Some Antipodean Directors. Films reviewed: The Assistant, Come to Daddy

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

February is the worst month of the year, full of overcast skies, slush on the ground and a general malaise. So I thought: why not look at movies from a place where our winter is their summer? At least the directors, if not the stories. This week I’m looking at two films by directors from the antipodes, one from Australia, another from New Zealand. There’s a thriller/horror about a young man searching for his father’s secrets; and a tense drama about a young woman uncovering horrible secrets in her office.

The Assistant

Wri/Dir: Kitty Green (Interview: Ukraine is not a Brothel)

Jane (Julia Garner) is a young woman trying to make it in New York City. Hired straight out of Northwestern,  she’s currently at the bottom of the ladder, but hopes to work her way up. She’s an assistant at a medium-sized movie industry corporation with offices in New York, London and LA. She’s the first one to arrive, the last one to leave, the sort who eats her fruit loops standing up in the office kitchen.  All the grunt work falls to her — order lunch, sort head shots, distribute memos, serve coffee, book hotel rooms, tidy up her boss’s office. And deal with angry abusive people blaming everything on her. She brushes it all off in exchange for the promise of future work.

But something doesn’t seem quite right. A newly hired assistant, a pretty aspiring actress, has just arrived from Boise, Idaho, fresh out of high school, who has only worked as a waitress in a diner. Jane commutes from remote Astoria while the newest assistant is staying at a first-class hotel. She finds a woman’s earring  under a cushion in the boss’s couch. Why do actresses leave the boss’s office in tears? Why is she sending out blank cheques to unnamed people? And what will happen to the new assistant who thinks she’s here for an audition? Although she doesn’t face sexual abuse from her boss, it’s becoming increasingly clear that other women do. Why isn’t anyone talking about it? And is she to blame of she doesn’t speak up?

The Assistant is a cold, hard look at the rampant sexual harassment and abuse women face. It’s set at some point in the past, before the #MeToo movement broke, when everybody knew what was going on, but nobody ever did anything about it. Or if they did, they would be paid hush money to keep it away from the public. Male assistants laugh nervously, making jokes about which pieces of the boss’s furniture you should never sit in. Older women take it as a given: don’t worry dear, you’re not his type. The movie just lays its out before the audience in all its horribleness… without ever showing it.

Julia Garner gives a stunning performance as Jane, conveying a succession of unspoken emotions over the course of one day through facial expressions and body language: dread, distrust, realization, horror, and fear. There’s a terrific scene where she wraps herself up in a winter coat and a big scarf – like a suit of armour – to somehow shield her from the bad stuff happening all around her. This film gives a realistic look at a widespread problem reduced to a single day in one unnamed office.

The Assistant is a subtly, powerful movie about a difficult and uncomfortable topic that has to be told.

Come to Daddy

Dir: Ant Timpson (Turbo Boy)

Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) is a privileged, 35-year-old guy from LA. He loves fashion, celebrity and the big city. His prize possession is a limited edition, solid gold cel phone designed by Lorde. But something is missing from his life. His father walked out when he was five and Norval was raised by his mother in a Beverley Hills mansion. So when he receives a cryptic, letter from his long-lost Dad telling him he wants to talk to him, he decides to do it. He follows a handwritten map to a rocky beach in the pacific northwest until he finds an isolated, wooden house decorated with christmas lights clinging to the edge of a cliff. He knocks on the door, and a dessicated, grizzled old man opens it. “Hi Dad, Here I am…”

But this is not the kindly father he remembers. Gordon (Stephen McHattie) is a mean drunk, staggering around swilling plonk as he shoots insults at his son. His beady eyes look like dried out raisins. Norval wants to get the hell out of there but only after his dad tells him why he asked him to come in the first place. But when the old man threatens to chop him up with a cleaver, he knows something is not right.

Come to Daddy is a nihilistic thriller/horror as seen through a darkly comic lens. Elijah Wood is great as a nervous, self-centred guy whose First World problems are dwarfed by real life dangers… involving a killer, an eccentric policeman, a coroner, a swingers convention at a nearby motel, and the unexplained noises, that echo — clang clang clang —  around the nearly empty house. The vintage Thai soundtrack helps balance the blood and gore. This is a particular genre; either you like it or you don’t, but I love darkly twisted movies like this, with the quirky characters and constant surprises that keeps me glued to my seat till the final revelation.

The Assistant and Come to Daddy both 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

Good not good. Films reviewed: Bombshell, A Hidden Life, Cats

Posted in 2000s, Acting, Animals, Austria, Dance, Farming, Journalism, Movies, Musical, Nazi, Religion, Sexual Harassment, Theatre, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 20, 2019

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

Ever watch something that’s bad, but still has good parts? Or a beautifully rendered piece of art that doesn’t live up to its potential? This week, I’m looking at three new films, that I liked but didn’t like, or hated but still enjoyed. There’s one farmer in wartime Austria, three women at Fox News, and a hundred cats in London.

