Author: Aren Bergstrom

The nostalgia of horror

On a recent episode of the Filmspotting: SVU podcast, hosts Matt Singer and Alison Willmore discussed the Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things and questioned whether horror can be nostalgic. It’s an interesting question as horror is predicated on exploiting fears and anxieties, while nostalgia is generally understood as revelling in past experiences. We believe one relies on negative association, the other positive. And yet, despite this seeming contradiction, horror in film is often nostalgic. This is because nostalgia is not always about remembering the happiness of the past. Because we’re living in the midst of a nostalgia wave, people assume nostalgia is limited to pop-culture’s narrow definitions. Pop culture is rife with entertainment appealing to our collective (read: white, mostly male) past. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the highest grossing film of all-time. Every old movie or television series such as Power Rangers or MacGyver has, or is, coming back in a new form. Superheroes dominate our blockbusters, reigniting the passions of childhood. Nostalgia sells and Hollywood is adamant to squeeze every penny out of past interests, good and bad. But these definitions limit the fact that nostalgia in film often focuses on negative aspects of the past. As anyone who has seen Mad Men knows, nostalgia has its etymological roots in the Greek for the pain from an old wound. In its base definition, it’s about wanting to...

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Review: The Lovers and the Despot

In 1978, North Korean dictator-to-be Kim Jong-Il kidnapped South Korea’s most famous director, Shin Sang-ok, and his former wife, starlet Choi Eun-hee, in order to set them up as propagandist filmmakers for the communist republic. As his prisoners in North Korea, he gave them the means to make countless films all the while bolstering the notion that he was a great artist in addition to a great leader. Ross Adam and Robert Cannan’s The Lovers and the Despot tells one of the strangest and most fascinating stories in international cinema history. Sadly, the film doesn’t live up to the absurd promise of its real-life material. Shin and Choi are important figures in Korean cinema even before taking into account their bizarre ordeals in North Korea. It would be easy to justify a feature length documentary exploring only their filmmaking. Combining this influence on the national cinema with their eight years beneath the sway of Kim Jong-Il only makes their story more important and more fascinating. They’re great artists who lived a story wilder than the films they imagined on the screen. So why is The Lovers and the Despot so dull? Most of this is due to the film’s standard-fare filmmaking. Full of talking heads, archival footage sans context, and historical generalizations about Kim Jong-Il and the People’s Republic, the film never relishes the bizarreness of the story it...

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Review: Southside With You

In 1989 Chicago, a young lawyer interning at a trademark law firm for the summer took his supervisor on a date through Chicago’s Southside. They admired African American artwork at the Art Institute of Chicago, attended a community meeting, and saw Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. That young lawyer was Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and his supervisor was his future wife, Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter). Richard Tanne’s Southside With You details the first date of America’s first couple, showing the people they were before becoming the most famous people in the world. At its best, Southside With You feels like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. It allows its characters to ramble on about race and life and their place within it without interjecting with plot or conflict. At its worst, it’s a bit of a mythic origin story, showing Barack Obama’s talent for stirring a crowd and crossing racial lines years before he ran for office. As it stands, the film is a diverting romance, well acted by its leads and refreshingly brisk in its pacing and runtime. The lead actors do their best to avoid imitation and turn their Michelle and Barack into real individuals struggling, with the pressures of being young and black. Parker Sawyers is particularly good as Barack. In an impromptu speech at a community meeting, he replicates the real Obama’s speech patterns, but rougher, looser, and softer...

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Review: In Order of Disappearance

Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance follows Stellan Skarsgard’s snow plow driver, Nils, as he executes revenge against the Norwegian mobsters who killed his son and covered up his death as an overdose. As the bodies start piling up, the mobsters start a gang war with their Serbian rivals who they think are responsible for their heavy losses. Certain characters take over their films. For instance, in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker dominates the film, tonally and narratively, even though he only appears for an eighth of the runtime. It’s as if the character has a gravitational pull that nothing else in the film can resist. The Dark Knight is a happy example of a towering performance dominating and elevating a great film. However, the opposite can happen, where a poorly-conceived character and a bad performance sabotage a film’s tone and narrative. This is the case with Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance. In Order of Disappearance is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek revenge thriller about Stellan Skarsgard’s Nils getting Charles Bronson-style revenge on the mobsters who murdered his son. The film undercuts revenge tropes and plays to the ludicrous improbability of individuals like Nils actually accomplishing any sort of revenge. The first 20 minutes are fun and droll in that uniquely-Scandinavian way. However, while the narrative should focus on Nils, Pål Sverre Hagen’s vegan gangster, Greven, hijacks it...

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The new flesh: the unnatural nudity of David Cronenberg

Nudity is everywhere in the films of David Cronenberg. From his earliest artsy features Stereo and Crimes of the Future to his most popular films, The Fly and A History of Violence, nudity is pervasive. However, David Cronenberg almost never depicts nudity as natural or graceful. He’s neither a pornographer nor an erotic filmmaker. To Cronenberg, nudity is a means to depict the unnatural. Cronenberg is famous for pioneering body horror, a horror subgenre that explores grotesque physical mutation or transformation that parallels mental transformation or devolution. Thus, for a filmmaker with such an obsession with the human body, it makes sense that nudity is commonplace. However, Cronenberg’s fascination with nudity is not limited to the usual confines of the horror genre; he is not satisfied with conventional depictions of the naked body as object of lust or violence. Instead, David Cronenberg depicts nudity as ugly, as dangerous, and ultimately as unnatural; nudity lays bare the darkness of humanity. The ugliness of the nudity in the films of David Cronenberg is not as simple as Cronenberg hiring physically unattractive actors and filming them in various states of undress. Cronenberg is not interested in such simple conventions of beauty or ugliness. As well, his actors are often beautiful: Marilyn Chambers, Geena Davis, Holly Hunter, James Spader, Jeremy Irons, Viggo Mortensen—all these people are attractive. However, instead of shooting these actors...

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Review: Anthropoid

In 1938 at the Munich Conference, the Allied powers ceded control of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in hopes of preventing an inevitable European war. The effort soon failed as Germany invaded Poland, starting World War Two, and Czechoslovakia mounted a passionate resistance to German occupation. Hitler stymied the resistance by sending his third-in-command, Reinhard Heydrich, to Prague to beat the country into submission. Heydrich’s presence broke the Czechoslovak spirit, but in retaliation, the free-Czechoslovak government in London planned a resistance attack, “Operation Anthropoid,” to buoy national spirits. Anthropoid is the story of Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), soldiers of the free-Czechoslovak army, who parachuted into Prague in December 1941 to carry out the assassination of Heydrich in a defiant act of Czechoslovakian resistance to German domination. Anthropoid is a great history lesson, but dramatically inert. Relaying a lesser-known but vitally important part of World War Two history, the film has the advantage of unique perspective and genuine surprise. For instance, unlike the D-Day invasions or the Battle of Stalingrad, most North American viewers would be ignorant of Czechoslovak efforts during the war and wouldn’t know whether Heydrich survived his assassination attempt. This gives the film urgency and tension that you wouldn’t have in other historical fare. However, director Sean Ellis’s filmmaking squanders that sense of surprise. If Anthropoid is illuminating as a history lesson, it’s...

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Review: Germans & Jews

In 1945, Germany was the scourge of the civilized world. It had started a world war that killed 50 million people and had decimated Europe’s Jewish population through the Holocaust. In 2016, Germany enjoys a reputation as a defender of democracy and progressive politics. Janina Quint’s Germans & Jews bridges the gap between these two identities of Europe’s largest nation. The film explores the uneasy relationship between second-or-third post-war generation Germans and the Jewish people who increasingly call Germany home. Janina Quint’s Germans & Jews is a fascinating documentary examining historical guilt and social reconciliation. It will hold particular relevance to anyone with German heritage (as I have). It’s a documentary of many questions and few answers. The film has no interest in definitively diagnosing modern Germany’s relationship to the Jewish people. Instead, it examines the many factors and experiences that inform that relationship. This approach allows it to rise above the average sociological doc in terms of quality and nuance. Most of the documentary consists of interviews with ordinary folks who relate their experiences being Jewish or German or both in modern Germany. Quint interviews historians and artists and examines their diverse perspectives on dealing with the nation’s atrocious past. She also arranges a dinner party frame narrative that allows the various interviewees to discuss the issues amongst themselves. While initially gimmicky, this set-up offers surprising depth and...

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