Whence America? Films reviewed: Paterson, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Posted in African-Americans, College, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Racism, Slavery, US by CulturalMining.com on February 10, 2017

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

The recent executive order known as the Muslim Ban has made the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens and residents uncertain. So uncertain that some refugee claimants are fleeing the Land of the Free, seeking sanctuary across the frozen border in Canada.

Whence America? Where is that country heading?

This week, I’m looking at two movies that give a more optimistic look at life in the United States. There’s a new documentary about Historically Black Colleges, and a quirky drama about the state of life in a post-industrial town.

spelman-college-1964Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Dir: Stanley Nelson

Did you know that under slavery, it was actually illegal for African Americans to learn to read and write? And that even slave owners – who could beat, sexually assault or even murder their slaves with impunity — were legally forbidden from educating them? It was in the best interest of the Government and slave owner to keep black Americans ignorant, docile, and illiterate.

To counter this, after emancipation and the civil war, African Americans realized education was the most important way to rise up from slavery. The first colleges were opened based on the writings of scholars like Frederick hbcu-students-from-c-1900-graduates-of-atlanta-baptist-college-and-spelman-seminary-from-the-institutions-that-were-later-known-as-morehouse-college-and-spelman-collegeDouglas. And like Douglas, the first students were born into slavery. Early education efforts were aimed at skilled trades or religion, but as the movement grew it shifted to academic subjects.

Two schools of thought emerged. Southerner Booker T. Washington believed in a business-oriented outlook, centred on entrepreneurship but was opposed to any protests or political action confronting the status quo. W.E.B. Du Bois took the opposite stance, and led the movement toward equal rights.

Many of the early colleges were run by whites, who imposed harsher disciplinary policies on black students students.

bp_standingfedbldg_seattle-e1401981658505Fisk University harshly segregated the students by sex and forbade social interaction. This led to a protest and an organized walkout until the school President resigned.

By the 1930s and 40s, the teachers and administration positions were increasingly filled by blacks, many of whom had been educated at these same colleges and universities. The US was still strictly segregated under so-called separate but equal laws. So all the best and the brightest students flocked to these schools, becoming the new black middle class. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers and judges all passed through these schools, including renowned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Howard University Law School).

By the the 1950s and ’60s these schools also became a hotbed of black-led political movements. Civil rights tell_them_we_are_rising_the_story_of_black_colleges_and_universities_xlgactions — like sit-ins at segregated lunch counters — were spearheaded by students at black universities..

100 years after it was a crime for blacks to read or write, the Brown v Board of Education decision promised to end segregation in schools. But this had an unexpected negative impact on black colleges. With white universities now open to black students, there was a brain drain of top applicants to ivy league schools.

Today there are still over 100 black colleges and universities, some thriving, but others crumbling for lack of funds.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is the first documentary to tell the full history of this important but not-widely-known institution. It’s narrated by voiceovers and talking heads: historians and former students and professors from these schools. It’s beautifully illustrated with period photos and film clips touching all aspects of black college life, including educational,  political movements and social: fraternities, and sororities, sports and music.

It’s by director Stanley Nelson who also made the excellent The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

04e8c932-9d19-4a19-8e05-12ebd8db89f2Paterson

Dir: Jim Jarmusch

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver who lives with his girlfriend, Laura, in a small house in Paterson, NJ. He lives a routine life. He carries a lunchpail to work each morning, and a notebook to write down any poems that might occur to him. He eats lunch in a tiny national park. After work he talks with Laura over dinner. And each night he walks his dog to a neighbourhood bar and stays PATERSON_D25_0077.ARWfor a drink or two, chewing the fat.

Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is an artist who remembers her dreams. She covers everything around her in rough swaths of black and white. Clothes, chairs, curtains, cupcakes… their home is her canvas. Except for his basement where he goes to tinker with things and think. The two of them have a symbiotic relationship. he is the observer, passively PATERSON_D19_0011.ARWtaking in what he sees and hears around him. She is the dynamic one, planning their future, and launching business projects that may or may not succeed.

