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.

 

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Chase Joynt about Framing Agnes at Hot Docs

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, documentary, L.A., LGBT, Mystery, Queer, Secrets, Trans, UCLA by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2022

Garber-April-23-22-interview

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s the late 1950s in Los Angeles. While the world’s attention is on Christina Jorgensen, the charismatic transgendered celebrity who flew back from Copenhagen as a new woman, a much quieter clinic at UCLA was also conducting treatment and surgery of transgendered patients. And into this office stepped a young woman named Agnes who said despite being a cis male she grew breasts spontaneously upon reaching puberty — a celebrated case. But later Agnes admitted she made it all up so she would qualify for gender reassignment surgery. Why did Agnes have to lie to get much-needed treatment?

Framing Agnes is a new and unusual documentary based on newly uncovered medical files that look at Agnes and her other unsung contemporaries from that era. Made in the style of a 1950s talk show, it includes reenactments, off-screen conversations, period footage as seen through a present-day filter. Using trans actors, it meticilously presents interviews as “real”, immediately followed by footage showing that they’re only acting. It deals with hot topics, ranging from gender, sexuality and identity, to trans youth, and visibility vs invisibility. This first feature is the work of  prize-winning writer and filmmaker Chase Joynt, who co-directed No Ordinary Man, about jazz musician Billy Tipton, and co-authored You Only Live Twice with Toronto artist Mike Holboom.

I spoke with Chase Joynt in Chicago, via Zoom.

Framing Agnes is premiering in Toronto at Hot Docs on Sunday, May 1, 8:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Crime. Films reviewed: The Noise of Engines, The Last Mark, The Outfit

Posted in Canada, Chicago, Crime, Iceland, Mystery, Organized Crime, Satire, Sex, Thriller, TIFF, UK by CulturalMining.com on March 19, 2022

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

This week, I’m looking at three new movies — one from the UK and two premiering at this year’s Canadian Film Fest — that look at ordinary people pulled into the world of crime. There’s a customs official accused of sexual misconduct; a dominatrix targeted by a deranged hitman; and a mild-mannered English tailor pulled into the Chicago mob.

The Noise of Engines (Le Bruit des Moteurs)

Dir: Philippe Grégoire

Alex (Robert Naylor) is a young man from a small Quebec town near the US border. It’s a village with a mothball factory a formula 1 race track, and not much else. In this post-9/11 world, the government wants formerly boring customs officers to become ruthless killers in the war on terrorism. So  to get away from his town, he takes a job as a firearms instructor at an isolated Canada Customs training school. But when he is caught in flagrante delicto with a large breasted employee he is dragged before the directrice for an interrogation. Though their sex was consensual, his co-worker had a heart attack from  a lack of oxygen due to the anti-covid face shield she was wearing (he ended up saving her life.) And when the much older Directrice’s invites him to sleep with her and her husband, he turns her down. She is furious and exiles him back to his village for punishment. But his troubles don’t stop there. The local police, in a series of Kafka-esque events, label Alex as a sexual deviant, and accuse him of increasingly absurd crimes, such as leaving lascivious drawings on post-it notes in the local church. However life isn’t all bad. At least he has one friend in the village, an Icelandic drag-racer (Tanja Björk) who wants to practice her  French and see the local sites. Can Alex survive a two week leave in small-town Quebec? Will the police ever leave him alone? And what will  become of his relationship with new Icelandic friend?

The Noise of Engines is an absurdist drama about the stultifying effect corrupt bureaucrats and policemen have in small-town Quebec. Aesthetically beautiful — from its stark scenery and retro settings to its modernistic music and elegant titles — this debut feature is a pleasure to watch. The while film is almost dreamlike (and sometimes nightmarish) to the point where you’re never quite sure whether anything is real or if it’s all in Alex’s imagination. Shot both in Quebec and in Iceland it swerves between comedy and horror, settling somewhere in between. I like this movie.

The Last Mark

Dir: Reem Morsi 

Peyton (Alexia Fast) is an escort and a professional dominatrix. One night, in a seedy motel room with a client she hears unexpected intruders entering the room. Hidden under the bed she witnesses two professional killers shoot the man she was just having sex with.  She escapes but not before they see her. It’s up to the killers to silence the unfortunate witness. Keele (Shawn Doyle) volunteers to catch and kill the witness. He is an older professional reaching the end of his career, while Palmer (Bryce Hodgson) is his new replacement, a psychotic murderer who chops off his victims heads just for the fun of it. But there’s a twist. Peyton left her ID behind, and Keele recognizes her last name — the same as a woman he had a fling with decades earlier. Is it possible that she’s his daughter? He asks Eli (Jonas Chernick)  his longtime fixer to do a bit of research — is she related to him, or just another target? In the meantime, Keele kidnaps her and locks her in an isolated cabin, far from the eyes of his head-chopping partner. Can the two if them learn to get along? Do they have anything in common? Can they trust one another? And will he save her or kill her? 

