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 on June 4, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for 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.


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,

Super Macho Friday! Films reviewed: Love and Other Drugs; Black Swan; Kings of Pastry

I was recently in The States for American Thanksgiving, and at an American chain bookstore, I noticed a whole section – not just a table, not just a shelf, but a whole section — devoted to “paranormal teenage romances”! I’ve seen that ultimate teenaged paranormal romantic vampire trilogy (the eclipse trilogy) – and I have to say, they were awful, I couldn’t find the appeal in any of them. But different people like different things…I guess it’s a matter of taste.

You might think you like things that blow up, crashing cars, scary monsters, blood and guts, and fistfights. Yeah, me too. That’s why I’m calling this week’s reviews Super Macho Friday, so I can talk about some uber-alpha-testosterone-laden action-packed movies. Yes!!! We’re going to see three rough and tough movies about cut-throat competition, nerves of steel, ironman endurance…! One’s a romantic comedy, one’s a film about ballet dancing, and one’s a documentary on… exquisite French sweeties?

OK I lied, they’re not stereotypically masculine as movies go, but, keep listening: some of them are well worth watching.

Love and Other Drugs
Dir: Edward Zwick

Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a retail salesman in the mid-1990s whose aim is to get laid – on the job – as often as possible. But he gets fired for hitting on his boss’s girlfriend. He’s young, handsome, ambitious, and out of work. Meanwhile, his slovenly, obnoxious, unattractive little brother Josh, who has made a fortune in the dot-com bubble, offers to set him up with a sales job at a global pharmaceutical giant. If his sales reach a certain target, he’ll get to move away from the backwater he’s placed in to the big-time: Chicago.

So he trains hard, works hard, and learns the trade, while also sticking to his hobby. Is he trying to pick up women in order to up his sales? Or is he working as a traveling salesman to sleep with the metaphorical farmer’s daughters? Who knows? Either way, he’s being trounced by a more successful, rival salesman: an ex-marine peddling prozac. But, after bribing a doctor to let him dress as an intern, he encounters a beautiful woman, Maggie (Anne Hathaway) a barrista and artist with early onset Parkinson’s. Sounds interesting so far? It is, sort of.

After that, unfortunately, the rest of the movie is just about them jumping in and out of bed, and whether their casual sex will develop into a loving relationship. Granted, there’s lots of gratuitous shots of the two movie stars running around scantily dressed… but the movie itself was pointless and boring. Will Maggie and Jake stay together? Will he get his transferred to Chicago? Will she continue to make coffee and snap photos and buy medications? Who cares? You get the impression even they don’t really care. And when the movie tries to be funny, it usually fails miserably, like the lame scene about Viagra-induced priapism and a three way with a model-like saleswoman in a hot tub (“She’s Thai, and I’m Thai-curious”).

It doesn’t even really deal with the real problems of big pharmaceuticals, aside from the industry’s high prices and competitiveness. Instead, it was more of a non-stop product placement for the drugs themselves. They even have a depressed homeless guy whose life is turned around after garbage-picking Prozac samples. Oliver Platt as his trainer and Hank Azaria as a GP are bth great, but other than that, unless you really love Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, (or have a thing for awful 90’s music, like The Macarena) this is a stupid, pointless romantic movie that goes nowhere.

Black Swan
Dir: Darren Aronofsky

I reviewed this during the Toronto Film festival, and it stayed with me – it’s a haunting, moving film.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.

But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on, both to her role in the ballet, and to her tenuous grip on reality.

The big question is: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers.

That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder as the former prima donna and Barbara Hershey as the over-the-top stage mom. This movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with amazing production values.

I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating three styles: The super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups; the scenery-chewing catfights of melodramatic soap opera; and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balance worked.

Kings of Pastry
Dir: Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker

The title says it all: this is about the cut-throat competition to be accepted as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France and allowed to wear the coveted collar. The movie follows the competitors from Europe and North America, as they go from stage to stage, constructing elaborate spun sugar sculptures, designing multi-layered chocolate truffles, obscure pastries, and impossibly complex cakes. It’s like a reality show or Iron Chef – except it’s not a TV show competition. It’s the real thing. They all compete, with an olympic-like ethos, to create these monuments of grotesquerie.

Part of the competition is to take these huge, delicate and breakable constructions, lift them up, using their own hands, and carry them all the way to the table where the judges do their judging. And even though this is an unscripted documentary, you just know it, one of the chefs is going to stumble…

When I was a kid, they did the learning numbers sequence on Sesame Street – some of you might remember this – and one film clip that still sticks in my mind is, in each sequence, there would be this guy at the top of a staircase in a white chef’s toque announcing something like “Seven Pumpkin Pies!” And then dropping them all.

Anyway, I don’t get it. I’m not a sweet tooth so I don’t see why you’d breaking your back creating hideous spun-sugar displays and petit fours arangements, but clearly some people live for this stuff. And the chefs, obviously, still value these old-school distinctions. I guess you could say they want to be archaic, and eat it, too. The film starts slowly, with the chefs in their home territories, practicing spinning flawless sugar ribbons; but once they’re at the big competition, it really heats up. Tthis is an excellent documentary, and the ultimate dessert film.

Just to review, today I talked about Love and Other Drugs, now playing, Black Swan opening today, check your local listings, and Kings of Pastry which is playing at The TIFF Lightbox – go to for details. Also starting today is Sell Out!, a funny and unusual satirical musical-comedy about Rafflesia, a reality show host whose ambition comes to the rescue when she finds a new way to attract Malaysian audiences – using death as the ultimate draw.

Movie Excuses. Films reviewed: Morning Glory, Sell Out!, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. PLUS EU Film Fest and Best Breast Film Fest

Posted in Acting, Cultural Mining, Drama, Harry Potter, Journalism, Malaysia, Manhattan, Movies, Musical, Romantic Comedy, TV, Uncategorized by on November 21, 2010

I like movies. They can be interesting, thrilling, edifying, moving, romantic, educational, funny, beautiful, cool, and a good way to keep your feet dry if it’s raining out. I don’t need an excuse to see one.

But there are a lot of people who will do just about anything not to see a movie. And believe me, I’ve heard a lot of excuses:

I hate Hollywood!
I already read the book.
I only watch movies with subtitles.
It’s too expensive!
No tits and ass? Then I don’t wanna see it…
Boring… I like TV better.
I’d rather give my money to charity.

So today I’m going to tell you about some movies that address these excuses.

You want to give money to charity? You love movies with lots of naked breasts? Check out the Breast Fest now on at the Royal Ontario Museum. Actually, this is a very real film festival that rethinks breast cancer. It’s showing documentaries about surviving, living with, or confronting breast cancer, along with workshops and discussions. Look online for information at

Do you think movies are too expensive? Do you hate Hollywood? Or maybe you just love movies with sombre Scandinavians staring pensively at still ponds? Well, be sure to check out the Toronto EU film festival, that started last night and will be on for the next ten days.

This is quite a remarkable film festival, if you’ve never been. It’s a chance to see 22 films from all across the European union, from Finland to Cyprus, Poland to Portugal in addition to the more established film industries like France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. It’s always a mixed bag, but some of the movies are always stupendous and with some hidden treasures there, too. And best of all, it’s absolutely free, all week at the Royal Cinema. But be sure to show up at least 45 minutes before the starting time if you want to get a seat. The tickets disappear very quickly. I’ll be reviewing some movies from the festival next week, but you can look at the schedule online at

“I like TV better”. OK, let’s look at two movies about TV.


Morning Glory
Dir: Roger Michell

Becky (played by Rachel McAdams) is a young TV producer from New Jersey, who gets laid off from her local, candy-coloured morning show. But she’s enthusiastic, charming and relentlessly hard working. So she’s thrilled to land a job as executive producer for a national network show broadcasting out of downtown Manhattan.

But, there’s a catch. She soon discovers all is not well. The on-air talent are all boring, vapid, worn-out, lecherous, or entirely lacking in charm. And if she doesn’t fix it up soon, the show might be cancelled. So she brings an eminent news anchorman (Harrison Ford) to be the new cohost. Will she get this crabby journalist to shed his hubris and participate? And will he and the longtime host (Diane Keaton) ever see eye-to-eye? And will Becky – who works 24/7 and is always on the phone — ever find love and romance? Morning Glory is a pretty funny movie about making TV shows. The plot’s totally cookie-cutter, but the setting – behind the scenes at the network – is hilarious and true-to-life. It’s a not-bad, run-of-the-mill, very commercial, light comedy.

Another movie:
Sell Out!
Dir: Yeo Joon Han

…couldn’t be more different. It’s a darkly satirical, comic look at Malaysia, seen through their TV, art, music, film, industry, and daily life, about how two young Malaysians face the dilemma of whether to stay true to their ideals or sell out.

Rafflesia is a Malaysian-Chinese TV host for FONY (as in SONY) TV a big conglomerate’s network. She’s competitive and jealous of an up-and-coming Eurasian hostess. Rafflesia’s attempt at making avant garde “art” for TV audiences – using film and poetry — is a dismal failure. But her ambition comes to the rescue when she finds a new way to attract reality-TV audiences – using death as the ultimate draw.

Meanwhile, Eric, is a brilliant, young engineer who works in the electronics division of FONY corp, has a crush on Rafflesia – but she won’t even look at him twice. Eric comes up with an amazing invention. You pour soybeans into one end, and press one of the buttons, and out comes soya milk, or tofu, or miso, soy sauce, tempeh – you name it. But according to the corporate bosses, it’s no good. What’s the flaw? It’s too durable – the company can only sell one per family. He didn’t design it to automatically break down as soon as the warranty ends.

So will Rafflesia make it as a Reality TV host? And will Eric stay true to his ideals or sell out? And will they fall in love?

That’s the storyline, but this movie has a lot more to it. It has something I’ve never seen before — its very funny dialogue is in what’s sometimes called “Manglish”, or Malaysian English (with subtitles). Not only that – the characters break into song every so often. It’s a comic, Malaysian-Chinese musical! And not only that – the movie also lampoons itself with scenes morphing into a karaoke video, (complete with words) or avant- garde cinema with dialogue spoken behind closed doors. It mocks the styles of Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien but also the stupidity of mainstream pop culture. Some of the jokes are dreadful, but this is a unique funny satire, unlike any movie I’ve ever seen before.

What about the excuse “I’ve read the book”? Well, you still might want to see the movie version, like this latest, and second-to-the-last installment of the Harry Potter saga

The Deathly Hallows
Dir: David Yates

Just in case you’re one of the few people who has never heard of Harry Potter, it’s the story of a young English orphan with a lightning-bolt mark on his forehead, who discovers he is a wizard. He’s sent to the boarding school Hogwarts to learn his trade, and becomes best friends with fellow students of magic, Ron and Hermione. In this movie, the three of them set off on a journey to find destroy the Horcruxes – hidden items that contain a bit of dark power – before the villainous Voldemort gets a hold of them.

This episode is a bit risky. The series depends on the familiar surroundings of Hogwarts, with all of its quirky, strange, funny characters, and familiar images – the classic school uniforms, the strange magical paraphernalia, the building’s stone walls… but a significat part of this film is devoid of all that – just the three young actors, dressed in beige wooly sweaters, in a natural setting, dealing with their emotions. So that part dragged a bit for me. I wanted to see more magic, less grousing.

Luckily the rest of the movie had all that. There are some amazing scenes inside the Ministry of Magic with lots of clever, visual references to 1930’s fascist Europe — complete with the racist anti-muggle persecution, bad guys wearing black leather Gestapo trench coats, and foreboding, towering walls.

The movie downplays some of the book’s deaths, but is generally pretty close to the story. And though it only covers half the book, it ends in a way that leaves the viewer satisfied and without cheap cliff-hangers. Some great special effects, and the usual parade of virtually every single British movie actor making an appearances. Lot’s of fun, lots of scary parts. I liked this kids’ movie a lot, despite its dragging middle… no excuses needed.

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