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

Women around the world. Films reviewed: Nina Wu, White Elephant, French Exit

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

Spring is here and so is Toronto’s film festival season, even with all the theatres still closed. First up is the Canadian Film Fest which is on now.

This week I’m looking at three new dramas about women around the world. There’s an actress haunted by an audition in Taipei; a high school girl crushing on a white guy in Scarborough; and an insolvent socialite retiring in Paris.

Nina Wu
Dir: Midi Z

Nina Wu (Wu Kexi) is an aspiring actress in Taiwan. Originally part of a rural theatre company, she moved to Taipei to make it big, but so far, six years on her big break has yet to show itself, So when her agent offers a possible role in a festival-type feature looking for an unknown actress to play a complex character in a psychological drama, she jumps at the chance. But there’s always a catch: the part calls for full frontal nudity and explicit sex. That’s not all — there’s a gruelling, and highly competitive hiring process she has to past through first. Luckily she lands the lead role. Unluckily, the director, in order to get a “real” performance out of her, treats her like hell on set and off. He works her into a frenzy, slaps her face, insults her and puts her very life in danger. She understands what an actor has to go through to deliver a spectacular performance. But that’s not all. A dark, hidden secret from the recent past, still haunts her, and is gradually pushing her to the edge. Someone is stalking her. She has disconnected memories of walking down endless narrow corridors in a red gown, passing identically dressed women at every corner. What is happening? What does it all mean? And can she survive?

Nina Wu is an exquisitely beautiful mystery-thriller about the life of an actress suffering from PTSD. It’s about her, her dreams and hallucinations, as well as the movie in the movie. So at any given moment she could be acting her role, having a nightmare, or experiencing a hallucination — and you don’t always know which one it is. Nina Wu is a collaboration between the director, Midi Z, originally from the Shan State in Myanmar, and Wu Kexi a stunning and emotionally powerful Taiwanese actress, based on her own experiences. With haunting music, striking costumes and set, beautiful cinematography and a fascinating story, Nina Wu shows the dark side of the movie industry coated with a vibrant and flashy gloss.

White Elephant
Dir: Andrew C

Its the mid-nineties at a Scarborough high school. Puuja (Zaarin Bushra) is a
16-year-old Toronto-born girl who doesn’t quite fit in. She’s too Canadian for her Indian-born friends Preet and Amit (Gurleen Singh, Dulmika Kevin Hapuarachchi), too Indian for Indo-Caribbeans, and too brown for the white kids. Her main pastime is going to movies and hanging at Tim Horton’s. But when a random encounter at a theatre with a white guy she thinks is cute, things start to change. Trevor (Jesse Nasmith) doesn’t go to her school, but he’s from the neighbourhood, and hangs with his friends nearby. He seems to like her, at least as a friend. Pujaa starts lightening her hair, changing her style and wearing green-tinted contact lenses to fit in. But can a brown girl date a white guy in Scarborough? Or is their Romeo and Juliet friendship bound to fail?

White Elephant is a look at the racial division, rivalry and prejudice among kids in a multi-cultural community, as seen through the eyes of Puuja. It’s a shorter than average-film, just one hour long, but it covers a lot of ground.

There are some strange details. I’ve never heard of Canadians putting their hands on their hearts during the national anthem — that’s an Americanism. And why would Pooja’s Calcutta-born Dad scolds her for not speaking Hindi. (Wouldn’t he speak Bengali?) But these are minor quibbles. Acting was good all around, the costume design was fun, and the film gave a voice to groups rarely seen on the screen.

French Exit
Dir: Azazel Jacobs
(Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt)

Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a Park Avenue socialite known for her attitude. She can cut down the fiercest critic with a withering glance, and if snubbed by a waiter she’s apt to set her table on fire. She’s not one to be underestimated. When her husband died she withdrew her nondescript son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) from prep school and brought him home. Eight years later, the coffers run dry, and she’s insolvent. So she sells her jewelry and paintings and pulls a “French exit” —an unannounced getaway — on an ocean liner with a satchel full of Euros. She’s accompanied by Malcolm and their cat. Malcolm is sad because his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) refuses to follow him to Paris. (Oh to be young-ish and in love-ish again, says Frances.) They set up house in her best friend Joan’s pied à terre and start to enjoy life in Paris. And they soon have a motley crew of friends dropping by: Madame Reynard, a lonely fan, Madeleine, a psychic, Julius, a private detective, and others. Frances is spreading the wealth, handing off wads of cash to everyone she meets. It’s almost as if she’s trying to use it all up before she says goodbye. But first she must find her runaway cat, whom she believes is a reincarnation of her late husband. Can Malcolm adjust to life in Paris? Will he ever see Susan again? What is the real reason Frances came to Paris? And what will happen when her money runs out?

