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.

 

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

Implanted ideas. Films reviewed: Held, Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide, Moffie

Posted in 1980s, Art, Cold War, Coming of Age, Drama, Gay, H.I.V., Horror, New York City, Psychological Thriller, South Africa, Suspicion, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 2021

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 — a doc, a war drama and a thriller horror — about ideas implanted into our minds. There’s an eighties artist digging up TV images from the sixties; a soldier in eighties South Africa with Cold War racism and homophobia drilled into his head; and a married couple forced to re-enact outdated sexual roles by the orders of a device… drilled into their skulls.

Held
Dir: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing

Emma and Henry (Jill Awbrey and Bart Johnson) are a married couple, both professionals. They plan to meet at a remote luxury resort in order to bring the spark back into their relationship. Eight years ago they had an amazing vacation in Monterey, just the two of them; but lately, they’ve been drifting apart. Emma arrives first, driven by a vaguely suspicious-looking guy named Joe (Rez Kempton). Why does he ask so many personal questions? She’s relieved to see the house is protected by a large wall. She checks out the digs — it’s a minimalist wonder, all glass and white walls, and incredibly safe from intruders. There are alarms and code systems everywhere, a modern kitchen, and a lovely orchard just outside. And Henry left her some flowers on the doorstep — red roses… how romantic!

When Henry arrives, they share a toast over glasses of whiskey. But then things get weird. They both start to feel dizzy — are there roofies in their drinks? They wake up the next morning in a daze. Their cel phones are gone. Emma is dressed in an old-school negligee. Did someone do this to her in her sleep? And the roses? Henry says they weren’t from him. Their clothes have all disappeared, replaced by 6os-style dresses for her and suits for him, and large TV screens that play old-school songs urging them to dance a foxtrot. Dance?

The doors are all locked, and a strange detached voice starts giving them orders. Obey us! If you follow our directions you will not be harmed! Mr Creepy Voice wants them to stick to traditional sexual roles — men open doors for women, who respond by thanking them. If they disobey, they get zapped by a high-power, hugely painful device that’s been implanted into their heads the night before. And now they’re expected to make love under a watchful eye. Who is this maniac and what’s his agenda? Is it Jordan Peterson? Or an incel? Why does he cling to outdated sexual norms? And will they ever escape from this bizarre house of horrors?

Held is a heart pounding , psychological thriller about a couple held hostage for no known reason. There’s a big revelation about two-thirds of the way through (no spoilers) which I predicted… but even so, it gripped me till the very end. It is quite violent and disturbing, so not for the faint of heart, but I found Held a super-twisted and scary movie, just the thing for late-night viewing.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide
Wri/Dir:Max Basch, Malia Scharf

Kenny Scharf is born into post-war LA, the land of artificial smiles, perma-tans, non-stop TV and brightly coloured plastic. He grows up in a nuclear family amidst the prefab suburbs of the San Fernando valley. He likes art and design and has a steady hand that can draw a perfect line without a ruler. But Andy Warhol and New York City beckons and he ends up a student at SVA (the School of Visual Arts) beside Keith Haring with whom he eventually shares an apartment in Times Square. It’s the early 1980s, and together with the younger Jean-Michel Basquiat, the three start spreading their art all over the city: on subways, toasters, TV sets, and crumbing tenement walls. Kenny can’t stop putting painting on everything he sees.

Eventually people with money start to notice, and the East Village art scene explodes. Kenny Scharf’s work incorporates found art, day-glo colours, and cartoonish TV images of George Jetson, Barney Rubble and 1950s suburban housewives. These figures are vomited across canvas in a cosmic orgy of detailed mayhem, the work of spray paint and fine brush strokes. Grotesque smiles and googly-eyed faces adorn his prolific paintings and sculptures, like a Peewee’s Playhouse of fine art. The East Village art scene spills over into the world of performance, music, fashion and nightclubs, blurring the lines. Kenny is doing it all. Next comes money and fame, one-man shows and installations,…until it finally crashes and burns. Many of the artists die in the AIDS epidemic, but Kenny survives, moving back to LA with his Brazilian wife and kids and continuing his work.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide (the title is from one of his massive paintings) is a documentary look at his life and art, from childhood to the present, presented using never-seen period footage, video, recordings and art. It’s an amazing story brought to life. To be honest, I’m always suspicious of docs on living artists — did they make this film just to raise his recognition and pump up the value of his work? Who knows?  But life as an artist is never easy. This film is co-directed by another artist, Kenny’s own daughter Malia, which lets us look into his private life and thoughts, and his never-ending outflow of colour and plastic… while steering clear of any stories of sex, drugs and debauchery. It’s her dad… what do you want?

