End of summer movies. Films reviewed: Flag Day, 499, Candyman

Posted in 1500s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Chicago, Crime, documentary, Family, History, Mexico by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 2021

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

I know, everyone’s still thinking about Covid-19, vaccinations and Delta, Delta, Delta… but it’s also beastly hot and horribly humid. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in an air-conditioned movie theatre, (safely spaced away from the other moviegoers?) This week I’m talking about three new films that open this weekend — a documentary, a family drama and a horror movie. There’s a Spanish conquistador recording notes in a book; a ghostly killer whose hand is a hook; and a grifter who vows to help out his daughter… by hook or by crook. 

Flag Day

Dir: Sean Penn

It’s the 1970s in the US  midwest. Jennifer and her little brother Nick lived with both their parents, until mom (Katheryn Winnick) kicked dad (Sean Penn) out of the house. He’s a liar and I won’t put up with him anymore! But after watching their mom spiral into alcoholism, the kids only have fond memories of their dad. So they ask to spend time with him. They move into his ramshackle hut by a lake, alongside his new, young girlfriend. He teaches 11-year-old Jennifer to drive, and they spend crazy times by the lake and on the highway. It’s all like an exciting adventure… until the motorcycle gang he works for — and owes money to — start visiting the home. Dad gets beaten up and the kids move back in with mom.

Later, in the 80s they’re back in school. Jennifer (Dylan Penn) is a goth rebel and Nick (Hopper Penn) is a withdrawn teen. Mom has remarried to a creepy guy, and the kids suffer for it. But when the stepdad starts crawling into bed with Jen, that’s the last straw — she has to get out of there. She travels across the country until she finds her father. He is not in great shape — neither mentally nor financially. And his criminal tendencies start to re-emerge. Can Jennifer reconcile with her dad and mom and pursue her goal to become a journalist? Or is she doomed to follow in their footsteps?

Flag Day is a family drama (based in a true story) about the ups and downs of a father-daughter friendship. It stars a real father and daughter, Sean and Dylan Penn. The movie starts on Flag Day (an unofficial,  patriotic US holiday), with the father — an accused counterfeiter — is being pursued down a highway by a line of police cars with a helicopter overhead. The rest of the movie is about what led to this point: mainly Dad trying to get away with his crimes to help his beloved daughter.

I have mixed feelings about this film. I’ve seen enough to know that if it’s bad in the first 10 minutes, it will probably only get worse. (Flag Day feels wooden and slow.) But I decided to give this one a chance… and you know what? It gets much better. There’s way too much crying — every scene of the movie involving Jennifer or one of her parents leaving or coning back is punctuated by more tears. And voice-over narration  can ruin any connection you might feel to the characters on the screen. On the other hand, the whole movie is nicely shot on grainy video filled with beautiful fireworks, bonfires, flaming BBQs — (lots of fire and water!); the characters develop and get more and more interesting as you get to know them; and the whole thing (nearly) pulls together by the end. It’s set mainly in Minnesota but was shot in Manitoba, giving it an “authentic” feeling of working-class, white America. Flag Day isn’t perfect but it’s not bad either, once you give it a chance.

499

Co-Wri/Dir: Rodrigo Reyes

In 1521, Cortez and a few hundred conquistadors  invade the Aztec kingdom. They overthrow Montezuma and slaughter countless people, laying waste to the beautiful capital of Tenochtitlán in their insatiable search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Later, one of the conquistadors (Eduardo San Juan) survives a shipwreck and washes to shore, complete with armour, helmet, pantaloons and sword. He walks from the beach to Tenochtitlan, but it’s not how he remembers it. Somehow he has skipped the past 499 years and is now near Mexico City, circa 2020.

499 is a documentary with a twist. It’s a travelogue through modern day Mexico as seen through the eyes of a relic from the past, a man mired in 16th century Christian morality and Spanish Imperialism. He feels he can slaughter local “Indios” with impunity. But, gradually,  as he sees what’s become of Mexico today — the drug cartels and corrupt police forces, along with the relentless crime, torture and death they bring — he is forced to rethink his beliefs. He becomes less of a soldier, and more of a passive observer, speaking with Mexicans and writing down what they say as they tell him their harrowing stories.

But it’s not all sad stuff. We also see the beauty, the splendour, the weirdness and the wonder all around him. Dance, music, acrobatics, art, culture and history are all shown in glorious panoramic cinematography.  There are bullfights and strip bars, and interviews with actual masked gangsters… as well as their victims.

499 is an eye-opening doc about contemporary Mexico disguised as a time-travel movie. 

Candyman

Dir:  Nia DaCosta

It’s present-day Chicago. 

Brianna and Anthony (Teyonah Parris, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are a rising young power couple in Chicago. They live in a luxury high-rise. She’s a curator at a local art gallery, and he’s an artist. But when he wants his paintings included in a group show, his gallerist says his work is getting stale. Find something new. So he sets out to explore a local urban legend to incorporate it in his work. It’s the story of Candyman, a ghostly serial killer who operated out of a public housing project called Cabrini–Green. It was a sorely neglected area, populated mainly by poor blacks, located just across a street from one of Chicago’s richest and mainly white neighbourhoods, the Gold Coast. (Looks like Bree’s apartment was built over the remains of the project.) 

Candyman tempts victims by offering  them candy, and kills them surrounded by a swarm of honeybees, using a sharp hook he has for a hand. And he can be summoned by saying his name 5 times while looking into a mirror. Anthony’s latest work is called Call My Name, a mirror that dares its viewers to summon Candyman. It gets little notice until people associated with his art start turning up dead. Suddenly, he’s a hot property and art critics say he’s important. But Anthony knows the truth. Candyman is real, he’s dangerous, and he’s Anthony’s to blame for letting him loose on the world. Can he and Bree stop the Candyman before he kills more people? Or is it too late?

Candyman is a sequel to the Wes Craven’s horror movie from the 90s, and it turns conventional slasher-horror movies on their head.  Bree’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett)  is flamboyantly gay but also a credible character with a life all his own, not just a victim to be laughed out. Black characters don’t exist merely in reaction to whites — they’re the focus of the movie. Killings are usually shown from a distance or off-camera — while there’s blood, it’s not excessively gory (compared to most slasher movies). Scary but not terrifying. 

Aesthetically, Candyman is deeply satisfying with art direction way above what you normally see: minimalist composed sets, breathtaking cityscape views of Chicago filmed upside-down in black and white, and shadow puppets used to illustrate the story within the story… so cool. The filmmakers — producer Jordan Peele and co-writer/directer Nia DaCosta  — are black, as are the main characters… but not most of the victims. DaCosta skewers the cut-throat world of fine art, using razor-sharp political satire. Candyman is not a conventional slasher/horror movie, and probably won’t scare your pants off, but it offers lots of eye candy to look at and even more to think about. 

I liked this one a lot.

Candyman and Flag Day just opened this weekend in Toronto — check your local listings. And you can catch 499 at the Paradise Theatre for two days only: Aug 28-9th. 

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

 

Apocalypse when? Films reviewed: The Aftermath, Us

Posted in 1940s, doppelgänger, Drama, Germany, Horror, Romance, Supernatural, Thriller, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on March 22, 2019

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

When civilization faces apocalypse, authority collapses and animal insticts take over. This week I’m looking at two movies set around apocalypses. There’s a post-apocalyptic romantic drama set in the rubble of postwar Hamburg; and a pre-apocalyptic horror set in the boardwalk of Santa Cruz, California.

The Aftermath

Dir: James Kent (Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook)

It’s 1945 in occupied Hamburg, just a few months after the end of WWII. Allied bombing has reduced the city to rubble with some of the remaining houses requisitioned by military officers. Rachael (Keira Knightly), a beautiful young Englishwoman arrives by train to be reunited with her husband, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke). They didn’t see each other much during the war, but now that it’s over maybe they can find some quiet time to talk things. No such luck.

The Colonel is busy hunting Nazi holdouts around the city – feral teenagers with the number 88 carved into their skin – for Heil Hitler – run rampant targeting occupying troups. And far from the furnished flat she expected, they are placed in an enormous mansion untouched by bombing and furnished Bauhaus style. Lewis, in an act of kindness, allows the homeowner – a handsome architect and his daughter – to stay. There’s lots of room for both families, he says. But little privacy.

