Bette Davis, The Hard Way. Movies reviewed: Jezebel, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, All About Eve

Posted in 1930s, Cultural Mining, Hollywood, Movies, New Orleans, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 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.

jezebell_01I see hundreds of movies a year, and I think I have a pretty good grasp of current cinema. But what do I know about old Hollywood? Next to nothing. So when I heard that TIFF was running a retrospective of a famous star through December, I thought I’d finally take a look at what all the fuss is about. I had always avoided these movies, so this really is the first time I’m watching her movies.

That actress is Bette Davis, and they’re playing a selection of her films in a series called The Hard Way. She’s unusual looking — huge round eyes, a narrow nose, not conventionally beautiful but quite distinctive, especially her voice. I’m starting to understand her fame. She plays strong – often tyrannical – women, but ones who don’t necessarily end up getting what they want. She conveys her meaning with a grand gesture, a cruel slap or a dismissive flick of her fingers.

This week I’m looking at three of her movies, one from each stage of her long career. First, from her days as a huge star in the late 1930s, a romantic drama set in the Old South;  in her comeback in the early 1950s, in an amazing drama set amidst Broadway theatre; and, with her second comeback, a dramatic horror movie set in Hollywood in the early 1960s.

jezebell_03Jezebel (1938)

Dir: William Wyler

It’s antebellum New Orleans, a land of strange customs. Chivalry prevails: a gentleman can be challenged to a duel at dawn merely for besmirching a woman’s name. But, at the same time, half the people there are enslaved to the other half. In the middle of this world is Julie (Bette Davis), a strong-willed southern belle living on a halcyon plantation. She loves one man only, a businessman named Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda). But she also loves her freedom: riding horses and asserting her own opinions, damn the rest. But she commits a social faux pas at the ball by appearing in a red dress, not the requisite white one. What a Jezebel! The audacity! The horror! Pres heads up north without asking her hand in marriage.

He returns a few years later a changed man. Julie – struck by melancholy — is sure he’s jezebell_02come back for her. But has he? When the plot turns, she sets in motion a series of intricate revenge plots among her friends, schemes that could lead to death. This is all done in the midst of a plague of yellow fever among the swamps, a symbol of the putrefaction of the entire pre-war south. Will Julie change her ways and feel regret? And will Pres ever love her again, or at least respect her?

This movie is an interesting look at another era, but it was so removed from now that it was hard for me to sympathize. A red dress? Honour? Chivalry? Jezebel is not a pro-slavery movie; it shows the pre-Civil-War south as a decadent, outdated culture on the verge of collapse. But how can you take a movie like this seriously after seeing Twelve Years a Slave, one that takes place during the same time period, but about the people who were really oppressed? Still (not a spoiler), the closing scenes in Jezebel do provide a suitably dramatic conclusion to this epic drama.

babyjane_01What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)

Dir: Robert Aldrich

Baby Jane Hudson is a tap-dancing child star of vaudeville, known for her blonde bologna curls and frilly white dresses. Her father flogs life-sized Baby Jane dolls at every performance. Her plain sister Blanche depends on her income. But with the dawn of the talkies, Blanche’s Hollywood star rises even while Jane’s falls. But when Blanche is crippled after a deliberate car crash, Jane becomes her nursemaid out of guilt.

Now, it’s the early 1960s, and they still live in the same rat-infested old Hollywood mansion. The adult Jane (Bette Davis) still has her blonde curls, but she’s an old woman now with inches of white pancake makeup slapped on her cheeks, and grotesque black eyeliner and misshapen lipstick. Blanche (Joan Crawford), in a wheelchair, is isolated in a room upstairs and can’t come down. They exist in a sort of a truce. But when Blanche’s old movies are revived on TV, Jane is overcome by jealousy and anger. She should be famous. She should have a comeback, not her sister. She becomes increasingly unhinged, flashing from 10-year-old girl to her hideous and cruel self. Can Blanche escape this hell-hole of Hollywood torture and decay? Two aging cinematic icons playing themselves, battle it out to the end.

And the final scene is just amazing.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, though a schlocky, much-imitated horror movie, did work as a comeback for Bette Davis, who carved out a new career as the queen of fear.

allabouteve_01All About Eve (1950)

Dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz.

Margo (Bette Davis) is a great broadway actress at the peak of her career. Eve (Ann Baxter) is a superfan. She shows up at every single performance in a trenchcoat and a crumpled Tilley hat. When they actually meet, Eve’s earnest story of love and loss entrances Margo and all her friends with her freshness, innocence and sincerity. Margo gives her a room in her home and Eve becomes a combination maid, confidant and personal assistant. But Margo gradually becomes suspicious when she sees Eve studiously imitating her every move. She’s not worshipping her… she’s trying to become her! Margo’s friends dismiss her fears as an aging actress’s egotitistic paranoia.

Soon Eve becomes Margo’s actual understudy and, due to some manipulation by Margo’s friends, Eve wows the critics, especially the all-powerful and all-knowing theatre critic Addison Dewitt (George Sanders).

