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.

Films Reviewed: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Marriage Story, 63 Up

Posted in Canada, Depression, documentary, Drama, Family, Indigenous, Poverty, TV, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2019

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

How much of our lives are changed by free will, and how much is predetermined by fate, class or outside circumstances? This week I’m looking at three films about people affected by changes they didn’t plan on. There’s two indigenous women thrown together, a married couple torn apart, and fourteen people following divergent pathways in their lives.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

Wri/Dir: Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Rosie (Violet Nelson) is a pregnant young woman who lives with her boyfriend and his mom in Vancouver’s East End. She likes tie dye hoodies and watching TV. Alia (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a middle class woman debating whether she’s ready for a child with her partner. The two meet at random on a sidewalk, Alia emerging from an alienating medical procedure, Rosie from a violent incident at home. Her boyfriend attacked her, leaving on a daze, with a bruised face, barefoot and pregnant, standing in the rain. Alia dismisses her own problems and concentrates on getting a safe sheltered space for the woman she has just met. They are both indigenous women, but do they have anything else in common? Or are they just ships passing in the dark?

The Body Remembers as the World Broke Open is a very moving, personal drama about two women, and how their lives briefly intersect. They are followed with a handheld camera, and the movie takes place in real time, without breaks, as if you are there with them. It explores differences of class and appearance – Alia can pass for white – and all that carries: violence and abuse, and how police behaviour depends on the appearance of a victim. This is an amazing depiction of a multifaceted urban indigenous story told from the characters ownpoints of view. It takes you on a heartfelt journey even as it destroys common stereotypes. Great acting, a realistic script and an urgent, constantly-moving style keeps you on edge the entire time.

I like this movie.

Marriage Story

Wri/Dir: Noah Baumbach

Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) are a happily married couple in Brooklyn. He’s originally from the midwest and she’s from LA, but they both think of New York as their home. He’s a theatre director with a show headed for Broadway, and she’s an actress featured in the plays he directs. But when she heads to California to shoot a TV show, their perfect marriage turns out to be not so perfect. Turns out they haven’t slept together in a year, and Charlie is having an affair with another actress from within their own theatre. And now their living on opposite coasts of the country. Still, Charlie is shocked and devastated when Nicole tells him she’s staying in LA, with their son, and filing for divorce. Can their marriage be saved? Should it be? What will happen to their careers? The broadway show? And who will stay with their son.

Marriage Story is a compact film about a relationship falling apart. It follows the characters – along with her family and their son – as it turns from a disagreement to a fight to a legal battle. I watched this movie not in a theatre but at home on Netflix. The problem with home viewing is that you can turn it off halfway through and come back later, something you can’t do in a movie theatre. That’s what happened to me. I was bored and distracted for the first half-hour, and didn’t want to sit through a happy and successful family’s divorce. It was irritating, annoying. Charlie is an entitled, selfish doofus, while Nicole can’t take responsibility for her own actions, pinning it all on him.

But I later returned to watch the rest… and I am so glad I did. It turns into a fantastic, subtle portrayal of a loving couple torn apart by their own actions and a legal system that leaves them scrambling. It also becomes almost a brilliant musical, in which both characters (in separate, plausible settings), break into Sondheim songs to explain their situations to their friends and families. Driver and Johannsson are both excellent and believable in their roles and their lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda) provide a sharp and cynical counterpoint the couple’s real emotions.

63 Up

Dir: Michael Apted

“Give me the child at age seven and I’ll show you the man.” That’s how a segment called Seven Up began on a UK current affairs show in the early 60s. 14 children were brought together on a playground and interviewed on camera. Upper class boys in line for elite public schools and then on to Oxford or Cambridge and the seats of power. Working class kids from London’s east end; a couple from the North, one from a farm, and two taken from a “Home for Boys”, an orphanage-like institution. The short piece wondered what will become of these post-war baby-boomers as the world

changes? Seven years later a young Michael Apted took on the responsibility and followed them every seven years with a new film looking at what has become of them. Each successive version surprises and delights audiences who wonder what has happened to these kids – now adults – as they gradually age: their opinions on relationships and politics, whether they have transcended their class or background, what are their hopes, and later, what are their regrets.