The two broken families settle into an uneasy truce. Rachael hates Germans for killing their only son in the blitz, and directs her anger at Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) who built the house. He lives in the attic now with his daughter. His wife was killed by allied bombing. And little Freda (Flora Thiemann) who blames Rachael for her mother’s death, spends her time with the trümmerkinder, the kids who hide in bombed out buildings in the city centre. When she runs into the Morgans in the hallways she just hisses at them like a cat.

Tension rises to a boiling point, until one day, when Lewis away a shouting match between Stefan and Rachael… turns ino a passionate kiss! Will this turn into something bigger? Can her marriage survive? Is Stefan a Nazi? Will Freda accept Rachael into her life? And what does Rachael really want?

The Aftermath is a romance that also deals with the mourning and loss that war brings. It’s beautifully done, with an attractive cast luxuriating in their magnificent clothing, hairstyles, jewelry and interior décor. The movie looks gorgeous but the story is less satisfying. There are some scenes set in the post war ruin – actually the parts with feral nazi children are the most interesting – but mostly it’s just about relationships. It reminds me a lot of Suite Francaise, also based on a novel, set a few years earlier, with a German officer occupying French home, and similar results. Did I like it? The Aftermath starts very slowly, as if it doesn’t know where it’s going. But it picks up about halfway through and comes to an unexpected finish. Not a perfect movie, but one with lots of eye candy.

Us

Wri/Dir: Jordan Peele

The Wilsons are a very ordinary California family heading off to their summer home in sunny Santa Cruz. Dad (Winston Duke) plans to tinker with his leaky motorboat. The kids are off in their own worlds. Little Jason (Evan Alex) is into magic tricks and a scary Halloween mask he wears all day. 12-year-old Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) prefers to tune out and spend time with earbuds and instagram. They plan to spend time on the beach with their old friends, the alcoholic Kitty and Josh (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) and their twin teenaged daughters.

Only Mom (Lupita Nyong’o) is preoccupied. She feels weird to be back in her childhood summer home, and is dead-set against spending any time on the beach or at the boardwalk. It just doesn’t feel right. She is still haunted by a strange experience she had as a child on her ninth birthday. She wandered into a hall of mirrors met a girl who looked exactly like her but who wasn’t her. She never saw her again, and no one believes her story, but she’s still afraid she’ll run into that mirror girl again. But she relents and spends an uneventful day at the beach.

But that night, things start to change. A family dressed in identical red jumpsuits appears in their driveway, each carrying a pair of sharp scissors. And when they enter their house, Jason notices “they’re us!” Who are these people? Criminals? Zombies? Ghosts? They look exactly like the Wilsons and have similar personalities, but in a creepy distorted way. They don’t speak, they just make animal noises… except for Mom’s doppelganger, who explains it all. We are your shadows, she says, tethered to your lives, but we live underground. We are like marionettes, moving against our will, we live identical lives but with none of the pleasure. So we’re here to reclaim it.

But not if they can help it! It’s up to the family to fight back against these strange people who want to replace them. But can they beat creatures who seem to know what they’re thinking and are faster, stronger and meaner than they are?

Us is a scary and very strange horror movie. Like his previous movie Get Out, this one has mind-bending twists, secret conspiracies laced with lots of humour. It’s almost more strange and funny than it is scary. And unlike Get Out, it has no overarching political theme – no racial dimensions, no class conflicts, no left/right divide. It even avoids gun-control issues, with every killing in the movie using household weapons – scissors, golf clubs, fire irons – rather than semi-automatic firearms. No politics at all.

The one surprising theme is religion: the music is full of scary liturgical chants, the doppelgänger people live in a hellish underground, they dress in red robes, they are surrounded by flames and are possibly part of a nationwide apocalypse ordained by God to punish Americans for worshipping false idols.

Is this a good movie? Oh yes it is! Is it a horror movie? Sort of, but more creepy than terrifying. And it leaves you thinking about it long after it’s over. Lupita Nyong’o and the two kids are especially good, as their selves but especially as their shadows. If you like horror, dark humour and the occult, this is the movie to see. It’s great.

Us and The Aftermath 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

%d bloggers like this: