Atypical locations. Films reviewed: My Old School, Ali & Ava, Vengeance

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Class, Disguise, documentary, drugs, High School, Podcasts, Realism, Romance, Scotland, Texas, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 29, 2022

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

Toronto is alive again, but for those uncomfortable showing up in person, there are still lots of ways to enjoy the arts at home. DanceWorks presents But Then Again, Human Body Expression’s, a new documentary, streaming online through July 31st. Shot in crisp black and white during the pandemic, the film features the choreography of Danceworks’ founder Hanna Kiel, and eight great Canadian dancers each of whom creates their own character. And Images Festival of  experimental film and video art is celebrating its 35th year with a new “Slow Edition”, offering 50 films over a four month period, with lots of time to catch everything, including digitally.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies set away from typical locations. There’s an unusual newcomer at a Glasgow high school, a new friendship in Bradford, and an out-of-place visitor in a small town in Texas.

My Old School

Dir: Jono McLeod

It’s 1993, and a new kid has just arrived at Bearsden Academy, a posh secondary school in Glasgow, Scotland. Brandon Lee is a bit of an oddity. Not just his clothes. hair, glasses and accent… there’s something different about him. Like how he seems to know everything they’re studying and can answer teacher’s questions with confidence. He’s not afraid to speak up. He’s not intimidated by bullies, either, and rescues one kid from a life of misery. Maybe it’s because his mother is a famous opera singer who travels around the world. Or the fact he’s from Canada — people look different over there. Whatever the reason, the teachers and principal love him, and he becomes popular among the kids, too. He eventually lands a  key role in the school play, South Pacific, and is accepted into a prestigious medical school after graduation. But Brandon has a secret: he’s not 16… he’s in his 30s!

My Old School is a mind-blowing documentary that has to be seen to be believed. It’s about how one man managed to recreate his identity and correct his past mistakes, without anyone realizing what he did. It’s also very funny. The story is narrated by Brandon himself, flawlessly lip-synched by Glasgow actor Alan Cumming — Brandon did not want his face to appear in the movie. His former classmates — including the director —  fill in the blanks 30 years later. There are some talking heads, but it’s mainly told through simple cartoon versions of the people involved. There’s 90s music, quirky characters, and a potentially serious topic but done in a hilariously, twisted way. And oh, what a story it is. I’m purposely  leaving out most of the twists because that’s what makes this movie so good, but believe me when I tell you, it’s one hell of a story.

Ali & Ava

Wri/Dir: Clio Barnard

It’s rainy season in Bradford, Yorkshire. Ava (Claire Rushbrook), is a kind-hearted blonde woman of Irish Catholic ancestry in her 50s. She’s warm funny and bursting with love. She works as a teacher’s aid at a local elementary school. Her late husband abused her so she kicked him out, but she’s still close to her many children and grandkids, especially her youngest son Callum (Shaun Thomas). She helps him take care of his newborn still unnamed baby.

Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a youngish guy who works as a kind-hearted landlord (they must exist somewhere!) who loves helping out his tenants. He has a vibrant personality, and sports a black beard, hoodies and earphones, constantly free-styling raps to the music in his head. Of South Asian Muslim background, Ali lives with his extended family. His wife is a beautiful intellectual, a student at the university, but their marriage fell apart after a miscarriage. They still live together, in separate rooms, keeping up appearances. Ali and Ava meet for the first time when he carries a shy little girl, Sofia, to school on his shoulders. She’s his tenant and her student, and something clicks. Their friendship grows as he starts driving her around, sharing tunes on the car radio. Ava’s more into country music and Irish folk, while he likes punk and rock, but somehow they find common ground. He even teaches himself Bob Dylan songs on his ukulele.

Some neighbourhoods in Bradford are separated by class and race — little kids throw rocks at Ali when he drives her home. The little kids get charmed by his personality, but not Callum. He hates his guts and is furious to see his mom with “someone like him”. Ali gets grief from his little sister, who says he’s cheating on his wife and with a poor white woman, no less. Can their romance overcome forces trying to keep them apart? Or will friendship and love triumph?

Ali & Ava is a very sweet, realistic, romantic drama about life in a working- class neighbourhood. It’s full of  pathos and joy. It looks at a relationship over the course of one rainy month, as the moon waxes and wanes. Bradford is a post-industrial city where most of the factories have closed down, but in this film it’s filled with fireworks and music, colour and song. The story is told in an impressionistic manner, but it’s not hard to follow. It’s about love more than sex, feelings over dialogue, held together by its music and images. And the acting is very good, both the main characters and the many first time actors cast in minor roles.

Ali & Ava is a sweet and joyful film.

Vengeance

Wri/Dir: BJ Novak

Ben (B.J. Novak) is a successful freelance writer in his 30s, living the high life in Manhattan. By day he writes pieces for the New Yorker, and at night he’s at parties and clubs, serving as wingman for his base, vapid best friend. His low-level celebrity makes him a desirable commodity, and has slept with dozens of women who otherwise wouldn’t give him a second glance. But everything changes when he receives a late-night phone call from a stranger telling him his “girlfriend” is dead. Not the woman lying beside him in bed, she’s breathing normally. It’s another woman he barely remembers sleeping with. Her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) tells him he was Abilene’s one true love, and she never stopped talking about “Ben from New York” after her career as a musician never took off. Ty shames him into flying to a small town in Texas for her funeral. There’s a photo of Ben with Abilene on her coffin, and like out of a nightmare, he’s asked, without warning, to give the eulogy.

Later, Ty tells him the real reason he wants him there. Though the coroner says Abilene died from an overdose, she was actually murdered. And Ty and Ben are the only two who care enough to track down her murderer… and kill him! Ben explains he doesn’t do guns, and he’s not into killing, but he does agree to stay on for a few weeks to find out what happened. And he convinces Eloise (Issa Rae) his New York boss to approve his podcast-in-the-making, involving real people, in the style of the true crime podcast Serial.

He records interviews with Abilene’s sisters — Paris and Kansas City — and her little brother nicknamed El Stupido. Later he meets Quentin, a slick record producer (Ashton Kutcher), who shares his tantric wisdom, and a local drug dealer, who has secrets of his own. But the more he uncovers the less certain Ben is over what happened to Abilene.

Vengeance is a satirical drama and dark comedy about appearances vs reality. Writer, director and star BJ Novak (this is his first time directing a feature) portrays Ben as a fish out of water, an aloof city slicker with a big mouth who soon discovers all his assumptions do not apply in rural Texas. Inundated by unfamiliar views on family, police, guns, drugs, religion, sports, and red states vs blue states, he’s soon wearing ten gallon hats and cowboy boots. Vengeance is a fun — and sometimes harrowing — movie with a totally unexpected ending.  This is a good one.

You can catch My Old School at the Toronto Hot Docs cinema; Ali & Ava at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Vengeance in cinemas across North America; 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 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.

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