Bombshell

Dir: Jay Roach

It’s Fox News studios in New York City. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a top TV journalist and news anchor, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is co-host of Fox & Friends, Donald Trump’s favourite show, and newcomer Kayla Pospisal (Margot Robbie) is a committed conservative evangelical, trying to advance her career. What do these three women have in common? Theyre all smart, conservative and attractive (Carlson is a former Miss Minnesota.) And they were all hired by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Ailes is the highly profitable Fox News CEO, the man who singlehandedly shifted cable journalism from neutral news-source to a font of blatantly partisan right-wing talking points, leaving CNN in its dust. He’s also paranoid and hideously ugly, called Jabba the Hut behind his back.

The Fox News he runs is a place where cameras are positioned to show off female newscasters’ legs. Male employees advance because of their work. Female employees are also judged on looks, and work in a blatantly sexist office culture. And Ailes is the centre of it all, using his position power to exploit, harass and sexually assault young women. Kelly shares her concerns with her husband and Pospisal with her lesbian lover and Fox News staffer (Kate McKinnon) who says she doesn’t want to hear about it. But Carlson refuses to take this lying down. She launches a lawsuit against Ailes and Fox News. But will other journalists, like Kelly and Pospisal (a composite character based on real people) join her struggle, or stay loyal to Ailes?

Bombshell is a fast-paced news drama based on recent real-life events. It’s told in a light, punchy and easy-to-digest format, which makes the few dramatic scenes showing sexual harassment all the more powerful. Theron, Kidman and Robbie are all terrific and believable in their roles. On the ther hand, the movie barely touches on the awfulness and deceit of Fox News itself. And while it skewers Ailes it leaves the notorious Rupert Murdoch strangely untouched. Bombshell tells a great story, as seen by three strong women, around sexual harassment, but doesn’t concern itself with other political matters.

A Hidden Life

Wri/Dir: Terrence Malick

It’s WWII in Austria. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is a simple farmer deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). They live with his mother, her sister and their three little girls inthefoothills of a dramatic mountain range. Together with their neighbours they till the fields, harvest the grain and carry it, on the back of a donkey, to the miller. They go to church on Sunday and dress up in masks and costumes to honour the harvest. Their life is idyllic until… Franz gets drafted for army duty a second time. Enough, he says. I’m not going. No more Heil Hitler’s, no more military uniforms, no more separation from my wife and kids. Enough! Neighbours and government officials try to convince him to sign a loyalty oath, but he refuses. He is sent to prison, leaving his wife and sister-in-law to plow the fields among neighbours who aren’t friendly anymore. Only their constant letters keep them sane and I love. Will Franz sign the oath, or will he stay steadfast to his beliefs, even at risk of death?

A Hidden Life is a lush and beautiful rendering of a simple act of resistance in wartime anschluss Austria. It’s directed by Terrance Mallick, and is instantly recognizable by its swirling images, breathy voiceovers, lush music and stunning camerawork. People clutch earth in their fingers, and reap fields with scythes. Good passionate acting, featuring cameo performances by Matthias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski, and the late, great Bruno Ganz.

On the other hand… it’s three hours long. Three hours!  Why does it take so long to tell such a simple story? Why? It’s not exactly boring or tedious since it’s done so beautifully, but similar stories have already been told (and in a more dramatic fashion, like Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes/Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert). As a movie critic, I try to avoid terms like “self-indulgent”, but this movie is strictly for fans of Terrence Mallick.

Cats

Dir: Tom Hooper

It’s nighttime in a fantastical, pre-gentrified London, where abandoned alley cats rule the streets. The Jellicle Cats are gathered for their annual meeting, presided over by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench), who will choose one cat to be reborn. Each contestant performs before the queen: There are dancers (Francesca Hayward, Steven McRae) singers (Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson), comics (Rebel Wilson, James Corden), a magician dressed in black and white (Laurie Davidson) and even an old theatre cat (Ian McKellen). But the age-old ceremony is challenged by the evil Macavity (Idris Elba) who is kidnapping each cat after their performance. Who will be chosen to ascend to the skies? Will peace and order return to the Jellicle cats? And can newbie Victoria join the gang?

Cats is a strange hybrid of theatre, and movie special effects. Each act is performed on a vast soundstage, keeping close to how it would look before a live audience. The cat people’s faces and bodies are human, but augmented, using CGI, with cat ears, moving tails and furry bodies. Some of them wear elaborate costumes, while others run around “naked”, covered in sleek fur. But they’ve all been digitally neutered, with no sign of breasts or genitals anywhere. The script is abysmally bad, almost babyish, with “jokes” like cat got your tongue? and relentless fat jokes. Fat jokes? Really?

Music ranges from torch songs to chorus lines. There are a few great scenes, like cockroaches doing elaborate Busby Berkeley formations as Rebel Wilson eats them, one by one; and impressive dance routines, along with some good songs… but I can’t figure out who the movie is trying to appeal to? Small children? Theatre buffs? Taylor Swift fans? I don’t think it knows, either.

Still… I kinda liked it, if just for the spectacle of it all. It’s bad, but it’s watchable and loaded with great singers dancers and prize-winning actors all of whom are far, far more talented than the material they’ve been given.

And I think these weird cat people will haunt my sexual nightmares for years to come.

Bombshell, A Hidden Life and Cats 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.

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