Two Thimothées. Films reviewed: Dune, The French Dispatch

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Art, Canada, Food, France, Journalism, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Writers by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2021

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

Nostalgia is an interesting phenomenon that changes with the times, where past events are coloured by present-day attitudes. This week, I’m looking at two new movies: one set in the future but based on a novel from the 1960s; and the other set in the past but based on American perceptions of a Europe that never was.

Dune

Dir: Denis Villeneuve (Based on the book by Frank Herbert)

It’s the future. The universe is divided up by ruthless feudal planets looking to increase their wealth and power through extraction of precious minerals. One prize planet is Arrakis, seemingly inhospitable and covered in sand dunes, with gigantic killer worms living just beneath the surface. However the sand yields “spice” a highly coveted group of elements that make intergalactic travel possible. But the planet is populated by the fiercely independent Fremen. Paul (Thimothée Chalamet) the son of a Duke, is sent there after a cruel leader is forced to leave. Paul’s dad is a decorated military hero  (Oscar Isaac) and his mom is a sorceress (Rebecca Ferguson). So the multilingual young man has been trained from an early age both in martial arts and complex mental powers. He can predict the future through his dreams. He hopes to secure the planet while leaving the Fremen unharmed. But various international forces are working against him and his family— was he sent to the planet merely to be eliminated? 

Dune is a science fiction, space movie with a complex novelistic plot and many characters. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, done in the style of the cover art of 1970s paperbacks. I’m talking gorgeous costumes with the Fremen dressed like multi-ethnic saharan Tuareg, and concrete beige spaceships rendered in a brutalist style. And it’s shot in IMAX, meaning it’s a tall movie not a wide movie. I saw it at TIFF at the Cinesphere, where 50-foot sandworms lunge at you from the screen, like they’re about to swallow you up. That said, while I loved the movie aesthetically, it didn’t move me emotionally at all. Maybe because I read the book in junior high so I knew what was going to happen, or maybe because it’s the first of a three part series and doesn’t really end, or maybe because science fiction isn’t supposed to make you cry. Whatever the reason, I think Dune is a fantastic, though unfulfilling, movie to see.

The French Dispatch 

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s the Twentieth Century, Newspapers are revered, and even smaller cities have foreign correspondents. One such paper, based in Liberty Kansas, opens a bureau in France, known as the French Dispatch, to replace their usual colour Sunday supplement. They spare no expense, hiring the finest writers to ruminate on topics of their choice, including Berensen (Tilda Swinton) on art, Krementz (Frances McDormand) on politics, and Wright (Jeffrey Wright) on food. At its peak it has more than half a million subscribers, but when the editor (Bill Murray) dies, it publishes its final issue. This film dramatizes three of its best stories. In the first chapter, Berensen looks at Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) a killer locked away fin a prison for the criminally insane. He paints abstract canvases of his prison guard Simone (Lea Seydoux) who poses nude for him. But can a shady art dealer (Adrian Brody) save him from obscurity? In the second story, seasoned journalist Krementz covers the student uprisings of the 1960s, where she befriends young Zefirelli (Timothée Chalamet) who calls for revolution. But will her carnal attraction to the much younger student compromise her neutrality as a journalist? In the third story, ostensibly a look at a chef who works at the police station, turns into an action thriller, as a detective’s young son is kidnapped by a hardened criminal. Can a food critic write a credible eye-witness report on organized crime?

The French Dispatch is, of course, total fiction. These exciting stories are set not in Paris, but in a tiny town called Ennui-sur-Blasé. And the magazine is not the New Yorker — its from Liberty, Kansas, pop: 123. What it is is a highly-stylized, funny and quirky look at old school journalists and the stories they told. It’s loaded with in-jokes and thousands of obscure cultural references. Camera work is as precise as a graphic novel moving from panel to panel. Scenes vary between sharp black and white, faded colour or the garish tones of the 70s. Styles cover everything from animated comics, to stage plays, to old tabloid flash-photos. It’s almost overwhelming in its visual impact. French Dispatch is a brilliant illustration of mid-century, middle-class culture… and wonderful to watch.

