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

Birth, Death, Birth. Films reviewed: Dead Dicks, In Safe Hands, The Report

Posted in Adoption, Bipolar, Canada, Family, France, Horror, Politics, Suspense, Suspicion, Terrorism, Torture, US by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2019

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

Fall festival season continues in Toronto, with ReelAsian ending tonight and the EU Film Fest still going strong. Coming soon are Blood in the Snow (aka BITS), featuring Canadian Horror and Genre movies, and CineFranco with French language movies, from Canada and around the world.

This week I’m looking at three movies, two about births and two about deaths. We’ve got mysterious rebirths wanted by no one, a newborn infant wanted by everyone, and a horrifying CIA program they want no one to know anything about.

Dead Dicks

Wri/Dir: Chris Bavota, Lee Paula Springer

Becca (Jillian Harris) is a young bartender who works downtown. But much of her time is filled with taking care of her big brother Richie (Heston Horwin). Richie is a depressed artist with anger issues given to playing music full blast while scribbling in his sketchbook. When there parents died he served as the adult in the family, but now the roles are reversed. She’s forced to deal with his angry neighbours and make sure he takes his meds. So when she she is called away from her job by frantic texts, she thinks this is just another one of Richie’s episodes. But it’s not.

She arrives to see an apartment in disarray, with a huge mouldy patch formed above his bed, and Richie wandering around naked, in a daze. His brain feels fuzzy he says. Turns out he killed himself just a few minutes before. And almost immediately expelled, fully grown, through a hole in the wall. But the dead body he left behind is still there, hanging in the closet. And another one in the bathtub, and another one in the kitchen. Living Richie is surrounded by all the dead Dicks from his repeated suicide attempts. He’s experimenting, he says.

But that leaves Richie and Becka with a pile of dead Dicks to get rid of, a mysterious birth canal on his wall and an angry neighbour (Matt Keyes) who could get them arrested by threatening to call the cops. What is causing all these rebirths? What does it mean? And what are the unanticipated consequences?

Dead Dicks is a bizarre, low budget film, part horror, part mystery, part comedy. The film does not encourage death by suicide. Rather, It deals with issues of family and mental illness, within a weird fantasy setting. It manages to be grotesque and gruesome, with very few special effects, and an absurd humorous streak running through it.

In Safe Hands (Pupille)

Dir: Jeanne Herry

It’s present-day Brest, in French Brittany.

A young woman arrives at a hospital in labour. She’s a college student and says the pregnancy is the result of a one-night stand, and says she doesn’t want the baby. This starts a dozen gears spinning into action, notifying dozens of doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, midwives, social workers, foster parents, and adoption agencies. And little Theo, the baby, is the centre of attention. He is transferred to an incubator, with lots of faces peering down at him. But can his lack of contact with his birth mother damage him for life? Or will a concerted effort place this baby into safe loving hands?

In Safe Hands is mainly a dramatization of the process of birth and adoption, but there are a few interestingside plots along the way. Jean (Gilles Lellouche) is a married dad who takes care ofhis own daughter and two troubled foster boys who takes care of Theo as he awaits adoption. Karine (Sandine Kiberlain) works for the adoption and fostering program and has a thing for Jean… but will an affair upset the adoption process? Alice Langlois (Élodie Bouchez) is single and works describing action at live plays for the visually impaired. She applied for adoption when she was attached. A social worker is concerned both for the privacy of the birth mother and of the baby who might one day wish to get in contact with her. And many, many others, all centred around a wordless, Yodalike baby who seems to take everything in. It was interesting from a parenting and adoption point of view, exposing all the hidden parts of the mechanism of adoption, but isn’t very satisfying as a dramatic or romantic movie, more just as an educational docudrama, as acted by famous French movie stars.

The Report

Wri/Dir: Scott Z. Burns

It’s post 9-11 Washington, DC.

Dan Jones (Adam Driver) is a young college grad appointed to a group to write a bipartisan internal report on the CIA for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee is headed b Sen. Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening). Dan is locked up in a dark basement in a nameless bureaucratic and told to find out what the CIA has done since 9/11. It turns out their practices, supposedly enacted to stop terrorism, were immoral, illegal and of no value whatsoever for intelligence. Specifically, he uncovers the practice of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a policy previously known as torture and banned by the Geneva Convention.

They were under the direction of two psychologists, James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen (Douglas Hodge and T Ryder Smith) working on contract with no experience in interrogation. They stripped prisoners naked, chained them to walls, waterboarded them and nailed them – live – into wooden coffins, covering their skin with crawling insects. The torture yielded no intel, yet was repeated for many years in blacksites around the world.

Dan outlines these heinous war crimes in a long report to the committee, shocking senators by its findings. But instead of offering support and investgating their own lawbreakers, the CIA initiates a coverup, threatening Dan himself with jail time if he releases his findings. And the CIA sends operatives to spy on the Senate itself in order to coverup the findings. Will Dan Jones’s report ever see the light of day? And will the war criminals be punished?

The Report is a good political drama about the illegal use of torture by the CIA, but a thriller it’s not. It incorporates elements of All the President’s Men, and is nicely shot with lots of fluorescent lights and stark, brutalist architecture. Driver is great as the persistent policy geek, with an understated Bening as a veteran Senator. Warning: there are a few highly disturbing reenactments of the torture itself, which are extremely hard to watch. Much more common are the reenactments of the culprits – John Yoo, Jose Rodrigues, John Brennan (Ted Levine), Cheney, and the psychologists – war criminals who leave a very bad taste in one’s mouth.

I liked this one.

Dead Dicks will be playing at Blood in the Snow, In Safe Hands at Cinefranco, and The Report at the Tiff Bell Lightbox all starting one week from today.

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

Daniel Garber talks to Doug Blush about his new film about bipolar people OF TWO MINDS

dougblushHi, This is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

There’s a psychiatric term to describe the condition of extreme mood swings that go from up in the clouds to down in the dumps. It’s known as Bi-Polar disorder. Its been diagnosed, categorized, treated by prescription drugs. Some people fear it and ostracize anyone given that label. Others say the world would be worse off, less interesting without it.

A new documentary, called OF TWO MINDS, gives an account of four people whose lives Cheri-Dance-01-1024x576and personalities are tied to and shaped by this condition, by both its good and its bad aspects. And I’m very pleased to have DOUG BLUSH, (who produced documentaries like the Invisible War) co-director, with Lisa Klein, of OF TWO MINDS.

of two minds posterDoug’s talks about bipolar people, what it’s like, how it’s dealt with in popular media, how people handle it, why he chose to make a film about it, Mad Pride, medication, “Bipolar 1 vs Bipolar 2” diagnoses, and more…

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