Black History. Films reviewed: A United Kingdom, I Am Not Your Negro

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Africa, African-Americans, Apartheid, documentary, Drama, France, Gay, Racism, Romance, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on February 24, 2017

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

It’s Black History Month, so I’m looking at some historical movies that fit the profile. There’s a British drama about forbidden love and a united kingdom, and a French documentary about a writer’s look at African Americans in the divided United States.

A UNITED KINGDOMA United Kingdom

Dir: Amma Asante

It’s London in the 1950s. Ruth (Rosamund Pike) is an attractive, professional woman who lives with her parents. One night she meets a handsome student from Oxford at a dance. After a few dates he reveals he’s a prince, destined to become the king of a far off country called Bechuanaland. They fall in love, decide to marry, and move there… it’s like a fairy tale. But they face one problem. Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is black, and Ruth is white. This doesn’t A UNITED KINGDOMmatter much to them, but it does to the people around them.

Ruth’s parents are dead set against it, and as a mixed race couple they face abuse and even violence from strangers on the streets of London. In Bechuanaland, a British protectorate in Southern Africa, Seretse also faces trouble. He’s going against tradition by not choosing a wife from his own tribe. His uncle, the current Regent, objects strongly. And then there’s Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a highly-placed diplomat in the foreign service. He’s condescending, snotty, racist and sexist – he A UNITED KINGDOMassumes Ruth works in a typing pool (because she’s a woman) when she’s actually an underwriter at Lloyds of London. And he has ulterior motives.

Bechuanaland (now Botswana) is a British protectorate completely surrounded by Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South Africa and South-West Africa (Namibia). Since 1948, South Africa has been under apartheid rules which make it illegal for whites and blacks to marry. For the king of Bechuanaland to openly flout these racist laws might undermine South A UNITED KINGDOMAfrica’s legitimacy. South Africa is a commonwealth member and the region is a huge source of mineral wealth for multinationals. Under current laws, Seretse and Ruth are not legally permitted to share a drink in a restaurant… in the land he’s supposed to rule!

Politics is strange. Seretse is forced into exile, while Ruth – and their new baby – remain in Africa. Can Ruth and Seretse win the trust of their countrymen? Can they win the sympathy of the British public? Can they bring justice and prosperity to a remote arid country? And can love hold a separated family together?

A United Kingdom is a historical drama, with equal helpings of romance and British parliamentary politics. It’s based on a true story I knew nothing about. Although it ends abruptly, it has a surprisingly fascinating story. I liked this movie.

3ea9d0fe-c6c6-4980-9ef1-727cc28d7b96I Am Not Your Negro

Dir: Raoul Peck (Written by James Baldwin)

James Baldwin was an African American writer, the author of Notes of a Native Son, and novels like Giovanni’s Room. Born in Harlem he took part in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. But because of the racism and potential violence he faced in America he left for Paris where he spent most of his life. He joined the expat community there, including Nina Simone and Josephine Baker. He wanted to be known not as a black writer,  not as a gay writer, but 6bbac4d9-bdd8-4d22-aae4-fa76fe7ab6a0as a writer.

This film follows Baldwin’s writings on three important figures in the struggle for civil rights: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,

They represented, respectively, the NAACP, Black Muslims, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. All three were spied on and harassed by the FBI and labeled “dangerous”, and all three were assassinated before the age of 40.

Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Baldwin looks back at their stories and his encounters with them, but also sets himself apart. He’s not a Muslim, not a Christian, not a member of the NAACP or the Black Panther Party.

The title, I Am Not Your Negro, is Baldwin’s central point. The story of the Negro in America, he says, is the story of America, and it’s not a pretty story. It’s a history of violence and racism.There is no difference between the North and South, Baldwin says, just the way you castrate us. He covers slavery, lynching, segregation, and incarceration. And the film neatly connects the slaying of Medgar Evers by a white supremacist with current racist murders, like the deaths of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin

4357c413-cb69-4edf-841e-9d3ce1e5660b Samuel L Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s prophetic words alternates with Baldwin’s own voice: on the Dick Cavett show and at the Cambridge Debates. Baldwin – and director Peck — tells his story with a barrage of Hollywood images. From the pink-scrubbed face of a dancing Doris Day, to John Wayne’s 7f8cc584-e699-49bc-ba66-791cb899b7f5confidence in killing native Americans. Baldwin recalls his childhood shock at a John Wayne Western when he realized he’s not the “cowboy”, he’s the “Indian”.

I Am Not Your Negro is about the fear and violence faced by African Americans. It’s a terrific documentary, a cinematic essay told through the masterful use of period still images. These are not the photos and clips you’re used to but jaw-dropping, newfound pictures. There’s lush nighttime footage and a fantastic juxtapositions of words and images. (The film reminds me of the work Adam Curtis.) It’s nominated for an Oscar for best documentary.

A United Kingdom and I Am Not Your Negro both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening this weekend: if you’re a cat person, there’s Kedi, about the street cats of Istanbul; or if you’re a zombie or a zombie-lover, there’s the wonderful horror movie The Girl with all the Gifts (read the review here).

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

Daniel Garber talks with director Simon Stadler about Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi

Posted in Africa, Anthropology, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Germany, Travel by CulturalMining.com on December 25, 2016

14124088_1073052289410123_769607674_oHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM

The Ju/’Hoansi are a people living in the Kalahari desert for millennia. They feed themselves as hunters and gatherers with minimal contact with outside groups. But not so long ago, hunting wild animals in the bush was banned in Namibia (in Southwest Africa.) Deprived of their livelihood, they were forced to turn to tourism to earn money selling handicrafts and posing for pictures. And the white tourists – known as ghostpeople – flocked in from all over. Later, some members of the village were shown other parts of Namibia, and four of them taken to Europe, a land filled with ghosts.

Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi is a new feature documentary that ghostland5follows the four as they discover Europe, teach people there how to live as they do, and carry some of the wealth and technology they encounter back home to their families in the Kalahari. It is directed by Simon Stadler, a prizewinning filmmaker and known for his background in anthropology. I spoke with Simon in Germany by telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM studio.

The film opens on Christmas Day at Toronto’s Hot Docs cinema.

 

 

Daniel Garber talks to Canadian director Clement Virgo about his miniseries The Book of Negroes

Posted in Africa, Canada, Cultural Mining, Drama, TV by CulturalMining.com on January 9, 2015

The Book Of NegroesHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s the late 18th century. Aminata Diallo, a young girl in West Africa, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American colonies. Later, during the Revolutionary war, the British crown promise freedom to all blacks who fight on their side. The British lose the war, but afterwards the loyalists are allowed to emigrate to Nova Scotia. But they face being re-enslaved unless they can prove their identity. So the multilingual Mina Diallo is enlisted to record the loyalists names in a crucial ledger so the men and woman can hold on to their hard-won freedom. The book where she writes the names is titled The Book Of Negroes.

The Book of Negroes is also the name of a new, epic drama now airing on CBC television. Based on the novel by Laurence Hill, it traces the story of Mina, tossed and turned by the vagaries of slavery and war across three continents, as she struggles to establish herself as a free woman and a woman in love. The miniseries is directed and co-written by award-winning Toronto filmmaker Clement Virgo, known for his films on boxing, sex, and identity.

I spoke to Clement in Toronto by telephone. He talks about the series’ characters, Roots, The Pianist, slavery, the Holocaust, women, war, The Wizard of Oz, Black Loyalists, Nova Scotia, the “N” word, empowerment, South Africa, Someone Knows My Name, and more.

Daniel Garber speaks with musicians Volker Goetze and Ablaye Cissoko about Volker’s new documentary GRIOT

Posted in Africa, Cultural Mining, documentary, Movies, Music, Senegal, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on October 24, 2013
photoHi! This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining,com and CIUT 89.54 FM.
In West Africa — in countries like Senegal,  Gambia, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinee, Niger, and parts of Nigeria —
every village traditionally had a town speaker or storyteller. They announce special occasions like births, weddings, and even wars and battles. They tell fables and tales, parables and jokes, lore that was passed on from generation to generation.
The storyteller is known as the griot (or griotte) and is the subject of a new documentary. It looks at theAmanke_Dionti_COVER griot in Senegal, including Ablaye Cissoko, a hereditary griot and a musician who plays the kora.
Griot is both a fascinating subject and a beautifully musical film to look at and listen to.
I speak with director/musician Volker Goetze and griot/musician Ablaye Cissoko about the role of the griot (Volker provides the translations). The film opens today, as does their musical tour of Canada.

Run Silent, Run Deep? Movies Reviewed: La Pirogue, Lovelace

Posted in Africa, Cultural Mining, Drama, drugs, Migrants, Movies, Penis, Porn, Psychology, Refugees by CulturalMining.com on August 18, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.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.

People leave their homes for different reasons. Some people are tied down by their pasts, held back by their parents. They’ll never succeed unless they can break free. Others are content, but feel they’ll missing out on something better, their destinies unfulfilled, unless they move away. But the grass isn’t always greener…

This week, I’m looking at two movies about people who go out into the world to seek a better life, but find their new world may be worse than what they left behind. One’s a realistic drama from Senegal about a journey across deep waters; the other’s a US biopic, about a movie called Deep Throatthe

Lapirogue_ArtMattanProductions_01_mediumLa Pirogue

Dir: Moussa Touré

Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) is a fisherman who plies the waters off Senegal looking for the next catch. He has a pretty good life, with a beautiful wife, and a nice home. He even dabbles in sponsoring fighters at public matches. He goes on fishing trips for weeks at a time in his long, wooden boat. But there’s hasn’t been a good catch for ages.

In walks a sleazy, but rich, local entrepreneur. He needs a ship captain to ferry a fishing boat to the coast of Spain. It’ll only take a week – much shorter than his normal trips. But this is no pleasure cruise. Baye’s pirogue – a deep, wooden canoe – won’t be hauling seafood. The cargo will be two dozen hopeful migrants.

He refuses. It’s illegal, dangerous, and immoral. But there are crowds of men in aA scene from THE PIROGUE, directed by Moussa Touré. Courtesy o corrugated shack on the beach, all waiting for him to take them to Europe. Young men want to experience western culture, up close. Join a world cup football team, or just buy an iPhone. A disabled man needs to buy a prosthetic limb Others have family, lovers or jobs waiting for them there. He finally agrees, when he discovers that his fishing navigator — and even his own brother – are going to Spain the next day, with or without him. And so begins the journey.

But there’s trouble from the start. A stowaway leads to talk of mutiny. And ethnic tensions emerge: There are national splits – with Fulani refugees from Guinea who have never been the ocean; battling ethnic groups who don’t speak a common language; and devout Muslims – contrasted with their sophisticated, hard-drinking cousins. The pirogue itself is built for piles of fish not crowds of people.

A scene from THE PIROGUE, directed by Moussa Touré. Courtesy oAs tension builds, they gag a panic-stricken man with only a chicken to keep him company. Someone breaks the ceremonial bottle. And another pirogue they encounter in the ocean does not bode well for their future. Things reach a crisis after a big storm washes away the GPS and disables one of the engines. Without much fuel, or even drinking water left, they are faced with a dilemma. Do they continue toward Spain? Or do they let the tides take them to Brazil?

