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

Cracks in the Foundation. The Continent, Rocks in my Pockets, Rosewater

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

From far away, porcelain looks smooth, shiny and flawless, but look too close and fine cracks appear. This week, I‘m looking at movies that expose the cracks in faraway Latvia, China and Iran. There’s an Iranian man who wants to leave prison; three Chinese men who want to leave their island, and a Latvian woman who, at times, wants to leave life altogether.

TheContinentThe Continent
Dir: Han Han

Three young men have lived their lives on a tiny, windswept island off the east coast of China. But they decide it’s time to check out the continent. Like in the classic Chinese novel, they set out on a “Journey to the West. They each have a different reason. Jianghe (Chen Bolin  [陈柏霖], who also starred in Buddha Mountain [觀音山] — read my review here) a school teacher an”d eternal optimist, is transferred by the government to a remote location far, far away. Haohan (Feng Shaofeng [冯绍峰]) is a blustering young man dying to see the world. He longs to stand on a determined mountaintop and shout to the world about the size of his dick. And he has a childhood pen-pal Yingying TheContinent_still2(Yolanda Yuan [袁泉]), a pretty girl he’ll finally meet face to face. And true love will soon follow. Their third friend, Hu Sheng, is mentally challenged, and depends on the other two to tell him what to do.

But they soon discover life outside their tiny island is bewildering and confusing. They stumble onto a movie set in WWII. And at their first hotel Jianghe is approached by an escort named Sumi, immediately followed by knocks on the door from aggressive police. Bewildered, he plays the hero, HanHanbusting out through a barred window and “saving” Sumi from a fate worse than death. Or so he thinks. And a sketchy, Cantonese hitchhiker helps them with their navigating – but can he be trusted? Maybe not, in a place where anything that you don’t hold onto with both hands when you gp to sleep will likely be gone by morning. But it’s also a country with stunning and empty vast vistas, rockets flying to outer-space, and cool and savvy people at every turn.

The Continent is writer-director Han Han’s (韩寒) first film, but he’s far from unknown. His blog is the best-known one in China which automatically makes him one of the most famous people in the world. This is not just a simple, picaresque road movie. It’s also a slyly humorous — if bleak — cautionary tale about life in contemporary China.

RocksinMyPockets_Poster_MediumRocks in My Pockets
Wri/Dir Signe Baumane

Signe is a Brooklyn artist, originally from Latvia, with a hidden family past. She wants to find out the truth behind the family matriarch, her late grandmother. On the surface, she was a preternaturally hard-worker, known for her Sisyphean feat of carrying endless buckets of water up a steep mountain. She had retreated to a backwoods cabin with her husband, an eccentric entrepreneur, to escape the difficulties of life in the city. But, after a bit of digging, Signe discovers a streak of depression, suicide and mental illness in her family stretching back three generations. The title refers to her grandmother’s attempted suicide by drowning – she was unsuccessful because she forgot to fill her pocket with rocks. Even if the mind wants to end it all, the body – until the last breath — will fight against dying. At the same time, Signe realizes that the many children and grandchildren managed to survive and succeed despite harsh time. In this film, Riga is imagined as a rocksinmypockets-1024x576place with enormous human faces on their buildings, within a country filled with animistic creatures with long tails, dog ears and goggly eyes that lurk everywhere, just out of sight.

Her odd family history is portrayed in a series of short, animated episodes, using panels of sketched characters moving against brightly-tinted Linda_Sc_080_with_WS_Thumbnailbackgrounds. These are interspersed with super-imposed stop-motion images made of rope and papier-mache figurines. This giuves the whole movie an unusual three-dimensional feel, combining classic drawing with computer-manipulated mixes. And omnipresent is the wry and funny –though at times grating – voice of the narrator telling and commenting on her family history. The director shows the deleterious effects of Soviet era psychiatry – one where cures consist of medicinal corrections to chemical imbalances – and how it makes some people long to “erase themselves” and ceasing to exist. A poignant, fascinating and great animated feature.

RW_LM_20130810_0238.jpgRosewater
Dir: Jon Stewart

Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is an Iranian-Canadian journalist based in London. He lives there with his beautiful (and pregnant) wife. He is assigned to cover the upcoming elections in Iran, but quickly runs unto trouble as soon as he arrives. He quickly makes friends with a politically active and sympathetic taxi driver who takes him to areas fertile with dissent. But after witnessing a potentially explosive event he is arrested. His charge? Spying.

Ironically, a comic TV interview he had given to an American comedian on the Daily Show is used as evidence of his wrong doing. He is quickly thrown into solitary confinement in a notorious prison. He is psychologically tortured until — says the warden — his will is broken and he will lose all hope.

His family, it turns out, is no stranger to death and imprisonment for RW_NK_20130729_0700.jpgpolitical views under earlier regimes. Both his father and his sister had gone through it, and appear, in his mind, to convince him to hold on. But will he make it?

Rosewater is Jon Stewart’s first film, and it shows it. Stewart is known for the brilliant and funny The Daily Show that skewers mass media from a left-ish perspective. But a feature film is not a three-minute sketch. The movie starts out great with exciting scenes of news-gatering, but it starts to drag, heavily, once it moves to the prison. While it conveys the loneliness and suffering,  solitary confinement does not make for good cinema. Bernal and the supporting actors are fine, but the buffoonish prison guard and the sinister administrator seem too much like the evil twins of  Schultz and Klink to take seriously.

The Continent played at the ReelAsian Film Festival which continues for another week (reelasian.com), Rosewood played at TIFF this year and opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Rocks in my Pockets opened the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival (which features films on addiction and mental health – with an additional screening tomorrow: go to rendezvouswithmadness.com for times. Also opening: next week at Hot Docs there’s the great documentary called Point and Shoot about a young American traveler/journalist who, despite being non-religious and non-radicalized, nevertheless joins the rebel armies fighting in Libya (listen to my review here). And a surprising story about the Life of Pigeons on CBC’s the Nature of Things.

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

%d bloggers like this: