Acting white. Films reviewed: Whitney, Sorry to Bother You, Mary Shelley

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, documentary, Feminism, Movies, Music, Poetry, Politics, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 13, 2018

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

The scorching heat shows no sign of letting up, but you can always wait till dark and watch free screenings in Toronto parks. There are screenings at Yonge/Dundas Square each Tuesday, in Corktown each Thursday, and a special TPFF screening at Christie Pits in August.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies playing only in air-conditioned theatres. There’s a man in Oakland told to talk white, a musician from Newark made to sing white, and a woman in 19th century England… who just wants to write.

Whitney (a documentary)

Dir: Kevin McDonald

Whitney Houston is a middleclass churchgoing girl born into a musical family in Newark, New Jersey. Her mom Cissie Houston sings backup for Aretha Franklin and her cousin is Dionne Warwick. She has many supportive aunts and brothers – including an NBA player – and her stepdad is a municipal bureaucrat. They put her into a private Catholic school to avoid urban strife and riots. She’s pretty and talented and professionally trained. By age 18 she is accompanying her mom at a Manhattan nightclub, until the night she takes the stage on her own. Her beautiful voice blows the audience away, soon record execs are banging at her door, and she never looks back. She moves in with her best friend, Robyn Crawford, in a committed relationship.

Soon she’s chalking up consecutive number one hits, eventually breaking records for a female vocalist. And she puts her entire extended family on the payroll. Despite her intimate relationship with Robyn – a woman — she meets and marries popstar

Bobby Brown and does her best to please him – and their cute little daughter. But all is not well.

Even as her fame grows, some fans object to the homogenized, MOR tunes provided by a studio that wants her to sing “white”. Whitney becomes a real superstar when the movie The Bodyguard – and its theme song – attract worldwide attention. But she’s too big to survive. She start on a downward spiral of drug addiction, depression and isolation. She’s exploited, abused and her career collapses, as do her vocal chords and her family life.

Whitney is a new documentary that, through interviews with her family members and work mates – virtually everyone in her life (except Robyn) — unveils her hidden history: her drug use, her fluid sexuality and even, possibly, sexual abuse as a young girl (no spoilers here). Personally, I was never a fan of Whitney’s bland musical style, but I found this documentary totally engrossing (and sickening). Along with all the interviews, it has amazing montages that combine 80s music videos, TV commercials and violent news footage –  it’s worth watching just for that. Whitney is a celebration of crash-and-burn celebrityhood that you don’t want to watch, but can’t take your eyes off of.

Sorry to Bother You

Wri/Dir: Boots Riley

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young, everyman in Oakland in a bad situation. He’s jobless, penniless, and nearly homeless: he lives in his uncle’s garage and drives a rust bucket. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a political performance artist who is also perpetually broke.

So he jumps at the chance to work for a telemarketing company and gradually learns the ropes. It’s stressful and depressing with a high turnover rate. Worse than that, salary is commission-based, meaning if you don’t close a deal, you don’t get paid. And he can’t get anyone to buy from him until an old timer (Danny Glover) tells him the secret: talk white. It’s not just an accent, it’s the whole lifestyle, talking like you don’t have a worry in the world. Sure enough, he begins to earn some cash. At the same time a union rep named Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is organizing a wildcat strike. And behind the scenes, bay area zillionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is urging labour sign up as indentured servants — Virtual slavery in other words. He owns the company. Which direction will Cassius go… join the strike or cross the picket line?

Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant political satire that combines science fiction, black american culture, experimental movie making and delightful comedy. filmmaker Boots Riley reinvents movies in unexpected ways: like tearing down the fourth wall in one scene – literally! He portrays gangsta rap as modern day minstrelsie while keeping political issues – like homelessness, precarious employment – at the forefront. This is an excellent indie movie.

Mary Shelley

Dir: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning: Ginger and Rosa, Neon Demon, 20th Century Women, The Beguiled) is a teenaged girl in 19th century London. She wears her blond hair braided and her dresses loose. She can be found curled up against a gravestone reading a book. She’s the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecroft (who died when she was an infant), and political philosopher Charles Godwin, so she’s always open to new ideas, both scientific and literary.