The town of Paterson serves as the third character in the movie. It’s the first city in North America designed as an industrial centre powered by a series of 18th century canals and mills. It has become an artistic hub for New Yorkers who can’t afford the high rents of that city. Jarmusch includes these brick factories and waterfalls in all his outdoor shots. What he doesn’t show is the parts of town with a large and vibrant middle eastern community there. Instead they’re represented by Laura, played by a Persian American actor. (Paterson is also the place where Trump falsely claimed Muslims were dancing on their rooftops during 9-11.) Maybe it’s because I’ve visited Paterson the town, but I was really tickled by this movie.

Paterson is a richly minimalist film that leaves you feeling good about the state of the world.

Paterson opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is playing on February 15th at the opening night of the Toronto Black Film Festival. Go to torontoblackfilm.com for more information.

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 Tiffany Hsiung about The Apology

Posted in Canada, China, documentary, Korea, Philippines, Slavery, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 3, 2016

img_1617Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Japan joined the European race for colonies late in the game. But they took to it with a vengeance, expanding ever southward. First Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria, and by the the-apology1930s they began to seize territory in Eastern China, Southeast Asia and Islands of the Pacific and South China seas. And at the vanguard of all this was the Japanese Imperial Army. To keep the soldiers free from disease they initiated a program of Comfort Women (従軍慰安婦). Over img_1619200,000 girls and young women from Japanese colonies across Asia were forced into sexual slavery to serve the troops. Because of the shame involved, the survivors remained silent for fifty years. What happened to them, what are their stories, and what apologies do they seek?img_1621

The Apology is a new NFB feature documentary that follows three elderly Comfort Women – from Korea, China and the Philippines — who survived that horrible ordeal. It is a highly personal film, seen through Hsiung’s eyes as she documents the three Grandmothers’ lives while they still have a chance to tell their stories.

The Apology opens in Toronto today. I spoke with Tiffany Hsiung in studio at CIUT.

War and remembrance. Films reviewed: Hacksaw Ridge, Birth of a Nation, Seoul Station

Posted in 1800s, 1940s, African-Americans, Japan, Resistance, Sex Trade, Slavery, soldier, violence, WWII, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on November 4, 2016

img_1527Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

November 11th is Remembrance Day, when we remember the death and destruction of war. Even wars fought for good reasons may result in horrible deaths for soldiers and ordinary people. This week I’m looking at movies about war. There are armies of zombies in Seoul who want to eat people, a secret slave army in Virginia that wants to free people, and a man who joins the US army in WWII… but refuses to kill people.

hacksawridge_d14-6618Hacksaw Ridge

Dir: Mel Gibson

It’s the 1930s. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a young man who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with his drunk Dad (Hugo Weaving) and religious Mom (Rachel Griffiths). As a kid he loved climbing cliffs and rassling with his brother Hal. But when he saw how close to death his brother came when he hit him in the head with a brick, he swore never to hurt or kill another person again. As a Seventh Day Adventist he takes the Sixth Commandment — thou shalt not kill – very seriously. Years later,hacksawridge_d4-3041-edit he rescues a man injured in an accident by putting a tourniquet on his leg. He has studied medicine on his own since he can’t go to college. At the hospital he meets the beautiful and smart Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) a nurse. It’s love at first sight.

But it’s 1941 and the country is at war. Young men all rush to join the army and Doss is no exception. But he joins as a medic to save lives, not as a fighter to kill people. He and Dorothy plan to get married after boot camp. But then reality hits. You can’t be in the army and refuse to carry a gun. They offer him a Section 8 – a psychiatric discharge. But he refuses to quit. He’s not crazy, he’s not un-American, he’s not unpatriotic. The army disagrees.  Soldiers beat him and bully him, and on hacksawridge_d22-10131_fullframehis wedding day the Army throws him in the brig, leaving Dorothy waiting at the altar. Will he be court-martialed?

Somehow he makes it to Okinawa, in time for a crucial battle. They must climb Hacksaw Ridge, a sheer cliff, to face a never-ending battalion of Japanese soldiers. Can Doss use his medic skills to save his fellow soldiers?

Hacksaw Ridge is a heartfelt war movie about a conscientious objector who goes into battle without a gun. For a movie about a heroic man opposed to killing,  there’s also an ungodly amount of gory carnage shown in minute detail. Not for the squeamish.

