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.

Hollywood movies. Films reviewed: Glass Onion, The Fabelmans

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, comedy, Coming of Age, Family, Hollywood, Movies, Mystery, Secrets by CulturalMining.com on November 28, 2022

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

It’s Thanksgiving weekend south of the border, so movies are being released midweek. This week I’m looking at two new, big-ticket Hollywood movies, you might want to watch this weekend. There’s a mystery/comedy set on a private Greek island, and a coming-of-age drama set in postwar America.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is a conceited, ultra-rich tycoon who made his fortune in the tech sector. Now he amuses himself by throwing elaborate parties on his private Greek Island, where his select guests try to solve a mystery during their stay. But this year, there’s a surprise visitor — the famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). He’s there on the invitation of one of the party guests — Bron’s former business partner — who was secretly murdered, with her identical sister (Janelle Monáe) a meek introvert, impersonating the flamboyant victim. (She invites Benoit as her guest to find her sister’s killer.)

Benoit Blanc, of course, is the famous gay private investigator known for his dapper suits, southern drawl, and legendary detective skills. Other guests include a flaky fashion designer (Kate Hudson), an insufferable online celebrity (Dave Bautista), a devious politician (Kathryn Hahn), and a shady scientist (Leslie Odom, Jr.), among others. But the week-long game is spoiled when Benoit guesses the answer almost immediately, to the host’s displeasure. But, soon after, the real mystery begins, when one of the guests is murdered in plain sight without anyone knowing whodunnit. It becomes a race against time, as other guests start to disappear, one by one. Can Benoit identify the killer, uncover their motive, prevent any more murders, and solve the bigger mystery of why these particular people were invited to this party?

The Glass Onion is a brilliant sequel to Ryan Johnson’s Knives Out from a few years ago, with Daniel Craig repeating the role of Benoit Blanc. It’s hard to review a mystery without giving away the plot, but I’ll do my best. This movie is very cleverly done: like any good Agatha Christie-style mystery, all the different characters — both potential killer or killers and victims — are introduced at the beginning, with no surprises

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). (L-R) Jessica Henwick as Peg, Kate Hudson as Birdie, and Janelle Monáe as Andi. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

parachuting onto the Island. It’s also good because each character has their own quirks, back stories, secrets and motives, all of which are gradually revealed.  It’s even more fun because many of them are satirically modelled after certain celebrities. On top of that, there are a number of intricate clues hidden within clockwork-type devices featured in the film. 

I’ve been watching Rian Johnson’s work since his first film, Brick, came out almost 20 years ago, as he gradually honed his skills. I loved Knives Out, but was worried that a sequel might be a let down. But have no fear, Glass Onion is as good as or better than Knives Out. It’s hard to find movies these days that are there just for the viewers’ pleasure without ever pandering, dumbing down a plot, trying to sell you stuff or stealing ideas. Glass Onion avoids all that, concentrating instead on giving you a really fun night out. 

The Fabelmans

Dir: Steven Spielberg 

Written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner.

It’s Christmastime in the 1950s. Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is a little boy who lives with his parents and sisters in New Jersey. Mitzi his mom (Michelle Williams) is a former concert pianist forced to adjust to suburban family life. But she manages to keep her sense of creativity front and centre. She refuses to do dishes, insisting instead on paper plates and plastic forks.  She’s the kind of woman who doesn’t hide from tornados, she chases them… and reads music scores in bed. She has a blonde pixie haircut and loves diaphanous white gowns. 

Burt (Paul Dano) his dad, is an engineer and part-time inventor who works for RCA and repairs old TV sets as a side job. He thinks science is superior, while art and movies are just for fun… but he worships the ground Mitzi walks on. And always close at hand is Burt’s best friend and workmate Bennie (Seth Rogan) who the kids all call Uncle.