Her dark-haired, half-sister Claire (Bel Powley: Diary of Teenege Girl, ) is her constant companion, until she meets a poet at a reading. Handsome, young Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth: The Riot Club) sweeps her off her feet with his amorous verse. Is it love? Mary thinks so… until she meets his estranged wife and child. (Turns out Shelley is a bit of a player.) But she agrees to run off with him, accompanied by the faithful Claire. And when deby collectors chase them out of their Bloomsbury flat, they flee to the continent, where sex-addicted poet Lord Byron lives in a grand mansion.

To while away the rainy days Byron proposes the four of them – Mary, Shelley, himself and a young doctor, but not Claire – to write some scary stories. That’s where Mary pens the classic Frankenstein. Can a woman get her work published in 19th century England? And is “free love” just an excuse men use to exploit gullible women?

I enjoyed Mary Shelley but didn’t love it. It can’t seem to decide where it’s going: is it a gothic, Brontë romance? An intellectual feminist historical biopic? Or a witty, Jane Austen drama? You can’t be all three.

As for Frankenstein, the only monsters here are the loathesome poets Mary Shelley has to deal with.

Whitney, Sorry to Bother You and Mary Shelley 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 director Adam Bhala Lough about Alt Right: Age of Rage at #Hotdocs

Posted in documentary, Movies, Nazi, Politics, Protest, Racism, US, violence by CulturalMining.com on May 4, 2018

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

In post-WWII America, the extreme right operated undercover. Klansmen wore hoods and Nazis were reviled in the mainstream. But recently — especially since the election of Donald Trump — the ultra-right has re-emerged as a significant, recognizable group. And under self-proclaimed leaders like Richard Spencer, they have redubbed themselves the “alt right”. But what is the alt right, who are its members and what do they want?

Alt Right, Age of Rage is a new documentary that looks at this rise, which culminated in the notoriously violent, torchlit rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. The film follows neo-Nazis like Spencer and their encounters with anti-fascist protesters like Daryle Lamont Jenkins. The film was directed by Adam Bhala Lough, known for documenting fringe political groups, whether on the left, the right or neither. Alt Right: Age of Rage had its Canadian debut at Hotdocs Toronto’s International Documentary Film Festival.

I spoke with Adam in studio at CIUT. 

He talked about the “Alt Right”, Richard Spencer, Jared Taylor, white supremacy, platforming, Charlottesville, The Southern Poverty Law Centre, Daryle Lamont Jenkins, Antifa… and more!

Alt Right: Age of Rage premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival.

Torn from the headlines! Docs reviewed: Active Measures, The Cleaners, The Blue Wall, Blowin’ Up at #HotDocs

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Conspiracy Theory, Corruption, documentary, Donald Trump, Politics, Racism, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 27, 2018

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

Hot Docs is one of the worlds biggest international documentary film festivals, and this year is its 25th anniversary. Over 200 movies are playing this week– this year featuring docs made in Mexico, along with new movies and festival favourites from the past 25 years.

I love all movies but documentaries have a special appeal: their immediacy, with the newness of the nightly news or online investigative journalism, combined with the grandeur of the camerawork you see on the big screen. And their independence – they’re usually made not by studios or huge media conglomerates but by indie directors – allow it to go places where mainstream movies don’t dare to tread.

This week I’m looking at Hot Docs documentaries torn from the headlines. There’s malfeasance in Moscow, chicanery in Chicago, questioning in Queens, and manipulation in Manila.

Active Measures

Dir: Jack Bryan

Since the wave of Russian immigration to the US in the late 70s, organized crime and soviet spies have had a strong but hidden presence in US finance, real estate and politics. At the head of it all is Vladimir Putin, and the puppet kept under his control through blackmail is Donald Trump. …or so says a new documentary that traces connections dating back 40 years among the various power brokers. This includes money laundering, insider trading, computer hacking and cyber attacks. All of which culminated in Trumps election.

While the film provides lots of historical evidence, it’s told in a style reminiscent of Cold War propaganda, suggesting there’s a Russian hiding behind every potted palm. Parts of it – like banking and real estate schemes, and Russian interference in Estonia and Georgia — seem totally believable; while others — like blaming Russia for Cambridge Analytica — are wild jumps worthy of the worst Glenn Beck conspiracy theory. The talking heads used in the film are, with few exceptions, “experts” who once worked for the CIA or FBI, pundits from conservative think tanks, and centre-right politicians. It is also monolithic in its beliefs, not even entertaining any alternate arguments. You’ll find no dissenting voices here.

Active Measures gives you a lot to think about, but most of its conclusions are still unproven.

  • To read director Jack Bryan’s response to this review, see comments, below.

