everything gone to hell?

Easter Sunday is a warm and fuzzy family comedy similar to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but with Filipino-appropriate jokes… the first such American movie I’ve ever seen. There are cameo appearances by Lou Diamond Phillips, Tiffany Haddish, and Jimmy O Yang, and there’s also a car chase, a fistfight, a teenaged romance and a song or two to perk things up. But it doesn’t really work. The problem is Joe isn’t very funny, and as the main character, he pulls down the whole movie. The side characters are great — especially Tia Carrera and Lydia Gaston; they are hilarious as the feuding sisters, both, ironically, with the same put-on accents Joe is complaining about. But you know what? I saw it in a theatre with a largely Filipino audience and they seemed to laugh way more than I did, so maybe I just didn’t get a lot of the jokes.

The Innocents

Wri/Dir: Eskil Vogt

Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) are sisters. Their family recently moved to a new home, an apartment building in a woodsy part of Norway. Ida is around 5, with blond pigtails and a mean streak. She steps on worms to see what will happens and pinches her big sister Anna, who never seems to react; Anna has ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and can’t speak. She meets an older boy Ben (Sam Ashraf) at the playground who amazes Ida with what he can do, He can make small objects fly away just by using his mind! But he has a dark side, too.

Anna meets a friend of her own. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Ashei) is a kind and gentle girl, with vitiligo, white patches on her skin. She also has special powers. She can read minds and have silent conversations, even with Anna. To test this out, Ida whispers a word into Anna’s ear, and Aisha repeats it from the bottom of a hill. It’s not just the new friends who are special — Ida and Anna are too. And the more they use their powers the stronger they get. Soon Anna can actually speak with Aisha’s help. But as Aisha get’s nicer, Ben gets meaner, starting with experiments on stray cats, and leading to ever-more-terrible deeds. As the kids choose sides, a big battle looms. 

The Innocents is a stunning dramatic horror  about the supernatural and the cruelty of some children, existing alongside the adult world. The acting is terrific and special effects are kept to a minimum. I saw this movie with zero advanced knowledge and it turned out to be quite powerful. Afterwards I discovered the director, Eskil Vogt, has long worked with one of my favourite Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Trier, co-writing all his screenplays, including Thelma, Oslo, August 31st, and others. The Innocents is no run-of-the-mill horror hack-job; it’s an excellent — and quite disturbing — movie.

You can catch I Love My Dad in Toronto at the Tiff Bell Lightbox; The Innocents is streaming on Shudder; and Easter Sunday is opening across North America; check your local listings.

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

Filming the Impossible. Movies reviewed: Fire of Love, Come Back Anytime, Nope

Posted in 1970s, Cooking, documentary, Food, France, Horror, Japan, Romance, Science by CulturalMining.com on July 23, 2022

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

You know how I’m always talking about big-screen movies, how they show you things that you don’t get on a TV, device or phone? Well, movies don’t just walk to your cinemas, they take a hell of a lot of work to get there. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to get them on the screen. 

So this week I’m looking at three beautiful movies, two of which are about filming the impossible. There’s a ramen chef who reveals his secret recipes; brother-and-sister ranchers who try to take pictures of a UFO; and husband-and-wife scientists who try to film volcanos, up close, as they erupt.

Fire of Love

Dir: Sara Dosa

It’s the early 1960s in France. Katia and Maurice Krafft meet at a scientific conference, and never part. Katia is a petite geochemist with a pixie haircut, while Maurice is a geologist, twice her size, with a face like John C Reilly. The two are so fascinated by volcanoes. That they call themselves Volcanologists. They go to anti-war protests and eventually marry, honeymooning on Santorini island in Greece (an active volcano, naturally). They form a team of two, investigating and recording on film, volcanoes around the world. Dressed in metallic space suits, they measure everything from the arcs that volcanic bombs (large chunks of molten lava) take as they are expelled into the air, to the degree if acid in water pools nearby. And most of all, the volcanoes themselves. Each volcano has a unique personality and should be approached in a different way. But they make one distinction. Red volcanoes are safe if you take precautions. They’re caused by tectonic plates pulling apart, exposing the magma beneath. Molten lava spills out and flows in a clear path, and can be filmed from a relatively close distance. Grey volcanoes, though, are caused by tectonic plates crashing into each other, expel ash into the sky. When they explode, they can be more powerful than an atom bomb, leading to landslides and widespread death and destruction. The power of the earth, the Kraffts say, dwarfs anything mankind can attempt. But they photograph and film it all, providing much of the images of volcanoes the world sees. The Kraffts died in 1991 while following their passion at the eruption of Mt Unzen, a grey volcano in Japan. Their bodies were never found.

