Death and Life. Films reviewed: Broken Diamonds, Old, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

Posted in Dance, Dementia, documentary, Family, Fantasy, Horror, LGBT, Mental Illness by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2021

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

Movies in Toronto are taking off. I saw a press screening in a movie theatre this week for the first time in 16 months! It felt a little bit strange and awkward but I can already feel myself adjusting to it. TIFF has announced its first batch of movies, including the world premier of the musical Dear Evan Hansen to open the festival (I’m reviewing another movie starring Ben Platt today). The ICFF is now running a series of outdoor movies including the 1911 silent classic, L’Inferno from Danté’s Divine Comedy. And actual, indoor movie theatres are also open now, even in Toronto, showing new, trashy popcorn movies.

This week, I’m looking at three “deadly” American movies – a drama, a doc and a fantasy/horror – all opening this weekend on various platforms. There’s a brother and sister brought together after a death, a dance performance inspired by a death, and tourists at a beach resort facing death.

Broken Diamonds

Dir: Peter Sattler

Scott (Ben Platt) is a young writer with a goal. He’s quitting his day job, selling all his possessions and flying off to Paris to write his first novel. At least that was his plan until his estranged father suddenly dies. Which brings him together with his sister Cindy (Lola Kirke). Cindy was once the big shot in the family, pretty, smart, an aspiring actress. She was the apple of her father’s eye while Scott was always an afterthought. But she’s been living in a mental institution on and off since high school. But, perhaps because of the turmoil of losing her dad, she acts out and gets kicked out and now she’s suddenly homeless.  She moves back into the empty family home. Now it’s up to Scott to take care of his big sister… or at least until he moves to Paris.

But it’s not that simple. They have a long history to work out. And when Cindy goes off her meds, things start to spiral out of control.  Can Scott act like a grown up and take responsibility for once? Can he help Cindy adjust to life outside of institutions? Is he his sister’s keeper? And will he ever get to Paris?

Broken Diamonds is a touching movie about a few weeks in the lives of adult siblings. It deals with family issues like death and inheritance, living with mental illness, and other people facing their own hidden demons. Though largely told through Scott’s eye’s, it’s sympathetic toward Cindy’s plight. The acting is good and the tone is light. That said, I found the story overly simplistic — neither Scott not Cindy seem to have any friend, lover or relative in their lives other than each other, but they haven’t spoken in years. And did they have to portray schizophrenia as a disease where “split personalities” with different names and voices start to appear as soon as she’s off meds? It also has a painfully awful and unnecessary denouement tacked onto the credits,  so if you decide to see this movie — and it’s seriously not bad, it’s watchable, it’s touching, and well-acted — run out of the theatre when the closing titles start to roll!

Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

Dir: Tom Hurwitz, Rosalynde LeBlanc

It’s the 1980s in New York City. Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane have a dance company in which they both perform. They’re also lovers. They met in the apex of gay culture and abandon in the late 70s. But now it’s the 80s and the AIDS epidemic is decimating the gay community, including the world of dance. Many of the people they work with, including Keith Haring who does their sets, and Alvin Ailey who commissions their work, are dying. Then Arnie dies too, throwing their company into disarray. As part of the grieving process, Jones decides to create a totally different kind of dance. The dancers are multiracial, men and women, gay and straight, and people with different body types, not just the stereotypical “look” dancers usually have. It incorporates athleticism and the Aids crisis within a fusion of elements of traditional ballet and modern dance. He calls it “post-modern” dance.

This spectacular dance opens to rave reviews and packed audiences. And over the past 30+ years it’s been performed in hundreds of productions. And what a performance — bodies being tossed into the air;  diving off one dancer’s back into another’s arms. And despite it’s modernity, it’s set to 19th century music by Mendelsohn. 

The film shows footage from the original production in the late 1980s, and interviews with many of those dancers. It also follow a young group at a university, going through the process of auditioning, rehearsing and putting together a new version of the same dance. Bill T Jones is present both in the original production and visiting this new one to offer advice during their rehearsals. 

Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters is a documentary that traces the genesis and meaning of the original production and how it retains its relevance and dynamism today.  It’s both an historical document and an important work of art. Personally, I would rather have seen more dancing and less talking, but found it interesting nevertheless. 

