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

Tough older women. Films reviewed: The Lost Daughter, June Again

Posted in Australia, Dementia, Depression, Drama, Family, Greece, Kids, Secrets, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 8, 2022

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

Well, as I’m sure you know, we’re under lockdown, and all the movie theatres are closed. It’s like Groundhog Day all over again. But that doesn’t mean you can’t watch movies at home on streaming networks or VOD.  So this week I’m looking at two such movies about tough older women. There’s a professor who finds a lost child as she interacts with a family of strangers; and a former matriarch who finds her missing past as she interacts with her own lost family.

The Lost Daughter

Dir: Maggie Gyllenhall

Leda (Olivia Coleman) is an established author and Harvard professor specializing in comparative literature. She has two adult daughters but she’s on vacation alone at a Greek beachside resort for some “me time”. Since she arrived, two men are already flirting with her: Will (Paul Mescal), an Irish lad working there for the summer, and Lyle (Ed Harris) an American old-timer who has been there for thirty years. Though flattered, she’d rather just lie on the beach (she describes herself a selfish person.) But her peace and quiet is broken by a noisy American family, who tell her to move down so they can sit together. She refuses, earning her a chorus of dirty looks. Later, she sees Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother from the same family, struggling with her little daughter who is chewing contentedly on a baby doll. The little girl disappears and panic sets in. And to everyone’s surprise it’s Leda who finds the missing girl, and the family is now grateful to her. But the girl’s doll is still missing, and she is driving Nina crazy with her constant crying. 

Later we discover it’s missing because Leda stole it for herself. Huh….? You see, like young Nina, she has her own checkered history of dealing with her daughters. Can neurotic Leda find happiness on the beach in Greece? Will she sleep with Will or Lyle (or neither)? Can Nina learn to deal with a cranky child? And what about the doll?

The Lost Daughter — based on the novel by Elena Ferrante — is an uncomfortable drama about a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her past. Her younger self is played by Jessie Buckley in a series of extended flashbacks. The “doll” aspect of the story, makes it seem like a psychological thriller… but it’s not. Rather it’s an intense character study of Leda, past and present. The acting is superb, especially Olivia Coleman as a woman dealing with an internal crisis. But the movie itself is hard to watch. Leda is not that sympathetic a character — we see all her faults and terrible decisions, because we’re inside her mind.  It’s mainly about her internal struggles, something harder to convey in a movie than in a novel.  It does have other parts I haven’t talked about — her poetry, her love affair, her time with her daughters — that make it richer and more complex than I described. It’s not a simple film. But it’s mainly about fear, suspicion, guilt and regret. Does it work? I guess so. It’s well-made but largely uncomfortable and unpleasant to watch.

June Again

Wri/Dir: JJ Winlove

It’s a normal day in New South Wales, Australia. June (Noni Hazlehurst) is an older woman living in a nursing home. Ever since a stroke, five years earlier, she has suffered from vascular dementia and aphasia — she can’t finish a sentence, and barely recognizes her own family when they come to see her. She just sits there in a semi-comatose state. Until, one morning, she wakes up as a whole new June. Or rather the old June. Suddenly she can complete a cryptic crossword, and responds to staff inquiries with a witty riposte. She is disturbed to see where she’s living. What are these hideous clothes she’s wearing, why is this place so tacky, and why is she there? They tell her she has dementia, and although she’s back to normal now, it’s only temporary. But June decides to use her time wisely.  She engineers an escape from that “prison”, zooming away in a taxi, and stealing some brightly-patterned clothes on the way. But everything has changed. 

Her home is no longer hers — there’s another family living there, and all her possessions are gone, including a prized wooden wardrobe.  The company she founded — a prestigious manufacturer of hand-printed wallpaper — has gone to seed, and is headed by a douchey manager who calls her former colleagues “girls”.  They‘re printing on low-grade paper now and have lost al their prestigious clients.  And her two adult children aren’t on speaking terms. When she last saw her son Dev (Stephen Curry) he was studying architecture and raising a family. Now he’s divorced, spends little time with beloved her grandson Piers (Otis Dhanji) and is working as a clerk in a copy shop. Her daughter Ginny (Claudia Karvan) has completely abandoned the factory, June’s life work. And June’s finances are a mess.  But what can she do — with the limited time she has left — to make everything right again?