Fire of Love is a stunningly beautiful documentary about Katia and Maurice in their search for active volcanoes around the earth. It is illustrated by their own extensive footage, including surprising and breathtaking images from Iceland to Zaire to Krakatau, Indonesia. They went where no one else dared. Wistfully narrated by Miranda July, the film also looks at their long-lasting love affair, devoted to each other and volcanoes. Beautifully illustrated by animated drawings it delves into their private thoughts including Maurice’s fantasy of rowing a canoe down a river of molten lava as it spills into the open sea. You’re probably familiar with the volcanoes in movies and TV shows, but this doc takes you right into the middle of them, like nothing you’ve seen before. Spectacular. 

Come Back Anytime (また いらっしゃい)

Dir: John Daschbach

Over the past decade, ramen has become popular worldwide with dozens of restaurants opening everywhere. It’s considered a classic Japanese dish, but in Japan it’s thought of as Chinese food. Ramen first gained popularity in Yokohama’s Chinatown. It consists of noodles in a hearty broth made of pork or chicken bones — typically flavoured with salt, miso, or soy sauce — and topped with roast pork and vegetables. 

After WWII, it became wildly popular in Japan, with ramen stalls opening on every street corner. This documentary follows Ueda, the chef, along with his wife, of a particular ramen shop. It shows us, season by season, one year of its existence, including a behind the scenes look at what goes into that bowl of ramen you’re probably craving right now. (My mouth started watering about five minutes into the film.)

Come Back Anytime is a very low-key, realistic look at a ramen shop — not one that’s famous or prize-winning, not a chain or a corporation, not one that uses fancy or unique flavours like dried sardines — just an ordinary ramen place. But its devoted clientele — some of whom have been going there for 30 years — would argue that this place is something special. It consists of scenes in the restaurant, up at his farm where he grows vegetables, and interview with customers, family and friends. While nothing remarkable, this gentle, ordinary doc leaves you with a nice warm feeling inside, like after eating a hot bowl of ramen.

Nope

Wri/Dir: Jordan Peele

OJ Haywood and his sister Emerald (Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer) are unsuccessful horse wranglers who live in a huge wooden house on a dry-gulch ranch somewhere in southern California. Em is outgoing, selfish and spontaneous; she loves listening to LPs full blast. OJ is a monosyllabic cowboy, prone to pondering, and is more comfortable with horses than with people. While he’s on the farm taming mustangs, she’s out there trying to get rich and famous in LA.Their dad built up a big business in Hollywood, providing horses for westerns, but they’ve fallen on hard times, especially since Pops died in a freak accident. Now they’re forced to sell their horses, one by one, to Ricky (Steven Yuen) who runs a tacky cowboy theme-park nearby. Ricky is a former child-actor whose hit sitcom was cancelled, years earlier, when his co-star (a chimpanzee) ran amok on set. 

But something else is happening on the ranch. Power turns off spontaneously, metallic objects seem to fly around, and what might be a UFO keeps appearing in the distance. Em thinks they can get rich if they can just capture on film a clear, “Oprah-quality” shot of the UFO. Problem is their security cameras fizzle out whenever the flying saucer appears. So they make a trip to a big box store to buy some better quality equipment. And that’s when they meet Angel (Brandon Perea) a cashier there who is totally into both electronic surveillance and UFOs. He volunteers to help them . But have they bit off more than they can chew?