Old

Wri/Dir:M. Night Shyamalan

Prisca and Guy (Vicky Krieps and Gael Garcia Bernal) are a married couple with two precocious kids: daughter Maddox, age 7 and Trent who is 6.  Guy is an actuary and Prisca is a museum curator. They’ve just arrived at a luxury resort, for what might be their last time together. Prisca is facing a medical condition and  their marriage is on the rocks. Maybe a few days on a beautiful tropical island can solve all their problems? Soon they’re in a minibus headed for a private beach for a day of sun and fun. The resort has even packed huge picnic hampers of food for them to enjoy. And it’s a stunning beach with white sand and crystal waters, surrounded by steep cliffs, reached only through a passageway in the rocks. Joining them on this excursion are an angry doctor with his elderly mother, his model-like wife and their little girl; another couple — she’s a psychologist and he’s a nurse; and a famous rapper with his girlfriend.But strange things start happening. A dead body washes up on shore. And something’s wrong with the kids — they’re growing up. As in puberty! In just an hour they’ve turned into teenagers with Trent and the other former 6-year-old sneaking away to make out in a tent. They’re in love, and before you know it she’s pregnant! What is going on?

It seems that on this beach they’re all aging at the rate of 10 years an hour, which means they could all be dead of old age by the end of the day. Their cel phones don’t work, and anyone who tries to leave becomes dizzy and faint at the border of the beach. What is happening… and why? And will anyone escape?

Old — based on a graphic novel — operates on a really neat sci-fi fantasy premise. It’s not just horror, there are lots of intriguing and unexpected parts. There are some impossible missteps, most of which I can’t mention without revealing the ending. For example, a psychologist with epilepsy has a tonic clonic seizure at the hotel but doesn’t bother bringing her anti-seizure meds with her on a trip the next day? Lot’s of little errors like that. But even so, I found it a surprising and fascinating story, beginning to end. M Night Shyamalam has been churning out a series of not-so-great movies since The Sixth Sense (1999), but maybe Old means he’s getting better again.

Old and Broken Diamonds both open this weekend, either theatrically or VOD check your local listings; and you can now watch Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters at the Digitall TIFF Bell Lightbox and at Virtual Hotdocs. 

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

Unsung Heroes at Hot Docs 21! Films reviewed: The Face of Anonymous, It Is Not Over Yet, Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Anonymous, Canada, Dementia, Denmark, documentary, FBI, Feminism, Hacking, Indigenous, Protest by CulturalMining.com on April 30, 2021

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

The 28th edition of Hot Docs — Canada’s International Documentary Festival — has begun, with features and shorts streaming from today until May 9th. It’s online-only this year, but with many live events, Q&As and workshops. As every year, a selection of tickets are offered free to students and Students and Seniors (over 60) with new titles released each day.

I’ve started to watch some the films but first let me tell you about a few that I haven’t seen yet but look good. Wuhan Wuhan, by Toronto’s own Yung Chang, goes to the city where the current pandemic was first discovered. Misha and the Wolves tells the extraordinary story of a young Belgian Holocaust survivor who sought refuge by living among the wolves… but was her story true? Sex, Revolution and Islam looks at the first female imams in Europe and how they’re radically changing their religion’s outlook. And We are as Gods looks at an environmental iconoclast wants to de-extinct animals using DNA… an eco-hero or shades of Jurassic Park? These are just a few of the docs playing at HotDocs.

This week I’m looking at three more docs about unsung heroes. There are Danish nurses changing how we deal with dementia, a  hacktivist changing world events, and a Mohawk activist who changed history.

The Face of Anonymous

Dir: Gary Lang

It’s the 2000s. The US has invaded Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions, supposedly looking for “weapons of mass destruction” and someone to blame for 9/11, when a video started circulating. It is secretly released by Chelsea Manning and published by Julian Assange at Wikileaks, and it shows footage of a heinous war crime, the gunning down of unarmed journalists in Baghdad by the US military. This leads to a crackdown on the whistleblowers, with corporations like PayPal, Visa and MasterCard trying to choke Wikileaks. 

This is when a new group appears in the mainstream media. It’s called Anonymous (previously known for fighting Scientology), and consists of hundreds or thousands of anonymous hackers working in tandem. Together they DDOS (directed denial of service) the corporations and government agencies blocking the truth. And they release scary-looking announcement videos. Their members wear Guy Fawkes masks in public to conceal their faces, and one of their public voices is an unknown person called CommanderX. Later the US government starts a nationwide attack on Anonymous members, arresting many people across the country.

But not Commander X.