Interestingly, the entire cast, except for Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughan, is Australian. And with all those thin-lipped, lantern-jawed, soldiers, I had a hard time telling them apart. (Didn’t that guy just die in a foxhole? Must have been someone else…). Garfield, though, stands out as the stubborn, jug-eared Doss. If you like heroic war movies, this one pushes all the right buttons.

birthofanation_04Birth of a Nation

Dir: Nate Parker

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is born to loving parents and grandparents in a wooden house in Virginia in the early 19th century. At an early age mystics declare him a born leader, with special birthmarks on his belly. He grows up a student of the bible, reading to himself at night. And he happily marries a beautiful woman when they fall in love.,But he is also an African American in the south which means… he is also a slave. The slave owner Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) played with him as a child and they share the birthofanation_02same last name. When earnings are down Sam hires him out to other plantations to preach to fellow slaves, to help calm potential unrest. Nat delivers the sermons, while Sam keeps the cash.

It is on these visits that Nat Turner witnesses the truly horrifying nature of slavery. A young girl kept like a dog with collar and leash. Men set upon by vicious dogs. Families broken up and sold like cattle at auctions. Heinous torture – worse than you can imagine – for crimes as simple as looking a white man directly in the eyes. Women are subject to birthofanation_06horrific rape.  Murder and lynching — always white violence against blacks — is not even considered a crime. So Nat Turner decides enough is enough and organizes a small army to fight back. But can a handful of men and woman overturn slavery itself?

Birth of a Nation is a fictionalized retelling of the famous Nat Turner rebellion. The movie birthofanation_01concentrates more on Nat’s life in the years leading up to it than on the battle itself. The film is disturbing, dealing with topics rarely shown in mainstream movies. Even so, it has a mainstream feel to it: flickering candles, gushing music, and Hollywood kisses in profile. The title itself reclaims D.W. Griffith’s wildly popular silent movie from 1915 which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and inspired countless terrorist attacks on black Americans. This is a good film about a neglected part of US history, downplayed or glossed over in most movies.

seoul_station_film_posterSeoul Station

Dir: Sang-ho Yeon

It’s a typical day at the central train station in Seoul, Korea. It’s used by commuters everyday. But it’s also a mecca for the disenfranchised — the poor, the mentally ill and the homeless. Hye-sun is a young runaway,  a former sex worker who lives with her wimpish boyfriend. They are separated by a massive zombie attack — and the virus is spreading. He teams up with her father, while she follows a deranged, homeless man. Hye-sun communicates with her boyfriend whenever they can find a signal on their phones. When she turns to the police for help, they lock her up in a jail cel. Later, a large group of people trapped in an area besieged by zombies appeals to the army. But instead of rescuing them, the soldiers fire water canons and teargas… not at the zombies, but at their fellow citizens. Who will survive the zombie onslaught?

Seoul Station is an animated prequel to the hit horror film Train to Busan. Characters are drawn with clean black outlines against realistic backgrounds. Seoul is portrayed as a desolate place, its dim skies lit only by neon crosses.  This may be a zombie movie but it’s also an unsparing look at the maltreatment of the homeless and disenfranchised in modern Korea.

Birth of a Nation is now playing and Hacksaw Ridge opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Seoul Station is playing at the upcoming ReelAsian Film Festival. Go to reelasian.com for showtimes. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Blend in, fight back or run away? Movies reviewed: Neon Demon, Free State of Jones, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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

When faced with a monolithic system, do you fight back, try to blend in or run away? This week, I’m looking at movies about people trying to make the land their own. We’ve got soldiers and slaves heading into the swamp; a boy and his uncle heading into the bush; and a teenaged girl heading into the jungle… of modelling.

13502538_1122801797742983_2500767010940376674_oNeon Demon

Wri/Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives)

Jesse (Elle Fanning, Ginger and Rosa) is a small-town girl recently arrived in L.A. She’s there to make it big as a fashion model. But to do that you need connections. Right away, she meets Dean an earnest young photographer (Karl Glusman, Love). He takes some photos for her portfolio. Then, at a nightclub filled with neon she meets three women ready to lend a hand. Two blonde supermodels named Sara and Gigi (American Abby Lee and Aussie Bella Heathcote) and a makeup artist. Red-haired Ruby (Jena Malone) says she knows all the right people.

Almost immediately, Jesse starts her dizzying rise to the top. She signs with a major agency, lands a gig with a famous photographer, and is chosen as the lead 13115958_1092780254078471_5268238841686621476_omodel in a runway show. A star is born.

But beneath its shiny veneer this world is rotten to the core. She still sleeps in a super-seedy motel room. Hank, her skeezy landlord (Keanu Reeves) is a serial predator always on the lookout for victims. Jesse is startled to find wild animals animals climbing through her window. Other models she encounters are just bitter vipers waiting to strike. And her makeup artist friend, Ruby? She’s a makeup artist all right — for corpses. Only Dean seems genuine…but he’s not famous, so he doesn’t fit in her new world.

13445279_1117929004896929_5538370989361420723_nWhen her so-called friends witness Jesse’s triumph at an audition they are consumed by jealousy and rage. In despair, one model smashes a mirror in the washroom. At first Jesse tries to comfort her. When she cuts her hand on the broken glass, something horrible happens. The model literally tries to suck up Jesse’s blood to gain some of her beauty and youth!

Neon Demon is a surreal fable set in the world of modeling. Danish director Refn Wilding is known for his dark, stylized urban dramas like Drive (starring Ryan Gosling). Like his other films, it has great music, pretty people and arresting images, both beautiful and hideous. I liked it, but it’s not your usual narrative. It’s strictly art-house horror, so it’s never clear whether it’s a dream, a fantasy or real life – it’s left up to you to decide.

unnamedFree State of Jones

Dir: Gary Ross

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a Confederate soldier from Mississippi. He’s a medic, so he sees his fair share of death at the frontlines. But when he sees a young boy (Jacob Lofland, Mud), a draftee from his home town, killed on his first day, he’s FREE STATE OF JONEShad enough. Newt takes his body back for a proper funeral. Which makes him a deserter.

Back in Jones County he discovers the problems aren’t just at the front – they’re behind the lines too. All the men and boys are being sent to die defending slavery, but the actual slave owners – anyone with more than 20 slaves – is exempt from serving. This war is being fought for rich people, the cotton plantation owners, not for the poor farmers like him and all his neighbours. Not just that. The army is stealing all the food, FREE STATE OF JONESclothing, practically anything of value from the poor farmers in what they called taxation. They need it to feed the troops they say. But they leave the plantations untaxed and untouched. The raids are all led by the villanous Lt Barbour (Bill Tangradi) with his foppish blond curls.

Newt has had enough — he flees to the swamps, attacked by a vicious army dog on the way. Runaway slaves there nurse him back to health and become his new family. In particular, beautiful Rachel (the wonderful British/South African actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a house slave who serves as a secret go-FREE STATE OF JONESbetween for the runaways and slaves still on the plantation. And the self-named Moses (Mahershala Ali) a righteous leader who escaped with a hideous iron contraption still locked around his neck.

Word spreads and poor white farmers join Newt’s makeshift army. He declares a free state in Jones and FREE STATE OF JONESneighbouring counties. He deems them all free men, both black and white, says farmers can reap what they sow, and that no one will ever go to war again for the rich. They start like Robin Hood, taking back food the army is stealing. But end up going to battle against the Confederate government from deep within Mississippi.

This is a fascinating, true story. It’s timely too. with the rise of populism in American politics. Warning – it’s a very long movie (almost feels like a mini-series). It continues long after the civil war, covering things like lynching, post-war slavery and KKK terror, rarely mentioned in mainstream movies. It’s the first time I’ve heard about this slice of history — a genuine civil rights movement born deep in Mississippi, in the midst of civil wat.

HUNTTHD-01_KeyArt_FMtrimHunt for the Wilderpeople

Dir: Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows)

Ricky (Julian Dennison) is a chubby 12 year old city kid, into hip hop and gangsta movies. He’s a “bad egg” says Paula his tough-as-nails social worker (Rachel House). He’s surly, unresponsive and a frequent runaway. Given up for adoption as an infant he’s reached his final foster home – if he doesn’t fit in here, he’ll be sent to juvie. His new 12541048_771498859649965_4286703744334521458_nhome is out in the middle of nowhere at an isolated farmhouse in the green-covered hills of New Zealand. He’s immediately welcomed by the warm and giving Bella (Rima Te Wiata). She decorates his room, makes him special food, even gives him a hot water bottle to snuggle up with at night. Her husband HFTW 1 Julian Dennison (Ricky), Sam Neill (Hec) CreditHec (Sam Neill), on the other hand won’t even give him the time of day. He’s reclusive and anti-social, but he does know his way around the woods. Ricky runs away a few times but soon realizes this is his real home with a loving mom, a new dog, he calls Tupac, and a place to write haiku.

But then disaster strikes, and his new life is imperiled. He flees into the bush to live off the land. Like the South African wildebeest he plans to walk a thousand miles. Unfortunately, he V1-0071_150525HFTWP23_620hasn’t a clue what to do. Luckily, Hec comes to his rescue to help him out. But unbeknownst to them both they become famous – in a bad way: the object of a nationwide manhunt. Can they survive in the bush without driving each other crazy?

This world is full of strange people. Like Psycho Sam, a tin-foil hat devotees and idiot city hunters who want to turn them in and collect the reward.

V1-0046_150521HFTWP17_93474This movie is told from an indigenous point of view. The director and most of the actors – though not the characters they play – are of Maori descent. The story incorporates indigenous culture. Ironically, it’s Uncle Hec, the white character, who passes on the indigenous learning that Ricky was never taught. And Ricky who shares contemporary culture and basic literacy with the isolated Hec.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a feel-good, light, family comedy. I like this movie — it’s cute and a lot of fun.

Neon Demon, Free State of Jones, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople 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

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination. Movies Reviewed: The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Adventure, Catholicism, Communism, Cultural Mining, Disease, Dreams, Fantasy, Italy, Joy, Magic, Movies, Rome, Sex, Short Stories, Slavery, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 15, 2014

The Decameron Pier Paolo PasoliniHi, 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.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: You may have heard his name, but not know why. He was an Italian novelist, poet, artist and director, born in Bologna. He got his start in movies writing screenplays (including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) before directing his own films. His films – he directed movies from the 1960s until the mid 70s, when he was murdered – celebrate the poor, The Decameron Pasolini 2 TIFFthe outcasts, the people in the margins. They dig at the complacent middle-class, and the oppressive and corrupt church and nobilitiy. He cast non-professionals in his films for their looks and attitude – he wanted his actors natural not contrived. Naturalism was all-important.

Pasolini was in the Italian Communist Party but was kicked out for his criminal activity. His crime? Being gay. So Pasolini embraced his status as sexual outlaw.

All of these elements – politics and sexuality shown in literature and art – come together in his movies: beautiful to watch, full of laughter, but with a rough and tragic streak running through them.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination is a retrospective of his films now playing at TIFF. This week, I’m going to tell you about three of his movies, often called a trilogy, all based on Medieval stories. They are extraordinarily beautiful films and you should see them on the big screen while you can. There’s an English romp, an Italian comedy, and tales of middle-eastern magic.

Pasolini Canterbury Tales 2 TIFFCanterbury Tales (1972)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the classic collection of stories told by religious pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Set in 14thcentury England, it’s filled with monastic robes, pious nuns, Oxford students, religious pilgrims. But it’s also a world full of shouting and drunkenness, farts and belches. The old are missing teeth, fat and ugly, and prone to violence. The young, though still beautiful, are selfish and arrogant. And everyone’s apt to break into raucous, unscripted laughter as they do medieval things like milling corn or polishing eggs.

But what do they all desire? Sex (and money). They come up with complex schemes to cheat on their husbands and wives. This movie is very bawdy.

But it has a dark side too. One of the earliest scenes shows a man being burned to death in the market Pasolini Canterbury tales 1 TIFFsquare: he was caught having sex with another man, but was too poor to bribe the police.

Religion and the supernatural are omnipresent. Angels, devils and wood spirits are as likely as a passing neighbour to appear outside a window. A widow wears out a succession of husbands by being too good in bed. An arrogant student fools his mentor into thinking a great flood is coming. Three brothers go from cavorting in a brothel to plotting dangerous and murderous schemes. And a bright red devil shoots the black-clothed sinners of hell out of his ass!

Most of all, it’s a place where large-breasted women and plain-faced men stand around staring… naturally, naked.