June Again is a funny and heartwarming story of a woman given a second chance. The early scenes of Dementia June are similar to the movie The Father (starring Anthony Hopkins) where time sudden’y jumps forward to signify her frequent memory loss. But most of the movie is about Normal June, a brash, funny and bossy matriarch who won’t take no for an answer. Noni Hazlehurst is wonderful as June — the whole movie revolves around her, and luckily she’s marvellous to watch. June again is fun to watch, and though dealing with a sad topic is upbeat all the way. 

I liked this one a lot. 

June Again is now available on VOD, and The Lost Daughter is now streaming on Netflix. 

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

On the Brink of Collapse. Films reviewed: This Game’s Called Murder, Don’t Look Up

Posted in Class, comedy, Conspiracy Theory, Disaster, Games, Space by CulturalMining.com on December 11, 2021

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

In these uncertain times sometimes dark humour allow us to laugh at our troubles and worries. So this week I’m looking at two new movies that look at a nihilistic planet on the brink of collapse.  

There’s a high-heeled shoe magnate who wants to control the world, and a pair of astronomers who want to save the world.

This Game’s Called Murder

Wri/Dir: Adam Sherman

Jennifer  (Vanessa Marano) and Cane (James Lastovic) are dating, but they live very different lives. He runs a restaurant and bar in an old abandoned warehouse, and hangs with an all-woman gang of thieves, headed by Cynthia (Annabel Barrett). Cane hates anything technological — cel phones are forbidden in his space. Jennifer is a media star, posting selfies for her countless followers. But to accommodate Cane, she only takes polaroid pics around him — nothing digital. She lives in a huge mansion with her filthy-rich, bible-thumping parents the Wallendorfs (Ron Perlman, Natasha Henstridge). Her Texan dad — using his hypnotic abilities — runs an international business selling his hugely popular red, high-heeled shoes. His company’s ads are as infamous as the shoes they sell. They feature scantily clad models blissfully playing “games” which end up with more aesthetically perfect dead bodies.

Her mom is a socialite, and also quite mad. She does whatever a mysterious voice — coming from inside her vanity mirror — tells her to do even it involves killing people. So Jennifer escapes to Cane’s world to see if she can find something real and honest there. Sadly, Cane’s life is equally hollow and alienated. The gang of thieves regularly murder delivery-truck drivers, using a bow and arrow, to steal the contents. Cane himself attacks a chef with a baseball bat, for the crime of being overweight. Neither Jennifer nor Cane can find the meaning they’re so desperately seaking. But when she sneaks him into a costume party at the mansion, and he witnesses both the decadent orgies and the extreme cruelty he had only heard about, he experiences a sea-change Can they stop the Wallendorf Shoe empire from its cruel plans?

This Game’s Called Murder is a bizarre, comedy/horror movie about our alienated and disconnected world. It’s done in an over-the-top, campy style, which is fun if you’re in the right mood.  It’s full of carousels and chicken-friend steaks, instant ramen and high-heeled shoes, bows and arrows and Froot Loops. The problem is, while there’s lots of eye candy to take in, it’s strung together in a clunky, confusing way. There are no real heroes or characters you can root for (though you eventually come to appreciate Jennifer, Cane and Cynthia). It seems at first to be a critique of the ultra-rich, but you soon realize everyone in this movie is equally evil and cruel. At best, some characters are ambivalent observers. The film has lots of nudity and tons of bloody and gore, but not much substance. And much of the dialogue is painfully bad. To tell you the truth, I  hated this movie at the beginning, but it gradually got better and better, until I actually got into it. I learned to like it by the end, once I accepted its impossible premise. I can’t call this movie great, but it certainly is unique with some very memorable images.

Don’t Look Up

Co-Wri/Dir: Adam McKay

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is a disgruntled pot-smoking grad student studying the stars at Michigan State. One night she notices something strange: a previously unknown comet hurtling toward earth at a very fast pace. She reports this to Dr Randall Mindy, her supervisor, (Leonardo DiCaprio) who immediately calls Washington. Why? Because that comet is big enough and travelling fast enough to wipe out life on this planet, and if we don’t do something to stop it, we’ll all be dead in about 6 months. They’re flown to Washington and meet the President (Meryl Streep, doing her best imitation of a female Donald Trump) and her toady son (Jonah Hill). But their reception is less than stellar. This narcissist president seems more concerned her poll ratings than with the fate of the planet. They don’t realize the urgency even when it’s explained in plain terms. So Kate and Randall turn to mass media. They appear on a morning show hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) a beautiful but seemingly-vapid celebrity. But their shocking news doesn’t fit in the plastic world of breakfast TV. Kate ends up looking like a raving lunatic, while Randall remains calm. He becomes the national face of the presidential campaign to stop the comet, while Kate ends up working at a convenience store. But can either of them do anything to stop this impending disaster?

Don’t Look Up is a brilliant political satire about American politics and social media. Like an updated Doctor Strangelove, it takes us into the backrooms of Washington. The story comes from David Sirota, the journalist and political advocate, and director Adam McKay is known for movies like The Big Short (all about the Wall Street crash of 2008) so these guys know what they’re doing. It’s superficially a classic disaster/sci-fi pic — along with humour and sex — which makes it fun to watch, and is filled hilarious caricatures set against a polarized country. (The title, Don’t Look Up refers to the comet-deniers, while the Just Look Up-ers are their opposites) but of course it’s really about our inaction in stopping climate change (even though they never mention those words in the movie). It has a huge cast, including Mark Rylance as an enigmatic tech billionaire and Timothée Chalamet  as an ambivalent skateboarder.

Don’t Look Up is a really fun, enjoyable movie that’s also about something real and important, but without falling into that ponderous “nobility” that drags some films down. This stays funny and light till the end. I really like this one.

Don’t Look Up opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings; and This Game’s Called Murder is now available digitally and on all VOD platforms.

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

Troubles. Films reviewed: Vicious Fun, Inbetween Girl, Belfast

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, Canada, Comics, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Feminism, High School, Horror, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Secrets, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 13, 2021

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

Fall Film Festival Season continues in November. ReelAsian is on now, and Blood in the Snow (aka “BITS”) with new made-in-Canada horror movies — both features and shorts —  showing on the big screen at Toronto’s beautiful Royal Cinema starting next week.

So this week I’m looking at three movies showing at Toronto film festivals. There’s an 8-year-old boy in Belfast at the start of the Troubles, a high school girl in Texas who learns having secret boyfriend can lead to trouble, and a film critic in Minnesota whose 12-step self-help group turns out to be nothing but very big trouble.

Vicious Fun

Wri/Dir: Cody Calahan

It’s the 1980s in Minnesota.

Joel (Evan Marsh) is a film critic who writes reviews for a horror movie fanzine. He’s a real devotee of slasher pics and is well versed on all the details. He lives with his apartment-mate Sarah, who he has a huge crush on. So he doesn’t like her new douchey boyfriend, Bob, at all. So he follows him to an isolated Chinese restaurant and bar where he tries to entrap him using hidden mic as the unfaithful boyfriend he thinks Bob is. But he ends  drunk as a skunk and passed out in the restaurant bathroom. He wakes up a few hours later to the voice if a motivational speaker coming from the next room. He wanders into a sort of a self-help group, a twelve step… but for whom? He takes his place in the circle and the confessions begin. Turns out they’re not alcoholics, they’re all serial killers! The worst in the world! Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) slices and dices men. Fritz (Julian Richings) enjoys paralysing victims with a hypodermic then torments them dressed as a clown. Mike, a bearded giant in a iron mask (former pro wrestler Robert Maillet) chops up coeds while having sex with them. Hideo (Sean Baek) is sushi chef-slash-cannibal who uses Ninja like skills to trap his prey. Zachary is the group leader (David Koechner) who looks like a used car salesman but had killed more than any of the others — there’s a sort of a competition going on. So Poor Joel — who they think is new serial killer who didn’t show up to this first meeting — has to squirm his way out of it. But his cover is blown when guess who arrives late? It’s Bob (Ari Millen) the douchey sociopath he met earlier! 

The group turns into a mad orgy of killing and violence once they discover his deception. But luckily, Carrie, for reasons all her own, decides to protect him from the other serial killers. What’s her secret? Can they escape these ruthless deranged serial killers? And can Joel warn Sarah in time to protect her from the evil Bob? 

Vicious Fun is a comedy  horror movie about a horror movie enthusiast who discovers it’s not as much fun in real life. It’s full of lots of blood and gore, as expected, but also a heavy dose of retro-80s camp, from moustachioed cops, to vintage drive in, pay phones and a seedy bar. The characters are all played to the max with the appropriate excess a group of weird serial killers demands, with Marsh as the fish-out-of-water film critic and Goldfarb as the killer with a heart off gold — as well as Millen as arrogant evil incarnate, are especially good. 

Vicious Fun (just like the title says) is a very entertaining, low-budget, over-the-top movie with a clever premise that carries it through to the very end. It’s funny, bloody, and bloody funny.

I like this one a lot.