63 Up is a fascinating study, almost the only one of its kind, that traces a generation throughout their lives. It began in a very different era, when class is all-important, while gender or ethnicity are afterthoughts and sexuality never mentioned. Since there were only three girls in the initial show, three women it remains, and in the early years they are asked domestic questions, nothing about politics, or professional goals. But the subjects end up having fascinating lives. One emigrates to Australia, another follows an academic path to an American professorship. Others stay close to home. And two subjects face death. One of the most endearing stories follows a man troubled by depression whose life takes a surprising turn. And for all of them, the series both keeps track of their lives and affects them as they become public figures, almost celebrities, in a largely private world… before social networking made everyone’s lives common currency.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open starts today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Marriage Story continues there and on Netflix; and 63 Up starts next Friday at the Hot Docs Cinema.

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

America, America. Films reviewed: Charlie’s Country, Mistress America, American Ultra

Posted in Australia, CIA, comedy, Crime, Cultural Mining, drugs, Indigenous, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2015

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

American Graffiti, American Gigolo, American Psycho, American Beauty… notice a pattern here? Hollywood is loathe to give up a trend as long as it’s still profitable. This week I’m looking at two new “America” movies and one from Northern Australia. There’s a drama about an Aboriginal hunter tied to the land, a comedy about two sisters not tied by blood, and an action thriller about a small town couple tied to their vaporizer.

P1Wr2A_charliescountry_01_o3_8713870_1438270187Charlie’s Country

Dir: Rolf de Heer

Charlie (David Gulpilil) is a hunter who lives on Aboriginal lands in Australia’s Northern Territory. All he wants is a job, a home and a place to practice the traditional ways: to take his spear and rifle into the bush, shoot a bird… and eat it. Sounds like a simple request. But the “whitefellas” (or “white bastards” as he sometimes calls them) seem to do everything they can to ruin his life.

While nominally still his land, it is strictly administered by govertnment agents who intrude into every aspect of his life. oYX82X_charliescountry_04_o3_8713994_1438270186They drive police cars and check anyone entering or leaving the Aboriginal lands. Charlie prefers to live-and-let-live, an existence not ruled by borders and fences. But when the government confiscates even his gun and spear… how is he supposed to hunt?

Meanwhile, the elders expect him to pass his knowledge on to the kids. It’s all too much for him so, remembering his earlier trips into the bush, Charlie sets off carrying nothing but his experience to guide him. But his beard is grey now… can he survive? Or will he brought to his knees by the government and police in Darwin?

vgLRg0_charliescountry_05_o3_8714054_1438270195Charlie’s Country is a casually paced film but one that packs a powerful punch. It’s told from Charlie’s point of view and in his language. Gulpilil co-wrote the script. He is fantastic in this movie, as is all the cast. He is also a legendary actor in Australia. I first saw him in the title role in Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout when I was just a kid. It disturbed meWalkabout poster at the time to see another boy die in a movie; maybe that’s why I remember it so well. It’s almost as if this movie continues that story and brings it up to date.

Though at times funny, it’s a moving look at the devastating effects of the government’s superficially well-meaning but ultimately destructive intrusions into the lives of its Aboriginal people.

image-cd5747c9-33fe-46ef-b347-3f0934d056ecMistress America

Dir: Noah Baumbach

Tracy (Lola Kirke) is a college student in New York City. She’s smart, funny and drop-dead gorgeous. But school life is not kind to her. She has a crabby dorm-mate, no friends, no sex life… no life, period. An aspiring writer, her short story gets firmly rejected by the school’s literary club. Tracy’s mom is divorced, so she feels a bit uncomfortable to hear her mother is marrying some new guy she’s never met. But then she finds out her stepfather-to-be has a image-8b8d0511-0e6d-4bc2-9be7-5418ec1c4d2cdaughter living not far away in New York City. That means she has a sister – a fully-grown sister – that she can meet.

Her new sister Brooke (Greta Gerwig) is a blonde whirling dervish with ADHD. She’s in a band, she’s opening a restaurant, she has a boyfriend in Greece, everyone knows her, everyone loves her. She’s flashy, she’s trashy, she’s wordy but in an odd sort of way. And everything she image-e1cde435-260b-4fb2-9085-e834e858494ctouches turns to gold. That’s Tracy’s first impression. She wants either to be with her or become her. Meanwhile, ever the aspiring writer, she records everything Brook says or does… and turns it into a short story.

But as she gets to know her better she realizes Brook is teetering on the brink – a step away from bankruptcy and homelessness. So the two of them (plus two of Tracy’s non-friends) pile into a image-ee6ce8c2-edad-4e9b-bb05-5a0283bda293car for a field trip to Greenwich Connecticut. Brook figures it’s time to call in some favours from her former best friend. But how strong are the bonds tying these two non-sister together?

I liked this movie. Mistress America has an unusual structure. Tracy narrates the movie. The first part is life on campus and her fast-moving nights on the town with Brooke. The second part is more like a drawing-room comedy, with various characters playing out their parts at the Greenwich home. This makes the film feel a bit disjointed or unbalanced. But since I liked the two parts, I liked the whole movie a lot, too.

IH7A9142.CR2American Ultra

Dir: Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) Wri: Max Landis (Chronicle)

Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) lives in a small town in West Virginia where he works in a roadside convenience store. He lives in a shack with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), and the two of them spend most of their time totally baked on weed. He suffers from unexplained panic attacks but Phoebe is always there to talk him down. What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he’s being watched, via satellite, by hidden cameras. And who is doing the watching? The CIA, a.k.a. “TheBL5U2102.CR2

Company”.

Yates (Topher Grace) is a pencil-pushing popinjay at The Company, who is drunk on power. He says he’s going to “terminate an asset”. By “asset” he means Mike, and by “terminate” he means kill. But Mike has an advocate of his own, a field agent named Lassiter (Connie BL5U8500.CR2Britton). She visits Mike on the sly to tell him what to expect – and possibly save his life. The thing is, Mike hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about. So either the CIA has made a big error, or Mike has a very poor memory. Or maybe some combination of both.

Whichever it is, Mike and Phoebe must somehow fight off a squadron of special-op psycho-killers who descend on the small town to get him. Can a lazy stoner and his girlfriend fight off the most dangerous killers in the world?

American Ultra is an unusual genre movie: it’s a Stoner Comedy Action Thriller. A S.C.A.T. And I think it’s the best S.C.A.T. so far. It’s funny, it’s exciting and it’s (intentionally) stoopid. Maybe not for everyone, but I liked it a lot.

American Ultra, Mistress America and Charlie’s Country all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Middle. Movies Reviewed: Salt of the Earth, Last Knights, While We’re Young

Posted in Action, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, photography by CulturalMining.com on April 3, 2015

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

While exciting things might happen at the fringe, people tend to aim for the centre. This week I’m looking at three movies about the middle. There’s a comedy about a middle-aged couple who try to regain their youth; an action drama set in the Middle Ages; and a documentary about a news photographer who always places himself in the middle.

© Sebastião SALGADO : Amazonas images This photo cannot be reproduced out of this context. The image must be reproduced in its entirety, no cropping, no modifications are allowed 2Salt of the Earth
Dir: Wim Wenders, Julian Ribeiro Salgado

Sebastiao Salgado is a photojournalist from Brazil. Trained as an economist he moved to Paris in the 1960s with his young wife. He soon realized he was in the wrong profession and became a news photographer, taking pictures of people in dramatic or disastrous circumstances. The Ethiopian Famine; the Rwandan © Sebastião SALGADO : Amazonas images This photo cannot be reproduced out of this context. The image must be reproduced in its entirety, no cropping, no modifications are allowedgenocide; the subsequent refugee crisis in Goma, Congo; and the Balkan wars. The movie opens with his masterpieces: unbelievable shots of pit miners swarming like ants up and down vast dirt walls in a Brazilian gold rush.

© Sebastião SALGADO : Amazonas images This photo cannot be reproduced out of this context. The image must be reproduced in its entirety, no cropping, no modifications are allowed 3His images are breathtaking, moving, informative and historically relevant, and they’re mimicked in the film’s cinematography. This guy is a great photographer. The movie gives you the photos, alongside the cameraman himself commenting on when he took them. It’s like looking through the world’s best photo album with the guy who took the snaps sitting beside you. Salt of the Earth is a documentary made by his son and Wim Wenders. With the stunning visuals, he comes across as earnest if a bit dry.

VVS_LstKnights_UltraVODPosterLast Knights
Dir: Kazuaki Kiriya

It’s the middle-ages. Raiden (Clive Owen) is the Commander of the 7th rank, widely known throughout the land for his fighting skills and discipline. He and the other knights are sworn to loyalty to their master. They’re well trained with the bow and arrow, and can cut down four enemies with a single sword. Their clan is headed by Milord, ruler of the Bartok lands (Morgan Freeman). Each year, the lords are summoned to the capital to pay tribute – as in bribe – to the emperor. But the gifts actually go TLKLH_D37-5869.CR2directly to a corrupt minister named Geeza Mott (Aksel Hennie: Max Manus). He’s effete, whiny, cruel and evil. You can tell because he spends more time with his black and white lapdog than with his wife. He pulls all the strings – the Emperor is just a figurehead.

TLKLH_D44-7495.CR2Bartok has had enough. He challenges Geeza but is executed for his insolence, his lands stolen and all his knights cut loose. Will Rainer and his men siege Geeza’s palace and avenge Bartok’s deat? Or will they all just give up?TLKLH_D18-725.CR2

This is an odd sort of movie. It has an amazingly diverse cast : African-American, British, Norwegian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Persian… you name it. Problem is a lot of the cast doesn’t speak English… they’re basically unintelligible. Not that the lines they’re stumbling through are that important anyway. What’s interesting is that this is a Japanese Samurai movie, reset in a multi-ethnic Europe of the middle ages. Geeza Mott is the Shogun, Bartok the Daimyo, Rainer and his crew are Samurai. (Think 47 Ronin in tights and tunics.) Even the sword fights are Japanese, not European style. The fights and battle scenes – though loaded with CGI – are very well done. See it for the action, not for the dialogue.

11052541_1460114650915742_7017630456054098766_nWhile We’re Young
Dir: Noah Baumbach

Cornelia and Josh (Naomi Watts, Ben Stiller) are a childless — and decidedly unhip — couple in their 40s living in New York City in . They once had great hopes of artistic achievement, but it didn’t quite work out. Ben has been making a documentary for more than 8 years with no sign of progress. He’s a purist who wrangles daily over the essence of his subject, when he should just be finishing it. And even though Cornelia is the daughter of a famous documentary filmmaker herself, Josh is much too proud to accept advice from his father in law.

Then something changes: he meets a young couple of aspiring filmmakers seemingly by chance – they crash one of his university lectures just to talk to him. They tell him he’s their hero. Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver, Amanda Seiyfried) are just what Josh needs to regain his confidence, rejuvenate his ailing career and recesitate his marriage. He can get back in touch with his creative side. Cornelia is11026357_1454347351492472_304194366553560543_n suspicious at first, but soon is just as entranced as Josh is. They volunteer to help him with his documentary. They’re so casual, they’re not out for fame or fortune, they do it just for the art. Josh is in love.

Soon enough, they’re listening to the same 80s vinyl songs they used to laugh at. They’re attending weird native purges that involve puking. They’re hanging in crowded nightclubs with obscure bands. It’s like they were told the secret hipster handshake and given the keys to the city… of Bushwick. They adjust their wardrobes and lifestyles accordingly.

But all is not what it seems. Does the younger couple have ulterior motives?

While We’re Young is a good, light social comedy and not much more. It portrays Cornelia and Josh — a couple living in New York and working in a creative industry — as if they’d just arrived from a farm and never seen a hipster in their lives. Noah Baumbach is a very good filmmaker who happens to be dating a much younger woman (Greta Gerwig); perhaps this movie is a self-deprecating apology. He’s trying to make Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors but ends up with Meet the Fokkers. This is a formulaic, generation gap comedy.

Last Knights and While We’re Young both open today in Toronto, while Salt of the Earth opens next week. Check your local listings.

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

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