Changes. Films reviewed: Venus, RBG, Boom for Real

Posted in 1970s, Art, Canada, documentary, Hiphop, LGBT, Montreal, Movies, Punk, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 18, 2018

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

Spring Film Festival Season is going strong in Toronto with world premiers, features and short films to reflect every taste. Inside Out is one of the world’s largest LGBT film festivals; ICFF, the Italian Contemporary film festival, has parallel screenings in eight cities across Canada; and Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival features great movies and a special appearance by Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient Setsuko Thurlow. And brand new this year is Toronto’s True Crime Film Festival – the title says it all. They’re all coming soon.

This week I’m looking at three new movies – a dramedy ad two documentaries – opening today, which (coincidentally) are all directed by women. There’s a teenaged boy who changes New York’s art scene, a diminutive judge who changes US laws, and a woman in her thirties who just wants to change herself.

Venus

Dir: Eisha Marjara

Sid (DeBargo Sanyal) is a Montrealer in her thirties going through some major changes. Her longtime boyfriend Daniel (Pierre-Yves Cardinal: Tom at the Farm) dumped her, and a strange, 14-year-old kid has been following her around. But the biggest change of all is her gender – she’s transitioning from male to female, and is about to appear as a woman, in public, for the very first time. That’s when Ralph (Jamie Mayers) the 14 year old skate kid who’s been following her around finally tells her why: Sid, he says, you’re my dad!

What?! First of all, she says, I only have sex with men, second of all I’m brown – Sid is of a Punjabi ancestry – and you’re white. But doesn’t she remember Kristin from high school? (Kristin is Ralph’s mom and Ralph read in her diary that she had a fling with Sid as a teenager).

When she gets over the shock Sid takes a crash course in Parenting for Dummies, and starts to bond with Ralph. Her ex-partner Daniel reappears in her life, and accepts her change of gender. And her estranged parents, her transphobic Mamaji (Zena Darawalla) and  laid-back Papaji (Gordon Warnecke: My Beautiful Launderette), welcome her back with open arms when they discover they’re grandparents. But trouble lurks. Will Daniel come out publicly as her partner? Will Ralph tell his Mom he found his birth parent? And will Sid survive the stress of transition?

Venus is a very cute dramedy, one that shows pathos without too much treacle, and keeps you interested. And the cast is uniformly believable and endearing, especially the principals: Sanyal, Mayers and Cardinal.

RBG

Dir: Julie Cohen, Betsy West

In 1970s America it was not illegal to refuse women bank loans without a man’s signature, to fire them for being pregnant, to pay them less than men, to bar them from public schools, private clubs and other institutions… even for husbands to rape their own wives.

Enter noted lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Born in Brooklyn, she is one of few female students at Harvard Law in the 1950s which helps shape her legal outlook. She observes the oppression and panic of the Red Scare. She also experiences discrimination first hand, as she and other women are ignored by professors and barred from accessing archives. Later, she works for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)  and begins to challenge laws that discriminate against women, one at a time, through lawsuits. Many of her cases make it to the all-male Supreme Court, whose members understand civil rights on the basis of race, but can’t yet conceive of it on the basis of sex.

She teaches them what’s what.

Later this diminutive, shy woman becomes a law professor, a circuit judge in the Washington, D.C. Appeals Court and eventually a Supreme Court justice herself, often leading dissenting positions on the increasingly conservative court. More recently, in her eighties, she has been adopted by young feminist activists as a “rock star” or celebrity of sorts; an unusual role model for a youth-obsessed culture.

RBG is an interesting and informative – if conventional – look at her policies, her home life, her late husband, and her love of opera.

Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Dir: Sara Driver

It’s 1978 and New York is a bombed out city. Crime rates are soaring, the government is bankrupt, and poor neighbourhoods like the Lower East side are abandoned and crumbling. With hard times come big changes. Both Punk rock and hip hop culture are developing side by side, and into this incubator steps a 16 year old boy named Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Born in Brooklyn, the son of a Haitian Dad and a Puerto Rican mom, Jean Michel is homeless, kicked out for dropping out of high school. Now he’s couch-surfing in the lower east side, and becoming an artist. He expresses himself as SAMO, a graffiti artist. But instead of the bold, chunky murals and tags that cover the subways Jean-Michel scrawls pensive poetry and enigmatic thoughts using plain – though distinctive — letters. He later develops his images – childlike hearts, crosses, three pointed crowns, Batman and science books – and applies them to diverse media: everything from walls, to clothing, to refrigerator doors. He targets walls near Soho, so galleries will notice. He already thinks of himself as a superstar, just one who is not famous yet.