(I interviewed Cody in 2013.)

Inbetween Girl

Wri/Dir: Mei Makino

Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith) is a high school girl at St Michael’s a posh private school in Texas.  It’s also very white. But as a mixed race kid (white Mom, Chinese dad) she feels both self-conscious and ignored. So she’s surprised that Liam (William Magnuson) the most popular guy in the school says he likes her. He drives her home everyday, and later climbs through her window to spend time with her. They hang out, make out, have sex, and share their thoughts in addition to an occasional joint. So what’s the problem? He’s dating Sheryl (Emily Garrett), an equally popular girl, who has millions of followers on Instagram. She’s an influencer. So Liam keeps their relationship a secret. Sheryl’s too fragile, he says, not a battleship like you. if she finds it out it could kill her. (I’m a Battleship? Angie wonders.) She goes along with Liam’s game but doesn’t quite get it. 

Meanwhile, there’s trouble at home. She’s disconnected from her recently divorced parents.  Mom’s always busy with work and dad has a new family, including a daughter who speaks Chinese. What’s the point of it all? But when she is assigned a school project with Sheryl, Liam’s girlfriend, Angie realizes it can’t go on like this. They’re in love… how can they keep it a secret? Will Liam choose her over Cheryl? Does Angie even want him anymore? And what will Sheryl do if she finds out the truth?

Inbetween Girl is a delightful and quirky coming-of-age story. Though the plot seems run-of-the-mill, it’s told through Angie’s art (she loves drawing comics and taking analog photos) her video monologues along with the normal story. It covers family relationships, first love and deceit, along with questions of cultural identity she has no control over. It has lots of picturesque settings in and around Galveston, giving it a view of modern cosmopolitan Texas you don’t always see. 

I like this movie.

Belfast 

Wri/Dir: Kenneth Branagh

It’s Belfast in the last 1960s. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a little boy who lives with his brother Will, his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and his grandparents, Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). His Pa (Jamie Dornan) is off in England somewhere earning a living as a joiner. He can only come home every couple weeks. Buddy misses him but spends his time studying at the Grove Park elementary school. While the classrooms never change, the seating arrangements do, where kids with the top marks move to the front each week. That’s his main motivation to study — so he can be bumped up beside the girl he wants to meet.

But things take a turn for the worse. Barricades appear on street corners patrolled by the military, while paramilitary thugs throw rocks through windows to get the Catholics to move out of their street. Buddy’s family is Protestant but he can’t tell the difference among his friends and neighbours. And as violence and intimidation increases, so does the push to join Pa in England till the Troubles are over. 

Money troubles, taxes, Pop’s illness and the friction between Ma and Pa all threaten the family. Will they stick by their beloved Belfast and the little street they’ve lived on for so long? Or will they be forced to move to England till the Troubles blow away?

Belfast is a touching look at life in Belfast during the Troubles as seen through the eyes of a small boy. Well-known actor/director Kenneth Branagh grew up there, and presumably it’s based on his memories. As such, there’s a misty-eyed sentimentality to much of the film, as would any adult thinking back to his childhood. It’s nicely shot in black and white, and the acting is generally good, though the characters seem straight out of central casting — no big creative leaps here. The best parts are the unusual and realistic childhood memories that are totally separate from the Troubles. Things like kid gangs and shoplifting happening simultaneously with the looting, intimidation and riots. But there’s also a disjointed feel to the film itself. Van Morisson’s music is great but it doesn’t fit the mood. And there’s a strange music video inserted into the movie, for no apparent reason other than providing footage for a trailer. Gimmicks — like having people filmed in black and white watching a movie in colour — are just embarrassing.  Even so, there are enough surprising plot turns and beautiful images that linger after the movie. While flawed, Belfast is still a touching, bittersweet look at one boy’s childhood in an historical moment.

Vicious Fun is the opening film at B.I.T.S., the Blood in the Snow Film Festival; In-between Girl is now screening at ReelAsianfilm Festival, and Belfast — which won the people’s choice award at TIFF this year, opens this weekend in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

It’s Halloween! Films reviewed: Last Night In Soho, Antlers, Locke & Key

Posted in 1960s, Bullying, Comics, Coming of Age, Family, Fashion, Ghosts, Halloween, Horror, Indigenous, Kids, Monsters, Time Travel, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 30, 2021

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

Awooooooo…!
It’s Hallowe’en again — the perfect time to watch some spooky and scary movies!