The Cleaners

Dir: Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck

After the recent revelations about Facebook, with fake news and targeted ads aimed at user profiles, many people are wondering who decides what goes up there and what gets takes down? And are these famous algorithtms doing their jobs? But what people don’t know is there are already people, actual humans, not machines who review what gets censored on the web, on search engines and on social networking sites. It takes us to an office highrise in Manila in the Philippines, where subcontractors review and decide on tens of thousands of images each day. For example, why did Facebook take down a nude painting of Donald Trump with a small penis that artist Illma Gore posted? It was taken down by this office.

The film exposes how these judges judge what they see, and the highly subjective reasoning behind their choices. It also shows how the constant viewing of degrading and disgusting images effects these men and women. The Cleaners is a real eye opener.

The Blue Wall

Dir: Richard Rowley

In 2014, Jason van Dyke shot and killed an unarmed seventeen year old, Laquan Mcdonald, in front of witnesses on a Chicago street. 16 times in the back of a man walking away from him. The killing was captured on numerous CCTV sources, in police cars and at a nearby fast food restaurant. You might assume the killer was immediately arrested and put on trial… but you’d be wrong. McDonald was African American, and van Dyke is a white police officer. This meant that shortly after the killing, police spokesmen swooped in to frame the narrative the way they wanted the media to cover it. It worked.

This film follows the cover up, the investigative journalist who tried to change the narrative, and the various parties involved in the case… a trail which reached the very top of Chicago’s city hall, and the municipal elections in progress when the story broke. This is a thrilling documentary that examines in depth the legendary “thin blue line” (here called a blue wall) of police brotherhood and the coverups and corruption it spawns. Great documentary.

Blowin’ Up

Dir: Stephahie Wang-Breal

Queens is a magnet for migrants from all around the world, many of whom turn to sex work to make a living. But when the police raid a massage parlour they arrest way more prostitutes than johns or pimps. And for immigrants, especially undocumented ones, an arrest means jail which means police record wand eventual deportation. But an unusual courtroom in Queens — run by women — is trying to disrupt that pattern. Judge Toko Serita, and lawyers on both the prosecution and defence side, along with translators, NGOs, social workers and the centre for court innovation are working together for once.

Their goal? To let sex workers leave the courtroom with their records swept clean if they stay out of trouble. Blowin’ Up (a slang term meaning leaving your pimp) is a verité, in-person look at how that courtroom works, as well as the private lives of a few of the subjects.

Blowin’ Up is fascinating and informative.

Active Measures, The Cleaners, The Blue Wall, and Blowin’ up are all playing at Hot Docs on from now until Sunday May 6, with daytime screenings free for students and seniors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big Changes, Big Trouble. Films reviewed: Every Day, The Party, Annihilation

Posted in Army, comedy, Fantasy, High School, Horror, Movies, Politics, Romance, Science Fiction, UK, Y.A. by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 2018

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

Everybody knows change is good, but big changes can lead to big trouble. This week I’m looking at three good movies about women facing big changes. There’s a British politician with a once-in-a-lifetime career change; a biologist investigating changes that are scientifically impossible; and a high school student whose boyfriend changes bodies once a day.

Every Day

Dir: Michael Sucsy

Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) is a highschool student in Maryland. Her mom’s a careerist, while her dad, since his breakdown, stays at home painting pictures. Her boyfriend Justin (Justice Smith) is a popular athlete… and a bit of a jerk. So she is surprised when he agrees to play hooky and spend the day just with her. It’s the perfect date: They explore downtown Baltimore, he pays attention to her, stops smoking, they share intimate personal stories, find their special song, and for the first time, they actually have fun together. Is this true love? But the next day he’s acting like a douche again, with only vague memories of the day before. It’s like he’s a different person. What’s going on?

What’s going on is he was a different person that day, someone named “A”. “A” is a bodyless being who inhabits a different person each day and — like Cinderella — departs that body at exactly midnight. “A” has no choice of who they’ll wake up as, except that it will be someone their age who lives nearby. “A” could be a boy that day, or a girl, could be black, white or asian, could be straight, gay or trans. Could be ugly or attractive. Rhiannon and “A” have to find each other each day to carry on their relationship. Hint: “A” knowing Rhiannon’s phone number helps a lot. Can their love overcome “A”’s ever-shifting identity?

