Bad Students. Films Reviewed: Lady Bird, Bad Genius, My Friend Dahmer

Posted in 1970s, 2000s, Coming of Age, Crime, High School, Thailand by CulturalMining.com on November 10, 2017

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

Fall Film Festival season continues in Toronto. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, features movies from each of the EU countries, and all screenings are free. Reelasian also just started with films from South, East and Southeast Asia.

This week I’m looking at dramas about troublesome high school students. There’s a young woman in California who wants to head east (to university), another in Bangkok who wants to go south (to Singapore), and a guy in Akron who wants to look inside other people.

Lady Bird

Dir: Greta Gerwig

It’s central California in the early 2000s. Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan), is a bored kid with great ambitions – she wants to study at an eastcoast University. She’s in her last year at a private, Catholic school. Her mom (Laurie Metcalf) sent her there because she thinks public school is too dangerous. She lives in a small house in Sacramento with her brother Miguel, her dad, a computer programmer, and her mom who works in a psychiatric hospital.

Lady Bird wants to be cool and maybe meet a boyfriend. But Immaculate Heart – or Immaculate Fart, as she calls it– is an all-girls school run by nuns. Her only chance of meeting guys is in the theatre club run in conjunction with an all-boys Catholic school nearby. She immediately hits it off with Danny (Lucas Hedges) who likes show tunes and wearing puka shell chokers. She takes him home to meet the family. Later she wants to create a cooler self. (Earlier she renamed herself Lady Bird – she’s actually Christine.) Now she quits doing school plays, and starts playing pranks on nuns. She swaps boyfriend Danny for the chill Kyle (Timothee Chalumet) and trades best friend Julie for the prettier and richer Jenna. She tells her she lives in a mansion, not a bungalow on the wrong side of the tracks. And secretly, with the help of her recently unemployed dad, she applies to east coast schools. But can the tower of lies she creates stand up to closer scrutny? And are her new friends good people?

Lady Bird is Greta Gerwigs first solo film – she codirected Frances Ha with noah Baumbach — and it’s a funny and touching movie. Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe make a fantastic mother and daughter who can’t get along. And side roles — like Hedges as Danny – are amazing (I didn’t even recognize him as the kid in Manchester on the Sea). I admit I found the last three minutes of the movie a terrible — and unnecessary — mistake, but Lady Bird is still an almost flawless coming-of-age story.

Bad Genius

Dir: Nattawut Poonpiriya

Lynn (actor/model Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is a student at an elite Bangkok high school. It’s a school where many grads get accepted to US Ivy league schools. Most the kids there are filthy rich but not very bright . Lynn is just the opposite – the daughter of a divorced school teacher, she’s a scholarship student, a piano player, and a genius at math. She also understands the value of money — she has to be when theres’s not much around. She quickly establishes herself – along with Bank, another scholarship student – as the top two kids in the school, in competition for a place in a Singapore university. But everything changes when Lynn’s friend Grace – with her millionaire boyfriend Pat – come to her with a proposition. They’ll pay her big bucks to act as their tutor. But they don’t really want to study – they want to an easy way to pass the tests. Lynn comes up with a brilliant plan – she shows them the multiple choice answers by “playing the piano” in the test hall, moving her fingers in the order of four famous passages. The students all pass the exam. But Bank – the good genius — suspects something fishy.

Later they recruit him to join Lynn in a trip to Sydney, Australia to take the STIC exam – the international SAT test. They plan to write the exam and text the answers just in time for the Bangkok exams, four time zones over. Will the plan work? Will they get caught? And will sparks fly between the two geniuses, Lynn and Bank?

Bad Genius is based on an actual test scandal that shook Thailand. The movie works as both a teen drama and an action movie, with the main characters racing against time to rig the tests and avoid capture. It also shows the huge gap between Bangkok’s super rich, and the rest of the people who never seem to get ahead.

My Friend Dahmer

Dir: Marc Meyers

It’s the late 1970s in a small town near Akron Ohio. Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a tall kid with big glasses and feathered blond hair. He lives with his little brother, his mom a pill-popper (Anne Heche) and his dad a chemist. Jeff collects animal bones from roadkill he finds on the highway. He is also obsessed with a local doctor he always sees jogging down the highway. He keeps to himself at a school ruled by football jocks and cheerleaders. He’s not bullied but not popular either till he finds his niche: a class clown who is both audacious and weird. He spontaneously breaks into his acts, talking like a handicapped kid, or falling to the floor in imitation tonic-clinic seizures.

This catches the attention of Derf (Alex Wolff) and his friends Neil and Mike. They are counterculture types into the Ramones and and comic books. And they see Jeff as epitomize get Punk, even if he doesn’t know it himself. They form the Dahmer fan club, planning events so Jeff can go wild in front of an audience. But are they helping him or using him? Jeff turns to alcohol to counter his constantly bickering parents. She wants to know what people are like on the inside – literally. He gets stranger and stranger, experimenting on live animals.  Are his new “friends” the ones pushing him over the edge?

My Friend Dahmer is a based on the true graphic novel written by Derf Backderf, his highchool (sort of) friend. Dahmer later became a notorious serial killer who picked up men in bars, had sex with their paralyzed bodies, and later dissolved their corpses in acid vats. But My Friend Dahmer takes place before all that. This is an extremely disturbing and creepy — but also weird and funny — look at teenagers in the 1970s. With a great soundtrack, it makes you wonder what – bullying, mental illness, encouragement — pushes people from normalcy to depravity.

Ladybird, and My Friend Dahmer open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Bad Genius is playing at the ReelAsian film festival. Go to reelasian.com for details.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Apichatpong Weerasathakul about Cemetery of Splendour at #TIFF15

Posted in Art, Cultural Mining, Dreams, Folktale, Psychology, Satire, Thailand by CulturalMining.com on March 11, 2016

Apichatpong Weerasathakul1Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s present-day Northern Thailand, near the Lao border. Thai soldiers digging up the grounds of a school are all struck with a mysterious Tropical Malady: a sleeping sickness. Laid out in beds in a makeshift hospital on the site, they are cared for by a housewife and a young medium. By reading the soldier’s unconscious minds they discover  this building was built on ruins of an ancient palace — also the site of great battles. And from the dreams of the sleeping soldier named Itt, via AnXGy9_CEMETERYOFSPLENDOUR__06_o3_8915159_1450196114the medium Keng, Jen is guided through an invisible palace and a splendid cemetery.

Cemetery of Splendour is the latest film by master Thai Director Apichatpong Weerasathakul and it’s his funniest and greatest movie so far. It’s also his most accessible. It is filled lOkoZ1_CEMETERYOFSPLENDOUR__01_o3_8915047_1450196097with strange images — like glowing sticks intruding in people’s thoughts, an invisible palace, and goddesses who still wander their ancestral realms. It’s also a trenchant criticism of contemporary Thailand, which is currently under military rule. I spoke with Apichatpong Weerasathakul on site at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Cemetery of Splendour opens today (March 11th, 2016) in Toronto.

Photo by Jeff Harris

Blood Bros. Movies Reviewed: Only God Forgives, Rufus PLUS TIFF13

Posted in Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Death, Drama, Dreams, Movies, Thailand, Torture, Uncategorized, Vampires, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on July 25, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.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.

TIFF13 Press ConferenceTIFF is coming! At the big press launch they released the names of some of the movies playing this year. Haven’t seen any yet, but a few caught my eye. The opening movie is the Julian Assange and Wikileaks story, and it’s called The Fifth Estate. Very interested in seeing which side Hollywood takes in this – but it’s cool just seeing it on the screen while Assange is still holed up in the Ecuador embassy. And then there’s Bradley Manning… Another movie that looks good is wikileaks_2459774bBurning Bush, by the great Polish director Agnieszka Holland. It’s about the self-immolation of a Prague Spring protester in the 60s. And I really want to see Prisoners, a thriller about a missing girl’s father, who kidnaps a man he thinks is the criminal. Denis Villeneuve is the Quebec director of Incendie.

Lots of crime and violence… so keeping in the same vein, this week I’m looking at two movies about brooding young men embroiled in circumstances beyond their control. There’s a violent drama about a man caught between a rock and a hard place — his mom and the Angel of Death — in Bangkok; and a Canadian drama about a boy with strange attributes who just wants to fit in.

Ryan Gosling Only God ForgivesOnly God Forgives

Dir: Nicolas Wilding-Refn

Julian (Ryan Gosling) is a hardworking, honest American who lives in Bangkok. He runs a kickboxing gym paid for by family money. But this money is tainted. One day, something sets his older brother off on a rampage that leaves a young girl dead.

A local police detective named Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) hears about the brutal rape and murder, and brings the dead girl’s father to the blood-drenched scene of the crime – a seedy hotel room.  Julian’s brother is still there. Chang hands the dad a baseball bat and locks the door. An eye for an eye.

Kristin Scott Thomas Only God ForgivesJulian feels judgement has been done, and doesn’t retaliate against the man who killed his brother. But his mother is a different story. Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), it turns out, is the family kingpin (or queen pin?) in the drug trade. She’s a cruel, bleached-blond harridan with dramatic eye-makeup. She kills with impunity, and gets off by watching bodybuilders pose on a stage. She flies into Bangkok specifically to kill whoever killed her son.

Chang, the cop, appears to be a soft-spoken, unassuming, middle-aged guy who likes to sing Karaoke. But in fact he is a dark avenger, an angel of death. He acts as judge, jury and executioner, carrying a square-tipped sword strapped to his back. He decides, on the spot, whether a crime deserves just the loss of a limb or two… or a death sentence. And – chop-chop-chop – case closed.

So the two sides, Chang and Crystal, are headed for an inexorable showdown, with Julian caught between them.

Vithaya Pansringarn Only God ForgivesOnly God Forgives has a strange dream-like quality that feels like something by David Lynch. It’s hard to tell if you’re watching what is actually happening, or what Julian thinks will happen. It’s also highly stylized, with the characters posing in mannered tableaux. Most of the scenes are gushing with red and black: gaudy, flocked wallpaper, red glass beads, glowing paper lanterns. And blood… everywhere. I knew this movie was going to be violent, but it’s gruesome, gory.

The movie is fun, in a way. There’s this incredible, over-the-top monologue that Kristin Scott-Thomas has in a Meet the Fokkers scene. Amazing. Ryan Gosling, on the other hand, has almost no lines in the entire movie even though he’s on-screen most of the time. The thing is, he’s not a hero, he’s not an anti-hero — he’s just there. And that’s the problem with this movie: too much gore, too simplistic a plot, and Ryan Gosling is too blah.

Rufus

Dir: Dave Schultz

Rory Saper RUFUSRufus (Rory J Saper) is a shy, misunderstood teenager with lank hair, pale features and an English accent. He arrives in a small town with a very old woman who makes him promise to make friends and blend in. Soon enough, she’s dead, and he’s taken in by the chief of police and his wife, who see him as a replacement for their own son who died a few years earlier. But Rufus is different.

He doesn’t really eat at all, except for really, really fresh meat. Bloody meat. He can lie under water for long periods of time without breathing. His body temperature is 20 – 30 degrees below normal. And did I mention he likes to drink blood? I’m not saying he’s a vampire or anything, but… he is different.

Rufus 2So he naively makes friends with Tracy (Merritt Patterson), a neighbouring girl who says she’s slept with half the town. And there’s Clay (Richard Harmon), the high school jock and bully who first attacks him, but later attempts to befriend him. He falls into a sort of normal life – a home at last. He plays catch-ball with his new dad, makes angels in the snow, sleeps in a real bedroom, eats with a real family.

But then a mysterious man who works for Big Pharma comes to town. He says Rufus can’t live in the outside world and wants to take him away. He seems to know something about Rufus’s past, and that of the old woman he came with.

Rufus can kill if crossed, but he also powers to heal. Who or what is he? A vampire, a werewolf or an immortal soul? And can a boy who is different, especially one with special powers, live a normal life in a small town?

Rufus 1Rufus is interesting as an idea. I liked the concept, but it feels more like a pilot for a TV show than a movie. The acting is good, and I like the feel of the whole thing, but the story just meanders along… there’s just not enough clear plot to satisfy you.

Only God Forgives is playing now, and Rufus opens today (check your local listings.) And to find out about what’s playing at TIFF and how to score tickets – check out the daytime passes — go to tiff.net

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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Ong Bak 3

Posted in Action, Boxing, Cultural Mining, Elephants, Fighting, Movies, Muay Thai, Mysticism, Subtitles, Thailand, Uncategorized, violence by CulturalMining.com on February 15, 2011

Ong Bak 3

Dir: Tony Jaa, Panna Rittikrai

Tien is a 16th Century Thai man, an ophan of royal background, who learned to defend himself after his parents died. The movie begins as he’s being attacked by  mean guys carrying black poles. Though a great fighter, he loses this battle and is chained up. Somehow, he is rescued and taken back to his village, where he studies with a Buddhist priest to learn how to overcome his sins, grow a beard, learn classical Thai dancing, and escape his cycle of endless death and rebirth. The cruel soldiers, (and their satanic, black lipsticked royal boss) — who abuse elephants, spread disease, are disrespectful toward the elderly, and like to kill innocent villagers — are his main enemies.

It’s up to Tien to confront these terrible invaders and defeat them in a series of beautifully choreographed – but bloody! – fights. Tien (Tony Jaa) uses mainly Muay Thai techniques to fight back against the swordsmen. These are combined with some tremendous leaps, jumps and falls, and some deft spear-handling and sword-chopping. But despite all his meditation to cleanse his Karma, Tien still seems to relish the slow-mo stabbing bloodbaths in some of his long battles. And the enemy, in his pointy golden hat, can feed off Tien’s vengefulness and stop all of his efforts unless he can overcome his own feelings of sin.

The fights scenes in Ong Bak 3 are good, but the story is harder to follow than the straightforward plots of Ong Bak (get back the missing Buddha head) and Tom Yum Goong (bring back the missing baby elephant). Ong Bak 3 – which is really just the second half of Ong Bak 2 (and with no connection to the original Ong Bak) — is there mainly for its spectacular kickboxing. The comic relief (a mentally handicapped man with matted hair) isn’t funny, the strange dancing and meditation scenes – while fascinating, at first – seem weirdly out of place in a Muay Thai movie, and the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But the fights, the destruction, and the multi-level scenes atop elephants are not bad at all.

Ong Bak 3 is released tomorrow (Feb. 15th, 2011) on DVD, nationwide. Extras includes interviews (in Thai) with Tony Jaa and other stars.

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