Art and deception. Films reviewed: Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, The Art of Self Defense, Push

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

The things you see online – or on TV for that matter – aren’t always true (suprised?). This week I’m looking at three movies, two docs and one dark comedy, about lies and deceptions. There’s a man who trains in the art of karate, a look at the art of selling lies, and a look at the lies of selling real estate.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies

Dir: Larry Weinstein

What is Propaganda? Is it art and literature? Or brainwashing and fake news? The word comes from a benign Catholic term meaning the propagation of faith, the planting the seeds. The Vatican opened a department of propaganda to counter Martin Luther’s austere reforms. It combined the opulance of baroque cathedrals, the lure of incense and all the lush frescos, paintings and marble statues you’ve seen. But art and magic and religion were around long before that, and so, says this documentary, was propaganda. Some historians trace it as far back as Neandrathal cave paintings.

Propaganda is easy to spot in other cultures but very hard to see in your own.  Many people were entanced by dictators like Hitler and Stalin thanks to their skillful use of films (like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) radio broadcasts and posters. But with the shift to digital culture, it has taken on new forms; like patently false news stories online, repeated ad infinitum, until people start to believe it.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies is a fun, light documentary that talks to a lot of artists and writers – Astra Taylor, Ai Weiwei and Kent Monkman – but also musicians, analysts and others. It shoots a constant barrage of propaganda at you, images from the past 100 years, shown in harsh black and white periodically blanketed in fields of red. A lot of it is familiar but there are also some bizarre juxtapositions you’ve never heard of: like the racing cars that now drive around the former Nazi Nuremberg Stadium. Or Laibach, a Slovenian band known for its fascistic costumes and images, who performed in North Korea before a concert hall of nonplussed party apparatchiks and university students. Very funny.

The Art of Self Defense

Wri/Dir: Riley Stearns

It’s the 1990s in small-town America. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a shy accountant who lives with his dachshund. He’s a 98-pound weakling who works in an office full of alpha males. But when he’s violently attacked by strangers on motorbikes he decides something has got to change. No more sand will be kicked in his face! He joins a local karate dojo with its own set of hierarchical rules. Everyone is ranked by their belt colour. There’s Anna (Imogen Poots) who teaches the kids class; get on her wrong side and she’ll beat you to a pulp. And at the top of the heap is Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

He says karate is not just a martial art, it’s a way of life. You must punch with your feet and kick with your hands. Casey is starry-eyed, and ready to do whatever Sensei tells him. You must become more masculine, he says.  Stop learning French, start learning German. And throw out those adult contemporary CDs; only listen to metal! Casey takes the blue pill. He leaves his job and devotes his life to karate. He worships Sensei, has a secret crush on Anna, and proudly displays his low-ranked yellow belt for all to see.

But something is not right. When he joins the mysterious night classes he is exposed to a violent world of hyper-masculinity he doesn’t subscribe to. He is asked to perform dubious tasks outside of the dojo. Is this place only about karate? Or is it a cult? And what is hidden behind Sensei’s secret door?

The Art of Self Defense is a low-budget, uncategorizable, odd sort of a movie, part dark comedy, part mystery, with a bit of violence and horror mixed in. It’s slow to develop, but picks up nicely about halfway through. It’s filled with wood paneling, old computers and ugly clothes from the 90s, which adds a humorous tinge. But It’s hard to tell whether it’s being satirical or straightforward, comic or scary. Jesse Eisenberg is totally believable as the wimpy accountant trying to become more manly, and Allessandro Nivola is good as the mysterious sensei.

Take it as a cautionary tale about the search for masculinity, self-confidence and the cult of martial arts and you’ll enjoy this dark comedy.

Push

Dir: Fredrik Gertten

There’s a housing crisis in the world’s cities and no one knows seems to know what’s going on. In Toronto there’s a shortage of affordable apartments, with stagnant wages, soaring rents and home prices quadrupling. Speculators are buying up land as a bankable commodity, something bought and sold, with little thought given to the people who live there. And in many cities entire blocks of housing sit empty, because rent income is dwarfed by what they can earn from the constant increase in value of the buildings themselves. What’s going on?

Enter Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. She’s a mom from Ottawa who travels around the world collecting data and advocating on behalf of tenants everywhere. She views housing not as an investment but as a right.

This documentary looks at the dire situation in the world’s cities – from Milan to Berlin, Seoul to Valpariaso – where people are facing the same situations: gentrification, renoviction, and the displacing of average- and low-income earners from the world’s cities.

It explores the role of organized crime in the housing crisis. They use property investment as a way of laundering money by over investing in legit properties, driving up demand and prices and hiding their illicit profits.

It looks at how the financial sector is turning housing into an investment commodity, with the people who live in them entirely erased from the equation. One particularly notorious player is Blackstone – founded by former Lehman Brothers execs – a voracious American property investment company that swooped into the real estate market after the stockmarket crash of 2008. Now they’re making money by buying up public housing for profit, while neglecting the people they were actually built for.

And it looks at the role of pensions, both government and private, which invest in housing to grow their capital, but, unintentionally, lead to skyrocketing prices and increasing homelessness.

Push is an incredibly important and informative documentary that explains in simple terms the economics, politics and effects of this crisis. It uses experts – like Joseph Stiglitz, Saskia Sassen and Roberto Saviano – to explain the reasons behind the crisis. But it also talks with ordinary people around the world. It shows the multiple, small-scale problems people face as well as the large-scale disasters, like the Grenfell Tower Fire in London. They are all related. And it’s the great Leilani Farha who is trying to confront these problems in a new way.

I recommend this doc.

Propaganda: The Art of Lies, Push, and The Art of Self Defense 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.

Daniel Garber speaks with Aram Rappaport about his new film Syrup

Posted in Advertising, comedy, Cultural Mining, Drama, Movies, Romantic Comedy, Suspicion, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on July 12, 2013

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

Next time you take a sip of pop or juice or an energy drink, think for a second:
Are you drinking something you like? Or is it something you’ve been told you like?

Well, there’s a new movie, a comedy/drama called SYRUP, that says marketing and brand names  are all that matter. The main character is a young guy who calls himself “Scat” (Shiloh Fernandez), who comes up with an idea for a new drink. He thinks it will make him millions of dollars… if he can convince a company to buy it.

But all he has is the name.

Aram Rappaport speaks to me by telephone from Chicago to tell us about his brash, funny, fast-moving film SYRUP that opens today in Toronto. (July 12, 2013)

Shiloh Fernandez and Amber Heard in SYRUP, a Magnolia Pictures release

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Yes and No. Films Reviewed: Yossi, No.

Posted in 1980s, Advertising, Chile, Cultural Mining, Death, Drama, Gay, Israel, Politics, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on March 18, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

This week I look at two foreign-language films, both dramas about men in their thirties with a tragic past but who may be able to find a better future. Both are dramas, one from Israel, the other from Chile.

YOSSIYossi

Dir: Eytan Fox

Yossi (Ohad Knoller) is a guy in his mid-thirties trying to deal with his buried past. When he served his compulsory duty in the Israeli army he had had a secret relationship with another soldier. His lover, Jagger, died in his arms, and he’s been living with that for the past decade.(This movie is a sequel to Fox’s Yossi and Jagger, which I haven’t seen yet.)

Now he’s a doctor, a cardiologist. He’s still in love with a dead man but is surrounded by sex, everywhere he looks. A pretty nurse he works with lets him now she’s ready to sleep with him. An aggressive and popular doctor he works with, Moti (Lior Ashkenazi), is determined to get him laid. Yossi is gay but in the closet, and fights off all the advances at work. But when he tries his hand at on-line pickups he finds gay life even more alienating and cruel than the false front he puts on at the hospital. He is crushed when a potential date rudely rejects him for putting up 3-year-old photos on his dating profile (which makes him even more self-conscious for having let himself gain a bit of weight).

When an older woman appears at his hospital, he recognizes her as his lover’s mother. But his attempt at closure — letting Jagger’s parents know the truth about his relationship with their dead son – doesn’t work out quite like he’d hoped. His work begins to suffer, his life feels meaningless, the world seems pointless and superficial. And when he flubs up an operation, he’s sent off for a paid vacation to “get better” from his depression.

He drives away. On the road, he meets a group of young soldiers, who remind him of his own friends a decade earlier. As a fellow veteran (possibly from the same company) he gives them a lift to a beach resort. And, since he enjoys their company, especially the well-groomed and witty Tom (Oz Zehavi), he decides to stay on.