La Pirogue is a good story, well told and nicely shot.  For once, there’s a movie told by the migrants themselves. Director Toure takes a few stylistic leaps, everything from the excellent opening in a public square, to an unusual (and oddly mannered) sex scene. And I love the complex rhythms of Salam Diallo’s music. Worth seeing.

lovelaceLovelace

Dir: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

It’s the early 70s in Florida. The sex and drug revolution is happening, man! Everyone wears loud clothes and listens to wooka-wooka music. Men battle each other for the worst facial hair combos and the biggest collars. Even the fonts are fat. (In the opening credits, the movie title gets an erection.) In the midst of all this is young Linda (Amanda Seyfried), a cute, freckled girl with dark curls. Her conservative and Catholic parents (Sharon Stone, Robert Patrick), had whisked Linda down south to hide her pregnancy. They want to bring her up right and whip her back into shape. She just wants a tan.

Soon enough, Linda meets the much older Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard) a bartender with ambition. They marry, and before you know it, Linda is Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat. This is a porn movie about a woman who can only reach an orgasm by giving head who meets a man with a large penis. All these topics were very taboo at the time – oral sex was never openly discussed. Suddenly, the film is a crossover hit  (this is when porn was still watched in movie theatres) a blockbuster, a cultural meme before the term existed. Even the Watergate whistleblower – the man who brought down the Nixon government – called himself “Deep Throat”.

She rises to the top, with instant stardom and notoriety. There are scenes of lovelace d1 _155.NEFporn in-production, meeting celebs like Hugh Heffner, and the glamour of talk shows and Hollywood life. It’s a campy, over-the-top look at those wacky, zany days of porn. Except it’s not.

Halfway through, the movie does a complete about face. Suddenly it’s a deadly serious drama, based on Lovelace’s autobiography: how she was raped at gun point, forced to do abominable things, kept under close watch by her evil husband Chuck. She does an extended tell-all to daytime TV host Phil Donohue.

So does it work? Combining these two very different feelings within one movie? In a word, no! In fact it fails miserably. This is one of the worst movies of the year, a painfully awful mistake.

How could so many famous stars – Adam Brody, James Franco, Hank Azaria, Eric Roberts, Juno Temple – make such a monstrously bad movie? Seyfried plays Lovelace well, and doesn’t lose her way, but Sarsgaard is unbelievably bad as Chuck. Just dreadful. (And what’s with actors throwing phones? Denzel in “Flight”, Sarsgaard in this movie? – it’s a sure sign an actor is losing it and the movie is going to suck.) Even the directors – who made that excellent documentary bio of Harvey Milk – what were they thinking?

Lovelace is like a two course meal – first a stale Hostess Twinkie… closely followed by a plate of excrement. It’s like a slapstick look at the Rwanda massacre. Watch it at your own risk.

Lovelace is playing now, and La Pirogue opens today at the TIFF Bell Light Box 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

Exotica. Movies Reviewed: Hotel Lux, The Rabbi’s Cat, To the Wonder

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Africa, Algeria, Animation, Berlin, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Comics, Germany, Kremlin, Romance, Uncategorized, US, USSR by CulturalMining.com on April 19, 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.

Images and Toronto Jewish Film Festival continue on through this weekend, with Hot Docs just around the corner. This week I’m looking at movies about people travelling to exotic lands. There’s a German screwball comedy about an actor who escapes the Nazis only to find himself in the heart of Stalin’s Moscow; a French animated film about a group of travellers from Algiers looking for a lost city; and an American romance about a woman from Paris looking for love in America.

Hotel_LuxHotel Lux

Dir: Leander Haussmann

It’s Berlin in the 1930s. The comedy team Zeisig and Meyer (Michael Herbig and Jurgen Vogel) work at a successful cabaret, playing Stalin and Hitler. But their livelihood is threatened when the Nazi’s come to power, and political satire is no longer tolerated. An undercover Dutch communist, Frida, suddenly appears, and Zeisig, a notorious lothario, is smitten. Meyer goes into hiding, but Zeisig sees no reason to run. But eventually he must. He flees Berlin with fake papers and the name of a Moscow landmark: the Hotel Lux. Outside, it’s a stately building with a spinning red star on the roof. Inside it’s a rat-infested heap. And what he doesn’t realize is it’s also the epicenter of Stalinism, a hotel filled with the hardcore German communists in exile.

Every conversation is bugged. People are constantly dragged out of their rooms by a diminutive NKVD agent and accused of the worst possible crime: Trotskyism! And, due to a series of strange coincidences and mistaken identities, Zeisig, the Stalin impersonator, finds himself in meetings with Stalin himself. And his old friends, Meyer and Frida, both end up in Hotel Lux, too.

How will Zeisig get out if this mess? Will he have an influence on Stalin’s decisions? Will his true identity be discovered? And will Frida ever like him?

Like an Austrian comedy set in the same era, My Best Enemy, this movie doesn’t have any grave meanings or deep philisophyt to impart. Rather, it’s a fantasy set against a backdrop of the troubled thirties. Hotel Lux is just a cute, old-fashioned screwball comedy, with its history and politics filtered through the eyes of post-reunification Germany.

The_Rabbis_CatThe Rabbi’s Cat

Dir: Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar (based on his graphic novels)

It’s 1920s in Algiers, part of the North African colony annexed by France. (It’s inhabited by Arabic-speaking Muslims and Jews, and their French speaking rulers.) Rabbi Safr lives with his beautiful but fiery daughter Zlabiya. But there normal life is interrupted by some strange things. His cat suddenly begins to speak, and wants to have religious debates. The dead body of a blond Russian man appears in a wooden crate of prayer books sent from Europe. And a cousin, who travels with a huge lion comes for a visit. The Rabbi Safr, accompanied by a Muslim sheikh, also named Safr, a Chagal-like artist, and an aristocratic white Russian, set off on a road journey in a Citroen. They are on a quest through northeast Africa to find an ancient hidden city, an African Jerusalem, the legendary land of giant Black- African Jews.

On their journey, they encounter nomads, Belgian colonists (in the form of a pink-skinned Tintin in a pith helmet), and pick up new members to join their group.

Joann Safr is a great, contemporary French cartoonist who creates fantastical imaginary worlds. This is the first animated version of his work I’ve seen, and it stays true to his comics. This is a great movie: funny, fantastical, and colourful, and featuring French-Algerian actors like Mohamed Fellag.

Redbud_Day28 (412 of 381).CR2To the Wonder

Dir: Terrence Malick

Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a single mother, meets Neil (Ben Affleck), an American tourist who is visiting France. They fall in love in scenic spots. Their love affair is extended when he invites her (and her daughter) to follow him back to America. Ah, America. Calm, rich, honest, she thinks as she pirouettes around her new Oklahoma backyard. Her whispered thoughts are an ongoing narration to her new life there. Ah… l’amour, l’amour, she whispers, turning another pirouette. Je t’aime. Her life is an avalanche of tenderness. Neil doesn’t speak, he just nods or grunts and goes out to check an oil pump.

OK, just so you know, I was describing a typical scene. But the whole movie is like that. It’s like a two-hour-long movie trailer, an endless montage of a bumpy, depressing relationship in an Oklahoma suburb. With a non-stop voiceover of the most painful poetry, the most awful French doggerel ever inflicted on my ears in one dose. I kind of liked Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life from two years ago (he supposedly spent a decade making it) but this one is worthless. I’m not even mentioning the various sub plots — Marina’s depression, a priest who talks to poor people, marital infidelity — because they barely add anything to this meandering, dull story. Avoid this movie at all costs, unless you are looking for two hours of pointless, superficial Hallmark images and loads of false solemnity.

To the Wonder opens today, check your local listings; and The Rabbi’s Cat and Hotel Lux are both playing this weekend: go to TJFF.ca for details.

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

March 23, 2012. Revisiting the Past. Movies Reviewed: Under African Skies, 21 Jump Street

Posted in 1980s, Action, Africa, Apartheid, Crime, Cultural Mining, documentary, High School, Music, Protest, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on March 24, 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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Spring is here, and, in Toronto that means it’s time to go back inside and sit in the dark. Wait — Huh…?

It’s festival season, starting right now! In quick succession, look out for Canadian Music Week Film Fest, CineFranco, the Images festival (of alternative, artist-driven media art), Hotdocs (the documentary festival), the Jewish Film Festival, Inside-out (the LGBT film festival), NXNE, and many, many more. It’s Images’ 25th anniversary and HotDoc’s 30th.

And speaking of looking back, this week I’m reviewing two movies: a documentary where musicians look back a quarter century to their past fumbles and triumphs; and an action/ comedy where two policemen are forced to revisit their own mistakes and triumphs of their high school days.

Under African Skies

Dir: Joe Berlinger

It’s 1985, and the famous American pop musician Paul Simon, who is intrigued by a song by the band the Boyoyo Boys, goes to Johannesburg to record an album alongside South African musicians. His record, Graceland, turns into a huge hit. 25 years later, and looking a bit hobbit-like but still a great musician, Paul Simon returns there to play a concert with the people he worked and toured with back then. Seems like a simple concert doc, right? No…

You see, in 1985, the Republic of South Africa is ruled under an ideology they called Apartheid. This meant 80% of the country – that is, anyone not classified as white – could not vote, were not citizens, could not intermarry or have sex with people from another group, and were kept physically separated from, and impoverished by, the ruling white minority. And the government responded to uprisings with increasingly violent attacks and persecution of non-white South Africans, driving the leaders into exile, like Oliver Tambo or imprisonment, like Nelson Mandela. In response to this, the banned African National Congress called for a massive international boycott of everything South African, including sports and entertainment.

This documentary takes place then and now, 25 years later. And it raises some very delicate questions. Should groups like Ladysmith Black Mombaza, Mistela, and others, some of whom were arrested or harassed by a racist government, also be boycotted by international audiences? Is it OK to use music not of your own making in the music you record, even if they receive credit? Or to record new lyrics over someone else’s music? Of course a lot of these points seem moot now — when everything is mixed with everything else, and sampled, overdubbed, or mashed up – but at the time, it was quite controversial.

Even more controversial was breaking the artists’ boycott. Ultimately, did Paul Simon’s music help or hinder the boycott’s intent?

The movie covers all sides, from the American and South African musicians involved, to members of the ANC, to exiled musicians, to anti-apartheid activists in Britain, the US and elsewhere – people like Harry Belafonte, Oliver Tambo’s son Dali Tambo, and And musicians like David Byrne, Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones.

Most interesting is the incredibly dynamic music and movement in the new and old concert footage of the many South African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the late Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela. Or as Harry Belafonte puts it in the movie: “the whole mishpokhe.”

Joe Berlinger (a great documentary maker who co-directed the Paradise Lost series, about a small town murder blamed on non-conforming teens) combines vintage footage, music videos, concert and studio clips, along with interviews with people not afraid to disagree.