Nope is a weirdly excellent western / mystery / horror movie with a good amount of humour. It bombards you with shocking, seemingly unrelated events, but eventually they all make sense. While Peele’s previous movies, Get Out and Us, were small, drawing room horror, this one is grand and expansive, with sweeping skies and rolling hills, horseback chases and terrifying attacks from above. Daniel Kaluuya is great as the almost mute cowboy, Keke Palmer hilarious as Em, with Steven Yuen as a slimy actor-turned-entrepreneur and Brandon Perea as an enthusiastic third wheel rounding off a great cast. It has wonderful cinematography and art direction: your eyes are flooded with bright oranges, greens and reds. There’s a bit of social commentary — how blacks were erased from Hollywood westerns, as well as just the general ersatz creepiness of American pop culture;  and there are also the meta aspects — after all, this is a movie about making a movie — but Nope is mainly just entertainment. And that’s what it did. I saw it on an enormous IMAX screen and enjoyed every minute of it. 

Come Back Anytime is now playing at the Toronto Hot Docs cinema; you can see Fire of Love at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Nope opens on IMAX this weekend worldwide; check your local listings.

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

Lost Souls. Films reviewed: Apples, Moloch, Passengers of the Night

Posted in 1980s, Archaeology, comedy, Covid-19, Depression, Disease, Drama, Family, Feminism, France, Ghosts, Greece, Homelessness, Horror, Netherlands, Radio by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2022

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

It’s Nunavut day, so what better time is there to catch up on Inuit movies. Slash/Back, a brand-new movie about aliens in a small arctic town, is playing right now. The Grizzlies is a feel-good film about a high school lacrosse team. And if you’ve never seen Zacharias Kunuk’s movies — including The Journals of Knud Rasmussen and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner — well… you’d better.

But this week I’m looking at three new European movies — from Greece, the Netherlands and France — about lost souls. There’s a lonely guy in Athens who loses his memory in a pandemic; a divorced mom in Paris who seeks solace in late night talk radio; and a widowed mom in the Netherlands who is haunted by the lost souls… in a peat-moss bog. 

Apples

Wri/Dir: Christos Nikou

Aris (Aris Servetalis) lives by himself in Athens, Greece. One day while going for a walk he forgets where he lives. Also his family, his identity, even his first name. He has acute amnesia, the symptom of a strange pandemic, sweeping across the planet. He’s taken to hospital, with the hope a family member will arrive to identify him. But no one comes. About the only thing he knows is he likes apples. The hospital arranges for him to move into an apartment, where they hope he can regain his memory, or at least achieve some level of self worth and identity.  To achieve this they put him into an experimental program. He’s given a series of mundane tasks, all of which he is expected to record, using a polaroid camera. Ride a bike, go to a movie, attend a party, drink alcohol, meet a new friend. It also includes things like picking up a woman in a bar (he accidentally goes to a strip bar with embarrassing consequences) But during his recovery, while viewing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he encounters another alienated, memory-deficient person.   

Anna (Sofia Georgovasili) is clearly on the same program. Two is better than one, so they begin to see one another, if in a detached, alienated way. But as time progresses, Aris begins to remember things, including sad memories he wants to suppress. Will Anna be his soul mate? Will he ever find his original home? And is there any meaning to his life?

Apples is a satirical look at modern urban alienation in a time of pandemic. Interestingly, this film was completed in 2019 BC, (before Covid). But somehow it captures the mundane, seemingly meaningless medical obsessions, the injections, the tests,  the isolation, loneliness and self-doubt that we all experienced over the past two years.

Writer-director Christos Nikou worked with the now famous Yorgos Lanthimos, on his earliest film, Dogtooth, and like that movie, it’s funny, weird and extremely awkward, with adults behaving like children, and people blindly obeying seemingly nonsensical rules. It takes place in the present day but it’s filled with obsolete gadgets like polaroid cameras, and cassette tape players not a cel phone or a laptop in sight. Aris Servetalis is excellent as the main character, who fits perfectly within the film’s minimalist feel.

I like this one.

Moloch

Co-Wri/Dir: Nico van den Brink

Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) is a woman in her thirties who lives in an isolated home with her parents and her young daughter, in northern Netherlands. Her home is in a forest, surrounded by peat moss bogs. Her daughter goes to public school but Betriek likes the isolation — she thinks her family is cursed so it’s best to keep to herself. Easier said than done. Especially when a strange man appears in her living room! He can’t stop it, he says, they won’t let him! And his voice seems to be an unworldly chorus of a thousand souls. And then he tries to kill them all. Turns out he worked at a nearby archaeological dig, headed by Jonas (Alexandre Willaume) a Danish man.