French Exit is a leisurely-paced, whimsical story, based on a novel. Lucas Hedges as Malcolm is so low key and introverted, you can barely notice him; while Michelle Pfeiffer Frances is a fantastical creation. It feels like a modern-day version of Auntie Mame. It’s written by Canadian novelist Patrick DeWitt based on his own recent book, which gives it lots of room to develop characters and supply funny lines. It may be light and inconsequential, but it’s a pleasure to watch.

French Exit and Nina Wu both open today; and White Elephant is playing at the Canadian Film Festival.

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

 

International Women’s Day! Films reviewed: True Mothers, The World to Come, My Salinger Year

Posted in 1800s, 1990s, Adoption, Family, J.D. Salinger, Japan, LGBT, New York City, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 5, 2021

Monday is International Women’s Day, so this week I’m looking at three new movies that celebrate women. There’s a woman who encounters her adopted son’s birth mother; an aspiring writer in 1990s Manhattan; and two women in 19th century, upstate New York. 

True Mothers

Wri/Dir: Naomi Kawase

Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) is a married professional woman in Western Japan. She and her husband enjoy their kids-free lifestyle — fine dining, travel, and a high-rise luxury condo. But they long for a family of their own, and so far, it isn’t working., despite various medical interventions. Then one day on a talk show they see a woman telling about her organization. It’s called Baby Baton because the infant is passed on like a baton from the birth mother to its new parents. Adoptees have to pass rigorous requirements, including that one parent must quit their job and become a full-time house parent. Unsurprisingly, Satoko takes that role. And they bring home the newborn baby of a 14-year-old junior high girl named Hikari (Aju Makita). That was five years ago. Now they are devoted to their adorable adopted son, Asato. But their world is turned upside down by a knock on the door by a woman who claims to be the boy’s mother. And, she says, she wants him back.

True Mothers is a touching intimate story of two women’s lives. The movie is divided in half, The first part is all about Satoko and her husband and son, the trials and tribulations of raising a child. The second half is about Hikari the birth mother, and her life since giving up the baby. It explores her time on a misty remote island off Hiroshima (at the Baby Baton headquarters), where she spends the final months of her pregnancy, but also the dark turn her life takes afterwards. Naomi Kawase is one of very few female directors in Japan, and as in all her movies, the story is gently told but full of pathos. Well-acted and very moving with lovely cinematography, True Mothers pulls no punches when dealing with the reality of fertility, unplanned pregnancy, and the other side of adoption. 

Very nice movie.

The World to Come

Dir: Mona Fastvold

It’s the 1850s in rural upstate New York. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is a morose young woman with a stern demeanour and long black hair. She lives in a farmhouse with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). They have a flock of sheep, chickens and milk cows. They used to have a little daughter, the light of their lives, but she died before she was five. Since then, it’s been a loveless marriage and the two barely speak to each other, just coasting through life without a purpose. Dyer records financial records in his ledger, while Abigail writes her thoughts and observations in a black-bound diary. But everything changes when they meet their new neighbours who rent a farm over the hill. Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) has ginger hair and fiery eyes, and she swooshes past in elegant gowns. Her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) has a dark side carrying bitter grudged just waiting to explode. Abigail and Tallie become instant friends, sharing thoughts, sharp observations, secrets. Their husbands notice the change — why are they smiling? Why are they so happy? Could these two friends like each other more than their husbands? 

The World to Come is a passionate and poetic romance, about two women who find love along the harsh frontier. It’s narrated by Abigail’s diary entries and love letters from Jan to July of the same year, and the story is told in a literary style, like the turning pages of a book. But it’s not all talk, it’s a beautifully shot movie full of burnished wood, wrought iron, fireplaces, cotton dresses and candlelight. It’s filmed on location, with harsh winter blizzards and beautiful spring days. And while not explicit, there are sensuous scenes of Abigail and Tallie kissing furtively in dark doorways, or sneaking off into the woods. Very famous cast: Vanessa Kirby plays Princes Margaret in The Crown, and Katherine Waterston is in Fantastic Beasts and Inherent Vice. And the husbands, Christopher Abbot and Casey Affleck, are very well known, as well. While I wasn’t deeply moved by this movie, I did care about what happens to the characters, and the film itself is visually very nice to look at.

My Salinger Year

Wri/Dir: Phillippe Falardeau (Based on the Memoir by Joanna Rackoff) 

It’s the 1990s in Manhattan. Joanna (Margaret Qualley) is a young grad student and aspiring poet, who is visiting the city to experience literary New York. She has a boyfriend back in Berkeley, but in the meantime she’s camping out in her best friend Jenny’s cramped Village apartment. Her “room” is a tiny space in the corner separated by a folding paper screen. And she lands a plumb job; not as a a writer or working for a publisher, but in the office of a venerable agency. The company is headed by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who looks like a stately Susan Sontag. Margaret’s biggest client is JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, whom she calls Jerry. He hasn’t published anything since the ’60s, but he’s still wildly popular. As Margaret’s assistant, Joanna’s main job is dealing with the bags of fan mail delivered each day. Salinger is a recluse, and never sees any mail — they shred each letter, but not before reading it, and sending out a hand-typed — we’re talking typewriters here, no computers allowed in the office — form letter, saying thank try for your kind letter, unfortunately JD Salinger won’t see it. 

Meanwhile Joanna is luxuriating in the literary life: having lunch at the Waldorf, rubbing shoulders with famous authors (though never Salinger). She goes to poetry readings at the right cafes and moves in with her handsome new boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth), a working-calls writer who’s also a bit of a dick. Will Joanna stay on in Manhattan or return to California? Can she forge a career as a literary agent? And will she ever meet Salinger?

My Salinger Year is a true memoir based on the writer’s own early career. It’s delightful to watch —who would have guessed we could feel nostalgic for the 90s? She experiences the city, wandering into places like the New Yorker magazine’s offices. And it’s full of wonderful vignettes about the quirky people she meets in her office (played by Colm Feore, and others.) It also shows us the writers of the fan mail, each of whom addresses the audience directly, reciting the texts of their letters. The film is made by Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and is shot around Montreal. As always, his movies are full of warm, funny characters and lots of  detail; he doesn’t gloss over what’s going on. Falardeau also has some weird trademarks — characters break into music videos or start dancing — which I don’t quite get, but luckily it doesn’t detract from the story. You can tell Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley loved making this movie, and if you’re into writing or reading books, or the whole literary milieu, you’ll enjoy it, too. 

True Mothers, The World to Come, and My Salinger Year are all playing today on VOD or streaming sites.

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

Off. Films reviewed: Save Yourselves!, Max Cloud, Another Round

Posted in 1990s, Action, Brooklyn, comedy, Denmark, Games, High School, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 18, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three indie comedies about characters who find themselves in odd situations. There’s middle aged school teachers going off the wagon, a Brooklyn couple going off-grid, and a teenage girl going off this planet.

Save Yourselves!

Wri/Dir: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson

Su and Jack (Sunita Mani, John Reynolds) are a Brooklyn couple in their early 30s. They love each other but something seems to be missing. It could be because they spend their lives glued to smart phones for texting, social networks and search engines. They can’t answer a simple question without googling it first. So when a friend at a wedding party offers them the use of his grandparents’ cottage in the woods, they decide it’s now or never. They cut the cords and take a week off-grid. That means no schedule, no email, no listicles, and no phone. Their lives will be authentic and spontaneous. So they pack their bags – along with ample arugula and kale – and drive up north, At the cottage they notice new things. Meteors falling from the sky. And have frank conversations. Jack tries to become more manly by chopping wood while Su resists pulling out her phone. It’s difficult but they can manage. Until things start to get strange. Loud bangs n the background. And an auburn pouffe —  sort of a fluffy Ottoman –  they find in the cottage. Why does it keep moving… by itself. Are they crazy? Or is something going on.

Turns out these adorable tribbles are actually dangerous aliens taking over the world. They devour all ethanol, and send out smelly waves disabling their enemies. Su and Jack don’t know any of this because they’re offline. But they also unknowingly fled chaos in the cities just in time. Can they survive this alien invasion? Or will they just be its latest casualty?

Save Yourselves is a cute, satirical comedy about ineffectual millennials trying to make it in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s funny, goofy and silly. Reynolds does Jack as an insecure dude in a moustache while Mani is an alienated Su who misses her mom. They’re a good comedy duo who play off each other well.

I like this low-budget comedy.

Max Cloud

Dir: Martin Owen

It’s Brooklyn in 1990.

Sara is a teenaged girl who loves video games – she’s glued to her TV set 24/7. And it looks like she’s about to reach the top level of her space exploring game where Max Cloud and his sidekicks fight off the bad guys invading his spaceship. But her dad Tony is worried about her — she’s not doing her homework. So he grounds her and takes away the joy stick. But that’s not fair! Sara wishes she could play this game all the time… Little does she know, her wish is someone else’s command, and she is magically transferred into the game itself. Only they’re real people now, not 16-bit game avatars.

There’s the hero, the devilishly-handsome chowderhead Max Cloud (Scott Adkins), the cynical Rexy (Sally Colett) and Jake, the wise-cracking young cook (Elliot James Langridge). And wouldn’t you know it, Sara takes the form of Jake not Max. They’ve crash-landed on the prison planet Heinous, and have to escape before the evil  villains, Shee and Revengor, take over. Now it’s real life, not a game. How can Sara escape? Luckily her best friend, Cowboy (Franz Drameh) is in her bedroom holding the controls. If he can win the game, she can get back to the real world. But if not she’s trapped theer forever.

Ok, when I started watching Max Cloud, it felt weird. The game characters spoke larger than life, the sets looked tacky and cheap, and the whole concept felt too over-the-top to be taken seriously. Why are they talking so strangely? Then it hit me.

They’re all British actors, playing cartoonish Americans, using a high camp sensibility. Like a low-budget episode of Peewee’s Playhouse invaded by characters from Mystery Science Theatre 3000. When looked at that way, it’s actually quite cute and funny. The plot is basically non-existant, but the characters are enjoyable, and I really loved the 16-bit style computer animation, especially when used on live human actors in a jerky, 90’s-style Street-fighter battle scene. Very cool.

If you’re into mullets and vintage games you’ll love Max Cloud.

Another Round

Dir: Thomas Vinterberg

Martin (Mads Miklelsen) is a history teacher at a Copenhagen highschool who feels like something is missing from his life. He used to be funny, handsome and vibrant – he was a ballet dancer doing a PhD for God’s sake! But now, his home life is dull, his job even worse. His wife works nights – he rarely sees her. Somewhere along the way, his get up and go got up and went. Even his students are revolting over his  unimpressive classes.  What can he do?

One night at a birthday dinner with his three best friends –  Tommy the gym coach (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj the psychology teacher (Magnus Millang) and

Peter who heads the school choir (Lars Ranthe) – propose a scientific experiment to change their lives. Based on the writings of Norwegian psycholgist Finn Skårderud who says humans work best at an alcohol level of 0.05, they decide to maintain that level of drunkenness every day, except for nights and weekends. They carry personal breathalyzers to reach the exact level, and take careful notes of its effect. The initial results? Life is more fun, people laugh more, work seems easier, and their self-confidence is growing. It’s like wearing beer-goggles all the time. On the negative side there’s slurred speech, clumsiness and bad judgement. And when they raise the level to 0.1 things get really interesting. But other people are starting to notice  with potentially terrible consequences. Have they taken their experiment too far?

DRUK

Another Round is a very clever comedy about the good and bad points of alcohol. It’s all done tongue-in-cheek of course – Danish director Thomas Vinterberg loves poking at the bourgeoisie. Obviously, I’m not shouting three cheers for alcoholism, but after decades of Calvinistic Hollywood movies about the evils of hooch, reefer madness, and various other addictions, it’s refreshing to see something from the other side, taking the point of view of the guy with the lampshade on his head, rather than the finger-waving Mrs Grundys. Mads Mikkelsen is superb as a man whose life is reawakened by drinking, including an amazing dance sequence toward the end. This isn’t a light, easy movie – parts will definitely make you squirm – but  Another Round is definitely something different, and something that you should see.

You can watch Save Yourselves beginning on Tuesday, while Another Round, and Max Cloud both open today digitally and VOD; check your local listings

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

Young Lovers. Films reviewed: Angelfish, Man Proposes, God Disposes, And Then We Danced

Posted in 1990s, Brazil, Clash of Cultures, Dance, Georgia, LGBT, New York City, Poland, Romance by CulturalMining.com on January 24, 2020

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

How is cinema faring at the start of this new decade? In Toronto, at least, it looks a bit grim. Our biggest film festival has laid off much of their staff, our largest theatre chain is about to be devoured by a British conglomerate, and one of the biggest downtown movie theatre is slated for demolition. But have no fear, the movies are still here. You can see super-8 movies over the weekend at the Polish Combatants’ Hall (SPK) on Beverley St; The magnificently refurbished Paradise Theatre is showing first-run art house films in a splendid setting. And TIFF’s Next Wave festival is offering free screenings of young directors for free if your under 25.

So this week I’m looking at three new movies about young love. There’s a Polish criminal pursuing a woman he doesn’t love, a Georgian dancer dealing with forbidden love, and a young couple in the Bronx trying to see if love can work.

Angelfish

Dir: Peter Lee

It’s the early 1990s in the Bronx. Brandon (Jimi Stanton) lives with his little brother Conner and alcoholic mom (Erin Davie) in Kingsbridge, a working-class white neighbourhood. He works behind the deli counter at the local grocery store to help pay rent. Eva (Princess Nokia) lives in nearby Marble Hill a Puerto Rican enclave in the north tip of Harlem. Her mother moved there to make a better life for Eva and her severely handicapped brother Julio. She’s planning on studying accounting at College to please her mom, but yearns to be an actress. The two meet by chance in the grocery store when Brandon stops a guy aggressively hitting on her.

They meet again at the local movie theatre, and when they spend a day together by the waterfront sparks fly. Is it love? But family duties intrude on their budding relationship: Julio needs constant care from Eva.  And Brandon should be paying more attention to the sketchy guys Conner is hanging with. Is their love destined to fail? Or can they overcome all the roadblocks between them?

Angelfish is a touching, low-budget and low-key look at ordinary people balancing love with responsibilities. Despite the Tony-and-Maria dynamics and the dark-alley locations, this is no West Side Story redux. The two are less of a Romeo and Juliet separated by race, than a young couple living up to expectations and dealing with grinding poverty.

Man Proposes, God Disposes

Dir: Daniel Leo

It’s a few years back in Gdansk, Poland. Karol (Mateusz Nedza) is a wiry guy in his twenties who lives with his mom and little sister. He sports a shaved head, a pencil moustache and a black watch cap. He makes his living through burglary and petty crime and spends his illicit earnings at nightclubs, picking up women. Bruna (Bruna Massarelli) is a middle-class university student in São Paolo with burgundy hair,  freckled cheeks and sensual lips. Their paths crossed in Europe in a soon forgotten one-night stand. But an unexpected phone call brings them together again. She’s pregnant with his child. Karol makes his way to Brazil and shows up – unannounced and uninvited- at her apartment door. Things are prickly between them, and he acts arrogant.

His only friend is Cici (Erick Mozer) a water deliverer boy he meets on the street. He takes over his job, unheard of for a European in São Paolo. Mateusz is uneducated and penniless, looked down on by Bruna’s university friends. Still, they gradually get to know each other  better and start to get along… Can an unborn foetus hold a couple together? And can such an unlikely pair find happiness and love together?

Man Proposes, God Disposes is a lovely, stylized look at an odd relationship plagued by a clash of cultures. They are forced to communicate in English as neither speaks the others language. First-time director Leo is a skilled cinematographer, and he pays as much attention to the look and sound as he does to acting. Each scene is arranged in vibrant primaty colours, with white walls and sharp contrasts, almost like a graphic novel.

Massarelli and Nedza make for a charming pair, and while the story is simplistic, it’s a pleasure to watch.

And Then We Danced

Wri/Dir: Levan Akin

It’s present day Tbilisi Georgia. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is a ginger haired young man who lives in a cramped apartment with his brother David, his mom and his grandmother. Their family have been dancers for generations, and Since age 10, he’s been partnered with Mary (Ana Javakishvili), a middle-class girl with black hair and striking features. Together they train at the academy, with the goal of eventually joining the prestigious professional troop. He’s a great dancer but  Aleko, the director, criticizes him for being too expressive, not stiff or rigid enough to capture the heart of Georgian dancing.

Enter Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) newly arrived from Batumi. He’s a natural, and Merab sees him as a rival for the upcoming audition. And he’s friendly with Merab’s loutish brother David (a dancer as well) the two of the often arriving in their shared bedroom late at night, drunk and wasted.

But when a bit of rough and tumble behind a boulder in the woods turns into something more sexual, things become more complicated between Merab and Irakli. Forthe first time in his life, Merab is lovestruck, emanating good feelings. But they have to be cautious. One dancer in their troop was nearly beaten to death when he was found sleeping with an Armenian. But when Irakli disappears, Merab is at wits end. Are they lovers? Or just friends?  Who will win the audition? And with his new-found sexuality, can he find happiness – and safety – in still-conservative Georgia?

And Then We Danced is a beautiful romance set against the world of traditional Georgian dance. Levan Gelbakhiani looks like a young Baryshnikov, but his dance techniques combine traditional steps with hints of contemporary dance.

Great movie.

Man Supposes, God Disposes opens Wednesday at the Paradise cinema. Angelfish and And Then We Danced are two of many films playing at the NEXT WAVE film festival at TIFF in February.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Yaron Zilberman and Yehuda Nahari Levi about Incitement at #TIFF19

Posted in 1990s, Docudrama, Israel, Palestine, Politics, Psychological Thriller, Religion by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

In September, 1994, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat sign an historic peace treaty between Israel and Palestine. On November 4, 1995 he is assassinated by an Israeli at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Was it a lone wolf terrorist? A deranged fanatic? Or a young man given widespread support at the highest levels, urging him – and those like him – to commit murder?

Incitement is an enthralling, bold and deeply disturbing new docudrama that traces the steps of a law student leading to his shocking crime. It’s directed and co-written by Yaron Zilberman previously known for his gentle drama A Late Quartet; and stars Yehuda Nahari Halevi in a crucial performance as the assassin Yigal Amir.

Incitement had its world premier at TIFF19 and is opening soon in Toronto.