Under African Skies looks at old wounds In a new way: placing the new South Africa’s emphasis of Truth and Reconciliation above all.

21 Jump Street

Dir: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) went to high school together. Schmidt was the brainy-but-bullied unattractive nerd who never had a girlfriend, while Jenko was the popular, dumb but handsome jock who found it hard to get passing grades. Later, they both end up as cops. They weren’t friends in high school – they traveled in different circles – but become partners, and friends, as police.

But after failing to read a biker gang their Miranda rights, they get assigned to a deep cover squad known as 21 Jump St. It’s their job to return to high school pretending to be students and brothers, bust a synthetic drug ring, and find the supplier. But so much has changed since they were students that they can no longer read the social codes. And after a name mix-up, the two find their roles reversed: Jenko hangs out with the science geeks, while Schmidt becomes the popular guy. Will they catch the bad guys without getting kicked out of school (and the police force)? And will they get to attend the high school prom?

OK, this movie has a whole lot of the red flags that tell me it’ll be a bad movie: it has two directors, it’s based on an old TV show, it has a number in its title, and it’s a buddy action/ comedy about cops.

That said, it actually wasn’t that bad – actually funny at times, and with like-able players. Ice Cube is a bad/funny police boss like out of a bad 80s TV show; and Dax Flame (the cameraman in Project X) is a chemistry geek; and others, like Brie Larson and Dave Franco. Some of the jokes are funny and the story is watchable, but the chase scenes are awful.

21 Jump Street is playing now, check your local listings, Under African Skies premiered at the Canadian Music Week Film Fest, which continues through this weekend, and includes interesting documentaries like “Kevin” the first doc by the Duplass brothers (Jeff Who Lives at Home)

And be sure to check out the amazingly renovated new Bloor Cinema showing documentaries every day. It’s just beautiful, with new seats, great sound, newly-papered walls, and something I’ve never seen before: a glass window in the lobby with a view of the entire theatre.

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

March 25, 2011 Morality in Movies. Films Reviewed: Limitless, Outside the Law, West is West

When people are looking for discussions on morality, the last place they’ll look for answers is at the movies — they’re just entertainment, right? Well… not exactly. Actually, traditional Hollywood movies — be they dramas, comedies, westerns, romances, adventures, or even horror movies – always follow a strict moral code: The bad guys are punished or killed, the good guys rewarded in the end. It’s almost puritanical: in a slasher movie, the ones who smoke pot or get drunk or make out are always the first ones killed by the serial killer. In the recent comedy, Hall Pass, the characters who have extramarital sex get physically hurt, while the ones who stay pure are spared.

But occasionally you get movies where the characters themselves face a moral dilemma, and have to decide for themselves whether or not they are doing the right thing, when both options seem terrible. So today I’m going to talk about three movies – one takes place in Pakistan and England, one in Algeria and France, and one in the US – with potential moral dilemmas at their core.

Limitless

Dir: Neil Burger

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a novelist with writer’s block. He hasn’t written a word of his first book yet, but he’s already spent his cash advance (I’d love to meet his agent!); he can’t pay his rent, and his girlfriend Lindy has dumped him.

But then he meets a low-life drug dealer from his past who offers him a new type of little, clear pill, an unnamed pharmaceutical, a sort of a super-Ritalin — that will solve all his problems, and he’ll be the only one on these drugs. Suddenly, everything’s as clear as the pill. He knows the answers to all his problems. He can seduce any woman, instantly learn any language, stop any punch before it hits him. He immediately writes his novel, but now he’s forced to consider what to do with his new powers. (Sort of a moral dillema). Will he find the cure for cancer or an HIV vaccine? Will he bring about world peace? Will he be able to save the world from Earthquakes and tsunamis?

Naaah. He goes for money fame and power instead. He borrows cash from a Russian gangster to invest on wall street and meets up with the great financier Van Loon. (The trillionaire is played by Robert de Niro, who is also just in it for the money.) And then there’s a mysterious old guy in a cheap suit who pops up all over the place and who is obviously up to no good.

What’s going to happen to Eddie? Will he make tons of money? Will he get back his girlfriend? And what about the drugs – what happens if they run out? And what about the gangster? And what about Van Loon – will he beat him at his own game? And who’s that creepy guy who’s spying on him?

Limitless is the kind of so-so popcorn movie that’s fun to watch, but crumbles apart immediately afterwards when you try to make sense of it. (Maybe it’s because I’m not on the little clear pill, but I doubt it.) I liked the semi-psychedelic scenes in this movie where he has strange out-of-body experiences in a constant forward movement, speeding through time and space. Cool special effects. And there are some good dramatic moments, but the rest of is pretty stupid. Bradley Cooper plays the same douche-y prick he did in The Hangover, Abbie Cornish is forgettable as his girlfriend, and De Niro is just killing time – he doesn’t even try.

Outside the Law (Hors-la-Loi)

Written and Directed by

Rachid Bouchareb

In 1925, a family gets kicked off its farm in Algeria because he has no written deed, and some French colonist wants the land. The defiant mother and her three young sons are each affected by this, in their own way, but all of them just want back what’s rightfully theirs. Soon the three brothers are all grown up – it’s the 50s and a demonstration is building in the city streets. Abdelkader is an activist marching in the demo, Said is an entrepreneur trying to make money through boxing; and Messaoud is the tough boxer he’s promoting. But once again the French military and police are messing things up, massacring both the political activists and the people just living their lives.