Peat moss is a natural preservative and they’re digging up mummified bodies from ancient times. And when they examine them, they discover they are all victims of the same sort of ancient ritual sacrifice to some primeval god. By disturbing the graves they may have let loose ancient demons, possessing her friends and family. Meanwhile, her mother is going through another difficult period with her brain — is it related? Her father says they’d better leave the place and never come back. And when Betriek encounters strange visions of a little girl sending her a message, she realizes things are very wrong. Will Jonas ever believe there’s something evil going on? Can Betriek break her family’s curse? Will they fall in love? And together can they fight off an ancient evil god?

Moloch is an excellent Dutch horror movie about life in a remote village built over secrets that never should have been disturbed. It sounds like a simple story, but actually it’s a multi-layered drama. The film even incorporates a school Christmas pageant where small children innocently reenact an ancient pagan tribute even while mayhem is happening outside. The movie’s in Dutch, but because of the multiplicity of languages, much of the dialogue is in English. And remarkable for a horror movie, the cinematography is gorgeous, as warm and grainy as any 70s Hollywood movie. I liked this one, too.

Passengers of the Night

Dir: Mikhaël Hers

It’s the mid-1980s in Paris. Elisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with her two teenaged kids high up in an apartment tower. Her daughter Judith, is outspoken and into politics, while her son Matthias (Quito Rayon- Richter) is more introspective — he gets in trouble for writing poems in history class. The dad, though, is nowhere to be seen. He moved in with his girlfriend and pays no child support. So Elisabeth is forced to search for a job to keep her family afloat.  She finds solace listening to a late-night radio talk show, and applies to work there. She lands a job at the switchboard vetting callers and guests for the host, Vanda (Emmanuelle Béart). She invites a young woman to the show based on a touching letter she wrote. Tallulah (Noée Abita) is 18 but has lived on the streets of Paris for years, sleeping under bridges and in squats. She has raven hair, pale skin and doe eyes. 

Elisabeth can’t stand the thought of her sleeping in the rough, so she invites Tallulah to stay, temporarily, in a spare room tucked away far above their apartment. She wants to keep her separate from her kids, but they soon meet up. She’s street smart, and teaches them how to live on nothing and tricks like how to get into a movie theatre without a ticket. Matthias is smitten by her and longs to take it further. But after a late night tryst, she flees the apartment and disappears, leaving the family shocked and saddened. Four years later, things have changed. The kids are growing up, Elisabeth has gained self-confidence and she has a day job and a much younger boyfriend named Hugo.  But when her ex says he’s selling the home, it’s time for major changes. That’s when Tallulah reappears again at their door in a bad state. Can Elisabeth save Tallulah from her spiral into darkness? And what will the future bring?

Passengers of the Night is a beautiful and heartfelt look at a Parisian family navigating its way through unexpected shifts in their lives, and how a visitor can change everything. The film is set in the 80s (from 1981 through 1988), not just the costumes, music, and Talulah’s big hair but also the tumultuous political and social changes from that era. And it’s punctuated by views of Paris from that era — high-rises, sunsets and views through commuter train windows — shot on a narrower bias, to give it a realistic feel. While more gentle than a sob story, it still brings tears to your eyes.

Passengers of the Night and Apples are both playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Moloch is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Cults and kidnappers. Films reviewed: The Black Phone, One Summer Story

Posted in Animation, Coming of Age, Death, Horror, Japan, Kidnapping, Magic, Manga, Religion, Suspense, Thriller, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on June 25, 2022

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

Spring film festival season continues in Toronto with the Japanese and Jewish film festivals coming to a close, while ICFF — the Italian contemporary film festival — and Lavazza IncluCity are just beginning. The festival features film composer Ennio Morricone, Giuseppe Tornatore (who won an Oscar for Cinema Paradiso), and Allesandro Gassmann, the son of star Vittorio Gassman, and an accomplished actor in his own right. Movies at this festival are being shown both in theatres and outdoors in open air screenings.