But Soho galleries don’t care much about youth, punk, hip hop or black culture in general. So the artists create their own spaces in a DIY mode. Still a teenager he attends seminal art happenings and events around the city, whether or not he is actually invited, spontaneously adding his art directly to gallery walls And he refines his distinctive look, with short dreads and a partly shaved skull.

Boom for Real is a brilliant documentary about an artist life before his incredible fame in the art boom of the 1980s and his untimely death. It situates him within an era: of Fab 5 Freddy and Planet Rock; Club 57 and the Mudd Club; Grafitti art, Jim Jarmusch, club kids and Quaaludes, fashion, music, rap and art. It’s the best sort of documentary, one that functions as a constantly-flowing oral history told by the people who were there. It shows a fantastic array of period photos, videos and images documenting Basquiat’s teenaged years. Even the closing credits are thoughtfully laid out.

Beautiful movie.

Venus, RBG, and Boom for Real 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.

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.

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.

Movies Made by Women. Films reviewed: What Will People Say?, Zama

Posted in 1500s, Argentina, Clash of Cultures, Drama, Family, Indigenous, Kidnapping, Norway, Slavery, Spain, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 20, 2018

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

Spring festival season is on right now, with two or three new ones popping up each week. There are established festivals like Hot Docs, celebrating its 25th anniversary, as well as some new ones. Reelabilities is only in its third year, but already programs a full international slate of dramas and docs – and even a comedy night — for and about people with deafness, mental illness, autism, down’s syndrome, and many others. And they’re dealing with important topics like sexuality and disabilities and disability rights. This week I’m looking at two movies directed by women and that played film festivals in Toronto (TIFF, Human Rights Watch Film Fest). There’s a coming-of-age drama about a Norwegian schoolgirl whose parents come from Pakistan, and an historical drama about a colonial Argentine whose ancestors came from Spain.

What Will People Say?

Dir: Iram Haq

Nisha (Maria Mozdah)is a high school student living in a snow-swept Oslo housing project. She has beautiful long hair, dark eyes and a shy but winning smile. Nisha is a typical Norwegian girl. She hangs with a tight-knit group of friends for partying, listening to music, texting. At night, though, she’s the grudgingly loyal daughter to her traditional Pakistani parents. She is the apple of her fathers eye. Mirza (Adil Hussein) piles money and gifts on his smart and beautiful daughter whom he dreams of becoming a doctor or an engineer. But Her mother is more strict, always wondering what other people – meaning people from Pakistan – will say, if they see Nisha doing outrageous things like… dancing? Little does she know. she’s dating a guy named Daniel who looks like Archie Andrews. But when her dad catches them in her bedroom, flirting, all hell breaks loose.

Before she knows what’s happening she’s on a plane to Pakistan on her way to a relative’s home in a remote town. They take away her phone, burn her passport, and forbid her from using the internet. Mirza says he’s doing it for her own good, but Nisha feels betrayed, lost and abandoned. And then there’s the physical dangers. She can’t just put on a hoodie and explore the streets alone like she did in Norway. Only a young cousin who idolizes her, and Amir, a boy she likes, make her life worth living. But her eyes and tastebuds are awakening to new sights and flavours she never encountered in cold, grey Norway.  She gradually adapts to her new home…. until a big change threatens her life and her future. Will she ever regain her old life and friends? Can she achieve success as a woman? And will she and her family learn to accept each other?

What Will People Say is a great coming-of-age drama that’s a bit of a thriller, too. It gives a multi-faceted look at a teenaged girl, partly self-centred and spoiled, partly facing a miserable life not of her own making. Pakistan is portrayed as a scary and violent place but also a vibrant and beautiful one, filled with both kindness and terror. The director (herself of Pakistani/ Norwegian background) eschews what could have been a one-sided kidnapping thriller in favour of a realistic and touching drama. She avoids easy stereotypes opting instead for a nuanced and loving look.

Zama

Wri/Dir: Lucrecia Martel

It’s 300 years ago in imperial Spain in South America.

Don Diego Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a low- level magistrate decked out in a white wig and three cornered hat, with a bright reddish jacket and a shiny sword. He’s there to provide justice and compassion in disputes among the colonists, their slaves and the indigenous peoples in the remote colony of Asunción. But he soon discovers his rulings are ignored, his requests disregarded, and his status questioned. He’s far from his wife in Buenos Aires, and his native mistress in Asunción doesn’t like him much, even after she gives birth to his son.

His life depends on the indulgences of a king in far off Spain, and a corrupt and decadent local Governor who spends most of his time gambling to win obscene tokens of power. He covets worthless geodes and decrepit ears sliced off a dead convict’s head. Colonial landholders slaughter Indios with impunity. As his life gets worse and worse, Zama feels trapped in a cesspit he can’t climb out of.

He finally gets his chance by joining a posse searching for Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele) a villainous criminal terrorizing the locals. But his search seems equally pointless and circuitous, achieving nothing, waiting for a Godot who may never arrive.

On his journey he faces dangers and fascinations both real and imagineary: small boys with psychic abilities, hidden ghosts and potergeists infecting his lodges. People appear and disappear, seamingly at random, dying and coming back to life, in a colourful whirlwind of unexplained phenomena.

Zama is a fantastic, non-linear adventure based on an Argentinian novel. It explores name and identity, position and class, and race and ethnicity in Colonial Spain. Indigenous languages are spoken without subtitles – we hear it all through Zama’s ears.

I’m not going to pretend I completely understood this movie, but like Embrace of the Serpent (which I reviewed here), the images and exotic scenes in Zama are so engrossing I didn’t worry too much about the plot. Picture a group of women on a riverbank covering their naked bodies with thick brown mud. And the scenery in Argentina’s northeast Formosa province — green moss, sweeping hills, twisting rivers and impossibly tall bare tree trunks — is like seeing those Dr Seuss books I read as a kid again but in real life.

What a great movie.

Zama opens today in Toronto. check your local listings.What will people say is playing at Human Rights Watch film fest.  This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Art and Sport. Films Reviewed: The Miracle Season, Final Portrait, PLUS Steve Reinke’s films at Images

Posted in Art, Canada, Death, France, Movies, Queer, Rural, Sex, Sports, Switzerland, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 6, 2018

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

Toronto’s Images, the International Festival of Moving Image Culture, opens next Thursday with Canadian and international video artists and filmmakers… featuring the work of Steve Reinke. This week, I’m going to talk about films by artists, and films about artists, with some sports thrown in, too. There’s an American volleyball team, a Swiss sculptor, and a Canadian video artist.

The Miracle Season

Dir: Sean McNamara

Caroline and Kelly have been best friends since childhood. “Line” (Danika Yarosh) is the always chirpy optimist who Kelly (Erin Moriarty) looks up to. Growing up in rural Iowa, they share their secrets amidst big barns and cornfields. In high school they play volleybal together. With Line as team manager and setter they win the State Championships. Of course the other team members, andtheir hard boiled coach (Helen Hunt) are important, but it’s really Line who leads the team to victory.

But the next year things take a turn for the worse. The team is dispirited and Line’s Mom has cancer. Then the unthinkable happens; Line dies in a crash. Kelly feels guilty, and so does Line’s dad Ernie (William Hurt) who used to throw team parties and boost the players. With no Line around to pull people out of their misery, the team slides to last place. They don’t even want to be happy – it’s disrespectful. It falls to Kelly to turn the team around. Can she do it, and will the team ever win again?

The Miracle Season is a nice movie about teamwork and overcoming loss. It has good acting and a conventionally inspiring story. “Nice” is the key word here. Based on a true story, it was made by permission of the charity founded by the Line’s father. So as you can expect, anything not super “nice” has been scrubbed from the plot. No sex, no violence here. They could show this movie at Bible Camp without raising an eyebrow. Which makes it a nice memorial for teammates and family members, but for the rest of us, it’s just a dull and predictable movie. But, like I said, it’s still nice.