The story begins with the parents taking Sammy to his first movie, Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy is frightened but also mesmerized by a trainwreck in the movie where circus cars are derailed and wild animals run free. Sammy wants to film it. He manages to duplicate it on 8 mm film, repeatedly using his model train set seen from all the angles used in the movie. Sammy’s love of film is ignited — now he’s making silent monster movies at home starring his sisters. Later the family moves to Colorado, where Burt has a new position developing computers for General Electric.

And Uncle Bennie moves with them.

Teenage Sammy is now a boy scout, and, with his new friends, starts shooting and editing elaborate westerns and war movies to everyone’s delight. But in editing family films he discovers a hidden secret that threatens to pull them apart. 

Years later, they move to northern California where Burt now works for IBM. But Mitzi feels depressed and alienated and Sammy is bullied at school by guys who, he says, look like giant Sequoia trees. Can he still find solace making films? Will Mitzi adjust to a strange new environment? Or is the family heading for disaster?

The Fabelmans (meaning storytellers) is Steven Spielberg’s first fictionalized, semi-autobiographical look at how his childhood and adolescence led to his career as a filmmaker. I usually dislike movies about movies — they tend to be overly nostalgic and sentimental, and mainly there as Oscar-bait, to get people in the industry to vote for them. But this one is surprisingly good. And while there are many scenes of people staring at movie screens, there’s way more to it. It’s a bittersweet coming of age story, it’s a family story, and it’s a rare mother-son story: Sammy and Mitzi are both obsessive artists driven by their craft, but facing constant roadblocks put up by the conventional world. The film also incorporates the southwest, circuses, evangelism, folk singing, secular Judaism, family camping trips, and baby boom youth culture.

Michelle Williams is excellent as Mitzi, a complex character with many regrets. Canadian newcomer Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy is also great. And Judd Hirsch totally steals the scene as crazy Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a lion tamer who wants Sammy to understand that following your artistic dreams is like sticking your head into a lion’s mouth: it takes guts, drive and determination… and might hurt a lot.

The Fabelmans is a very enjoyable movie. 

Glass Oinion is on at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for one week only, while The Fabelmans is playing 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.

Humans and machines. Films reviewed: L’homme Parfait, Pinocchio

Posted in 1930s, Animation, comedy, Fairytales, Family, Fantasy, France, Italy, Robots, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on November 11, 2022

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

In these troubled times, many feel daunted by quickly-changing technology, and wait with trepidation the eventual coming of the Singularity: the day robots and artificial intelligence become smarter than humans. What will happen to us after the Singularity?

This week I’m looking at two new movies about the increasingly thin line separating people from machines. There’s a woodcutter in Italy who creates a puppet that acts like a boy; and a woman in France who buys a robot that acts like a man. 

L’homme parfait

Co-wri/Dir: Xavier Durringer

It’s the near future, somewhere in France.

Franck and Florence (Didier Bourdon, Valérie Karsenti) are a happily unmarried middle-aged couple with two kids, Max and Victoire. Florence has an office job, while Franck works from home. He’s an actor who is writing that blockbuster screenplay which will turn his career around. But it’s been three years now with no sign of progress, and his agent isn’t exactly banging on his door with acting jobs. And even though Franck is at home all day, it’s Florence who ends up cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids. But enough is enough. She puts in an order and two days later a large box arrives at their door. Meet Bobby (Pierre-François Martin-Laval): a realistic-looking male robot: strong, smart and friendly. He has artificially blue eyes and speaks in a monotone. With a variety of built-in options, from Salsa dancing to Krav Maga, soon Bobby is whipping up boeuf bourgognon, ironing their sheets and telling bedtime stories to the kids. And his artificial intelligence means, like Siri, he listens to — and remembers —  everything he hears. 

But there are side effects.  Florence may love all the free time she has now, but Franck feels stripped of all his fatherly duties. Bobby is better at bowling. Bobby can fix a broken car engine in a flash. Bobby can select the best wine, say the right thing, buy the right gift. Franck feels increasingly left out. And when he accidentally sees Bobby’s “standard equipment” he feels second-rate and useless. Meanwhile, Florence feels sexually neglected and doesn’t understand why. Is Bobby ruining their marriage? Will Florence ever activate Bobby’s forbidden love-love button? Or can Franck reactivate their relationship?

