Changes. Films reviewed: Venus, RBG, Boom for Real

Posted in 1970s, Art, Canada, documentary, Hiphop, LGBT, Montreal, Movies, Punk, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 18, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Spring Film Festival Season is going strong in Toronto with world premiers, features and short films to reflect every taste. Inside Out is one of the world’s largest LGBT film festivals; ICFF, the Italian Contemporary film festival, has parallel screenings in eight cities across Canada; and Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival features great movies and a special appearance by Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient Setsuko Thurlow. And brand new this year is Toronto’s True Crime Film Festival – the title says it all. They’re all coming soon.

This week I’m looking at three new movies – a dramedy ad two documentaries – opening today, which (coincidentally) are all directed by women. There’s a teenaged boy who changes New York’s art scene, a diminutive judge who changes US laws, and a woman in her thirties who just wants to change herself.

Venus

Dir: Eisha Marjara

Sid (DeBargo Sanyal) is a Montrealer in her thirties going through some major changes. Her longtime boyfriend Daniel (Pierre-Yves Cardinal: Tom at the Farm) dumped her, and a strange, 14-year-old kid has been following her around. But the biggest change of all is her gender – she’s transitioning from male to female, and is about to appear as a woman, in public, for the very first time. That’s when Ralph (Jamie Mayers) the 14 year old skate kid who’s been following her around finally tells her why: Sid, he says, you’re my dad!

What?! First of all, she says, I only have sex with men, second of all I’m brown – Sid is of a Punjabi ancestry – and you’re white. But doesn’t she remember Kristin from high school? (Kristin is Ralph’s mom and Ralph read in her diary that she had a fling with Sid as a teenager).

When she gets over the shock Sid takes a crash course in Parenting for Dummies, and starts to bond with Ralph. Her ex-partner Daniel reappears in her life, and accepts her change of gender. And her estranged parents, her transphobic Mamaji (Zena Darawalla) and  laid-back Papaji (Gordon Warnecke: My Beautiful Launderette), welcome her back with open arms when they discover they’re grandparents. But trouble lurks. Will Daniel come out publicly as her partner? Will Ralph tell his Mom he found his birth parent? And will Sid survive the stress of transition?

Venus is a very cute dramedy, one that shows pathos without too much treacle, and keeps you interested. And the cast is uniformly believable and endearing, especially the principals: Sanyal, Mayers and Cardinal.

RBG

Dir: Julie Cohen, Betsy West

In 1970s America it was not illegal to refuse women bank loans without a man’s signature, to fire them for being pregnant, to pay them less than men, to bar them from public schools, private clubs and other institutions… even for husbands to rape their own wives.

Enter noted lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Born in Brooklyn, she is one of few female students at Harvard Law in the 1950s which helps shape her legal outlook. She observes the oppression and panic of the Red Scare. She also experiences discrimination first hand, as she and other women are ignored by professors and barred from accessing archives. Later, she works for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)  and begins to challenge laws that discriminate against women, one at a time, through lawsuits. Many of her cases make it to the all-male Supreme Court, whose members understand civil rights on the basis of race, but can’t yet conceive of it on the basis of sex.

She teaches them what’s what.

Later this diminutive, shy woman becomes a law professor, a circuit judge in the Washington, D.C. Appeals Court and eventually a Supreme Court justice herself, often leading dissenting positions on the increasingly conservative court. More recently, in her eighties, she has been adopted by young feminist activists as a “rock star” or celebrity of sorts; an unusual role model for a youth-obsessed culture.

RBG is an interesting and informative – if conventional – look at her policies, her home life, her late husband, and her love of opera.

Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Dir: Sara Driver

It’s 1978 and New York is a bombed out city. Crime rates are soaring, the government is bankrupt, and poor neighbourhoods like the Lower East side are abandoned and crumbling. With hard times come big changes. Both Punk rock and hip hop culture are developing side by side, and into this incubator steps a 16 year old boy named Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Born in Brooklyn, the son of a Haitian Dad and a Puerto Rican mom, Jean Michel is homeless, kicked out for dropping out of high school. Now he’s couch-surfing in the lower east side, and becoming an artist. He expresses himself as SAMO, a graffiti artist. But instead of the bold, chunky murals and tags that cover the subways Jean-Michel scrawls pensive poetry and enigmatic thoughts using plain – though distinctive — letters. He later develops his images – childlike hearts, crosses, three pointed crowns, Batman and science books – and applies them to diverse media: everything from walls, to clothing, to refrigerator doors. He targets walls near Soho, so galleries will notice. He already thinks of himself as a superstar, just one who is not famous yet.

But Soho galleries don’t care much about youth, punk, hip hop or black culture in general. So the artists create their own spaces in a DIY mode. Still a teenager he attends seminal art happenings and events around the city, whether or not he is actually invited, spontaneously adding his art directly to gallery walls And he refines his distinctive look, with short dreads and a partly shaved skull.

Boom for Real is a brilliant documentary about an artist life before his incredible fame in the art boom of the 1980s and his untimely death. It situates him within an era: of Fab 5 Freddy and Planet Rock; Club 57 and the Mudd Club; Grafitti art, Jim Jarmusch, club kids and Quaaludes, fashion, music, rap and art. It’s the best sort of documentary, one that functions as a constantly-flowing oral history told by the people who were there. It shows a fantastic array of period photos, videos and images documenting Basquiat’s teenaged years. Even the closing credits are thoughtfully laid out.

Beautiful movie.

Venus, RBG, and Boom for Real all 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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