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

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

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

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies

Dir: Larry Weinstein

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

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

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

The Art of Self Defense

Wri/Dir: Riley Stearns

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

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

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

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

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

Push

Dir: Fredrik Gertten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend this doc.

Propaganda: The Art of Lies, Push, and The Art of Self Defense all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Summer movies. Films reviewed: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Fireflies are Gone, Midsommar

Posted in African-Americans, Drama, Friendship, Homelessness, Horror, Housing, Music, Quebec, San Francisco, Suspicion, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on July 5, 2019

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

Summer’s here and it’s the right time to cool off by seeing movies outdoors. Open Roof Film Festival, which is on all summer on Sterling  in the Junction, pairs new Canadian and international films with live music by local bands.

Keeping with that theme, this week I’m talking about three great summer movies. There’s a misanthropic girl in Québec looking for a summer job; a man in San Francisco looking for a home; and some college students in Sweden looking for fun in the summer solstice.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Dir: Joe Talbot

Wri: Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails

Jimmy Fails is a homeless skater from San Francisco, who travels by boardfrom placeto place. Brought up in a group home when his parents split up, he once lived in a car, and now crashes outside the city at his friend Montgomery’s place (Jonathan Majors). But he is constantly drawn back to the Fillmore district of San Francisco – once known as the Harlem of the West – and a particular house there. It’s a stunning piece of Victorian architecture complete with a witch’s hat tower. He’s helping preserve it in a gentrifying city. But he also has a hidden motive: His grandfather built that home by hand in the 1940s and Jimmy wants it back. So when the current owners move out in an inheritance dispute, Jimmy moves right in, bringing all the original furniture, carpets and photos with him. It’s an enchanted house, with intricate woodwork, hidden doors and a working pipe organ built right in. And Monty – who draws everything he sees in a sketchbook – writes a play to commemorate the house and its history. But how much is true and how much family legend? Can Jimmy actually live there permanently? Or has San Francisco become a city only for the rich?

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an unusual, warm and wonderful story, part fact and part fiction. It’s based on Jimmy Fail’s own story – he plays himself. Another character, Kofi, jimmy’s frenemy from a group home, is played by the real Jamal Trulove, a San Francisco man falsely convicted of murder under Kamala Harris. It’s also an homage to an older San Francisco. It paints a disappearing city of soapbox preachers, panhandlers, buskers and organizers while subtly dealing with issues of poverty, housing, violence, renoviction, and environmental ruin. It’s narrated by a greek chorus of black commentators, Monty’s drawings, Jimmy’s family lore, and local legend.

This is a great movie, not to be missed.

The Fireflies are Gone (La disparition des lucioles)

Wri/Dir: Sébastien Pilote

Léonie (Karelle Tremblay) is a misanthropic teenager just finishing high school. She lives in a small city, a gorgeous inland port in northeast Quebec. near Sagueney. It’s a beautiful town but she hates it. She hates the smalltown attitude, she hates her hick friends and their pickup trucks and she despises her stepfather. She blames Paul (François Papineau) – a rightwing talk radio shock jock – for her parents divorce. Her Papa (Luc Picard) is a union organizer forced to leave town for work up north when the lumber mill closed, and now only visits every so often. Leo can’t wait to get out of this place, but in the meantime she gets a summer job tending to the local ballpark. It’s perfect – no human contact.

But when she meets a new face at the local diner she thinks things might be changing for the better. Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant) is a loner like her, a middle-aged musician, formerly in a band, now supporting himself by giving guitar lessons in his mother’s basement. She signs up for lessons, they hit it off, and soon become friends. But can it last?

The Fireflies are Gone is a bittersweet coming of age drama about life in a picturesque but declining Quebec town. The title refers to the loss of innocence of an earlier era, but it’s also about Leo’s own ideals called into question when she discovers a hidden family secret. Tremblay is amazing as the angry young Leo and she holds this film together. And Brillant is brilliantly understated as Steve. While not perfect, Fireflies… is a good, realistic drama.

Midsommar

Wri/Dir: Ari Aster

Dani (Florence Pugh: Fighting with my Family) is a young woman in a long-term relationship with her non-commital boyfriend. Christian (Jack Reynor: Sing Street) likes Dani but doesn’t like all the responsibilities. He’d rather drink beer and smoke cannabis with his buds from college: Josh (William Jackson Harper: The Good Place) an anthropology keener; Mark (Will Poulter: The Revenant, We’re The MIllers) a self-centred twit, and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who’s from Sweden. They’re planning a summer solstice bro trip to Pelle’s home village, where there’s lots of beautiful blond women, halucinagens and free sex. But when Dani suffers an unspeakably horrible loss, they let her come too.

At first glance the isolated village seems like a happy commune full of flower children, a holdover from the sixties. They sleep and eat communally, select their sex partners, and wear handwoven traditional outfits. They still sing their ancient songs, and write their scriptures (predicted by a handicapped oracle) using ancient runes. But in fact, their beliefs predate the hippies by centuries, dating back to pre-Christian days. The friends arrive to a warm welcome but soon reveal themselves as the prototypical “ugly Americans”, photographing sacred texts, urinating on an ancestral tree, and just generally behaving horribly. But the Swedes aren’t so nice either. And when people start disappearing, one by one, they suspect foul play. Will Dani and Christian’s struggling relationship survive? And can the Americans get out of this crazy place alive?

Midsommar is a fantastically strange horror/comedy/drama, Director Ari Aster second film after the great Hereditary, but is totally different from that one. In fact it defies all usual classifications. It’s a horror movie, but shot in bright sunlight, full of happy songs and dances. It also totally reverses the moralistic streak of most American horror movies. Victims aren’t “punished” for drug use or premarital sex; in fact that’s encouraged. Rather, it’s about naïve people facing a much older and darker world than they ever imagined. It’s scary, hilarious and grotesque, overflowing with intricate anthropological hints and winks. While definitely not for everyone, I love Midsommar.

It’s a weirdly perfect movie.

Midsommar is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. The Fireflies are Gone and The Last Black Man in San Francisco both open today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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 Moze Mossanen about My Piece of the City

Posted in Canada, documentary, Housing, Movies, Musical, Poverty, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on November 17, 2017

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

Regent Park is a section of Cabbagetown in Toronto’s east end. After WWII, tenements were razed to the ground replaced with lowrise housing surrounded by grass parks. It was meant to lessen poverty and crime, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Now they are replacing it all with clean, market rent condos integrated with public housing. But what will become of the longtime residents of this unique piece of the city?

My Piece of the City is a new documentary that looks at Regent Park, then and now, in the form of a theatrical production performed there each summer. The Journey combines song, dance, spoken poetry and drama in a celebration of the neighbourhood, its history and the people who live there.

It is written and directed by award-winning Canadian filmmaker Moze Mossanen, known for performance-based documentaries like Nureyev, Roxanna, and The Rings of Saturn. His works play in cinemas and are broadcast across Canada and around the world.

My Piece of the City will have its world premier on November 18th, 2017 at the Regent Park Film Festival.

I spoke with Moze Mossanen in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

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