Surfaces. Films Reviewed: Ghost Hunting, Battle of the Sexes, Beach Rats

Posted in 1970s, drugs, Feminism, LGBT, Movies, Palestine, Sex, Sports, Tennis, Torture by CulturalMining.com on September 22, 2017

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

Toronto’s fall film festival season has begun. This week I’m looking at three movies that played at festivals: Sundance, TIFF and the Toronto Palestine Film Festival — two of which are directed by women. There’s a drama on the boardwalk, a biopic on the tennis court, and a documentary on a cold prison floor.

Ghost Hunting

Dir: Raed Andoni

Raed is Palestinian movie director who sends out a strange request. He’s looking for steelworkers, set builders, carpenters and painters to recreate a notorious Israeli prison inside an abandoned warehouse. The strange part is these builders and architects will also play the prisoners and their interrogators in the film he’s making. And stranger still, all the cast — including the director — were once prisoners at this very prison.

The interrogation centre is in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem known to prisoners as Al-Moskobiya (Moscow). They recount what happened to them. Many endured days or even weeks of nonstop interrogation in small cells. They were chained to walls, hung on their tiptoes suspended by pulleys or forced to kneel on the ground. Some were shaken, choked, hit, and denied sleep, water, or toilet access.

Hunting Ghosts has a complex artistic structure. Its partly a verite documentary, showing the construction of the set while the former prisoners candidly tell their stories. It’s partly a drama, the scripted re-enactment of the interrogations themselves. It’s partly meta – where the people working on the set become caricatures of themselves (i.e. the cruel director, the angry set-builder). Explicitly scripted scenes – often moving and disturbing – are always presented in a way you know it’s just a film. We see the actors putting on their makeup before they’re locked into the cells. The real drama often begins after the director yells cut, when the actors start talking.

The movie is also part fantasy, with animated scenes reflecting the thoughts running through their heads during long interrogations, their heads covered in cloth bags. One man thinks he sees his dead mother walk through a concrete wall to bring him water to drink.

Hunting Ghosts is a powerful look at the treatment of Palestinian prisoners and a tribute to the reported 750,000 arrested since 1967.

Battle of the Sexes

Dir: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

It’s the early 1970s in California. Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) is the top women’s tennis player in America. She’s happily married to her husband Larry (Larry King, but not the CNN journalist) but her real devotion is to the game. She’s shocked to discover prize money on an upcoming tour will be one eighth what the men get. The women threaten a walkout, but Jack Kramer — President of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) — tells them that men deserve more money because they have to support families, because they sell more tickets, and because women are “too emotional” to be thought of as real athletes. So the women start a League of Their Own.

Bobbie Riggs (Steve Carell) is a former national tennis champ twenty years earlier. Now he works at a desk job for his very rich wife’s dad. He’s a compulsive gambler who wins big bucks – including a golden Rolls Royce — by challenging rich country clubbers to heavily handicapped tennis games.

But Bobby wants to be really famous again. So he dubs himself a Male Chauvinist Pig and says women should stay in the kitchen and the bedroom, not on a tennis court. And he challenges Billie Jean King to a Battle of the Sexes, man vs woman. King smells a media circus, but finally agrees when she thinks it will advance pay equality between the sexes. Who will win?

Meanwhile,  unbenownst to the outside world, Billie Jean is having a clandestine affair with a woman named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) her hairdresser. A chance meeting sparks new feelings in Billie Jean King… but will her love affair interfere with her game?

I’m not a tennis buff, but I found Battle of the Sexes a thoroughly enjoyable, feel-good movie. I was even interested in watching the the game itself, which uses actual sports footage and historical commentary (by Howard Cossell) worked into the film. The side roles are also well-cast, from Bill Pullman as the condescending Jack Kramer, to Sarah Silverman as the feminist manager. Steve Carell is funny as the dog-and-pony showman, and Emma Stone is just great as the pretty and determined Billie Jean King.

Beach Rats

Wri/Dir: Eliza Hittman

It’s a hot summer in a hipster-free section of Brooklyn. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a white, working class guy who lives with his parents and his little sister. He likes handball, vaping and posting weight-lifting selfies online. He spends most of his time at the Coney Island boardwalk, hanging with three local yahoos who like to make trouble.

One night, he meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein) a pretty girl who tells him he’s sexy. She thinks the fireworks are romantic. Frankie is not so sure. His own parents met on the boardwalk too.  But his dad is dying of cancer and his mom is on edge. He’s unhappy about it too, but at least his dad’s cancer keeps him well supplied with prescription opiates he shares with his beach rat buddies. Aside from his home and the beach there’s a third universe Frankie visits, but only after dark. It’s an online date site called Brooklyn Boys where he posts his selfies. There he meets older men for anonymous sex. He considers himself straight but enjoys having sex with men.

But when his father dies, everything falls apart. Simone dumps him — he’s too much of a “fixer upper”. His Oxy supply is cut off, so he’s reduced to pawning his mom’s jewelry to buy drugs. And he’s worried his pals — the Beach Rats — might find out about his sex life. Can Frankie come clean with his mom, cut down on his drug use, and reconcile his self image with his sexuality? Or will his whole life crash and burn?

Beach Rats is a terrific coming-of-age drama set against the carnival lights and phosphorescent waves of nighttime Coney Island. Dickinson is a new face but is perfect as the enigmatic Frankie, a young man simultaneously self-obsessed and self-doubting. Beautifully photographed, Beach Rats blends an up-to-the minute topic with a classical indie feel.

Battle of the Sexes launched at TIFF and Beach Rats at Sundance; both open today in Toronto — check your local listings. Ghost Hunting is one of many films and cultural events on now at the Toronto Palestine Film Fest. Go to tpff.ca for details.

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

May 25, 2011. Inside Out Festival. Renee, Lost in the Crowd, Gun Hill Road, Black Field, Harvest, We Were Here

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

Toronto Inside-Out festival is one of the world’s biggest LGBT film festivals, that shows movies and documentaries from around the world by and about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals. Or queers for short. The festival is continuing through this weekend, mainly at Toronto’s Light Box, and I hear there are still some tickets available, so now’s your chance to catch some of these very varied and interesting movies.

So this week I’m going to look at a cross-section of movies and docs at this festival with a special emphasis on some good movies about the too often neglected “T” in LGBT. Next week: more on the “L” word.

Renee

Dir: Eric Drath

“I’m getting the message across that you can be a transsexual… and yet be a nice, normal, socially acceptable and productive member of society.” – Renee Richards.

Renee Richards was born as Richard Raskin, who grew up as an aggressive alpha male, served in the navy, became a tennis champ, a young man with dating prowess, a surgeon, a husband and a father.

But in the early seventies, after years of agonizing, and (after first chickening out on her first attempt, when she went to Morocco for sex-reassignment surgery) she took the plunge and became a woman. She named herself Renee (French for reborn) and started a new life. She became a sensation on the women’s tennis circuit until the past came out. She was ostracized, alienated by many tennis players, and splashed across the mass media.

They attempted to force Renee Richards to take a DNA test to prove her sex – this despite surgery, hormones, her day-to-day identity, clothes, body, voice and name. So she took them to court.

This is a very good, sympathetic documentary, that uses TV sports footage, home movies, newspaper articles and present- day interviews with family members, and famous tennis players (like Billie Jean King and Martina Navritolova). The most emotionally trying part of the documentary is about her difficult relationship with her son Rick.

Lost in The Crowd

Dir: Susi Graf

…is another documentary, also touching on problems faced by transsexuals and others. But if Renee is about rich and famous celebrities, Lost in the Crowd is about the other side of things. It’s about Queer youth who migrate to new York City to escape homophobia and other dangers in their hometowns, only to find themselves penniless, homeless and alone on the streets of Manhattan. It shows a few of these kids and young adults, many latina, and gay or trans, who seek shelter but end up in prison, on the streets, or dead.

While a very important issue, I was a bit disappointed by the movie, since it mainly just showed the victimization of the runaways by drugs, prostitution, and crime. It didn’t really offer any new viewpoint on the standard risks that face all runaways. One exception were the scenes shot in a prison, where one person (who had been arrested for low-level drug dealing) said he felt more free in the jail than he had in his midwestern small town.

Much more moving was a fictionalized drama about many of the same issues, a movie called

Gun Hill Road

Dir: Rasheed Ernesto Green

This tells about Enrique, and ex-con out on parole going back home. He’s an ultra-macho Puerto Rican-American who was known for attacking any “maricon” in prison who might have looked at him the wrong way. What’s a few months of solitary if he’s defending his own masculinity? He arrives back with his street corner pals to see his much missed son Michael (Harmony Santana). But something about Michael has changed.