The Last Mark is a classic typical, crime dramady, about an odd couple pulled together by coincidence. This is the director, Reem Morsi’s first full-length feature, and it holds together well. The cast is good all-around, even the smaller roles, especially Bryce Hodgson as a psycho-killer. This is a Canadian production and cast, but the story is set somewhere vaguely outside of Detroit (though it was shot in Sudbury). It’s violent but not gory, and even moving at times. It’s never slow or boring, and the characters are just quirky enough to keep you interested but still believable. This movie’s pretty good.

The Outfit

Co-Wri/Dir: Graham Moore

It’s the mid-1950s in Chicago. Leonard (Mark Rylance) is a bespoke tailor, originally from London. He apprenticed on Saville Row before opening his own shop. Now in Chicago he works with his assistant Mable (Zoey Deutsch), an ambitious ginger-haired young woman from the neighbourhood. She collects exotic snow globes with the idea of someday living in the cities in her glass souvenirs. And she’s dating Richie (Dylan O’Brien) a brash young gangster, on the sly. And that’s trouble. You see, the whole neighbourhood is under the thumb of Richie’s dad, a local kingpin, who is also Leonard’s best customer.  He doesn’t want Richie to mess things up. As a favour, he lets them use his shop as a safe house, leaving important messages in an innocuous wooden drop box at the back. But one day, a recorded cassette mysteriously appears in an envelope. Apparently it was recorded by the Feds… but how did it get there? Was it a secret plant in the FBI? A rival gang? Or the Outfit (a syndicate for organized crime groups) And how did they record it — is there a rat within their own ranks? Francis (John Flynn) first lieutenant in the gang, is sent in to investigate, soon followed by the kingpin himself, along with his bodyguard. As suspicion grows, and bullets start to fly, it’s up to Leonard to try to smooth the waters… but is he too late? And who is the rat? The kingpin, his son Richie, his lieutenant, or possibly even Mable or Leonard himself?

The Outfit is a clever suspense drama about loyalty, suspicion and lies within a crime gang and how it effects the people all around it. Mark Rylance is terrific as the stiff-upper-lip “cutter” (he doesn’t want to be a called a tailor)  and his behind-the-scenes machinations. Like a stage play, the whole film is set within the three rooms of his shop over the course of a single day, but doesn’t feel claustrophobic, just precisely made, like the hundreds of pieces of cloth Leonard sews together to make a single suit. Graham Moore who wrote The Imitation Game also directed this excellent period drama. No spoilers here, but this film has more twists and turns than you can shake a stick at. It’s more clever than emotional, which makes for a fun — though at times violent — mystery/drama. I like this one, too.

The Outfit opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. The Noise of Engines has its Toronto premiere on March 23rd and The Last Mark its Canadian premier on April 1st, both at the Canadian Film Festival.

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 director Andrew Gregg about Skymaster Down

Posted in 1950s, Canada, Cold War, documentary, Mystery, US, Yukon by CulturalMining.com on January 15, 2022

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

It’s a cold winter day in January, 1950 in Yukon. A US military plane, the Douglas C54-D, known as the Skymaster, is flying between Montana and Alaska, when it suddenly loses contact. Flight #2469 disappears from the skies. And when they searched for survivors among the 44 crew and passengers, no-one was found and the plane itself has completely disappeared. What became of the Skymaster?

Skymaster Down is a new, in-depth look at the plane’s disappearance and the friends and families of the missing crew and passengers today. The feature-length film is the work of award-winning documentarian Andrew Gregg. You may have heard him previously on this show talking about diverse topics including the new far right in Skinheads (in 2017), problems in our prisons in State of Incarceration (2014), and new archaeological advances in The Norse, an Arctic Mystery, way back in 2012.

I spoke with Andrew Gregg in Toronto via Zoom

Skymaster Down premiers on CBC’s Documentary Channel on Sunday, January 16th.

Point of View. Films reviewed: Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, Only The Animals, My Missing Valentine 

Posted in France, Japan, Mystery, Romance, Taiwan, Thriller, Time Travel by CulturalMining.com on November 6, 2021

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

A story can change a lot depending on who tells it. This week I’m looking at three new movies — from Japan, Taiwan and France — that retell their stories from different points of view. 

There’s a woman in a French village who disappears in a blizzard; another woman, in Taipei,  who wakes up to find a whole day is missing;  and a guy in Tokyo who finds he can talk to himself on a video monitor… two minutes in the future.