I liked this movie.

Moffie
Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s 1982 in Apartheid South Africa. All white boys and men are required to serve in the army for two years starting at age 16. Nick (Kai Luke Brümmer) is still wet behind the ears and doesn’t want to go. But his mother and boorish step-father send him off with a big celebration. His father slips him a porn mag to keep him company. But Playboy centrefolds are not his thing. The train to the camp is loud and rough, filled with oafs drinking till they puke, picking fights and shouting racist abuse at any African they pass. Nick makes one friend on the way, Michael (Matthew Vey), an anglo and a nice guy to boot. At the base, they are spat on, kicked, punched and made to repeat inane slogans by an especially sadistic sergeant. All hatred is aimed toward the three enemies of the state — Africans, communists, and homosexuals. And heaven help anyone caught supporting any of them, or worse being one of them. The sleeping quarters are filled with testosterone-fuelled idiots, spouting racist nonsense but exuding a constant masculine sexuality that clouds Nick’s thoughts.

But war is war (there’s a longstanding border conflict with neighbouring Angola) and they’re expected to fight. When Nick finds himself sharing a sleeping bag in a foxhole with a friendly soldier named Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) he’s forced to reassess his sense of desire and sexuality. But will he survive this two year ordeal?

Moffie (the title is an Afrikaans anti-gay slur), is a realistic internal look at the unrelenting racism and paranoia drilled into the psyche of white South Africans’ during Apartheid. (Unspoken, but implied, is the the violence that this visited upon the non-white South African majority on a daily basis) It’s also an intensely moving story, full of lust and longing, regret and horror. Dialogue alternates between Afrikaans and English. It has stunning cinematograpy, and a great soundtrack. The acting is fantastic, with a largely unknown cast, many on screen for the first time. Moffie is a powerful war film.

I recommend this movie.

Moffie opens today on VOD on Apple TV and in the summer on IFC Films Unlimited; Held also starts today on VOD on AppleTV, iTunes and other platforms; and Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide will open next Thursday.

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

Women around the world. Films reviewed: Nina Wu, White Elephant, French Exit

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

Spring is here and so is Toronto’s film festival season, even with all the theatres still closed. First up is the Canadian Film Fest which is on now.

This week I’m looking at three new dramas about women around the world. There’s an actress haunted by an audition in Taipei; a high school girl crushing on a white guy in Scarborough; and an insolvent socialite retiring in Paris.

Nina Wu
Dir: Midi Z

Nina Wu (Wu Kexi) is an aspiring actress in Taiwan. Originally part of a rural theatre company, she moved to Taipei to make it big, but so far, six years on her big break has yet to show itself, So when her agent offers a possible role in a festival-type feature looking for an unknown actress to play a complex character in a psychological drama, she jumps at the chance. But there’s always a catch: the part calls for full frontal nudity and explicit sex. That’s not all — there’s a gruelling, and highly competitive hiring process she has to past through first. Luckily she lands the lead role. Unluckily, the director, in order to get a “real” performance out of her, treats her like hell on set and off. He works her into a frenzy, slaps her face, insults her and puts her very life in danger. She understands what an actor has to go through to deliver a spectacular performance. But that’s not all. A dark, hidden secret from the recent past, still haunts her, and is gradually pushing her to the edge. Someone is stalking her. She has disconnected memories of walking down endless narrow corridors in a red gown, passing identically dressed women at every corner. What is happening? What does it all mean? And can she survive?

Nina Wu is an exquisitely beautiful mystery-thriller about the life of an actress suffering from PTSD. It’s about her, her dreams and hallucinations, as well as the movie in the movie. So at any given moment she could be acting her role, having a nightmare, or experiencing a hallucination — and you don’t always know which one it is. Nina Wu is a collaboration between the director, Midi Z, originally from the Shan State in Myanmar, and Wu Kexi a stunning and emotionally powerful Taiwanese actress, based on her own experiences. With haunting music, striking costumes and set, beautiful cinematography and a fascinating story, Nina Wu shows the dark side of the movie industry coated with a vibrant and flashy gloss.