Dune and The French Dispatch both open this weekend; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with documentary filmmaker Joanne Belluco about Stuck, premiering at Cinefranco

Posted in Art, Canada, Covid-19, documentary, Language, Music, Theatre by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2021

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

What do these people have in common?

A writer and storyteller in Toronto; a dancer in France; a stand-up comic in New Brunswick; a theatre director in Sudbury; a cinematographer in Winnipeg; an electronic musician in Northern Ontario; and a brother/sister musical duo in Montreal? 

They’re all francophone Canadians who work in the performing arts. And during the pandemic they all find themselves stuck! Stuck à la maison, stuck at home.

Stuck is also the name of a  new documentary feature  that looks at the effect of the coronavirus — and the restrictions it brought — on these people’s lives and careers.

Stuck was directed by Joanne Belluco, a French-born, Toronto-based documentary filmmaker, producer, writer and journalist.

I spoke with Joanne in Toronto via ZOOM.

Stuck is having its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs Cinema on November 1, at 7:30 pm at Toronto’s CineFranco film festival.

Daniel Garber talks with Canadaland’s Jesse Brown about The White Saviours

Posted in 1990s, Africa, Canada, Charity, Corruption, documentary, High School, Journalism, Podcasts by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2021

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

It’s the mid-1990s. A 12-year-old boy in Thornhill, Ontario grabs the headlines for his advocacy of exploited and enslaved kids around the world with the simple words: Free The Children.

Craig Kielberger, along with his brother Mark, started an international charity which grew exponentially. Eventually, as the WE organization, it became one of Canada’s biggest and most famous charities, educating young people in developing countries around the world, as well as forming a wildly popular, self-empowerment youth movement in schools across North America.

But by the summer of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, it started to collapse. The WE charity’s  name  became tarnished with accusations of conflict of interest within the government, when they were awarded a $900 million student grant contract. This led to the resignation of Minister of Finance Bill Morneau… and the eventual shutdown of the WE charity in Canada. What happened?

A new six-part investigative documentary called The White Saviours takes a look at the Kielbergers and We Charity, delving into the dark underbelly of this Canadian icon. And what they find isn’t always nice.

The White Saviours is a fascinating and at times shocking examination filled with new interviews with anonymous insiders, along with public recordings of the main players themselves. The White Saviours is now available as a podcast on Canadaland, the platform known for its rabble-rousers, whistleblowers, mudslingers, and all-around shit disturbers. Canadaland was founded by publisher and editor-in-chief Jesse Brown, whom you’ve probably heard on CIUT on Tuesdays from 9-10 am. They produce excellent podcasts like The Commons, The Backbench and the eponymous Canadaland itself.

I spoke to Jesse Brown in Toronto, via ZOOM.

You can listen to The White Saviours here.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Bretten Hannam about Wildhood premiering at #TIFF21!

Posted in Canada, Family, Friendship, Indigenous, Interview, LGBT, Mi'kmaq, Movies, Road Movie by CulturalMining.com on September 4, 2021

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

Photos of Bretten Hannam by Jeff Harris.

Link and Travis are half-brothers who live with their physically abusive dad in a trailer park down east. Link hates it there, but it’s the only life he’s known since his mother died when he was three. But when he finds a birthday card his dad has hidden from him, he realizes his mother might still be alive. So the two brothers run away. On the road they meet Pasmay, a Mi’kmaq who was kicked out of his home because of his sexuality. Together the three embark on a journey down a twisted path where mi’kmaw and two spirited cultures meet. For Link, it’s an education and an initiation into a world he finds both frightening and alluring. Can this mismatched threesome become a makeshift family? And will they ever find out what happened to Link’s mother?

