“What is Democracy?” Daniel Garber talks with Astra Taylor about her new documentary

Posted in documentary, Economics, Greece, Interview, Italy, Morality, Movies, Philosophy, Politics, Poverty, Protest, US by CulturalMining.com on November 9, 2018

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

Is democracy justice or is it freedom? And if it’s freedom, is it freedom to think and say what you want, or is it freedom from hunger, poverty, and homelessness? Or is it just choosing which political party to vote for once every four years?

Should democracy just exist inside a nation, or should it extend across borders? Is majority rule fair and equal?

What is democracy, anyway?

A new documentary poses just that question to intellectuals and the hoi polloi in America and across the Atlantic. It talks to barbers and doctors, students and politicians, in legislatures and at Trump rallies, to try to determine what democracy actually is.

It’s called What Is Democracy and is written and directed by noted documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor, whose works include Examined Life and Zizek!

What is Democracy had its world premier at #TIFF18.

I spoke with Astra Taylor at NFB’s Toronto headquarters during TIFF. Her film is opening soon.

Daniel Garber talks with director Håvard Bustnes about his new doc Golden Dawn Girls

Posted in documentary, Greece, Journalism, Nazi, Politics, Racism, violence by CulturalMining.com on April 13, 2018

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

It’s the 2010s in Greece. The EU and northern European banks are foreclosing on Greek debt, demanding the country adopt austerity measures. There is talk of Grexit — Greece pulling out of the European Union altogether. Newcomers, fleeing war in the Middle East and Africa, are seeking refuge on their shores. And new political parties are springing up amidst the turmoil, with one, the leftist Syriza, eventually rising to prominence. But on the extreme right, another party arises. Golden Dawn combines Nazi regalia, fascist ideology, and anti-immigrant violence in its attempt to seize power. What is Golden Dawn, what does it stand for, and who are the people in its inner circle?

A bold new documentary looks at the party from an insiders’ point of view. The filmmaker gained access by appealing to the women closest to the party leaders – a mother, a wife and a daughter – who offer their candid insights while the men are in jail. The documentary is Golden Dawn Girls, by the noted Norwegian filmmaker Håvard Bustnes.

I spoke to Håvard in Norway via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Golden Dawn Girls will have its North American premier at Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival on May 1st, 2018.

Looking for trouble. Films reviewed: Thelma, Amerika Square, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted in Coming of Age, Greece, Norway, Racism, Refugees, Supernatural, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 17, 2017

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

More fall film festivals: The EU Film Fest brings free movies from across Europe to Toronto; and look out for the all-Canadian horror festival called Blood in the Snow – BITS for short – coming next weekend.

We all face trouble at times, but some people seem to invite it. This week I’m looking at movies about people getting into trouble. There’s a bigot in Athens trying to make trouble, a young woman in Oslo trying to avoid trouble, and a middle-aged woman in Missouri who acts like trouble is her middle name.

Thelma

Dir: Joachim Trier

It’s present day Norway. Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a teenaged girl at university in Oslo who is living on her own for the very first time. She was homeschooled by devout Christian parents including a very strict father. Aside from frequent calls from her parents checking up on her, Thelma is suddenly free to discover life on her own. She gets invited to parties, drinks beer, has arguments about politics, and flirts with an obnoxious boy who pursues her relentlessly. It’s thrilling, but also scary. Strange things seem to happen around her when she’s nervous. When she really starts to panic she shakes, shivers, and collapses into what look like epileptic seizures. But are they? And all around her nature seems to react: birds crash into windows, leaves rustle, then things start to shake, break and shatter.

Anja (Kaja Wilkins) is one of her classmates who looks out for her. They seem to have a psychic bond, meeting almost at random – when athelma wants to see her, she seems to just appear. More than that, there’s a strong sexual attraction between the two of them. But Thelma is afraid to tell her the truth: when she thinks hard enough she unleashes forces that can make people… disappear!

Thelma is a terrific coming of age drama full of suspense, mystery and the supernatural. It’s been called the Norwegian Carrey – fundamentalist christian girl with telekinetic powers – but it’s also totally different. She’s not bullied, she’s not weak, and there’s a fascinating love story in the mix.

Harboe and Wilkins — great as Thelma and Anja — are both new faces I want to see more of.

