New Year Movies. Films reviewed: Babylon, Broker

Posted in 1920s, Corruption, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Hollywood, Korea, Sex by CulturalMining.com on December 31, 2022

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

This week I’m looking at two new movies to bring in the new year. There’s an abandoned baby in Busan, and excessive abandon of 1920s Hollywood.

Babylon

Wri/Dir: Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash)

It’s a hot day in Santa Ana, near LA, in the 1920s. Manny (Diego Calva) has a strange job. He has to get an elephant through the desert to a mansion in time for a huge Hollywood party that night. There he meets Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie) an aspiring young actress who claims to be a movie star. She’s never actually been in anything yet but she says in Hollywood if you say you’re a star you are a star. The doorman is unimpressed but Manny, now in a sweaty tux, gets her through the door. Inside it’s a jazz-filled mayhem of half-naked dancers snorting cocaine as they prepare for their next writhing orgy. The guest of honour is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), Hollywood’s top moustachioed movie star.

Manny stays relatively sober but Nellie goes whole hog, successfully transforming herself into a wild-child party animal. Manny saves the day when he manages to sneak a dead body out of the party on behalf of the studio, without the gossip rags — including Photoplay’s notorious columnist (Jean Smart) —  noticing. A woman died in a back room with a Fatty Arbuckle lookalike. By morning, both Manny and Nellie are invited to work on location on some movies being shot there; she as a starlet and he as a fixer, helping out in emergencies. 

The movie follows the three of them — Manny, Nellie and Jack — as they make their way up and down Hollywood’s precarious ladder. Nellie is a smash hit — she can cry on cue in a tragedy, and minutes later turn herself into a laughing floozie in a western bar. Manny works behind the scenes, doing the dirty things the top producers shy away from. Jack is still the top star, but is gradually slipping at the box office, acting in one flop after another. has a meteoric rise but faces trouble when the talkies arrive. Manny makes his way to executive level, but likes himself less and less. Will Jack find a wife who loves him? Can Nellie lose her Jersey accent in time for the talkies? Which one of them will survive the dog-eat-dog world of the movie industry?

Babylon is a very long but frenetically-paced movie about the early days of the motion picture industry. It recreates a version of that world with exquisite attention to detail — the music, the costumes, and incredible reenactments of the filming of war scenes and dance numbers using hundreds of extras. It gives you an uncommon, behind-the-scenes look at the silent movie era. Scenes in Babylon melt one into the next with cameras that lead you through tunnels, up staircases, from room to room in seemingly endless long shots. The story is part myth, part history. I’m guessing Chazelle found his inspiration in books like Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, about the excessive and scandalous depravity that rocked the industry before the restrictive Hays code came into effect in the mid 1930s. He frequently quotes other famous movies set in LA about the movies themselves, everything from Sunset Boulevard to A Star is Born, to Singin’ in the Rain. (See how many you can spot.) And the over-the-top acting, especially Margot Robbie, is a lot of fun.

Is Babylon a good film? I had trouble identifying with the main characters — they all seem like pawns in the director’s hands as he tells his epic story. It features some non-white, non-conventional characters, from a female movie director, to a lesbian singer from Shanghai, and a black Jazz musician showing off his trumpet skills. Ironically they all seem to be inserted more to demonstrate the director’s commitment to historical diversity rather than as central characters. But it’s not really about the characters, it’s about the city of Los Angeles. Chazelle puts in lots of things meant to shock — nudity, defecation, urination, projectile vomiting, even characters who die as punchlines to jokes — that don’t quite fit.  But all that didn’t stop me from loving the movie-making on display.

If you’re a movie-lover, this epic deserves to be seen.

Broker

Wri/Dir:  Kore-eda Hirokazu (Shoplidters, After the Storm, Our Little Sister, Like Father Like Son)

It’s nighttime at a church in present-day Busan, South Korea. A young woman, a sex worker named So-young (Lee Ji-eun) is carrying her newborn infant which she leaves in a “baby box”, a small door where unwed mothers can leave their unwanted infants, knowing that they’ll be taken care of. What she doesn’t realize is there are two men on the other side of the door: Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a younger guy who works at the church; and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) a middle aged man who owns a tiny hand laundry shop. Right after So-young leaves, they erase the surveillance video and make off with the infant. Their plan? To sell it to a young married couple with fertility problems and keep the profit. But these two men don’t realize that Detective Ji-Sun (Bae Doona) and her subordinate (Lee Joo-young) are watching the whole thing from their police car parked just down the hill. They’re excited that what they see tonight might solve the baby trafficking case they’ve been working on for a long time. But they can’t prove anything until a transaction takes place.