Wildhood is a wonderful new film that’s a romantic drama, a coming-of-age story, and a picaresque adventure all in one. It encompasses brotherhood, family and identity — all told from an indigenous and queer point of view. It’s written and directed by Bretten Hannam and it’s their first feature film.

I spoke with Bretten Hannam from Toronto via Zoom.

Wildhood had its world premiere at TIFF21. 

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Troy Ruptash about They Who Surround Us

Posted in 1940s, 1980s, Canada, Depression, Family, Meltdown, Mental Illness, Rural, Ukraine by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2021

It’s 1987 on a farm in Vegreville, Alberta, east of Edmonton. Roman is a happily married farmer with a young son. But their world is torn apart when his wife is killed in a terrible accident (which he blames on himself), leaving Roman and Mykola unprotected and alone. The son turns inward, not eating or speaking, while Roman lashes out. He has a total meltdown, revealing deeply hidden memories of his childhood in war-torn Ukraine. He directs his rage and frustration at everyone he once relied on – his sister, his neighbours and the Church. Can Roman handle on his own what God hath wrought? Or does he need to embrace “they who surround us”?

They Who Surround Us is a moving drama about one man’s struggle with death, mourning, history, family and religion. It’s set within the Ukrainian-Canadian community of east-central Alberta, where the prairies meet the bush, a land replete with grain elevators, onion-dome churches, and a railway line cutting right through it. This film is produced, directed, and written by the well-known Canadian actor Troy Ruptash, who also plays the lead role.

I spoke with Troy in Vegreville, Alberta from Toronto via ZOOM .

They Who Surround Us opens theatrically in Toronto and across western Canada on August 27th.

Daniel Garber talks with Tracey Deer about Beans

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

It’s the summer of 1990.

Tekehentahkhwa or “Beans” for short (Kiawentiio) is a typical, innocent 12-year-old girl who lives near Montréal with her Dad, her ambitious mom, and her little sister. Her biggest worry is getting into a posh private school to guarantee a successful future. But her life is totally changed when the town of Oka tries to grab Mohawk burial grounds to expand a golf course. Protests erupt and her family, being Mohawk, joins in. But when it turns into a blockade and a stand off involving police and the military, it reveals acts of violence and virulent racism she has never witnessed before. Now she has to make a decision: should she toughen up like her dad? Or keep to the straight and narrow like her mom? And how will she emerge from these life-shattering events?

Beans is a fantastic new drama – told from an indigenous point of view – that combines the historical record with a highly personal and intimate coming-of-age story. Since it premiered at TIFF last fall, it has garnered dozens of awards for filmmaker, Tracey Deer who has created a work of personal and national importance.

I spoke with Tracey Deer via Zoom.

Beans is now playing in Toronto and all across Canada, from Victoria to Halifax.  

Daniel Garber talks with Kourtney Jackson, Max Shoham and Ella Morton about their films at FOFS

Posted in 1940s, Animation, Beauty, Black, Canada, Indigenous, Inuit, Movies, Trans, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2021

What do the following three stories have in common? An Inuk recalling her history, language and culture amidst the ice floes of Nunavut; three diverse black women in Toronto sharing the unique hair problems they faced during the pandemic; and a young, Jewish-Romanian couple meeting aboard a ship burgeoning with refugees adrift at sea during WWII. These stories are all films featured in The Future Of Film Showcase — or FOFS. In its eighth year, FOFS has selected 11 new short films made by Canadians under 40. 

Kourtney Jackson is a Toronto-based experimental filmmaker whose hybridized, storytelling transcends the physical body. Her film Wash Day looks at three black women talking about  bodies, hair, skin, beauty and self-love as they each cleanse themselves in a shower.

Max Shoham, an award-winning, prolific maker of animated short films in diverse genres, has been obsessed with movies since Grade 3.  Sophie and Jacob is an animated retelling of Max’s own grandparents’ story about how they met aboard a ship. 

Ella Morton is an artist whose still and moving images incorporating obsolete techniques have taken her across Canada and through Scandinavia. Her film Kajanaqtuq combines manipulated analog formats along with recordings of an Inuk’s recollections of her life so far in Nunavut.

I spoke with Ella, Max and Kourtney via Zoom.

You can watch all films playing at FOFS on CBC Gem for free until July 22nd.

Summer movies. Films reviewed: Summer of Soul, The Boss Baby: Family Business, Black Conflux

Posted in Animation, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Kids, Newfoundland by CulturalMining.com on July 3, 2021

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

Summer is here and it’s hot, hot, hot! Normally I’d say go sit in an air conditioned movie theatre and go watch something, anything, right now. But as of today, (I’m recording early because of the holiday weekend) the indoor theatres are still closed. But here’s a selection of films to please almost everybody who wants to watch at home.

This week, I have a music doc, a family cartoon and an art house drama. There are musicians in Harlem in the ’60s bringing the house down, babies around the world trying to bring the government down, and a girl in ’80s Newfoundland trying to stop her life from crumbling all around her.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Dir: Questlove

It’s the summer of ’69 in Harlem, where 50,000 people are crowded into Mt. Morris Park for a series of six outdoor concerts all summer long. The images and music were captured on film for TV, but were never broadcast; they sat in a vault for 52 years until now. This new documentary replays some of the best songs of that summer, and talked to the performers and the fans about how they remembered it. What’s remarkable is the array of talent and the enormous peaceful crowds in Harlem, a neighbourhood vilified as a violent ghetto. But it was actually a safe, black neighbourhood, beloved by its residents as their home, and as a centre of culture, commerce and political foment.

This film is a time machine, showing fashion, hair styles, and faces in the crowd — one viewer remembers the pervasive aroma of AfroSheen. There are incredible performances on the stage, in a wide range of styles: soul, R&B, gospel, pop, jazz and psychedelic. There’s an amazing moment when young Mavis Staples shares a mic with the great Mahalia Jackson for the first time to sing Oh Happy Day. There’s Nina Simone at the piano, reminding the crowd they are “Young, Gifted and Black.” Motown stars like Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips alternate with salsa bands. It’s really surprising to see mainstream groups like The Fifth Dimension, letting loose on stage — their top 40 hits were always classified as “white pop music” — I never even knew they were black. Luminaries like Sly and the Family Stone and Hugh Masakela from South Africa light up the stage.

Summer of Soul works as both a documentary and as an excellent concert film; what a shame it was never shown until now.

The Boss Baby: Family Business
Dir: Tom McGrath

It’s a suburb, somewhere in America. Tim is a stay-at-home dad, who takes care of his two daughters Tabitha and Tina, while his wife is at the office. Tabitha is in grade 2 at an elite private school, while Tina is still just a baby. He tells them stories, sings songs and plays games. But he’s worried that he’s losing his bond with Tabitha — the 7-year-old spends all her time studying and says she doesn’t need childish things anymore. Alone in the attic Ted wonders how things ended up this way disconnected from his kids and no contact with his little brother Ted. If only he could go back in time and fix things. Next thing you know, Ted arrives at their doorstep by helicopter (he’s a rich CEO now) and the two of them are magically transformed into their childhood selves. Who engineered all this? It’s little Tina, the new Boss Baby, behind it all. Still in diapers she talks like a grown up with a brain to match. She works for Baby Corp, a secretive organization that keeps the world safe. But there are evil villains working all around the world at schools just like the one Tabitha goes to. It’s up to Tim and Ted, in their new kid and baby forms, to infiltrate the school and stop their fiendish plans. But are they too late?

The Boss Baby: Family Business is a funny family film, aimed at kids, but equally enjoyable by grown-ups. It’s animated, and features the voices of Alec Baldwin as Ted, the original Boss Baby, James Marsden as Tim, Ariana Greenblatt as Tabitha and
Amy Sedaris as Tina. I tend to avoid sequels, because they’re usually second rate, but never having seen the original Boss Baby I have nothing to compare it to. And (though clearly not a cinematic masterpiece) I was fully entertained by this one.

Black Conflux
Wri/Dir: Nicole Dorsey

It’s the 1980s in a small town in Newfoundland. Jackie (Ella Ballentine) is a 15-year-old girl with ginger hair and a good singing voice. And she’s seeing a new boyfriend. She’s bright, pretty and optimistic: she believes people are basically good. But her upbeat nature is threatened by reality. She has lived with her alcoholic aunt since her mom went to jail for DUI (her dad’s out of the picture). She spends most of her time hanging with Amber and her other two best friends, smoking behind the school, shoplifting makeup at the mall, or going to bonfire parties. They get around by hitchhiking along the single highway that passes through the town. But Jackie is forced to deal with the increasingly bad and gritty aspects of her life which keep intruding on the fun of growing up.

Dennis (Ryan McDonald) is an introvert in his late twenties with a fetish for porn. He’s also a firebug who gets off on lighting matches. He lives with his adult sister and works loading and delivering 24s at a local brewery. He’s also a brooding loner with anger and resentment building up deep inside. He has no social skills to speak of and his occasional dates always seem to end up as disasters. He prefers to peer at women at night through their open bedroom windows over actually speaking to them face to face. He spends most of his time with a bevy of imaginary women he fantasizes are living in the back of his delivery truck. Sometimes he can’t tell the difference between reality and his hallucinations. Is he just a misunderstood guy or a nascent serial killer?

Black Conflux is a slow-building drama that follows these two characters in their separate but parallel lives, like two rivers that eventually merge. For Jackie, it’s a coming-of-age story, while for Dennis it’s a brooding drama. They come close to meeting throughout the movie, but it’s kept till the very end to reveal what happens when they do. Ella Ballentine and
Ryan McDonald both give remarkable performances as two alienated people in rural Newfoundland in the 1980s. Beautifully shot, and skilfully directed by Nicole Dorsey (her first feature), I first saw Black Conflux at TIFF two years ago, and like it even better the second time through.

Boss Baby, and Summer of Soul opened this weekend on VOD and digital platforms with Black Conflux now at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Self-reflexive. Films reviewed: Akilla’s Escape, Truman & Tennessee, Censor

Posted in 1950s, 1980s, Canada, Crime, documentary, drugs, Gay, Horror, Jamaica, Toronto, UK, Writers by CulturalMining.com on June 18, 2021

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies — a crime drama, a horror movie and a documentary. — that also look at themselves. There’s a possible killer named Akilla, a horror movie about horror movies, and a doc about two famous gay writers… who write about themselves.

Akilla’s Escape

Co-Wri/Dir: Charles Officer

It’s present-day Toronto. Akilla (Saul Williams) is a smart and well-read guy, who was born in Jamaica, grew up in Queens NY, and ended up in Toronto as a teenager. He has built a career with a successful grow-op he calls “the farm” for twenty years, but feels it’s time for a change. There’s been a rash of gang violence and he wants out. But on the same day, he interrupts a robbery gone wrong, leaving dead bodies in its wake. Most of the remaining local gangsters get away with two bags full of cash and drugs which should be in the hands of organized crime. But one of them — whom Akilla knocks out during the robbery — is still lying unconscious on the floor. And when he pulls off his mask, he sees young Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), a 15-year-old boy who reminds him of himself at that age. He doesn’t want to hand him over to the mob because they’ll kill him… but he also needs to recover the stolen cash and drugs — otherwise he’ll be the one to suffer.  Can he get Sheppard to confess, avoid a hitman from the Greek mob, and catch a fugitive killer… without dying himself?

Akilla’s Escape is a complex and engrossing crime drama set within Toronto’s Jamaican community. Through a series of flashbacks, it’s told in three parallel stories about people dragged into a life of crime largely against their own will: young Akilla in Queens, Sheppard in Toronto, and adult Akilla in the present day. It’s nicely shot in a distinctive style coloured with reds and yellows to differentiate the different time periods. Saul Williams is really good as Akilla, both thoughtful and intense; and, in a twist, Sheppard and the 15-year-old Akilla are both played by the same actor, Thamela Mpumlwana! 

