History, Geography, Language TJFF 2011 Films Reviewed Acne, Jewish Girl in Shanghai, Names of Love, Between Two Worlds,Little Rose PLUS Meek’s Cutoff, Modra

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

Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival, is on now and continues through the weekend. This is the first year I’ve attended their movies, my curiosity sparked by the fact they programmed Fritz the Cat last year.

This year, the festival is featuring an extensive series of films and documentaries about the three Lennies: composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Montreal musician and writer Leonard Cohen, and comedian Lenny Bruce. But what I find really interesting were the rest of the movies programmed. There is a diversity to them – in geography, history, language and politics – that’s refreshing.

So today I’m going to talk about a few of the fascinating and very good films at this year’s festival. Plus I’ll review a western like no other.

Little Rosa (Rózyczka)
Dir: Jan Kidawa-Blonski

Rozek (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a hardboiled intelligence agent working for the Polish government in 1967. He’s always up for a hard drink or a fistfight. But he’s spotted having a passionate sexual liaison with a beautiful young woman. Word is sent to his department that there is to be a purge of crackdown on Jews or suspected Jews throughout Poland, following Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. He’s assigned to bring down a mark, Adam, a prominent writer and intellectual in his 60’s. Although his name is Polish sounding, they suspect his father had a Jewish-sounding name.

Rozek assigns his naïve lover, Kamila (Magdalena Boczarska), now with the code name “Rozsczka” (Little Rose), to get close to Adam and report back anything that could be taken as Jewish, anti-governmental, conspiratorial, or Zionist. But even as she writes the reports, her feelings for Adam grow, as does her anger at Rozek for pimping her out.

As she grows even closer to Adam (Andrzej Seweryn), the three sides of the unwitting love triangle in this historical dramatic thriller come to an inevitable explosion during a time of European unrest, youth demonstrations, nationalist sentiment, and a government crackdown. This is an intriguing, visually sophisticated, story full of surprising secrets, chronicaling unexpected changes in Poland in the sixties.

Acné
Dir: Federico Veiroj

In this cute, low budget film from Montevideo, Rafael (Alejandro Tocar), a 13 year old, pimple-faced boy has a crush on a girl. But he has yet to approach her, tell her what he feels, never mind kiss her. And he’s totally at a loss of what to do, sexually with a girl – he’s 13, remember. This is where it gets… interesting. Apparently, in this insular Uruguayan -Jewish community, it is customary to introduce boys to manhood by hiring a tutor – a prostitute – to initiate him into the adult world. Will he ever talk to the girl of his dreams? And where will he go now? Acne gives a fascinating glimpse of everyday urban life in a world I’d never even heard of before this movie.

Next, an animated film – from another distinctly different area; this time — China!

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai
Dir: Wang Genfa

Ah Gen, a boy who works for a street vendor who fries big pancakes meets a starving and pennyless, red-haired girl with almond-shaped eyes, Rina, on the streets of Shanghai. Rina’s a refugee from Nazi Germany, but is living in Shanghai with just her little brother. She doesn’t know what happened to her parents, but remembers them by playing a song her violinist mother wrote.

The movie shows the two friends’ adventures set in wartime Shanghai, when Europeans – including a sizeable Jewish community – a very large Japanese population, and local Chinese people all lived together in that cosmopolitan city. Tough Ah Gen has to deal with Japanese street thugs and soldiers, and corrupt Chinese collaborators and his own family difficulties; while pretty Rina must survive, play her violin, reunite her family and find out what became of her parents.

This is a fully animated film, similar to Japanese anime, aimed mainly at kids and teenagers and lovers of anime. It’s very interesting to see a Chinese view of the Jews of Shanghai and references to the holocaust. So Rina’s European memories resemble Heidi in the alps, Japanese bullies wear kimono and speak broken Chinese, and an erhu player finds common ground with a violinist. Violence is portrayed very differently than in western animated cartoons, sometimes as broad slapstick.

This movie is the first Chinese depiction I’ve ever seen of European kids interacting with Chinese kids in pre-1949 Shanghai. It gives a whole new perspective to Tintin’s The Blue Lotus, and JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.

This movie is in Chinese with subtitles, and is suitable for children.

Names of Love (Le Nom des Gens)
Dir: Michel Leclerc

Bahia (Sara Forestier) is a beautiful young, brash and lively, left-wing feminist, who enjoys using her sexuality to bring right-wingers to her side of the fence. She says she always goes to bed on the first date. But she meets her opposite in the dry-as-toast Arthur Martin (who shares his name with a ubiquitous, mundane line of cookware), a vet who only deals with dead birds. He is as bland and reserved as she is open, but, somehow, they end up together.

They are both assimilated French people of mixed background – she has a Muslim Algerian father, and a radical leftist, while his mother, who never talks about her past — was a Jewish girl hidden in a convent during the war, and with an extremely uptight father. My description of the characters in this romantic comedy don’t do justice to the humour and subtlety of this very charming movie. It’s clever use of memory has Arthur’s teenage self, as well as his imagined grandparents whom he’d never met appearing on the screen beside him to offer coments on what he’s doing wrong. While Bahia’s overt sexuality and indifference to her own nudity (with breasts casually falling out, here or there) is sometimes taken to an extreme degree – this is a French comedy after all – the home of gratuitous nudity only for it’s female roles — her character is very sweet and interesting and transcends the usual gags and situations.

Will the two of them ever find common ground? Are their politics really opposed? And can their families approve?

This is a great movie –the  Canadian premier – and you should try to see it.

Between Two Worlds
Dir: Debora Kaufman and Alan Snitow
(World Premier)

The founders of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival are pleased that they have inspired similar festivals across the continent, and says Kaufman, many people consider ot “one of their favourite Jewish holidays”. But in recent years, due to some controversial programming, the festival itself was embroiled in extremely divisive and politically mired fights, between left and right-wing Jewish groups and individuals.

To address this, they have made a personal documentary, about these issues and  the seemingly intractable divisions within their own families. The issues discussed in the film — including the positioning of the Holocaust in present-day issues; religious identity, right and left wing viewpoints, censorship, lobbying, and boycotts from both sides; and the Israel/Palestine issue – give air time to advocates and activists from the various viewpoints, even when the differences seem unbridgeable.

They also bring in some fascinating personal details from the filmmakers’ own lives, including a religious divide within a family where somehow a secular, rightwing Jewish patriarch ended up with religious, Muslim grandchildren.

This is being shown on Sunday followed by a panel discussion moderated by the CBC’s Michael Enright. It should be very interesting.

Meek’s Cutoff
Dir: Kelly Reichardt

This is a western set in 1845, when a group of families head west in a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. But when they reach an anknown area, they hire a grizzled guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood), to take them through a shortcut in Indian territory. With nothing to read but a bible, or listen to Meek’s stories, this diverse eastern group moving west falls into disarray as things start to go wrong. On the way, they capture a native man who speaks no English, whom they tie up and take with them. They eventually reach an agreement – without water they’ll die of thirst, and Meek doesn’t seem to be any help. The men are old, sick, or unstable, so it’s up to the women – especially Emily (excellently played by Michelle Williams) to do all the work and make all the crucial decisions.

Like the movie Days of Heaven, it’s a beautiful spare movie showing realistic daily life, rather than the dramatic hollywood-style glamorous
depiction of life in the old west. Nothing glamorous here. But it’s a very good western-slash-art film with a new perspective on the west. Great movie.

Also playing this weekend for one show only at the Royal is

Modra
Dir: Ingrid Veninger

a touching, light, hyper-realist drama, starring non-actors, about a girl who travels from Toronto to Slovakia to visit her relatives there, with a classmate pretending to her boyfriend. I enjoyed this Canadian movie at last year’s TIFF.

Most of the movies I reviewed will be playing this weekend, so be sure to come see some unusually good movies. The Toronto Jewish Flm Festival runs until May 15th, downtown, and up north in North York, and in Richmond Hill. Check on line at tjff.ca . And Meek’s Cutoff is showing once only this weekend at the Light Box – you should try to see them on the big screen while you can.

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

Over the Top. Movies reviewed: The Square, Kick-Ass, Fritz the Cat

Why do directors try to go over the top?

I get the impression that movies that want to get noticed try to up the quotient a bit, by including more violence, especially more unexpected violence, or more sex, especially outside the mainstream, or more explicit than what you see in most mainstream movies. So people will be a bit shocked, a bit dismayed, a bit distressed. That’s nothing new. What is new is that the boundaries of what used to be shocking is so far beyond what it was a decade or even five years ago.

So the sex or violence alone isn’t enough. To really shock they want to have kids or old people, or women, or pets, either committing the violence or having it done to them; and what used to be the push for celebrities and famous actors to show more flesh on film, has now shifted to a push for actors to show explicit sex on films. What used to be a bit of blood, now is a flood.

At the same time, the openness to a broad range of opinions and language that really expanded into the mainstream in the sixties and seventies seems to have been scaled back, especially over the past decade. Dirty words are OK now; troubling ideas less so. I’m going to review three comic-book-like movies that are in some way edgy in the over-the-topness in their stories, ideas, explicitness, or language.

“The Square”, an Australian movie directed by Nash Edgerton, has more mullets than you can shake a stick at. A contractor, Raymond (David Roberts), agrees to install a large concrete square in a building development, and arranges to get a kickback from a supplier. He has a good job, success, money, marriage, big house… and even a much younger mistress, Carla (Claire van der Boom). And they all live in the same area — some in mansions, some in shacks — on the banks of a wide, bucolic river. Life’s beautiful.

But one day, Carla discovers her bearded, abusive husband has a hidden bag of slightly stained cash. Lots of it. So she manages to convince Ray to come on board her scheme of somehow stealing it – in a way that can’t be traced back to her. They secretly hire a shady guy – well actually everyone in this movie is a bit shady – to burn down the house. Of course something goes wrong. So now happy Ray has everything and everyone lined up against him.

The square he’s building is sinking; and he has to fend off his contractor, his employees, his boss, the shady arsonist, the womanizing kick-back guy, the conniving mistress, the low-life, mullet brigade colleagues of her bearded hubby, and a mystery person, sending him creepy Christmas cards telling him – “I know what you did”.

So he starts to unravel, suspecting everyone, which devolves into a series of linked, unplanned deaths. It gets stranger and stranger as the movie goes on, till the point where the audience starts cracking up at all the misguided violence. I think the director wanted to go too far… and he did. And I think the movie pulled it off.

It’s definitely a B movie (maybe a C), but it kept my attention and interest. The acting was fun, across the board, though it was hard to deeply sympathize with anyone. (I thought some of the dodgier elements looked more like espresso bar faux-hemian actors than ruthless killers.)

Finally, there are a few great, unforgettable scenes in “The Square” that make it worthwhile. A Christmas picnic in the park, with its miscommunication leading to a panicky Santa is unforgettable. For a Canadian, just seeing a Christmas party in the middle of an Aussie summer is whack.

“Kick-Ass”, which you may have heard of, (directed by Matthew Vaughan, and based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr) is a great retake of the super-hero origins-style comic book (as in Spiderman, Superman, Batman). It’s about Dave (Aaron Johnson), a High School boy who’s tired of his undesirable combination: invisible to girls, but a magnet to bullies and muggers. So after a typical round of complaining to his pals, Dave decides to do something about it.

He fashions himself a super-hero outfit from stuff he buys on-line, and practices poses and punches in front of his bedroom mirror. And he lucks out: his rescue of a man in a street fight with some hoods is captured on a cel phone and instantly goes viral – Kick-Ass is born. He gets lots of hits on his Kick-Ass Facebook, but his own life is unchanged, just full of difficult secrets. Gangsters believe he’s moving in on their territory and want to snuff him, the girl he has a crush on thinks he’s gay, and other kids everywhere are copycatting his costume.

So when he encounters some real superheroes, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), he is shocked back into reality. These real “heroes” are also amassing huge amounts of weapons and money they steal from drug dealers. And Kick-Ass is getting blamed for it.

Tiny, 12-year-old Hit Girl is like a ninja in her speed, skill and ruthlessness, with a shocking moral code different from conventional superhero comic books. She’s part of Big Daddy’s mission of vengeance. These real life super-heroes (similar to the ones in Watchmen, but done much better here) are not the good role models they used to be.

At first glance, Kick-Ass” seems like a typical teen comedy with a twist. But it’s actually a superhero action movie with great comic elements. It is morally ambiguous, extremely bloody and violent, but it does manage to avoid one annoying and pervasive element of action movies: There are no girls calling out to their boyfriends to save them. The girls in this movie follow the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model; either they’re superheroes themselves or they’re self assured regular people, who, when push comes to shove, are ready and able to fight back, to kick ass themselves. That alone makes this an above-par movie. And a reason for there to be more female scriptwriters (like Jane Goldman).

We’re in the midst of film festival season in Toronto. Coming in May, is HotDocs, follwed closely by NXNE. Right now, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival is just finishing up. One of the most interesting topics they’re covering is comics. And of those films, nothing can compare to the well-known but seldom seen on the big screen Fritz the Cat, directed by the legendary Ralph Bakshi).

Fritz the Cat was the first animated film to receive an “X” rating in the US – this was back in the early 70’s. And to understand it, you have to consider it in context, the period in which it was made. (FTC would never be made this way today.)

The story is about a hep-cat, Fritz, who’s a hip cat. (He’s a cat.) Fritz is a university student at the peak of the baby-boomers’ take on the ‘sixties, in downtown New York City. He’s sick of studying and going to classes so he embarks on a journey, to experience life. So we follow him from Washington Square Park, where he tries to pick up girls by impressing them with his lame guitar-playing.

He ends up at a pot party, which soon devolves into romping group sex in a bathtub. He later falls in with a crow, steals a car, has sex, takes drugs, and falls in with some bikers and revolutionary terrorists who want him to blow things up.

Fritz is a sort of a Cheshire cat, but dressed like a college student trying to be cool. The crows look suspiciously like the magpies Heckle and Jeckle. (This was a TV cartoon series made by Terrytoons, where Bakshi worked in the 50’s at the start of his career. I wonder if that was his inspiration.) In this movie the cats and rabbits live downtown, while the crows, well, they live in Harlem. The pigs, of course, are a bumbling team of cops — an old-timer, Ralph, and his new partner. And there are lizards, a cow who’s a biker chick, and other cats and dogs. (Black pimps? Cops as pigs? Old jews praying and complaining? Maybe in 1972 these tired stereotypes were more audacious end edgy, less cliched than now.)

Most of the characters — especially the scrunched faced men, and the big bottomed women in overalls — are icons of the great cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was also a sort of an underground comic superstar at the time. This movie captures a lot of Crumb’s relaxed hippy sexuality, but also Bakshi’s sorta terrifyingly nihilistic, and misogynistic view of a violent world. So there’s lots of tame sex, lots of music, drugs, four letter words, and very bloody, senseless death, none of which was ever seen at the time in animated American movies (but are now on the level of what you find in a few minutes of The Simpsons). Fritz the Cat is a step back into the defunct microcosm of rioting, extreme change, and anything-goes experimentation of the late 60’s and early seventies.

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