Female saviours. Films reviewed: The 355, The King’s Daughter, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Posted in 1600s, Action, Espionage, Fairytales, France, High School, Mermaids, Porn, Roma, Romania, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2022

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

Movie theatres are re-opening on Monday, at 50% capacity. That means the movies they’ve been banking are all coming out in the next little while — brace yourselves. So this week, I’m looking at three new movies about women: an action-thriller, a historical romance, and a social satire. There’s a teacher who wants to save her job, a princess who wants to save a mermaid, and a group of spies who want to save the planet.

The 355

Co-Wri/Dir: Simon Kinberg

In a Colombian jungle a drug lord is handing off a major sale to an international criminals, when something goes wrong. In the scuffle a computer drive disappears. It’s the hard drive, not the drugs that’s so valuable. It holds the ultimate hack: a device that can penetrate and control any computer or system in the world. So Mace (Jessica Chastain) a CIA agent flies to Paris with. Her partner, in and out of bed, to purchase the program. She enlists a former colleague named Khadija (Lupita Nyong’o), a British Mi6 agent to help her out.  Khadija doesn’t want to spy anymore. She’s an academic now, with a lover. But she grudgingly agrees. Meanwhile a Colombian desk agent named Graciela (Penelope Cruz) with no fieldwork experience, is flown in to make sure the hand-off goes as planned. But it doesn’t, partly because of a clash with an unknown  woman, named Marie (Diane Kruger). Turns out she’s not a criminal, she an allied spy who works for the German government. And Mace’s erstwhile lover – and partner – is killed.

So now we have four agents, none of whom trust one another, but are forced to work together when they are all declared rogue by their respective agencies. Meanwhile, jet planes are crashing, systems are imploding — just a taste of what the master criminals can do with this hard drive. It’s cyber warfare and the bad guys hold all the cards. So it’s up to them to find the device, save the world, restore their tarnished reputations and be taken off the most wanted list. 

The 355 is a typical, run-of-the-mill action movie. Lots of fights, chases, narrow escapes and shootouts, against exotic locations in Europe, Morocco and Shanghai. I was worried at first that Jessica Chastain would pull another disgusting Zero Dark Thirty glorifying CIA torture in the so-called War on Terror.  But that’s not what this movie is about at all.  It’s a classic James Bond-style movie, but with four agents not one. What’s good about it is the incredible cast — these aren’t female Sylvester Stallone or Vin Diesels. They’re top tier actors — Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Us, and Queen of Katwe; Diane Kruger is a major European actor (In the Fade, The Host, Unknown) best known in North America for Inglourious Basterds, Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz (Pain and Glory, Zoolander 2, To Rome with Love) and everyone knows Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Fae,  The Zookeeper’s Wife, Crimson Peak, The Martian,  Mama, Lawless, Take Shelter,, etc). Plus top Chinese star Fan Bingbing (Buddha Mountain, Wheat,) appears in the movie, too (no spoilers). Take it for what it is, great female actors playing kick-ass roles in an enjoyable (through totally forgettable) action flick.

The King’s Daughter

Dir: Sean McNamara

It’s the 17th century in Versailles. Louis XIV, the Sun King (Pierce Brosnan) lives a life of luxury confessing his excesses to priest and confident Père Lachaise (William Hurt). But he realizes his mortality when he is wounded by a bullet.  And France itself is deeply in debt following a long expensive war. So on the advice of an evil doctor (Pablo Schreiber), he orders the dashing Captain Yves (Benjamin Walker) to search for the lost continent of Atlantis and to capture a mermaid there. If he kills the mermaid during a total eclipse he will become the king of France forever — immortal. Meanwhile, Marie Josephe (Kaya Scodelario) has lived since birth in a remote convent, cloistered by nuns. She still manages to learn music, sneaking outside to hone her horseriding and ocean swimming skills. She is suddenly called back to Versailles. Why? Of course, she is the King’s daughter, but only the king knows this. She soon makes friends with the mermaid (Fan Bingbing), communicating telepathically and using music to bring them together. She also falls for to the handsome sailor Yves. But the king has other ideas — to marry her off to a rich duke. Can Marie Josephe marry the man she loves? Will the King ever listen to his daughter? And will he kill the innocent mermaid for his own glory?

The King’s Daughter is a second-rate Disney- princess-type movie, set in a gilded royal palace. It borrows liberally from Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and virtually any of princess-centric fairytales (its narrated by Julie Andrews.) Lots of CGI — generally mediocre, though I like the underwater scenes —  and way too much gilded ornate settings. This is Louis Quatorze, but you wouldn’t know it from the sets. The makeup and costumes don’t even attempt to look like Versailles. We’re talking the era of the Three Musketeers but you wouldn’t know it; it’s so sterilized and dumbed down that it ends up as a  gold-leaf bowl of pablum. Which isn’t surprising from a director of such masterpieces as 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain and Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite. I liked Kaya Scodelario she’s very good, but the script and direction are uninspired. If you are a little girl or boy into supernatural princess romances, you just might love this movie, otherwise, for the rest of you, the movie’s not terrible, it’s bearable, it’s just not very good.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Dir: Radu Jude

Emi (Katia Pascariu) is a teacher  at a prestigious school in Bucharest, Romania. She’s well respected in her profession, and dresses in a conservative grey skirt and jacket. But when her husband takes their laptop into the shop for repairs, some of their private footage is leaked online. And that’s when everything falls apart. They made a sex video for private viewing only, but now it’s everywhere, on tabloid news sites, Facebook and her students’ smartphones. Even after it’s been taken down by Pornhub, copies still circulate. And the parents are angry. She asks the schoolmistress (Claudia Ieremia) to take her side but to no avail. She’s forced to attend a humiliating parent/teacher meeting, held out of doors, to defend her reputation, and explain that a sex tape made by consenting adults in the privacy of their own home is not a crime. But the mob at the meeting disagrees. They insist on showing the tape again right in front of her at the meeting, complete with lewd commentary from some,  and pillorying by the rest. Will she lose her job, or can she emerge from this ordeal unscathed?

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is a scathing indictment of contemporary Romania, in the form of an absurdist comical farce. The movie is divided into three sections. The first part follows Emi on a walk around Bucharest , as she tries to fathom what happened. On the sway she observes random street conversations ranging from obscene to mundane. The camera lingers on signs, billboards and shopwindow, emphasizing the omnipresence of sex there. The second part is a long montage of a series of images — ranging from century old porn, to wartime photos, fascist memorabilia, Patriotic songs, kitschy poetry, nationalistic quotes, Holocaust denial, the persecution of the Roma, and much more. Each image is accompanied by unspoken comments in the form of subtitles. The third part is the outdoor tribunal as Emi is put on the stand before angry parents who want her fired.

The whole film is set within the current pandemic, with everyone in masks for the entire film, whether indoors or out. (This includes the absolutely explicit sex tape, where Emi’s face is sometimes covered but never her or her husband’s rampant genitalia. If you are bothered by explicit sex, do not watch this movie.) That said, it’s hard to watch a movie where people’s faces are covered. That’s a drawback, no matter how you look at it. On the other hand its funny, shocking and eye-opening. And it’s presented as a darkly satirical comedy. I would have liked to have seen more faces; I expect to see lips move when I watch a movie. But at least the middle montage section helps break up the Covid protocols into more digestible parts.

The 355 and the King’s Daughter open in theatres in Toronto on Monday; check your local listings. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is now playing at the Digital Bell Lightbox.

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

Art and Sport. Films Reviewed: The Miracle Season, Final Portrait, PLUS Steve Reinke’s films at Images

Posted in Art, Canada, Death, France, Movies, Queer, Rural, Sex, Sports, Switzerland, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 6, 2018

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

Toronto’s Images, the International Festival of Moving Image Culture, opens next Thursday with Canadian and international video artists and filmmakers… featuring the work of Steve Reinke. This week, I’m going to talk about films by artists, and films about artists, with some sports thrown in, too. There’s an American volleyball team, a Swiss sculptor, and a Canadian video artist.

The Miracle Season

Dir: Sean McNamara

Caroline and Kelly have been best friends since childhood. “Line” (Danika Yarosh) is the always chirpy optimist who Kelly (Erin Moriarty) looks up to. Growing up in rural Iowa, they share their secrets amidst big barns and cornfields. In high school they play volleybal together. With Line as team manager and setter they win the State Championships. Of course the other team members, andtheir hard boiled coach (Helen Hunt) are important, but it’s really Line who leads the team to victory.

But the next year things take a turn for the worse. The team is dispirited and Line’s Mom has cancer. Then the unthinkable happens; Line dies in a crash. Kelly feels guilty, and so does Line’s dad Ernie (William Hurt) who used to throw team parties and boost the players. With no Line around to pull people out of their misery, the team slides to last place. They don’t even want to be happy – it’s disrespectful. It falls to Kelly to turn the team around. Can she do it, and will the team ever win again?