Interesting movie — I like this one.

Truman & Tennessee: an intimate conversation

Dir: Lisa Immordino Vreeland 

Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams first met in the 1940s when they both were rising stars.  Capote was still a teenager while Williams was in his late twenties. And they both were gay authors.  Tennessee was a compulsive writer dedicated to his craft, while Truman yearned for celebrity, not just success. Tennessee wrote a series of incredibly successful plays, most of which were later turned into hit movies, all about the lives, loves  and tragedies of southern woman. You’ve probably seen at least some of them: The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just a few. Truman Capote wrote novels, memoirs and true crime reports, like In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Other Voices, Other Rooms. They went on vacations together, along with their long-term lovers, to exotic locales in Italy and Morocco.

They both drank heavily and popped pills supplied by the notorious “Doctor Feelgood”. But by the 1970s their fractious friendship ended in bitter rivalries.  Truman wrote a story with a character based on Tennessee, whom he described as “a chunky, paunchy, booze puffed runt with a play moustache glued above laconic lips who has a corn-pone voice.” In response, Truman is said to have “gone so far in his shtick that all his work will be seen now in the shimmer of a poised stiletto”. 

This documentary is composed of scenes from their films, still photos (by photographers like Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton), and a few key TV interviews (with David Frost and Dick Cavett). Visually it’s experimental, with lush green leaves, trees and rippling water superimposed kaleidoscopically on much of the period footage, giving the film a drifting, ethereal feel.

It’s narrated by the authors themselves, as voiced by actors Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) as Tennessee Williams and Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) as Truman Capote. It’s full of personal details of their superstitions, phobias, addictions, jealousy, loneliness and lust. Did you know that Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe, not Audrey Hepburn, to play Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which was based on an actual friend of his)? And Tennessee Williams tells all his viewers to walk out of his movies just before they’re over, because, he says, Hollywood’s happy endings ruin them all. These just give you a taste of all the secrets revealed in this movie.

If you like these two writers, you must see this doc.

Censor

Co-Wri/Dir: Prano Bailey-Bond

It’s the mid-1980s in Thatcher’s Britain. Enid (Niamh Algar) works for the censor board. In teams of two they rate, classify, cut or ban the many videos flooding the country. She’s meticulous in her work, logging frame by frame any images she thinks show too much. Scenes that don’t make the grade include a gouged eyeball that “looks too realistic”, or “excessively visible genitalia”. Pressure is especially strong these days because the tabloid press blames a rise in crime on the prevalence of “video nasties” — low-budget horror movies washing up on the sacred shores of Albion.

Things get worse when a gruesome real-life murder seems to mimic a scene from a horror movie she once approved. And once the papers print her name, she is inundated by paparazzi, journalists and non-stop anonymous obscene phone calls to her home. Meanwhile, at work, she is visited by a particularly sleazy and salacious film producer, who says she would be perfect to star in his next movie. Turns out his past video nasties include a film about two teenaged sisters, one of whom was violently killed. Thing is, Enid’s own sister disappeared after a walk in the woods when they were both still little girls, and she has made it her life-long goal either to find her or find out what happened to her. Is this film somehow related to her and her sister? Is the film studio a murder machine, making snuff films? Or is it all in her head?

Censor is a psychological horror pic that traces a bureaucrat’s slide from proper office worker into the depths of violence and depravity. It’s about the making and censoring of those low-budget horror movies in the 80s, but it’s also a horror movie in its own right. Its style matches the videos it’s sampling —  the music, sound effects, costumes — giving the whole film a surreal feeling.

This is good, over-the-top horror.

Akilla’s Escape is now playing on VOD; Truman & Tennessee: an intimate conversation opens today digitally at the Rogers HotDocs cinema; and Censor also opens today on your favourite VOD platform.

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

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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