Final Portrait

Dir: Stanley Tucci

It’s early 1960s. James Lord (Armie Hammer) is a young American living in Paris who writes biographies of well known artists. He’s friends with both Picasso and the Swiss-Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush). Giacometti is famous for his sculptures of people with crusty and extremely elongated arms and legs. But he also paints. And one day he asks James to pose for him for a few hours. He sits down in Alberto’s studio dressed in khakis, navy blue sports jacket and shirt and tie. But the one-day painting turns into a project lasting days and then weeks, until no one knew if it would ever end. Each time he paints his face, Alberto rubs it all out and starts again. Meanwhile, various people in his life walk in and out adding colour to the story. His brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) has seen it all before. His neglected wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) refuses to pose for him anymore. And his mistress Caroline (played by the delightfully-named Clémence Poésy) would rather go for a jaunt in their sportscar than just hang at the studio. Final Portrait has some fun parts, but basically this movie is 90 minutes of watching paint dry.

Steve Reinke

Steve Reinke is a queer Canadian artist and filmmaker, originally from the Ottawa valley but now based in Chicago. I’ve seen a lot of his films in the past 20 years, but for the first time I spent last night binge-watching them all together (which is quite an experience).  If you’ve never seen Reinke’s stuff before, you should.

He’s been shooting films and videos that chronical his life, his thoughts, aesthetics, and interests — both intellectual and sexual – beginning in the late 1970s and continuing till now. And unlike a lot of gallery video artists, his films are never boring. (This is important.) Like porn, a Reinke film is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. (But that doesn’t mean you’ll understand it.)

Taken at face value, his collection is an ongoing, partly-fictional memoir told through video art (predating blogs and youtube by decades). His images are partly found footage/partly original, narrated both by voice and by titles. Take What Weakens the Flesh is the Flesh Itself, a recent film he made with James Richards. The film alternates grotesquerie with erotica and mundaneness, with the edges sometimes blurring among the three. Grotesque as in a dead piglet; mundane, like a naked man eating grapes or an ice fishing hut shot with a distorted, fisheye lens; erotic like a poisonous snake having its venom extracted in a laboratory. The film begins with photos by the late German photographer Albrecht Becker. He was imprisoned in Nazi Germany for his sexuality. His work consists of photos of himself reduplicated with an imaginary “twin”. Over time, as his photos become more stylized and experimental so does his body, which gradually transmogrifies — before still cameras — into a work of art using tattoos, body modification, and a whopping-big metal thing hanging from his scrotum. (Ouch!)

Reinke’s flms are transgressive and a total mindfuck. Like he’ll show you an alien monster with pointy ears making out with a faceless, sexless human, encased in a skintight black PVC outfit. And then later he’ll show an unborn dead calf being pulled from a cow’s belly with the same black shininess.

This is weird stuff, alternating between jarring pictures of sex and death overlayed with anodyne intellectual musings. Who else would compare Casper the Friendly Ghost to Wittgenstein? What other filmmaker offers a film called Anal Masturbation and Object Loss that’s actually just Steve Reinke pasting the pages of an academic psychiatric textbook together? Or show thousands of unidentified military photos before telling you this: [SPOILER ALERT] these are pics of all the American military casualties of the Second Gulf War arranged in order of attractiveness. Shocking stuff.

It all feels like you just watched a story, but one arranged with enough sudden changes and musical distortion that you’re not seduced into it. Steven Reinke’s films leave you disturbed and unsatisfied but you don’t quite know why.

Films viewed:

What Weakens The Flesh Is The Flesh Itself (2017)

Atheists Need Theology, Too (2016)

Joke (Version One) (1991)

*Watermelon Box (1990)

*Michael and Lacan (1991)

*Room (1991)

*Barely Human (1992)

Anal Masturbation and Object Loss (2002)

Squeezing Sorrow From an Ashtray (1992)

Hobbit Love is the Greatest Love (2007)

A Boy Needs a Friend (2015)

*not included in Images series

The Miracle Season and Final Portrait both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Steve Reinke’s films are showing at Toronto’s Images Festival — featured in its Canadian Artist Spotlight series — beginning next Thursday. 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 Daniela Vega about A Fantastic Woman

Posted in Bullying, Chile, Drama, Family, Movies, Music, Secrets, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 9, 2018

(The second track is unedited, for Spanish speakers)

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Marina Vidal is a happy woman. Her career as a singer is taking off, and her relationship with her lover, Orlando, is at a new stage. They are living together. He gives her a perfect birthday: dinner, dancing, and a trip to a resort. But her luck takes a turn for the worse when he wakes up feeling strange. She rushes him to hospital but it’s too late. He’s dead. And suddenly everything changes.