This week, I’m looking at a fashion student in London who travels back in time from her attic apartment; a family in Massachusetts who find keys that open locked doors; and a school boy in the Pacific Northwest who always keeps his father’s door locked… from the outside.

Last Night In Soho
Co-Wri/Dir: Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs the World)

Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is an idealistic young student at a fashion college in North London. Though raised in remote Cornwall, she already sews her own dresses and wants to follow in her grandmother and mom’s footsteps as a designer. She’s also obsessed by the early 1960s — the fashions, the people and the music — and she constantly listens to her grandma’s old discs on a portable record player. But she can’t stand the condescending attitude of her roommate Jocasta and most of the other students. So she rents an attic bed-sit flat in Soho, and gets a job at a local pub to pay for it. But everything changes on her first night in her new home. She awakens to find herself in Soho, circa 1964!, experiencing life through the eyes of young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy: Queen’s Gambit)! Where Ellie is shy with mousy brown hair, Sandie is blonde, brash and self-confident. She marches into the Cafe de Paris and declares she’ll be the next singer on that famous stage. When Ellie wakes up in the morning, things are back to normal, but she feels. different. She starts sewing a 60’s style dress based on what she wore the night before in Soho. And she starts mimicking Sandie’s look and lifestyle — dying her hair, wearing makeup and sticking up for herself. But gradually she realizes 60s Soho wasn’t the fun place she imagined — it was actually full of exploitation, violence and organized crime. And the separation between the two worlds starts to blur… with the ghosts of Sandie’s far-off dangers appearing in her real life in modern London. Is Eloise losing her mind? And can she ever escape from this dual existence?

Last Night in Soho is a cool, fun and sometimes scary coming-of-age story loosely wrapped in a time-travel theme. Throw in life in London, 60s girl groups, fashion, Soho burlesque and seedy organized crime, and you have a fascinating and unique world to explore. Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) gives a terrific performance as a young woman trying to hang on to her sanity, while Anya Taylor-Joy (you might recognize her from the TV series The Queen’s Gambit) is a dynamo as her alter ego. Throw in some real ’60s stars — Terrence Stamp as a sleazy barfly, and an almost unrecognizable Diana Rigg as a curmudgeonly landlady — and you’re left with a lot to watch.

Great movie.

Antlers
Co-WriDir: Scott Cooper (Hostiles)

Julia (Keri Russell) is a school teacher in a mining town in the Pacific northwest. She lives with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff. She fled to California 20 years earlier to escape her abusive father. But now that he’s dead, she feels safe to move back again. Little does she know there are other dangers in this small town. In any case, she’s having trouble fitting in. None of the 12 year olds in her class participate, or even seem interested, in what she’s teaching. And one kid in particular, Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas) looks malnourished, bullied and fearful. And he draws terrifying pictures at his desk. She reaches out to help him, but though needy, he rejects her. You see, his dad ran a meth lab in an abandoned mine where something terrible happened.

Now his dad and his seven-year-old brother are ill with a strange disease — the can only eat raw flesh. Lucas keeps them locked up in the attic, bringing them small animals he traps and any roadkill he can find. But it’s not enough. So here we have a do-gooder teacher who wants to save what she sees as an abused and neglected child, while he’s trying desperately to keep his family alive. But when Lucas’s dad tries some human flesh, he really starts to change, both physically and mentally. Can a little boy keep a monster at bay? Or will it take a schoolteacher to stop this cannibal killer?

Antlers is a bloody and gory — though not all that scary — horror movie set among the gorgeous lakes and mountains of Western Canada. Strangely, the monster in the story — modelled on the Windigo, a rapacious half-human, half-animal creature — is part of the Anishinaabe culture in the east, not the Pacific Northwest. And aside from Graham Greene (as a walk-on indigenous explainer), everyone else is white. That said, I like the acting, and the fact the characters are not all strictly good or bad, more nuanced than in your typical scary movie. Antlers is a chilling — though slow-paced — horror-thriller with enough blood and guts to keep you satisfied on Hallowe’en.

Locke & Key
Developed by Meredith Averill, Aron Eli Coleite and Carlton Cuse, based on the graphic novel by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

It’s the present day in small-town Mathesen, Massachusetts. The Locke family — eldest son Tyler (Connor Jessup: BlackbirdCloset Monster ), Middle sister Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and the youngest Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) — and their mom (Darby Stanchfield) have just relocated from Seattle. Their dad died in a terrible incident so maybe a new environment will help them get over it. They move into the stately family home, a huge, but crumbling, mansion known as the Key House. It’s been in the family for generations. While the Lockes know next-to-nothing about their history, everyone in this town knows exactly who they are. The two eldest enroll in the local prep school — Tyler joins the hockey team while Kinsey falls in with a crowd of amateur filmmakers — while Bode is left to explore the mansion. And what he discovers is magical — a series of keys, each with its own properties. One lets you walk through a door and emerge wherever you want to be. Another lets you enter someones mind and explore their memories. Soon Tyler and Kinsey join in, but their mother and their uncle Duncan (Aaron Ashmore) can’t comprehend anything magical, even when they experience it themselves. Only kids can remember it. But all is not just fun and games, There’s an evil shape-shifting demon, a beautiful woman known as Dodge, who covets these keys for her own nefarious purposes. Who will triumph in the end?

Locke & Key is a wonderful TV series that’s part adventure, part horror, part psychological thriller and part family drama. I’m purposely revealing very little because I don’t spoil the plot, but it’s well acted — with a mainly Canadian cast — and lots of unexpected plot turns and cool special effects. And the series was shot right here, just outside CIUT’s broadcast studios in the gothic hallways of Hart House (pre-Covid, of course.) So if you’re looking for something Hallowe’en-y to binge on, you have to check out Locke & Key.

Locke & Key seasons 1 and 2 are streaming now on Netflix; Antlers and Last Night in Soho both open this weekend; 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.

Innocent children. Films reviewed: Lamb, The Rescue, Squid Game

Posted in Animals, Class, Docudrama, documentary, Fairytales, Family, Farming, Gambling, Games, Iceland, Korea, Rural, Thailand, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on October 9, 2021

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

In movies, little kids and innocent animals are the perfect way to gain our sympathies. But what about adults who have fallen on hard times?

This week I’m looking at two new movies and a miniseries from around the world all about the innocent. There’s a childless couple on an Icelandic farm who adopt a baby lamb; a teenaged Thai soccer team trapped in a cave; and Korean ne’er-do-wells forced to compete at childish games… in a kill-or-be-killed arena. 

Lamb

Co-Wri/Dir: Valdimar Jóhannsson

Maria (Noomi Rapace) and  Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are a married couple who live on a sheep farm in rural Iceland at the base of a snow-capped mountain, beside a twisting brook. Their  lives are content but lonely, with just a cat, a dog and each other to keep them company.  Their only child died, leaving a gap that can’t be filled. If only they could go back in time… or somehow bring their lost child back to life. Until, one of their sheep gives birth to an angelic baby lamb. And there’s something different about this one. They immediately bring it into their home, feed it milk from a bottle and put it to sleep in their baby’s crib. They name it Ada, after their own child. 

What’s so different about Ada? Their face, shoulders and one arm are like any other lamb, but the rest of their body is human. It’s a gift from the gods, they say. They teach Ada nursery rhymes, take them for walks, and dress them like any other child. Ada can’t speak, but understands Icelandic and can nod or shake their head in response to questions. But  not everybody is happy with the new arrangement. Ada’s mother, a ewe,  wants her baby back. She waits outside their window each day longing for her lamb. And Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), Ingvar’s brother, returns to the farm after decades living in Reijkjavik as a rock musician. Can this unusual family stay to gather? Or will outside forces tear them apart?

Lamb is a very unusual movie, a combination, fairytale, love story and haunting family drama with all the complications that entails. It’s pace is slow-moving and rustic — like life on a farm — but not boring, even though the people don’t talk very much. It’s beautifully shot amidst Iceland’s stark scenery, and the acting is good and understated. (You probably recognize Noomi Rappace — best known for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) And though not much happens, the ending is certainly a surprise. Lamb is a nicely understated film..

The Rescue

Dir: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

It’s June, 2018 in Northern Thailand near the Burmese and Laotion borders.  12 young soccer players — age 11-16 — and their coach go for a day trip to explore the popular local caves. Tham Luang is a miles-long twisting tunnel filed with beautiful limestone rock formations. They are always closed during monsoon season in July, as it’s prone to flooding. But this year the rains came early, and the entire team was trapped, surrounded by rushing water, deep inside the caves. The Thai Navy seals were sent in to rescue them and bring them food, but they were trapped there too. They also recruited some of the best cave divers — a very obscure area of expertise — from

the UK, Belgium, the US, and elsewhere. But as days turn to weeks, time is running out, and the waters keep rising. Can the boys be saved?

This documentary looks in detail at the story — which held the world’s attention for weeks —  of the miraculous rescue and the hundreds of people involved in it. It uses archival TV footage, news animation, and brand new interviews. It also re-enacts many of the crucial scenes — never captured on film for obvious reasons, they were too busy saving lives — using the original divers, and some actors. The film is made by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, known for their breathtaking docs following mountain climbers — films like Free Solo. The Rescue (which won the People’s Choice award at TIFF this year) is also exciting and gripping, but not as much as the mountain climbing. This is mainly underwater and in near darkness, plus the fact that nearly everyone still remembers the story from just 3 years ago, no spoilers needed. I would have liked to have heard more from the Thai rescuees and a bit less from the British rescuers, but I guess they didn’t want to give interviews. I enjoyed The Rescue, but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Squid Game

Wri/Dir: Hwang Dong-hyuk

It’s present day Korea. 

Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is a compulsive gambler who grew up in a working-class neighbourhood. He is constantly compared with his best friend from childhood Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), who made millions as a top financier, while Gi-hun spiralled deeper and deeper into debt. His wife divorced him and he rarely sees his 10 year old daughter, whose step father is taking her to The States. On top of this his elderly mother is suffering from diabetes. How can he get some cash — quick? At the racetrack, of course, But his winnings are stolen by a stealthy pickpocket (Lee Jung-jae). And that’s when he receives a mysterious card from a strange man. He is invited to play some games to earn a lot of money. He — and 500 others — say yes, and wake up in a strange uniform at an unspecified place. He remembers the games from childhood, like Freeze or Statues where you try to cross the line, but have to freeze when the caller tells you too. The difference is, if you move, you get gunned down by snipers! These games are deadly and there’s no way out. But the winner will get all the cash in a giant glass globe suspended overhead. Who will survive? Who is behind this perverse game? And why are they doing it?

Squid Game is an engrossing nine-part Netflix dramatic thriller about a group of people down on their luck forced to play a deadly game. Aside from Gihun, his pickpocket is also there — she’s a defector from North Korea; as is his childhood best friend who was caught with his hand in the till. Other characters include an elderly man with cancer, a disbarred doctor, a migrant worker from Pakistan, a petty gangster, and an aging, foul-mouthed sex worker with lots of moxie to spare. And an undercover cop, trying to infiltrate the organization to discover what happened to his missing brother. And they’re supervised by ruthless, nameless and faceless guards dressed in pink hooded jumpsuits. What keeps you watching this bloody and violent drama are the characters — they’re funny, quirky each with their own stories to tell.  Squid Game is an incredibly popular series out of Korea, one of Netflix’s top TV shows to date. And I can see why.  It seems silly, but it’s a great binge-watch, each chapter ending with enough of a cliff hanger to keep you hooked till the end.

This is a good one.

The Rescue and Lamb open this weekend; check your local listings. Squid Game is now streaming on Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

Love Sarah

Dir: Eliza Schroeder

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

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

Promising Young Woman

Wri/Dir: Emerald Fennell

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

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

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

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

Lupin

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

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

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

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

The Aussie connection. Reviewed: Stateless, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Posted in Australia, Berlin, documentary, Drama, Fashion, photography, Prison, Refugees, TV by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2020

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

Toronto used to be movie city, a place with countless films in production at any one time, competing for access to location shots and studio space. Dozens of screens showing the latest releases and over a hundred film festivals showcasing upcoming hits… but that was pre-Pandemic. Now the city is so dead you can almost hear a pin drop.

But don’t panic, movies are still being shown. The Lavazza Drive-in Film Fest continues at Ontario Place, showing everything from Bollywood comedies to Italian dramas to crowd pleasers from Brazil, the US and China. Go to ICFF.ca for tickets. And if you want to stay home this weekend, don’t miss the Toronto Arab Film Festival, premiering features and short films online from Canada and around the world, today through Sunday. Films are all free or PWYC. For more information, go to arabfilm.ca.

This week I’m looking at two new productions, a glamorous documentary and a human TV drama, both with an Australian connection. There’s an Australian who wants to be deported to Germany, and a German fashion photographer who finds refuge in Australia.

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Dir: Gero von Boehm

Are the high-fashion photographs you see in Vogue magazine revolutionary and sexually subversive looks at our culture? Or are they violent, misogynistic views of women? A new documentary asks these questions about the pictures of renowned photographer Helmut Newton and the story of his life. He isborn in 1920 in Weimar Berlin. His father owns a factory that makes buttons and buckles. By the time he’s a teenager the Nazis are in power. He’s both repelled by and attracted to the fascist imagery of photographers like Leni Riefenstahl – he’s German-Jewish, immersed in the culture all around him but also highly restricted and persecuted by government laws.