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (ドロステのはてで僕ら)

Dir: Yamaguchi Junta

It’s closing time in Tokyo. Kato (Tosa Kazunari) is an ordinary young man in his twenties who runs a small cafe and is in an amateur rock band with his friends. He also has a crush on Megumi (Asakura Aki), the woman next door, who he’s never had the nerve to approach. He rents a room upstairs in a 5-storey walk-up. But everything changes when he discovers he’s not alone in his room. Someone is talking to him through his computer screen from the monitor in the cafe downstairs. What’s really weird is he’s the one talking on the screen… but from two minutes in the future.

Huh…? 

He tests this by running back downstairs to the cafe and speaking into the monitor there. Sure enough, it’s him in his bedroom from two minutes in the past. A nifty trick perhaps, but what use is it? Well for one thing, maybe he can finally ask Megumi for a date? Soon his friends from the band drop by and are mesmerized by the phenomenon. They up the ante by bringing the upstairs screen down to the cafe, facing the other monitor. Now, the images are repeated endlessly on both screens; one into the past and the other into future, two minutes at a time, revealing secrets that no one should know.  Like an angry yakuza gangster who appears in the near future wielding a sharp knife. Can they right the wrongs and reset  time? Or have they permanently upset the cosmic space-time continuum?

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a brilliantly-made, low-budget sci-fi comedy. It’s almost like a stage play, as the action rarely strays from the apartment and the cafe. It also manages to convey — credibly — the concept of time travel with virtually no special effects.

This movie is a lot of fun.

Only The Animals (Seules les bêtes)

Co-WriDir: Dominik Moll

Alice (Laure Calamy) is a married woman who lives in a tiny mountainous  French hamlet. She makes her rounds along cliffside roads to handle insurance claims for farmers who live there. She lives with her grumpy husband Michel (Denis Menochet) but is having a torrid affair with another farmer, Joseph (Damien Bonnard), a young reclusive farmer on a downward spiral since his mother died. She sees him once a week on her rounds. But everything changes when a rich woman, who lives in a rented stone house with her husband, disappears in a blizzard.

Turns out Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) was having a fling with a beautiful young waitress, half her age, she met at a seaside resort.  Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) is in love and follows her to her country home. But now Evelyne is gone. Is she dead or merely missing? And who is responsible — Alice, Michel, Joseph, Marion, or Evelyne herself…? Or perhaps someone else? (There’s a subplot involving a young man (Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drin) who runs a catfish scheme out of Côte D’Ivoire.)

Only The Animals is an intriguing and actually quite moving  mysterious drama about a possible murder in a picturesque mountainside village. It’s gripping and shocking, without losing sympathy for any of the characters, no matter how bizarre or tragic some of them are. The mystery is gradually revealed as each scene is retold in chapters, Rashomon-style, from the point of view of each of the main characters. And each retelling reveals more about what happened before and after the scene — even though you’ve watched it already — explaining some of the characters’ seemingly erratic behaviour. This is a very cool look at the dysfunctional lives of a group of French farmers. 

My Missing Valentine (消失的情人節)

Wri/Dir: Chen Yu-Hsun

Yang Hsiao-chi (Patty Lee) is a young woman in her late twenties who leads an uneventful life. Originally from a small town, she works at a boring job in a local post office in Taipei, Taiwan. She sees the same people everyday, like the weirdo who buys one stamp to mail a letter, and an irate middle aged man who complains about everything. Her only friend is a faceless late-night radio host she listens to in her tiny rented room. Until… she meets a handsome prince who promises her the world. Not a prince exactly;  Liu Wen-sen (former HK fashion model and windsurfer Duncan Chow) is a dance-aerobics instructor in a local park with a day job in the blockchain industry. He’s rich, kind, generous and modest — raised an orphan he devotes his life to helping needy kids. And he likes Yang Hsiao-chi, who has never had a boyfriend before. Their big date will be on Valenitine’s day, the next day. Is this all too good to be true? Alas, she awakens the next morning to discover her new boyfriend has disappeared, and so has Valentine’s day: it’s been completely erased. What is going on?

This is where the second point of view enters the picture. We discover there’s another man who likes Hsiao-chi. Wu Kui-Tai  (Liu Kuan-ting) is  a local bus driver who sees her everyday. And he’s also the guy who stands in her line to buy a single stamp at the post office. And he knows exactly what happened to her during that missing day.

My Missing Valentine is sort of a romantic comedy, a rom-com, but its plot is so off the wall that it actually qualifies as a romantic fantasy or science fiction pic. Throw in a human lizard who lives in Hsiao-chi’s closet and you’ve got one of the weirdest romances you’ve probably ever seen. It’s very cute without being gushy and very entertaining to watch. 