I spoke with Yaron and Yehuda on location at TIFF.

Art and deception. Films reviewed: Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, The Art of Self Defense, Push

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

The things you see online – or on TV for that matter – aren’t always true (suprised?). This week I’m looking at three movies, two docs and one dark comedy, about lies and deceptions. There’s a man who trains in the art of karate, a look at the art of selling lies, and a look at the lies of selling real estate.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies

Dir: Larry Weinstein

What is Propaganda? Is it art and literature? Or brainwashing and fake news? The word comes from a benign Catholic term meaning the propagation of faith, the planting the seeds. The Vatican opened a department of propaganda to counter Martin Luther’s austere reforms. It combined the opulance of baroque cathedrals, the lure of incense and all the lush frescos, paintings and marble statues you’ve seen. But art and magic and religion were around long before that, and so, says this documentary, was propaganda. Some historians trace it as far back as Neandrathal cave paintings.

Propaganda is easy to spot in other cultures but very hard to see in your own.  Many people were entanced by dictators like Hitler and Stalin thanks to their skillful use of films (like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) radio broadcasts and posters. But with the shift to digital culture, it has taken on new forms; like patently false news stories online, repeated ad infinitum, until people start to believe it.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies is a fun, light documentary that talks to a lot of artists and writers – Astra Taylor, Ai Weiwei and Kent Monkman – but also musicians, analysts and others. It shoots a constant barrage of propaganda at you, images from the past 100 years, shown in harsh black and white periodically blanketed in fields of red. A lot of it is familiar but there are also some bizarre juxtapositions you’ve never heard of: like the racing cars that now drive around the former Nazi Nuremberg Stadium. Or Laibach, a Slovenian band known for its fascistic costumes and images, who performed in North Korea before a concert hall of nonplussed party apparatchiks and university students. Very funny.

The Art of Self Defense

Wri/Dir: Riley Stearns

It’s the 1990s in small-town America. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a shy accountant who lives with his dachshund. He’s a 98-pound weakling who works in an office full of alpha males. But when he’s violently attacked by strangers on motorbikes he decides something has got to change. No more sand will be kicked in his face! He joins a local karate dojo with its own set of hierarchical rules. Everyone is ranked by their belt colour. There’s Anna (Imogen Poots) who teaches the kids class; get on her wrong side and she’ll beat you to a pulp. And at the top of the heap is Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

He says karate is not just a martial art, it’s a way of life. You must punch with your feet and kick with your hands. Casey is starry-eyed, and ready to do whatever Sensei tells him. You must become more masculine, he says.  Stop learning French, start learning German. And throw out those adult contemporary CDs; only listen to metal! Casey takes the blue pill. He leaves his job and devotes his life to karate. He worships Sensei, has a secret crush on Anna, and proudly displays his low-ranked yellow belt for all to see.

But something is not right. When he joins the mysterious night classes he is exposed to a violent world of hyper-masculinity he doesn’t subscribe to. He is asked to perform dubious tasks outside of the dojo. Is this place only about karate? Or is it a cult? And what is hidden behind Sensei’s secret door?

The Art of Self Defense is a low-budget, uncategorizable, odd sort of a movie, part dark comedy, part mystery, with a bit of violence and horror mixed in. It’s slow to develop, but picks up nicely about halfway through. It’s filled with wood paneling, old computers and ugly clothes from the 90s, which adds a humorous tinge. But It’s hard to tell whether it’s being satirical or straightforward, comic or scary. Jesse Eisenberg is totally believable as the wimpy accountant trying to become more manly, and Allessandro Nivola is good as the mysterious sensei.

Take it as a cautionary tale about the search for masculinity, self-confidence and the cult of martial arts and you’ll enjoy this dark comedy.

Push

Dir: Fredrik Gertten

There’s a housing crisis in the world’s cities and no one knows seems to know what’s going on. In Toronto there’s a shortage of affordable apartments, with stagnant wages, soaring rents and home prices quadrupling. Speculators are buying up land as a bankable commodity, something bought and sold, with little thought given to the people who live there. And in many cities entire blocks of housing sit empty, because rent income is dwarfed by what they can earn from the constant increase in value of the buildings themselves. What’s going on?

Enter Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. She’s a mom from Ottawa who travels around the world collecting data and advocating on behalf of tenants everywhere. She views housing not as an investment but as a right.

This documentary looks at the dire situation in the world’s cities – from Milan to Berlin, Seoul to Valpariaso – where people are facing the same situations: gentrification, renoviction, and the displacing of average- and low-income earners from the world’s cities.

It explores the role of organized crime in the housing crisis. They use property investment as a way of laundering money by over investing in legit properties, driving up demand and prices and hiding their illicit profits.