L’homme parfait is a French comedy about robots, technology and middle-age crises. It’s also a clear knock-off of last year’s German hit I’m Your Man (they actually give it a nod by saying Bobby is manufactured in Germany). It’s conventional, predictable, and anything but subversive, in the style of those cheap-ass Hollywood comedies in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  That said, it did make me laugh more than once. What can I say — no one will call L’homme parfait a great movie, but it is a funny, low-brow sex-comedy in an emerging sub-genre: humanoid robots. 

Pinocchio

Dir: Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson

Geppetto is a wood carver who lives with his beloved son Carlo in a small village in Tuscany. He carves everything in town from wooden clogs for Carlo, to Christ on the Cross in their local church. But when a WWI bomb drops on the village killing his son, Geppetto becomes a reclusive alcoholic, spending all his time crying by Carlo’s grave. Two decades later, in drunken rage, he chops down a knotty pine tree that grew from a pinecone Carlo found on his last day alive, and roughly carves a new boy — with wobbly knees and elbows, rough-hewn hair and a long piece of wood for a nose —  all modelled on his son. He calls him little pine, or Pinocchio. What he doesn’t realize is a blue cricket  (the story’s narrator) lives inside a hole in the wood the boy is made of.

After Geppetto passes out, a magical wood sprite, out of sympathy for the old man, brings Pinocchio to life. She gives the cricket responsibility of taking care of the kid and teaching him right from wrong. The new-born boy is clumsy and dangerous, a tabula rasa taking in all around him. He exalts in learning and gleefully smashes everything he sees. Soon the discovers Pinocchio with different reactions. Some call him an abomination, the work of the Devil. Podesta, a member of Mussolini’s Fascist Party, thinks Pinocchio can be the ultimate weapon, a soldier who cannot die. And a sleazy carnival barker named Count Volpe, and his sinister sidekick, a monkey named Spazzatura, see him as a money-maker, a living puppet he can exploit at his circus.  Being pulled in all directions, can Pinocchio ever find his way back to his father and creator Gepetto?

Pinocchio is a dark retelling of the 19th century Italian classic. It’s masterfully-made using stop-motion animation of dolls and puppets, in the style of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or A Nightmare Before Christmas. Gone are the cutesy Disney costumes and hats; this Pinocchio is bare-bones wood all the way, with clothing hacked onto his body. The naughty boy is made of knotty pine. It’s partly a musical, with characters spontaneously breaking into song (some good, some not), especially at the circus. But it’s also, like all of del Toro’s movies, dark, sad and scary. It deals with theft, alcoholism and death. And by transplanting the story into fascist wartime Italy (similar to Spain in Pan’s Labyrinth), he makes it even darker. 

In addition to Gregory Mann, David Bradley and Ewen McGregor — as, Pinocchio, Geppetto and the cricket — other voices include Tilda Swinton, Kate Blanchett, Rob Perlman, and Finn Wolfhard as Candlewick, Pinocchio’s frenemy. But it’s the characters themselves, animated on the screen, that really make this movie. If I saw this as a little kid, I guarantee, Pinocchio would have given me nightmares. But as a grown-up, I found it a sad and very moving story, beautifully made. 

Pinocchio is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and L’homme parfait is one of many films screening at Cinefranco till Tuesday and then digitally till the end of the month. 

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

Fall dramas. Films reviewed: The Swearing Jar, The Wonder, Armageddon Time

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Canada, Catholicism, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Ireland, Kids, Music, New York City by CulturalMining.com on November 5, 2022

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

Fall Festival Season continues in Toronto with Cinefranco showing the latest films from France, Belgium and Quebec, and Reelasian with movies from East and South Asia, and the Asian diaspora. 

But this week I’m looking at three great new movies, all worth seeing. There’s a phenomenon in Victorian Ireland, a pregnancy in Ontario, and a friendship in Flushing, Queens.