My Missing Valentine and Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes are both playing at the Reel Asain Film Festival, which runs from November 10th-19th; Only The Animals opens this weekend in Toronto; 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

Family Crises. Films reviewed: Our Friend, Phobic, Falling

Posted in 1960s, 2000s, Disease, Drama, Family, Friendship, Horror, LGBT, Mental Illness, Mystery, Police, Psychological Thriller by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2021

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

It may be cold, but February is offering some film festivals to enjoy in your own warm homes. TBFF Toronto Black Film Festival is coming mid-month, showing unique and dynamic black voices in Canada. JFF Plus is showing Japanese features shorts and anime, all free beginning in a week. And Hot Docs is running its annual Podcast Festival right now. But this week I’m looking at three new movies that explore family troubles. There’s a police detective chasing a serial killer; a journalist taking care of his dying wife; and an airline pilot dealing with his father’s dementia.

Our Friend

Dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

(Based on an article in Esquire by Matthew Teague)

It’s the early 2000s. Matt (Casey Affleck) is a print journalist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He’s married to Nicole (Dakota Johnson) a stage actress starring in musicals. They have two  young kids. Matt’s career is taking off, and while he’s a foreign correspondent covering wars in Pakistan and the middle east, Nicole has stayed home to care of the kids. But both their lives are disrupted by shocking news: she has cancer. They soon find the two of them can’t handle the triple threat of job, kids and cancer, never mind their own relationship. So they call for help from a good friend. Dane (Jason Segal) is an actor and a comic who has known them with for ages. His relationship is shaky and so is his job status. So he agrees to bunk at their home and help ease the burden. He soon becomes a part of the family, a second mom and dad to the kids, and a comfort to Matt and Nicole dealing with the pains of illness and the threat of death.

Our Friend is a dramatization of Matthew Teague’s personal memoir of a decade living with his wife’s cancer with the help of their friend. It’s told in flashbacks explicitly dated by the number of years before or after Nicole Teague’s diagnosis. As such, it holds very few surprises. Even when she’s healthy we all know that in a year a two she’s going to get sick and eventually die. Almost preordained. So there’s a melancholy inevitability to the story, as we’re walked through anger, denial, and stages of diagnosis, chemo, remission,  metastasis, psychosis, palliative care and finally death. This is a sentimental and sad movie told in a clean, palatable way. It’s all about family relationships and friendships. Surprisingly though it’s not a tearjerker so it didn’t give me the deep emotional purge I was expecting. Apparently, the magazine article it was based on was amazingly popular, and the acting is good enough, but this movie didn’t move me.

Phobic

Wri/Dir: Bryce Clark

Riley Sanders (Jacque Gray) is a police detective in Utah. She has blonde hair a svelte body and a stern expression on her face. She’s rejoining the force after recovering from a violent incident. Her new partner is Paul (Devin Liljenquist) has a lantern jaw and soap opera looks. Is there a spark between them? They’ve never met but their fathers worked together in the past; they’re both second-generation cops. Their first case? A serial killer with a strange M.O. The victims are all found chained to a chair in a locked room. One is in a place painted red. Another with snakes writhing around his feet. What do they have in common? They were scared to death.

Turns out the victims are all patients of the same psychiatrist, a certain Dr Holden (Tiffani DiGregorio) who uses new techniques to cure “phobics” of their darkest fears. First she diagnoses them using Rorschach inkblot tests, then, through therapy and the use of a strobe light, unlocks her patients’ inner strength to conquer their irrational phobias. But she’s highly protective of her files and won’t let the detectives see them. Meanwhile, Riley has a phobia of her own, a fear of the dark. What is Dr Holden’s role in these grisly deaths? What is her connection to Riley? Are Riley and Paul a thing? And can they catch the elusive killer before the killer kills them?

Phobic is ostensibly a psychological thriller about  a serial killer that preys on the victims’ worst fears. An interesting concept. The problem is, it’s not thrilling.  It’s about as scary as an old episode of CSI. It’s too slow, clumsily directed, and badly edited. Even the props seem to be done on the cheap. The story looks promising at first but goes totally off-kilter toward the end. Sorry to say, this movie is a mess.

Falling

Wri/Dir: Viggo Mortensen

It’s the early 1960s. Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) is young man from Boonville, NY, who lives on a farm with his wife Gwen (Martha Gross). He likes hunting, horses and fishing, but not much else. On the day his son Johnny is born he says he’s sorry he brought the little stinker into this world. Fifty years later, John (Viggo Mortensen) is an airline pilot happily married to his husband Eric (Terry Chen) with their inquisitive daughter. He lives in sunny California, not far from his younger sister Sarah (Laura Linney). Willis is old now (Lance Henricksen), and Gwen is long gone, so his adult children are trying to find him a place near them to live out his final years. The problem is he’s still the same rude, angry  and violent sonofabitch they remember from their childhood. If not worse. He’s a smoker and a drinker. He’s xenophobioc, paranoid, racist, misogynistic and homophobic. He’s rude and lecherous, ogling women and swearing at men. He says all women are whores, and calls his adult son, an airforce vet, a fairy. On top of that, he’s losing it — prone to wandering away, forgetting where he is or why he’s there. How long can John keep calm and put up with his father? And will Willis ever make peace with the world… and himself?