Is Eve the ingénue she pretends to be — or an ambitious psychopath? All About Eve won a slew of Academy Awards, and, far from feeling dated, it really is a masterpiece, showing the pettiness, deception, artifice and manipulation in the dog-eat-dog world of theatre, and by extension, Hollywood. Perfect script, fantastic acting, flawless direction.

All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Jezebel are part of TIFF’s program The Hard Way: the Films of Bette Davis, curated by James Quandt. Go to tiff.net for listings. Also opening today is Empire of Dirt a Canadian drama about three generations of stubborn, first nations women, who are thrown together for the first time.

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

 

May 3, 2012 More Hotdocs! We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, Black Block, Tchoupitoulis

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, Italy, Music, New Orleans, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on May 9, 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.

Toronto is right in the middle of spring festival season. Starting today it’s TJFF – the Toronto Jewish Film Festival – which runs through next weekend, screening movies both downtown and north of Toronto. There are cool documentaries like Cabaret Berlin the Wild scene, and A People Uncounted about the genocide of Roma and Sinta people; comedies like the funny and quirky French Let My People Go; and coming-of-age dramas like “My Australia”. And there’s also a unique sidebar series this year called ‘The Sound of Movies” that’s screening classic films like Planet of the Apes, Coppola’s The Conversation, and the seldom seen indie flick “Something Wild” specifically highlighting their musical scores, by composers like Aaron Copeland, and Lalo Schiffrin. And free rush tickets are available for students, right before all the screenings. So check it out (TJFF.com)

And Hotdocs, Toronto’s documentary film festival is still going strong, with almost all titles showing again this weekend. Here are some documentaries you might not have heard about.

We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists

Dir: Brian Knappenberger

Who are the web-based activists group Anonymous? Well, they’re not exactly a “group”. This excellent documentary clears up the oft-repeated mainstream media misconceptions using uncensored interviews with some of its members and other online pundits.

It all started with the inventive and disgusting posters on the site 4chan — those kind souls who gave us lolcats and other online memes and detritus. Whenever they put up their chat comments without a nickname they were automatically labeled “anonymous”. But after years of competitive trolling, they encountered the Scientologists who were using their power to silence online criticism.

But no one tells a troll-hacker to shut up, so the apolitical peeps on 4chan fought back and the “capital A” Anonymous was born. They were represented online using the Guy Fawkes masks from the comic book and movie V is for Vendetta. Soon, diverse hackers across the globe were lending their anonymous power to international political activism, shutting down sites like paypal, who were trying to isolate and silence Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Along with the suave and brilliant Lulzsec, they’ve become a third, major player in the online political sphere, formerly completely controlled by vast government and corporate interests. This is a great movie.

(One thing puzzled me — the filmmaker chooses to include images of bandana-ed Black Block activists alongside the Anonymous masked protesters as if they were one and the same.)

Who are the Black Block? Where did they come from? Are they ust a bunch of violent kids breaking windows? Another movie…

Black Block

Dir: Carlo A. Bachschmidt

…talks about one such group and what happened to them.

In 2001, political, environmental and other activists from across Europe gathered for what they thought would be peaceful protests and marches at the 2001 Genoa G8 conference. That didn’t happen. The police reacted in an unexpectedly violent way, shooting protester Carlo Giuliani point blank in the face, killing him instantly.

The police left a trail of blood across the city. The marchers ran in fear, disbanded and bunked in an empty building – the Diaz School. This filmmaker got the protesters – from Germany, Spain, Holland, France and the UK – who were there to give their account of what happened. And it’s really shocking and upsetting to hear. The police broke in, dragged sleeping women down hallways by their hair, punched, kicked, bludgeoned and beat the kids nearly to death, threw them down staircases, stripped them naked… the riot police even formed a line to spit on them.

This movie uses period news footage, and videos by the protesters to show what happened to them. It’s very shocking.This was possibly the worst police violence directed at protesters in contemporary European history.

I was expecting a normal documentary. It was not. This one is a testimonial history told plainly, unembellished, by the protesters themselves. And it’s devastating.

So, isn’t it time for something… nice?

Tchoupitoulis

Dir: Bill & Turner Ross

… follows three young brothers for the night in New Orleans. They walk past strip bars and gay bars, hiphop bars and jazz bars, blues singers and street performers. With their dog Buttercup they explore the lanes and alleys, wide-eyed, taking it all in, talking abut their dreams. But they miss the last ferry back to Algiers, so they’re there for the night. Walking through the empty city. The camera stays back, occasionally taking detours into the places the kids can’t go. With a non-stop, seamless  blend of music and singing, flutes and jazz, bass and drums meld from one song to the next, all shot in an early-70’s style of unbelievable coolness. The whole movie feels like an early Sesame Street episode, without muppets: kids living in a safe, adventurous unvarnished urban space. They talk about their wishes, feelings and dreams as they wander in and out of abandoned boats and empty alleys. It’s all totally contemporary but somehow nostalgic. I love this low-key but exciting movie and want to see and listen to it and experience it again and again. Tchoupitoulas!

All the movies I mentioned — Tchoupitoulas, Black Block and We Are Legion: the Story of the Hacktivists — are all playing at Hotdocs through the weekend.

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

What is a piece of popcorn worth? Movies reviewed: Payback, Jeff, Who Lives at Home

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.

So did you hear about that poor guy in Michigan? Apparently he just wanted to go to a movie, but when he got into the theatre they literally held a gun to his head and forced him to buy a very expensive bag of popcorn! Literally! Can you believe it? …Oh — wait a sec. I’m wrong. Turns out he just didn’t think the price they were charging for popcorn and candy was fair. So he’s launching a class action suit.

Question: is it fair for movie theatres to charge 6 bucks for a bag of popcorn? Are moviegoers exploited and ripped off? Of course we are – everyone knows that, but we’re OK with it. Right? I mean you’re in that theatre paying to see Images projected on a screen — the ultimate deception.

If the candy’s too much then don’t buy it — they’ll get your money one way or another. I think popcorn is up there with the huge screens, surround-sound, velvet curtains, plush seats, grand lobbies and skeezy washrooms. It’s the movie experience. These seemingly random parts are all part of a larger coherent whole.

This week I’m reviewing two movies that look at fate, morality, destiny, and retribution. One is a documentary about things you must pay back, the other a comedy about paths you must follow.

Payback

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal

Two farmers, Llesh and Ilir live in northern Albania in a lush valley surrounded by grassy hills and snow topped mountains. A few years ago, when Ilir went to complain that Llesh was farming his land, there was a fight, and it may have involved Llesh’s wife… in any case Llesh pulled out a machine gun and shot Ilir in the gut a few times. He survived, but according to the 16th cenutry Albanian ethics code the Kanun, Llesh owes Ilir a debt. So Llesh and his family are poor now, trapped inside a shack and not able to farm.

This is just one of the many tangents this movie takes you on a look at debt – moral, ecological, monetary, and legal debt, — along with penitence, guilt, and retribution. They’re all very interesting stories – Latino tomato farmers in Florida fighting for fair treatment; a fisherman in the gulf enduring ruin after BP’s mishandled oil disaster; and a look at various Canadian prisoners – a petty burglar in Ontario, and Conrad Black (!) in Florida, both serving their time, repaying their debt to society. The documentary parts are alternated with talking heads — like Louise Barbour, Karen Armstrong, and Raj Patel — commenting on law, economics and religion.

This movie is sort of based on the Massey lectures Margaret Atwood gave a few years ago – a brilliant look at the words around lending, borrowing, owing and being owed. I say “sort of”, since it almost seems like one of those romantic thriller movies that say they were inspired by a true story. Jennifer Baichwal’s documentaries usually find a starting point and then, like a Stephen Leacock character, they fling themselves onto a horse and ride madly off in all directions.

Is this a problem? Not really, because even if they’re all over the place, the subjects she chooses are all interesting. And the movie is so visually rich (cinematography by Nicholas de Pencier) with images — from ceramic figures through a pawn shop window, to staggering, long aerial shots of the BP oil slick creeping across the Gulf of Mexico – that are as fascinating as any of the things people are saying.

I do get the feeling that Baichwal realizes it’s all over the place, so, to tie it all to Margaret Atwood’s book she adds long, literal scenes of Atwood hunt-and-pecking on her laptop, or Atwood reading from her manuscript. The talking head expertss are on screen too briefly to stick in the mind, except Conrad Black – who seems to have changed his mind about debt, retribution, and prisons.

In any case, Payback is a great visual riff.

Another movie that seems, superficially, to be about random drifting is

Jeff, Who lives at Home

Dir: the Duplass Brothers

(I reviewed this after seeing it at TIFF, but it held up very well this second viewing — I actually liked it better this time.)

Jeff (Jason Segel) is part of a dysfunctional family that fell apart when the father husband died years ago. Mom works in a lonely office cubicle, douchey Brother Pat (Ed Helms) sells paint and is destroying his marriage, and Jeff, who’s 30, still lives at home – sits around his mother’s basement in his underwear, to be exact. He smokes pot, eats chips, watches TV, and waxes philosophical about the cosmos… while sitting on a toilet. He’s always waiting for “signs” to tell him what to do., like in the Mel Gibson movie.

Well, one day he’s forced to leave home for downtown Baton Rouge to get something for his mother (Susan Sarandon)’s birthday. But, when someone on an infomercial says his life will change by the words “CALL NOW!”; and at the same time a strange, threatening wrong number wanted to talk to “Kevin”, he starts off on a (seemingly) wild goose chase all around the city.

So Jeff embarks on this grand mission – one that eventually ties in with his brother’s failing marriage and his mother’s love life — because he knows, he just knows, that his actions will change the world. Will Jeff find Kevin? Will Pat forget about Hooters and Porsche’s and think about his wife for once? And will Mom ever get to kiss under a waterfall?

This is a good, enjoyable comedy. I like the Duplass brothers, who used to make low-budget, ‘mumblecore”, semi-improvisational super-realistic movies. They have a few quirks – little camera emoticons – I don’t know how else to describe it – where the camera zooms in to nudge-nudge, wink-wink to the viewer that something funny is happening like a visual laughtrack– but the movie’s good enough that it doesn’t bother me after awhile. This one, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is their biggest budget and most mainstream one so far, with stuntmen, and chase scenes, and big name cast. But I like this direction they’re taking – it’s not a sell-out, just a very funny, light comedy.