White Elephant
Dir: Andrew C

Its the mid-nineties at a Scarborough high school. Puuja (Zaarin Bushra) is a
16-year-old Toronto-born girl who doesn’t quite fit in. She’s too Canadian for her Indian-born friends Preet and Amit (Gurleen Singh, Dulmika Kevin Hapuarachchi), too Indian for Indo-Caribbeans, and too brown for the white kids. Her main pastime is going to movies and hanging at Tim Horton’s. But when a random encounter at a theatre with a white guy she thinks is cute, things start to change. Trevor (Jesse Nasmith) doesn’t go to her school, but he’s from the neighbourhood, and hangs with his friends nearby. He seems to like her, at least as a friend. Pujaa starts lightening her hair, changing her style and wearing green-tinted contact lenses to fit in. But can a brown girl date a white guy in Scarborough? Or is their Romeo and Juliet friendship bound to fail?

White Elephant is a look at the racial division, rivalry and prejudice among kids in a multi-cultural community, as seen through the eyes of Puuja. It’s a shorter than average-film, just one hour long, but it covers a lot of ground.

There are some strange details. I’ve never heard of Canadians putting their hands on their hearts during the national anthem — that’s an Americanism. And why would Pooja’s Calcutta-born Dad scolds her for not speaking Hindi. (Wouldn’t he speak Bengali?) But these are minor quibbles. Acting was good all around, the costume design was fun, and the film gave a voice to groups rarely seen on the screen.

French Exit
Dir: Azazel Jacobs
(Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt)

Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a Park Avenue socialite known for her attitude. She can cut down the fiercest critic with a withering glance, and if snubbed by a waiter she’s apt to set her table on fire. She’s not one to be underestimated. When her husband died she withdrew her nondescript son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) from prep school and brought him home. Eight years later, the coffers run dry, and she’s insolvent. So she sells her jewelry and paintings and pulls a “French exit” —an unannounced getaway — on an ocean liner with a satchel full of Euros. She’s accompanied by Malcolm and their cat. Malcolm is sad because his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) refuses to follow him to Paris. (Oh to be young-ish and in love-ish again, says Frances.) They set up house in her best friend Joan’s pied à terre and start to enjoy life in Paris. And they soon have a motley crew of friends dropping by: Madame Reynard, a lonely fan, Madeleine, a psychic, Julius, a private detective, and others. Frances is spreading the wealth, handing off wads of cash to everyone she meets. It’s almost as if she’s trying to use it all up before she says goodbye. But first she must find her runaway cat, whom she believes is a reincarnation of her late husband. Can Malcolm adjust to life in Paris? Will he ever see Susan again? What is the real reason Frances came to Paris? And what will happen when her money runs out?

French Exit is a leisurely-paced, whimsical story, based on a novel. Lucas Hedges as Malcolm is so low key and introverted, you can barely notice him; while Michelle Pfeiffer Frances is a fantastical creation. It feels like a modern-day version of Auntie Mame. It’s written by Canadian novelist Patrick DeWitt based on his own recent book, which gives it lots of room to develop characters and supply funny lines. It may be light and inconsequential, but it’s a pleasure to watch.

French Exit and Nina Wu both open today; and White Elephant is playing at the Canadian Film Festival.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday 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

Therapy vs self-medicating. Films reviewed: Canadian Strain, Transfert, Freud

Posted in 1800s, Austria, Canada, comedy, Crime, drugs, Italy, Mental Illness, Mysticism, Psychological Thriller, Sex, Suspense, Suspicion, Toronto, TV by CulturalMining.com on March 27, 2020

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

It’s a tough time for movie critics.

All the cinemas are closed, spring film festivals cancelled, and many new movies originally scheduled for release are postponed. Indefinitely. Meanwhile, like many of you, I’m in isolation, cooped up at home. This will be my first attempt at home recording – please bear with me for the poor sound quality. But when faced with a crisis, you look for alternative ways of dealing with your problems. Some people self-medicate while others turn to therapy. So this week I’m looking at three new movies (all online), two about psychiatry, and one about marijuana. There’s a psychoanalyst in fin-de-siècle Vienna; a psychotherapist in modern Sicily; and an out-of-work cannabis dealer in contemporary Toronto.