The Face of Anonymous gives you this background, but then reveals some things you never knew about. Commander X is living on the streets of Toronto in the 2010s having snuck across the border. He continues to be an active presence, even while he’s sleeping outdoors in a park using his laptop as a pillow. Christopher Doyon. You know why they wore Guy Fawkes masks? Because after V is for Vendetta the masks were sitting on warehouse shelves across the continent at discount prices — so everyone in Anonymous could easily get a hold of one.

This fascinating film follows Commander X, how he travelled from Canada to. Mexico, and where he is now. It reveals he also played a role in the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia. It also interviews other prominent former Anonymous activists. For me, this is especially interesting because I was talking about We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists a doc that played at Hot Docs a decade ago, without knowing Commander X was here in Toronto at the same time viewing the same movie.

It Is Not Over Yet

Dir: Louise Detlefsen

It’s a nursing home in rural Denmark. The residents come from a wide variety of backgrounds; one woman is a former social worker and sexologist. Another ran one of the country’s biggest pharmacies. But they share a common trait: they’re all suffering from dementia. What’s unusual about this place, though is its approach. It’s an open-style residence, located near a forest. They keep chickens I’m the yard, and they’re encouraged to take walks and hug trees. People sing songs, tell jokes, and are always treated with respect. One thing not present is medications. In Denmark the average patient is on 10 different meds. Here they react with horror when they see the medical record of a heavily-drugged newcomer, whom they determine doesn’t have Alzheimers at all.  They all share meals and celebrations to mark the death of any residentn(when the flag outside flies at half mast, their birthdays, and other major events. 

It Is Not Over Yet is a slow-paced but tender look at the final years of some elderly Danes. It’s told in a “fly on the wall” manner — so we get to see the nurses and attendants discussing their cases, their interaction with the residents, and among the elderly themselves; their friendships, loves, and quirks. It’s not so much about dementia or dying as it is about living life to the fullest.

Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again

Dir: Courtney Montour

It’s the 1960s. Mary Two-Axe Earley is a Mohawk woman from Kahnawa:ke who marries a non-indigenous man. She is immediately told that she is no longer an Indian and must leave her home and community. (This rule is part of the Indian Act). She is shocked and flabbergasted but refuses to follow orders. I am Mohawk, I am an Indian, despite what they say, and you can’t take that away from me. She starts up a group, Indian Rights for Indian Women, and takes it to Ottawa to testify before Parliament. The hypocrisy of it all: can you imagine a brother and sister, one considered indigenous, the other not? A woman marrying a non-native man, even if later divorced, lost her Indian status for life. Even after death, she can’t be buried in her ancestral land. (In contrast, a man who marries a non-native keeps his status).

Other women’s groups join in solidarity. Mary Two-Axe struggles for many years until she triumphs, changing the law. And she — and 100,000 others — are finally able to say they are Indians again.

This loving and brilliant short film uses decades-old recordings made by Alanis Obomsawin at the NFB, played publicly now for the first time. It’s illustrated by period footage — historic figures like Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque pop up frequently — as well as  still photos and new interviews with others involved in the struggle. Mary Two-Axe Earley died in 1996, but her legacy lives on.

This is a hero everyone should know about. 

Mary Two-Axe Earley: I am Indian Again, It is Not Over Yet and The Face of Anonymous,…are all playing at Hot Docs now through May. 9th.

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

Older. Films reviewed: Nomadland, Supernova, Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Posted in Death, Dementia, documentary, Drama, Gay, Poverty, Road Movie, Romance, UK by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

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

As the baby boomers age, so do the characters in their movies. This week I’m looking at two dramas and a documentary about travelling around. There’s an older woman exploring the western US in her dilapidated mobile home; two older men driving through northern England in their old camper; and an intense documentary series that takes you across the twentieth century and back again.

Nomadland

Wri/Dir: Chloe Zhao

(Based on the book by Jessica Bruder)

Fern (Frances McDormand) is an ornery, older woman with short grey hair who lives in Empire, Nevada, a company town that processes gypsum. She likes wearing overalls and reciting Shakespeare. She followed her beloved husband to Empire decades earlier with the promise of lifetime employment.  It proved true for him — he died at work. But the empire has fallen. Now she’s a widow, the plant is closed,  the company has pulled up its stakes, and the town itself no longer exists; it’s been wiped off the map, literally. She’s broke with no prospect of work, so she packs up all her stuff, piles it into a ramshackle RV, and sets out on the highway. She’s not homeless, she’s houseless. Her home is on wheels. 

She encounters a group of people like her,  camping in RVs in the desert, like old war horses put out to pasture. They’ve got no money — instead they share goods at a trading post, sing songs around a campfire, and do each other favours like fixing flat tires. They live entirely off the grid. (You’ve heard of Burning Man? This is Burning Van.) Fern meets Dave, a friendly guy with a greying beard (David Strathairn), and she begrudgingly shack up with him. They go their separate ways looking for work where they can find it. But she meets up with him again in the Badlands as she travels across the American west. Will they live together permanently? Can Fern settle down? Or will she stick to her nomadic life and the freedom of the open road?

Nomadland is an engrossing, gritty drama about an older woman on the road trying to make it on her own. It’s all about finding friendship and hope amidst loneliness and poverty. Frances McDormand is remarkable as Fern, acting alongside non-actors, ordinary people playing themselves. 

This is Chloe Zhao’s third feature, and like her earlier films, it feels part documentary, part drama, slow paced and very real.

It’s all shot on location, against magnificent and stark scenery, the desert, the mountains, the sterile interior of an Amazon warehouse and the rustic kitchen of the famous Wall Drugs. Nomadland isn’t a Hollywood feel good movie — its even mildly depressing in parts, but on the whole it’s a magnificent and moving picture. Just Great

Supernova

Wri/Dir: Harry Macqueen

Sam and Tusker are a middle aged couple who have lived together in England for decades. Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a successful American novelist, bald-headed with a sharp tongue. He loves staring at the night sky and thinking about distant galaxies. Sam (Colin Firth) is an English concert pianist who likes wooly sweaters and old friends. Together they used to travel the world on long trips exploring Paris, Italy, and Kyushu, Japan. Now they’re on a drive in an old  rundown camper through the rocky hills and steep green ravines of the Lake District. They’re heading for a concert hall where Sam is giving a recital after a long hiatus. Tusker is working on his latest novel. On the way, they stop to celebrate a birthday in Sam’s childhood home. Surrounded by closest friends and family, driving on a scenic highway,  snuggling up together in their camper with their shaggy dog… what could be bad?

The bad is Tusker’s early-onset Alzheimers. He was diagnosed a while back and it’s starting to reveal itself. Everything still works normally but he dreads the day when he can no longer control himself. I’ll always be there for you, says Sam. But Tusker doesn’t want that to happen. He wants to be the driver, not Sam’s passenger. Will 

Supernova is a tender  and loving drama about dying and loss. It’s full of profundities about destiny and memory, picturesque stone houses, and music on the car radio. It’s nicely acted and subtly carried out. But maybe too subtle, by half. It didn’t really move me.  There’s a single idea — Tusker doesn’t want to lose control, Sam doesn’t want to lose Tusker — but it feels repetitive,  exploring the same conflict over and over. I like the intimacy and familiarity of the characters, but the movie is too simple and Tucci’s portrayal of someone with dementia didn’t quite ring true.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Wri/Dir: Adam Curtis

What do Jiang Qing, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Red Army Faction, a London slumlord, the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, Petrodollars, and Appallachian coal miners,all have in common? They’re all part of the documentary series directed by Adam Curtis, on the history, economy, psychology and politics of the twentieth century. He explores the fall of empires, but also the failure of revolutions. He also looks at the origins of false conspiracy theories, as well as actual conspiracies, like the CIA’s use of LSD on unsuspecting patients. Basically, he looks at what movements, schools of thought, and major changes going on today, and what inspired them.

If you’ve never seen his documentaries before, now — with all the recent confusion and strangeness and unprecedented changes — is a perfect time to start. Curtis has a unique filmmaking style, that manages to tell its story without ever shooting any new footage. Virtually all his visuals are taken from meticulously researched material from the BBC’s archives. They’re edited together in a constantly changing, almost convoluted way but that all makes sense in the end. And all his docs are narrated, relentlessly, by the filmmaker’s own distinctive voice. And they have such an unusual look, as if they are made of long-forgotten, dusty film spools he dug up in someone’s basement  but that also somehow explains what you heard on the news  news three days ago. You may or may not like his style, but I guarantee he will tell you things you never knew before.

Nomadland opens today, Supernova is playing at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox and you can find episodes of  Can’t Get You Out of My Head for free on YouTube. 

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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