Amerika Square

Dir: Yannis Sakandis

Present-day Athens. Billy (Yannis Stankoglou) is a chill tattoo artist who runs his own shop. He looks like a young Bruce Springsteen in a diverse, workingclass neighbourhood. He lives in an apartment block near Amerika Square, a rundown local park. He just wants to live his life. Tarek (Vassilis Koukalani) is a Syrian refugee with a small daughter. He wants to make his way to safety in Germany, but keeps failing. And when he gets separated from his daughter he breaks into panic mode. Tereza (Ksenia Dania) is a beautiful, biracial nightclub singer (who speaks Greek). She wants to escape local hoodlums who control her. She meets Billy when she asks him to rewrite her tattoo and free her from virtual slavery. Is there something more between Billy and Tereza? Nakos (Makis Papadimitriou) is overweight and underemployed. He’s in his late thirties but still lives with his parents. He is obsessed with foreigners – he methodically counts how many live in the apartment and worries there will be more immigrants than Greeks. They’re changing everything and taking over! he says. His own parents migrated to Athens from a small village, but he considers the square his own. And he’s willing to do almost anything to drive the immigrants out. Will this include murder?

Amerika Square is a good drama about the current conflicts in Athens and across Europe. It looks at the plight of refugees and migrants, locals who welcome them, and the rise of rightwing groups who violently oppose immigration. It follows an ensemble cast in a complex storylines that all comes together in the end, along with a few ironic plot twists.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Wri/Dir: Martin McDonagh

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced woman who runs a gift shop in tiny Ebbing Missouri. She’s been on edge since her teenaged daughter was brutally raped and murdered. The police have yet to charge anyone with the crime. So she rents three derelict billboards on a road near her home. The billboards, like giant Burma Shave signs, ask in garish letters, why Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t caught the killer. But when the story is picked up by local media, the powers that be fight back: highschool bullies, her dentist, even a priest. They strongly pressure her to take down the signs, and attack her friends, employees and even her son (Lucas Hedges). But she refuses. This ignites a feud between Mildred and one cop in particular, the corrupt and bigoted Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon lives with his gravelly voiced mother who goads him on to greater and greater acts of violence. But Mildred fights back, upping the ante from words to fistfights, to shooting to firebombing.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a satisfying, exciting, but extremely violent movie about irascible characters facing big issues in a small town. I call it cutely violent – which fits with the director’s other movies: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The violence is extreme and graphic, but it always retains a touch of humour. Peter Dinklage and Sam Rockwell are back again, but this time a woman is allowed to shine in the lead role, with great results. Frances McDormand is perfect as this hateable/loveable character. Mildred might curse a blue streak but you can still see the heart in this irascible, hard-ass woman.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF17.

Thelma and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri both open today in Toronto; check our local listings.  Amerika Square is playing at Toronto’s European Union Film Festival. Go to euffto.com for details.

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

Dark Comedies. Films reviewed: The Square, Happy End, The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Class, comedy, France, Greece, Psychological Thriller, Satire, Scandal, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on September 5, 2017

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

TIFF started just last night and continues through the 17th. I’ve seen a lot of the films now, but I’m barred from commenting on most of them until they open. So I’ll tell you a bit about a few European movies having their Canadian Premiers at TIFF. All three are dark comedies.

The Square

Dir: Ruben Östlund

Christian (Claes Bang) is a rich, handsome and successful man at the top of his game. He’s divorced with two kids and uses his single status to pick up women for one-night stands. At work, he’s the chief curator at a famous art museum inside a former royal palace. The gallery is known for challenging old ideas… it’s revolutionary! Like the new show he’s working on, called The Square: a simple brass plaque on the plaza where a statue of a king on a horse once stood. Now the square welcomes everybody, as a place of respect and responsibility, whether you’re rich or poor, have- or have-not, Swedish born or a recent immigrant.

But things start to go wrong, that call into question his intehrity and high- minded beliefs. When con artists steal his celphone, he traces it back to a public housing highrise, but doesn’t know which apartment it’s in. So he prints up hundreds of threatening letters and drops them into each apartment mailbox. At work he scoffs at an accident involving an art installation – just replace it, he says, no one will notice. He hires young MBA hot shots to promote The Square, but doesn’t pay attention to an offensive promotional video they make – it’s all good, as long as it goes viral. And his personal life spirals out of control when he tries to juggle responsibility toward his bratty kids, with his sex life. Will his life and career all collapse from a series of awful mistakes? And will he realize he’s part of the system causing all these disasters?