Every Day is a cool, young adult fantasy/romance that works. It’s set in Maryland, but was shot in Toronto, and it has a Degrassi feel to it, where the multiracial, multigender nature of the cast is omnipresent but not central to the plot. Instead it deals with questions of identity, look-ism, and mental illness.

I liked this movie.

The Party

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a politician in the UK celebrating her promotion, the pinnacle of her career. Starting tomorrow, she’ll be the Shadow Minister of Health for the opposition Labour Party. So she’s throwing a party for her nearest and dearest. They arrive two- by two . There’s Martha (Cherry Jones) – a lesbian feminist university prof with her earnest partner Jinny.   Cynical April comes with her flaky boyfriend Gottfried (Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz), a self-professed healer. And Tom — a nervous and brittle financier (Cillian Murphy) — comes without his wife Marianne, Janet’s closest friend and workmate. Janet’s husband the grey-bearded Bill (Timothy Spall) sits alone in the parlour spinning vinyl as she bakes her vol-au-vents, to show that a woman can feel at home both in Westminster and in her kitchen. Problem is, her hors d’oeuvres are burning even as her party is collapsing like a house of cards, as each guest reveals a big secret. There’s cocaine, champagne, a fire, broken glass, face slaps… even a handgun.

The Party is a drawing room comedy that pokes fun at the social conceits of a generation of middle-class, leftist baby boomers. It’s the work of Sally Potter, director of Orlando and Ginger and Rosa. Shot in black and white with a wicked musical soundtrack that shifts the mood from scene to scene, it clocks in at just over 70 minutes, as a short-but-sweet English comedy.

Annihilation

Dir: Alex Garland

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology prof at Johns Hopkins who specializes in mutating cancer cells. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) – a soldier she met when she was in the army – is missing and presumed dead. But when he shows up at her bedroom door, seemingly with no memory of what happened and how he got there, she decides to investigate. She’s valuable to the military, a woman as comfortable with a petri dish as she is with a submachine gun. She joins a crack team of scientists, all women, headed by the laconic psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their goal is to explore unknown territory within a swampy National Park.

It’s encased in something called “the Shimmer”, a phenomenon eminating from a lighthouse on the coastline.  No one who goes into the Shimmer comes out alive (except for her husband Kane) and it’s getting bigger and bigger each day. From the outside it looks like a giant rainbow-coloured, plastic shower curtain that’s melting upwards. On the inside it’s even stranger, a world where distinctions like “animal/vegetable/mineral” cease to exist. It’s both beautiful and grotesque, filled with Chihuly crystals, human topiary and brightly-coloured tree fungi. Unrelated species are combining and mutating at a rapid rate, into a cancerous growth — just like the cells Lena studies, only prettier. And they’re affecting the five women too, both their minds and their bodies. Video messages they find (left by previous soldiers) only make things worse. Can Lena survive the hideous creatures and her deranged and suspicious teammates before she faces the scariest entity of all?

Annihilation is a terrifying exercise in horror sci-fi psychedelia. It references everything from Arrival, to The Wizard of Oz to Apocalypse Now, as the team paddles their way though a Heart of Darkness in their search for emerald city. Natalie Portman is great as the elegant soldier-scientist, and director Alex Garland brings us a different take on post-apocalyptic images. Annihilation is the kind of psychedelic fantasy that keeps you guessing.

This movie is scary-pretty… and pretty scary.

The Party comes to Toronto next week (check your local listings);  Every Day and Annihilation open today. 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 Andrew Gregg about Skinhead, his new documentary on CBC Docs POV

Posted in Canada, CBC, Conservativism, Cultural Mining, documentary, Movies, Nazi, Politics, Racism, Skinhead by CulturalMining.com on November 24, 2017

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

Neo-nazis, white supremacists and the alt right have captured headlines for more than a year now. Vandalism has escalated to demonstrations, shootings to terrorism. And some say the election of Donald Trump has given these groups new power in mainstream politics. But surely that’s an American phenomenon, with no traction in Canada….right?  A new documentary looks at the extreme right in Canada and pokes holes in the illusions of complacent Canadians.

The documentary is called Skinhead. It tell the story of a former skinhead and white supremacist named Brad, his beliefs, and what led him to abandon his ideology. Skinhead is written and directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Andrew Gregg. (I previously interviewed him here and here.)

I spoke with Andrew in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Skinhead will be broadcast on CBC TV on Sunday, November 26th at 9:00 pm.