Like the gay character in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, he spends his days staring longingly at the young men, especially the openly gay Tom splashing around in the swimming pool and on the beach. He sends off subtle hints of his “gayness”: he carries the book, Death in Venice, to the beach and listens to Mahler in public.YOSSI

But when Tom, never one for subtlety, hits on him, Yossi refuses to pick up on it or even acknowledge it. He won’t take off his shirt at the beach, and, in his blue funk, he can’t imagine anyone actually wanting or desiring him. Will Yossi ever come out of his shell?

This is a slow-moving, subtle, tender, (and somewhat depressing) follow-up to the director’s earlier drama Yossi and Jagger. It picks up where that film left off, but 10 years later. Not having seen that film, it’s hard for me to judge Yossi’s backstory, but for much of this movie, he seems so blah, so closed-to-the-world and flat and uninteresting that I wonder why all the other characters in the movie seem to be so sexually entranced by him, throwing themselves at him, left and right.

That’s not fair — he is actually a charming, modest and soft-spoken character, and by the end you do feel for him. Yossi is really two movies; the first is a troubling look at a depressed man facing his past. The second his possible start on a new course. The second half is much easier to take.

No_Poster_27x39_1SHT_a_smallNo!

Dir: Pablo Larrain

Augusto Pinochet was the notorious right-wing dictator of Chile since he toppled their government. The coup happened in 1973, when the military overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende. Backed by Operation Condor his government killed thousands of people, arrested 80,000, dropped lots of out of helicopters, torture, NO Gael Garcia Bernal 2arrest, forced disappearances…lost more things like that. Nice guy…

OK flash-forward 15 years to 1988. Things have calmed down, Chicago-School neo-liberal trade laws are taking off, and exports are thriving. Pinochet feels he is secure in his office, (he is fully in control) so, to polish up his international image he decides to have a referendum: Yes means he will continue; No means they will have a national, democratic election, the first since the coup.

This is where the movie begins.

NO Gael Garcia Bernal5As part of the plebescite, he offers 15 minutes of TV-time a day for the opposition (the NO side) to have their say. What this means is his government has (in addition to their own allotted 15 minutes for YES) another 11 hours and 45 minutes a day, since the military government and its corporate cronies have almost blanket control of the media. Except those 15 minutes. So official broadcasts are full of “happy patriotic Chileans” standing military-style outside the factories and fishing boats, waving to the Great Leader.

The No side needs to find someone to lead their campaign. But who would want to stick their neck out when it’s so easy to get your head chopped off? Instead, they go for a talented, apolitical, mainstream ad exec named Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal). Rene has his Chilean street creds – his parents were leftists who fled to Mexico after the coup – but here’s Rene back in Chile, living comfortably, with no chip on his soldier. He’s a skateboard riding Mexicano with a rattail in his hair (it’s the ’80’s).

The hardliners on the No side want to remind everyone of Pinochet’s crimes, the death, the killing, the persecution, the oppression, the disappeared. But Rene’s an ad-man at heart. Grief won’t sell. Sadness won’t sell. Death is anything but sexy.

He has to come up with something fun, satirical, humorous, hip. Despite the anger of the NO Gael Garcia Bernal 3persecuted who hired him, Rene wants a successful advertising campaign, above all. We need a jingle, he says.

It’s only once he’s deeper into the campaign, that he experiences, first hand, some of the frightening tactics of the dictator. His son is at risk, and he sees his (ex-)wife beaten at a public demonstration. And he’s especially vulnerable when he discovers his own boss, Lucho (Francisco Castro) at the ad agency, is actually leading the pro-Pinochet’s campaign. It becomes a personal competition not just a political one.

This is a fantastic movie that follows a historically important political event as it happens, but as seen through the eye of the TV commercials and their makers. The film itself is done in period 80’s style, complete with flaring video tape, blurry shots and a rectangular, TV-screen shape.

I saw No at TIFF last year, and found myself at the Chilean film reception. I remember casually asking an official there, part of the Chilean film industry, whether people in Chile prefer to say “Pino-shay”, like Canadians do, or “Pino-tchett”? Actually, she replied, most Chileans prefer to say that man’s name… as little as possible. (Gulp!).

No starts today, and Yossi opens next Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox – check your local listings. Also on now is the Toronto Irish Film Festival, and, starting next week, March 21-24 is the first ever water film festival – running documentaries about the crucial issue of H2O!. Go to Ecologos.ca for more details.

