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

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

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

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies

Dir: Larry Weinstein

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

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

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

The Art of Self Defense

Wri/Dir: Riley Stearns

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

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

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

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

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

Push

Dir: Fredrik Gertten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend this doc.

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

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

Daniel Garber talks with Tickled director David Farrier at #HotDocs

David Farrier Tickled Photo © 2016 for cultural miningHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

David Farrier is a New Zealand TV journalist who specializes in odd and off-beat stories. So when he sees an ad online looking for athletic young men, aged 18-23, for Competitive Endurance Tickling, he sees a potential story. But when he contacts the company, run by a secretive woman named Jane O’Brien, he gets a surprising reaction: a series of abusive and David Farrier Tickled Photo © 2016 for cultural mining 2threatening email.

Followed by three men flown all the way to New Zealand from LA, threatening a lawsuit if he doesn’t drop the story. Just for investigating some guys being tickled.

Tickled is also the name of a fascinating and disturbing new documentary about hidden identities, vast conspiracies, and cyber bullying. All surrounding a phenomenon – professional tickling — largely unknown to the general public. It’s co-directed by actor, journalist and crypto-zoologist David Farrier who’s also the film’s narrator and subject.

I spoke to David at Dublin Calling in Toronto at Hot Docs earlier this spring. Tickled opens today in Toronto.

Photos by Jeff Harris

Daniel Garber talks with director Alex Winter about his new documentary Deep Web at Hot Docs

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, drugs, Internet, US by CulturalMining.com on April 25, 2015

Winter_AlexHi, This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM. Most of us solve our online privacy worries by looking for an unbreakable password or a new encryption technique to protect our email and financial transactions. We don’t realize that a completely anonymous, hidden world coexists alongside the internet. It’s a vast area handling the digital code transmissions that keep our systems functioning. It holds dark networks Alex Winter at Hot Docs Deep Web  photo © Jeff Harris cultural miningthat allow communication without exposing IP addresses. What exactly goes on in the Deep Web? A new documentary brings it all to the surface. It’s called Deep Web and it’s having its international premier at Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto. It delves into dark nets including the Silk Road, and the man accused of running it all, Ross Ulbricht. Deep_Web_6It’s written, directed and produced by Alex Winter. Alex is an actor and pop culture icon known for his excellent adventures who now is also an accomplished director and documentary filmmaker. He focuses on the history of the right now — the changes we’re all witnessing on and off line, more or less as they’re happening. I speak to Alex Winter by telephone in Los Angeles. He covers the deep web, privacy, anonymity, crime, human rights, dissidents, controversies, BBS, Napster, online communities, technology, regulations, search and seizure, JP Barlow, openness… and more!

Not Forgotten. Movies Reviewed: The Face of Love, Advanced Style, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz PLUS Hot Docs

Posted in Cultural Mining, Death, documentary, Fashion, Internet, L.A., Manhattan, Movies, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on April 18, 2014

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.

Things change, people die, time passes… But some things – and some people – are not easily forgotten. This week I’m looking at three movies about people who should be remembered.

There’s a romantic drama about a widow who can’t forget her husband; and I’m looking at two films coming to Hot Docs – Toronto‘s International Documentary Film Festival. One’s about a young man, a hero of the internet; the other’s about some stylish, elderly women becoming famous on-line.

LOL_RN_088.CR2The Face of Love
Wri/Dir: Arie Posen

Nikki (Annette Bening) and her husband (Ed Harris) are still deeply in love after decades of marriage. They live in LA, and go to a beach resort in Mexico every year. But one day his dead body washes up on the beach, and Nikki is devastated. Can she go on without him?

Five years later, things seem normal. Nikki’s working again. She dresses houses for real estate dealers to make them look lived-in, even though they are empty and lifeless. Sort of like Nikki. But she goes through her daily routine: talking with her neighbour Roger (Robin Williams) and skyping with her adult daughter. Roger used to be her husband’s best friend, but now he has feelings for Nikki (she’s not interested).

But one day, at an art museum she used to visit, she catches a glimpse of a man. HeLOL d05 _87.NEF looks exactly like her late husband. He could be an identical twin.

Tom (Ed Harris) is an artist and teacher. And after some clever stalking and faked coincidental meetings, Nikki manages to meet Tom, and date him. She is madly in love with her late husband, and finds what she’s missing in Tom. He sees her adoring eyes and takes it as the sort of passion he never got from his ex-wife. She sees Tom as her actual husband, returned look of love d02_84.NEFto her.

For Nikki it’s like a dream, and she’ll do anything to stop from “waking up”. She hides Tom from her daughter and from Roger next door. And she hides from Tom the fact he’s her late husband’s doppelgänger. And Tom has a deadly secret of his own that he’s not telling her. Is Nikki crazy? Is Tom deluding himself? Is this love or just an illusion? And can it last?

I kind of liked this mysterious romance: it feels like a soft-core Alfred Hitchcock movie: mystery without murder, conspiracy without crime. Ed Harris and Annette Bening make a good couple, simultaneously low-key but also passionate. It’s not an exciting movie, though. Don’t expect a thriller from a movie about relationships.

Advanced_Style_2Advanced Style
Dir: Lina Plioplyte

Ari Cohen is a young man who lives in New York City. He’s a photographer and a blogger. Because of his great respect for his own grandmother he decides to celebrate the many older women he sees decorate that city’s sidewalks. He Advanced_Style_3approaches women over 60 and asks if he can take their picture for his blog (also called Advanced Style). But he’s not looking for just any old lady. They have to have charm, style, and panache. He looks for women who use their clothes, makeup and hats to construct a work of art: themselves.

And these women all have their own stories. One worked as a dancer in Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre in the Depression. Another was a magazine editor. One is a renowned party hostess, another teaches art. And they each have their own style Advanced_Style_1trade marks, from a woman who constructs elaborately stylized bright orange false eyelashes; to another who owns a vintage clothing shop, to a punk-rocker in her 60s.

It’s not like their lives are perfect. Says one woman, “everything I have two of, one hurts.”But they’re finding a second (or third) wind with their looks on display on posters, on TV, in fashion magazines and now in this great movie. Advanced Style is a hilarious, heart-warming and surprising crowd-pleaser.

The_Internets_Own_Boy_3The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Dir: Brian Knappenberger

Aaron Swartz might not be a famous name, but it should be. He grew up with the internet, and was lecturing computer scientists and lawyers as a teen. He helped launch crucial features of the Internet, including RSS, Creative Commons. He played an essential role in the social network and news comment site Reddit, and was a millionaire many times over while still a kid. But instead of retiring to an easy life in silicon valley, he decided to devote himself to internet freedom through activism and hacktivism.

You may have heard of SOPA. It was an attempt to give US government control over web content. Basically, if a site was seen by the film and music industries as violating their copyright, the government could just close a site down. It was thought of as an easy, anti-piracy law, and it easily passed in Congress. But thanks to Aaron’s efforts, 115,000 websites – eventually including huge ones like Wikipedia, Google and Facebook – turned opinion around and defeated the very restrictive bill. This film is a biography of all the things Aaron Swartz did, and how he was dragged

Knappenberger_Brian_6down and eventually driven to suicide (not a spoiler) after being relentlessly pursued by the FBI and government prosecutors. The filmmaker directed the excellent We Are Legion a few years ago, and this extremely moving and informative film is even better. I think everyone should see this movie.

The Face of Love opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; And The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz has its international premier on Hot Doc’s opening Night next Thursday, with Advanced style having its world premier the following Tuesday. Go to hotdocs.ca for more information.

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

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