The Miracle Season is a nice movie about teamwork and overcoming loss. It has good acting and a conventionally inspiring story. “Nice” is the key word here. Based on a true story, it was made by permission of the charity founded by the Line’s father. So as you can expect, anything not super “nice” has been scrubbed from the plot. No sex, no violence here. They could show this movie at Bible Camp without raising an eyebrow. Which makes it a nice memorial for teammates and family members, but for the rest of us, it’s just a dull and predictable movie. But, like I said, it’s still nice.

Final Portrait

Dir: Stanley Tucci

It’s early 1960s. James Lord (Armie Hammer) is a young American living in Paris who writes biographies of well known artists. He’s friends with both Picasso and the Swiss-Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush). Giacometti is famous for his sculptures of people with crusty and extremely elongated arms and legs. But he also paints. And one day he asks James to pose for him for a few hours. He sits down in Alberto’s studio dressed in khakis, navy blue sports jacket and shirt and tie. But the one-day painting turns into a project lasting days and then weeks, until no one knew if it would ever end. Each time he paints his face, Alberto rubs it all out and starts again. Meanwhile, various people in his life walk in and out adding colour to the story. His brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) has seen it all before. His neglected wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) refuses to pose for him anymore. And his mistress Caroline (played by the delightfully-named Clémence Poésy) would rather go for a jaunt in their sportscar than just hang at the studio. Final Portrait has some fun parts, but basically this movie is 90 minutes of watching paint dry.

Steve Reinke

Steve Reinke is a queer Canadian artist and filmmaker, originally from the Ottawa valley but now based in Chicago. I’ve seen a lot of his films in the past 20 years, but for the first time I spent last night binge-watching them all together (which is quite an experience).  If you’ve never seen Reinke’s stuff before, you should.

He’s been shooting films and videos that chronical his life, his thoughts, aesthetics, and interests — both intellectual and sexual – beginning in the late 1970s and continuing till now. And unlike a lot of gallery video artists, his films are never boring. (This is important.) Like porn, a Reinke film is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. (But that doesn’t mean you’ll understand it.)

Taken at face value, his collection is an ongoing, partly-fictional memoir told through video art (predating blogs and youtube by decades). His images are partly found footage/partly original, narrated both by voice and by titles. Take What Weakens the Flesh is the Flesh Itself, a recent film he made with James Richards. The film alternates grotesquerie with erotica and mundaneness, with the edges sometimes blurring among the three. Grotesque as in a dead piglet; mundane, like a naked man eating grapes or an ice fishing hut shot with a distorted, fisheye lens; erotic like a poisonous snake having its venom extracted in a laboratory. The film begins with photos by the late German photographer Albrecht Becker. He was imprisoned in Nazi Germany for his sexuality. His work consists of photos of himself reduplicated with an imaginary “twin”. Over time, as his photos become more stylized and experimental so does his body, which gradually transmogrifies — before still cameras — into a work of art using tattoos, body modification, and a whopping-big metal thing hanging from his scrotum. (Ouch!)

Reinke’s flms are transgressive and a total mindfuck. Like he’ll show you an alien monster with pointy ears making out with a faceless, sexless human, encased in a skintight black PVC outfit. And then later he’ll show an unborn dead calf being pulled from a cow’s belly with the same black shininess.

This is weird stuff, alternating between jarring pictures of sex and death overlayed with anodyne intellectual musings. Who else would compare Casper the Friendly Ghost to Wittgenstein? What other filmmaker offers a film called Anal Masturbation and Object Loss that’s actually just Steve Reinke pasting the pages of an academic psychiatric textbook together? Or show thousands of unidentified military photos before telling you this: [SPOILER ALERT] these are pics of all the American military casualties of the Second Gulf War arranged in order of attractiveness. Shocking stuff.

It all feels like you just watched a story, but one arranged with enough sudden changes and musical distortion that you’re not seduced into it. Steven Reinke’s films leave you disturbed and unsatisfied but you don’t quite know why.

Films viewed:

What Weakens The Flesh Is The Flesh Itself (2017)

Atheists Need Theology, Too (2016)

Joke (Version One) (1991)

*Watermelon Box (1990)

*Michael and Lacan (1991)

*Room (1991)

*Barely Human (1992)

Anal Masturbation and Object Loss (2002)

Squeezing Sorrow From an Ashtray (1992)

Hobbit Love is the Greatest Love (2007)

A Boy Needs a Friend (2015)

*not included in Images series

The Miracle Season and Final Portrait both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Steve Reinke’s films are showing at Toronto’s Images Festival — featured in its Canadian Artist Spotlight series — beginning next Thursday. 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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