He works as an apprentice for a woman named Yva, one of the first to use photographs within the fashion industry. In 1938 he boards a ship with a ticket to Shanghai, but disembarks in Singapore, and from there to Australia, where he spends two years in an internment camp, joins the army, and eventually becomes a fashion photographer. And he marries his life and work partner, June, AKA Alice Springs.

His photos become a smash hit in Europe, where they change the whole look of fashion photgraphy. By the 1960s he’s the first to use nude models in fashion spreads. His images are filled with fear, embarssment and the threat of violence. They often include statuesque women with domineering expressions, chiseled features, athletic bodies and large breasts. Many verge on soft core porn, with images of women dominating men. There are also photos of women as victims of violence, swallowed whole by aligators, missing limbs or brandishing knives.

And, surprisingly, a series of photos showing the erotic violence of roast chickens.

Newton settled into the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood where he died in a car accident, aged 83.

This film takes an unusual tactic. Rather than the narrator intruding into the film, we hear instead from all the women, the actors and models, he worked with: Grace Jones, Isabella Rosselini, Catherine Deneuve, Hannah Schygulla, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull, Anna Wintour and many more. They talk about whether they felt liberated or exploited by posing in the nude; what it was like to work with him, and how the final images are often very different from the shooting itself. Many mention how he treated models like puppets, dolls or manequins that convey Newton’s ideas not the models – that’s undeniable. But most say they loved working with him and also liked the shocking and subversive images they played a part in. This film mirrors Newton’s gaze of women and turns it around by reversing the POV to that of those women examining Newton and his work. Very clever.

If you like the aesthetic of glamorous images, high fashion, and stark, nude women’s bodies — that also gives a subjective voice to the women Newton used as objects — you will love this doc.

Stateless

Created by Tony Ayres, Cate Blanchett, Elise McCredie

It’s the 2000s in a remote detention centre somewhere in Australia. High fences stop inmates from escaping, while visitors must line up to pass through security inspections. It’s just another day in the life prisoners in the carceral system. The problem is this isn’t a prison at all and the inmates have committed no crimes. They’re actually asylum seekers, refugees from around the world, who arrive there by boat.

One such inmate is Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) who is separated from his wife and kids. The family fled the Taiban in Afghanistan only to find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous refugee brokers who steal their savings and set them adrift in leaky boats. Ameer manages to reach Australia on his own, but now he’s locked up in the detention centre and can’t find his beloved family.

Another inmate is Eva (Yvonne Strahovski). Unlike most of the detainees, she’s not a refugee from the developing world; she’s European and just wants to leave Australia for Germany. But she has no papers to prove who she is. That’s because she’s actually an Australian flight attendant on the run from a creepy personality cult.

The inmates are guarded by people like Cam (Jai Courtney) a likeable newlywed from a nearby town. With the decent salary he can afford a new house with a swimming pool. But after a few months of working in the toxic prison-like atmosphere he finds himself morphing from ordinary guy to sadistic torturer.

Then there’s Claire (Asher Keddie) an ambitious federal civil servant. She’s sent there to clean the place up, keep journalists at bay and restore the centre’s reputation. But she arrives to find news helicopters filming despondent Sri Lankan Tamil refugees camped out on rooftop, with others driven to suicide by the horrible and hopeless conditions there. What will happen to the refugees? Will Ameer ever find his family? Why is a mentally ill Australian woman locked up in a concentration camp? And for that matter why are asylum seekers there at all?

Stateless is a six-part drama, based on a true story about actually refugees imprisoned in Australian detention camps, as well as the case of an Australian woman who ended up in one of the camps. It’s a heart-wrenching TV series with powerful acting and compelling characters played out against an extremely bleak setting. I found it really interesting – I wanted to find it what happens and binged-watched it in two sittings. It’s a bit strange though that – except for Ameer – the asylum seekers are all peripheral characters while the three Australian characters all have backstories, histories, neuroses and sex lives. I guess that’s the point – it’s not about asylum seekers, per se, it’s about how poorly the Australian government treats them, and how passionately other Australians fight for their rights.

Stateless is streaming on Netflix, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is playing now on VOD.

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

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

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

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

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

Hammer

Wri/Dir: Christian Sparkes

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

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

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

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

Curon

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

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

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

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

Ragnarok

Created by Adam Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

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