The Square, by the director of Force Majeure, is a biting satire about hypocrisies in the art world, told in a series of very funny vignettes. Like when a night of sex with a woman he meets (Elizabeth Moss: A Handmaid’s Tale and Mad Men) turns into a hilarious fight over who owns the used condom – the man or the woman. It’s a long movie but a very enjoyable one. And it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Happy End

Dir: Michael Haneke

Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is the patriarch of a Laurent enterprises a huge corporation based in Calais France. It’s run by his daughter

Anne (Isabelle Huppert) a no-no-nonsense business woman. Her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) a successful surgeon, lives on the family estate with his young wife Anaïs. Then there’s the third generation. Pierre (Franz Rogowski) Anne’s son, knows how to wear a hard hat, but that’s about it. He’s responsible for a disaster that happens at a construction site. And Thomas’s daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) from a previous marriage re-enters his life when his ex-wife suddenly gets sick. The cute and innocent little girl is not as nice as she seems. She’s a tiny psychopath who does horrible things just for the lulz – and to share them anonymously on Snapchat. And Georges, the patriarch, desperately wants to end it all.

Happy End is a very dark comedy about a rich, dysfunctional family. Haneke its great director, does something really unusual: He recreates characters from a previous film, but with an entirely different back story. Amour, Which won an Oscar in 2013, was about an elderly musician man, Georges, facing his wife’s dementia. IN Happy End, Georges (and his daughter) are back again played by the same actors, but this time not as musicians but as corporate leaders. And this time it’s a comedy not a tragic romance. Another great movie.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Steven and Anna (Colin Farrell) and Nicole Kidman) are a Cincinatti power couple, both successful doctors. They live in a beautiful home with their two kids. Everything is normal, except… theres a teenaged boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) who Steven is spending a lot of time with. He meets him on the sky, treating him to lunch at a local diner, meeting him beneath city bridges. He buys Martin a Rolex as a birthday gift. And then Steven takes him to meet his family. What’s going on?

It turns out the boy’s father died a couple years before on the operating table. Steven was the heart surgeon. At first Martin wants to befriends – he even tries to set Steven up with his mom (Alicia Silverstone) at an awkward dinner date. But his true motives are much more sinister. He says Steven must suffer as much as he suffered when s father died. He wants him to sacrifice – in the manner if the ancient greeks – a sacred deer. Meaning one of his family members: his son, his daughter or his wife. And due to some strange condition that the doctors cannot diagnose, the two kids become paralyzed from the waste down. Only Stevens decision can stop this terror.

The killing of a sacred deer is advertised as a horror movie, and there is a bit of that, but like all of Lanthimos’s movies – from Digtooth to the Lobster – it’s more of a dark comedy with a bizarre premise. And like in all the movies, the characters talk like robots, say inappropriately formal things, and don’t notice their own strangeness, because everyone in the movie acts the same way. You get the feeling he doesn’t treat it completely seriously. For example, whenever he’s near Martin, even in an innocuous situation I, the extra loud forbiding music starts to play. I think I liked it, once I accepted the premise. And it is alternatively very funny and disturbingly shocking.

Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Square, Happy End are all playing at TIFF. Go tiff.net for details.

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

 

 

Greek Myths and Fables. Films Reviewed: Boris sans Béatrice, Chi-Raq, The Lobster

Posted in African-Americans, Canada, Chicago, comedy, Cultural Mining, Fairytales, Greece, Movies, Musical, Quebec, Sex, violence by CulturalMining.com on March 18, 2016

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

Greek myths are not just kids’ stories; they’re full of sex, violence and magical transformations. This week I’m looking at plays, myths and fables from Ancient Greece interpreted by three great filmmakers. We’ve got two films — set in Chicago and Quebec – based on ancient Greek themes; and a futuristic fable by a modern Greek director.

nZlmp5_BSB-Coutroisie_K-Films_Amerique_-_1_o3_8976749_1456938988Boris sans Béatrice

Wri/Dir: Denis Côté

Boris Malinovsky (James Hyndman) is a self-made man. He owns a factory in Montreal, a beautiful country house, and his wife, Béatrice (Simone-Élise Girard) is an M.P. He’s tall, fit, rich and successful. He’s also self-centred, stubborn and arrogant. He can’t stand incompetence and lets everyone know it. Things are k5gjE6_BSB-Coutroisie_K-Films_Amerique_-_4_o3_8976802_1456938983going well until Beatrice climbs into her bed and succumbs to melancholia. (Sounds like a 19th century novel.) Now she’s catatonic and requires Klara (Isolda Dychauk) a ginger-haired young Russian woman, to take care of her 24/7. Boris loves Beatrice, but what can he do to help her?

GZAX4J_BSB-Coutroisie_K-Films_Amerique_-_5_o3_8976819_1456938986Enter a Deus Ex Machina: a mysterious man (Denis Lavant) dressed in gold brocade, who speaks an especially eloquent French. He arrives in an expensive black car, in a grassy field backlit by floodlights. He tells Boris that Beatrice’s illness is his fault. He must change his ways.

