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

Psychic bonds. Films reviewed: Marionette, Archive 81

Posted in 1990s, Meltdown, Mental Illness, New York City, Psychiatry, Psychological Thriller, Scotland, Supernatural, TV, VHS by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2022

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

We’re in another lockdown in Toronto with the cinemas all closed, but there are still lots of ways to watch movies at home. Kanopy is a movie service that’s free with your library card, and has a huge catalogue of really good movies. Recent additions include Swedish director Roy Andersson’s ethereal and melancholy About Endlessness;  the splendid Spanish film Blancanieves, a silent movie from 2012 in gorgeous black and white that retells the story of Snow White as a female bullfighter; and the French romantic comedy Belle Epoque, among dozens of others. They’re on Kanopy.

Also playing for free online across Canada is a fascinating new series of five feature-length movies called Difficult Women, 40 years of German Feminist Films. It’s curated by the Goethe Institute. I haven’t seen it yet, but their films always deserve viewing. Just go to their website online and enjoy.

But today I’m talking about two more things you can  watch online or on your TV; a limited series and a new psychological thriller. 

There’s a psychiatrist who wants to get away from a boy she thinks wants to kill her; and a video archivist who wants to get together with a woman he’s seen on a 30-year-old VHS tape.

Marionette

Dir: Elbert van Strien

Dr Marianne Winter (Thekla Reuten) is a child psychiatrist. After losing her husband in a terrible car accident in upstate NY, she decides to turn over a new life by taking a job in Aberdeen, Scotland. She ’s last-minute hire because their previous child psychiatrist was driven to self-immolation for unknown reasons and his patients have no one taking care of them. Marianne arrives at an enormous gothic building and immediately starts to work. One of her patients, a little blond orphan named Manny (Elijah Wolf) piques her interest. Since his parents’ recent death he has stopped talking, expressing himself only by drawing pictures using a black marker. The pictures depict people dying in a horrible circumstances, just like his parents. 

So Marianne settles into a new life. When she’s not working, she hands out a local pub or attends meetings of a book-reading group. There she meets a man named Kieran (Emun Elliot) and sparks fly. He takes her for a ride in his boat where they make passionate love. But around this time, strange things start to happen. The drawings, that her ten-year-old patient Manny scribbles during their sessions, start to come true. She witnesses a car crash in a tunnel that looks exactly like Manny had drawn. Worse still, other drawings depicting Kieran’s death and even her own. Can Manny  predict the future? Or is he actually making these things come true? And is Marianne merely a marionette controlled by an evil little boy?

Marionette is a strange psychological mystery /drama about a psychiatrist brought near the brink of insanity by one of her patients, and her slide into paranoia, madness and revenge.  It delves into the doctor’s own psyche as if her mind were a box containing Schrödinger’s cat. But unlike most psychological thrillers, it doesn’t follow the normal story line you might expect. (No spoilers). Does it work? Yeah, in a strange sort of way. And it kept me interested, but it might leave you scratching your head in the end. 

Archive 81

Dan (Mamoudou Athie) is a museum archivist in New York City. He specializes in restoring and transferring older media — like cassette tapes and VHS — into digital formats. And he nags with his best friend Mark who buys and sells collectables and also hosts a podcast. But one day a stranger named Virgil approaches Dan with an offer he can’t refuse: a $100,000 contract just for restoring and archiving a collection of old video tapes. They are all damaged and partly burned, recovered from an apartment building called the Visser, 30 years earlier. What’s the catch? He must do the archiving and restoration at an isolated concrete building in the Poconos, that’s off the grid: no internet, and no cel phone towers. Any communication must be by the landline.

So he takes the job meticulously restoring each tape in chronological order, and watching the films. They were all made at the Visser, 30 years earlier, by a young woman named Melody (Dina Shihabi).  And from here the story flashes back and forth between Dan (now) and Melody (then). She’s living in the building in search of her birth mother, carrying a video camera everywhere she goes — the source of the tapes that Dan is restoring. And with the help of a 12-year-old girl named Jess (Ariana Neal) who was born in the building, she meets and interviews many of the Visser’s oddball residents. There’s Samuel, a friendly university prof (Evan Jonigkeit), who runs meetings in the common room (which one nosey neighbours claims are  actually satanic sex orgies). There’s also an art collector and spiritualist interested in holding seances.  But she’s distracted by a series of musical notes she hears, and strange dreams she starts to have. And back in the present, Dan is bothered by his isolation, and the feeling he’s being spied on.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Dan keeps dozing off during his monotonous work and having dreams where he meets Melody. The weird thing is, his earlier conversations eventually appear on VHS tapes as he finishes them. In other words, they are actually meeting on recordings from the past. What are these strange faces suddenly appearing on old tapes? Is he going mad? Did she perish in the Visser’s fire? Or can he contact her in the past to save her life?

Archive 81 is a fantastical, science fiction supernatural TV series about alternate realities, communication across time and between the living and the dead, as well as vast conspiracies, evil billionaires, sinister entities, and strange cults. Great writing and acting, with exquisite production design, music and art direction. It starts as a typical found-footage horror movie, but veers away from that genre early on.

I’d call it Stranger Things for grown-ups.

It does have a tendency to fetishize commonplace things from an earlier era (in this case the 90s) but with a contemporary mindset. For example, The character Melody carries her video  camera making selfies and recording everything she sees (much like a smart phone today) but without anyone objecting or finding it strange. Archive 81 came out a week ago, and I binge watched the whole thing in just a few days. It’s interesting, unusual, unpredictable and quite spooky in parts, and will keep you glued to the screen and eagerly awaiting Season 2. 

I recommend this series.

Marionette is now available on VOD, you can catch Archive 81 on Netflix, and for free movies online visit the Goethe Instutute’s website, and watch Kanopy with just your library card.

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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