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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August 17th, 2012. Carpe Diem. Movies Reviewed: And If We All Lived Together?, Dimensions, This Space Available

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Advertising, Anthropology, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, France, TIFF, Time Travel, UK, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on August 17, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Carpe diem: seize the day. Sometimes, when facing seemingly insurmountable odds, you just have to face the problem head-on, and go ahead with your outrageous plans. This week I’m looking at three films; a French social comedy about a group of elderly friends don’t want to live in old-age homes; a documentary about activists confronting the proliferation of public advertising; and a British historical meta-drama about a group of young scientists in Cambridge who want to go back in time.

And If We All Lived Together?

Dir: Stéphane Robelin

A group of middle-class friends have held onto their bonds even in old age. But one of their number, Albert (Pierre Richard), seems to be slipping. He keeps an exquisite daily journal to keep track of events, but he’s never sure what year it is. And his wife, Jeanne (Jane Fonda), may be facing terminal cancer, but she’d rather pick out the most fashionable coffin she can find than to worry about surgery. So what will happen to Albert when she’s gone?

With the help of a leftist activist, Claude, and a couple, photographer Jean and Annie (Geraldine Chaplin), they decide to move in together, like college students in their first home. Meanwhile, after Albert hires Dirk, an anthro PhD student from Berlin, as a dog walker, he soon changes his ethnological thesis to look at the real lives of a distinct population: aging, white Europeans. So we get a birds-eye view of their sex lives, social lives, politics, and their long-buried secrets… which come to life again in their new close quarters.

What can I say? This is a sweet, gentle French comedy with excellent acting and realistic characters, including the sexuality of seniors. And you get to see Americans, Germans, and others happily acting in lovely, accented French.

Dimensions

Dir: Sloan U’Ren

Three children – Conrad, Steven and Victoria – are best friends, living in Cambridge in the 20s. They play by racing around willow trees, and dropping things into an extremely deep well. At a lawn party, they encounter a fascinating old professor who explains to them that time is not just something linear, like a piece of string, but also bendable, something that can be looped back again. He puts paper masks over their eyes with little slits in it to show what it’s like to live in two dimensions. We only have to learn to look outside our own restrictive masks, that trap humans in three dimensions. The three of them find it fascinating.

But when something terrible happens to Victoria, Conrad and Stephen become bitter rivals, riven with guilt.

The movie then jumps to the 1930s where they are working together again, with another woman, Annie, to build a functional time machine so they can stop history, and the tragic loss of their friend. If, as they suppose, in parallel universes all possible events might exist, then they should be able to escape the flawed one they live in. One of them must dive right in and change time. But who will it be? And might Victoria already be with them?

This is a fascinating and intricate meditation shaped into a meta-narrative, where the characters end up wondering whether they are emperors dreaming they’re butterflies or butterflies dreaming they’re emperors. It’s part drama, and part puzzle, filmed in period costume beside the University on the banks of the river Cam.

This Space Available
Dir: Gwenaëlle Gobé

Are billboards taking over the world? Sometimes it seems that way. Experts estimate that in 1984 Americans saw 2000 advertising images a day. And it’s tripled since then. Billboards, online banner ads, posters, pop-ups, and traditional commercials. Apparently Japanese advertisers have come up with urban digital screens that read your age and sex and change to target the viewer of the moment. And their ever growing sizes – sometimes illegally wrapping entire 30-storey buildings and turning them into city-sized ads – are becoming more and more common.

But what can we do to counter this? The documentary takes a look at activists around the world and what they’re doing to stop this. It was shot around the world, in Tokyo, Bombay, Moscow, Sao Paolo and across North America.

Graffiti artists slightly alter messages to change them from ads to dire statements. In Toronto, artist activists are replacing crass paper posters on kiosks and in bus shelters with beautiful, translucent prints, paintings and conceptual installations. And local politicians – in places like Houston and Sao Paolo – ban billboards altogether, exposing long hidden parks, spectacular architecture, and breathtaking urban vistas, lost for decades.

But what about freedom of speech? US court rulings have stated, you have no right to illegally post billboards; just the right to post what you want once given legal permission to use the space. But in reality, the bigger the company, the less likely to be fined for illegal postings.

This is a good introduction both to the value and the harm of outdoor visual and sound advertising and how it has changed our lives.

And If We All Lived Together and This Space Available open today in Toronto, And Dimensions will be showing for one night only, August 18th. check your local listings. And it’s only three weeks until TIFF — North America’s biggest film festival and one of the most important ones in the world. Ticket packages are still available, including ones for students and seniors.

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

April 6, 2012. The Dispassionate Eye. Movies Reviewed: Images Festival, Strawberry Tree, The Pettifogger PLUS Bully v. Fightville

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

…I’m back again with some movie reviews. As I’ve said, springtime is film festival time. You can catch the Toronto Film Society’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” weekend at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto starting on May 11th, for a chance to see B&W film noir and other classics from the 1940’s, like Suspicion, The Big Sleep, The Glass Key and Double Indemnity.

And starting this Wednesday is the unique and amazing Images Media Arts Festival. Images is North America’s biggest festival of art-driven film and videos, including live performances, gallery installations, and, of course, movies. It’s their 25th anniversary, so you can see new and innovative work, as well as work shown their first year, way back in the 80’s. The Festival opens with John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, and closes with a live performance by Yo La Tenga.

The Strawberry Tree

Dir: Simone Rapisarda Casanova

This film is filled with mundane but lovely composed views of life in a small, Cuban fishing village. Scenes range from repairing fishing nets, and fish teeming underwater, and the slaughter of a goat in real time, to a woman peeling plantains, or  a man performing card tricks at a kids’ party.

The director’s camera is an unmoving, dispassionate observer set up on the floor, usually at a distance from the people he’s filming. But the posture of an artist’s indifference is challenged and exposed by the constant patter of the film’s subjects: sexual banter, casual insults, joking stories and comments often involving the artist by name. They talk about his jewelry, make fun of his accent, his attitude, his looks, his wealth, and the way they think his life must like in Canada. And they talk about the film itself and how it distorts – positively or negatively — the way it makes them look.

The calm beauty of the film is balanced with the knowledge (from the very first frame) that everything we see was later wiped away by a hurricane that flattened the village after the film was made.

This is a gorgeous and often funny impression of small town life in Cuba.

To get in the mood for the festival, on Wednesday, the day before Images begins, there’s an amazing free screening of:

The Pettifogger

Dir: Lewis Klahr

This is kind of an art-film, kind of a mood-narrative, about an early sixties gambler. It’s filled with noir-ish newspaper comics, film stills, and found objects like buttons, poker chips, and plastic sword-shaped toothpicks. Everything leads back to hardboiled tough guys — men who wear hats — and their femmes fatales. Using cut-out style animation, Klahr manipulates the collage images across the screen in jerky jumps.

So suspicious comic-strip detectives can be seen peeking through the glassine windows of manila envelopes. Two jacks from a  poker deck do an angry, sullen standoff before skulking off screen again. And everywhere are the bright, coloured icons of that Man’s World: cigarettes, mickeys of scotch, license plates, greenbacks, with hearts and spades, all floating around on the screen. The “bars” of the one armed bandits detach themselves and become coloured bars blocking or censoring the stories he tells… and in the background, sounds of traffic, thunderstorms and ever-suspicious dialogue from radio potboilers.

Check out The Strawberry Tree and Pettifogger at Images, all starting next week.

Last week, I left this studio and saw, a stone’s throw away at Queen’s Park, a protest against bullying. That’s nice, I thought, They’re against teenaged bullying. Until I got closer — it was a pro-bullying demonstration! A what? That’s like a protest against puppies! Apparently, fundamentalist, right wing religious groups object to the new anti-bullying law because it involves teaching about sexuality in public high schools, and calls for allowing “gay-straight alliance” support groups to be started in government-funded schools — in order to help many of the kids who are being driven to suicide by this very bullying. It seems there are people who want to keep bullying just as it is now…

Which brings me  two documentaries opening this weekend, Bully (dir: Lee Hirsch), which is getting a lot of attention, and Fightville (dir: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker), both of which I saw at last year’s HotDocs.

Bully is about bullying, Fightville is about Mixed Martial Arts.

So which is the better documentary?

It’s hard to admit, but Fightville is just a much better doc. Although it’s much more commercial in its style, its characters are more interesting, it’s camera work more pleasing, the storyline (two young fighters trying to become pros vs. five high school students who get bullied) more engaging and dynamic. The problem is Bully, which follows five bullied kids around for a year, has the feeling of a fundraiser, a charity infomercial  (the sort of thing you find yourself watching on cable TV at 5 am on a Sunday morning.) It’s bland and it’s slow and it’s a little bit boring. It doesn’t really offer many solutions. And I was left with the impression that the filmmaker intentionally tried to make one poor kid, Alex, (who has a slightly “unusual”-looking face from certain angles), look odder than he really was. Which in my mind is “movie bullying”.