It looks at how the financial sector is turning housing into an investment commodity, with the people who live in them entirely erased from the equation. One particularly notorious player is Blackstone – founded by former Lehman Brothers execs – a voracious American property investment company that swooped into the real estate market after the stockmarket crash of 2008. Now they’re making money by buying up public housing for profit, while neglecting the people they were actually built for.

And it looks at the role of pensions, both government and private, which invest in housing to grow their capital, but, unintentionally, lead to skyrocketing prices and increasing homelessness.

Push is an incredibly important and informative documentary that explains in simple terms the economics, politics and effects of this crisis. It uses experts – like Joseph Stiglitz, Saskia Sassen and Roberto Saviano – to explain the reasons behind the crisis. But it also talks with ordinary people around the world. It shows the multiple, small-scale problems people face as well as the large-scale disasters, like the Grenfell Tower Fire in London. They are all related. And it’s the great Leilani Farha who is trying to confront these problems in a new way.

I recommend this doc.

Propaganda: The Art of Lies, Push, and The Art of Self Defense all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with fimmaker Laurie Lynd about Killing Patient Zero

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Canada, Death, Disease, documentary, H.I.V., LGBT, Movies, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s the early 1980s, with gay liberation, culture and sexual freedom at its peak, when an unknown disease infects gay men. It’s called gay cancer, GRID or AIDS. And people start to die in large numbers. Scientists trace its spread across North America by a single, promiscuous Canadian flight attendant, known as Patient Zero. This selfish, sexual predator is to blame for the epidemic. Or is he…?

Killing Patient Zero is a new documentary that traces the origins of the AIDS epidemic while debunking its myths. Through vintage footage and new interviews with scientists and researchers, this film takes a new look at widely-held ideas about the spread of the HIV virus. It also talks with friends and colleagues of Gaetan Dugas – the so-called patient zero – and rescues his undeserved reputation.

It’s written and directed by Toronto’s Laurie Lynd, based on Richard McKay’s book Patient Zero and the Making of the Aids Epidemic. Laurie is an award-wining TV and film director whose work ranges from Degrassi, to Queer as Folk, to Breakfast with Scot.

I spoke with Laurie Lynd in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Killing Patient Zero had its world premier at Hot Docs 19. It’s opening soon in Toronto.

NAFTA movies? Films reviewed: Giant Little Ones, Sólo con Tu Pareja PLUS Sui Generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema

Posted in 1990s, Bullying, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Depression, LGBT, Mexico, Movies, Sex by CulturalMining.com on March 29, 2019

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

If you’ve been watching movies over the past few years, you may have noticed a big change. Some of the biggest Oscars are going to directors like Guillermo Del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzales Iñaritu.

When did Mexico start making movies? The answer is: Mexico has been making great movies for a very long time… we just never knew about it. But there is one way to fill in that gap in our collective memories.

Sui Generis refers to unique species or bodies of work. Sui Generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema is a suprising series of films at TIFF Cinematheque. It’s programmed by Diana Sanchez and Guillermo del Toro and includes some really famous movies – like Buñuel’s Avenging Angel – and an equal number I’ve never heard of. Surprises include anti-church satires, political protests, bizarre fantasies and fantastical films that transcend the genres we know. There’s also a sexual frankness largely missing in Hollywood movies under the Hays Code (1930-1968), but legal in Mexico.

Aside from Buñuel’s films and a few others, I had never heard of most of these movies, but Mexican cinephiles weep over the importance and uniqueness of these selections; a staple on late-night Mexican TV  but rarely seen on the big screen. This series features directors like Ripstein, Buñuel, Cuaron, del Toro and many others, from the 1930s up to recent times.

It’s quirky, eclectic and grand. I recommend this series.

This week I’m looking at movies from Canada and Mexico. There’s a Mexican sex farce about a man who bites off more than he can chew; and a Canadian coming-of-age drama about a boy forced to choke back his tears.

Giant Little Ones

Wri/Dir: Keith Behrman

It’s a middle class suburb somewhere in North America Franky (Josh Wiggins) is about to turn 17 at a big party. All his teammates from the swim team will be there, his divorced mom (Maria Bello) will be away that night, lots of alcohol and music, and his beautiful but vapid girlfriend says she’s ready to spend the night with him. And his best friend Ballas (Darren Mann) will be there to cheer him on. They’ve been inseparable since childhood and the two are popular and respected at school. This will be a life changing night for Franky… but not in the way he expects it.

The party ends early when his mom comes home, and his girlfriend decides not to stay. So the two drunk best friends end up crashing in Franky’s bed, and something happens in the dark. Ballis rushes home, and the next day everything’s different. Rumours about Franky start spreading, he’s blanked in the hallways and ghosted on instagram. People say he’s gay and did something to Ballas, who does nothing to defend his former best friend.

Only a few people stick by him. Mouse (Niamh Wilson) his out lesbian lab partner who packs a fake appendage in her jeans teaches him how to live with bullying (but I’m not gay! says Franky. Doesn’t matter says Mouse); and Natasha, Ballas’s sister (Taylor Hickson). She was once popular too, until she was “slut shamed” after something terrible happened to her. They turn to each other, first as pariahs and friends, but it gradually turns into something more.

Adding to the complications is Franky’s divorced gay Dad (Kyle MacLachlan). Franky hasn’t spoken to him since he moved away to live with his lover. He’s ready to offer advice but first Franky has to conquer his own homophobia. What really happened that night with Ballas? Will they ever be friends again? Is he in love with Natasha, or is it something else? And will things ever get better at school?

Giant Little Ones is an excellent coming-of-age drama, well acted, and based on an elegantly symmetrical script. It’s tender, funny and surprising, without leaving you depressed. I’ve seen this Canadian movie twice now, and it was just as moving the second time through.

Sólo con tu pareja (1991) (a.k.a. Love in the Time of Hysteria)

Wri/Dir: Alfonso Cuarón

Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is known for his sexual prowess and enormous ego. He sleeps with a different beautiful woman every night. He’s also fond of challenges and pranks like running naked down the stairwell to the lobby each morning to pick up the morning paper before anyone sees him. He’s handsome and fit, with a successful career as an advertising creative and lives in a swank apartment building in a good Mexico city neighbourhood. He lives two doors away from Dr Mateo Mateos (Luis de Icaza) and his wife, both good friends, who give him the keys to their apartment while they are away for the weekend.

But Tomas’s limits are challenged one night when he is faced with more than even he can handle. Mateo’s statuesque nurse Sylvia (Dobrina Cristeva) is arriving for a date, while his boss Gloria is also dropping by

LOVE IN THE TIME OF HYSTERIA, (aka SOLO CON TU PAREJA), Daniel Gimenez Cacho, 1991. ©IFC Films

to hear his advertising pitch for a brand of canned Jalapeños (and maybe a bit of spicy fun). Soon enough he’s bedding his boss in Mateo’s flat, Sylvia in his own, and is forced to inch his way naked back and forth between the bedroom windows and satisfy both women without letting either one know about the other. To make matters worse, he finds himself infatuated by a new tenant in the flat between

the two rooms. Clarisa is a flight attendant (Claudia Ramírez) and when he sees her robotic miming of seat belts and oxygen masks he sees through her window heid smitten. But can one man keep three women satisfied at one time? Alas, no.

He is fired from his job, and the vengeful nurse falsifies his medical tests telling him he is HIV positive, plunging him into a deep depression. Will Tomas discover the truth and change his ways? Or will he succumb to despair and throw himself off the tallest tower in Mexico City?

Sólo con Tu Pareja is a seldom seen, silly screwball comedy from the early 90s. It’s also Cuaron’s first feature film, long before his big hits like Gravity, Roma and Y Tu Mama Tambien. This is no masterpiece, but it is a fun and interesting look at a totally different era. It reminds me of the 1960s comedy Boeing, Boeing, starring Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis, also about a promiscuous man who juggles three flight attendant gilfriends in one Paris apartment. This one is also dated, but better than Boeing Boeing — the women in this movie have personalities, and Daniel Giménez Cacho is on fire as Tomas. And it adds a pair of Japanese businessmen, some mariachi musicians and a Montezuma lookalike to give it a more Mexican feel.

Giant Little Ones opens today in Toronto; check your local listings; and you can see Sólo con Tu Pareja just tonight at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as part of the fantastic TIFF Cinematheque Mexican film series called Sui Generis: An Alternative History of Mexican Cinema, on now.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Jia Zhang-ke about his new film Ash is Purest White

Posted in 1990s, 2000s, China, Crime, Migrants, Movies, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 22, 2019

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

Photo of Jia Zhang-ke (left) by Jeff Harris.

Qiao is the girlfriend of a smalltime hood in a dingy mining city in northern China. She is confident, pretty and fiercely loyal. But after a violent showdown on a downtown street, she ends up taking the fall for him. She serves five years in prison. When she is released she discovers her one-time lover has abandoned her.

Will her journey across China — to find her ex-lover and reestablish her reputation — bring her what she wants?

Ash is Purest White is a new Chinese feature that played at Cannes and TIFF. It’s a passionate melodrama that chronicles China’s changes as it modernizes, as seen by a gangster and his moll. It is written and directed by one of China’s best and most famous filmmakers, Jia Zhang-ke.

I spoke to Jia Zhang-ke in New York City via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Ash is Purest White opens today in Toronto.

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