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.

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

 

 

Greek Myths and Fables. Films Reviewed: Boris sans Béatrice, Chi-Raq, The Lobster

Posted in African-Americans, Canada, Chicago, comedy, Cultural Mining, Fairytales, Greece, Movies, Musical, Quebec, Sex, violence by CulturalMining.com on March 18, 2016

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

Greek myths are not just kids’ stories; they’re full of sex, violence and magical transformations. This week I’m looking at plays, myths and fables from Ancient Greece interpreted by three great filmmakers. We’ve got two films — set in Chicago and Quebec – based on ancient Greek themes; and a futuristic fable by a modern Greek director.

nZlmp5_BSB-Coutroisie_K-Films_Amerique_-_1_o3_8976749_1456938988Boris sans Béatrice

Wri/Dir: Denis Côté

Boris Malinovsky (James Hyndman) is a self-made man. He owns a factory in Montreal, a beautiful country house, and his wife, Béatrice (Simone-Élise Girard) is an M.P. He’s tall, fit, rich and successful. He’s also self-centred, stubborn and arrogant. He can’t stand incompetence and lets everyone know it. Things are k5gjE6_BSB-Coutroisie_K-Films_Amerique_-_4_o3_8976802_1456938983going well until Beatrice climbs into her bed and succumbs to melancholia. (Sounds like a 19th century novel.) Now she’s catatonic and requires Klara (Isolda Dychauk) a ginger-haired young Russian woman, to take care of her 24/7. Boris loves Beatrice, but what can he do to help her?

GZAX4J_BSB-Coutroisie_K-Films_Amerique_-_5_o3_8976819_1456938986Enter a Deus Ex Machina: a mysterious man (Denis Lavant) dressed in gold brocade, who speaks an especially eloquent French. He arrives in an expensive black car, in a grassy field backlit by floodlights. He tells Boris that Beatrice’s illness is his fault. He must change his ways.

Boris changes his ways all right. He is sleeping with Helga, a work colleague (Dounia Sichov), and even flirts with young MjXKpm_BSB-Coutroisie_K-Films_Amerique_-_2_o3_8976767_1456938963Klara. Beatrice continues to decline, until the Prime Minister (Bruce Labruce) drops by to check up on his member if Parliament; and even his estranged, left-wing daughter – who lives with toga-clad young men – tries to help. Will Boris ever change? Or will he end up like Tantalus, the demigod permanently punished for his hubris? And are his worries real or imaginary?

Boris sans Beatrice is a satirical look at life in a Quebec – a multicultural place where ambitious people can get ahead, but where success is always precarious. The cast, especially Hyndman, Girard and Lavant, are all terrific. I like this movie.

Chi-Raq PosterChi-Raq

Dir: Spike Lee

It’s present day Chicago, a city wracked with gun violence that has killed more people than American soldiers killed in the Iraq War. There’s a real war going on between two gangs, the Trojans and the Spartans. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) lives with Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) who wears the gang’s colours, while Irene (Jennifer Hudson) hangs with Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) their rivals. Fighting escalates until two things happen. An innocent schoolgirl is gunned down by a stray bullet and Lysistrata’s home is firebombed. Her neighbor, Miss Helen (the amazing Angela Bassett), grudgingly offers shelter and someChi-Raq sage advice. Stop all this killing. The plan is for all the women in both gangs, in fact all the women in Chicago — even the sex workers — to say no more sex until you lose the guns. Or as they say in the movie:

No Peace, No Pussy.

This becomes an all-out protest that grinds the city to a halt, with women occupying a military base. But can they teach the men to put down their guns, take responsibility and do the right thing?

Chi-RaqDoes this story sound familiar? It should. It’s based on 2,400-year-old drama by Aristophenes. And like the original, it’s spoken in rhyme (this time in rap or in song with elaborate dance numbers) And there’s an omniscient, anansi-like narrator (Samuel L Jackson). It’s also a bit antediluvian. Is a woman’s primary role to provide sex for their male partners? Really? This is 2016.  And the film could use an edit – it’s too long. Still, I quite liked Chi-Raq. A first-rate cast, with the spark of Spike Lee’s earlier films, missing for years.

IMG_0214.CR2The Lobster

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

It’s the future. Things are a lot like now except in this world two is good, one is bad. Loners – single people — are sent to an austere sanitorium where they have 45 days to couple up. Couples are given special privileges while singles are punished and humiliated. Anyone caught having “loner sex” must wear a chastity belt. And anyone still single 97e790bc-95e5-46c5-8fe1-2911423c562dafter 45 days is transformed into an animal and let loose in the nearby forest. But the forest is also filled with runaway loner, humans who have escaped.

The movie follows the latest batch of woebegone singles all frantically searching for their perfect mate. It’s speed-dating hell. And they’re all insecure. The women are bossy or shy, the men walk with a limp IMG_3703.CR2or talk with a lisp. And everyone behaves like 12-year-old wallflowers at their first school dance. David (Colin Farrell) is a typical desperate single – he goes so far as to pretend he’s an A-type sadist just to attract a certain woman.

Things go wrong, and later he finds himself in the woods (as a human, not a lobster). He meets another runaway, a nearsighted woman (Rachel Weisz). The laws in the forest, laid down by their leader (Lea Seydoux), are a topsy-turvy version of the IMG_2135.CR2mainstream: only singles allowed with couples are absolutely forbidden. But what happens if you fall in love?

Lobster is a terrific off-beat comedy. I’ve been following Yorgos Lanthimos since meeting him when his second film, Dogtooth played at TIFF. His films are all highly stylized and uncomfortable satires. Characters speak like they’re reciting lines in a school play, and dress in dated and awkward clothes and hair. I loved his Greek movies but wondered if they would work in English. Not to worry. The Lobster is weird and quirky but totally accessible. You don’t need training in avant garde film to appreciate it. I recommend this movie.

Boris sans Beatrice and Chi-Raq open today in Toronto, check your local listings; and The Lobster starts next Friday.

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

Happy Families: Dogtooth

Posted in comedy, Cultural Mining, Family, Movies, Psychology, Sex by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2009

dogtooth_10Dogtooth
Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Younger Brother is sitting. He is sitting on his bed. He is wearing his tennis clothes. Younger Brother likes to play. Father is bringing a stranger for Younger Brother to meet. She will teach him how to have sex. Younger brother may not tell this to Older Sister and Younger Sister. It is very unusual to have visitors come inside their fence. Father will bring her by car because no one can step on the ground outside the fence. Younger Brother must follow directions or Father will punish him. Mother is locked in her room. She is watching her secret TV tapes. Younger Sister and Older Sister are in the bathroom, learning new words today to improve their vocabulary…

Dogtooth is an unusual film from Greece, a fantasy about a control freak of a father who regards his three children as tabula rasa, to be filled with his ideas and no one else’s. And no one will ever contradict him since he keeps them isolated in a fenced-in compound with no outside contact of any kind. The twist is that the “kids” are adults now but still live as children, not realizing there is any other type of existence. The film shifts back and forth from the black humour of social satire to the pathos of a disturbing family drama. It leaves you with a strange, uneasy feeling.

lifeduringwartime_04Life During Wartime
Dir: Todd Solondz

Todd Solondz’s dark comedies alternate between two New Jersey families, the Weiners (Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1995; Palindromes, 2004) and the Jordans (Happiness, 1998, Life During Wartime, 2009). The characters continue their depressing lives, while the actors who play them come and go. In this movie we join the three new Jordan sisters, ten years later.
Weepy, hippy Joy (Shirley Henderson) loves helping the needy, but this has landed her an unbearable fiance. He asks for her forgiveness for his latest transgression, so Joy seeks out her family for advice. Her mother Mona in Miami is no help, so she moves on to suburban Trish (Allison Janney) who is dating again. But Trish discovers her pedophile husband has been released from prison and is also seeking forgiveness. Sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), a Hollywood star, is bossy and self absorbed and not much help either. Poor Joy resorts to asking advice from ex-boyfriends from her past, like Andy (Paul Reubens).

The cast is as uniformly excellent as the story is relentlessly, painfully sad. Solondz is an expert at inflicting the unvarnished cruelty of family dynamics on his moviegoers. While there is nothing earth-shattering or different in this movie, it still holds its own as a funnily sympathetic (and pathetic) black comedy in his distinctive, ongoing saga.

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