Grand Ambitions. Films reviewed: Edge of the World, The Sign Painter, Lune

Posted in 1800s, 1930s, 1940s, 1990s, Apartheid, Bipolar, Canada, Feminism, Latvia, Malaysia, Nazi, Toronto, WWII by CulturalMining.com on June 4, 2021

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

It’s spring Film festival season in Toronto. Inside Out continues through the weekend featuring some more pics, like Knocked a Swedish psychological thriller about a lesbian widow who hears knocks in her apartment at night; and Being Thunder, a doc about a two-spirited, genderqueer teen’s experiences at a pow wow. The Toronto Japanese Film fest starts today and runs through the month — more on this one next week — and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, featuring films from around the world, has just begun.

This week I’m looking at three new features (two from the TJFF), from Malaysia, Latvia, and Canada, about people with grand ambitions. There’s a a sign painter in Latvia who wants to be an artist, a Victorian explorer making friends with head-hunters in Borneo; and a radical anti-apartheid feminist who wants to vote for Nelson Mandela.

Edge of the World

Dir: Michael Haussman

It’s the 1840s in Sarawak, Borneo. James Brooke (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is an India-born British explorer, collecting butterflies and plants to send back to the academy. He arrives by ship on the shores of this island beside his cousin Crookshank (Dominic Monaghan) and his nephew young Charley (Otto Farrant). But once he enters the jungle they’re captured by warriors who celebrate victory by chopping off heads. Luckily they are brought before two Malay princes to rule on their fate. Prince Makota (Bront Palkarae) is aggressive and devious — he sees a chance to gain British guns and cannons. The younger Prince Bedruddin (Samo Rafael) on the other hand, likes James, as in lust — a future ally and bed-partner?

He says James has semangat — a certain virility and vitality fit for a ruler. James, on the other hand, only has eyes for the beautiful Fatima (Atiqa Hasholan). But after a battle, the Sultan of Brunei makes him king, the Rajah of Sarawak. But danger awaits at every turn of the river, with the snake people, and double-crossing royals, out to get him. And the British Empire would love to get their hands on the gold, coal and spices.  Can he hold onto his kingdom, and fight off enemies abroad and at home? Or will his head land up as just another trophy on somebody’s mantlepiece?

Edge of the World is an exciting adventure in Southeast Asia when most of the world was still coloured pink (the British Empire). This is based on a true story, celebrated at the time, and told by Malaysians themselves. It includes Dayak music and dance,  and a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic cast (Malay, Chinese, Indigenous, Indian, and European). Far from a tribute to colonialism and imperialism, most of the British (save for Sir James) come across as cruel, greedy and racist murderers.

If you like historical dramas — this is a good one.

The Sign Painter

Dir: Viesturs Kairišs

It’s the 1930s in a remote, small town beside a river in Latvia. Ansis (Davis Suharevskis) is a gawky, gangly young man who works with his father as a sign painter, but secretly wants to be an artist, painting on canvas, not words on doors and walls. His other secret is his love for a beautiful young woman. He visits Zisele (Brigita Cmuntová) Romeo and Juliet style, climbing ladders to knock on her window. She’s a modernist, often reading books on free love. But like Romeo and Juliet, they are separated two forces: her father, Bernstein — a local Jewish shopkeeper (Gundars Abolins) — and Ansis’s Catholic priest.  Neither want them to marry, and it doesn’t help that he’s poor. There are also others in the mix. The self-centred Naiga (Agnese Cirule) — the literal girl next door, her father owns the pharmacy next to Bernstein’s shop — has a crush on him. And then there’s Andreas, a bombastic Baltic German, who has the hots for Zisele. Who will end up with whom? But all of their young plans are up in the air when war comes, and the country already under a fascist dictator, is invaded first by the Soviets, and later by the Nazis. What are their fates?

The Sign Painter is a tragi-comedy about life in Latvia during the 30s and 40s as seen through the eyes of one young man. It starts out with a light humorous tone — a sign painter gets lots of work changing the name of main street, with different colours — from Green to Red to Black — and fonts from roman to cyrillic to gothic, depending on who’s in charge.  But about half way through, it takes on a much darker tone, as changing political whirlwinds bring arrests, deportations and massacres. Based on a novel, it’s laden with characters and unexpected plot turns.

I like this movie.

Lune

Dir: Arturo Perez Torres,

Aviva Armour-Ostroff

It’s 1994 in Toronto. Miriam (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) is a single mom who is excited. She’s a radical feminist an artist and a long-time anti-apartheid activist. She’s generous and helpful, giving food and comfort to random homeless people and political dissidents. Why is she so excited? Her birthplace, South Africa, is about to have their first free election — and she wants to go back and vote for Nelson Mandela. Problem is she is penniless (she lives in an apartment above a pawn shop) jobless, and nearly friendless — though she’s has many, many sexual partners.  And then there’s her daughter Eliza (Chloe Van Landschoot). Eliza is finishing high school and trying to get a scholarship to a Montreal Dance Academy. She’s dating  Mike (Vlad Alexis) a naive, young DJ with very well-established parents. Miriam says she wants to take Eliza and Mike to South Africa with her to witness democracy at work. Did I mention? Miriam and Eliza are white, and Mike is black. 

Mike is enchanted by Miriam’s antics and thrilled by the idea of rediscovering his poetry, music, creativity and inner blackness. Eliza, though is pissed. What about her dancing? What about her boyfriend? She’s seen episodes like this throughout her life. Miriam is off her meds and in an increasingly manic state.  So even as her creativity and enthusiasm grows, so does her recklessness. Can they make it to South Africa and back in one piece? Or is this all just a pipe dream?

Lune is a drama about an unusual family in Toronto in the 90s. It’s an amazingly moving piece, a biting satire and an explosion of creativity from spoken word to art to modern dance (Eliza retells her own story in the form of a dance, done by Chloe Van Landschoot.) Vlad Alexis is perfect as the bourgeois black guy trying to get woke. But the centre of it all is co-writer, co-diirector and star Aviva Armour-Ostroff, who as Miriam pushes all her boundaries in a shocking performance, grounded in politics you rarely see. Miriam talks like a combination of Edina Monsoon and Cornell West… with a good dose of cannabis-induced lunacy. (The title, Lune, divides the film into chapters marked by the stages of the moon). 

Lune is a fantastic movie, and has already won the 2021 Micki Moore Award. Don’t miss this one!

Lune has it’s Canadian premier at TJFF today and is playing through Saturday; The Sign Painter has its Ontario premier at TJFF on June 8th and 9th; and Edge of the World opens today on VOD and all major platforms.

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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