Decameron, Il (1971) aka The Decameron Directed by Pier Paolo PasoliniThe Decameron (1971)

Based on 14th century writer Boccacio’s sexual comedy, these piqaresque stories centre on Naples and other medieval Italian cities. Women are tricksters who fool hapless travelers, while sinners look for sex. It’s a comedy about sex, thumbing its nose at church-mandated restrictions.

Here’s a typical story. A nunnery is off limits to all men but the elderly. A young guy, sensing opportunity, pulls his hat down low – like Bob and Doug McKenzie — and pretends to be a deaf-mute simpleton. He gets hired as a gardner. Soon enough, all the nuns are sneaking out to the shed for their daily roll in the hay. But what happens when the mother superior gets her turn? He tells her he’s had enough. He can Pasolini's The Decameron 3 TIFFspeak! It’s a miracle!

This is an amazing movie (I liked it even better than Canterbury Tales) shot around ancient castles and down narrow allies.

Arabian Nights (1974)

The 1001 Nights is the famous collection of intertwined stories-within-stories across the Arab world. Pasolini skips the tale of the Persian Scheherazade as the storyteller, and instead uses a loving Ines Pellegrini in Pasolini's Arabian Nightsrelationship between a wise and beautiful slave-girl named Zummarud, and her young master. She’s smarter than all the men she encounters, and somehow manages to snub potential buyers at her own auction — rich old men who won’t satisfy her sexually – in favour of love at first site. But she is kidnapped by a spurned buyer. This launches a series of journeys as she outsmarts the men she meets and eventually – disguised as a man – rises to the level of king. And all the way her lover, Nur ed-Din tries to find her.

She’s played by Ines Pellegrini, an Italian woman of Eritrean background, and he’s Franco Merli, a Pasolini's The Arabian Nightsteenaged boy Pasolini apparently spotted pumping gas.

Pasolini skips the most famous stories – the Ali Babas, Alladins, and Sinbads – and instead adapts less-well-known ones. Especially the sexy parts.

Like Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, The Arabian Nights was rated “X” when it first came out. Though it includes a lot of nudity, it’s very tame, sweet and almost naïve, by present-day standards. Some of the same actors show up in all of these films. Franco Citti (usually with bright red hair) plays the devil in Canterbury, an unrepentant sinner and homosexual in Decameron and a magical demon in Arabian Nights. Ninneto Davoli (Pasolini’s former lover), is the toothy, curly-haired clown who bursts into tears or laughter, or else stares, dumbfounded, at new things he encounters. Pasolini himself also appears in small — but central — roles arabian-nightsin his own movies — as Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, or as a master painter in The Decameron, who says his art is never as good as what appears in his dreams.

Arabian Nights was shot in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran and Nepal, and to say the locations are breathtakingly beautiful doesn’t do them justice. It’s mind-boggling, ranging from lunar landscapes and strange curved mud homes, to cavernous, white-and-blue tiled cathedrals, and ancient wooden Nepali shrines. And the faces of the local actors and extras add still more beauty and authenticity to the locations. (A collection of still photos from this film by Roberto Villa is on display now at the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; details on tiff.net. Beginning next Thursday is the CFF a festival of low-budget and independent Canadian films at the Royal:  go to canfilmfest.ca for more information. And cult favourite The Room is playing at the Carlton starting tonight.

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

Everything. Films Reviewed: 12 Years a Slave, The Motherload, Starred up.

Posted in African-Americans, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Family, Feminism, Movies, Prison, Slavery, Uncategorized, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 2, 2014

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Welcome to an icy cold 2014! People tend to think in big terms with the New Year. They hope everything will improve. So, this week I’m looking at an historical drama about a man who loses everything, a documentary about women who want everything, and a prison drama about a guy with nothing to lose.

DF_02828.CR212 Years a Slave

Dir: Steve McQueen

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a nice, middle-class guy in mid-nineteenth century America. He’s a professional (plays the violin) owns a home, is married with children and is an upstanding member of his community in New York state. And he’s black.

So when he’s offered a well-paying gig in Washington DC, he can’t resist and follows the recruiters south. But soon after, he finds himself kidnapped, thrown into a bare cell and beaten. His captors strip him of his fine clothes, his family, his dignity, his status, and even his name. Based solely on the colour of his skin, he’s sold as a slave. A slave!