This week, I’m looking at two new movies. There’s a thriller-horror about a boy who is kidnapped in 1970s Colorado; and a girl who discovers her biological father was a member of a religious cult in Japan.

The Black Phone

Dir: Scott Derrickson

It’s the late 1970s in Denver, Colorado. Finney (Mason Thames) is a kid in junior high who lives with his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), and their angry and depressed dad, a widower. Finney is into rocket ships and baseball — he’s the pitcher on his team. But he’s bullied at school. Luckily his best friend Robin is always looking out for him.

But all is not well in Denver. Teenagers are disappearing, one by one, with no bodies ever found. But when Robin disappears, he turns to Gwen for help — she has psychic dreams that might tell them where he is. But before they can do anything, Finney finds himself locked in a basement cell, somewhere in the city. theres just a toilet, a mattress, and a barred window way up near the ceiling. And an old black phone mounted on the wall, but with all the wires cut. The guy who kidnapped him — known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) — is a freelance magician who always covers his face with hideous masks reflecting changes in his warped psyche.  Before long, Finney is in despair and figures he’s going to be killed soon, just like the other boys before him. Until… the black phone starts to ring! And coming from somewhere is the voice of one of the previous victims, who says he can tell Finney how to escape.

Is this real or just his imagination?  Can the dead really speak? And will Finney ever get out of there?

The Black Phone is a fantastic thriller about a kid vs a deranged serial killer. Though billed as a horror movie,  and there are some very scary scenes here and there, it’s miles ahead above most of the gory schlock passing for horror movies these days.  This one is more about suspense, mystery and adventure than meaningless, gratuitous violence. There is violence, but it fits within the movie. The characters are all well-rounded with complex back stories. There are lots of red herrings to lead you astray, but the whole movie leaves you with a sense of satisfaction, not dread. And it avoids the cheap scares typical of many horror flicks. The film perfectly captures the feel of the 1970s, through the rock soundtrack, costumes and locations. The acting — especially heroes McGraw and Thames, as well as the villains including the creepy killer and the brooding father, and the many school bullies —  is really well done. The Black Phone  is based on a story by Joe Hill, who also wrote the graphic novel the great TV series Locke & Key was based on. He’s an amazing storyteller… who also happens to be Stephen King’s son.  (I mention that because he’s of the same calibre). And writer-director Scott Derickson has done some good stuff himself.

If you don’t want to be scared — stay far away. But if you’re looking for a good chiller-thriller, you’re really gonna like this one.

One Summer Story (Kodomo ha Wakatteagenai)

Dir: Okita Shûichi

It’s present-day Japan. Minami (Kamishiraishi Moka) is a teenaged girl who lives with her Mum, stepfather, and little brother. Backstroke is her thing — she’s on the school swim team. And she’s obsessed with a TV anime series called Koteko, about a Count who is literally a royal sack of cement and his two gloopy sons Concrete and Plaster. One day she’s at a swim practice when she sees something unbelievable on the roof of their school: a boy is painting something on a large easel. could it be true? she runs over to take a look.  A boy is painting a character from her favourite anime series. They hit it iff immediately.

Moji-kun (Chiba Yûdai) comes from a long line of Japanese calligraphers.  But when she visits his home, she sees a paper talisman with the exact writing as one she always carries with her. The words come from an obscure religious cult, a client of Moji’s father. After some investigation, they discover Minami’s birth father is somehow associated with the cult… and perhaps is why she never knew him. So she decides to secretly show up at his door to find out the truth. Will she find out about her missing history? Or is she just opening a can of worms?

One Summer Story is an extremely cute coming-of-age drama about a girl discovering her birth father with unexpected results. Its also about her new friend — and his unusual family — who helps her on her way.

Based on a manga, it also incorporates a non-existent, animated TV show within the story line. Lots of quirky but likeable characters and an unpredictable plot make it a pleasure to watch. And with much of it set at a beachside home or a swimming pool, it gives  off a nice cool energy on a hot summer’s day.

The Black Phone opens this weekend; check your local listings; One Summer Story’s is playing at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival for its Canadian premiere on Sunday, June 26th at 7:00pm, 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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