Daniel Garber talks with director Boris Ivanov and activist Justin Romanov about Putin’s Blacklist

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, LGBT, Movies, Politics, Protest, Russia by CulturalMining.com on October 27, 2017

Boris Ivanov (l), Justin Romanov (r)

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

Since Donald Trump was elected US President we hear new news stories each day about possible Russian involvement in that election. But rarely do we hear anything about Russian politics, it’s government and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Why is he so popular? What are his politics? Who opposes him? And what does it mean to be on Putin’s blacklist?

On Putin’s Blacklist is a new documentary that tries to make sense of it all. It looks at diverse topics like the politicization of the foreign adoption of Russian orphans; political dissidents, propaganda, nationalism and LGBT rights. Using extensive media clips, new political commentary and documentary footage, On Putin’s Blacklist provides an insider’s look at Russia today. The film is written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Boris Ivanov. It features Justin Romanov, the well-known Russian-Canadian LGBT activist.

I spoke with Boris and Justin in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

On Putin’s Blacklist is now playing in Toronto.

Making history. Films reviewed: Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Goodbye Christopher Robin, BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, 1990s, France, H.I.V., Kids, LGBT, Poetry, Politics, Pop Culture, Protest, Watergate, WWI by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2017

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

It’s festival season in Toronto: Reel World film festival brings the world’s untold stories to the big screen; and Toronto After Dark has horror, sci-fi and fantasy pics that make you laugh your ass off or will scare your pants off. Toronto after Dark and Reel World are both on right now.

But this week I’m looking at historical dramas based on real events. We’ve got protests in Paris, politics in Washington, and Pooh in East Sussex.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Dir: Peter Landesman

It’s June, 1972 in Washington DC. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) a top-ranked FBI agent, notices something strange: burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel. And they weren’t stealing money, they were looking for files. And the burglars are former Federal agents. Who is behind it all? Felt investigates. The trail leads to the White House where Richard Nixon is running for reelection. But his investigation is stifled by a suspicious political appointee named Gray. He’s the provisional head of the FBI – J. Edgar Hoover just died — and seems to be taking orders from the White House. This is a no-no. And the White House seem to know everything the FBI is doing – is there a leak in the Bureau? So Felt decides to do some leaking himself. He secretly meets with reporters from Time Magazine and the Washington Post to pass on crucial information. Will the truth about Nixon and Watergate come out and can Felt keep his identity a secret?

No spoilers here: you’ve probably heard of the Watergate scandal that brought down Nixon. And about Deep Throat – the mysterious source journalists Woodward and Bernstein used to break their stories. And the Senate Watergate Hearings which investigated it all. This movie, though, looks at it from an entirely new perspective: as a power struggle between the White House and the FBI, personified by Felt a career federal agent.

It’s also about Felt’s private life, with his depressed, alcoholic wife Audrey (Diane Lane), and his hippy daughter who disappears and who Felt thinks is a member of the Weathermen Underground. At its worst, this film seems to paint the FBI – which has plenty of its own skeletons in its closet — as the saviour of a nation. But at its best it captures the mood of a superb thriller, based on a huge, real-life conspiracy.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Dir: Simon Curtis

A.A. Milne (Domhnal Gleeson) is a popular playwright in London’s west end just back from WWI. On the surface he’s full of witty patter, all whizbang and tiddley poo. But he’s actually he’s shell-shocked: Champagne corks or popping balloons send him diving for cover. He’s so shaken up he moves out to the country where he hopes to write an anti-war book in peace. His flapper wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) makes it clear she would much rather be partying in London. Milne has writer’s block. And the crying baby makes the situation even worse. They hire a nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to help raise their son Christopher Robin whom they call Billy Moon. But when Daphne moves back to London, and Olive to her dying mother’s bedside, Milne is suddenly left alone with a son he barely knows (Will Tilston). He has to talk to him, cook for him and entertain him.

And that’s when some serious father-son bonding kicks in. They go on adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, climb trees, make up stories and play with Billy Moon’s stuffed animals – a teddy bear, a piglet, and a donkey. He invites his friend — an illustrator — to draw pictures of it all. And Milne begins to write poems. He sends one, Vespers, about their son praying before bed, to Daphne in London to show her he’s writing again. She submits it to Vanity Fair and soon it’s a huge hit. Milne publishes his poems and stories and, suddenly, his son and the toys he plays with – Winnie the Pooh, and Kanga and Roo – become celebrities, famous around the world. The boy is dressed up and trotted out for book tours and toy stores and radio interviews. And this upsets him. Strangers know everything about his private life and his imaginary inventions. They think he’s a fictional character come to life, but he’s not Christopher Robin. He’s Billy Moon. Can the family stop this tide of fame before their lives are ruined?

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a touching story about the reality behind the beloved childrens’ books. It’s also the contrast between the British stiff upper lip – no touching or showing emotion – and all the humour and imagination yearning to escape. The movie is a bit slow in parts, and sometimes succombs to nostalgia and sentimentality, but I liked it anyway. And it also has beautiful locations and great costumes.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Dir: Robin Campillo

It’s the early 1990s in Paris, AIDS is at its peak and people are in a panic. The government makes speeches but does nothing and big pharma is sitting on crucial medication. Meanwhile, people are dying every day. So a group of activists launch a protest group called Act Up Paris (after its US counterpart) and spring into action.

They storm into government meetings and pharmaceutical offices, throwing plastic sacs of fake blood at the walls. Then they stage mass die-ins, falling to the floor until they’re dragged away by police. They meet in university lecture halls to hash out their disagreements: men and women of all ages and sexualities. But will their actions fall on deaf ears?

BPM is a story about the group, but especially two of its members, Sean –a scrawny, cynical latino (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart ) and Nathan, a student from a small town (Arnaud Valois). After a spontaneous first kiss – when they take over a high school to teach safe sex – they move in together: Sean is HIV positive, Nathan negative. Their relationship is intense and passionate, partly because Sean might die at any moment. BPM is a long and detailed – but very moving – look at a civil disobedience movement. It captures the fluidity and uncertainty of life and love in the midst of a crisis.

BPM, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House and Goodbye Christopher Robin 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.

Hidden Histories. Films reviewed: The Gay the Negro and the Holy Mountain, The Journey, 13 Minutes

Posted in documentary, Drama, Germany, Nazi, Northern Ireland, Politics, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 7, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Not all history is neatly recorded on paper; some of it lies hidden, far from public view. This week I’m looking at three films — two historical dramas and a personal-history documentary — that uncover hidden histories. There are two leaders in Northern Ireland who can’t come to terms; a young worker in 1930s Germany who can’t stand Hitler, and a plumber in a European village who can’t come out.

The Gay, the Negro and the Holy Mountain (Der Schwule, der Neger und der heilige Berg)

Dir: Dave D. Leins

Dave is a young man in Holy Mountain (Heilingenberg), a tiny village, who wants to make a documentary. His father, who is black, is a sailor but Dave grew up with his white mother. He faced bullying and racism growing up because of his skin colour. Dave wonders, is there anyone else in this town who feels “different”?

Markus is a town leader who runs a successful business that’s been in his family for generations. He’s divorced with two adult daughters. He’s a plumber, a fitter of gas pipes and is head of the annual town carnival. Like the rest of the villagers, he dresses up in funny costumes and performs in pantomimes on the town stage. But what some people in the town don’t know he’s also gay, and can only feel truly comfortable when he’s far from home.

This beautifully photographed documentary is a first-time filmmaker’s look at his own heimat. It is a neatly constructed film that uses visual images to frame the story (for example, curtains on a carnival stage open the film, a scene replayed in a resort hotel room).

Leins documents Markus’ daily life as he works, plays and interacts with friends, family and the filmmaker himself. And it exposes some of the stranger things that happen even in small towns. But despite the provocative title (der shwule and der neger are both pejorative terms in German) this is actually a low-key, quiet and personal film.

The Journey

Dir: Nick Hamm

The Troubles was the conflict in Norhern Ireland that began in the 1960s between the Catholic Republicans who wanted to join Ireland and the Protestant Unionists who wanted to stay in the UK. It was fueled by shootings, massacres and bombings by paramilitary groups on both sides. Thousands of people, mainly civilians, were killed in the violent years that followed in this simmering civil war. But now it’s a new millennium, and both sides agree it’s time to make peace.

The two political leaders, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness (Timothy Spall and Com Meaney) agree to meet for talks in neutral territory: Glasgow, Scotland. The problem is they refuse to talk and walk away. Protocol says the two must travel in the same plane to prevent any assassination attempt. So in a last-ditched effort, Tony Blair puts them together, with just the young driver for the long journey to the Edinborough airport.