The Swearing Jar

Dir: Lindsay MacKay

(Wri: Kate Hewlett)

Carey and Simon (Adelaide Clemens, Patrick J. Adams) are a couple in their thirties living in Carey’s large childhood home in in an unnamed Canadian city. She’s a school teacher who would rather be a musician, and he’s a writer who loves Shakespeare. They enjoy drinking, cussing and having fun. But when, after years of trying, Carey is finally pregnant, they decide to change their lives for the better, to be good examples for their upcoming baby (hence the swearing jar of the title). But for some reason, communication is breaking down. And when Bev, Simon’s alcoholic mom (Kathleen Turner) drops by unannounced, the tension grows. She repeatedly tells Carey that Simon is just like his dad — he’s gonna leave you, she says, they always leave you. Later, Carey sees Simon’s novel in the window of a bookstore, and makes friends with the guy who works there. Owen (Douglas Smith) is a musician like Carey once was… maybe they can write and play music together? But would that amount to cheating on her husband? 

The Swearing Jar is a delightful musical-romance about a couple dealing with her pregnancy along with an unexpected twist (no spoilers here).  The story is told through a series of vignettes alternating with related songs performed on stage by Carey and Owen in honour of Simon’s 40th birthday. The music is great with some catchy tunes, and the script (originally a play) is generally engaging and funny. Adelaide Clemens has a lovely voice — she and Douglas Smith show real chemistry — and I had no idea she’s actually Australian! This is good one.

The Wonder

Dir: Sebastián Lelio (Based on the story by Emma Donoghue)

It’s rural Ireland in the 19th century, not long after the Great Famine. Lib (Florence Pugh) is a respected nurse from England who trained under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. She is hired to oversee an unusual patient. Her name is Anna, an 11-year-old girl who has stopped eating. She hasn’t taken a bite for months, but somehow she’s still alive. How is this possible? People arrive from all over, both penitents and tourists, to gawk at or be blessed by the saintly girl. So a local committee, headed by a doctor and a priest (Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds), appoints a nun and a nurse (Lib) to take turns watching over Anna, one to make sure it’s a miracle, and the other that she’s not in physical danger. But something smells fishy here. So she joins with an investigative journalist from London, William Byrne (Tom Burke). But will their snooping around put the girl’s life on the line? And if so, what can they do to save her?

The Wonder is a wonderful historical drama, beautifully made. Pugh plays Lib as a modern woman who is serious about her career, but also takes recreational drugs and has casual sex for the pleasure of it, probably not typical in the Victorian era. But it also exposes dark and hidden secrets, which gives the movie a serious and disturbing undertone. It’s directed by Chilean Sebastián Lelio, who brought us other great movies with dynamic female characters like Gloria (my review here) and A Fantastic Woman (my interview with Daniela Vega). The Wonder doesn’t quite reach that level of angsty, subversive excellence (it’s more conventional), but still very good.  

Armageddon Time

Wri/Dir: James Gray (my review of The Lost City of Z)

It’s Flushing, Queens, NY City in 1980. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a little guy with red hair and blue eyes who wants to be a famous artist when he grows up. He lives in a small house with his bullying brother, his plumber dad, (Jeremy Strong) and Home-Ec teacher mom (Anne Hathaway). Encouraged by her and his beloved Liverpool-born grandpa (Anthony Hopkins) Paul devotes himself to reading Jansen’s History of Art and drawing everything he sees. But he has a short attention span — often drifting into daydreams — and acts up at home. On his first day of sixth grade, Paul manages to get into trouble even before his teacher, Mr Turtletaub, finishes taking attendance. His crime? Accurately drawing his teacher’s face. He’s soon relegated to chalkboard-cleaning at the front of the class alongside perpetual trouble-maker Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb). Johnny, who lives with his grandmother, is into NASA, space ships, and Grandmaster Flash. He is repeating sixth grade for disobedience. They soon become best friends, with Johnny introducing Paul to hiphop and rockets, and the much shyer Paul standing up for his friend. Paul is white and Jewish, while Johnny is one of the only black kids in class.

They are both bright but are labelled as “slow”. Rejected by the school, they increasingly turn to rebelliousness to fight back. Soon the pre-teens are cutting class to smoke pot in the boys room. But when events escalate, Paul is sent to a strict, conservative prep school favoured by the Trump family, while Johnny finds himself homeless and on the run. Will their new situation make their friendship impossible?

Armageddon Time is an autobiographical, coming-of-age drama about a rebellious kid growing up in Flushing Queens, his family and his friends. It’s also a glimpse at the period, its music, attitudes and politics. Ronald Reagan is running for President, the subways are covered in graffiti and punk and hiphop are pushing disco away. Closely based on James Gray’s own childhood, it deals with racism, class, corporal punishment and loss, but also friendship, kinship and family. I can’t help comparing it to Stephen Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, coming out later this year, another great autobiographical movie about a future filmmaker’s childhood; but while Spielberg’s is cinematic and full of gushing music, Armageddon Time is much grittier, less idealized. This one is more about the not-so-nice aspects of growing up. Banks Repeta and Johnny Davis are both remarkable as the two kids — they don’t bother learning Flushing accents, concentrating instead on their performance. Hathaway, Hopkins and Strong were also excellent.

I was really moved by Armageddon Time.

The Wonder is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox;  The Swearing Jar and Armageddon Time also 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.

War movies at #TIFF22. Films reviewed: The Inspection, The Greatest Beer Run Ever, All Quiet on the Western Front

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, 2000s, Germany, LGBT, Vietnam, violence, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on September 17, 2022

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

When military budgets soar, and “war games” are held more frequently, when Presidents and Prime Ministers make speeches about liberty and democracy, when lots of military experts start appearing on cable news networks, rattling their sabres… it usually means governments are gearing up for war. And art imitates life. War movies — you know, the kind of films with all-male casts showing bravery and camaraderie, and lots and lots of guns, tanks and bombs — are becoming popular again.

This week I’m talking about three new war movies that had their world premieres at TIFF. There’s high schoolers in Germany who want to enlist in WWI, a guy from New York who wants to bring beer to his buddies in Vietnam, and a homeless black, gay man who wants to join the marines. 

The Inspection

Wri/Dir: Elegance Bratton

Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is a 25-year old man who sleeps in a homeless shelter in Jersey City, NJ. His single mother (Gabrielle Union), threw him out as a teenager when he came out as gay. He spent the next 10 years living on the streets. Now he plans a new beginning: to turn his life around by joining the marines. But bootcamp is not a nurturing environment. As the sergeants say, we are going to break you all down, and if you survive it, we’ll build you back up again. The breaking down process consists of bullying and violence visited on anyone deviating the norm, be they gay, muslim or just insecure. Sgt Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), in particular, has it in for French, and seems to want kill him — literally.  Another recruit, Harvey (McCaul Lombardi) goes out of his way to make French’s life in bootcamp unbearable. Luckily he does find a few friends, including Sgt Rosales, who takes his side. Can he survive bootcamp and become a marine? And can he ever make his estranged mother proud of him again?

The inspection is based on the memoirs of the film’s writer/director Elegance Bratton. It’s a passionate and deeply-moving first film about a gay son and his fundamentalist mother, while trying to succeed in a toxic environment. There have been many movies before about life in bootcamp (especially Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) even for a gay man (the South African film Moffie, for example) but The Inspection is still a new take. My only criticism is it seems to be, as a whole, an “oorah-oorah” celebration of military life, despite the prejudice and corruption within it. Without a negative thought, anywhere, about war itself.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever

Co-Wri/Dir: Peter Farrelly

It’s 1967 in Inwood, N.Y.,  a white, working-class neighbourhood in northern Manhattan. Chicky Donohue (Zach Efron) is a high school drop out who sleeps in everyday and during waking hours can usually be found getting drunk with his buddies at a local bar. Full of piss and vinegar, Chick has lots of big ideas but rarely follows through; no one take him seriously. Lots of his friends and neighbours either signed up or were drafted to serve in Vietnam, but his time served in the Merchant Marines exempts him. His sister marches in rallies against the Vietnam War at Columbia, but Chicky is firmly on the America, Love it Or Leave it side.

But one day, sitting at the bar with his friends, he wonders why no one is doing anything for their buddies in Nam: Minogue, Pappas, Duggan and the rest. So he boasts he’ll buy them some beer and give it to them personally. And that’s what he does — fills a duffel bag with cans of PBR, signs up on a ship headed for Saigon, and just goes there. His ship captain gives him three days to find his friends if he ever wants to leave Vietnam. The only Americans who travel in that country are journalists or military. And no one goes north into battle zones voluntarily. Except Chicky. He starts tracking them down to everyone else’s disbelief. As they say, only someone as dumb as him could survive a trip like this.

He happily passes as a CIA agent until he witnesses what they actually do (like the torture and murder of prisoners). And the Vietnamese in the countryside aren’t welcoming him with open arms — they’re terrified he’s going to murder them. And those bombers all around? They’re dropping napalm everywhere. Later he joins forces with a journalist (Russel Crowe) to discover the truth. But will he ever get the beer to his buddies and make it back alive?

The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a fun and fast-moving bro-dramedy based on a true story. It’s set during the Tet Offensive as the war escalates. It has a terrific soundtrack of 60s pop and psychedelic music. Zach Efron is good as a dumb cluck who gradually wakes up to what the war is really about. And while there are some Vietnamese characters, like most American war movies, it’s all about America. It’s hard to tell whether this film is pro-war or anti-war; rather it seems to be pro-soldiers but against the war in Vietnam and especially the lies the generals told. 

All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues)

Dir: Edward Berger

(based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque)

It’s 1917 and the world is at war. Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is a skinny student with glasses at a Catholic boys’ school in a German town. After a rousing speech by their schoolmaster — who dubs the boys “Iron Youth” — all of his classmates rush to join the fight for God, the Kaiser and the Fatherland. But Paul is still too young to enlist, so he forges a letter to sign up with his friends, looking forward to the fun and adventure that surely lies ahead. 

But once they arrive in occupied northern France, they soon discover this war consists of an endless wasteland of trenches. The “new” uniforms they’re fitted with are recycled from the bodies of dead soldiers. They are forced to train wearing horrible gas masks, and thrown into battle.  And a hellish fight it is. Paul — along with his friends Haie, Kropp, Müller, Kat and Tjaden — soon realizes that the only way they’re going home is in a coffin.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a scathing look at the machinery of war and how it uses soldiers as cannon fodder. Even while a German diplomat (Daniel Brühl) is busy negotiating armistice, the generals continue killing as many soldiers as they can until the bitter end. The film graphically shows soldiers incinerated by flame throwers, shot, bombed, stabbed by bayonets, and run over by tanks… even killed in brutal, hand-to-hand combat by the main sympathetic characters. While it provides some relief — one soldier steals a goose from a farm to the joy of his squad-mates; another falls for an art deco poster of a French woman that he sticks to the trench wall — there’s a feeling of doom pervading the entire movie. It has good acting, a soundtrack that is as brilliantly ominous as the theme from Jaws, the photography is deadly, and the makeup — soldiers’ faces coated in a deathly layer of mud and blood  — is especially striking. It’s as violent as American movies like Saving Private Ryan, or Hacksaw Ridge, but without the veneer of heroism and bravery. It shows the futility of warfare in all its enormity. This is a gruelling and shocking testament against all war and the military industrial complex.

All Quiet on the Western Front, The Inspection and The Greatest Beer Run Ever all had their world premieres at TIFF, which continues through the weekend.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Jake Wachtel about Karmalink

Posted in Adventure, Buddhism, Cambodia, Drama, Dreams, Housing, Kids, Neuroscience, Poverty, Science Fiction, VR by CulturalMining.com on July 16, 2022

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

It’s the future in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Leng Heng is a teenaged boy who lives with his family in a poor section of town. He has strange dreams, centred on a small, seated buddha made of gold. He believes his dreams are evidence of his past lives. 