He’s living his life as a girl in school, but like a boy at home. He hangs out with his friends at school but faces widespread bullying in the hallways. As pretty and strong Vanessa, she meets a boyfriend at a poetry slam, but he’s less friendly once he discovers Vanessa is a pre-op transsexual. He doesn’t want to see her as a boy – she has to cover up anything that might turn him off. But Michaels’s father doesn’t want to see his son as in any way feminine. He attacks him with a scissors and hacks off his long hair.

Gun Hill Road is a good, moving drama of the trials and tribulations of being trans in a public school, and how both a father and a son have to learn how to understand each other. The actor playing Vanessa/Michael is excellent, and you feel for all the characters. And it has a great latino hiphop soundtrack.

Black Field

Dir: Vardis Marinakis

In the middle ages, at its height,  the Ottoman empire used a special unit in their military known as the Janissaries. This was a division consisting entirely of paid, trained soldiers who were also slaves. They had no outside friends or families because they were kidnapped as small boys from outlying villages in the Balkans. Eventually, they converted to Islam and enlisted in this all-male, elite part of the army — the Janissaries.  In this movie, a wounded janissary (Hristos Passalis) is found outside a Christian convent in a remote, mountainous region of Greece. The black-hooded nuns take him in, chain him up, while they tend to his wounds. A young nun, Anthi  is sent to heal him, but there she makes a surprising discovery  — his genitals are like hers. She is actually a boy, who had been taken in as an infant and raised there, so that the Mother Superior could save him from being kidnapped and made into… a janissary!

The movie follows – literally follows, the camera holds back behind the two as they walk through the lush forest, a green-covered swamp, and a dark rocky area –  the tough, mean, AWOL soldier and the timid, whispering nun, as he forces the newly discovered boy to reclaim his male identity, and eventually become his partner. To make matters even more ambiguous, the boy who was raised as a girl is played by a very good actress (Sofia Georgovassili). It’s a slow-paced, challenging, sometimes violent, and at other times sensuous and exquisitely beautiful,  first film. Very interesting to watch and should be seen on the big screen.

Harvest

Dir: Benjamin Cantu

Marco is a young man who lives and works at an internship program on what used to be an East German communal farm. He wears overalls and a T-Shirt as he sorts carrots, bales hay, and clips the ears off cattle, along with the other interns. But he’s resisting committing himself to a lifetime of farm work. He doesn’t want to write the exam he has to take, mainly because he can’t write well. And he’s a bit of a loner – he won’t go out drinking with the other trainees, and they tease him for it.

But he enters into a silent friendship with a newby, Jacob. Things start to heat up in an abandoned old car (a Trabant?) and they realize they have something in common when Jacob finds the keys and drives them both into Berlin for an evening.

Harvest is another one of these hyper-realistic films –  made on real locations, usually with non-actors, without a complicated plots, and often without a written script. There aren’t that many lines in this movie, and the budding relationship between Marco and Jacob is never really talked about – it just happens. But you totally understand and identify with all the characters, and the farm footage is fantastic – I’d never actually seen an enormous carrot-sorting mill. Harvetst is a very good, understated, realistic drama.

We Were Here

Dir: David Weissman

This is a documentary about San Francisco from the late 70’s until the early nineties. That was the period when the city was transformed from a gay mecca into the epicentre of a worldwide epidemic. I’m speaking about AIDS and HIV, then called the gay plague for the sudden, massive death toll of that community.

This movie is heart-wrenchingly moving because of the way it was made. They found a handful of people who lived there at that time and were somehow involved in that disaster, to tell the story of themselves and their friends directly to the camera.

The movie shows the face of one speaker’s friend and then close-ups, ten days later. So happily galavanting at a Castro street party one day, and then, suddenly, the same man infected with Karposi Sarcoma (cancerous, but painless black spots on the skin) and then, a few days after that, just dropping dead.

No one knew what was going on or what to do about it. Panic set in. The movie shows the quick progression of events — the protests, the medical advances, the set-backs — all told through the eyes of real, sympathetic men and women.

This is a very important, living oral history, illustrated by ample newspaper clips, snapshots and still photos.

These movies and more are part of Inside-Out, continuing on this weekend: you can check times atinsideout.ca . Also opening is the terrific documentary Bobby Fischer against the World, and the Canadian low-budget spooky, post-apocalyptic horror thriller The Collapsed, both of which I reviewed last week, and Little White Lies, a very funny, if long, French social comedy about the secrets and conflicts of a group of friends who vacation together; I reviewed that last year.

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

%d bloggers like this: