Controversial European Directors. Films reviewed: The Favourite, The House that Jack Built

Posted in 1700s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Horror, Lesbian, Movies, Psychopaths, Royalty, Satire, Thriller, UK, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 7, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

This week I’m looking at two movies in English by controversial European directors from Denmark and Greece. There’s a satirical horror movie about a Jack in his house; and a historical dramedy about a Queen in her palace.

The Favourite

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

It’s England in the early 1700s, a time of heavy makeup, high heels and elaborate wigs. (I’m talking about the men here). Women, on the other hand, rule the country. At the top of the heap is Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) a long-suffering widow. And always by her side is her childhood friend Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz). Her husband is leading a battle in France, leaving Sarah free to her own devices. She advises the Queen about when to go to war and whose taxes should pay for it. Together, they – not the male politicians – decide where the country should head.

Until one day, when a new woman appears on the scene, upsetting the delicate balance. Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s naïve cousin, shows up at the palace gates asking for a job. She is pretty and speaks with an upper class accent but she hasn’t been rich since her father, a compulsive gambler, lost her in a card game when she was still a teen. Now she’s single again and penniless. They put her to work as a scullery maid where the other servants treat her cruely. But gradually Abigail learns how to play the game.

She seduces a young aristocrat she meets in the woods with the aim of marrying up. And she manoeuvres her status in the palace by “accidentally” running into the Queen as often as she can. She expresses sympathy for the sad Queen and the rabbits she keeps as pets to replace all her lost children. While Sarah can be cruel and domineering – she dresses in dominant, tight black bodices, and sends withering looks at Anne when she gets too sentimental – Abigail presents herself as a dainty ingénue, devoted to the Queen’s happiness.

Is it all just an act? And can she replace Sarah as the Queen’s favourite?

The Favourite is a brilliant comedy – based on historical facts – about two women fighting for the Queen’s favour. It’s also a love triangle, about what happens in the royal bedchambers behind closed doors. It’s by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose unique style I’ve loved since his first film Dogtooth almost a decade ago. All his movies (Alps, The LobsterThe Killing of a Sacred Deer) have a strange stilted, faux-naïve style to them that puts some people off. His characters always seem slightly out of place in their suburban homes. But by setting it in an 18th century royal palace, suddenly the dialogue (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara) seems witty, not stilted, and everything makes perfect sense.

With its exquisite costumes, beautiful musical score and great acting, especially Coleman and Weisz, this is a great movie.

The House that Jack Built

Wri/Dir: Lars von Trier

Jack (Matt Dillon, in a despicably good performance) is an independently wealthy engineer who would rather be an architect. He is building himself a house. But he is also a perfectionist with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) which makes him a captive of his own fear of failure. Each version he tries to complete ends in frustration. So he turns to other ways to express himself artistically.

But he’s also a psychopath with no moral sense so first he has to teach himself to fake normal emotions so people will trust him. He uses these new skills to meet women, often at random, and murders them. He takes the bodies to a huge walk-in freezer, poses them, and then send his photographs to the tabloids as Mister Sophistication. These are his “works of art”.

And despite how obvious and blatant his killings are – he even brags to the police that he’s a serial killer – nobody ever tries to stop him.

The film is narrated by Jack’s voice, off camera, confessing all to a man named Virgil (Bruno Ganz) in a reference to Dante’s Inferno. Jack tells Verge about a few of his more than 60 murders, which are shown in explicit detail on the screen. The unnamed victims – strange characters all – are played by Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sophie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough (Elvis’s granddaughter).

Is Jack the epitome of evil? Or just an amoral idiot? And will he ever be punished for what he did?

The House that Jack Built is Lars von Trier’s latest work, and like many before – Antichrist, MelancholiaNymphomaniac – it’s a tough movie to watch. Excruciating, actually, because you know there’s going to be more horrible violence coming up. I was in a constant state of cringe through most of the movie.

But in retrospective it seems very elegant and funny, a self-referential exercise in comedy/ horror/satire. Like most of von Trier’s movies, it’s told in chapters and sub-chapters, bookended by Jack and Virgil’s conversation. It’s also filled with repeated cultural references, visual and audio, including Glenn Gould Plays Bach, Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video, David Bowie’s Fame, William Blake’s drawings and Delacroix’ The Barque of Dante… even clips from von Trier’s own movies.  Jack compares his “art” — the murders themselves and the arranged bodies — to the works of these great artists.

This film is Lars von Trier’s reply to past accusations of being a nazi, a misogynist, a bigot and a narcissist. Here he invents a character that combines the worst elements of all of these, and spews it back at the viewers in triumphant, hideous glory.

One thing: the screening I went to was a total sausage fest. The audience was maybe 99% male — rockers, hipsters, film geeks, von Trier fans and Incels — so when parts of the audience burst into laughter and applause when Jack violently attacks and mutilates yet another nameless female victim, it just added to the general creepiness of the experience.

The Favourite opens today in Toronto; check your local listings; and The House that Jack Built opens next Friday in theatres and on VOD.

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

Where have I seen this? Movies reviewed: Angelique, Bethlehem

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Do you ever see a new movie that rings a bell in the back of your mind? And wonder why?

This week I’m investigating two such movies. One’s a political thriller from Israel, the other’s a swashbuckler from France.

Angelique - afficheAngelique
Dir: Ariel Zeitoun

It’s the 1600s in France. Louis XIV – the future Sun King – is heir to the throne. In a remote convent, beautiful Angelique (Nora Arnezeder: Safe House) is busy being educated by nuns. But just when she thinks she’s off to marry a minor noble she’s pushed into an arranged marriage. Le comte de Peyrac is a rich powerful noble but is much older and has a badly scarred and disfigured face.

His rival, the archbishop of Toulouse, says the count is into witchcraft and alchemy. He holds perverse orgies in his dungeon, worships the devil and turns sand into gold! So Angelique decides to make a run for it with her best friend Nicolas (Matthieu Kassovitz: Amelie, La Haine). But she is discoveredAngelique - horizontal and sent to marry him. But before she leaves, she confesses to a priest about a letter she’s held since childhood. The letter reveals who was responsible for a plot to murder the crown prince.

Angelique is fiery and tempestuous with a mind of her own. She refuses to sleep with him. To her surprise he doesn’t force her. Instead, he defends her honour. Will he change her mind? Or will she leave him? Hmmm…

So Angelique goes to live with the Count and gradually discovers the truth. Peyrac (Gerard Lanvin: Mesrine) is actually a modern man. His witchcraft? angeliqueUnderstanding that the earth goes around the sun. His alchemy? It’s just a gold refinery. And his sex orgies? (Well, that part seems to be true.)

So the local archbishop wants Peyrac burned at the stake; this is still the era of the inquisition. The future king Louis XIV (German actor David Kross: Krabat, The Reader) is interested in the count’s gold mine. And Angelique still holds that secret letter.

The movie follows their plight. When Peyrac is thrown into the Bastille, she is forced to darken her hair, disguise herself as a poor woman, and go undercover in the streets of Paris to rescue her husband. There are sword angelique-nora-arnezeder-gerard-lanvinfights, a huge trial, a lawyer with a mastiff, a lusty cousin (hints of incest?), assassinations, secret identities, Church corruption and palace intrigue. And in movies with castles you always get torch-lit chase scenes down hidden staircases and through underground tunnels.

angelique-3At first I thought it was a new version of the Three Musketeers, told from a woman’s perspective. But I was totally wrong. Apparently it’s based on a French movie from Angelique in Barbary1964, which in turn was based on the Angelique series of French novels, bestselling potboilers in the 1950s. Anyway, Angelique is a fun and fascinating film that breathes new life into a genre I thought was long dead and buried. Swashbucklers – what the hell’s a swash? …And how do you buckle it? No idea, but I liked this movie. (Can’t wait for Part 2.)

Shadi Mar`i (Sanfur) BethlehemBethlehem
Dir: Yuval Adler, Wri: Yuval Adler, Ali Wakad

Young Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) lives in Bethlehem in the West Bank. His older brother Ibrahim is a member of Al Aqsa, the militant wing of Fatah. Al Aqsa and their rival Hamas – based in Gaza – are battling for influence in Bethlehem.

Sanfur hangs with his friends, daring each other to prove who is the toughest. Like putting on a bullet proof vest and shooting each other at close range… what are they thinking?! Sanfur’s tough, but he also has a secret: he’s an informant for the Israeli secret service. They want to keep track of his secretive brother because something big is about to happen.

Then a bomb goes off at the King George Hotel in Jerusalem, killing many. Tsahi Halevy  Razi in BethlehemWho did it – Hamas or Al Aqsa? And was Ibrahim involved?

Razi (Tsahi Halevi), Sanfur’s Arabic-speaking Israeli “handler”, wants to find out. His superiors expect him to catch Sanfur who regularly passes money to his brother. But Razi pulls a fast one: he gets him to disappear for a few days. That way they can catch who they want without Sanfur being killed. But that means Razi has to lie, both to the secret service and to Sanfur.

This is a good spy thriller about the dual allegiances of the numerous Palestinian informants in the West Bank and their Israeli handlers. Tsahi Halevi (Razi) and Shadi Mar`i (Sanfur) BethlehemApparently, it was written by a Palestinian and an Israeli, to tell the two sides of the story.

But it may ring a bell: I talked a few weeks ago about another, very similar movie called Omar. Omar is also about a young Palestinian man who is an informant for the Israeli Secret Service. The plot is amazingly similar, but subtly different in crucial ways.

In Omar, the young men shoot an Israeli soldier. In Bethlehem, someone bombs a Jerusalem hotel killing dozens of civilians.

In Omar, the Arabic-speaking Israeli handler is devious and not to be Waleed Zuaiter and Adam Bakri in Omar (2013). Courtesy of Adopt Filmstrusted. In Bethlehem, he’s kind and sympathetic, and lies only to save lives.

In Omar, Israeli police cruelly harass an innocent man. In Bethlehem, The police bulldoze a hole into a killer’s house.

In Omar, Palestinian militants are driven by feelings of anger, vengeance, and loyalty. In Bethlehem, they seem more concerned with money — getting paid what they’re owed.

25Omar (the character) is a handsome and noble hero in love with a beautiful woman. Sanfur (which means Smurf) is a troubled and confused teenager, driven to tears and easily influenced. His only “love affair” is the father/son relationship he has with his Israeli handler.

Omar is a straightforward romantic thriller, while Bethlehem is more ambiguous and troubling, less black and white. Which one’s better? They areBethlehem Hitham Omari (Badawi) both good movies.

Angelique played at CineFranco, Toronto’s French language film festival, which continues to show great movies all weekend. And Bethlehem opens in Toronto today: check your local listings. And, coming soon: imagesfestival.com with great art films and moving images, and TIFF Kids film festival, at tiff.net .

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

March 9, 2012. If You Love This Planet. Movies reviewed: The Lorax, John Carter

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

With globalization, things affect the whole planet all at once even if they only happen in one place. The Earth is all shook up! Like last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan – I remember seeing those horrific scenes of towns being swept away, and the ongoing tension about the nuclear leak at Fukushima.

In gratitude for the support of the international community, the Japan Foundation in Toronto is offering a series of free films next week at Innis College called Light Up Japan. The documentaries are all about what has happened since the disaster in that area and how the people are coping with it. Check out the Japan Foundation ( jftor.org ) for more information.

So in keeping with the theme of global events, this week I’m looking at two movies with whole-planet-sized topics. One is about a kid trying to save the earth from total destruction; the other is a man who finds himself a part of the potential ruin of Mars.

The Lorax

Dir: Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

Ted lives in Thneedville, a plastic suburban shopping mall town where life controlled by a Mr O’Hare, a nasty rich guy who made his fortune bottling air, and who spies on everyone in town. Ted has a crush on his neighbour Audrey who is into trees – which don’t exist anymore (people use plastic trees instead). Audrey says she wishes she could see one.

So taking his grandmother’s advice, Ted climbs into his vehicle – a sort of a unicycle/ segway/ scooter – and sneaks out of the city to find the Once-lear – the only person who still knows the truth. He discovers that the vast wasteland outside of Thneedville once was a land of rainbows, happy fish, droopy birds, and teddy bears who ate the berries from the puffball trees, and lived happily and peacefully. An industrialist uses the puffballs to make a knitted stringy thing, the thneed, that consumers buy by the millions. He decides it’s cheaper and easer to cut them all down rather than using their puffballs as a renewable resource. Only the Lorax, (a tiny mustachioed environmentalist who descends from the heavens in a thunderstorm) can save the day, if only people will listen. He speaks for the trees…

I thought this movie was OK, but it really seemed to stretch the short Dr Seuss book into a 90 minute song-and-dance musical. It soft-pedals the problems of industrial pollution and consumerism, and reduces the motivation from ardent environmentalism to a boy wanting to kiss a girl. It relegates the Lorax story to flashback status, and kept the wonderful Seuss-like scenes of the valley to a minimum, while over-emphasizing the non-Seuss humdrum suburban scenes, filled with your usual 3-d sitcom characters.

It’s not a bad movie, and of course it’s great to tell kids about environmentalism and privacy, but the songs were dull, the characters not-so-interesting, the story not very original, and the animation and character style not up to what I expect from a Dr Seuss story.

Interesting fact — The Lorax earned more money in its opening weekend than Hugo did in its entire run.

John Carter

Dir: Andrew Stanton

John Carter is a mean and strong fighter, a cavalry man from the civil war. He can escape from jails, scrapple with anyone – weapon or not – is good on horseback and keen with a sword and a rifle. And he doesn’t take sides – Apache or US Army – they’re all the same. He doesn’t want any part of it. He just wants to find his cave of gold in the Arizona desert. But when he encounters a stranger in the cave, and repeats the word Barsoom while touching a glowing amulet, he is magically transported to Mars a land of great civilizations, far beyond earth’s imagination.

Strong John Carter, though smaller than the four-armed tusked Tarks – some of the creatures who live there – soon discovers he can leap high in the air and jump long distances, because of the different gravity there. He soon finds himself in the middle of a huge war between the city of Helium and the bad Zodanga. And he meets Dejah, (a beautiful princess-warrior, as well as a physicist, inventor and a great swordswoman) who is being forceed into marrying a bad guy from the other kingdom. Meanwhile, the shape-shifting super-gods who are manipulating everyone on that planet, are messing things up. It’s up to John Carter to save civilization – but he’s not sure he wants to – he just wants to find the amulet and go back to earth. But with the help of his speedy and faithful dog-monster Woolla, and the noble and honest Thark-guide Sola, he and Dejah must find mutual trust, truth and possibly true love in their search for the secrets of this planet.

As you can tell, this is a very long, plot-heavy story about an adventure on Mars. Like comics, manga and pulp fiction, the story takes precedent over feelings, emotions or characters – it’s more the action, the twists, the background, the secrets, the fights, the betrayals and the fantastical, sex-tinged images. But it carries it through amazingly well in this 2½ hour epic. (People call everything epics now, but this is an actual epic). I thought it was amazing.

It’s done in the style of Frank Frazetta’s illustrations: fiery-eyed women in exotic garb with pendulous breasts and black tresses; snarling men with steely gaze and bared chests, brandishing their swords toward the red skies…..  but through a Disney filter, making it sexy, but not sexual.

It feels more like Roman sword-and-sandal story than science fiction. (It’s based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels.) It has a mainly British cast, plus Canadian Taylor Kitsch — just great in the title role. I liked Lynn Collins (never heard of her) as Dejah, and Dominic West (The Wire) as one of many assorted bad guys in this cast-of-thousands picture. Want to be overwhelmed by an elaborate, exciting movie getaway, with a complicated fantasy plot that never lets up, even for a second? Then this is the one to see.

The Lorax is playing now, and John Carter opens today in Toronto, and the Japanese documentaries are playing all week at Innis College.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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Do period dramas have to be nostalgic? Movies Reviewed: Always: Sunset on Third Street; Memories of Matsuko; The King’s Speech

Posted in Academy Awards, Acting, Japan, Royalty, UK, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 10, 2010

This time of year lends itself to nostalgic family dramas, and this year is no exception. So if you feel like a blast from someone else’s past, there are three period and historical dramas running this weekend. But are movies set in the past necessarily nostalgic?

People tend to remember the families they grew up with, and thoughts of holidays past, especially when they only saw them once a year, so even if their memories are realistic, they are often coloured by a holiday perspective.

Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005)
Dir: Yamazaki Takashi (Based on the comic Always: San-chome no Yuuhi by Saigan Ryohei)

… is a pleasant neighbourhood drama set in a 50’s Tokyo neighbourhood.

It’s 1958. Mutsuko is a teenaged girl from Aomori going to her first job. She‘s the #6 kid in her very poor family. She arrives in Tokyo by train from up north just as the Tokyo Tower is being built. She thinks she’s going to be a secretary for the president of Suzuki Auto – a big car conglomerates, but soon discovers she’s going to be working as a repair mechanic for a tiny car repair shop owned by a Mr Suzuki. The boss is a short tempered lout given to dramatic bursts of anger. But she vows to work hard and learn the trade, and moves in with the small, nuclear family (there are no extended families in this movie; just friends and neighbours).

Meanwhile, across the street, an aspiring novelist, who was disowned by his upper class family and who runs a little candy stand, makes his living as a writer. He wants to be the next Akutagawa but in the meantime he writes boys adventure stories for pulp magazines. He agrees to take care of a kid, a stranger, Junnosuke, who’s an orphanned, depressed kid. He does it partly to impress a local bar girl. But soon these three lonely disparate people begin to form a sort of a family.

This movie is a good view of urban Tokyo in the 50’s, when the occupation and post-war period was over, but the booming economy of the 60’s had yet to take place. The scene rarely leaves that street where people rejoice in the first TV, or the first electric fridge…

Based on a comic book, the story is a little bit predictable, and the characters typical, but it’s a cute, nicely sentimental and not unrealistic story.The Characters are sometimes comic-like (the repair-shop owner, Suzuki, literally shakes with anger and destroys doors when he’s furious.)

And though definitely nostalgic in it’s view of the good old days where neighbours all knew and cared for one another, I wouldn’t exactly call it sugar-coated; it does show poverty and struggle, war deaths, geishas, alcoholism and snobbery. And this movie has a very distinctive look to it; shot with a strange retro feel, in colour, but with the appearance of a tinted black and white movie that has faded over the past half century. They appear to have used old B&W footage for some city backdrops giving it a neat feel.

(check listings: www.bloorcinema.com )

Another Japanese movie has a very different take on the past.

Memories of Matsuko (2006)
Dir: Nakashima Testsuya

Sho is a young, failed musician who goes to his aunt Matsuko’s home to pack stuff up after she dies. He had never met her, but by going through the piles of trash she left in her apartment he gradually pieces together her life.

Matsuko is shown as a tragic herione, with all her sadness, beauty and drama.

As her past is gradually revealed—the earnest schoolteacher, the bedazzled mistress, the sex trade worker, the accused murderess, the lover, the prisoner – she becomes not a miserable loner but a really interesting person. Most of the movie is narrated by her in a sort of a memoir she left behind.

At the start she’s an idealistic teacher who defends Ryu, one of her students, when he’s accused of stealing money on a school trip. When it’s blamed on her she loses her job and her father says she’s dead to him, and her life begins a slow downward spiral into hellish degradation. She’s saved at one point only by the image of Kohji Uchiumi of the 80’s teen pop group Hikaru Genji, known mainly for its roller skating teenager singers.

The movie resembles the movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who directed MicMacs, and Amelie) but with a much brighter, day-glo, candy-coloured style to it, with a didtinctly Japanese not French style to it. It jumps from TV commercials, music videos, fantasies, and comic book tableaux, to intense and violebnt drama.

I was a bit disturbed by how much violence there was, almost always by the various men in Matsuko’s life — a philanderer, a pimp, a yakuza hood — who repeatedly slap her, punch her, and throw her to the ground, like in an old-scholl exploitation flick. But I think the movie does this to make Matsuko a sympathetic, (and at times vengeful) heroine. The more she suffers, the more she purseveres. Memories of Matsuko is classic female tragedy with a rich story, and a decidedly un-nostalgic tone.

These two movies are playing for free this weekend at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, sponsored by the Japan Foundation.

Also opening this weekend is the winner of this year’s People’s Choice award at TIFF10 and a likely nominee for various Academy Awards:

“The King’s Speech”
Dir: Tom Hooper

Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) is an Australian speech therapist who invented techniques for returned soldiers from WWII. He’s hired, in great secrecy, to help a man (Colin Firth) – known to his friends as Bertie, and who later becomes King George VI — because he has a terrible stutter. With the advent of radio, he needs to fix his speech to stop freezing up whenever he’s asked to make an announcement. The meeting is arranged by his wife. Elizabeth.

But Lionel is a commoner, the first Bertie has ever met, and he is used to being addressed as his “Royal Highness”, or just “Sir”. Lionel works in a dirty, broken-down basement while Bertie lives in a palace. But Lionel insists they talk to each other as regular people do. He decides Berties problems are psychological – he’s intimidated by his father the King, and his brother, the Prince of Wales. So through the use of his experimental and amusing methods, he tries to get him comfortable pronouncing words without a stammer.

Now this is based on a true story, and Canadians I’ve talked to who lived through that era all remember that the King did indeed have a stutter. So it’s interesting to watch his speech improve. And the acting was all credible, with Derek Jacobi (I Claudius) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the frowzy, redoubtable actress with the double-barrelled name, Helena Bonham Carter, as the future Queen Elizabeth, mother of the current Queen.

But… this movie rubbed me the wrong way. Everything is so homogenized that the accents of the working-class Aussie therapist and the King aren’t really that different. And the history had such a story-book feel to it: Here’s Winston Churchill harrumphing about this, and there’s Wallis Simpson, whingeing about tha

The whole movie felt like an American TV-view of what England should be like. It was even visibly tiresome, with its constant, awful use of a wide-angle lens (where characters lean forward into the camera at a distorted angle, like in a bad 80’s TV commercial) giving the whole movie a geddit? geddit? tone.

I can tell this movie’s going to be popular, but it didn’t do much for me. It’s enjoyable, but it had such a sucky feeling — like the whole movie was there only to pander to nostalgic, royal-obsessed, faux-anglophilic Americans in order to secure some Oscars — that it just left me feeling vaguely annoyed.

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