Meanwhile, unscrupulous developers are trying to kick his family — and all his friends and neighbours — out of their homes and relocated far from the city. And his Grandma, who suffers from dementia and memory loss,  is visited by a prestigious doctor testing a new sort of therapy. So he asks some of his friends — and a girl named Srey Leak — to help him find the golden Buddha. It’s a fun adventure, and they could all use the money. More than that it would prove his vivid dreams are real, and represent a link to the karma of his past incarnations. But he soon suspects there’s more powers at work here than just his dreams.

Karmalink is a new film out of Cambodia that looks at poverty, history, reincarnation and Buddhism, as well as neuroscience, memory, computer algorithms and virtual reality set against a futuristic Phnom Penh. It’s in Khmer, and stars first- time actors in realistic settings. Unusual, intriguing and a pleasure to watch — you’ve probably never seen any movie quite like it —  Karmalink is Cambodia’s first science fiction film. It’s also the first feature by American filmmaker Jake Wachtel. Originally from the Silicon Valley, he is known for his short documentaries set in the Global South, and his work has been featured in the NY Times, NPR and Wired.

I spoke with Jake Wachtel in Los Angeles via ZOOM.

Karmalink opens in select theatres and on VOD on July 15th.

Still looking. Films reviewed: Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, The Gray Man, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Posted in 1960s, Action, Animation, CIA, Class, comedy, Fashion, France by CulturalMining.com on July 16, 2022

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

Summer is here and so is TOPS, Toronto Outdoor Picture Show. This festival lets you watch new or classic films for free, sitting on the cool grass on a warm dark night in a city park. Locations include Christie Pits, the Corktown Commons and Bell Manor Park, showing open-air movies weekly through July and August. Or if you’d rather stay home or watch things on your phone you should check out this year’s Prism Prize winners, a collection of cinematic music videos by and about Canadian artists. Surprisingly good.

This week I’m looking at three new, big-screen movies. There’s a woman in Paris looking for a dress, a hitman in Bangkok looking for a way out, and a talking sea shell looking for his family.

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris

Dir: Anthony Fabian

It’s London in the 1960s. Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) is a hardworking house cleaner, who always goes out of her way to help other people. But her employers, including an aspiring movie star and an extremely rich family, don’t seem to appreciate what she does, often forgetting to pay her wages. Her husband was shot down in WWII so she has supported herself ever since waiting in vain for him to come home.  On her free time she goes to the pub or bets on dog races with her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) and her bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs). But everything changes when she spots a beautifully flowered dress in her employer’s wardrobe. It’s a Christian Dior, and it cost £500 in Paris. Five hundred pounds…!

Suddenly, Ada has a goal: save up all her money and spend it on a dress like that one. And, through a series of fortuitous events she finds herself in Paris quicker than she thought. But buying the gown is another matter entirely. She faces roadblocks at every turn — the idea of a cleaning woman buying such a dress. It’s Haut couture, but Mrs Harris  is neither haut nor a part of their couture. We sell to princesses and heiresses not to the likes of you, says Mme Colbert (Isabelle Huppert). Are Ada’s hopes and dreams nothing but a fantasy? Or will her optimistic nature win out in the end?

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is a wonderful bitter-sweet drama about a working-class woman in the mid-20th century. Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, it shows how an ordinary woman — through the power of will, sincerity and common sense — can open the tightest doors, but can never transcend her class. The movie’s not just about her — there’s a Marquis (Christopher Lambert); a shy young executive (Lucas Bravo — you may recognize him from the dreadful Emily in Paris); and Natasha (Alba Baptista), an existentialist  model — but Lesley Manville as Mrs Harris is really the star. She manages to convey, perfectly and subtly, Ada’s innermost thoughts and emotions. Parts of the movie did seem like a non-stop ad for Christian Dior, but, other than that, it was a pleasure to watch.