So the movie follows the three sons and the paths they take – after being jailed for demonstrating, Abdelkhader becomes a real revolutionary, Said turns to organized crime, prostitution, gambling and nightclubs, and Messaoud who joins the French army becomes a POW in Hanoi.

Algeria is now a part of France – it’s been completely annexed. So they all eventually end up living as second-class citizens in the slums and shantytowns of Paris, and become involved in the increasing tension and growing political storm In Algeria, and the rise of the FLN, (the Algerian Liberation Front) in which they all end up playing a crucial role.

Abdelkader has to decide his priorities as he’s faced with difficult moral dilemmas. Is it the revolution above all? Or family ties? And does the end justify the means? And what does it mean if he’s behaving as violently as the French he’s revolting against, or resorting to terrorist actions? While politics always makes for strange bedfellows, Abdelkader’s strict puritanism is contrasted with Said the gangster’s devil-may-care attitude. But he also forces his Messaoud to be his muscle and do the dirty deeds that he decides on.

This is a neat movie that combines, using the three brothers, different movie types – it’s a combination historical, political drama, a police thriller (they’re being chased by a cop who was in the left-wing resistance during WWII), a boxing movie, and a Godfather-type family saga. Great acting by the three brothers – Jamal Debbouze as the funny, street hood, Roschdy Zem as the strong and silent bruiser, and Sami Boujila as the troubled, heroic revolutionary – who switch from Arabic to French and back again – in this really well-made movie. I think anyone who saw Gods and Men (the gentle movie about the French monks massacred in Algeria) should also see this one if they want to really understand the politics and history of the two nations.

West is West

Dir: Andy DeEmmony

Sajid is a British schoolkid in Manchester in the 1970’s, whose parents have a chip shop. His father George is Pakistani, his mother’s English, and he’s an irascible foulmouthed brat who is picked on by racist bullies at his school. The headmaster, having spent time in Punjab when it was part of the British Empire, shows his sympathy to Sajid by telling him about Kipling. “Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab” he says, but Sajid wants nothing to do with that. And when, in a fight with his father, he uses the P-word, things really look bad. So the next thing you know, he’s being shipped off with his dad to the family homestead in Punjabi Pakistan.

And there’s a whole family there – George hasn’t seen his first wife and daughters since he emigrated thirty years before – he just periodically sent them money to support them. Sajid, who only knows “Salaam aleikum” and a few dirty words in Urdu, begins to study not in a classroom but by following a staff-carrying wise man who claims to be a fool and a local kid he dismissively calls Mowgli.

But he makes a friend, learns about life, and gradually loses his English uniform and ways. West is West wonders if ever the twain shall meet. Will his older brother, who is obsessed with Nana Mouskouri, ever find a bride that lives up to his image? Will Sajid find a culture to call his own? And what will George do to solve his impossible moral dilemma? The movie has more stories than you can shake a stick at, but it carefully and thoughtfully deals with each one inside the bigger East vs West story. It’s especially touching in the way it deals with the two wives, neither of whom planned their strange predicament.

Superficially, you can compare this to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but it’s everything that movie is not.

It’s hilarious, but without reverting to camp or slapstick; it deals with cultural differences but not with cheap ethnic stereotypes; it’s adorable, but foul-mouthed enough to never seem cutesie; and above all, it was just a really good movie. It’s not a movie only for South Asians, it’s a lovely and delightful movie for everyone.

Limitless is now playing, and opening today, March 25, in Toronto are Outside the Law, West is West, and A Matter of Size (a movie about people embracing their body-size by becoming sumo wrestlers, which I reviewed last week). Check your local listings.

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

Movies for Grown-ups. Films reviewed: Of Gods and Men, Nora’s Will, Unknown. Plus upcoming film festivals

Well, if you ever need a break from standard Hollywood fare, I’ve got a few movies that are watchable but slightly outside expected norms.

This week I’m going to talk about three movies notable for having mature characters (meaning they’re over 14); movies that deal with questions of identity, religion, and the concepts of alienation and acceptance; and movies that take place in small communities within larger ones. They also take place outside the United States: one in Berlin, one in Mexico City, and one in a small village in Algeria. And these movies all feature great actors, even in the smaller roles.

Nora’s Will

Dir: Mariana Chenillo

Jose shows up at his ex-wife Nora’s apartment one morning to find the coffee being made, fresh food in the fridge, everything arranged for the day, but with Nora in her bedroom, dead. They’ve been divorced for 20 years, but he still lives right across the street.

Jose (Fernando Luján) is shocked by her death, but even more surprised when he discovers her plans are still unfolding. Nora is a Jewish, Mexican woman, and it appears she arranged for her funeral to coincide with a final Passover dinner. She has left little post it notes all around her apartment, and the calls start coming in as planned – her eccentric cousin from Guadalajara is on her way, their children are returning from their vacations, and her doctor is also showing up, and so is her Rabbi.

Jose bristles at both his ex-wife’s religious beliefs and her arrangements, so he makes it his unspoken goal to mess up all her plans. He suspects she had a lover, and wants to find evidence of that in her apartment. Even after her death he is still obsessed with his ex-wife. And in order to do what he can to disrupt the funeral he offers pepperoni pizza to the kosher rabbi, festoons the apartment with giant floral crosses, and tries to hide all the post-it notes about her planned last supper. And once the rumour escapes that Nora may have committed suicide, Jose’s disruptive plans spin out of control, with a possibility that there will be no where at all to bury her. His daughter in law is pissed-off, her housekeeper is suspicious, and the various other characters all seem ready to explode. Can JOse pull everything back together again? And does he want to?

