Creepy small towns. Films/TV shows reviewed: Hammer, Curon, Ragnarok

Posted in Canada, Crime, Family, Italy, Mystery, Norway, Supernatural, Suspense, Thriller, TV by CulturalMining.com on June 26, 2020

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

In light of the pandemic, many people are thinking of cities cities as crowded, dirty and dangerous places, compared to smaller towns. But are small towns any better? This week, I’m looking at three new productions – one film and two limited series – that look at the darker side of family life in small towns. There are nogoodniks in Newfoundland, taboos in Tyrolia, and felonious fat cats among the fjords.

Hammer

Wri/Dir: Christian Sparkes

It’s a paper-mill town somewhere in Canada (possibly Newfoundland).

Chris (Mark O’Brien) is a young man, down on his luck. He deals in drugs and stolen jewels, both valuable commodities, but somehow is deep in debt. Luckily, there’s a big operation – involving satchels of cash to be exchanged deep in the woods – about to go down with a sketchy guy named Adams (Ben Cotton). It should leave him rich. But something goes wrong. Now someone is dead, their body lost in a corn field, and Chris is on the run with Adams on his trail.

So in a chance encounter, he turns to his estranged family — his younger brother Jeremy, his disapproving mom and his angry dad Stephen (Will Patton) – for help. He hasn’t talked to them for years, but they’re his only hope. Can his father help him secure the cash, rescue a hostage, and protect him from Adams? Or will everything fall apart?

Hammer is a short, fast moving drama about a criminal act pulling a small-town family apart. It’s a well-written and well-acted movie. It’s a very of-the-moment, what you see is what you get style movie. No excess dialogue, no wasted scenes, no deep back story, just high-tension thrills. There’s violence but not gratuitous violence, gun battles, chase scenes and a few surprising twists. A noir-ish style but in a natural setting. And an ominous symbol – the ourusborus, a snake swallowing its own tail – gives this crime drama a darker, more sinister feel.

Curon

Created by Ezio Abbate, Ivano Fachin, Giovanni Galassi, Tommaso Matano

A picturesque town in Italy. Mauro and Daria are 17-year-old twins from Milan. Mauro (Federico Russo) is shy and introverted with a hearing impairment. He’s a natural target of bullies. His sister Daria (Margherita Morchio) is tough and self-confident. She’s sexually adventurous, can out-drink anyone she meets, and will likely win in a fistfight. She always looks out for her brother. The two are used to life in the big city, but their divorced mom moves them back to her hometown of Curon. It’s in German-speaking Tyrolia right by Austria and Switzerland. Very different from Milan, where the twins grew up. Curon’s main landmark is a man-made lake with a church bell tower in the middle; the only thing left of the old town they flooded to built a hydro dam. And they say if you ever hear the church bells ring, it means you’re going to die.

Soon after they arrive their mom disappears, so they move into their grandfather (Luca Lionello)’s spooky old hotel (like in The Shining). And they meet some of the popular locals at their highschool. Micki (Juju Di Domenico) and her bullyish boxer brother Giulio (Giulio Brizzi) are the two kids of a highschool teacher… They both hate Curon and want to head south to Milan. Will they be friends or enemies? And then there’s Micki’s wimpy friend Lukas (Luca Castellano) who goes through a strange transformation. Lukas has a crush on Micki, while Micki and Giulio have crushes on someone else. They also find out Micki and Giulio’s dad and Mauro and Daria’s mom share an old history. Will they ever find their mom, discover Curon’s secrets, and escape this creepy old town? Or will it ensare them in its mysterious and sinister ways?

Curon is a good, spooky TV drama, with sex, drugs and hints of horror every once in a while. It’s also full of dopplegangers, disappearing bodies, and strange sounds in the dark. Netflix seems to have created its own sub-genre – big city highschool kids returning to a picturesque town full of dark secrets. No spoilers here, but it’s worth watching. It’s scary but not terrifying, never boring, and with a good, attractive cast.

Ragnarok

Created by Adam Price

Here’s another TV series about a mom and her two kids moving back to her hometown. This time it’s a picturesque, fjord-filled village in Norway called Edda. Magne (David Stakston) and his brother Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli) arrive by car. Magne has blond hair and glasses. He takes meds each day, has terrible vision and is dyslexic, and is fond of tossing hammers. Laurits has black hair and a pointy nose; he likes playing tricks on his brother. They quickly make friends at school. Magne meets Isolde, a young woman whose dad is their school teacher. She’s an enviroronmental activist who knows all the Edda’s secrets. Toxic wastes dumped into the pristine fjords are ruining the town’s ecology.

Laurits gravitates toward the son and daughter of an elitist family, the Jutals, headed by Vidar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson). They own the toxic chemical plant and have control over the police the school, nearly everything. Only the activists – and the town drunk – dare to defy them. And the girl Magne has the hots for is already dating Fjor Jutul, from the same rich family. It looks as if the town, and possibly the world, is heading toward ecological Armageddon, or Ragnarok as they say in Norse mythology. Can Magne learn in time who this family really is… and his own importance in confronting them?

Ragnarok is a TV series partly about ordinary people standing up to elitist authority figures to protect the environment. But that’s not all. There’s a Harry Potter-type backstory as well, where ordinary people learn about extraordinary things. I really liked this show – beautiful scenery, great acting, suspence, tons of fascinating and endearing characters, with lots of twists and surprises. Sort of a myth or fairy tale set in modern- day Norway. And it’s the work of Adam Price who also wrote Borgen, that popular Danish political drama that was on broadcast TV here a few years back.

Ragnarok is one of the best TV series I’ve seen so far this year.

Season One of Curon and Ragnarok are both streaming now on Netflix; Hammer opens today on Apple TV, Google Play and VOD.

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

Therapy vs self-medicating. Films reviewed: Canadian Strain, Transfert, Freud

Posted in 1800s, Austria, Canada, comedy, Crime, drugs, Italy, Mental Illness, Mysticism, Psychological Thriller, Sex, Suspense, Suspicion, Toronto, TV by CulturalMining.com on March 27, 2020

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

It’s a tough time for movie critics.

All the cinemas are closed, spring film festivals cancelled, and many new movies originally scheduled for release are postponed. Indefinitely. Meanwhile, like many of you, I’m in isolation, cooped up at home. This will be my first attempt at home recording – please bear with me for the poor sound quality. But when faced with a crisis, you look for alternative ways of dealing with your problems. Some people self-medicate while others turn to therapy. So this week I’m looking at three new movies (all online), two about psychiatry, and one about marijuana. There’s a psychoanalyst in fin-de-siècle Vienna; a psychotherapist in modern Sicily; and an out-of-work cannabis dealer in contemporary Toronto.

Canadian Strain

Dir: Geordie Sabbagh

Anne (Jess Salgueiro) is a Toronto entrepreneur, who runs a successful business out of her own home. She has long curly hair and a determined look. Anne is kind, reliable and always there for her longtime clients. She likes her work and is good at it. Her social life revolves around her job. And when she needs advice, she turns to her father (Colin Mochrie). She also has an agreement with her mustached boyfriend: they keep there jobs separate. Why? Because she’s a pot dealer and he’s a cop. But when Canada suddenly legalizes cannabis, everything changes.

Suddenly Anne’s longtime clients, people she considers family, all defect to the public option. She’s forced to rethink her entire life. Should she work for The Man? Or try something new?

Canadian Strain is a gentle comedy set in Toronto just a short while ago, when the province shifted to legal cannabis. It’s more interesting than hilarious. It’s also totally Toronto. It combines bland government bureaucrats, flakes, hippies, grandmas, aggressive men on the prowl, and organized criminals. It’s told through Anne’s point of view, but there are many fascinating side characters, both and good bad, mainly played by women. Definitely a niche movie, but I enjoyed Canadian Strain.

Transfert

Wri/Dir: Massimiliano Russo

Stefano (Alberto Mica) is a young psychiatrist in Catania, Sicily. Kind, good-looking and empathetic, he has been fascinated by psychiatry since he was a child. Educated in Bologna, he is back in Sicily looking for new clients to establish his practice. He works out of his home, a modernist flat that he shares with his wife.

Among his first patients are two sisters who live together. Chiara (Clio Scira Saccà) is pretty and vivacious but accident-prone. She’s had three car crashes in the past month… are these accidents intentional? Letizia (Paola Roccuzzo) is mousy and withdrawn but intellectually curious. The two are fiercely competitive and constantly bickering. Stefano treats them equally and separately. He gets along well with all his patients.

But when new client enters the scene – a man who shares his name – things start to go wrong. This other Stefano (played by the film’s director) though devious and cruel, quickly wins the therapist’s trust. Using sophisticated equipment, bad Stefano spies on his fellow patients. He uses this information to plant the seeds of suspicion in the doctor’s mind, which could lead to terrible consequences. Can a psychiatrist be gaslit by one of his patient? Or will he discover the truth?

Transfert is an indie, psychological thriller about an innocent, young psychotherapist trapped in a patient’s schemes. This is a low budget film so much of it takes place indoors, with some drone views of the city from above. But it still manages to thrill and surprise. There are visual references to Truffaut, among  others. It’s shot in beautiful Catania, a baroque city beside Mt Etna, a volcano ready to erupt (like many of the characters). I like the way Transfert tells the story through a sympathetic therapist’s eyes – something you rarely see. And while I thought the twisted ending was implausible, it still managed to surprise me. I liked this one, too.

Freud

Co-Wri/Dir: Marvin Kren

It’s the 1880s. Fin-de-siècle Vienna is a cauldron of new ideas in art, music, architecture and politics – think Mahler, and Berg, Klimt and Loos and many others, all in one city, the hub of the vast Austro-Hungarian empire.

Inspector Kiss (Georg Friedrich) is there, a former soldier with a shaved head and curled mustache. He’s a cop who solves crimes. So is Fleur (Ella Rumpf) a beautiful and dark, sultry young woman part of the Hungarian nobility. She serves as a medium for the countess at séances where she falls into a trance leading to strange voices and ending with a pseudo-epileptic seizure, complete with foaming at the mouth. And then there’s Sigmund Freud (Robert Finster), famous as the father of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. But here he’s an unknown young neurologist and a recent grad from medical school. He’s trying to establish himself. He has yet to write his first book and lives in an apartment where he is threatened with eviction for not paying rent. He’s just starting to explore the unconscious, but he’s still at the stage of parlour tricks, where he uses his pocketwatch to hypnotize patients. He’s also addicted to cocaine.

These three people are thrown together after a terrible attack on a young woman. Inspector Kiss runs to Freud’s apartment (he’s a physician) with the victim, saying “save her!”. And Fleur has a vision of who the killer might be, but it’s buried somewhere deep inside her mind. She can’t remember what happens during her trances. It’s up to Freud to hypnotize Fleur to discover the truth. But will that reveal the real killer?

Freud is a new TV show, a detective mystery/thriller, with a cop, a psychiatrist, and a psychic trying to catch a serial killer in late 19th century Vienna. But that’s just the frame. It’s also a sexual romance, and an historical drama. Throw in decadent royalty, avaricious artistocracy, angry nationalists, rising right-wing politics, mysticism, misogynyand anti-semitism, duels, and opera… and you’ve got a rich and engrossing drama that’s not your average mystery. And if I’m not mistaken, this is the world’s first sexy Freud, two words I never thought I’d hear in the same sentence. I’m binging this series and am only half through but, so far, it seems well-worth watching.

Transfert and Canadian Strain are both available online; and you can watch Freud on Netflix.

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

Birth, Death, Birth. Films reviewed: Dead Dicks, In Safe Hands, The Report

Posted in Adoption, Bipolar, Canada, Family, France, Horror, Politics, Suspense, Suspicion, Terrorism, Torture, US by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2019

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

Fall festival season continues in Toronto, with ReelAsian ending tonight and the EU Film Fest still going strong. Coming soon are Blood in the Snow (aka BITS), featuring Canadian Horror and Genre movies, and CineFranco with French language movies, from Canada and around the world.

This week I’m looking at three movies, two about births and two about deaths. We’ve got mysterious rebirths wanted by no one, a newborn infant wanted by everyone, and a horrifying CIA program they want no one to know anything about.

Dead Dicks

Wri/Dir: Chris Bavota, Lee Paula Springer

Becca (Jillian Harris) is a young bartender who works downtown. But much of her time is filled with taking care of her big brother Richie (Heston Horwin). Richie is a depressed artist with anger issues given to playing music full blast while scribbling in his sketchbook. When there parents died he served as the adult in the family, but now the roles are reversed. She’s forced to deal with his angry neighbours and make sure he takes his meds. So when she she is called away from her job by frantic texts, she thinks this is just another one of Richie’s episodes. But it’s not.

