16 September, 2011. Women Directors at TIFF. Films Reviewed: Union Square, Elles, UFO in Her Eyes, Hysteria, PLUS Road Movie

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

TIFF is a strange and wonderful place. Where else can you go from watching a Russian movie (where all the characters speak German, but most of the actors just move their lips, open and closed, since they don’t speak either language)… to a quintessentially Winnipeg party celebrating another movie, where I ended up sitting at a table between stars Udo Kier and Louis Negin, tearing soft-core pictures out of old National Geographic magazines and new Taschen art books to glue onto paper in a collage. (It was a collage party – why not?)

Well TIFF may be winding down, but there are at least three more days left to see a huge amount of movies, and there are still tickets or rush seats available for most of them. Go to tiff.net for more information. So with no further ado, lets get to the reviews. This week I’m talking about four movies directed by and starring women in lead roles.

Union Square
Dir: Nancy Savoca

Jen (Tammy Blanchard), is a neat, pretty, quiet, and tidy
professional, originally from Vermont, living with he boyfriend in downtown Manhattan. She doesn’t drink or smoke, is a vegetarian, a yoga enthusiast, and runs a health food company out of her apartment. Her boyfriend and fiancé, Bill (Mike Doyle), is a generic-looking handsome Stanford grad, who keeps meticulous notes on his marathon training stats, and calls Jen “twig”. They’re happy.

But into this rarefied existence drops Lucy (Mira Sorvino), a loud-mouthed, gaudily dressed women who seems to know Jen for some reason. It’s soon revealed that she’s her sister. She talks at twice Jen’s volume, interrupts her, laughs, shrieks, cries, and breaks hundred of house rules (no shoes, no pets, no cigarettes, no meat) even in her first few minutes in the apartment off Union Square. She’s a working-class, Italian-American from the Bronx! And Rob’s parents are coming the next day for Thanksgiving dinner, even as Lucy camps out on a pile of things on the couch.

Will Jen’s potential marriage crumble as Bill discovers her real origins? Can she still “pass” as a suburban educated WASP? And will Lucy get a chance to explain some important family issues to Jen?

Union Square works like a one-act-play, with revelations, gradual changes in character, and a final concluding scene to explain some of what’s behind the two sisters’ fighting. And it makes for an enjoyable picture.

Elles
Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska

Anne (Juliette Binoche), is a reporter for Elle magazine in Paris. She’s writing a story on two separate, pretty college students she found Charlotte and Alicja (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) who secretly work as well-paid prostitutes. Charlotte still lived with her parents, and Alicja was from Poland, studying in Paris but without a place to stay. As they describe their sexual experiences to her, the movie drifts in and out of their sexual experiences with their clients, or at least how Anne imagines them.

Anne begins with questions about how they were forced into this life, what miserable experiences they have, and whether it make them hate sex. But their answers surprise her. Charlotte says there’s a horrible smell that’s really hard to get rid of. Anne nods supportively – all that sex with strangers… No, says Charlotte, its the smell of the housing projects she used to live in with her parents, where she worked as a fast food cashier. Now? Life was wonderful with her new comfortable lifestyle, shoes, clothes, and food. Now she has johns teach her to make Coq au vin with Reisling, and, after sex, sit on her bed playing the guitar.

Anne begins to have sexual fantasies about their lives, even as she questions her own privileged, but meaningless and alienating consumer lifestyle, and how her husband and two sons all ignore her. Elles is pleasant, pretty and sexually explicit — if lightweight — and one that offers a pro-sex, feminist view of the trade thats different from most movies.