Falling is a drama about a father and son, set in the past and the present. It jumps back and forth through memories shared by John and Willis, as their stories, and how they ended up how they are, are gradually revealed. This is a great movie, directed and written by actor Viggo Mortensen who plays John, but it’s really about Willis. It’s a fascinating and realistic character study about this hateable, but totally watchable, man and his cringeworthy but funny behaviour and motives. It’s a character study but not  a caricature. Gudnason is great as the young Willis, but Henricksen as the old Willis fighting dementia is stupendous. It’s beautifully shot among nature at a wintry, snow covered farm, and beneath the hot pacific sun. Falling is harshly funny, cruel, constantly surprising and quite touching. This is an excellent movie.

Our Friend and Phobic are now playing, and Falling opens next Friday.

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

Two Ladies and a Gentleman. Films Reviewed: Love Sarah, Promising Young Woman, Lupin

Posted in Crime, Disguise, Family, Food, France, Movies, Mystery, Psychology, Thriller, UK, US, Vengeance by CulturalMining.com on January 15, 2021

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

Doug Ford’s latest rules  to fight the pandemic say don’t leave home… except when you do But don’t worry, there’s lots to see without going outside. This week I’m looking at two new movies and a TV series. There’s three woman in London opening a bakery, a Parisian thief who’s a master of fakery, and a vengeful woman exposing predators by pretending to be drunk when she’s actually wide-awakery.

Love Sarah

Dir: Eliza Schroeder

It’s present-day London, in Notting Hill (before the pandemic). Sarah is a chef who comes from a family of very talented women. Her daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) is a professional dancer, and her mum, Mimi (Celia Imrie), is a retired trapeze artist. She plans to open a gourmet bakery/cafe  with her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn). They studied cooking together in Paris. But right after they secure the property, Sarah is killed in a bicycle accident, and her whole family is in disarray. Depressed Clarissa can’t dance anymore, and her dancer-boyfriend kicks her out. Mimi was already estranged from Sarah before she died. And Isabella without a real chef, is forced to go back to her office job. The three manage to overcome their differences and open the cafe in Sarah’s name. But where will they find a baker? In walks Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones). He’s a two star Michelin chef who studied with Sarah and Isabella in Paris and slept with each of them (he’s a notorious womanizer.) Perhaps he’s also Clarissa’s birth father… And does he still carry a torch for Isabella? 

Love Sarah is a charming, low-key drama about the joys and trepidations of running a business in honour of someone who died. It’s full of vignettes about cooking and baking in a quaint and colourful neighbourhood. There are also chances of romance for each of the three women. The plot is threadbare but the characters — and the actors who portray them —  are quite endearing, in that understated English way. Love Sarah is a cute, but inoffensive, picture.

Promising Young Woman

Wri/Dir: Emerald Fennell

Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is a promising young woman at med school with her best friend Mimi. They’ve planned to become doctors since they were kids. But then something terrible happens. Mimi gets drunk at a party and is raped by another student and the university sides with the man. Mimi commits suicide and a despondent Cassandra quits school, moves in with her parents   and drops out of life. She works by day at a dead end job, while her nights are spent in a drunken stupor at tawdry pick-up bars, going home with whatever guy asks her. But things aren’t what they seem. Whenever her “date” inevitably throws

Carey Mulligan stars as “Cassandra” in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

himself on this seemingly drunken woman, she jumps into action to teach the predator a lesson. This secret heroin will never be a victim. But can she single-handedly avenge all the people to blame for Nina’s suicide? And will she ever start living a normal life again?

Promising Young Woman is a vengeance thriller that’s full of shocks surprises. Carey Mulligan is fantastic as Clarissa, a multi-leveled character who is both depressing, and funny with a dark, deranged streak running through her. Bo Burnham plays a self-effacing nerd — and potential boyfriend — who challenges her theory that all men are douches; and comic relief is provided by Jennifer Coolidge as her mom, and Laverne Cox as her boss. Promising Young Woman is shocking and deeply disturbing while also reassuringly moralistic. This movie keeps you guessing — and your heart pumping — till the very end.

Lupin

Assan Diop (Omar Sy) is a young boy who lives with his Senegalese father in  a palatial estate in Paris. His dad’s a chauffeur for the Pellegrinis, a very rich  but ruthless family. He gives Assan a book — classic stories of Arsene Lupin, the eponymous gentleman thief and master of disguises — and tells him to read it carefully and learn from it. Lupin is ingenious and conniving but always a gentleman (they use the English word in this French drama) But when his father is arrested for stealing priceless jewels, Assan is left alone, penniless and orphaned. Luckily an anonymous donor pays for his education at an elite academy. Years later he emerges as a modern day Lupin, reenacting his most audacious thefts and reaping its rewards. He’s married now and has a teenaged son. But when the jewels his father was accused of stealing reappear at an auction, he is determined to get the necklace, prove his father’s innocence and get revenge on Pellegrini, whom he believes set his dad up. But to do this he must outsmart the police, evade Pellegrini’s hired killers, even while he continues to carry out his intricately planned heists.

Lupin is a delightful new TV series full of capers and adventures, a new take on a classic character. It follows multiple sub-plots: his relationship with his wife and son; his various capers; his war against Pellegrini, and the cat & mouse game he plays with the police. Omar Sy is wonderful in the main role, so much so that there’s little screen time given to the supporting actors — the buffoonish cops and naive millionaires are mainly there as foils for his exploits. Yes, it’s an unbelievable fantasy, and yes, it’s purely light entertainment, but I like it a lot. And after one week with only 5 episodes, it is already trending at #1.

Lupin is now streaming on Netflix. And Love Sarah and Promising Young Woman both open today digitally and on VOD.

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

Not about the US election. Films reviewed: The Crossing, The Kid Detective, Major Arcana

Posted in 1940s, Addiction, Canada, Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, Homelessness, Kids, Mystery, Norway, Romance, Rural, Thriller, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 6, 2020

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

I’m recording this on Thursday before the US election has been settled. So with all the tension and stress, it’s a perfect time to watch some entertainment entirely unrelated to politics. This week I’m looking at three new movies about growing up. There are Norwegian children facing adult responsibilities; a grown-up kid detective fighting real crime; and a man trying to grow up and act his age.

The Crossing (Flukten over grensen)

Dir: Johanne Helgeland

It’s Christmastime in 1942. Norway is occupied by Nazi Germany with the blessings of the Quisling government. Food is rationed and times are tough but life goes on. Gerda (Anna Sofie Skarholt) is a little girl with rosy cheeks and blond hair. She’s obsessed with the Three Musketeers and wears a floppy hat, a cloak (made from an old apron) and brandishes a pie cutter: en garde, rogue! But one day she spies her older brother Otto (Bo Lindquist-Ellingsen) through a window –he’s at a Nazi meeting! Their parents are firmly opposed to the occupation… why is Otto there? Meanwhile, strange things are happening at home –the cocoa is disappearing… and their arents keep talking about sacks of potatoes. Things come to a head when the police bang on the door in the middle of the night. As they’re taken away their parents shout the Christmas presents are in the basement! Take them to your aunt Vigdis! What do they mean? Turns out there are two kids their age hidden behind a wall. Daniel (Samson Steine) and Sarah (Bianca Ghilardi-Hellsten) a brother and sister just like Otto and Gerda except they’re Jewish. With their parents in jail, now it’s up to Gerda and Otto to take them across the border to neutral Sweden. Can they take Daniel and Sarah to safety? Or will they be caught?

The Crossing is an adventure story about friendship and family in a wartime setting. It’s a kids-against-grown-ups situation – most of the good adults have been arrested, while the bad ones – Nazi and local collaborators – seem to be everywhere. They are real life villains, almost witches and monsters in the children’s eyes. There are good people too, but it’s hard to know who to trust. Gerda is excited by their journey, Otto is reluctant to join them, while for proud Daniel and innocent Sarah it’s a matter of life and death. Though made for children, the movie is full of action, close calls and near escapes. It’s also a tear jerker, with some every emotional scenes. Though fictional and clean-scrubbed, it’s an exciting look back at adventures in occupied Norway.

The Kid Detective

Wri/Dir: Evan Morgan

When Abe Applebaum was little (Adam Brodie) he was the smartest kid in town. He solved mysteries at school, figuring out who broke into a locker or cheated on a test. He worked out of his treehouse. His fame grew – the pop shop owner promised him free icecream for life, and the town chipped in to get him a real detective’s office. But people grow up and things change. A 10 year old caught snooping for clues in a little girl’s closet is adorable; for a man in his thirties it’s not cute at all. His reputation tanked when he failed to solve the mystery of a missing girl. Now, Abe is an alcoholic detective, eating alone in neon-lit diners, and addicted to anti-depressants. But things take a turn when he is approached by an innocent student named Caroline (Sophie Nélisse). They soon uncover clues – a photo of a naked woman in a tiger mask and some origami roses – that harken back to the disappearance 20 years earlier. Is he just a wash out? Or will the former kid detective solve this new, terrible mystery and regain his self worth?