Boris changes his ways all right. He is sleeping with Helga, a work colleague (Dounia Sichov), and even flirts with young MjXKpm_BSB-Coutroisie_K-Films_Amerique_-_2_o3_8976767_1456938963Klara. Beatrice continues to decline, until the Prime Minister (Bruce Labruce) drops by to check up on his member if Parliament; and even his estranged, left-wing daughter – who lives with toga-clad young men – tries to help. Will Boris ever change? Or will he end up like Tantalus, the demigod permanently punished for his hubris? And are his worries real or imaginary?

Boris sans Beatrice is a satirical look at life in a Quebec – a multicultural place where ambitious people can get ahead, but where success is always precarious. The cast, especially Hyndman, Girard and Lavant, are all terrific. I like this movie.

Chi-Raq PosterChi-Raq

Dir: Spike Lee

It’s present day Chicago, a city wracked with gun violence that has killed more people than American soldiers killed in the Iraq War. There’s a real war going on between two gangs, the Trojans and the Spartans. Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) lives with Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) who wears the gang’s colours, while Irene (Jennifer Hudson) hangs with Cyclops (Wesley Snipes) their rivals. Fighting escalates until two things happen. An innocent schoolgirl is gunned down by a stray bullet and Lysistrata’s home is firebombed. Her neighbor, Miss Helen (the amazing Angela Bassett), grudgingly offers shelter and someChi-Raq sage advice. Stop all this killing. The plan is for all the women in both gangs, in fact all the women in Chicago — even the sex workers — to say no more sex until you lose the guns. Or as they say in the movie:

No Peace, No Pussy.

This becomes an all-out protest that grinds the city to a halt, with women occupying a military base. But can they teach the men to put down their guns, take responsibility and do the right thing?

Chi-RaqDoes this story sound familiar? It should. It’s based on 2,400-year-old drama by Aristophenes. And like the original, it’s spoken in rhyme (this time in rap or in song with elaborate dance numbers) And there’s an omniscient, anansi-like narrator (Samuel L Jackson). It’s also a bit antediluvian. Is a woman’s primary role to provide sex for their male partners? Really? This is 2016.  And the film could use an edit – it’s too long. Still, I quite liked Chi-Raq. A first-rate cast, with the spark of Spike Lee’s earlier films, missing for years.

IMG_0214.CR2The Lobster

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

It’s the future. Things are a lot like now except in this world two is good, one is bad. Loners – single people — are sent to an austere sanitorium where they have 45 days to couple up. Couples are given special privileges while singles are punished and humiliated. Anyone caught having “loner sex” must wear a chastity belt. And anyone still single 97e790bc-95e5-46c5-8fe1-2911423c562dafter 45 days is transformed into an animal and let loose in the nearby forest. But the forest is also filled with runaway loner, humans who have escaped.

The movie follows the latest batch of woebegone singles all frantically searching for their perfect mate. It’s speed-dating hell. And they’re all insecure. The women are bossy or shy, the men walk with a limp IMG_3703.CR2or talk with a lisp. And everyone behaves like 12-year-old wallflowers at their first school dance. David (Colin Farrell) is a typical desperate single – he goes so far as to pretend he’s an A-type sadist just to attract a certain woman.

Things go wrong, and later he finds himself in the woods (as a human, not a lobster). He meets another runaway, a nearsighted woman (Rachel Weisz). The laws in the forest, laid down by their leader (Lea Seydoux), are a topsy-turvy version of the IMG_2135.CR2mainstream: only singles allowed with couples are absolutely forbidden. But what happens if you fall in love?

Lobster is a terrific off-beat comedy. I’ve been following Yorgos Lanthimos since meeting him when his second film, Dogtooth played at TIFF. His films are all highly stylized and uncomfortable satires. Characters speak like they’re reciting lines in a school play, and dress in dated and awkward clothes and hair. I loved his Greek movies but wondered if they would work in English. Not to worry. The Lobster is weird and quirky but totally accessible. You don’t need training in avant garde film to appreciate it. I recommend this movie.

Boris sans Beatrice and Chi-Raq open today in Toronto, check your local listings; and The Lobster starts next Friday.

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

June 22, 2012. Square Pegs. Movies Reviewed: Your Sister’s Sister, Kryptonite!, Alps.

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.

Can square pegs fit into heart-shaped holes? This week I’m looking at three movies about odd-balls adjusting their lives to fit into new families and relationships. There’s an indie rom-com from Seattle about a middle-aged slacker caught between two beautiful women; an Italian drama about a bullied 9-year-old who explores 70’s hippie culture; and an experimental Greek film about people trying to temporarily replace the dead.

Your Sister’s Sister
Dir: Lynn Shelton

Jack, (Mark Duplass) is depressed, unemployed, single, and stuck in a bottomless pit of negativity following his brother’s death. So to cheer him up, his friend Iris (Emily Blunt) – who was also his late brother’s ex-girlfriend – offers him the use of her family cabin, off on some island in the Pacific North West.  But when he gets there, he sees an attractive woman inside, coming out of her shower. And after a clumsy confrontation involving a wooden paddle, Hannah, a lesbian who has just broken up with her long-time lover, gets into a drunken confessional with this stranger, Jack. He’s a lumpish, impulsive ne’erdowell; while Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a strikingly beautiful, but acid-tongued meat-is-murder vegan. Is there a spark there? Uh, oh… Sometimes things that happen in the night are best forgotten in the morning.

Who shows up but the next day but Iris – who it turns out is Hannah’s half-sister! She’s been through a series relationships with swooshy haired, skinny jeaned, rock- and-roll hipster boyfriends… but could she also harbour feelings of her own toward her platonic best friend Jack? All these new complications throw a wrench into their mutual relationships.

Your Sister’s Sister is a really good, extreme-low-key romantic comedy. It’s mainly about the characters, not the plot, with most of the dialogue improvised by the actors themselves. The three of them work very well together and Mark Duplass is everywhere! (He was in another low-budget, Seattle-based comedy, Safety Not Guaranteed, just last week. Anyway, this movie’s worth seeing if you’re looking for a Left-coast romcom.

Kryptonite!
Wri & Dir: Ivan Cotroneo  (I Am Love)

Peppino (Luigi Catani) is a 9-year- old school kid in Naples in the early 70’s. He wears glasses and that’s enough to get picked on by his schoolmates. When he plays soccer, he‘s stuck being the goalpost. So, aside from his father who works in a sewing machine shop, and his loving mother he turns to his eccentric uncle Gennaro (Vincenzo Nemolato) who thinks he’s Superman.

But things start to go wrong. His mom (Valeria Golino) discovers her husband is having an affair. Instead of making a scene, she collapses and becomes bed-written until sent to psychoanalysis. His dad shoos him away so he can spend time with his secret girlfriend. And Genarro is found dead, hit by a car. So, without a functional family, and to keep him out of trouble, he’s lent out to his many uncles and aunts. They’re Neapolitan hippies, given to wearikng eye makeup and dancing to Ziggy Stardust and Nancy Sinatra.

They introduce him to their own new world of bra-burning, acid tripping, folk-dancing, nudity and mass love-ins. And the Superman Genarro periodically returns

from the dead to impart words of superhero wisdom to the bullied and “different” Peppino, as he struggles to understand and appreciate his differences.

Kryptonite! is a really great coming-of-age drama. It has a complex, but easy-to-follow story with a dozen main characters; Visually and aurally it’s a fantastic feast of eye- (and ear-) candy, including sets, costumes, amazing locations and seventies music.

ALPS
Dir: Giorgos Lanthimos

Something’s strange: why is a moustachioed EMT worker asking a dying patient about their favourite movie star, instead of allergies and past illnesses? Well, he’s gathering data for his second job: it’s a private enterprise where he and his colleagues – a nurse at his hospital, a competitive gymnastic dancer and her coach – rent themselves out to take the place of recently dead or injured people. This way their families and friends can ease more gradually into their new lives, and cope with the large gap. The business is called “Alps” (to evoke the steadfastness and immovable nature of the Alps mountains), with each of the four answering to a secret code name based on a famous Swiss peak (Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa…). The bossy paramedic declares himself the highest peak of the Alps.

Their role is ambiguous, lying somewhere among therapist, actor and prostitute.

They memorize pat dialogue, likes and dislikes so they can pretend to be the missing ones. But the four of them have different aims. The gymnast yearns to leave stodgy classical ribbon dancing and move onto modern pop sounds… like Prince. But she’s is kept tethered by a cruel coach who says he’ll break every bone in her body if she deviates from his orders. Meanwhile the paramedic is a petty dictator, a suspicious popinjay who wants to keep the others members in line with his power scheme. But the nurse would rather fall in love — even artificially — and if the process involves sex, all the better. So the two men want more control, while the women want more freedom.

This is the same director who made the great movie Dogtooth and ALPS shares a lot of its style: intentionally stilted dialogue, long pauses, long takes; a story about vainglorious adults behaving like adolescent bullies and their oppressed victims; and an unnervingly dated and outré look to everything. I guess I’ve adjusted to Lanthimos’s style since Dogtooth, as it no longer bowls me over, but it’s still funny and absurd and shocking with an amazingly strange story. The acting and the characters still grab my attention.