The authorities, police, doctor, and Orlandos family swoop down upon her. She is called a thief, a prostitute, a murderer. She is attacked emotionally and physically and told to stay away. All of this because she’s a trans woman. They say her relationship with Orlando was not “normal”.

But why should a woman settle for normal when she can be fantastic?

A Fantastic Woman is the name of a new film directed by Sebastián Lelio and starring Daniela Vega. Vega is a popular Chilean singer and actor who plays Marina in a remarkably powerful performance.

I spoke with Daniela on location at TIFF17 in September.

A Fantastic Woman has been nominated for an Academy Award: Best Foreign Language Film.  It opens today in Toronto.

Middle Class, Middle East. Films reviewed: Ava, The Insult

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, High School, Iran, Lebanon, Movies, Palestine, Refugees, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2018

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

Looking for new things to watch other than big studio crap? Here’s what to look out for in February. It’s Black History Month, and Toronto’s Black Film Festival is coming up this month. The Goethe Foundation is showing movies set in Asia by Ulrike Ottinger. At TIFF Cinematheque they’ve got a retrospective of French New Wave director Philippe Garrel. To name just a few…

This week, though, I’m looking at two dramas about the Middle Class in the Middle East. There’s a teen drama set in Iran about a dare, and a courtroom drama in Lebanon about an insult.

Ava

Wri/Dir: Sadaf Foroughi

Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a high school girl in Iran. An only child, she’s pretty but determined and self-confident. She lives with her mom, a psychiatrist, and her dad when he’s not out of town. She brightens up her obligatory, all-back uniform with some red Converse running shoes and a backpack. Her prized possession is her metronome. Her life consists of violin lessons, studying for exams, and hanging with her best friend Melody. Another friend Shirin, is a know-it-all always putting her down so she bets she can get a guy, Nima, to go out with her. She knows him from music lessons where he accompanies her on the piano… and she thinks he’s cute.

So she arranges an elaborate plot where she says she’s going to study with Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), but actually plans to meet up with Nima, and drop by Shirin’s place to show him off so she can win the bet. Easy as pie. Except Shirin isn’t home – so no bet – and worse, when she sneaks back to Melody’s place her suspicious mom is there going ballistic and taking it out on Melody and her mom. And when Ava arrives her mom’s all Where were you? what did you do? Why did you lie? Then she drags Ava to a doctor to check that her virginity is intact!

In school the next day it gets even worse, with teachers searching through her backpack for forbidden things (whatever that may be). Even the school principal lectures all the girls about the dangers of doing the unspeakable with their unmentionables! She lost the bet, is humiliated in front of everyone, forbidden to see her best friend, and forced to quit her music lessons. All this, even though she didn’t do anything. Her stress and frustration rises to a boiling point and she has a meltdown in class.

Why is her mom so worried about her daughter having premarital sex? Can Ava pull her life back together, pass her exams, play violin at the recital, make up with her friends and family and maybe get back together with her non-boyfriend Nima? Or is her life ruined?

Ava might sound like a YA soap opera, but it’s actually a realistic coming-of-age drama about life in contemporary Iran. This is a good movie, surprisingly mature for a first feature. It has the look of an arthouse flick, with experimental camera work — like characters shot from behind, from above, from far away, with parts of them obscured, or even out of the frame entirely. And Jabari is excellent as Ava.

The Insult

Dir: Ziad Doueiri

Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is an engineer working on contract for the city. He supervises dozens of workers who repair potholes, drainage and infrastructure. He’s at the height of his career, known for his skill, diligence and bringing projects in under budget, while still looking out for the little guy.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) runs his own business, an auto repair shop, fixing BMWs. He lives in a second floor apartment with his pregnant wife. The young couple are saving up to buy their first home. Everything’s peachy until one day Tony spills dirty water through a faulty drainage pipe all over Yasser on the street below. Yasser calls Tony a rude name, but later fixes the pipe at the city’s expense. Tony smashes it to pieces. Words escalate with neither side apologizing for their insults. Until Tony voices the ultimate insult, and Yasser responds by beating him up.

Seems like a small problem, easily solved, right? Wrong. It turns into a lawsuit and the ensuing trial captures the attention of the whole country, leading to riots, molotov cocktails, even a meeting with the President of Lebanon. What is so important about this dispute? Yasser is Palestinian and Tony is Maronite Christian, and their disputes go back for generations, including the bloody, 15-year-long Lebanese civil war.