UFO in her Eyes
Dir: Guo Xiaolu

Guan Yu (Ke Shi) is a peasant who lives in rural southern China amid the small tree-covered mountains.
She has a roll in the hay with the town schoolteacher. Afterwards, she picks up a piece of crystal and looks at the sky where she’s sure she sees some flying saucers coming to earth. Soon, word has spread, and the ambitious communist party chief for the village (Mandy Zhang) has decided to make the town rich by forcing it to be modern, complete with an ugly town sculpture, a UFO amusement park, a 5-star hotel, and a golf course. The schoolteacher begins to teach his 8-year-old students to read Henry Miller. The town Chief declares Guan Yu a model peasant, and the married school teacher a model intellectual. The schoolteacher should divorce his wife and marry Guanyu to make a perfect couple for the town, and embrace Americanism – whether they want it or not. But what about all the people in the town – the poor, the migrant bicycle repairman, the farmers whose land is requisitioned to build a golf course, and the local butcher whose pig sty is declared unsanitary? As the haves are marching toward modernity richness, the disenfranchised are banding together to protest it. Which side will triumph? Will Guan Yu go with change? Or will she find her true love, the quiet, migrant bicycle repairman? And what about the UFO – will she ever see them again?

UFO in her Eyes, based on the director’s bestselling novel, is a cute satire of the new capitalism in rural China.

Wuthering Heights
Dir: Andrea Arnold
You probably know the story: Heathcliff, an orphan brought home from a port to a rural village in 19th century England, is baptized, and raised sort of as a member of the god-fearing family. He and his adopted sister, Cate, become very close, rolling around in the heather and mud of the moors. But they’re threatened by Hindley who thinks his dad likes Heathcliff more. When Cate decides to marry a rich man, Heathcliff flees the farm, and doesn’t come back for many years. Will they get back together and embrace their love, or will it consume ad destroy them both?

OK. The thing is, this version is done by the great director Andrea Arnold, who made Fish Tank last year – that’s why I wanted to see this. She makes some changes. People speak naturally, the camera is handheld, and jiggles around, lighting seems natural – sunlight or candlelight or complete darkness – interspersed with beautiful contemporary-looking costumes, and tons of shots of birds animals and plants. Most of the actors are non-actors, Hindley’s a racist skinhead and Heathcliff is black!

It doesn’t always work, and gets a bit tedious in the second half, but has some very beautiful scenes, like Cate blowing a tiny feather or licking the wounds on Heathcliff’s back. It’s an interesting, naturalistic take on what’s usually just a costumed melodrama.

Hysteria
Dir: Tanya Wexler

It’s Victorian London, and earnest and handsome young Dr Granville (Hugh Dancy) is trying without luck to help people stay clean and healthy while remaining loyal to the ideals of Lister, and modern medicine. He is hired by a psychiatrist, Dr Dalyrimple, who gives special treatments to rich, society women suffering from the blanket ailment “hysteria”. Women who were designated frigid, or nymphomaniacal, or moody, or argumentative – well, they’re all “hysterical”, so the problem must be in their uterus (and hysterectomies were sometimes considered a “cure”). Treatment consists of manual genital massages behind discretely mounted miniature red velvet curtains.

He’s engages to marry the Dalyrimple’s conservative daughter Emily; she’s a pianist and an phrenologist: Oh, Dr Granville, your thrombus is rigid and jutting! she says after feeling the bumps on his head. But he always seems to be in arguments with the fiery Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall) a suffragette and social worker who runs a settlement house in the impoverished East End. And poor Granville might lose his job because of the repetitive stress injury in his right hand. But, together with his gay best friend and steampunk inventor (Rupert Everett) he just might have the solution to eveyone’s problems– a new machine that may permanently cure hysteria.

I was expecting nothing from a movie about the invention of the vibrator, but it was a real treat – a romance, a comedy, an historical drama, an old-fashioned Hollywood-style movie, along with a taboo twist. Try to see it this weekend – it’s a great movie!

Union Square, UFO in her Eyes, Wuthering Heights and Hysteria are all playing now at TIFF – check listings at tiff.net . And also check out Road Movie, a two sided, three-screen video installation at the O’Borne Gallery by Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatki that shows pixilated footage tracing the roads in the occupied West Bank (from the view of the Israeli settlers on one side and Palestinians on the other) with their words superimposed in short phrases over the footage.