Does this mean bullying (as an issue) is less important than a bloody, competitive sport? Of course not! It’s just that Fightville is a better film than Bully. I often talk about movies with “good taste” versus movies that “taste good”.  But it looks like I’ve been neglecting a third category. Bully is “good for you”. Like brussels sprouts.

Opening this weekend are Lovers in a Dangerous Time, a low budget, pretty, romantic Canadian drama; Pettifogger and the Strawberry Tree (go to Imagesfestival.com) and the docs Fightville and Bully.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

Sept 9, 2011. TIFF it! I Am a Good Person, I Am a Bad Person, Melancholia PLUS TIFF

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

If this is your first listen to my show from U of T, or maybe you just arrived in Toronto for the first time, or if you’re an alien that just landed from another planet, and if you saw me a couple days ago standing on a streetcar with my back stiff, one hand posed dramatically in the air, the other supporting the back of a nineteen year old women, you might wonder… what’s going on and what’s he doing on a streetcar. And that’s a good question, and one that could only be asked in a place like Toronto.

You see, each year, right about now, a strange confluence of people meet and interact in the city’s downtown for about a week, making for some very strange and wonderful combinations. Because, right now, TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, is opening its curtains and lighting up its screens and walls right across the city. So what that means is some three hundred movies from around the world – including countries like France, Japan, China, India, Russia, South Africa, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, Latin America, and The US, Australia, Canada and The UK – in a dozen different genres are being shown, both to people working in the film industry, who want to buy sell or publicize their pictures, and the general public, who want to see the films and take in some of the glamour and excitement of seeing World and North American premiers of this and next year’s best movies.

There are red carpet entrances to many of the screenings, and usually a director — and often actors, writers and production staff – stay after the fill to answer questions from the audience. What started as a place where Torontonians could watch films that had already played in Berlin, Cannes, Venice, gradually turned into a festival that eclipses most of the others as the most important one in North America, and vying for the title internationally. It also has a spanking new building where many of the films are being shown called the Tiff Bell Lightbox, (on King St between Peter and John) which is really an exciting place to be. Strangers talk to each other – something that’s not usually done in straightlaced Toronto – about movies, about what they’re seeing, about what’s good and what sucks. A couple years ago I was chatting candidly with the woman beside me, and then she got up and sat on the stage to interview filmmaker of the movie we had just seen. I won’t reveal any names, but lets just say she’s had a bit of trouble with a Broadway musical involving a superhero. Yeah, her.

Anyway, while all the people converging on the downtown around the Lightbox and the Hyatt on King St West, I was on my way there, when I saw the other group involving huge numbers arriving from around the globe – the “freshers”. First year Unoversity students at one of the city’s many universities and colleges. They’ve taken to wearing ugly coloured T-shirts with strange electro-designs and unreadable slogans (I guess they’re all in-jokes) as they shout unrecognizable chants as the rush around in huge groups following the orders of some tuff girl with a megaphone.

Then they offer to sine your shoes, or play the tuba, or just stand, dazedly staring off into space as they are surrounded by others in the Wrong Coloured T-shirt! So, there I was making my way to the TIFF press office when I was swarmed by a bunch of freshers who implored I pose pretending to be a ballet teacher (Me? Not bloody likely!) giving a lesson on a streetcar, pose for a snap, and then all of them rushing away for the next task on their scavenger hunt.

So, freshers, I implore you all – task number 379 is to stand in a rush line at one of the TIFF screenings and then tell your friends about the movie you saw. And TIFF goers? Skip one reception and attend a beer pong party instead, just for one night. See what happens…

OK, here are some of the movies I’ve seen so far, and what better way to begin TIFF than with a meta-movie about an avant-garde filmmaker taking her film on the film festival circuit.

I Am a Good Person, I Am a Bad Person

Dir: Ingrid Veninger

Ruby (Ingrid Veninger) is a Yoko Ono-style experimental artist who has made a movie called Headshots, which is basically a series of close-ups of men’s penises. She’s about to leave Toronto with her disaffected daughter Sara (played by her real daughter Hallie Switzer) to show the film at a series of European film festivals. But before she leaves, she gives her husband what is probably the most un-erotic depiction of a blowjob ever on film. Headshots indeed.