She arrives to see an apartment in disarray, with a huge mouldy patch formed above his bed, and Richie wandering around naked, in a daze. His brain feels fuzzy he says. Turns out he killed himself just a few minutes before. And almost immediately expelled, fully grown, through a hole in the wall. But the dead body he left behind is still there, hanging in the closet. And another one in the bathtub, and another one in the kitchen. Living Richie is surrounded by all the dead Dicks from his repeated suicide attempts. He’s experimenting, he says.

But that leaves Richie and Becka with a pile of dead Dicks to get rid of, a mysterious birth canal on his wall and an angry neighbour (Matt Keyes) who could get them arrested by threatening to call the cops. What is causing all these rebirths? What does it mean? And what are the unanticipated consequences?

Dead Dicks is a bizarre, low budget film, part horror, part mystery, part comedy. The film does not encourage death by suicide. Rather, It deals with issues of family and mental illness, within a weird fantasy setting. It manages to be grotesque and gruesome, with very few special effects, and an absurd humorous streak running through it.

In Safe Hands (Pupille)

Dir: Jeanne Herry

It’s present-day Brest, in French Brittany.

A young woman arrives at a hospital in labour. She’s a college student and says the pregnancy is the result of a one-night stand, and says she doesn’t want the baby. This starts a dozen gears spinning into action, notifying dozens of doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, midwives, social workers, foster parents, and adoption agencies. And little Theo, the baby, is the centre of attention. He is transferred to an incubator, with lots of faces peering down at him. But can his lack of contact with his birth mother damage him for life? Or will a concerted effort place this baby into safe loving hands?

In Safe Hands is mainly a dramatization of the process of birth and adoption, but there are a few interestingside plots along the way. Jean (Gilles Lellouche) is a married dad who takes care ofhis own daughter and two troubled foster boys who takes care of Theo as he awaits adoption. Karine (Sandine Kiberlain) works for the adoption and fostering program and has a thing for Jean… but will an affair upset the adoption process? Alice Langlois (Élodie Bouchez) is single and works describing action at live plays for the visually impaired. She applied for adoption when she was attached. A social worker is concerned both for the privacy of the birth mother and of the baby who might one day wish to get in contact with her. And many, many others, all centred around a wordless, Yodalike baby who seems to take everything in. It was interesting from a parenting and adoption point of view, exposing all the hidden parts of the mechanism of adoption, but isn’t very satisfying as a dramatic or romantic movie, more just as an educational docudrama, as acted by famous French movie stars.

The Report

Wri/Dir: Scott Z. Burns

It’s post 9-11 Washington, DC.

Dan Jones (Adam Driver) is a young college grad appointed to a group to write a bipartisan internal report on the CIA for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee is headed b Sen. Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening). Dan is locked up in a dark basement in a nameless bureaucratic and told to find out what the CIA has done since 9/11. It turns out their practices, supposedly enacted to stop terrorism, were immoral, illegal and of no value whatsoever for intelligence. Specifically, he uncovers the practice of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a policy previously known as torture and banned by the Geneva Convention.

They were under the direction of two psychologists, James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen (Douglas Hodge and T Ryder Smith) working on contract with no experience in interrogation. They stripped prisoners naked, chained them to walls, waterboarded them and nailed them – live – into wooden coffins, covering their skin with crawling insects. The torture yielded no intel, yet was repeated for many years in blacksites around the world.

Dan outlines these heinous war crimes in a long report to the committee, shocking senators by its findings. But instead of offering support and investgating their own lawbreakers, the CIA initiates a coverup, threatening Dan himself with jail time if he releases his findings. And the CIA sends operatives to spy on the Senate itself in order to coverup the findings. Will Dan Jones’s report ever see the light of day? And will the war criminals be punished?

The Report is a good political drama about the illegal use of torture by the CIA, but a thriller it’s not. It incorporates elements of All the President’s Men, and is nicely shot with lots of fluorescent lights and stark, brutalist architecture. Driver is great as the persistent policy geek, with an understated Bening as a veteran Senator. Warning: there are a few highly disturbing reenactments of the torture itself, which are extremely hard to watch. Much more common are the reenactments of the culprits – John Yoo, Jose Rodrigues, John Brennan (Ted Levine), Cheney, and the psychologists – war criminals who leave a very bad taste in one’s mouth.

I liked this one.

Dead Dicks will be playing at Blood in the Snow, In Safe Hands at Cinefranco, and The Report at the Tiff Bell Lightbox all starting one week from today.

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

Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War 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.

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