Their two lawyers, both working pro bono, are the famous Wajda Webb on Tony’s side and rising legal eagle Nadine working for Yasser. Both sides discover hidden histories from their two clients’ pasts, as victims and perpetrators of some of the massacres that tore the region apart: Black September in Jordan, Damour, Sabra and Shatilla.

The Insult has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and I understand why. It manages to handle controversial topics in a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious manner. The movie is told from Tony’s point of view, and therefore that of Maronite Christians as a group – including his political influences, their role in the civil war and Tony’s personal memories. That said, it is respectful and sympathetic to Yasser’s side and takes pains to portray him in a positive way. And Kamal El Basha gives a great performance as Yasser, both subtle and explosive at appropriate places.

The Insult is a good crash course in Lebanese modern history.

Ava and The Insult are both playing now 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.

Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water 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.

Classics, old and new. Films reviewed: The Breadwinner, The Man who Invented Christmas, Solaris

Posted in Afghanistan, Animation, Christmas, Cross-dressing, Disguise, Movies, Religion, Science Fiction, USSR, Victorian England, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 24, 2017

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

Fall film festival season grinds to a finish with Blood in the Snow – or BITS – showing distinctly Canadian horror movies. Movies filled with ghosts, creatures and cruel killers who aren’t always what they appear to be. It’s on now through Sunday.

This week I’m looking at three movies about things that aren’t what they seem to be. There’s a girl in Afghanistan who appears to be a boy, a writer in London whose characters appear as if they are alive, and an astronaut in outerspace where people appear who shouldn’t be there.

The Breadwinner

Dir: Nora Twomey

It’s 2001 in Afghanistan. Parvana is an 11 year old girl who goes to the market each day with her dad to earn a meagre living. Times are tough, and her dad is missing a leg. But she loves spending time with him and listening to the stories he tells. But when a young member of the Taliban arrests her father and hauls him off to a faraway prison, Parvana and her whole family are left in a crisis. The Taliban strictly forbids women from leaving home unaccompanied by a man, but then how can they earn a living, contact her dad or even buy food to eat? Will they starve? When Parvana tries sneaking out unaccompanied she is chased and almost killed, saved only by a neighbourhood boy. What can she do? Is her only chance of survival an arranged marriage with a much older man?

Then she has an idea. She cuts her hair short, dresses in a boys’ clothes and chooses a new name. Suddenly she’s free again and a whole new world is open to her. She gets a job in the market and brings home food. She’s the breadwinner now. And she soon discovers she’s not the only one – a boy she makes friends with is actually a girl, just like her. Can she rescue her father from prison? Or will Idris, the young Taliban who arrested her father, see through her disguise?

I thought the Breadwinner was going to be another earnest, educational kids’ cartoon, but it’s not that at all. It’s an exciting and wonderful animated feature that captivated me from start to finish. The main story – a girl trying to rescue her father – is told alongside an Afghan fairytale about scary monsters in the mountains. It’s a Canadian-Irish co-production with amazing art full of swirling colours and patterns, drawn in a distinctive, flat, cut-out style.

Great movie.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Dir: Bharat Nalluri

It’s 1843. Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is a wildly popular novelist who lives in an ornate London mansion with his wife and kids. His Don Quixote-like father (Jonathan Pryce) has taken up residence in his home, running through cash like a sand in a sieve. There’s a young nanny and a portly housekeeper, Mrs Fisk (Miriam Margolyse) to keep things running properly. He lives high on the hog – his wife just ordered a crystal chandelier. Only problem is he’s bankrupt, his latest novels bombed (ever hear of Barnaby Rudge? Me neither) and, worst of all, he has writer’s block. He can’t come up with a story. If he doesn’t publish something soon, he’ll be in big trouble come January. So he decides to write a Christmas story and publish it himself. But about what?

He takes careful notes — a quote here, a name or a face there – and new characters begin to take shape in his head. He asks an elderly waiter at his gentlemen’s club his name. “It’s Marley”. A crooked lawyer has heavy chains all over an iron safe. A rich man he encounters asks “Are there no prisons for the poor? No workhouses?” And at a funeral with only one stingy mourner, an old man dressed in black (Christopher Plummer) mutters Humbug when he passes Dickens. It’s Scrooge in the flesh! Now all he has to do is write the damned thing. But can he finish A Christmas Carol in time?