But nothing is as simple as it seems. After a few days, So-young wants her baby back. She left a note saying the arrangement was only temporary. But she can’t involve the police. So she tracks down the two brokers. Turns out Sang-hyun grew up in an orphanage, so finding loving parents will spare the baby from growing up within the bleak institution he lived through. And Dong-soo has both monetary reasons — he’s deeply in debt — and personal reasons why this has to go through. So the three of them form an easy alliance of brokers looking for a permanent home for the infant. And when they discover Hae-jin (Lim Seung-Soo) a feisty kid from an orphanage they’re dealing with stowed away in their car, they suddenly become a makeshift family. But how long will it last? 

Broker is a wonderful, multifaceted movie about love, kinship and makeshift families. It’s also a murder mystery, a romance, a police procedural, and a road movie. Each of the characters has a rich background full of secrets and motives all of which a are gradually revealed. It’s directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, one of favourite directors who always finds a way to make dramas with unforgettable characters who are deeply flawed but still sympathetic. He made Shoplifters a few years ago, and this one picks up on some of his themes. Kore-eda is Japanese, but everything else in this film is Korean — from the language to the locations and the fantastic cast. You’ll recognize some of them: Song Kang-ho starred in Parasite, Bae Doona has been in everything from The Host to Cloud Atlas. So Broker is both a Korean movie, and unmistakably Kore-eda. I saw it four months ago at TIFF, but it really is stuck in my head.

I strongly recommend this movie.

Babylon is now playing; check your local listings. Broker opens this weekend in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lighbox.

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

On the media. Films reviewed: A Wounded Fawn, Spoiler Alert, Empire of Light

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Death, Depression, Disease, Feminism, Gay, Greece, Horror, Mental Illness, Movies, Racism, Revenge, Romance, Theatre, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 10, 2022

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

It’s December, but not everything is about Christmas. This week I’m looking at three new movies with themes set in the arts: there’s a woman who works at a cinema but never watches movies; a serial killer who finds himself part of an ancient greek play, and a writer for TV Guide who thinks his life is like a sitcom.

A Wounded Fawn

Co-Wri/Dir:Travis Stevens

It’s a fine art auction in NY City, and the collectors and dealers are in fighting mode tonight. The prized item is a small bronze sculpture from ancient Greece showing the Furies seeking revenge on a prone man. Kate (Malin Barr) gets the high bid and returns home triumphant with the piece  in hand. So she’s surprised to see Bruce (Josh Ruben) a rival bidder, show up at her door. His boss still covets the statue and is willing pay double. Doubling her money in 24 hours seems like a good deal. She invites him in for a glass of champagne. But before long, she is dead on the floor in a pool of blood, and the sculpture — and Bruce — are long gone.

Later, Meredith, another beautiful young woman (Sarah Lind) is excited over an upcoming weekend in the country with her latest paramour. Her last boyfriend was abusive, but her new one seems nice, generous and attractive.  And he’s into fine art just like Mer (she works in a museum).They set off for a fun filled adventure at his isolated cottage in the woods. She is thrilled to see the cabin is actually a finished home overlooking a dense forest, and decorated with modern art. But something is strange: she hears a woman’s voice in her ear warning her to leave. And she recognizes the Greek sculpture of the Furies on his coffee table — she authenticated it for an auction just a few weeks ago. (It’s just a copy, says Bruce) What she doesn’t know is that Bruce is a serial killer… and she might be his next victim. (Bruce is waiting for directions from a gigantic man-owl with blood red feathers who tells him who he should kill). Can Mer fight him off? And where do those strange voices come from? 

A Wounded Fawn is a low budget, exquisitely-crafted art-house thriller horror. What starts as a simple slasher, soon turns into a revenge pic about halfway through, where Meredith, Kate and a third victim return as the Furies to visit punishment upon Bruce. What’s really remarkable is how it incorporates greco-roman aesthetics, mythology and theatre into what could have been a simple scary horror movie, to turn it into something totally original. While it’s not always clear whether something happens for real, or just inside Bruce’s damaged brain, it doesn’t matter.  A Wounded Fawn is weird and fascinating, either way.

Spoiler Alert

Dir: Michael Showalter

It’s the 1990s. Michael Ausiello (Jim Parsons) is a nerdy gay guy who lives in NJ but works in Manhattan. He grew up obsessed by TV, living his life as if he were a character on an 80s sitcom. Now he’s a writer for TV Guide, where he devotes himself to work and remains perpetually single. Until he meets Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge) at a dance club — he’s handsome, fit and popular and says Michael is just his type —a tall geek. Kit’s also in the media — he’s a professional photographer. They hit it off, but keep certain secrets to themselves. Kit lives a free-wheeling sex life — he’s not one to settle down. And Michael never came out to his small-town parents (Sally Field and Bill Irwin); he’s afraid they won’t accept him. And he’s afraid to show Kit his apartment. What is he hiding there? His Smurf collection; a veritable fuzzy blue tsunami filling every nook and cranny. But after settling their deferences, they eventually move in together. Most of the Smurfs are packed away, Michael comes out to his parents (they still love him) and they settle into domestic bliss. 

Flash forward 15 years, and their relationship is on the rocks; the spark has died and they’ve grown a bit distant toward each other. But everything changes when — spoiler alert! — Kit discovers he has terminal cancer. Can they handle his imminent death? Will their love be rekindled? And how will they spend what might be their last year together? 

Spoiler Alert is a touching dramady about love and loss, based on a true story — Michael Ausiello’s own memoir of his life with Kit. Like the book, the movie begins with the death of Kit in Michael’s arms, hence “spoiler alert”. The director Michael Showalter, previously made The Big Sick, also about a couple and their family facing a serious illness. So is this the gay Big Sick? Not exactly — it’s a new story with a different style, like his version of Michael’s childhood as a sitcom, complete with laugh-track. And there are lots of funny parts. The bigger question is, is Jim Parsons up to playing a dramatic role, or is he forever stuck in peoples’ minds as Sheldon on the Big Bang? In this case, I think he pulls it off. He fits the role and manages to make him quirkily sympathetic. So if you’re into terminal illness comedies, here’s a good one to try on for size. 

Empire of Light

Wri/Dir: Sam Mendes

Its the winter of 1981 in a sea-side city in southern England. Hilary (Olivia Coleman) is a middle-aged woman who works at the Empire Theatre as the front of house manager. It’s an art-deco movie palace, but like the town, it’s long past its prime. Half the screens are closed and the third floor ballroom has been taken over by pigeons. Hilary is lonely and depressed, on meds, recovering from a hospital stay. Her social life consists of ballroom dancing with old men, and her sex life is furtive encounters with her sleazy, married boss (Colin Firth) in his darkened office.

But her life changes when a young man, Stephen (Michael Ward) is hired to work there. She finds him attractive, ambitious (he wants to study architecture at university)` and compassionate: he nurses a wounded pigeon back to health. He’s mom’s a nurse, from the Windrush generation, but he wants more. Hillary may be his mom’s age but there’s something there. After a few intimate moments they start a clandestine relationship. But Michael’s real ambition is to leave this town — to escape increasingly racist street violence (he’s black), and to become more than just an usher.  Can their relationship last? And if they break up, can the fragile Hilary handle it?

Empire of Light is a romantic time capsule of life in Thatcher’s England. It’s also about the joy and troubles of an intergenerational, mixed-race love affair.  And it’s also about sexual harassment and anti-black racism in everyday life. And it’s also about Hillary’s mental illness, including her sudden, manic episodes. And it’s also about the rise of skinheads and the National Front, and the concurrent anti-racist ska revival.  And it’s also about the collective friendship that develops among the people working at the Empire theatre. (Maybe too many ands for one movie?)

Like many of Sam Mendes films (which I generally don’t like), it’s pandering and emotionally manipulative and has a  meandering storyline, that keeps you watching while it’s on, but leaves you feeling vaguely unsatisfied afterwards. But the acting is really good, especially Olivia Coleman and Michael Ward, who rise above the movie’s many flaws. Maybe even good enough to make Empire of Light worth a watch, despite all its problems.  

Empire of Light and Spoiler Alert both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And A Wounded Fawn is now streaming on Shudder. 

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

Smiles and frowns. Films reviewed: Smile, Triangle of Sadness

Posted in Class, Horror, Mental Illness, Psychiatry, Psychological Thriller, Psychology, Supernatural, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on October 8, 2022

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

Weather changes with the seasons and so do our moods: one minute it may be sunny, the next dark and overcast. So this week I’m looking at two new movies about changing emotions. There’s a comedy about a frown and a horror movie about a smile.

Smile

Wri/Dir: Parker Finn

Dr Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a therapist who works in the emergency psych ward at a large New Jersey hospital. She’s always prim and proper, wearing buttoned shirts, with her hair neatly pulled back from her face. She spends most of her time at work, up to 80 hours a week, but on her free time she likes nothing better than sipping white wine in her bungalow, cuddling her fluffy cat Moustache or just chatting with Trevor, her nondescript fiancé. She is devoted to helping her patients, having survived her own mother’s mental illness and suicide when she was a little girl.

It’s just a normal day when she examines a new patient in intake. Laura is a grad student showing signs of paranoid delusions. She is terrified that someone is out to get her. “I’m not crazy, I’m a PhD candidate!” says Laura (as if the two were mutually exclusive).  She’s not sure whether it’s an evil spirit, a ghost or a satanic possession, but whatever it is, it’s been haunting her since she witnessed her prof commit suicide just a few days earlier. It takes the form of people closest to her, that only she can see. And worst of all, it has a horrible smile. And before Rose can do anything, Laura violently kills herself right in front of her… with that awful smile plastered on her face. And from that moment on things feel different for Rose. 

Her nightmares turn into daydreams. She begins to hallucinate — with figures from her past, including a dead patient, reappear before her, smiling. She has very few people to talk to outside of the hospital: Trevor, and her older sister Holly, who only talks about family and real estate. She visits her own former therapist, who refuses to prescribe anti-psychotics, saying it’s just stress and overwork. But Rose knows it’s something more. Everything that happened to Laura — and her professor before her — seems to be inflicted on Rose now. She finally turns to her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner) for help. He’s a police detective now, investigating Laura’s death; perhaps he can find out what’s causing these suicides. Because Rose is sure she’s either going insane, or is controlled by an evil entity… or both! And if she doesn’t do something fast, she’ll be dead in three days. Can Rose figure out what’s happening to her, and stop her impending, smiling suicide? Or is she out of time?

Smile is a good psychological thriller/horror. While it’s occasionally predictable — with some dubiously freudian plot turns — it’s mainly a gripping, scary flick. Great spooky music and some cool visuals, like disorienting, upside down drone shots of a cityscape, and a delightful scene change using the camera’s iris. And lots of cute, smiley-face images popping up everywhere in the background. I’ve never seen Sosie Bacon before, (she’s second generation Hollywood, the daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) but she’s quite good as Rose, gradually transforming from uptight doctor to terrified heroine. 

If you’re in the mood for a good screamer, check out Smile. 

Triangle of Sadness

Wri/Dir: Ruben Östlund

Yaya and Carl (Charlbi Dean, Harris Dickinson) are a millennial power couple. Carl is a fashion model who is featured shirtless in perfume and underwear ads. He is known for his looks. But he still has to show up for cattle-calls. Yaya, though, is an influencer — her posts and selfies are followed by millions, and sponsors are constantly sending her money and goods to promote. But their unequal status spurs an argument. Why does he have to pick up the cheque when they go out to dinner? He’s the man in the relationship but Yaya is much more famous and earns way more money than Carl. It’s just not fair. So she invites him to join her on an elite cruise ship, all expenses paid.

The boat is an exclusive luxury liner, and the passengers are some of the richest people in the world. One couple made billions selling bombs and landmines. Another oligarch, named Dimitri (Zlatko Buric) proudly says he earned his fortune selling shit — literally. He cornered the market in fertilizer. And the staff are trained by Paula, the head of the crew (Vicki Berlin), to fulfill any whims or demands of the passengers no matter how outlandish or nonsensical. And Carl and Yaya soon find out that any casual complaint or criticism of a staff member they might make may lead to their instant dismissal. But the ship hits trouble on the high seas, and the captain (Woody Harrelson), an alcoholic communist, can’t stay sober long enough to prevent a disaster. 

Later, the passengers and staff regroup on a tropical isle, situated somewhere between Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies. But with a new power structure in place, who will make it out of there alive?

Triangle of Sadness — the title refers to that part of the face from the brow to the bridge of the nose that supposedly conveys happy or sad emotions — is a scathing satire about the state of the world. Told in three chapters — in the city, on a ship, and on a remote island — it follows a young couple as they navigate life among the powerful and super-rich. It also shows what could happen if existing power structures (and the money that reinforces them) ceased to exist. Did I mention this is a comedy? I found it bitingly and bitterly hilarious, though at times disgusting. For humour’s sake, it reverses many presumptions: by presenting men — not women — as sexual objects subject to exploitation; and by pulling away the curtains hiding  the transgressions of the rich and powerful.

The acting in this dark comedy — especially by the late Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson, as well as Zlatko Buric and Dolly De Leon as Abigail a former toilet cleaner who suddenly finds herself as the big fish in a small pond — is excellent all around. The story is told as a comic fable, intentionally never realistic, with settings, costumes, and music, all reinforcing its farcical nature. This is not Swedish director Ruben Östlund first dark comedy — he previously directed such great movies as The Square and Force Majeure — but Triangle of Sadness is the most extreme of all his films, one that takes his themes beyond the expected limits. Though not universally loved, in my opinion this is one great movie.

Smile is now playing and Triangle of Sadness, which played at #TIFF22 earlier this year, opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this weekend.

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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