Dark Comedies. Films reviewed: The Square, Happy End, The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Class, comedy, France, Greece, Psychological Thriller, Satire, Scandal, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on September 5, 2017

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

TIFF started just last night and continues through the 17th. I’ve seen a lot of the films now, but I’m barred from commenting on most of them until they open. So I’ll tell you a bit about a few European movies having their Canadian Premiers at TIFF. All three are dark comedies.

The Square

Dir: Ruben Östlund

Christian (Claes Bang) is a rich, handsome and successful man at the top of his game. He’s divorced with two kids and uses his single status to pick up women for one-night stands. At work, he’s the chief curator at a famous art museum inside a former royal palace. The gallery is known for challenging old ideas… it’s revolutionary! Like the new show he’s working on, called The Square: a simple brass plaque on the plaza where a statue of a king on a horse once stood. Now the square welcomes everybody, as a place of respect and responsibility, whether you’re rich or poor, have- or have-not, Swedish born or a recent immigrant.

But things start to go wrong, that call into question his intehrity and high- minded beliefs. When con artists steal his celphone, he traces it back to a public housing highrise, but doesn’t know which apartment it’s in. So he prints up hundreds of threatening letters and drops them into each apartment mailbox. At work he scoffs at an accident involving an art installation – just replace it, he says, no one will notice. He hires young MBA hot shots to promote The Square, but doesn’t pay attention to an offensive promotional video they make – it’s all good, as long as it goes viral. And his personal life spirals out of control when he tries to juggle responsibility toward his bratty kids, with his sex life. Will his life and career all collapse from a series of awful mistakes? And will he realize he’s part of the system causing all these disasters?

The Square, by the director of Force Majeure, is a biting satire about hypocrisies in the art world, told in a series of very funny vignettes. Like when a night of sex with a woman he meets (Elizabeth Moss: A Handmaid’s Tale and Mad Men) turns into a hilarious fight over who owns the used condom – the man or the woman. It’s a long movie but a very enjoyable one. And it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Happy End

Dir: Michael Haneke

Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is the patriarch of a Laurent enterprises a huge corporation based in Calais France. It’s run by his daughter

Anne (Isabelle Huppert) a no-no-nonsense business woman. Her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) a successful surgeon, lives on the family estate with his young wife Anaïs. Then there’s the third generation. Pierre (Franz Rogowski) Anne’s son, knows how to wear a hard hat, but that’s about it. He’s responsible for a disaster that happens at a construction site. And Thomas’s daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) from a previous marriage re-enters his life when his ex-wife suddenly gets sick. The cute and innocent little girl is not as nice as she seems. She’s a tiny psychopath who does horrible things just for the lulz – and to share them anonymously on Snapchat. And Georges, the patriarch, desperately wants to end it all.

Happy End is a very dark comedy about a rich, dysfunctional family. Haneke its great director, does something really unusual: He recreates characters from a previous film, but with an entirely different back story. Amour, Which won an Oscar in 2013, was about an elderly musician man, Georges, facing his wife’s dementia. IN Happy End, Georges (and his daughter) are back again played by the same actors, but this time not as musicians but as corporate leaders. And this time it’s a comedy not a tragic romance. Another great movie.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Steven and Anna (Colin Farrell) and Nicole Kidman) are a Cincinatti power couple, both successful doctors. They live in a beautiful home with their two kids. Everything is normal, except… theres a teenaged boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) who Steven is spending a lot of time with. He meets him on the sky, treating him to lunch at a local diner, meeting him beneath city bridges. He buys Martin a Rolex as a birthday gift. And then Steven takes him to meet his family. What’s going on?

It turns out the boy’s father died a couple years before on the operating table. Steven was the heart surgeon. At first Martin wants to befriends – he even tries to set Steven up with his mom (Alicia Silverstone) at an awkward dinner date. But his true motives are much more sinister. He says Steven must suffer as much as he suffered when s father died. He wants him to sacrifice – in the manner if the ancient greeks – a sacred deer. Meaning one of his family members: his son, his daughter or his wife. And due to some strange condition that the doctors cannot diagnose, the two kids become paralyzed from the waste down. Only Stevens decision can stop this terror.

The killing of a sacred deer is advertised as a horror movie, and there is a bit of that, but like all of Lanthimos’s movies – from Digtooth to the Lobster – it’s more of a dark comedy with a bizarre premise. And like in all the movies, the characters talk like robots, say inappropriately formal things, and don’t notice their own strangeness, because everyone in the movie acts the same way. You get the feeling he doesn’t treat it completely seriously. For example, whenever he’s near Martin, even in an innocuous situation I, the extra loud forbiding music starts to play. I think I liked it, once I accepted the premise. And it is alternatively very funny and disturbingly shocking.

Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Square, Happy End are all playing at TIFF. Go tiff.net for details.

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

 

 

Arab Women Directors. Movies Reviewed: The Square, Wadjda, When I Saw You PLUS TIFF13, TPFF

Posted in Arab Spring, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Islam, John Greyson, Movies, Refugees, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 27, 2013

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.

carpetCloaked in mystery and sensuality, western views of an oil-rich but treacherous “orient” dominated our image of the middle east for decades. Orientalism ruled. More recently, the narrative has shifted to that of an aggressive, terrorist super-villain poised to take over Europe and North America.

We hear news, daily, about Arab countries, but rarely do we hear voices from them. Arab voices are muffled or silenced in Western media. And Arab women are said to be stifled within these cultures. But is this the case? This week I’m talking about three movies, all in Arabic, and all from female filmmakers who prove to be anything but silent.

There’s an up-to-the-minute documentary about the protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square; a sweet drama about a contemporary Saudi girl; and a historical drama about a Palestinian boy and his mom, refugees in Jordan immediately after the 1967 war.

thesquare_00The Square

Dir: Jehane Noujaim

What you’re hearing (on the podcast version) are the voices of protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011. They’re calling for Mubarek – a dictator for three decades – to step down. What’s unique about these protesters is how inclusive they were. Muslims and Copts, religious and secular, artists, academic and revolutionaries, young and old. They all come together around a small patch of Cairo green. With sound of fireworks bursting overhead, they force Mubarek to step down, the military to bring in a new constitution, and hold Egypt’s first national democratic election.

The Muslim Brotherhood — a fundamentalist political party that had been jailed and persecuted for decades by the military — arises as the only large-scale organized group. They distribute oil and food to potential voters and win the election by  close margin. But soon enough, Morsi begins to act much in the same way as Mubarek had done, gathering power for his own faction not for the country as a whole.

This exciting documentary combines brand-new footage taking us from thethesquare_01 first demos to Morsi’s fall this summer. What’s really special about it, though, is how the doc follows a half-dozen of the protesters – from all of the groups involved – who personify the demonstrations. An actor, a student, an activist, a graffiti artist, a member of the Brotherhood, they represent all Egyptians. This is raw, frontline footage: some of the protesters get brutally beaten or imprisoned, others run for their lives during a chaotic government crackdown.

Most chilling of all are the one-on-one interviews (in a chauffeured limousine) with an all-powerful military officer. He dismisses the demonstrators, the constitution and democracy itself as trivial events in his machiavellian view of Egypt.  Sadly, it is the military running that country again.

Waad Mohammed (Wadjda) Courtesy of Sony Pictures ClassicsWadjda

Dir: Haifaa Al Mansour

Wadjda (Waad Mohamed) is a rebellious girl who lives with her mom. She’s into black Converse running shoes, blue jeans, mixed cassette tapes and soccer… and she’s intrigued by the concept of blue nail polish. She’s not much interested in religion, school or traditional women’s roles. And she lets people know when they’re pissing her off. So when she meets a kid named Abdullah who beats her in a race (her on foot, him on a bike) she decides to get a bike of her own so she can beat him. The thing is, Wadjda lives in Saudi Arabia and her school is a madrassa! And, she is told,  girls shouldn’t ride bikes in Saudi Arabia.

She decides to enter and win a Koran recital contest so she can buy the Waad Mohammed as Wadjda Photo Tobias Kownatzki  Razor Film, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classicsbike with the prize money. Has she suddenly become religious, and changed her attitude? (That’s what the school principal wants to happen.) Are they wearing her down? Or will she stick to her principles? And will she and her mother be relegated to side roles if her dad marries a second wife?

Wadjda is a fascinating look at the lives of girls and women in Saudi Arabia. This filmmaker is no softie; she shows a realistic view of both the oppression of women, as well as their everyday lives. Girls are taught never to laugh out loud, lest it distract nearby men; to cover their faces if a man comes into view; and they need a male driver to get anywhere (driving a car is still illegal for women in Saudi Arabia). It’s a country of religious rules and special permits, with South Asian workers doing the less desirable service roles.

But it’s also a country full of ordinary people doing ordinary things – yes, just like anywhere else. As a movie, Wadjda is a real delight. A simple story, but one that rings true.

When I Saw You

Dir: Annemarie Jacir

wisy32Tarek is Palestinian boy who likes math and hates slimy food. But immediately after the 1967 war, he and his mom suddenly find themselves in a refugee camp in Jordan. He doesn’t like it there. Where’s his teacher? Where’s his dad? Where’s his home, his bed, his indoor toilet? And how come they don’t let him go to school?

He knows he’ll be going home soon, he’s not that far away. But he grows disheartened when he meets an old woman who says she’s been in the camp… since 1948! Refugees are treated terribly by urban Jordanians, but the newest refugees are treated worst of all. One day, he sees Yassir Arafat on TV saying the world is about to see a new kind of Palestinian — helpless Saw-Yourefugees no more.

So Tarek runs away from the camp, away from his mother. He’s found in the desert by a bearded guy who had recently left the camp to become a fedayeen – a revolutionary fighter.

He finds himself in a secret war camp: it’s 1967. No prayers, just long hair and hippy beards, and women with ponytails. They all sing wistful songs around a campfire. No Koran in sight, just a copy wisy18of Mao’s Little Red Book. From each according to his means, to each according to his needs…

The boot camp is led by a older man with the war nickname Abu Akram. He wants Tarek to go back to the refugee camp – but the kid is stubborn, and eventually wins him over. And when his mother catches up with them, she sets up camp there too.

Will Tarek and his mom make it back to their village, just across the newly-fenced border?

When I Saw You is a revelatory film; the roots of the post-1967 situation of Palestinian refugees as seen through one determined boy’s eyes. It gives a completely different view — I’d say a completely opposite view — of the fedayeen. Known for decades in North America as the “Palestinian terrorists”, they are portrayed here as freedom fighters who just want their homes back. When I Saw You provides a singularly different historical narrative from the one you’re used to.

A good, fascinating film.

screen-shot-2013-09-05-at-10-42-11-amThe Square premiered at TIFF13, Wadjda opens next week in Toronto, check your local listings, and When I Saw You opens the Toronto Palestine Film Festival on Sept 28 at 6:30 (go to tpff.ca for details). And Toronto filmmaker John Greyson and Dr Tarek Loubani are still being held in an Egyptian prison. They are now on a hunger strike — go to tarekandjohn.com to find out more.

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

Over the Top. Movies reviewed: The Square, Kick-Ass, Fritz the Cat

Why do directors try to go over the top?

I get the impression that movies that want to get noticed try to up the quotient a bit, by including more violence, especially more unexpected violence, or more sex, especially outside the mainstream, or more explicit than what you see in most mainstream movies. So people will be a bit shocked, a bit dismayed, a bit distressed. That’s nothing new. What is new is that the boundaries of what used to be shocking is so far beyond what it was a decade or even five years ago.

So the sex or violence alone isn’t enough. To really shock they want to have kids or old people, or women, or pets, either committing the violence or having it done to them; and what used to be the push for celebrities and famous actors to show more flesh on film, has now shifted to a push for actors to show explicit sex on films. What used to be a bit of blood, now is a flood.

At the same time, the openness to a broad range of opinions and language that really expanded into the mainstream in the sixties and seventies seems to have been scaled back, especially over the past decade. Dirty words are OK now; troubling ideas less so. I’m going to review three comic-book-like movies that are in some way edgy in the over-the-topness in their stories, ideas, explicitness, or language.

“The Square”, an Australian movie directed by Nash Edgerton, has more mullets than you can shake a stick at. A contractor, Raymond (David Roberts), agrees to install a large concrete square in a building development, and arranges to get a kickback from a supplier. He has a good job, success, money, marriage, big house… and even a much younger mistress, Carla (Claire van der Boom). And they all live in the same area — some in mansions, some in shacks — on the banks of a wide, bucolic river. Life’s beautiful.

But one day, Carla discovers her bearded, abusive husband has a hidden bag of slightly stained cash. Lots of it. So she manages to convince Ray to come on board her scheme of somehow stealing it – in a way that can’t be traced back to her. They secretly hire a shady guy – well actually everyone in this movie is a bit shady – to burn down the house. Of course something goes wrong. So now happy Ray has everything and everyone lined up against him.

The square he’s building is sinking; and he has to fend off his contractor, his employees, his boss, the shady arsonist, the womanizing kick-back guy, the conniving mistress, the low-life, mullet brigade colleagues of her bearded hubby, and a mystery person, sending him creepy Christmas cards telling him – “I know what you did”.

So he starts to unravel, suspecting everyone, which devolves into a series of linked, unplanned deaths. It gets stranger and stranger as the movie goes on, till the point where the audience starts cracking up at all the misguided violence. I think the director wanted to go too far… and he did. And I think the movie pulled it off.

It’s definitely a B movie (maybe a C), but it kept my attention and interest. The acting was fun, across the board, though it was hard to deeply sympathize with anyone. (I thought some of the dodgier elements looked more like espresso bar faux-hemian actors than ruthless killers.)

Finally, there are a few great, unforgettable scenes in “The Square” that make it worthwhile. A Christmas picnic in the park, with its miscommunication leading to a panicky Santa is unforgettable. For a Canadian, just seeing a Christmas party in the middle of an Aussie summer is whack.

“Kick-Ass”, which you may have heard of, (directed by Matthew Vaughan, and based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr) is a great retake of the super-hero origins-style comic book (as in Spiderman, Superman, Batman). It’s about Dave (Aaron Johnson), a High School boy who’s tired of his undesirable combination: invisible to girls, but a magnet to bullies and muggers. So after a typical round of complaining to his pals, Dave decides to do something about it.

He fashions himself a super-hero outfit from stuff he buys on-line, and practices poses and punches in front of his bedroom mirror. And he lucks out: his rescue of a man in a street fight with some hoods is captured on a cel phone and instantly goes viral – Kick-Ass is born. He gets lots of hits on his Kick-Ass Facebook, but his own life is unchanged, just full of difficult secrets. Gangsters believe he’s moving in on their territory and want to snuff him, the girl he has a crush on thinks he’s gay, and other kids everywhere are copycatting his costume.

So when he encounters some real superheroes, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), he is shocked back into reality. These real “heroes” are also amassing huge amounts of weapons and money they steal from drug dealers. And Kick-Ass is getting blamed for it.

Tiny, 12-year-old Hit Girl is like a ninja in her speed, skill and ruthlessness, with a shocking moral code different from conventional superhero comic books. She’s part of Big Daddy’s mission of vengeance. These real life super-heroes (similar to the ones in Watchmen, but done much better here) are not the good role models they used to be.

At first glance, Kick-Ass” seems like a typical teen comedy with a twist. But it’s actually a superhero action movie with great comic elements. It is morally ambiguous, extremely bloody and violent, but it does manage to avoid one annoying and pervasive element of action movies: There are no girls calling out to their boyfriends to save them. The girls in this movie follow the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model; either they’re superheroes themselves or they’re self assured regular people, who, when push comes to shove, are ready and able to fight back, to kick ass themselves. That alone makes this an above-par movie. And a reason for there to be more female scriptwriters (like Jane Goldman).

We’re in the midst of film festival season in Toronto. Coming in May, is HotDocs, follwed closely by NXNE. Right now, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival is just finishing up. One of the most interesting topics they’re covering is comics. And of those films, nothing can compare to the well-known but seldom seen on the big screen Fritz the Cat, directed by the legendary Ralph Bakshi).

Fritz the Cat was the first animated film to receive an “X” rating in the US – this was back in the early 70’s. And to understand it, you have to consider it in context, the period in which it was made. (FTC would never be made this way today.)

The story is about a hep-cat, Fritz, who’s a hip cat. (He’s a cat.) Fritz is a university student at the peak of the baby-boomers’ take on the ‘sixties, in downtown New York City. He’s sick of studying and going to classes so he embarks on a journey, to experience life. So we follow him from Washington Square Park, where he tries to pick up girls by impressing them with his lame guitar-playing.

He ends up at a pot party, which soon devolves into romping group sex in a bathtub. He later falls in with a crow, steals a car, has sex, takes drugs, and falls in with some bikers and revolutionary terrorists who want him to blow things up.

Fritz is a sort of a Cheshire cat, but dressed like a college student trying to be cool. The crows look suspiciously like the magpies Heckle and Jeckle. (This was a TV cartoon series made by Terrytoons, where Bakshi worked in the 50’s at the start of his career. I wonder if that was his inspiration.) In this movie the cats and rabbits live downtown, while the crows, well, they live in Harlem. The pigs, of course, are a bumbling team of cops — an old-timer, Ralph, and his new partner. And there are lizards, a cow who’s a biker chick, and other cats and dogs. (Black pimps? Cops as pigs? Old jews praying and complaining? Maybe in 1972 these tired stereotypes were more audacious end edgy, less cliched than now.)

Most of the characters — especially the scrunched faced men, and the big bottomed women in overalls — are icons of the great cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was also a sort of an underground comic superstar at the time. This movie captures a lot of Crumb’s relaxed hippy sexuality, but also Bakshi’s sorta terrifyingly nihilistic, and misogynistic view of a violent world. So there’s lots of tame sex, lots of music, drugs, four letter words, and very bloody, senseless death, none of which was ever seen at the time in animated American movies (but are now on the level of what you find in a few minutes of The Simpsons). Fritz the Cat is a step back into the defunct microcosm of rioting, extreme change, and anything-goes experimentation of the late 60’s and early seventies.

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