Payback and Jeff, Who Lives at Home both open today. And Margaret Atwood and Jennifer Baichwal will be there for a Q&A at the screenings on Friday and Saturday. Worth a trip just for that — Margaret Atwood is very entertaining. Also playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox are the fantastic Japanese animated films Spirited away and Princess Mononoke. And at the newly re-opened Bloor Cinema, look out for the daily HotDocs documentaries playing now. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

 

More Underdogs at Hotdocs! Weibo’s War, Guantanamo Trap, Draquila: Italy Trembles, Hot Coffee, Bury the Hatchet, Melissa-Mom and Me

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

CulturalMiningmay6

Toronto’s Hotdocs, which continues through the weekend, is one of the best documentary festivals in the world. Today I’m going to talk about some more movies about the largely unknown underdogs, in their struggles with huge governments, big business, or with themselves.

Weibo’s War

Dir: David York

Weibo Ludwig is a devout Christian who lives in a remote, isolated colony with his fellow religious settlers in BC, near Alberta. Their lives are food and energy self-sufficient, but, in the 90’s, things began to go wrong. Goats started having frequent stillbirths, and, when a woman also miscarried, they realized their watershed had been contaminated by natural gas wells built right at the edge of their property.

He was later arrested, tried, and jailed for bombs he had set off at wells and pipelines in that energy-rich Alberta area. This movie follows filmmaker David York who was allowed to film inside their compound.

Is Weibo a religious nut or a devoted social activist? Well, he’s certainly religious, but he’s crazy like a fox. The movie shows some of Weibo’s (and those of his fellow settlers’) frequent brushes with the law and the big energy companies

including run-ins with outwardly conciliatory execs from Encana; the seemingly pointless, intimidating, and relentless police raids of their homes to test things like how many ball point there are on one floor, and how many cassette tapes are on another; and their increasingly fractious relationship with the nearby town, where they have found themselves local pariahs following the unexplained shooting death of young woman on their property.

Folk hero, or deranged terrorist?

Maybe both. I left the movie even less certain than before as to who’s to blame and what actually happened. While a bit slow-moving, Weibo’s war did give a first hand look at a legendary Canadian figure, his family and co-religionists, and the unusual junction between Christian fundamentalism and environmental extremism.

Guantanamo Trap

Dir: Thomas Selim Wallner

With the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden, some people are saying that the awful decade between 9/11 until now is finally over. The “War on Terror” has been “won” by the west, and we can turn the page on the whole tragedy and its devastating effect on the American public, and the subsequent hundreds of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis killed by the US and their allies.

But, inspite of bin Laden’s death, in spite of Obama’s election promises, the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is still open, with many untried captives still inside. What really happened at Guantanamo, who’s to blame and who got punished?

This film traces four people involved in this awful period: a military lawyer, Diane Beaver, who helped write the notorious memo that declared waterboarding was not torture; Muniz, a religious Turkish-German Muslim man, who was whisked away from Pakistan due to some miscommunication and tortured in Guantanamo; Matthew, a military judge-advocate, also working at Guantanamo (alongside Diane), who leaked a memo with a list of prisoners’ names and countries; and Gonzalo, an activist- lawyer in Spain who wants to prosecute the people really responsible for miscarriages of justice.

This is a very moving and shocking film with previously unseen footage — not just still photos — and first- hand testimony of what went on in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In an awful Catch 22, it seems the people at the top got away scott-free, the whistleblowers were jailed, the low-level torture advocates were scapegoated but allowed to retire to happy, new careers, and the unwitting victims left without apology or explanation. This Canadian film is an excellent, human look at a difficult and controversial topic.

Draquila – Italy Trembles

Dir: Sabina Guzzanti

In 2009, the small Italian city of Aquilla was struck by a dangerous earthquake which damaged the rennaisance buildings in the town centre, killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless. The diorector, a comedian and filmmaker uses this disaster to expose the tangled web of corruption, oppression, and scandal at the root of Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi’s empire and its ties to big business, the construction industry Milan, his media empire, the military, police and government, and the Mafia.

Something familiar only to Italians known as “Civil Protection” — a recent government law that allows forcible confinement, exclusive contracts, and strange pay-offs in the name of protection in the case of disasters or threats — has ballooned into a strange and twisted entity that releases unfettered access to government funds, while it gags local government, blocks media coverage, and puts the police in charge. Far from being a temporary measure, it’s occuring daily across Italy, for anything considered to be a “big event” including church parades, housing relocation, and swimming contests.

Comic and political filmmaker Sabina Guzzanti spends most of the movie trying to get into the relocation camps of the earthquake victims, but getting stymied at almost every stop by police and contractors who are loathe to allow public access to anything that might expose corruption or wrongdoing.

And through it all the stoic victims are pushed around like pawns in some international PR game.

Draquila (a reference to all the blood suckers who, laughing immediately after the disaster, gleefully pounced on the disaster as a chance to earn big government contracts) is an enlightening, entertaining and humorous look at the uniquely shady world of Italian politics under Berlusconi.

Hot Coffee

Dir: Susan Saladoff

When a woman who was awarded millions in a lawsuit after she was burnt by hot coffee at a McDonald’s drive through, her story hit the headlines. It became a staple joke for comedians and talk shows, an episode of Seinfeld, and the focus of citizens’ groups objecting to “Frivolous Lawsuits”. But this movie takes a closer look at these seemingly ridiculous awards.

It turns out — and she shows unbelievably brutal photos to prove it — that the elderly woman was horribly injured by the coffee spill; that she initially asked only asked McDonald’s for reimbursement for her medical expenses (McDonald’s offered only a token $800); and that far from being frivolous, it was an incident that followed repeated corporate indifference to similar incidents that had occurred hundreds of times before and kept secret by the companies.

This movie poses that the whole concept of of the term frivolous lawsuits was coined by PR firms working for huge corporations like McDonald’s in order to cut their own losses and limit future pay-offs. She shows similar cases in the US — including malpractice suits, “forced mediation” and the fact no criminal charges were laid after an employee of a US security firm in Iraq was gang raped; and the case of a judge who was in favour of punitive awards in lawsuits, but was forced to fend off accusations and trials brought down on him by right-wing groups, when he should have been on the bench.

The way this movie handles concepts such as “tort reform” (i.e. opposition to lawsuits), and the parties actually pushing for it, reveals the necessity in the US for lawsuits. The filmmaker says corporate donations target liberal judges, lawsuits are being quashed by large corporations, that lawsuits are the only way for individuals to pay for medical damages, and that forced mediation always takes the side of the big companies not individuals.

But for Canadians and others outside of the US, Hot Coffee is as baffling and arcane as the Italian politics in Draquilla. We don’t have elections for judges, no corporate donations to political campaigns, no US-style extended elections beyond a few weeks, no TV ads for local politicians. In Canada trials are generally by judges not by juries; mediation usually refers to their successfully use in union/ management disputes, in lieu of strikes; and our largely public, one-payer health system, that provides lifetime medical care, cuts out many malpractice lawsuits.

Most of all, there are just far fewer lawyers, per capita, in Canada, and Canadians just aren’t as litigious as Americans. I can see the value now of lawsuits, but I’d be bothered if Canadians ever reached the level of US litigation and courtroom interference in the average person’s lives. And it might have been more believable if it hadn’t been so one sided in its relentlessly positive view lawsuits as a purely progressive force, without any look at the abuse that lawyers themselves may play in this phenomenon.

Finally, two more Hotdocs films that deal with issues on a smaller, individual level.

Bury the Hatchet

Dir: Aaron Walker

The annual Mardi Gras in New Orleans has a public, tourist side to it, but also has a deeply ingrained local side full of traditions and customs. This movie takes a look at the “tribes” — competitive teams of Black New Orleans residents — who, with beads and feathers, music and dance, dress in native costumes they design and wear in the parade.

The custom, said to have started with the shelter natives gave escaped slaves, is performed in their honour, with colourful homages to the Indians using mock chants, names and headdresses.

This intensely beautiful, brightly coloured film interviews the elderly men in their various competing clubs, as they recount, using period foootage and pictures, the sometimes violent history of this largely unknown practice. The soundtrack, composed of jazz, blues, R&B and reggae, are as entrancing as the images, in this slow moving, but very visual and aural slice of New Orleans cultural life from the 60’s, through Katrina, until the present.

Melissa-Mom and Me

Dir: Limor Pinhasov

Yael — then known as Jenny — and Melissa, lead a drug-filled, light hearted life as two friends who worked as strippers in a Tokyo nightclub. Yael became a professional photographer in Tel Aviv, while Melissa eventually made her was back to Carolina, to start a very different life. Yael decides to join her here to rekindle their friendship (she still has many videos and photos she had taken of them in Tokyo) and to get her advice on having kids.

This is quite a moving story.

Melissa-mom of the title is indeed a mother — she had left her kids when she went to work as a stripper in Tokyo — and they are now much older and grown up without their own mother. In a dramatically filmed series of revelations, meetings, confrontations, and reconciliations, Melissa’s hidden family secrets are gradually revealed both to her friend Yael, and to the audience. It deals with sin, reponsibility, duty, guilt, friendship, love and family, in an entirely understandable way.

All of these movies are worth watching (depending on your interests). Most of the movies get replayed this weekend, so be sure to come out to see some more great documentaries.

The Hotdocs festival runs from Thursday April 28th to May 8th, and is free – no charge! – for rush seats during the day for anyone with a Student or Senior ID. Check online at hotdocs.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better this World

Dir: Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega

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

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

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

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

Another type of fighter are the ones featured in the movie

Fightville

Dir: Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

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

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

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

Open Secret

Dir: Steve Lickteig

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Dir: Morgan Spurlock

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

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

Recessionize! For Fun and Profit!

Dir: Jaime Kastner

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

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

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

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

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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Jaw Droppers. Documentaries: Secrets of the Tribe, Gasland, 12th and Delaware

There’s a particular type of documentary I saw at this year’s Hotdocs (The Canadian International Documentary Festival), that I call a jaw-dropper.