Sara ends up acting like the disapproving mother while Ruby, (with her cinched-back hair and fake glasses) is desperately trying to get laid, be cool, and find satisfaction amongst the cold, bored audiences at the festivals. Finally, it’s too much. Sara heads off to Paris to stay with her aunt, leaving her nervous mom to face Berlin alone. Both of them carry secrets burning inside, and they have to work up the courage to face them before they meet up again.

While lacking the sweetness of young love present in her last  film, Modra, I Am a Good Person… makes up for it in this meta-film satire that skewers both art films and film festivals without straying too far from Veninger’s great, hyper-realistic style. This movie’s a fine way to start up that festival feeling.

Melancholia

Dir: Lars Von Trier

Justine and Claire are Yin&Yang sisters. Blonde, beautiful and talented Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is an advertising copywriter who just got married, but managed to show up late for her own wedding party. The dark, shy, anglo-french-sounding Claire (Charloote Gainsbourg) sometimes really hates her sister, but feels a need to nurture her, heal her, to bring her back to life.

Because Justine is depressed, and feels her life Is a sham. Despite the grand wedding banquet — beside an 18 hole golf course, complete with sandtraps and, strangely, a telescope — her divorced parents are embarrassing, her boss is relentlessly bugging her for a tag line, even at the wedding, and her husband’s a naïve hick who thinks he can cure her by showing pictures of apple trees. But Justine’s life is much grander than all of this.

You see, she can feel that the errant planet Melancholia is heading for earth and may destroy everything in just a few days. Even riding horses won’t cure her. Claire’s optimism is also slipping away as the planet moves closer and closer. Will the world end? Or will Melancholia swerve away?

I dunno. After last years shocking movie Antichrist, Von Trier’s depiction of the meaningless of modern lives feels funny, but that isn’t enough. What should have been a pre-apocalyptic psycho-drama felt slow, repetative and drawn out. It’s hard to carry a 2 hour movie using a one-trick-pony.

TIFF runs for the next ten days: Tickets are still available — for more information, go to tiff.net .

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

Fighters! Hotdocs Documentaries Reviewed, 2011. Better This World, Fightville, Open Secret, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! PLUS Alan Zweig

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

Toronto’s Hotdocs, which starts today, is one of the best documentary festivals in the world.

It features recent docs, including Canadian and world premiers, as well as exceptional films from the past. This year the festival is running a retrospective of Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig’s work, including favourites like I, Curmudgeon and Vinyl, as well as the excellent and moving A Hard Name which follows the difficult lives of seven ex-cons released back into the city.

Many documentaries are about people facing a conflict; they choose either to fight it or to learn to accept it. Today I’m going to talk about movies playing at Hotdocs — films about fighters, people who like to fight, and people who are fighting the Powers That Be; and others who take the opposite route, the path of least resistance.

Better this World

Dir: Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega

When I read about stories like the seven guys in Miami who were arrested for conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago for Osama bin Laden – even though they’ve never even been to Chicago and have no connection with Al Qaeda; or the Somali-American  kid in Portland Oregon labeled as a Christmas Tree Bomber; or the Toronto 18 who were accused of plotting to blow up the Parliament building, I start to wonder how big a role did the government informants play in these stories, and whether anything at all would have happened had it not been for the government instigator.

Two young, idealistic best friends David McKay and Brad Crowder, who grew up in Midland, Texas, went to Minneapolis to protest the Republican Convention two years ago. You might have seen the footage of the police there clubbing, tear gassing and arresting hundreds of protestors, students and even journalists, while, inside the buildings, people like Sarah Palin were talking to sea of middle-aged, white, soon-to-be tea-partiers. Well, within the crowd outside were three guys – the two young best friends, and a supposed radical, Brandon Darby. The two friends were arrested by the FBI and called criminals and anarchist-terrorists, mainly by the much older FBI informant, Darby, who claimed they were there to blow up people – including sleeping policemen – using Molotov cocktails as part of their anti-war demonstrations.

This movie explores the events leading up to Brad and David’s arrests and the subsequent trials, including the use of government informants to create the supposed conspiracy, push it toward some yet-to-happen act of violence, and to entrap them into saying aloud some hypothetical phrase of intention.

This is an excellent — though at times extremely disheartening – documentary about how governments manufacture to order “criminals” where none previously existed, merely to fit into their quota of “War on Terror” political prisoners. Makes you want to cry…

Another type of fighter are the ones featured in the movie

Fightville

Dir: Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

Directors of the fantastic Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace and its good sequel How to Fold a Flag are again dealing with young, poor American men; in this case, aspiring Mixed Martial Arts fighters from Lousiana.

