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Crazy from the Heat

By Douglas Davey

“Did you know, Putnam, that more murders are committed at 92 Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once. Lower temperatures, people are easy going. Over 92, it’s too hot to move, but just 92, people get irritable!” 

It Came From Outer Space (1953) 

A woman stands in front of a coastal Mediterranean city in the sun

Summer may be winding down, but we still have some longer days remaining and so, I decided to focus on the sun as a theme. If someone were to ask you to recall films with lots of sunshine, my mind, and I’m assuming most people’s, would go to romances such as Under the Tuscan Sun, with the stunning Diane Lane staring wistfully into a golden horizon, or maybe silly beach comedies like Weekend at Bernie’s. Why not? But the sun that warms can also burn and strange things can occur under Sol’s harsh glare. While high tension films are usually associated with darkness, these films prove that dramas can be just as riveting in the light of day. Each film is an example of some kind of madness occurring beneath, or because of, our blazing sun. 

Janelle Monáe stands in a cotton field in the film Antebellum

Antebellum (2020)

From its first scene, Antebellum uses bright sunlight and saturated colours to counterpose the illusion of a genteel era of plantations and petticoats against the horrific realities of enslavement, violence and forced labour. The narrative follows a stoic, enslaved woman (multi-threat Janelle Monáe) as she struggles to survive her inhuman conditions. But wait! There are subtle hints (I won’t spoil the surprise by listing them) which suggest that all is not as it seems in this little corner of Dixie. Antebellum has a fascinating premise and features an impressive performance by Monáe. While the script may fall a little flat in places, the end product is certainly memorable. Watch for the many ways in which sunlight (and moonlight) is featured, from the film’s tragic midday opening to its triumphant sunrise finale.

For fans of: 12 Years a Slave (enslavement), Get Out (plot-twisty racism), Midsommar (day time horror).

Yannis Stankoglou stares into his rearview mirror in the film Blind Sun

Blind Sun (2015)

Set in Greece during a blistering heat wave, Blind Sun is a slow-burning story of isolation and suspicion. Our protagonist is Ashraf, a taciturn immigrant making his way through a landscape so arid it verges on apocalyptic. He’s lucky enough to secure a job as house sitter for a wealthy French couple and doubly lucky to have access to their precious water reserves during a time of drought. Unluckily, however, Ashraf is surrounded by a vague but unmistakable sense of menace which reinforces his position as an outsider: a shady cop harrasses him, threatening graffiti appears on the compound gates and, most mysteriously, the house is plagued by the sounds and actions of an invisible intruder. Is there someone (or something) else in the house, or is it all just sunstroke psychosis? Palestinian lead actor Ziad Bakri smoulders in a performance that is understated but riveting. 

Low on plot but rich in atmosphere, this isn’t a movie to let play in the background, nor is it one for a fun evening on the couch. It demands attention and a willingness to let go of traditional narrative expectations. An official TIFF selection in 2016.

For fans of: David Lynch and Denis Villeneuve.

Children lie on a manicured lawn in the sun in the film Kynodontas

Kynodontas (Dogtooth) 2009

How far would you go to protect your kids from the dangerous realities of adulthood? For these Greek parents, nothing is too much. They raise their children, two daughters and a son, in strict isolation, using outlandish stories to prevent them from venturing beyond the borders of their lush family compound. The children, now young adults, live out their aimless, sun-soaked days in a sort of eternal, incarcerated vacation. As time goes on, and as their sex drives become inexorable, the siblings begin to question the veracity of the tales they’ve been told. Their parents, still committed to the ruse, must go to greater and greater lengths to manipulate the kids into obedience. Absurd, hilarious and unsettling, director Yorgos Lanthimos has made a film that you won’t forget, even if there are times when you may want to.

For fans of: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (also by Lanthimos), Wes Anderson (quirky adult humour).

School girls lay in the oppressive heat under parasols in the flim Picnic at Hanging Rock

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

A strange and ambiguous mystery from the lens of Australian film superstar Peter Weir. The young ladies at an Australian boarding school take a trip to an ancient rock formation, leaving pleasant orphan girl Sara behind. The filmmaker uses the abundance of natural light to create a washed out, sepia-toned aesthetic. The mise-en-scène is so unmistakably impressionistic that viewers may feel like they’re watching a Renoir brought to life. While exploring, some of the girls seem to enter a dream-like state. Mesmerized, they disappear into a crevice, never to be seen again. The ensuing mystery serves to deepen pre-existing rifts at the school and erodes the sanity of those left behind, culminating in Sara’s apparent suicide.

Picnic at Hanging Rock might be a metaphor for colonialism,  about emergent sexuality, or maybe just an artful abstraction. I honestly have no idea, but this movie has fascinated me for a long time. WARNING: upon rewatching, I now find the pan flute soundtrack to be a bit much, but maybe that’s just me…

For fans of: The Virgin Suicides (the death of ethereal teenage girls), Annihilation (dreamlike exploration), Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (also inspired by paintings), other films by Peter Weir.

Montgomery Clift leans on the shoulder of Shelley Winters in the flim A Place in the Sun

A Place in the Sun (1951)

Oh, what’s a blue-collar boy to do when his best gal announces she’s pregnant just as he’s about to make the upper crust scene with a beautiful socialite? Go for a boat ride and make a poor decision, that’s what. With a stellar cast and Shakespearean plot, this film made a huge splash (no pun intended) at both the Oscars and the then newly-minted Golden Globes. It hasn’t really stood the test of time but it’s certainly worth watching, even if the pacing is glacial by today’s standards. The cast includes my #1 man-crush Montgomery Clift as the too-ambitious lead, Shelley Winters as his good-as-gold girlfriend and Elizabeth Taylor as the debutante whose every move will show you why the world was so ga-ga for her back in the day.

For fans of: basically any Tennesse Williams play, or anything featuring the leads.

Two of the four female leads of Spring breakers boat into the sunset with James Franco, bearing assault rifles

Spring Breakers (2012)

I wasn’t sure what to make of this film when I first heard about it—a beach movie by the writer of the relentlessly unpleasant Kids? The same guy who wrote AND directed the equally unpleasant Gummo? Well, Harmony Korine definitely did something with Spring Breakers, but no one can seem to agree as to  what that is. The film follows four female college students—Brit, Faith, Candy and Cotty—who want to go to Florida for spring break shenanigans. In order to pay for the trip, three of them commit armed robbery, telling each other to “just pretend it’s a video game.” Faith, a good girl, (but a Bad Liar, played by Selena Gomez) wasn’t in on their brainless plan, but still takes advantage of their ill-gotten gains. 

On the sunny beaches and in the darkened hotel rooms of St. Petersburg’s party hotels, the film’s camera lingers unsettlingly on the bodies of the female hedonists. Somewhere along the way, the quartet crosses paths with Alien, a local rapper and drug dealer. In the role of Alien, notable creep James Franco is truly convincing as a deranged and dangerous idiot, one who has gone all-in on a cartoonish gangster persona. Of the four, only Faith recognizes the danger of hitching their stars to Alien’s larcenous wagon and so heads home while the others get caught up in the false glamour of his “live fast, die young” lifestyle. Critics wondered if Spring Breakers was just arty exploitation of the young actresses (two of whom were former child stars, just to make it extra creepy) or feminism of the ‘girls can be just as nasty as boys’ variety. I’m not sure. But, where the movie truly succeeds is in capturing our endless appetite for superficial media and fleeting, meaningless stardom of any sort.

For fans of: The Bling Ring (vapid, celebrity obsessed, and criminal young women), Inherent Vice (surreal crime in a beach setting), Drive (stylized crime).

Elizabeth Taylor leans against a rock in panic in the film Suddenly Last Summer

Suddenly Last Summer (1959)

It’s a Montgomery Clift-Elizabeth Taylor double header! Written by Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, this tale will have you saying, “if what’s happening is what I think is happening, then… ew.” A promising young surgeon (Clift) is called upon by a southern grand dame (an imperious Katherine Hepburn) to give a lobotomy to her niece (Taylor) who cannot—or must not?—remember a horrific event which happened one “scorching white-hot day.” If you’re wondering what the event is, hold on to your hat and maybe your lunch. If you’re wondering which season it occurred in, how many years ago it was, or its pace, I refer you back to the title. OK, I’ll admit it, this isn’t a great movie (I think most of the creators disowned it) but it certainly checks the “sun-scorched insanity” box, and must have really blown some minds upon its release.

For fans of: (see A Place in the Sun).

A figure stands, silhouetted against the burning sun in the film Sunshine

Sunshine (2007)

In the near future when our sun begins to mysteriously dim, an international team of astronauts is sent to reignite the stellar version of a pilot light. But this isn’t just any team, it’s a cadre of camera-friendly fan favourites who would go on to make it big in comic book movies like The Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, The Fantastic Four, Captain America: The First Avenger, Dr. Strange, Green Lantern, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and all of Chris Nolan’s Batman films. At least three of the actors would later meet up in Avengers: Endgame! The team represents the best of humanity, coming together to save our shared home. 

Inspiring, right? It would be, but this is a Danny Boyle picture, and he’s built a career out of crafting harrowing film experiences like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and 127 Hours*, so you know this isn’t going to be a heart-warming space cruise. Sun-madness, calamity and a hidden player acting behind the scenes all combine to make a movie that is well worth your time, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to the rest of the director’s oeuvre. 

*I saw 127 Hours in the theatre while I was quite ill and actually passed out during the climactic scene. Now THAT’S movie making.

For fans of: 2001: a space odyssey (Epic sci-fi), 28 Days Later (a tense Danny Boyle film), Ad Astra (dramatic and somewhat-plausible sci-fi).

Douglas Davey has been a professional librarian for over 20 years and is currently the Manager, Library Services at Whitchurch-Stouffville Hills Public Library. Currently, he is the Vice President of the Ontario Public Library Association and the OPLA Children’s or Youth Librarian of the Year. He is also an author of fiction for teens, and a total nerd for horror, fantasy and sci-fi. He lives in Guelph with his family.

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