Paisley is the fire-and-brimstone Calvinist preacher, a christian fundamentalist, given to Papist conspiracy theories. He is also the inspiration for rightwing vigilantes. McGuinness is the head of Sinn Féin, the public face of the provisional IRA, known for its bombs and guns. Can such sworn enemies every talk like human beings?

This is a fascinating movie based on a meeting that actually took place. The script, though, is an invention asto what might have happened. Parts of it are hard to swallow, like Paisley saying he was a supporter of Martin Luther King, when in fact he was an ally of white segregationists in the 1960s. And the scenes with Tony Blair, the head of MI5, Gerry Adams, and Paisley’s son all watching the talks through hidden cameras and secretly cheering them on are just ludicrous. Come on. But that’s secondary to the great acting. I think of Timothy Spall as a short roly-poly, but he completely transforms his body, face and voice into the tall, angry Paisley.

The Journey is a tense and exciting chronical of an imagined historical event.

13 Minutes

Dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel

It’s the late 1930s in Nazi Germany. A time bomb explodes in Munich Bierkeller where Hitler and other top Nazis had just given a speech but escaped unharmed. They leave unharmed, 13 minutes ahead of schedule.

Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) is arrested for the bombing and immediately given to the Gestapo and Kripo for interrogation. Who do you work for? Who built that bomb? Who gave you the orders? They tie him to a metal cot and inflict gruesome tortures on him, refusing to believe that a simple worker could have done all this on his own.

But as he lies there, passed out, his memories flood back. Elser is a craftsman from Königsbron, a small town in Swabia, who is good with his hands. He fixes clock works, builds furniture and plays the zither. Locally he’s known just as a loud mouthed musician. He’s also in love with Elsa (Katharina Schüttler) a woman married to an abusive husband. He rents a room in her basement.

But times are hard, even in a small town, especially if you refuse to join the party. As the year’s pass, things get worse, but no one will do anything. His best friend, a communist, is arrested, a local woman is pilloried for dating a jew, and all the town customs have been co-opted by the government and turned into Nazi propaganda. He also does nothing… until he realizes he must build a bomb.

The Gestapo refuse to believe him. But Elser is the one man who dares to say “Hitler ist schlecht für Deutschland” – Hitler is bad – not just for the rest of Europe – but even for Germany. There will be war, people will die, the bombs are going to fall, the country will be destroyed! he predicted.

13 minutes is a great historical drama about one ordinary man who attempts an extraordinary feat – he decides to fight back. Half of the film is the violent and brutal torture and interrogations, the other half is flashbacks to his personal life. I liked this movie a lot.

The Gay, the Negro and the Holy Mountain is playing at ReelHeART International Film Fest. Go to reelheart.com for info. The Journey and 13 Minutes both 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

 

 

 

Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas. Films reviewed: Something in the Air, Cold Water, Late August, Early September

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, Drama, Experimental Film, France, Politics, Protest, Romance by CulturalMining.com on June 23, 2017

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

Olivier Assayas is a leading French filmmaker in mid-career whose current work is some of his best. He was born in 1955 and came of age amidst the violent uprisings of 1968.  Assayas is a devotee of Guy Debord,  whose Situationist International, which combined avant-garde art and architecture with revolution is said to have been instrumental in 1968.

He was born in the business of movie making. His father, Jacques Remy, was a famous screenwriter. I first heard of Assayas in the 1990s, but somehow never saw his movies until recently with Clouds of Sils Maria (review here) and Personal Shopper (review here). Both star Kristen Stewart as a young woman working among ultra-rich celebrities. In these films the characters are introspective and detached, more apt to observe events than participate in them.

Now there’s a comprehensive retrospective playing through August that lets you see his lesser-known works. They totally change how I thought of him. This week, I’m looking at three of his movies showing at Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas. Two of them are based on memories of his adolescence and one about family and friends in their forties.

Something in the Air (2012)

It’s the late 1960s/early 70s in France. Gilles (Clément Métayer) is an upper middle class high school student in a town where chickens still peck on the street. His father adapts scripts for Inspector Maigret movies. But Gilles feels more at home on the streets of a Paris, where student protesters are violently clashing with police. Gilles has two passions: Art – he wants to be a painter – and politics — he’s a non-communist leftist, inclined toward anarchism. His third passion used to be a beautiful woman named Laure, also an artist. They would meet in the woods off country roads to smooch and read beat poetry. Until she dumped him.