Your Sister’s Sister, and ALPS both open tonight in Toronto, check your local listings; and Kryptonite! plays the opening night of the Italian Contemporary Film Festival next week – for details go to icff.ca . Also opening is the excellent but heart-wrenching documentary 5 Broken Cameras, about the Israel/Palestine conflict from the point of view of a Palestinian activist in a small village; the experimental Indian drama Patang (aka Kites), co-starring Seema Biswas; and the Toronto Korean Film Fest, featuring great Korean classics from years past, like The Tale of Two Sisters; Mother; and Old Boy. Go to TKFF.ca for details.

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

May 25, 2011. Inside Out Festival. Renee, Lost in the Crowd, Gun Hill Road, Black Field, Harvest, We Were Here

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

Toronto Inside-Out festival is one of the world’s biggest LGBT film festivals, that shows movies and documentaries from around the world by and about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals. Or queers for short. The festival is continuing through this weekend, mainly at Toronto’s Light Box, and I hear there are still some tickets available, so now’s your chance to catch some of these very varied and interesting movies.

So this week I’m going to look at a cross-section of movies and docs at this festival with a special emphasis on some good movies about the too often neglected “T” in LGBT. Next week: more on the “L” word.

Renee

Dir: Eric Drath

“I’m getting the message across that you can be a transsexual… and yet be a nice, normal, socially acceptable and productive member of society.” – Renee Richards.

Renee Richards was born as Richard Raskin, who grew up as an aggressive alpha male, served in the navy, became a tennis champ, a young man with dating prowess, a surgeon, a husband and a father.

But in the early seventies, after years of agonizing, and (after first chickening out on her first attempt, when she went to Morocco for sex-reassignment surgery) she took the plunge and became a woman. She named herself Renee (French for reborn) and started a new life. She became a sensation on the women’s tennis circuit until the past came out. She was ostracized, alienated by many tennis players, and splashed across the mass media.

They attempted to force Renee Richards to take a DNA test to prove her sex – this despite surgery, hormones, her day-to-day identity, clothes, body, voice and name. So she took them to court.

This is a very good, sympathetic documentary, that uses TV sports footage, home movies, newspaper articles and present- day interviews with family members, and famous tennis players (like Billie Jean King and Martina Navritolova). The most emotionally trying part of the documentary is about her difficult relationship with her son Rick.

Lost in The Crowd

Dir: Susi Graf

…is another documentary, also touching on problems faced by transsexuals and others. But if Renee is about rich and famous celebrities, Lost in the Crowd is about the other side of things. It’s about Queer youth who migrate to new York City to escape homophobia and other dangers in their hometowns, only to find themselves penniless, homeless and alone on the streets of Manhattan. It shows a few of these kids and young adults, many latina, and gay or trans, who seek shelter but end up in prison, on the streets, or dead.

While a very important issue, I was a bit disappointed by the movie, since it mainly just showed the victimization of the runaways by drugs, prostitution, and crime. It didn’t really offer any new viewpoint on the standard risks that face all runaways. One exception were the scenes shot in a prison, where one person (who had been arrested for low-level drug dealing) said he felt more free in the jail than he had in his midwestern small town.

Much more moving was a fictionalized drama about many of the same issues, a movie called

Gun Hill Road

Dir: Rasheed Ernesto Green

This tells about Enrique, and ex-con out on parole going back home. He’s an ultra-macho Puerto Rican-American who was known for attacking any “maricon” in prison who might have looked at him the wrong way. What’s a few months of solitary if he’s defending his own masculinity? He arrives back with his street corner pals to see his much missed son Michael (Harmony Santana). But something about Michael has changed.

He’s living his life as a girl in school, but like a boy at home. He hangs out with his friends at school but faces widespread bullying in the hallways. As pretty and strong Vanessa, she meets a boyfriend at a poetry slam, but he’s less friendly once he discovers Vanessa is a pre-op transsexual. He doesn’t want to see her as a boy – she has to cover up anything that might turn him off. But Michaels’s father doesn’t want to see his son as in any way feminine. He attacks him with a scissors and hacks off his long hair.

Gun Hill Road is a good, moving drama of the trials and tribulations of being trans in a public school, and how both a father and a son have to learn how to understand each other. The actor playing Vanessa/Michael is excellent, and you feel for all the characters. And it has a great latino hiphop soundtrack.

Black Field

Dir: Vardis Marinakis

In the middle ages, at its height,  the Ottoman empire used a special unit in their military known as the Janissaries. This was a division consisting entirely of paid, trained soldiers who were also slaves. They had no outside friends or families because they were kidnapped as small boys from outlying villages in the Balkans. Eventually, they converted to Islam and enlisted in this all-male, elite part of the army — the Janissaries.  In this movie, a wounded janissary (Hristos Passalis) is found outside a Christian convent in a remote, mountainous region of Greece. The black-hooded nuns take him in, chain him up, while they tend to his wounds. A young nun, Anthi  is sent to heal him, but there she makes a surprising discovery  — his genitals are like hers. She is actually a boy, who had been taken in as an infant and raised there, so that the Mother Superior could save him from being kidnapped and made into… a janissary!

The movie follows – literally follows, the camera holds back behind the two as they walk through the lush forest, a green-covered swamp, and a dark rocky area –  the tough, mean, AWOL soldier and the timid, whispering nun, as he forces the newly discovered boy to reclaim his male identity, and eventually become his partner. To make matters even more ambiguous, the boy who was raised as a girl is played by a very good actress (Sofia Georgovassili). It’s a slow-paced, challenging, sometimes violent, and at other times sensuous and exquisitely beautiful,  first film. Very interesting to watch and should be seen on the big screen.

Harvest

Dir: Benjamin Cantu

Marco is a young man who lives and works at an internship program on what used to be an East German communal farm. He wears overalls and a T-Shirt as he sorts carrots, bales hay, and clips the ears off cattle, along with the other interns. But he’s resisting committing himself to a lifetime of farm work. He doesn’t want to write the exam he has to take, mainly because he can’t write well. And he’s a bit of a loner – he won’t go out drinking with the other trainees, and they tease him for it.

But he enters into a silent friendship with a newby, Jacob. Things start to heat up in an abandoned old car (a Trabant?) and they realize they have something in common when Jacob finds the keys and drives them both into Berlin for an evening.

Harvest is another one of these hyper-realistic films –  made on real locations, usually with non-actors, without a complicated plots, and often without a written script. There aren’t that many lines in this movie, and the budding relationship between Marco and Jacob is never really talked about – it just happens. But you totally understand and identify with all the characters, and the farm footage is fantastic – I’d never actually seen an enormous carrot-sorting mill. Harvetst is a very good, understated, realistic drama.

We Were Here

Dir: David Weissman

This is a documentary about San Francisco from the late 70’s until the early nineties. That was the period when the city was transformed from a gay mecca into the epicentre of a worldwide epidemic. I’m speaking about AIDS and HIV, then called the gay plague for the sudden, massive death toll of that community.

This movie is heart-wrenchingly moving because of the way it was made. They found a handful of people who lived there at that time and were somehow involved in that disaster, to tell the story of themselves and their friends directly to the camera.

The movie shows the face of one speaker’s friend and then close-ups, ten days later. So happily galavanting at a Castro street party one day, and then, suddenly, the same man infected with Karposi Sarcoma (cancerous, but painless black spots on the skin) and then, a few days after that, just dropping dead.

No one knew what was going on or what to do about it. Panic set in. The movie shows the quick progression of events — the protests, the medical advances, the set-backs — all told through the eyes of real, sympathetic men and women.

This is a very important, living oral history, illustrated by ample newspaper clips, snapshots and still photos.

These movies and more are part of Inside-Out, continuing on this weekend: you can check times atinsideout.ca . Also opening is the terrific documentary Bobby Fischer against the World, and the Canadian low-budget spooky, post-apocalyptic horror thriller The Collapsed, both of which I reviewed last week, and Little White Lies, a very funny, if long, French social comedy about the secrets and conflicts of a group of friends who vacation together; I reviewed that last year.

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

Shrink Away or Fight Back? Dogtooth, The Mechanic

What do middle-aged white guys do when the world seems to be falling apart around them? Do they withdraw or do they fight back? This week I’m talking about two very different movies that deal with reactions to the collapse of everyday life, including isolationism, xenophobia, fear, and violence.

Dogtooth

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Dogtooth is an unusual film from Greece, a fantasy about a control freak of a father who regards his three children as tabula rasa, blank slates to be filled with his ideas and no one else’s. No one ever contradicts him since he keeps them isolated in a fenced-in compound with no outside contact of any kind. The twist is that the “kids” are adults now, but still live as children, not realizing there is any other life with them talking on normal, adult roles.

The three adult children live a completely controlled life in which their experience never extends beyond a fence around their estate. They are raised like trained dogs, in accordance with their father’s strange psychological theories.

They’ve been told if they step outside they will die. So, like creative small kids, they build on what they’ve learned by inventing variations and playing games, but can only riff on what they’ve seen. Their games evolve on their own tracts, far away from what even the father envisions. They’ve grown up with a bizarre twisted morality and view of the world, and become experts at mimicking his duplicity.

Only Father ever leaves the house and no one new ever comes in. Then one day he does something new, different: He brings home a visitor, Christine. She’s a security guard at his company, and he lets her have mechanical sex with the Son. But once he introduces a new variable, the father’s careful familial equilibrium begins to fray in unexpected ways.

This is a really weird, neat, movie. Great, stylized acting! The actors use stiff-sounding, controlled lines, even as they do outlandish and disgusting things. There’s a sterile, artless, faded 1970’s retro look to everything in their world, like they were frozen in some kind of time machine. Forget about computers and the internet – this place has no newspapers, no TV, no telephones.

The plastic bubble the family lives in is especially poignant when you think of the strikes, riots, demonstrations, and all-around social unrest and economic upheaval actually going on in Greece right now. The film shifts back and forth from the black humour of social satire, to strange sexual experimentation, to the pathos of a disturbing family drama. Dogtooth is a black comedy that leaves you with a strange, uneasy feeling. It’s a fascinating art film, and has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The Mechanic

Dir: Simon West

This movie also sounded good.

Bishop (Jason Statham) a man known as “the Mechanic”, is a hitman who knocks off hard-to-kill people. He finds out what his assignments are by looking at certain want-ads looking for mechanics. He studies a man, kills him, makes it look like an accident, and collects an overstuffed envelope of cash as his reward.

There also seems to be some unspoken rule that all his victims somehow “deserve” to be killed. So, (like TV’s Dexter, the serial killer who only kills other serial killers) he’s not a bad man, just efficient… and deadly.

So he’s surprised one day, when he’s told to kill his boss, Harry (Donald Sutherland, who apparently will do any role if the price is right), an affable fellow in a wheelchair, who pays him to murder other men on behalf of the shady corporation he works for. Harry has a son, Steve (Ben Foster), who’s a ne’er-do-well. With Harry out of the way, Bishop feels he owes something to his old boss, so he decides to mentor Steve in the only profession he knows – as a killer.

Sounds intriguing, no?

Unfortunately this is a dreadful movie that seems more like a wet dream for NRA tea-baggers than a normal action thriller. Its message is clear – everyone is a murderer, so you’d better arm yourself to the teeth and kill them first, or else they’ll kill you.

Can a movie (not just its characters) actually be bigoted? This one is. It takes place in New Orleans, but naturally it’s a place were everyone’s white – except for the two blacks: a carjacker, and a lazy-ass shrimper. The Latino? He’s a drug dealer. Women have no names or personalities. They are all either victims — terrified, screaming wives and daughters — or paid, nameless prostitutes. Then there’s the one gay man in this movie — a predatory, pedophile murderer…. naturally!

I love a good action movie but this one doesn’t even make sense. It’s full of things like: the Mechanic lives in an isolated compound, seemingly reachable only by motorboat… but then in other scenes you see him driving off in his sportscar from the same house.

My mistake was I thought it would be a Jason Statham movie like the terrific, 8-bit-style, high-speed action comedy Crank, or its even better and faster sequel Crank: High Voltage. (Movies that are equally full of offensive racist caricatures, but funny ones.) Or maybe a Ben Foster movie like last year’s sad, moving film “The Messenger”. But it isn’t. It’s a Simon West movie, directed by the same talentless schmoo who brought us such cinematic gems as the wretched Con Air (about an airplane full of violent prisoners), or the even worse Lara Croft Tomb Raider, an unwatchable action-adventure based on a British computer game.

If George Clooney’s “The American” was a glamorous, shallow look at a heartless paid assassin and his troubles with his employers, at least it was visually appealing in the foggy Italian hills. It was aimed at middle-class Americans longing for the beauty of Europe. This movie is ugly to the core, (it looks like an out-take from CSI Miami) and seems to appeal only to angry, xenophobic knuckle-draggers, angry but afraid of everything, who want to see as many people dead, as soon as possible.

OK, so what? It’s just an action movie…

Admittedly, there are a couple great shoot-out and fight scenes – I liked them — involving mirrors, buildings roofs, and improvised weapons — but they are few and far between. Most of the film just dragged on and on. A few good fights and thrills can’t redeem this stupid, pointless, boring, and morally corrupt movie where cold-blooded gun-toting killers are painted as the good guys.

The Mechanic, opens in Toronto on January 28th, and Dogtooth also opens tonight at the Royal, in a double bill with another Greek film, Attenberg.

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