The Gray Man

Dir: Anthony and Joe Russo

It’s a night-club in Bangkok. 6 (Ryan Gosling) is there for a job: murder. He’s a hitman who works undercover for the CIA in the top secret Sierra division. Recruited as a young man doing hard time for murder, he’s been a loyal member for two decades, eliminating with precision  whatever bad guys (no women or children) they assign him to kill. He chases the target into a dark alley, and after a violent confrontation, on his deathbed, the guy says, Wait! I have something to tell you! You’re 6, right? I’m 4. You’re killing a member of your own unit… they’re getting rid of Sierra, and you’re next. He hands him a tiny memory disc drive, and says, They’ve gone bad, and this proves it. Hold onto it and get the hell out of here. Then the guy expires.

So begins an intercontinental chase, with 6 vs the entire CIA, and a  team of mercenary assassins bankrolled by the Agency under the guidance of Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans). He’s  a ruthless, sadistic contractor who will kidnap, torture and kill anyone who gets in his way. The whole world is potential collateral damage… including a little girl with a heart condition that 6 had promised always to protect. (Giving 6 a reason to pursue Lloyd.) Who will triumph? 6, a regular-guy hitman in a track suit with a heart of gold?  Or Lloyd, an evil elitist with a douchey moustache and an expensive gold watch?

The Gray Man is a fast-moving action/thriller made for the big screen. It follows 6 from Thailand to Turkey, from Vienna and Prague to an isolated castle in Croatia, complete with a convenient hedge maze. There are some spectacular fights — like a battle in mid-air as a cargo plane blows up; fistfights in a hospital and shootouts aboard a a rolling streetcar. On the negative side, there is absolutely nothing original in this action movie — it’s all been done a thousand times before. And there’s product placement for a brand of gum in the first lines of the script. That said, it’s great to see Ryan Gosling again — he’s always worth watching; and Chris Evans is a nicely hateable villain. Ana de Armas, though, is wasted as a dull CIA agent. The good lines all went to other characters. And there are some clever ones. Like You can’t make an omelette without killing people.  Is the Gray Man a good movie? I won’t say it’s “good” but I actually like watching good actors in pretty settings with lots of buildings blowing up. 

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Dir: Dean Fleischer-Camp

Marcel (Jenny Slate) is a  naive, inquisitive little boy who lives in a large deserted house with just his grandma to keep him company. The rest of his family mysteriously disappeared one day, and he hasn’t seen them since. He likes listening to Brahms on a record player and watching 60 Minutes. But he’s not human — he’s actually a tiny seashell with one big eye, two legs with pink running shoes and a little mouth. He gets around using Rube Goldberg-esque  contraptions, powered by an electric blender blender attached to pieces of string. And he can move quickly on the floor by climbing into a tennis ball and rolling around. But everything changes when a filmmaker named Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp) moves in. He’s fascinated by the strange little talking shell, so he starts to film Marcel — with his permission —  and puts the clips on YouTube, which, of course, eventually go viral. Soon he’s in the NY Times, and people on TikTok are copying his funniest phrases and moves. He’s a minor celebrity, but still hasn’t found his family. And Nana (Isabella Rosselini) is getting old. She loves gardening and can talk to insects but she’s having trouble remembering things, and her shell is pock-marked and cracked. Will his new-found fame bring Marcel a better life?

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a totally delightful treat of a movie made in the form of a live-action documentary. Marcel is portrayed using stop-motion photography incorporating his (or actually Jenny Slate’s) hilarious, improvised comedy. It’s 90 minutes long, but flies by in a second, despite its simple style. It’s full of wisdom and humour and speaks to both kids and adults (a lot of the funniest lines appeal to grown ups with Marcel’s unintentionally hilarious observations.) You may be familiar with him from Youtube, and when I first saw the poster, I thought, why in hell would anyone want to watch this? But, view it and you’ll understand why it’s so good. 

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is now playing all across Canada, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris opens this weekend; check your local listings; The Gray Man is playing 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

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

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