I think everyone knows the story about Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the Ghost of Christmas Past. What’s interesting here is to see the real-life inspirations that led to the book. It also reveals some real surprises about Dickens’s own ghosts from his childhood, a frightening litany of debtors prisons and child labour that haunted his adult life. Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) offers a clean-shaven Dickens, and Plummer is perfect as his foil, a funny Scrooge who lives in Dickens’s head along with the rest of his characters.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is fun holiday fare.

Solaris

Dir: Andrey Tarkovsky

It’s the Soviet Union, some time in the distant future. Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is visiting his fathers country home to meet an importany guest, a former cosmonaut named Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky). Berton had been living – along wth other scientists – on a space station parked above a distant planet named Solaris. This planet is covered with water that moves and communicates using waves (as in waves in the ocean). These waves, and this planet seems to have extraordinary power: it can evolve and change from exposure to earthlings like Berton. But his evidence, the film brought back, was useless. So Kelvin goes to the station to investigate and decide whether the three scientists – doctors Sartorius, Girbarian and Snaut – are still productive or if it’s time to close it all down.

When he gets there it’s worse than he feared. One is dead, one looks like something the cat dragged in, and the third has locked himself into his room and won’t come out. Is everyone on Solaris nuts? Then he begins to feel it too. The beautiful Kari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his former lover from years ago, appears in his bedroom, exactly as he remembers her, complete with brown suede dress. Far from an illusion they make in his quarters. And she seems to be immortal. Trauma, injury, death or banishment won’t take her away from him, she reappears anew no matter what happens. And the space ship itself gradually morphs from sterile minimalist metal and, glass into a warm and inviting replica of the home he left. But is it all just an illusion?

Everyone has told me for years how great a director Tarkovsky is. But I had only seen one movie by him – Nostalghia – when I was a student and hated it so much I swore I would never watch his films again. What a waste, and what a mistake.

Tarkovsky is a genius, and Solaris is as brilliant and shocking as everyone says. It’s a must-see for all science fiction fans. It doesn’t have the lasers and space battles, the quick editing and CGIs expected in contemporary space movies, but it doesn’t need it.

It’s perfect the way it is.

And no spoilers here, but the ending is a total shock.

The Breadwinner and The Man Who Invented Christmas open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And a new print of Solaris is playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as part of a Tarkovsky retrospective. 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

 

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Ingrid Veninger about Porcupine Lake at #TIFF17

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 8, 2017

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

Bea is a pre-teen girl on summer vacation with her parents in Georgian Bay. Her mom lives and works in Toronto, while her dad is running the family gas bar and diner he inherited from his dad. Bea’s parents are at odds about whether to sell or keep the place and Bea, sensing the discord is prone to panic attacks. So she is relieved to meet a local girl, Kate, who is much tougher – and less chicken — than she is. She teaches Bea the facts of life. But when their friendship intensifies, bad things start to happen at Porcupine Lake.

Porcupine Lake is the latest movie by celebrated Toronto filmmaker Ingrid Veninger, known for her tender funny and sometimes shocking personal stories. It explores the fragility, naivite and tenacity of young Canadian girls. Porcupine Lake is having it’s World Premier at the Toronto International Film Festival.

I spoke with Ingrid Veninger at CIUT during TIFF.

Porcupine Lake is opening in 2018.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Lina Rodriguez about This Time Tomorrow

Posted in Canada, Colombia, Drama, Family, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 18, 2017

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

Adelaida is a high school school student in Bogota, Colombia. An only child, she has a warm relationship with her parents, But her growing sexual awareness makes them uncomfortable — they don’t like their daughter growing up.

The delicate threads between parents and child are torn asunder by a sudden unexpected event. Communication grinds to a halt. Will they still exist as a family this time tomorrow?

This Time Tomorrow (Mañana a esta hora) is the name of a new art house film, a family drama that explores adolescent alienation. An intimate, personal and realistic look at life in Bogota, it focuses on the ordinary and mundane to reveal deeper, unspoken emotions. It played at Locarno and is finally opening today in Toronto. It’s written, directed and co-produced by experimental filmmaker Lina Rodrigues.

I spoke with Lina Rodriguez about This Time Tomorrow in Studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Her film is now playing in New York and opens today in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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