This is a pretty funny movie, sort of a gentle, drawing-room comedy about middle-class, urban life in Mexico – something I’ve rarely seen in a movie before. And it reveals (in flashbacks) some unexpected secrets of the family – or at least secret to the movie viewer – so it keeps your interest as the stories unfold, and the plot gains more depth. Nora’s Will is a good, funny and, in the end, poignant portrayal of a damaged relationship, and their need for closure. And it won eight awards from the Mexican Academy of Film, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Of Gods and Men

Dir: Xavier Beauvois

This is a movie about a peaceful monastery of Trappist monks in Algeria in the 1990s. They don’t proselytize or evangelize; instead they just make honey, tend to the sick and the poor, and spend the rest of their time in prayer and meditation. But civil war tensions enter into their lives, when Islamist extremists are getting closer, and start attacking nearby villages, and the equally violent — though ardently secular — military wants to place armed gunmen inside the monastery.

This is based on the true story, (made clear even in the ads) of their tragic massacre, so their fates are not a surprise, but the movie is about the period before then when they debate whether to stay in Algeria or go back to France.

The movie itself is constructed in a very formalistic way – scenes of their uneventful daily routines are contrasted with the increasingly violent events encroaching on their lives. Each short section is concluded with a silent tableau of the white-robed monks praying. Their feelings are subtly reflected by their postures at prayer: standing tall, or hunched in a circle, or reclining at rest, or collapsing in despair… a silent visual commentary on the events in their lives.

They start out as an undifferentiated mass, unidentifiable one from the next, but gradually their identities, names and personalities are made clear. Well, sort of… I thought the director made them more into a real-life version of the seven dwarves: Doc, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy… They seemed more like allegorical figures than real people, with only Christian, the Abbot (Lambert Wilson), the leader among the brothers, and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a doctor who spends much of his time in native dress, as fully-formed characters.

Of Gods and Men is a slow-moving, but not boring, beautifully constructed look at monks’ lives as religious martyrs, proto-saints, and nearly-flawless examples. Is there anyone who doesn’t like monks?

But it left me feeling slightly duped by the religiosity of it all, with its story and characters made less real, and more like a sunday school lesson, by their hagiographic portrayals. The whole movie felt like a parent or a priest wagging his finger at the collective movie goers, as a lesson in religious purity and peity.

And you had to wonder about the film’s point of view.

Remember, Algeria was a colony, annexed and ruled as an integral part of France up until the end of their bloody war of independence in 1962. So you have to wonder about a French movie portraying the Algerian soldiers as the bad guys, and the Islamist extremist as the other bad guys, with the only good guys being the French monks (and the local villagers) still in Algeria. Sketchy, n’est-ce pas? While I feel nothing but sympathy for the massacred trappist monks, this movie really seems to be shedding a tear for France’s whole lost empire.

Unknown

Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra

Dr Martin Harris, a scientist, arrives in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth to give a presentation on agricultural biology. But at the doors of their luxury hotel he realizes he left his briefcase at the airport. So he hails a cab and rushes back. But there’s an accident on the way that plunges the car into a river, with the pretty cabby risking her life to save his. Four days later, he comes to in a hospital bed with a brain injury, his mind confused. He rushes back to the hotel to find his wife, but when he gets there, she denies knowing him, and, stranger still, she has checked in with another man, also claiming to be Dr Martin Harris! Whoa…!

So here he is, with a bandaged head, no ID, no money, in a strange city he’s never been to, and he knows nobody there. His identity has even been wiped clean on the Internet – he doesn’t exist. And he starts to have paranoid thoughts – is that guy in a parked car waiting for him. Is that other guy with round glasses following him? And how about the man on the subway? Is he losing his mind? But, as they say, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

So Martin teams up with some locals to try to solve the mystery – the nice illegal immigrant cabby, and a blandly sinister detective who used to be in the Stasi, the East German secret service. What’s going on? What happened to his wife? And is he in danger? Unknown is a not-bad mystery/thriller with a Catalan Director, and a really good , largely European cast – Liam Neeson as the confused yet violent Martin, the great Bruno Ganz as the Stasi agent, Sebastian Koch as the German scientist, and Diane Kruger as the cabby; as well as Americans like January Jones as his wife, Aiden Quinn as the man pretending to be him.

I thought the mysterious set-up of the first half was more satisfying than the car chases, shoot-outs and fights of the second half (when the secrets are revealed and the plot chugs along its way) but it’s not a bad, mystery/thriller.

In Toronto, festival season is starting up soon. Here are some of the lesser known festivals.

Look out for the Toronto Silent Film Festival starting on March 30th, with bog stars of the silent era like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Harold Lloyd, and great directors like FW Murnau, Hal Roach and King Vidor. Look online at http://www.ebk-ink.com/tsff/home.html

The Female Eye Film Festival features movies directed by women, including a Canadian psychological drama, The High Cost of Living directed by Deborah Chow. Check out listings at http://www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com/

And the Images Festival, North America’s largest collection of art and culture in the form of moving images on videos and in film, starts on March 31. Go to imagesfestival.com.

Nora’s Will opens today in Toronto, and Unknown and Of Gods and Men are now playing. Check your local listings.

Men, Honour, Trust and Responsibility. Films Reviewed: The Eagle, Biutiful

Men are in a mess – or so say contemporary movies. Dragged down by family disgrace and personal difficulties, or unable to hold onto the responsibilities of wage-earner and father. Can they stand up to villains? Can they take responsibility for disaster? Can they confront their enemies? Can they judge who is to be trusted and who is to be opposed? How can they know?

This week I’m looking at two very different movies, both with strong, male lead characters — one by a British director, another by a Mexican filmmaker.

Biutiful

Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a nice guy. He helps recent migrants from West Africa and China get along in Barcelona., He helps them find jobs, and protects them from the police and immigration agents, brings them gifts, ad warns them about upcoming trouble. He feels a personal attachment. He also raises his two kids, and is considering getting back together with his estranged wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez). And occasionally, he uses his psychic abilities to help send messages from the recently dead to their living relatives left behind. He’s a regular Mother Theresa. But, things aren’t actually all that good.

Looked at another way, he’s exploiting dirt poor, desperate migrants by acting as the middle man for virtual slave-drivers; he’s the equivalent of a bag boy for unsavoury gangsters and corrupt cops; and his kindness can back-fire leading to potential disaster to the people he’s trying to help.

Then there’s his family. He lives a slovenly existence with his meager wages, and he has to deal with his immoral brother who gets “massages” from Uxbal’s unhinged, estranged wife (she says she needs the money). The wife, Marambra, is a hilarious character with a funny nose who talks a mile a minute, but can she be trusted to take care of their kids?

He’s also facing physical difficulties – his urine is turning dark, and despite the fact he wants nothing to do with blood tests (the hypodermic needles bother him for some reason) the results are clear: his body is being rotted away from the inside. His friend and advisor, a psychic like he is, urges him to settle his financial and moral debts before he dies. Will he be able to provide guidance and support for his children, comfort for a Chinese mother and child, help for his friend a West African migrant and his wife?

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Biutiful is a complicated, and at times moving drama, with great acting, and a beautiful, very distinctive look to it all.  Fish and flowing water — on the wallpaper, on a bathroom tile — appear in almost every scene. And like his own movie, Babel, a few years ago, the story jumps from language to language and culture to culture (with appropriately colour-coded subtitles: white for Spanish, blue for Chinese, another colour for a west African language.)

It’s also almost more than one movie can hold. With so many complicated stories, and engrossing events, there’s a denseness, all centred around Bardem’s character, Uxbal. But he holds it together. My one criticism – and this is not exactly a spoiler, but skip ahead if you don’t want to hear — is in a dream or memory Uxbal has that’s repeated, verbatim, in two parts of the movie; it gives it a glibness or corniness that didn’t seem to fit. Still, Biutiful is, as its title suggests, a broken but beautiful film.

Next, a much easier film to follow, with a more linear, straightforward stpry, but one that also deals with trust, honour, responsibility, and interestingly, questions of loyalty toward the people from your country vs foregners, and the ones in your family.

The Eagle

Dir: Kevin Macdonald

Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a Roman who decides to go to occupied Britain, to find out what happened in a battle that was lost by his father a generation earlier. The Ninth Legion completely disappeared, possibly massacred, in a battle in the hills of Scotland, losing all their members, and the symbol of that division, a golden Eagle that was carried on a pole. He’s scoffed at by the Roman officers stationed there, but he soon proves his mettle by saving their fort from the wild British savages. And they are really savage – they attack the troops like hi-speed zombies, clamouring all over the romans, and looking like they’re about to tear them apart with their spears teeth and bear hands. They shriek out words of attack, and their wild-haired, long-bearded leader looks like he’s falling into a bloodthirsty trance before charging.

Marcus fights until he collapses and doesn’t awaken till he’s being tended by his uncle (Donald Sutherand), and discovers he’s been released from the military due to injuries. Well, one day he attends a gladiator  match, where a huge masked and armed roman, looking like a pro-wrestler, is pitted against a scrawny local, surely to be killed in seconds. But he local fighter… refuses to fight in the unfair match. Marcus, to the surprise of the crowd, gives him a thumbs-up, and the local is now his slave. Esca (Jamie Bell , the child lead in the gotta-dance movie, Billy Elliot, from 2000), the son of a local warrior himself, hates the Romans but must pay his debt to the man who saved his life. No Romans will venture past Hadrian’s wall, but, despite objections from the Romans, Marcus decides to search for and recapture the Eagle, with Esca as his guide, and to find out what really happened to his father and the 9th Legion.

The movie follows the long adventurous journey to the land of the Seal people with their painted faces, where evidence still survived of the lost legion. When they are captured by that fierce nation, the power dynamc shifts. What is a Roman worth without Rome to back him up? Will Marcus find out what happened to the 9th?? Will he capture the Eagle? Can Esca be trusted? Can they exist as master and slave? Or are they friends, brothers, or something more? Or enemies to the death?

This is a good action/adventure/ fighting epic, with very fantastic outdoor scenes, from locations in Scotland and Hungary. So superficially, it’s a Disney “boy’s own adventure”-type film, with an old, conventional, somewhat predictable plot, that devolves at times into a simple buddy picture. But there are some really different aspects of this movie: I think the director is making some subtle comments on the past decade, and the US as a classical imperial power.

Unlike most “Sword and Sandal” movies, the Romans all have American accents, while the slaves have British accents! He’s even managed to find “upper class” American accents to represent the Roman gentry and Senators, modeling them on Washington DC-style politicians, and their prep-school kids.  Says Marcus: “A silk-assed politician’s son is pissing on my family name!” And the Roman legion is decididly made to look like the US Marine Corps, complete with their running style, lines, and presentation. Even the terminology they use is straight out of American military lingo – with Marcus recieving an “honourable discharge”.

Is The Eagle a critique of American wars abroad? Or a militaristic, ode to tea-bagger-land? Not sure, but it is a good, though quite violent, movie. No female characters though – this is yet another all-male fantasy – with no room for love, except between friends.

The Eagle and Biutiful are both playing now. Check your local listings.

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