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

Far from the Madding Crowd. Films reviewed: Border, The Drawer Boy

Posted in 1970s, Acting, Canada, Crime, Fairytales, Farming, Folktale, Horror, Intersex, Sex, Supernatural, Suspicion, Sweden, Theatre, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on November 23, 2018

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

Fall festival season is coming to an end in Toronto but there’s still some left to see. This weekend, watch out for Blood in the Snow. Not literally. BITS is the all-Canadian film fest that shows horror, genre and underground films at the Royal Cinema. And at the ROM this weekend, presented by Ekran and The Polish Filmmakers Association, you can see films with historic themes celebrating 100 years of Poland’s Regained Independence, featuring Andrej Wajda, Roman Polanski and other great Polish directors.

This week, I’m looking at two movies set far from cities. There’s a Canadian actor who thinks a farmer’s stories don’t smell quite write; and a fairytale-like Swedish customs officer who can sniff out crime.

Border

Dir: Ali Abbasi

(Based on a short story by John Lindqvist, author of Let the Rght One In)

Tina (Eva Melander) is a customs officer at a remote ferry dock in rural Sweden. She lives in a cabin in the woods. She feels a kinship with the local foxes and reindeer, more so than with people. She shares her home with a redneck dog trainer named Roland, but rejects his

sexual advances. It just doesn’t feel right. She’s resigned to a life of celibacy, partly because of her very unusual appearance. She’s kind and friendly, but… pretty ugly. She looks almost neanderthal, with her heavy brow, scarred skin, scraggly hair, and a nose like a lion’s. And with that nose comes an amazing sense of smell. She can detect the hidden emotions – shame, cruelty, and evil intent – of smugglers and criminals passing through her customs line. When she sniffs out kiddy porn on a businessman’s cel phone, the local police begin to take notice. They ask her to help them uncover a kidnapping ring.

Meanwhile, one day at the customs house, she sniffs out a strange man. Vore (Finnish actor Eero Milanoff) looks like her and sniffs like she does. She’s suspicious at first but notices a definite attraction. When they finally get together, their sex is explosive! He urges her to run away with him and stop living “like the humans”. Wait… what?!

If they’re not human what are they, exactly? And what other secrets is Vore hiding?

Border is a fantastic Swedish movie, a combination horror and supernatural thriller that manages to be funny, repulsive, touching and shocking (not for the faint of heart). It also deals with a wide range of unexpected topics, from intersexuality and gender transformation, to ostracism, folklore, mental illness, and a whole lot more. The acting is fantastic, the look and feel of this movie is amazing.

If you want to see something truly different, this is a film for you.

The Drawer Boy

Dir: Arturo Pérez Torres, Aviva Armour-Ostroff

Based on the play by Michael Healey

It’s the early 1970s in rural southern Ontario. Miles (Jakob Ehman) is an earnest young actor, part of a Toronto theatre collective that wants to create a play about farmers and farm life. He arrives with a bunch of other actor/hippies, each staying on different farms, who get together, every so often, to rehearse and compare notes. Miles’s new home is run by two men who have lived there since 1945 after serving together in the army.  Angus (Stuart Hughes) bakes bread in the kitchen and keeps the books. He seems a bit touched in the head. In fact he has no short term memory – there’s a metal plate in his brain from a wartime explosion. Morgan (Richard Clarkin) is more like the boss, handling the heavier farm work. Morgan lets Miles stay there as long as he adapts to farm life. That means 3:00 a.m. wake-ups, hard work, and “don’t ask too many questions”. Angus doesn’t like thinking about troubling memories… it gives a headache.

Morgan talks slow and low, like a farmer, but he’s smarter than he looks. He feeds gullible Miles lots of halftruths and impossibilities, which Miles dutifully scribbles down in his ever-present notebook. Things like “dairy cows eat pigs”, and are terrified of humans, knowing they could be slaughtered any day.

Morgan also tells a story to Angus each day, to restore his lost memories. It’s about a boy who draws, two tall sisters, and a house on the farm they were all supposed to share. But when the actors perform their workshop in a barn for all the local farmers, including Angus, something clicks. Seeing his own story performed on the stage, suddenly, like a knock on the head, unleashes a flood of memories. Memories that Morgan doesn’t want Angus to know…

The Drawer Boy is a film adaptation of the famous Canadian play from the 1990s, which itself was about the making of an earlier play in the 1970s. I’m always cautious about plays turned into movies – sometimes the media just don’t match. But don’t worry, this play makes a wonderful movie. It incorporates the drama of the original while adding special effects and scene changes hard to show on stage. The three actors are all excellent, and seeing it in a real barn with real cows, tractors and bales of hay just adds to the realism. The Drawer Boy is a great movie about storytelling, memory, loss, and relationships… a perfect dose of Canadiana on the big screen.

The Drawer Boy and Borders both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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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