Some movies, well most movies, including most documentaries, are entertaining but forgettable. But a few are really good — informative, telling about a new phenomenon or hot topic. Something you may have heard about, it’s knocking around somewhere in a corner of your brain, but you’ve actually never seen it on TV or in a movie – not with that degree of closeness. The kind of movie that takes a bite out of you, chews you up, and then spits you out again at the end. They leave you with your head shaking or your stomach churning or your brain exploding.

One really shocking movie — “Secrets of the Tribe” (directed by Jose Padilha) left a bitter taste in my mouth about an entire field: anthropology.

The Yanomami are a large group of indigenous people in the Amazon in the area between Brazil and Venezuela. Because they had been virtually without any contact with the outside world (ie European culture) until fairly recently, the anthropologists considered it an ideal case where they could study traditional practices, beliefs, sexuality, war, violence, language… the whole thing. And by getting there before they’ve been changed by so-called civilization, they can record and preserve a culture that might soon disappear. One of the leading anthropologists there, and one who made his reputation on it, is the controversial Napoleon Chagnon, the US-based French academic. Many other anthropologists in the 60’s and 70’s flooded into the region, to see this virgin, untouched civilization. The thing is, anthropologists are people too. And they touched the Yanomami.

This case, and all its ramifications, led to a real split within the anthropological establishment (which was exposed a while back, in an expose by Patrick Tierney). The movie brings the academic warfare to the screen, in all its disgustingness.

The accusations range from ideology, to crimes, to awful unethical practices, to eeeeeeeeeuuuggghh noooo!

Chagnon introduces weapons and technology that villages can use against each other, and gleefully records the casualties of this “warlike” people. It’s all about who kills the most, who gets the most wives, who has the most babies. He advances his theory that biology is what determines culture, a sort of a neo-darwinist take on civilization.

As if controversial theories weren’t enough, the movie turns into a combination documentary and late night episode of TMZ, with sordid talk of one anthropologists taking a teenaged Yanomami girl as a bride and another who slept with teenaged boys. Then it gets even more mind blowing.

It turns out Chagnon was paid by the US government Atomic Energy Commission to collect data on the Yanomami to be used as a control population. Through this data, the US government could compare mutation levels with the people affected by American bomb tests in the Marshall islands (in the South Pacific), or the population that survived the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And then… there were the measles epidemics spreading through the amazon killing people. In this case, they decide to do something that could save the Yanomami if they get them the vaccine before the infection reached there. But the guides they take with them may be from infected villages. In addition, they were taking secret blood samples from the Yanomami – for research purposes — that had nothing to do with the vaccinations.

Anyway, each scene is more horrific and sick-making than the one before, including the vicious academic infighting and backstabbing going on… yikes!

Secrets of the Tribe is a devastating expose of the entire profession.

Another revealing movie is “Gasland” (directed by Josh Fox). It’s a gut puncher. The idea that all of this environmental destruction is going on all around us… is unbelievable.

I always thought natural gas was the clean one, the good energy. the one that won’t leave huge pits of tar sludge behind it, won’t lead to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico creeping slowly toward the Louisiana coastline wiping out all those birds, all those shrimp. It won’t lead to collapses in the coal mines, it won’t kill everything in site, it’s clean, pure, ozone-friendly. C’mon its “natural gas”, it’s natural gas. It’s like… organic!

Um… it’s not.

Josh Fox lives in a beautiful home in rural Pennsylvania, the home he grew up in, with bubbling brooks and twirting birds, and lush green trees all around. Like most of his neighbours, he gets a letter from energy giant asking him to allow them to poke around for some natural gas below the surface of his land. And for that he’d get a nice juicy cheque! Sounds pretty sweet. But he notices something… unusual going all around his county.

The gas company is using a technique called hydraulic fracturing – also known as “fracking”. (What the frack is that?) It means they’re drilling down into the ground, then far below, they’re sending horizontal pipes to set off explosions using unknown chemicals, underground, to free the pools of gas.

This is going on all over the place, in maybe 31 states. The problem is that if you set off explosions all over the place, underground, it does release the gas, and that gas interferes with the water supply.

What does that mean in real terms? Josh gets in his car with a handheld camera and starts driving around the country talking to people with those cute little gas pods on their land or nearby. And he keeps finding noxious fumes, disgusting sewage, and a horrible mixing of the gas – and the chemicals used in the fracking — with their water supply. The gas companies say, no! no!, it’s fine, don’t worry, be happy, but the people all show Josh Fox what this means: they turn on their sink, and hold up a lighter to the water – their tap water… is on fire!

Turns out this is all Dick Cheney’s fault. No, seriously.

Anyway, this is a fun, well made, Michael Moore-style documentary about how the big energy companies are screwing the little guy, and how deregulation has eliminated the safeguards that ensure clean air and clean water.

I would have preferred they weren’t jiggling the camera quite so much – I got a bit carsick watching this movie – but, aside from that, this is a great documentary.