The Kid Detective is a totally watchable and cute comedy drama. It starts as a high concept movie – what happens to heroes from kids’ books (like Encyclopedia Brown) – when they grow up? It’s full of kid-ified versions of cinema noir clichés, seen through a mist of bittersweet adult nostalgia and small town life. It starts out a bit slow and silly, but picks up quite nicely. I saw this at TIFF immediately after a shockingly violent horror movie, and it left me with just the right combination of watchable entertainment and warm feelings (with an unexpected and shocking twist). I thought I’d hate it, but I actually liked this movie.

Major Arcana

Wri/Dir: Josh Melrod

Dink (Ujon Tokarski), who is far from dinky, is a tall and rangy alcoholic drifter travelling across America looking for work as a carpenter. He’s a fit man in his thirties, with long hair, a scraggly blond beard; sort of a homeless Jesus. Four years ago, he left his depressed town in rural Vermont under a dark cloud, vowing never to come back. But like the prodigal son, here he is again. His father died leaving him a broken-down shack, some cash and 50 acres of forest. And he’s off drugs and alcohol now, living clean and sober. So he decides to turn his life around.

He pitches a tent and thinks about his future. In the morning he begins, spontaneously, to build a wooden home from scratch with his bare hands. He fells trees with an axe and chainsaw, cuts beams and clears a field dragging lumber across the forest floor. He survives on aerosol cheese and uncooked hotdogs. But his past still haunts him: his shrewish, gambling mom (Lane Bradbury) and his former lover, Sierra (Tara Summers). She’s voluptuous but tough, slapping his face for past transgressions on one night, but showing up at his tent on another. And Dink is still helplessly in love with her. Will he complete his task? Will Sierra leave her boyfriend? And can he show his face in a town that hates him?

Major Arcana — the title refers to a tarot card reading that Sierra does for Dink – is about major changes, life lessons and destiny. It’s a bumpy love story, and a drama about a man trying to redeem himself. While there are some revelations and conflicts this is mainly a meditative look at a man building a cabin in the woods. It sounds kinda dull, but it’s actually a really soothing, healing and life-affirming film. There are hints at spirituality, but it’s not sanctimonious or heavy handed. There’s enough nudity, sex, pain and misery — this is no Sunday school – to keep you watching. The measured pace and natural beauty makes this movie an incredibly relaxing and pleasant experience.

Not my normal choice of film, but I quite liked it.

The Crossing is one of many movies that played digitally at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Fall edition; The Kid Detective opens theatrically today across Canada; and Major Arcana is available for viewing on VOD.

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

Creepy small towns. Films/TV shows reviewed: Hammer, Curon, Ragnarok

Posted in Canada, Crime, Family, Italy, Mystery, Norway, Supernatural, Suspense, Thriller, TV by CulturalMining.com on June 26, 2020

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

In light of the pandemic, many people are thinking of cities cities as crowded, dirty and dangerous places, compared to smaller towns. But are small towns any better? This week, I’m looking at three new productions – one film and two limited series – that look at the darker side of family life in small towns. There are nogoodniks in Newfoundland, taboos in Tyrolia, and felonious fat cats among the fjords.

Hammer

Wri/Dir: Christian Sparkes

It’s a paper-mill town somewhere in Canada (possibly Newfoundland).

Chris (Mark O’Brien) is a young man, down on his luck. He deals in drugs and stolen jewels, both valuable commodities, but somehow is deep in debt. Luckily, there’s a big operation – involving satchels of cash to be exchanged deep in the woods – about to go down with a sketchy guy named Adams (Ben Cotton). It should leave him rich. But something goes wrong. Now someone is dead, their body lost in a corn field, and Chris is on the run with Adams on his trail.

So in a chance encounter, he turns to his estranged family — his younger brother Jeremy, his disapproving mom and his angry dad Stephen (Will Patton) – for help. He hasn’t talked to them for years, but they’re his only hope. Can his father help him secure the cash, rescue a hostage, and protect him from Adams? Or will everything fall apart?

Hammer is a short, fast moving drama about a criminal act pulling a small-town family apart. It’s a well-written and well-acted movie. It’s a very of-the-moment, what you see is what you get style movie. No excess dialogue, no wasted scenes, no deep back story, just high-tension thrills. There’s violence but not gratuitous violence, gun battles, chase scenes and a few surprising twists. A noir-ish style but in a natural setting. And an ominous symbol – the ourusborus, a snake swallowing its own tail – gives this crime drama a darker, more sinister feel.

