More Hot Docs! Films reviewed: Dark Blossom, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, The Big, Scary “S” Word

Posted in 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, Denmark, documentary, Goth, History, LGBT, Protest, Racism, Slavery, Socialism, US by CulturalMining.com on May 7, 2021

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

Hot Docs — Canada’s International Documentary Festival — continues through the weekend with  tons of great movies online. Free tickets each day for students and seniors. I plan to binge watch documentaries this weekend before it’s over.

Here are a few I want to see:

Four Seasons in a Day – a novel look at the ferry across the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic; 7 Years of Lukas Graham — about the eponymous Danish band; Gaucho Americano — about real cowboys from Chile working in the Western US; and Archipelago — a stunning animated look at an imaginary animated island in Quebec.

But this week I’m talking about three more docs at hotdocs, all directed by women, two of which offer a new take on American history. There’s the dark past and present of American racism; the brighter side of 200 years of populist, home-grown American socialism, and — for something completely different — a look at three dark goths in sunny, rural Denmark.

Dark Blossom

Wri/Dir: Frigge Fri 

Josephine is a young woman who lives in a small town in Northern Jutland, Denmark. She hates sports, and rejects the H&M conformity of her high school classmates. She prefers to wear black, accentuated with theatrical makeup, wigs and a pierced septum. If you haven’t guessed yet, she’s a brooding goth. Luckily, Jose is not completely alone. She’s best friends with two guys: Jay, whose parents are devout christians but who prefers big hair and dark fantasies; and fashion-obsessed Nightmare, who knows choice curse words in Punjabi (from his father’s side) but can’t find a boyfriend. They give each other home-made tattoos, and go out on adventures in the grassy fields. They’re totally into roadkill, boiling dead weasels to make jewelry from their bones. Together they form a tight 3-goth posse. 

But things start to fray when Jose meets a guy she really likes. And when she moves to Copenhagen to live with him, Nightmare takes this as a personal slight. Will the three best friends ever get back together, or is this a permanent shift? And will Jose trade in her animal skulls for Hello Kitty dolls?

Dark Blossom is a highly personal look at three young non-conformists in rural Denmark as they express their fragile feelings of friendships in their art fashion and music.

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

Dir: Emily Kunstler & Sarah Kunstler (whose father was the famous civil rights lawyer William Kunstler)

Can a country be both good and bad? Cana country founded on slavery be a bastion of freedom and liberty? So asks Jeffery Robinson, a director of the ACLU in a lecture he gave in New York City on Juneteenth (June 19th) in 2018 to mark the emancipation of enslaved people in the US. This lecture interspersed with vintage photos and personal interviews — looks at the history of slavery and racism and the dominant role it holds in the country. And like the toppling down of old statues, this iconoclast exposes some of the worst aspects hidden in plain sight. Did you know the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner celebrates the capture and killing of escaped slaves? They sing it for you, on stage. Andrew Jackson, whose face greets you on each $20 bill — and whom ex-president Trump says he adores — was a major advocate of the slave trade who proudly owned 150 human beings. A large part of the US economy, both the North and the South, was based on the trade of cotton, tobacco and rice, all of which were produced mainly by slave labour. And that’s just before the US Civil War. 

The film looks at the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, massacres of black neighbourhoods, widespread lynching, segregation, the Jim Crow laws, widespread incarceration and police violence. It covers how ingrained anti-black racism is in the foundations of sectors you might not ever think about, including the financial system, real estate, education, insurance, and government.

This is all told by Robinson himself in a personal way: he grew up in a manly white neighbourhood in Memphis, Tennessee, during the beginning of integration and the implementation of civil rights there. So we see him revisit and talk about his own past, what has improved and what remains the same. Who We Are is an excellent and meticulously researched look at the history of racism and white supremacy within the US, covering hundreds of years in just two short hours.

The Big, Scary “S” Word

Dir: Yael Bridge

With its two-party system, its entrenched political views, and its relative lack of class mobility, the US is considered one of the most conservative, developed countries in the world. But what is often forgotten is the longstanding streak of leftist populism and socialism throughout its history. And with the explosive rise in popularity of politicians like Bernie Sanders and AOC, and movements like the Democratic Socialists, the “S” word no longer holds the negative connotations it once did. This movie  digs up some really unusual facts that will suppose almost everyone who watches it. Did you know it was the republican party who originally espoused socialist ideals after the civil war? And that Karl Marx wrote regular columns in American newspapers? He was intrigued by the socialism in the US long before he write his books. It looks at the cooperative communities that sprung up in the mid 1800s in places like Wisconsin; and the non-commercial Bank of North Dakota that saved the farmers there from losing their land and homes.

The film looks at a huge range of topics eloquently explained by dozens famous talking head like Cornell West and Naomi Klein, as it covers centuries of American history. It also follows some people making history now, like Lee Carter a former Marine turned state politician after he was screwed by his private employer, and Stephanie Price an Oklahoma public school teacher forced to take on a second job just to raise her son (she joined in the statewide teachers strike).

If you’re into history, and not the kind they teach you in high school, check out the Big Scary “S” Word; it’s punchy, fast moving, well-edited, highly informative and most of all, entertaining.

Dark Blossom, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, The Big, Scary “S” Word, are all playing at Hot Docs now through May 9th.

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

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.

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