Daniel Garber talks with Rebecca Snow about Pandora’s Box

Posted in Africa, Feminism, Human Rights, India, Politics, Poverty, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 8, 2021

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

It’s as old as humanity, directly experienced by more than half the population, and indirectly by the rest; is crucial to our existence as a species. And yet it’s treated as a dirty and shameful taboo. It’s omnipresent yet never mentioned in public.

I’m talking about menstruation. And because we never talk about it, women and girls suffer social discrimination and economic hardship, at work and at home, in schools and in prisons. Isn’t it time we open this Pandora’s Box?

Pandora’s Box: Lifting the Lid on Menstruation is a new documentary that delves into its history and culture, and looks at human rights advocates around the world — in India, Kenya, North America and Europe — who are trying to normalize periods and to make them affordable, safe and accessible.  It’s written and directed by Rebecca Snow, an award-winning Canadian filmmaker who specializes in social issue documentaries.

Pandora’s Box premiers on Monday, March 8th, International Women’s Day.

I spoke with Rebecca Snow in Toronto, via ZOOM. (Some of the dialogue is inaudible, due to technical difficulties.)

International Women’s Day! Films reviewed: True Mothers, The World to Come, My Salinger Year

Posted in 1800s, 1990s, Adoption, Family, J.D. Salinger, Japan, LGBT, New York City, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 5, 2021

Monday is International Women’s Day, so this week I’m looking at three new movies that celebrate women. There’s a woman who encounters her adopted son’s birth mother; an aspiring writer in 1990s Manhattan; and two women in 19th century, upstate New York. 

True Mothers

Wri/Dir: Naomi Kawase

Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) is a married professional woman in Western Japan. She and her husband enjoy their kids-free lifestyle — fine dining, travel, and a high-rise luxury condo. But they long for a family of their own, and so far, it isn’t working., despite various medical interventions. Then one day on a talk show they see a woman telling about her organization. It’s called Baby Baton because the infant is passed on like a baton from the birth mother to its new parents. Adoptees have to pass rigorous requirements, including that one parent must quit their job and become a full-time house parent. Unsurprisingly, Satoko takes that role. And they bring home the newborn baby of a 14-year-old junior high girl named Hikari (Aju Makita). That was five years ago. Now they are devoted to their adorable adopted son, Asato. But their world is turned upside down by a knock on the door by a woman who claims to be the boy’s mother. And, she says, she wants him back.

True Mothers is a touching intimate story of two women’s lives. The movie is divided in half, The first part is all about Satoko and her husband and son, the trials and tribulations of raising a child. The second half is about Hikari the birth mother, and her life since giving up the baby. It explores her time on a misty remote island off Hiroshima (at the Baby Baton headquarters), where she spends the final months of her pregnancy, but also the dark turn her life takes afterwards. Naomi Kawase is one of very few female directors in Japan, and as in all her movies, the story is gently told but full of pathos. Well-acted and very moving with lovely cinematography, True Mothers pulls no punches when dealing with the reality of fertility, unplanned pregnancy, and the other side of adoption. 

Very nice movie.

The World to Come

Dir: Mona Fastvold

It’s the 1850s in rural upstate New York. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is a morose young woman with a stern demeanour and long black hair. She lives in a farmhouse with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). They have a flock of sheep, chickens and milk cows. They used to have a little daughter, the light of their lives, but she died before she was five. Since then, it’s been a loveless marriage and the two barely speak to each other, just coasting through life without a purpose. Dyer records financial records in his ledger, while Abigail writes her thoughts and observations in a black-bound diary. But everything changes when they meet their new neighbours who rent a farm over the hill. Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) has ginger hair and fiery eyes, and she swooshes past in elegant gowns. Her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) has a dark side carrying bitter grudged just waiting to explode. Abigail and Tallie become instant friends, sharing thoughts, sharp observations, secrets. Their husbands notice the change — why are they smiling? Why are they so happy? Could these two friends like each other more than their husbands? 

The World to Come is a passionate and poetic romance, about two women who find love along the harsh frontier. It’s narrated by Abigail’s diary entries and love letters from Jan to July of the same year, and the story is told in a literary style, like the turning pages of a book. But it’s not all talk, it’s a beautifully shot movie full of burnished wood, wrought iron, fireplaces, cotton dresses and candlelight. It’s filmed on location, with harsh winter blizzards and beautiful spring days. And while not explicit, there are sensuous scenes of Abigail and Tallie kissing furtively in dark doorways, or sneaking off into the woods. Very famous cast: Vanessa Kirby plays Princes Margaret in The Crown, and Katherine Waterston is in Fantastic Beasts and Inherent Vice. And the husbands, Christopher Abbot and Casey Affleck, are very well known, as well. While I wasn’t deeply moved by this movie, I did care about what happens to the characters, and the film itself is visually very nice to look at.

My Salinger Year

Wri/Dir: Phillippe Falardeau (Based on the Memoir by Joanna Rackoff) 

It’s the 1990s in Manhattan. Joanna (Margaret Qualley) is a young grad student and aspiring poet, who is visiting the city to experience literary New York. She has a boyfriend back in Berkeley, but in the meantime she’s camping out in her best friend Jenny’s cramped Village apartment. Her “room” is a tiny space in the corner separated by a folding paper screen. And she lands a plumb job; not as a a writer or working for a publisher, but in the office of a venerable agency. The company is headed by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who looks like a stately Susan Sontag. Margaret’s biggest client is JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, whom she calls Jerry. He hasn’t published anything since the ’60s, but he’s still wildly popular. As Margaret’s assistant, Joanna’s main job is dealing with the bags of fan mail delivered each day. Salinger is a recluse, and never sees any mail — they shred each letter, but not before reading it, and sending out a hand-typed — we’re talking typewriters here, no computers allowed in the office — form letter, saying thank try for your kind letter, unfortunately JD Salinger won’t see it. 

Meanwhile Joanna is luxuriating in the literary life: having lunch at the Waldorf, rubbing shoulders with famous authors (though never Salinger). She goes to poetry readings at the right cafes and moves in with her handsome new boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth), a working-calls writer who’s also a bit of a dick. Will Joanna stay on in Manhattan or return to California? Can she forge a career as a literary agent? And will she ever meet Salinger?

My Salinger Year is a true memoir based on the writer’s own early career. It’s delightful to watch —who would have guessed we could feel nostalgic for the 90s? She experiences the city, wandering into places like the New Yorker magazine’s offices. And it’s full of wonderful vignettes about the quirky people she meets in her office (played by Colm Feore, and others.) It also shows us the writers of the fan mail, each of whom addresses the audience directly, reciting the texts of their letters. The film is made by Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and is shot around Montreal. As always, his movies are full of warm, funny characters and lots of  detail; he doesn’t gloss over what’s going on. Falardeau also has some weird trademarks — characters break into music videos or start dancing — which I don’t quite get, but luckily it doesn’t detract from the story. You can tell Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley loved making this movie, and if you’re into writing or reading books, or the whole literary milieu, you’ll enjoy it, too. 

True Mothers, The World to Come, and My Salinger Year are all playing today on VOD or streaming sites.

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

Getting away. Level 16, Triple Frontier, The Panama Papers

Posted in Action, Adoption, documentary, drugs, Heist, Morality, post-apocalypse, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 8, 2019

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

It’s international Women’s Day, a great time to check out some movies directed by women. If you haven’t seen the great Colombian film Birds of Passage, see it now. And Objects of Desire, a retrospective of French master Claire Denis’s films is also playing now at TIFF. She’s one of my favourites.

This week I’m looking at people trying to get away with something. We’ve got orphan girls running for their lives, war vets running off with sacks of loot, and journalists rushing to publish the biggest data dump in history

Level 16

Wri/Dir: Danishka Esterhazy

Vivien and Sophia are two teenagers at an all-girls boarding school for orphans. They wear identical uniforms: skirts, shirts and ties during the day, and floor-length cotton gowns at night. Classes consist of B&W educational films from the 1950s shown on flatscreen TVs. Their teacher, the strict but beautiful Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), visits each unit to teach them feminine virtues like cleanliness, subservience, obedience and silence. And their most important exams are not about reading or math but applying cold cream to their cheeks and taking their vitamins.

They live under a panopticon with surveillance cameras recording every move and thedisembodied voice of a Doctor (Peter Outerbridge) who tells them what to do. They’ve never been outside this drab institution, since the air and sunlight out there are “hazardous”. Besides, it’s important to stay pretty and clean so a nice family will adopt them some day. And now that they’re at Level 16, that someday is coming soon.

Headstrong Vivien (Katie Douglas) is excited to hear she might be leaving this place; she’s been counting the days. But all her hopes and dreams are shattered when the nearsighted Sophia (Celina Martin) tells her a secret: don’t swallow the vitamins! When Vivien takes her advice she is shocked by what she finds out. The “vitamins” are actually sedatives and what happens to their limp bodies at night is not nice at all. What is this place? Why are they there? What is it like outside its walls? And can they ever escape?

Level 16 is a scary and weird speculative fiction look at a distopian future as seen through the eyes of teenaged girls. It’s full of strange anomalies: why do the guards speak Russian? Where did all these fake-happy educational film clips come from?  Does this movie take place in the past… or in the future? It feels like a cross between Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale.  It’s a low budget film shot on a single location (and one that is bland, industrial and and claustrophobic to look at), but it had enough shocking twists to keep me fascinated until the end.

Triple Frontier

Dir: JC Chandor

Santiago (Oscar Isaac) is a paramilitary cop working in an unnamed Latin American country. His police team raids low level drug traffickers… but they are also on the take. Any witness who tries squeal on Lorea’s — the fugitive drug kingpin — whereabouts is immediately executed to keep him quiet. But Santiago (an American) has his own informant in Lorea’s HQ. He discovers for himself where the big man is hiding. Rumour has it there are millions in cash just sitting in the jungle, waiting to be taken. So he flies back to the States to meet with his former special-ops army buddies. They loved their time in the military, but it hasn’t treated them well as veterans.

Miller (Charlie Hunnam) is a low-level army recruiter with a bad goatee who delivers the same speech over and over. Davis (Ben Affleck) tries to support a teenaged daughter from a failed marriage with the pittance he earns flogging condos. Morales (Pedro Pascal) is a helicopter pilot whose license was taken away for drug offenses. And Ben (Garrett Hedlund), Miller’s brother, is an MMA cage fighter — not a great long-term career plan.

Santiago says, let’s get what the government never gave us but that we deserve: millions in cold hard cash. And don’t worry, it’s a flawless plan. Sure enough, the heist works great. In fact, it works too well. They are faced not with millions of dollars but hundreds of millions, far too heavy for them to carry. Their momentary greed makes their exit plan impossible. Can they lug their bags of loot through the jungle, over a mountain pass and down to a the ocean (through the multinational “triple frontier” of the title)? Or will mother nature – and the vengeful locals who inhabit it – kill them first?

Triple Frontier has strikingly beautiful scenery, famous-name actors and a well known director and scriptwriter. So how come it sucks?

Well, it’s a boring and sexless buddy action flick with inane, bro dialogue: I got your back… I love you man… we deserve this. Do you really care if they get away with the money they stole? More than that, it reeks of exceptionalism. It’s co-written by Mark Boal, who brought us the vile Zero Dark Thirty, a movie which said we Americans are always the good guys, torture is useful and all Muslims are potential terrorists. For this movie just substitute drug traffickers for terrorists, and South Americans for Muslims. Almost every person they encounter is corrupt, dangerous, and out to kill us. It’s up to our heroic soldiers to stop these caravans of latino drug traffickers from invading our border.

OK, I admit there is a good chase scene near the beginning, but the rest of it is a total waste of two hours and five minutes.

Ugh.

The Panama Papers

Wri/Dir: Alex Winter

It’s 2016 in Munich, Germany. Bastian Obermayer, an investigative journalist at the Süddeutcher Zeitung receives a mysterious message. A whistleblower calling himself John Doe says he has some information to send him. But because of its importance and sheer volume he has to be sure his identity is kept secret and the information gets released, What is this information, where did it come from, and why is it so important? The data leak is from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama law firm known for its secrecy. Their clients include both organized crime and upstanding world leaders all hiding their money so they don’t pay taxes. The amount of money lost in taxes worldwide is stupendous: it’s the reason social services have been cut and why the wealth distribution gap between the ultra rich and everybody else is the highest it’s been in a century.

The Panama Papers tells this story through the eyes of the journalists involved in its release. It feels like a chapter of All the Presidents Men, but on a much bigger scale. The papers were shared – in secret! – with over 300 investigative journalists worldwide. And the outcome and blowback that followed changed the world. The Prime Minister of Iceland, top figures in FIFA, Argentina, Pakistan and Spain were forced to resign. Others in Russia, the US and Syria were also implicated in the multinational scandal. And top journalists like Malta’s Daphne Gaizia, were murdered because of their role in exposing these crimes.

The Panama Papers is a great documentary that churns politics, investigative journalism and conspiracies into a potent brew.

The Panama Papers is now playing at Hotdocs Cinema, you can catch Triple Frontier’s stunning cinematography on the big screen before it moves to Netflix, and Level 16 opens next Friday; 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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