Curon

Created by Ezio Abbate, Ivano Fachin, Giovanni Galassi, Tommaso Matano

A picturesque town in Italy. Mauro and Daria are 17-year-old twins from Milan. Mauro (Federico Russo) is shy and introverted with a hearing impairment. He’s a natural target of bullies. His sister Daria (Margherita Morchio) is tough and self-confident. She’s sexually adventurous, can out-drink anyone she meets, and will likely win in a fistfight. She always looks out for her brother. The two are used to life in the big city, but their divorced mom moves them back to her hometown of Curon. It’s in German-speaking Tyrolia right by Austria and Switzerland. Very different from Milan, where the twins grew up. Curon’s main landmark is a man-made lake with a church bell tower in the middle; the only thing left of the old town they flooded to built a hydro dam. And they say if you ever hear the church bells ring, it means you’re going to die.

Soon after they arrive their mom disappears, so they move into their grandfather (Luca Lionello)’s spooky old hotel (like in The Shining). And they meet some of the popular locals at their highschool. Micki (Juju Di Domenico) and her bullyish boxer brother Giulio (Giulio Brizzi) are the two kids of a highschool teacher… They both hate Curon and want to head south to Milan. Will they be friends or enemies? And then there’s Micki’s wimpy friend Lukas (Luca Castellano) who goes through a strange transformation. Lukas has a crush on Micki, while Micki and Giulio have crushes on someone else. They also find out Micki and Giulio’s dad and Mauro and Daria’s mom share an old history. Will they ever find their mom, discover Curon’s secrets, and escape this creepy old town? Or will it ensare them in its mysterious and sinister ways?

Curon is a good, spooky TV drama, with sex, drugs and hints of horror every once in a while. It’s also full of dopplegangers, disappearing bodies, and strange sounds in the dark. Netflix seems to have created its own sub-genre – big city highschool kids returning to a picturesque town full of dark secrets. No spoilers here, but it’s worth watching. It’s scary but not terrifying, never boring, and with a good, attractive cast.

Ragnarok

Created by Adam Price

Here’s another TV series about a mom and her two kids moving back to her hometown. This time it’s a picturesque, fjord-filled village in Norway called Edda. Magne (David Stakston) and his brother Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli) arrive by car. Magne has blond hair and glasses. He takes meds each day, has terrible vision and is dyslexic, and is fond of tossing hammers. Laurits has black hair and a pointy nose; he likes playing tricks on his brother. They quickly make friends at school. Magne meets Isolde, a young woman whose dad is their school teacher. She’s an enviroronmental activist who knows all the Edda’s secrets. Toxic wastes dumped into the pristine fjords are ruining the town’s ecology.

Laurits gravitates toward the son and daughter of an elitist family, the Jutals, headed by Vidar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson). They own the toxic chemical plant and have control over the police the school, nearly everything. Only the activists – and the town drunk – dare to defy them. And the girl Magne has the hots for is already dating Fjor Jutul, from the same rich family. It looks as if the town, and possibly the world, is heading toward ecological Armageddon, or Ragnarok as they say in Norse mythology. Can Magne learn in time who this family really is… and his own importance in confronting them?

Ragnarok is a TV series partly about ordinary people standing up to elitist authority figures to protect the environment. But that’s not all. There’s a Harry Potter-type backstory as well, where ordinary people learn about extraordinary things. I really liked this show – beautiful scenery, great acting, suspence, tons of fascinating and endearing characters, with lots of twists and surprises. Sort of a myth or fairy tale set in modern- day Norway. And it’s the work of Adam Price who also wrote Borgen, that popular Danish political drama that was on broadcast TV here a few years back.

Ragnarok is one of the best TV series I’ve seen so far this year.

Season One of Curon and Ragnarok are both streaming now on Netflix; Hammer opens today on Apple TV, Google Play and VOD.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Albert Shin about Disappearance at Clifton HiIll

Posted in Animals, Canada, Crime, Mental Illness, Movies, Mystery, Noir, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 21, 2020

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

Abby is a young woman returning to her hometown of Niagara Falls. She’s figuring out what to do with the rundown motel she inherited with her sister. Should she make a go of it? Or sell it to a rich local patriarch. But as she goes through old photos and films, she starts to remember hidden memories from the distant past. And with the help of eccentric locals she finds herself digging deeper and deeper, the more dirt she uncovers. Dirt that involves some of the most powerful figures in the city. Most troubling of all is an image from her childhood, still stuck in her brain. A boy with one bleeding eye who disappeared right in front of her. Was he kidnapped? Was he killed? Or was it just a false memory. What really happened happened in Clifton Hill?

Disapearance at Clifton Hill is also the name of a new movie opening February 28th across Canada. It’s been nominated for multiple Canadian Screen Awards, and is a fantastic film. It’s co-written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Albert Shin. I last interviewed Albert six years ago alongside his collaborator and colleague Igor Drljaca about In Her Place.

I spoke to Albert by telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Disappearance at Clifton HIll opens across Canada on February 28th.

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