“12th and Delaware” is a unique movie about a topic that’s been talked to death. Abortion. The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, (who directed the movie “Jesus Camp”), found an abortion clinic in Florida, that’s at one corner of a street, with an anti-abortion center, a Crisis Pregancy Clinic parked right across the street. The two sides are not friends, to say the least. You get your old ladies screaming at anyone going into the abortion clinic and waving little plastic babies at them. (They have pink ones and brown ones, depending on whom they’re showing them to). They go right up to the closed blind windows and taunt them through glass. The anti-abortion side leaves photos and signs on the grass in front of the abortion clinic to scare people away.

So… big deal, right? I’ve seen all this before. And, actually I didn’t want to see any more about it. But…

These filmmakers take it inside the clinics, both of them, at the same time. So the camera teams have been allowed free access to talk with the people inside the centres on both sides of the street, show them talking to the women, and talk frankly to the camera about what’s going on.

Basically, a lot of the people going into the right-to-life place called a pregnancy crisis clinic think they’re going into an abortion clinic. They’re both at the corner of 12th and Delaware. These pregnancy crisis centres are positioned all across the US, many of them placed in exactly the same way – right across the street from the abortion clinics. The woman in the white coat is not an abortion doctor, she’s an anti-abortion counselor. But she doesn’t tell them that. (A lot of them figure it out eventually.)

It’s almost like a race. There’s a priest – a Stephen Colbert doppelganger – who explains it’s a battle, a battle between darkness and light. Then there are the doctors on the other side of the street who are mainly just pissed off at the crazies: “Why don’t they just leave us alone – we don’t bother them…” They peek through their venetian blinds and look at the security cameras to see if the protesters are getting close enough to the clinic that they can call the cops on them. The doctors literally have to disguise themselves as they drive into the clinic. There’s even a really scary stalker dude following the doctors on the street to track down where they pick up patients.

Amazingly, they get all of this on camera, sharply shot. It’s a real eye-opener. And shot with both sides of the chasm allowed to openly express their views to the camera. Not a topic I’m fond of hearing about, but “12th and Delaware” shows it all in an entirel new way.

Unusual Characters: Documentaries reviewed: And Everything is Going Fine, The Story of Furious Pete, The Canal Street Madam, Inventing Dr Nakamats, Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya

Today I’m going to look at a particular form of documentary that’s at this year’s Hotdocs, and talk about some of the movies screening there.

Right now, and through the weekend, Hotdocs Festival in Toronto is showing over a hundred new documentaries. There are history documentaries, there are social issues, there are global disasters, there are political movements, current affairs, competition, true crime, and personal triumphs. This year, Hotdocs has brought in not just the filmmakers, but a number of documentary subjects themselves – the people the movies are about.

These days, everyone downtown is looking funny at everyone else: is that woman in a movie? I think he’s sort of famous! On Sunday, I chatted with a pair of Teletubbies in Yorkville. Still not sure whether they were there as part of a movie or if they just liked dressing in fuzzy yellow and red costumes. I guess I’ll never know. The festival is full of unusual documentaries with all sorts of unique, off-beat characters. Here are a few I liked.

And Everything is Going Fine

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Spalding Gray was a fantastic storyteller and monologist who used his own life and encounters as the raw materials for his talks. He would sit at a plain wooden desk, with some papers in front of him – stage props, he never looked at them — maybe a glass of water, and just talk to the audience in a brilliant, multifaceted monologue.

His stories were really captivating, hilarious, always surprising, and all about himself. He talked about sex, about his mother’s suicide, about psychiatry, sex, war, travel, more sex, acting, performing, his wife, and death. He committed suicide a few years ago, and Stephen Soderbergh has put together footage from some of his past shows, TV appearances, and interviews. “And Everything is Going Fine”, gives a partial biography of Spalding Gray’s life, told in his own words, by him.

It’s a great collection of his past works, seamlessly stitched together into a single script. My only criticism is that Soderbergh skewed the focus of Spalding Gray’s talks into a sort of a living epitaph, as if his words were a clear prediction of his eventual, inevitable suicide. I don’t think it was predestined at all… it just, sadly, happened. And I hope his narrative won’t be recast in the public memory as the guy who killed himself. But I do recommend this movie, both for people who have seen him, and those who have never heard of him.

The Story of Furious Pete, Directed by George Tsioutsioulis is about Peter Czerwinski, a Canadian competitive eater, who at a much earlier age, was hospitalized for anorexia. So, a guy who used to barely eat at all, is now a buff body-builder who scoops up chunks of food in official competitions and chows down, like a vicious velociraptor, at whatever is put in front of him. Schnitzels, steak, obscenely massive sandwiches, everything, that is, except the legendary Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest in Coney Island. We follow him traveling around North America competing as a pro eater, his hair died red and white to look like the Canadian flag.

As a movie, it’s half fun to watch, half disgusting. The parts about his personal life don’t come through as clearly as the competition scenes, which are truly remarkable examples of high-speed zombie-style gorging. Sometimes the documentary feels borderline infomercial, with that “exciting” pounding sports TV music, and the flashing chrome fonts it uses. I guess that’s to make it look like a sports show. Maybe it is a sports show… And there are lots of product placements and logos for the companies that sponsor him, so the tone is noticeably different from most of the films at hotdocs. But it still kept me interested, and rooting for him to win as he stuffs barbecued ribs into his bulging cheeks. He even appeared live, at the screening, in an impromptu orgy of competitive watermelon gluttony, the latest chapter in the ongoing Story of Furious Pete.

In The Canal Street Madam, directed by Cameron Yates, Jeanette Maier runs a brothel on Canal St in New Orleans that attracts famous clients – politicians, journalists, businessmen.

But in 2004, after a year of wiretapping, the FBI holds a major raid, throwing Jeanette, her mom, and her daughter in jail. Three generations in the same profession. The courts close down her livelihood. The people working there go to jail, the well heeled clients split without charge.

This movie shows Jeanette’s gradual change from a rich madam to a politically active sex trade worker, who isn’t ashamed, isn’t afraid, and is willing to stand up for her rights. The government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, including consensual paid sex. She says she has now moved from “politricking” to politicking. Though the movie sometimes drifts into reality show-style confessionals, it is a moving, respectful, and fascinating profile of Jeanette’s public persona and her private family life.

“Inventing Dr Nakamats”, directed by Danish filmmaker Kaspar Schroder shows an eccentric Japanese man who holds the patent to over 3000 devices. Dr Nakamatsu has a number of theories he lives by. He keeps track of every meal he eats (one meal a day at 8 pm sharp), to follow the nutrients. He’s driven by efficiency – how many minutes will something take, how much, how many, how long. He has determined that the best new ideas happen underwater, so of course he invents a waterproof pen and paper so he can write an idea down in the swimming pool as soon as he thinks of it. You get to see him sniffing a camera – he believes you can judge a new camera by its smell.

The filmmaker follows him around for a month recording everything leading up to his 80th birthday, when he plans to release his latest invention, a push-up bra. He comes across as egotistical and tyrannical – he castigates a hotel toady for refusing to name a room after him – but his off-beat creativity, combined with prolific scientific brilliance and brazen self-promotion show a unique guy. This movie is a lot of fun.

I have my own encounter with Dr Nakamatsu a few days ago at a lecture. I see him sitting at a table with his wife. I go over to acknowledge his work. He says “Latin America”? I say no, I’m Canadian. He explains. He is heading for the Latin America documentary reception, as am I. How many minutes? he wants to know. I don’t know… 10-15 minutes? OK, he says, let’s go, where’s your car? My car? No I’m taking the subway, right across the street.

Mood change. Dr Nalamatsu dismisses me. They’ll be going without me.

Later, at the party, we meet again. How many minutes did it take me? His method, by taxi, was faster. We are near a tray of tortilla chips and salsa. What is that? he wants to know, ever the nutritional scientist. I explain. But he wants the ingredients. Um corn… Oil? Salt? And that, he says, pointing to the dip. Tomatoes, onions, pepper, spices… pause. Dr Nakamatsu deliberates. Dr Nakamatsu photographs the tray. Then… he nods his approval. Chips and salsa will constitute his once-a-day meal. And in his head, he’s probably inventing a new, better, Japanese taco chip. All’s well with the world.

Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya Directed by Eric Liebman and Jonathan Schell.

His name is Desert, but you can call him Dez. Dez lives in Sedona, Arizona with Maya. They hold big spiritual meetings. Baba Dez (who attended the screening) – an old-school surfer-dude-looking guy, with long hair and a yoga physique – is a tantric, polyamorous shaman. Tantric as in tantric yoga, tantric sex; polyamorous meaning he has sex with various women other than his lover; and shamanistic, meaning… well that was never quite clear, but I think it’s about him playing a wooden flute on the side of a hill. Maya dumps him cause he’s too polyamorous for her tastes. He spends most of the movie trying to get her back.

Dez says we all have yin and yang, a lingam and yoni, deep inside of us. And the key is to find the union of your masculine and feminine sides, (not the bullies and the victims, the good masculine and feminine), in order to find inner calm and sexual satisfaction.

He helps one woman find her orgasm by saying “OM” just as she reaches nirvana. He’s a “hands-on” kinda guy…

Dez is frequently nekkid, (as are many of the people in this movie) so you get to see a lot of him. Whatever his tantric beliefs are, at his consciousness raising ashrams Dez is always quick to spot the prettiest women and to try to make contact with them. Dez, Dez, Dez… you dirty dog. We know what you’re all about.

We see him impressing women in Hawaii by showing them a giant, all-natural, lava rock vagina inside a cave (sort of like the Virgin Mary appearing on a tortilla). Aw, Dez…

Then, just when you think nothing will surprise you, in another scene, he’s kneeling beside a woman he’s saying something spiritual to. She’s lying naked on her back, and he’s – wait a minute, is that his…? It appears that Dez has gingerly displayed his junk across her thigh.

Anyway, this is a movie like none you’ve ever seen (hopefully), sort of soft-core tantric porn, but it’s also a really good documentary, and very entertaining. And you know what? The people in the movie all seem happy with what’s going on, so who can argue with that? Even though nothing Dez says makes any sense.

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