His teachers want him to read French classics, but Gilles craves direct action. So he and some friends crank out sexy posters on a gestetner, grab some spray paint and set out on a graffiti trip in the middle of the night. But something goes wrong. As they run away they injure a security guard who falls into a coma. Does he know who threw the rock?

Gilles and his friends decide to get the hell out of there, and drive off to Italy in a VW van with a film collective. On the way, he debates China’s Cultural Revolution, and whether films should shock the masses with experimental, new techniques or educate them with “things they’ll understand”.

Meanwhile he smokes hash, and falls for a young woman named Christine but refuses to commit to everlasting love. Will he remain true to his artistic and political ideals? Or follow his father’s profession?

Cold Water (1994)

It’s the late 60s/ early 70s in France in a small town outside Paris. Christine and Gilles (Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet) are young lovers both from divorced parents. He comes from an upperclass family with a Hungarian housekeeper and a frustrated dad. Christine lives with her Scientologist mom, her Egyptian soccer playing stepdad. Her birth father owns a corner store. Gilles and Christine hang out and do daring and impulsive things together, like shoplifting from a record store. She makes a commotion and is tackled by security guards while he runs away with the loot. But the scheme falls though. The police get involved and hand Christine to her despised father who immediately commits to a mental hospital called Beausoleil. Gilles meanwhile is physically thrown out of class by an angry prof. And for some reason Gilles secreteky buys ten sticks of dynamite. What is he planning?

Gilles and Christine manage to meet again with friends at an outdoor party by an abandoned house, listening to loud radio music, smoking hash and dancing like Wickerman devotees around a huge bonfire. But can they stay together despite all the forces set against them?

Cold Water and Something in the Air are both semi-autobiographical works about Assayas’s adolescence, but made 20 years apart. I watched them in quick succession which is a mind-blowing experience. The two films have a lot in common. They both feature Gilles and Christine as young runaways but with very different results. In both films Gilles deals with a disapproving school teacher and a disappointed father, which suggests they are based on important events in his life. Bonfires, beat poetry, and period American music also play crucial roles in both films.

Maybe because Assayas is so much older now, Something in the Air can look back at the politics and visual details of the era with a cynical eye. Of the two films, I found Cold Water much more passionate, more gutsy. It’s imbued with a nihilistic punk streak, missing from the later film.

Although called semi-autobiographical, Something in the Air places Gilles and Christine in the student uprisings in Paris in 1968, while in Cold Water they dance to music from 1972. (Born in 1955, Assayas would have been 13 in 1968, 17 in ’72.) I guess that’s where the “semi-” comes from.

Late August, Early September (1998)

Gabriel and Adrien (Mathieu Amalric, François Cluzet) are close friends in their forties in an unequal relationship. Adrien is a famous writer committed to his craft. He once spent his last centime on a small work by Joseph Beuys. But how he’s broke and his star has dimmed. Gabriel works as a literary editor. He idolizes Adrien and everything about him even while he has a clandestine affair with a beautiful but impulsive young woman named Anne (Virginie Ledoyen). He recently broke up with long-time partner Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) who is also close to Adrien. But things take a turn for the worse.

Adrien has cancer and publishers have rejected his latest book. Gabriel, meanwhile, has risen to a high-ranked position at a magazine, high enough that he can hire Adrien to do paid gruntwork. And unknown to most of them, Adrien is having a clandestine, though non-sexual, relationship with a teenaged girl named Vera.

The film follows all of them, as well as a much wider circle of family, friends and ex-partners, each with past loves and unsettled grudges.

Like Assayas’ other movies, this is not a plot-heavy film, it’s a realistic slice of life of Parisian intellectuals. I didn’t immediately love this movie, but it’s the kind of film that gradually grows on you, leaving a lot to think about afterwards.

One remarkable thing: this might be the first movie I’ve ever seen where the biggest shock comes in the closing credits. Vera (Adrien’s much younger girlfriend) is a minor character, but crucial to the plot. The last line in the film, “On verra” (“we’ll see”, a pun on her name), is spoken by Gabriel who interrupts a conversation when he glimpses Vera through a window. Vera is played by none other than Mia Hansen-Løve, who eventually became Assayas’s own much-younger wife. This film was her first appearance on the screen; she is now a well-regarded Danish director.

Late August, Early September, Something in the Air and Cold Water are all playing through August at the Tiff Bell Lightbox in Toronto as part of the Olivier Assayas retrospective. The director appears in person at some screenings; go to tiff.net for details.

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

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