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

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

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

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

White Noise

Wri/Dir: Noah Baumbach,

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

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

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

Violent Night

Dir: Tommy Wirkola

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

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

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

All the Beauty and The Bloodshed

Dir: Laura Poitras

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

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

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

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

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

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