Canadian Strain

Dir: Geordie Sabbagh

Anne (Jess Salgueiro) is a Toronto entrepreneur, who runs a successful business out of her own home. She has long curly hair and a determined look. Anne is kind, reliable and always there for her longtime clients. She likes her work and is good at it. Her social life revolves around her job. And when she needs advice, she turns to her father (Colin Mochrie). She also has an agreement with her mustached boyfriend: they keep there jobs separate. Why? Because she’s a pot dealer and he’s a cop. But when Canada suddenly legalizes cannabis, everything changes.

Suddenly Anne’s longtime clients, people she considers family, all defect to the public option. She’s forced to rethink her entire life. Should she work for The Man? Or try something new?

Canadian Strain is a gentle comedy set in Toronto just a short while ago, when the province shifted to legal cannabis. It’s more interesting than hilarious. It’s also totally Toronto. It combines bland government bureaucrats, flakes, hippies, grandmas, aggressive men on the prowl, and organized criminals. It’s told through Anne’s point of view, but there are many fascinating side characters, both and good bad, mainly played by women. Definitely a niche movie, but I enjoyed Canadian Strain.

Transfert

Wri/Dir: Massimiliano Russo

Stefano (Alberto Mica) is a young psychiatrist in Catania, Sicily. Kind, good-looking and empathetic, he has been fascinated by psychiatry since he was a child. Educated in Bologna, he is back in Sicily looking for new clients to establish his practice. He works out of his home, a modernist flat that he shares with his wife.

Among his first patients are two sisters who live together. Chiara (Clio Scira Saccà) is pretty and vivacious but accident-prone. She’s had three car crashes in the past month… are these accidents intentional? Letizia (Paola Roccuzzo) is mousy and withdrawn but intellectually curious. The two are fiercely competitive and constantly bickering. Stefano treats them equally and separately. He gets along well with all his patients.

But when new client enters the scene – a man who shares his name – things start to go wrong. This other Stefano (played by the film’s director) though devious and cruel, quickly wins the therapist’s trust. Using sophisticated equipment, bad Stefano spies on his fellow patients. He uses this information to plant the seeds of suspicion in the doctor’s mind, which could lead to terrible consequences. Can a psychiatrist be gaslit by one of his patient? Or will he discover the truth?

Transfert is an indie, psychological thriller about an innocent, young psychotherapist trapped in a patient’s schemes. This is a low budget film so much of it takes place indoors, with some drone views of the city from above. But it still manages to thrill and surprise. There are visual references to Truffaut, among  others. It’s shot in beautiful Catania, a baroque city beside Mt Etna, a volcano ready to erupt (like many of the characters). I like the way Transfert tells the story through a sympathetic therapist’s eyes – something you rarely see. And while I thought the twisted ending was implausible, it still managed to surprise me. I liked this one, too.

Freud

Co-Wri/Dir: Marvin Kren

It’s the 1880s. Fin-de-siècle Vienna is a cauldron of new ideas in art, music, architecture and politics – think Mahler, and Berg, Klimt and Loos and many others, all in one city, the hub of the vast Austro-Hungarian empire.

Inspector Kiss (Georg Friedrich) is there, a former soldier with a shaved head and curled mustache. He’s a cop who solves crimes. So is Fleur (Ella Rumpf) a beautiful and dark, sultry young woman part of the Hungarian nobility. She serves as a medium for the countess at séances where she falls into a trance leading to strange voices and ending with a pseudo-epileptic seizure, complete with foaming at the mouth. And then there’s Sigmund Freud (Robert Finster), famous as the father of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. But here he’s an unknown young neurologist and a recent grad from medical school. He’s trying to establish himself. He has yet to write his first book and lives in an apartment where he is threatened with eviction for not paying rent. He’s just starting to explore the unconscious, but he’s still at the stage of parlour tricks, where he uses his pocketwatch to hypnotize patients. He’s also addicted to cocaine.

These three people are thrown together after a terrible attack on a young woman. Inspector Kiss runs to Freud’s apartment (he’s a physician) with the victim, saying “save her!”. And Fleur has a vision of who the killer might be, but it’s buried somewhere deep inside her mind. She can’t remember what happens during her trances. It’s up to Freud to hypnotize Fleur to discover the truth. But will that reveal the real killer?

Freud is a new TV show, a detective mystery/thriller, with a cop, a psychiatrist, and a psychic trying to catch a serial killer in late 19th century Vienna. But that’s just the frame. It’s also a sexual romance, and an historical drama. Throw in decadent royalty, avaricious artistocracy, angry nationalists, rising right-wing politics, mysticism, misogynyand anti-semitism, duels, and opera… and you’ve got a rich and engrossing drama that’s not your average mystery. And if I’m not mistaken, this is the world’s first sexy Freud, two words I never thought I’d hear in the same sentence. I’m binging this series and am only half through but, so far, it seems well-worth watching.

Transfert and Canadian Strain are both available online; and you can watch Freud on Netflix.

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

Some Antipodean Directors. Films reviewed: The Assistant, Come to Daddy

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

February is the worst month of the year, full of overcast skies, slush on the ground and a general malaise. So I thought: why not look at movies from a place where our winter is their summer? At least the directors, if not the stories. This week I’m looking at two films by directors from the antipodes, one from Australia, another from New Zealand. There’s a thriller/horror about a young man searching for his father’s secrets; and a tense drama about a young woman uncovering horrible secrets in her office.

The Assistant

Wri/Dir: Kitty Green (Interview: Ukraine is not a Brothel)

Jane (Julia Garner) is a young woman trying to make it in New York City. Hired straight out of Northwestern,  she’s currently at the bottom of the ladder, but hopes to work her way up. She’s an assistant at a medium-sized movie industry corporation with offices in New York, London and LA. She’s the first one to arrive, the last one to leave, the sort who eats her fruit loops standing up in the office kitchen.  All the grunt work falls to her — order lunch, sort head shots, distribute memos, serve coffee, book hotel rooms, tidy up her boss’s office. And deal with angry abusive people blaming everything on her. She brushes it all off in exchange for the promise of future work.

But something doesn’t seem quite right. A newly hired assistant, a pretty aspiring actress, has just arrived from Boise, Idaho, fresh out of high school, who has only worked as a waitress in a diner. Jane commutes from remote Astoria while the newest assistant is staying at a first-class hotel. She finds a woman’s earring  under a cushion in the boss’s couch. Why do actresses leave the boss’s office in tears? Why is she sending out blank cheques to unnamed people? And what will happen to the new assistant who thinks she’s here for an audition? Although she doesn’t face sexual abuse from her boss, it’s becoming increasingly clear that other women do. Why isn’t anyone talking about it? And is she to blame of she doesn’t speak up?

The Assistant is a cold, hard look at the rampant sexual harassment and abuse women face. It’s set at some point in the past, before the #MeToo movement broke, when everybody knew what was going on, but nobody ever did anything about it. Or if they did, they would be paid hush money to keep it away from the public. Male assistants laugh nervously, making jokes about which pieces of the boss’s furniture you should never sit in. Older women take it as a given: don’t worry dear, you’re not his type. The movie just lays its out before the audience in all its horribleness… without ever showing it.

Julia Garner gives a stunning performance as Jane, conveying a succession of unspoken emotions over the course of one day through facial expressions and body language: dread, distrust, realization, horror, and fear. There’s a terrific scene where she wraps herself up in a winter coat and a big scarf – like a suit of armour – to somehow shield her from the bad stuff happening all around her. This film gives a realistic look at a widespread problem reduced to a single day in one unnamed office.

The Assistant is a subtly, powerful movie about a difficult and uncomfortable topic that has to be told.

Come to Daddy

Dir: Ant Timpson (Turbo Boy)

Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) is a privileged, 35-year-old guy from LA. He loves fashion, celebrity and the big city. His prize possession is a limited edition, solid gold cel phone designed by Lorde. But something is missing from his life. His father walked out when he was five and Norval was raised by his mother in a Beverley Hills mansion. So when he receives a cryptic, letter from his long-lost Dad telling him he wants to talk to him, he decides to do it. He follows a handwritten map to a rocky beach in the pacific northwest until he finds an isolated, wooden house decorated with christmas lights clinging to the edge of a cliff. He knocks on the door, and a dessicated, grizzled old man opens it. “Hi Dad, Here I am…”

But this is not the kindly father he remembers. Gordon (Stephen McHattie) is a mean drunk, staggering around swilling plonk as he shoots insults at his son. His beady eyes look like dried out raisins. Norval wants to get the hell out of there but only after his dad tells him why he asked him to come in the first place. But when the old man threatens to chop him up with a cleaver, he knows something is not right.

Come to Daddy is a nihilistic thriller/horror as seen through a darkly comic lens. Elijah Wood is great as a nervous, self-centred guy whose First World problems are dwarfed by real life dangers… involving a killer, an eccentric policeman, a coroner, a swingers convention at a nearby motel, and the unexplained noises, that echo — clang clang clang —  around the nearly empty house. The vintage Thai soundtrack helps balance the blood and gore. This is a particular genre; either you like it or you don’t, but I love darkly twisted movies like this, with the quirky characters and constant surprises that keeps me glued to my seat till the final revelation.

The Assistant and Come to Daddy both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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 Toronto filmmaker Erin Berry about Majic, premiering at B.I.T.S.!

Posted in 1950s, 2000s, Conspiracy Theory, Internet, Mental Illness, Movies, Politics, Psychological Thriller, Republican Party, Secrets, US by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 2019

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

It’s 2008. Pippa Bernwood is a skeptical Vlogger who posts her views on youtube. She’s there to counter all the crazy conspiracy theories that pop up. She wants truth backed by evidence. But her world is turned upside down when a crazy old man named Anderson approaches her with an outlandish theory… and his theory turns out to be true. Now she’s in a quandary. Go with her gut, or believe the new story? Is it a vast conspiracy involving aliens, the government and secret societies? Or is it all smoke and mirrors, just a bit of birthday party “Majic”?

Majic is also the name of a new film about a secretive project called Majestic 12. It’s a combination mystery, sci-fi and conspiracy- theory thriller, all in one.

Majic is co-written and directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Erin Berry, his third feature, and the first made by his production company, Banned for Life.

I spoke with Erin in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Majic has its Canadian premier Sunday, 4:30 pm at the Royal Cinema at the Blood in the Snow Film Festival.

Daniel Garber talks with Yaron Zilberman and Yehuda Nahari Levi about Incitement at #TIFF19

Posted in 1990s, Docudrama, Israel, Palestine, Politics, Psychological Thriller, Religion by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

In September, 1994, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat sign an historic peace treaty between Israel and Palestine. On November 4, 1995 he is assassinated by an Israeli at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Was it a lone wolf terrorist? A deranged fanatic? Or a young man given widespread support at the highest levels, urging him – and those like him – to commit murder?

Incitement is an enthralling, bold and deeply disturbing new docudrama that traces the steps of a law student leading to his shocking crime. It’s directed and co-written by Yaron Zilberman previously known for his gentle drama A Late Quartet; and stars Yehuda Nahari Halevi in a crucial performance as the assassin Yigal Amir.

Incitement had its world premier at TIFF19 and is opening soon in Toronto.

I spoke with Yaron and Yehuda on location at TIFF.

Art and deception. Films reviewed: Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, The Art of Self Defense, Push

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

The things you see online – or on TV for that matter – aren’t always true (suprised?). This week I’m looking at three movies, two docs and one dark comedy, about lies and deceptions. There’s a man who trains in the art of karate, a look at the art of selling lies, and a look at the lies of selling real estate.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies

Dir: Larry Weinstein

What is Propaganda? Is it art and literature? Or brainwashing and fake news? The word comes from a benign Catholic term meaning the propagation of faith, the planting the seeds. The Vatican opened a department of propaganda to counter Martin Luther’s austere reforms. It combined the opulance of baroque cathedrals, the lure of incense and all the lush frescos, paintings and marble statues you’ve seen. But art and magic and religion were around long before that, and so, says this documentary, was propaganda. Some historians trace it as far back as Neandrathal cave paintings.

Propaganda is easy to spot in other cultures but very hard to see in your own.  Many people were entanced by dictators like Hitler and Stalin thanks to their skillful use of films (like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) radio broadcasts and posters. But with the shift to digital culture, it has taken on new forms; like patently false news stories online, repeated ad infinitum, until people start to believe it.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies is a fun, light documentary that talks to a lot of artists and writers – Astra Taylor, Ai Weiwei and Kent Monkman – but also musicians, analysts and others. It shoots a constant barrage of propaganda at you, images from the past 100 years, shown in harsh black and white periodically blanketed in fields of red. A lot of it is familiar but there are also some bizarre juxtapositions you’ve never heard of: like the racing cars that now drive around the former Nazi Nuremberg Stadium. Or Laibach, a Slovenian band known for its fascistic costumes and images, who performed in North Korea before a concert hall of nonplussed party apparatchiks and university students. Very funny.

The Art of Self Defense

Wri/Dir: Riley Stearns

It’s the 1990s in small-town America. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a shy accountant who lives with his dachshund. He’s a 98-pound weakling who works in an office full of alpha males. But when he’s violently attacked by strangers on motorbikes he decides something has got to change. No more sand will be kicked in his face! He joins a local karate dojo with its own set of hierarchical rules. Everyone is ranked by their belt colour. There’s Anna (Imogen Poots) who teaches the kids class; get on her wrong side and she’ll beat you to a pulp. And at the top of the heap is Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

He says karate is not just a martial art, it’s a way of life. You must punch with your feet and kick with your hands. Casey is starry-eyed, and ready to do whatever Sensei tells him. You must become more masculine, he says.  Stop learning French, start learning German. And throw out those adult contemporary CDs; only listen to metal! Casey takes the blue pill. He leaves his job and devotes his life to karate. He worships Sensei, has a secret crush on Anna, and proudly displays his low-ranked yellow belt for all to see.

But something is not right. When he joins the mysterious night classes he is exposed to a violent world of hyper-masculinity he doesn’t subscribe to. He is asked to perform dubious tasks outside of the dojo. Is this place only about karate? Or is it a cult? And what is hidden behind Sensei’s secret door?

The Art of Self Defense is a low-budget, uncategorizable, odd sort of a movie, part dark comedy, part mystery, with a bit of violence and horror mixed in. It’s slow to develop, but picks up nicely about halfway through. It’s filled with wood paneling, old computers and ugly clothes from the 90s, which adds a humorous tinge. But It’s hard to tell whether it’s being satirical or straightforward, comic or scary. Jesse Eisenberg is totally believable as the wimpy accountant trying to become more manly, and Allessandro Nivola is good as the mysterious sensei.

Take it as a cautionary tale about the search for masculinity, self-confidence and the cult of martial arts and you’ll enjoy this dark comedy.

Push

Dir: Fredrik Gertten

There’s a housing crisis in the world’s cities and no one knows seems to know what’s going on. In Toronto there’s a shortage of affordable apartments, with stagnant wages, soaring rents and home prices quadrupling. Speculators are buying up land as a bankable commodity, something bought and sold, with little thought given to the people who live there. And in many cities entire blocks of housing sit empty, because rent income is dwarfed by what they can earn from the constant increase in value of the buildings themselves. What’s going on?

Enter Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. She’s a mom from Ottawa who travels around the world collecting data and advocating on behalf of tenants everywhere. She views housing not as an investment but as a right.

This documentary looks at the dire situation in the world’s cities – from Milan to Berlin, Seoul to Valpariaso – where people are facing the same situations: gentrification, renoviction, and the displacing of average- and low-income earners from the world’s cities.

It explores the role of organized crime in the housing crisis. They use property investment as a way of laundering money by over investing in legit properties, driving up demand and prices and hiding their illicit profits.

It looks at how the financial sector is turning housing into an investment commodity, with the people who live in them entirely erased from the equation. One particularly notorious player is Blackstone – founded by former Lehman Brothers execs – a voracious American property investment company that swooped into the real estate market after the stockmarket crash of 2008. Now they’re making money by buying up public housing for profit, while neglecting the people they were actually built for.

And it looks at the role of pensions, both government and private, which invest in housing to grow their capital, but, unintentionally, lead to skyrocketing prices and increasing homelessness.

Push is an incredibly important and informative documentary that explains in simple terms the economics, politics and effects of this crisis. It uses experts – like Joseph Stiglitz, Saskia Sassen and Roberto Saviano – to explain the reasons behind the crisis. But it also talks with ordinary people around the world. It shows the multiple, small-scale problems people face as well as the large-scale disasters, like the Grenfell Tower Fire in London. They are all related. And it’s the great Leilani Farha who is trying to confront these problems in a new way.

I recommend this doc.

Propaganda: The Art of Lies, Push, and The Art of Self Defense all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

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