He’s no longer considered a human being, now he’s just chattel.DF-02238.CR2

And so begins his nightmare. The movie follows the next twelve years (it’s based on Northup’s own memoirs) as he is sold to various southern plantation owners. Some are relatively kind and humane, some monstrously cruel, but none consider that it is fundamentally wrong for one man to own another. He sees slaves being beaten, tortured, raped or even murdered at their owner’s whim. None of this is against the law. They have no rights, no legal standing, no recourse to justice.

On the way, he acquires a violin (from a kindly slave owner). But far from lightening his burden, music is shown as part of the whole slave system. Slaves driven to sing to a pounding drum as they pick cotton. And in one of the most painful scenes in the movie, he has to play ditties on his fiddle as the others are forced to perform grotesque high-stepping cake-walks to entertainer the planters.

Work is a constant danger. If he politely corrects an error or suggests a more efficient alternative he risks being beaten or lynched.

DF-03057.CR2 DF-03057.CR2At a cotton plantation he meets a pretty young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). She is the fastest worker in the cotton fields (most of the rest got flogged each day for not picking enough). She’s also a “favourite” of Epps, a cruel plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) and a captive to his wishes. But Patsey has to fear equally Epp’s, wife who has it in for her. Solomon observes it all.

Gradually they grind down his pride until he too walks hunched over, never looking a white man in the eyes. Will Solomon ever escape from this hell? And if so, how? And can he grant Patsey request to save her from her hopeless existence?

This is a great film, and you should definitely see it if you haven’t already. It’s painful, shocking, realistic and explicit. It gives a new visual meaning to slavery in most people’s minds. It’s also a tense but satisfying thriller about rescue and escape. Ejiofor and N’yongo are both amazing, as is director McQueen’s usual leading man Fassbender. It won the TIFF People’s Choice award and hopefully many others.

motherload_2The Motherload

Dir: Cornelia Principe

Some recent books and articles ask “why can’t women have it all?” The “all” being a top job combined with raising kids. Anne-Marie Slaughter (policy advisor to Hillary Clinton) and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook, COO) both wondered if woman can achieve both of these goals. Why aren’t women allowed the same opportunities to succeed as men?

These works received a lot of criticism. Is evening-out  the playing field in the top 1%  really the goal of feminism? And why should success be viewed in an acquisitive context of greed and possessiveness?

motherload slaughter-4

This documentary avoids some of these problems by looking at a broader range of subjects. In addition to the super-rich and powerful, it also shows middle-class women and one single mother with two jobs. It points out that paternity leave (in Canada, it’s routine only in Quebec) would help even out the discrepancies in the division of work by sex. And it shows how some motherload_1families are thinking about redistributing roles.

The Motherload is an interesting doc dealing with a broad topic in less than an hour. And director Principe, who also produced the fantastic doc The World Before Her, clearly knows her stuff. Still, I’m a bit surprised that it never even touches on the issue of public daycare. While perhaps not an issue for CEOs, isn’t affordable daycare the crucial step in allowing mothers to work and raise children simultaneously?

And finally, I want to mention a fantastic movie — a sleeper that played at TIFF13 – that I really hope will open later this year in Canada. It’s called

starredup_01Starred Up

Dir: David MacKenzie

Eric (Jack O’Connell) is an 18 year old who’s been “starred up”. That means he’s sent direct from juvie to a real, live adult prison. He seems at first like a vulnerable kid who’s going to die on his first day there. But things aren’t what they seem. His street smarts and prison savvy keep him safe but his high starredup_04threshold for brutal violence and volatile temper could prove to be his undoing. So he joins a special therapy group within the prison walls to help him handle his anger. But he keeps running into trouble with an older, “head” prisoner called Neville (played by Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn). Neville keeps taking charge, instead of discussing and compromising. And here’s the twist – Neville is Eric’s real-live father serving a life sentence! O’Connell and Mendelsohn give unbelievably dynamic performances as the fractious father and son. This is a fantastic movie – look out for it.

12 Years a Slave is now playing in Toronto, The Motherload will air on CBC TV’s Doc Zone next Thursday, and Starred Up should open in 2014. 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

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