Also called cage fighting or Ultimate Fighting, MMA has a reputation as an extremely violent sport akin to pro wrestling, without any referees, where the two fighters kick, punch, and beat each other up until one is nearly dead. This is its mythology, but none of it’s true. It’s actually safer than heavyweight boxing – the fighters wear smaller, lighter gloves, though because of the nature of the sport, does lead to small cuts and bruises, but not to the head injuries you get in boxing. It’s played in closely refereed rounds, with a match ending with a knockout, one player’s submission, or by a judgement. It looks like a combination of boxing, grappling, Brazilian jujitsu, muai thai kick boxing, and traditional wrestling down on the mat. In my opinion it’s the most interesting kind of fighting to watch, since it involves so many skills and so much training and strategy on the parts of the fighters.

This beautifully shot movie dispels the myths about Mixed martial arts, as it follows two amateur fighters, Dustin and Albert, as they try to make it from an amateur farm team to professional status. Will either of them make it to the pros? While not that dramatic a sports story, Fightville takes you behind the scenes, through all the stages of training and preparation for a fight, and shows Dustin and Albert both in their ordinary lives, and within the ring, with all the glamour and excitement that comes from an actual match.

Open Secret

Dir: Steve Lickteig

Steve Lickteig, an NPR brodcaster, grew up on a Kansas farm and lived his whole life knowing that he was adopted… but not knowing the open secret about his birth parents. The movie investigates his search for the truth that he was never told about as a child.

His oldest brothers and sisters were sworn to secrecy, and the younger ones were kept in the dark. The movie reveals part of the open secret in the first few minutes of the movie, so it’s no spoiler to say that he was actually an older sister’s child, and his parents were really his grandparents.

The movie follows him returning to his family – his sister/mother, and his parents aka grandparents. He also wants to know the truth about who his father was, what the reasons were for the strange arrangement, and more about his actual birth parents, his background, and whether he has other relatives.

Open Secret is above all a family memoir with the various members fighting and arguing, holding grudges, or reconciling, meeting or refusing to meet. If you’re into these types of daytime TV family stories, or if you’re familiar with the NPR personality who made it, then this is a good movie for you, but I have to say it didn’t do much for me.

Let’s move away now from fighting, resisting, and quarrelling and toward the opposite spectrum, to movies about buying into the system and going with the flow.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Dir: Morgan Spurlock

I can’t stand product placement on TV or in movies – it’s a pet peeve. Whether it’s as banal as working a brand name into an answer on Jeopardy!, or the ubiquitous Mac laptop magically appearing in most movies, it’s annoying, obnoxious, and intrusive. So Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock decided to make a movie in which every scene, every shot, and even the movie’s title itself, would have at least one product placement in it – and he would use product placement both to pay for the movie, and to provide its plot. It’s a very amusing, fast paced, and light comic take on advertising. Some of its cleverest moments is where he interviews people like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader about product placement, without them realizing there’s a brand name – a shoe, an underarm deodorant, a soft drink – appearing right beside them. And just because you know it’s there, it doesn’t mean it’s not working. Honest to God, I walked out of this movie with a strange desire to buy a bottle of pomegranate juice!

In a similar vein, and just as entertaining, is the Canadian documentary

Recessionize! For Fun and Profit!

Dir: Jaime Kastner

In a tongue-in-cheek look at the present-day grim effects of the economic meltdown and the recession that followed it, Kastner decides to look at the bright side instead. There’s money to be made out there, even in bad times, so he tracks down some unusual people adapting to the new economic realities. One of the more clever ones include a smartly dressed and perfectly coiffed woman who lives in a deluxe mansion with her family. The catch? She’s only there to make it look lived-in for potential real-estate buyers, and will have t move out the moment it’s sold. What does her teenaged son think about living in a place that has to be kept spotless? He says it’s major OCD territory!

And there’s also a great French guest house where people who feel their career is a rat-race can live for a weekend like a hamster, running in a giant wheel! Recessionize! is a lot of fun – an amusing, up-beat and fast-paced, TV style variety documentary.

The Hotdocs festival runs from Thursday April 28th to May 8th, and is free – no charge! – for rush seats during the day for anyone with a Student or Senior ID. Check this out online hotdocs.ca I think everyone should try to see at least one documentary, and Hotdocs is the best place to see them.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining dot com.

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