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

Unusual Characters: Documentaries reviewed: And Everything is Going Fine, The Story of Furious Pete, The Canal Street Madam, Inventing Dr Nakamats, Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya

Today I’m going to look at a particular form of documentary that’s at this year’s Hotdocs, and talk about some of the movies screening there.

Right now, and through the weekend, Hotdocs Festival in Toronto is showing over a hundred new documentaries. There are history documentaries, there are social issues, there are global disasters, there are political movements, current affairs, competition, true crime, and personal triumphs. This year, Hotdocs has brought in not just the filmmakers, but a number of documentary subjects themselves – the people the movies are about.

These days, everyone downtown is looking funny at everyone else: is that woman in a movie? I think he’s sort of famous! On Sunday, I chatted with a pair of Teletubbies in Yorkville. Still not sure whether they were there as part of a movie or if they just liked dressing in fuzzy yellow and red costumes. I guess I’ll never know. The festival is full of unusual documentaries with all sorts of unique, off-beat characters. Here are a few I liked.

And Everything is Going Fine

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Spalding Gray was a fantastic storyteller and monologist who used his own life and encounters as the raw materials for his talks. He would sit at a plain wooden desk, with some papers in front of him – stage props, he never looked at them — maybe a glass of water, and just talk to the audience in a brilliant, multifaceted monologue.

His stories were really captivating, hilarious, always surprising, and all about himself. He talked about sex, about his mother’s suicide, about psychiatry, sex, war, travel, more sex, acting, performing, his wife, and death. He committed suicide a few years ago, and Stephen Soderbergh has put together footage from some of his past shows, TV appearances, and interviews. “And Everything is Going Fine”, gives a partial biography of Spalding Gray’s life, told in his own words, by him.

It’s a great collection of his past works, seamlessly stitched together into a single script. My only criticism is that Soderbergh skewed the focus of Spalding Gray’s talks into a sort of a living epitaph, as if his words were a clear prediction of his eventual, inevitable suicide. I don’t think it was predestined at all… it just, sadly, happened. And I hope his narrative won’t be recast in the public memory as the guy who killed himself. But I do recommend this movie, both for people who have seen him, and those who have never heard of him.

The Story of Furious Pete, Directed by George Tsioutsioulis is about Peter Czerwinski, a Canadian competitive eater, who at a much earlier age, was hospitalized for anorexia. So, a guy who used to barely eat at all, is now a buff body-builder who scoops up chunks of food in official competitions and chows down, like a vicious velociraptor, at whatever is put in front of him. Schnitzels, steak, obscenely massive sandwiches, everything, that is, except the legendary Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest in Coney Island. We follow him traveling around North America competing as a pro eater, his hair died red and white to look like the Canadian flag.

As a movie, it’s half fun to watch, half disgusting. The parts about his personal life don’t come through as clearly as the competition scenes, which are truly remarkable examples of high-speed zombie-style gorging. Sometimes the documentary feels borderline infomercial, with that “exciting” pounding sports TV music, and the flashing chrome fonts it uses. I guess that’s to make it look like a sports show. Maybe it is a sports show… And there are lots of product placements and logos for the companies that sponsor him, so the tone is noticeably different from most of the films at hotdocs. But it still kept me interested, and rooting for him to win as he stuffs barbecued ribs into his bulging cheeks. He even appeared live, at the screening, in an impromptu orgy of competitive watermelon gluttony, the latest chapter in the ongoing Story of Furious Pete.

In The Canal Street Madam, directed by Cameron Yates, Jeanette Maier runs a brothel on Canal St in New Orleans that attracts famous clients – politicians, journalists, businessmen.

But in 2004, after a year of wiretapping, the FBI holds a major raid, throwing Jeanette, her mom, and her daughter in jail. Three generations in the same profession. The courts close down her livelihood. The people working there go to jail, the well heeled clients split without charge.

This movie shows Jeanette’s gradual change from a rich madam to a politically active sex trade worker, who isn’t ashamed, isn’t afraid, and is willing to stand up for her rights. The government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, including consensual paid sex. She says she has now moved from “politricking” to politicking. Though the movie sometimes drifts into reality show-style confessionals, it is a moving, respectful, and fascinating profile of Jeanette’s public persona and her private family life.

“Inventing Dr Nakamats”, directed by Danish filmmaker Kaspar Schroder shows an eccentric Japanese man who holds the patent to over 3000 devices. Dr Nakamatsu has a number of theories he lives by. He keeps track of every meal he eats (one meal a day at 8 pm sharp), to follow the nutrients. He’s driven by efficiency – how many minutes will something take, how much, how many, how long. He has determined that the best new ideas happen underwater, so of course he invents a waterproof pen and paper so he can write an idea down in the swimming pool as soon as he thinks of it. You get to see him sniffing a camera – he believes you can judge a new camera by its smell.

The filmmaker follows him around for a month recording everything leading up to his 80th birthday, when he plans to release his latest invention, a push-up bra. He comes across as egotistical and tyrannical – he castigates a hotel toady for refusing to name a room after him – but his off-beat creativity, combined with prolific scientific brilliance and brazen self-promotion show a unique guy. This movie is a lot of fun.

I have my own encounter with Dr Nakamatsu a few days ago at a lecture. I see him sitting at a table with his wife. I go over to acknowledge his work. He says “Latin America”? I say no, I’m Canadian. He explains. He is heading for the Latin America documentary reception, as am I. How many minutes? he wants to know. I don’t know… 10-15 minutes? OK, he says, let’s go, where’s your car? My car? No I’m taking the subway, right across the street.

Mood change. Dr Nalamatsu dismisses me. They’ll be going without me.

Later, at the party, we meet again. How many minutes did it take me? His method, by taxi, was faster. We are near a tray of tortilla chips and salsa. What is that? he wants to know, ever the nutritional scientist. I explain. But he wants the ingredients. Um corn… Oil? Salt? And that, he says, pointing to the dip. Tomatoes, onions, pepper, spices… pause. Dr Nakamatsu deliberates. Dr Nakamatsu photographs the tray. Then… he nods his approval. Chips and salsa will constitute his once-a-day meal. And in his head, he’s probably inventing a new, better, Japanese taco chip. All’s well with the world.

Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya Directed by Eric Liebman and Jonathan Schell.

His name is Desert, but you can call him Dez. Dez lives in Sedona, Arizona with Maya. They hold big spiritual meetings. Baba Dez (who attended the screening) – an old-school surfer-dude-looking guy, with long hair and a yoga physique – is a tantric, polyamorous shaman. Tantric as in tantric yoga, tantric sex; polyamorous meaning he has sex with various women other than his lover; and shamanistic, meaning… well that was never quite clear, but I think it’s about him playing a wooden flute on the side of a hill. Maya dumps him cause he’s too polyamorous for her tastes. He spends most of the movie trying to get her back.

Dez says we all have yin and yang, a lingam and yoni, deep inside of us. And the key is to find the union of your masculine and feminine sides, (not the bullies and the victims, the good masculine and feminine), in order to find inner calm and sexual satisfaction.

He helps one woman find her orgasm by saying “OM” just as she reaches nirvana. He’s a “hands-on” kinda guy…

Dez is frequently nekkid, (as are many of the people in this movie) so you get to see a lot of him. Whatever his tantric beliefs are, at his consciousness raising ashrams Dez is always quick to spot the prettiest women and to try to make contact with them. Dez, Dez, Dez… you dirty dog. We know what you’re all about.

We see him impressing women in Hawaii by showing them a giant, all-natural, lava rock vagina inside a cave (sort of like the Virgin Mary appearing on a tortilla). Aw, Dez…

Then, just when you think nothing will surprise you, in another scene, he’s kneeling beside a woman he’s saying something spiritual to. She’s lying naked on her back, and he’s – wait a minute, is that his…? It appears that Dez has gingerly displayed his junk across her thigh.

Anyway, this is a movie like none you’ve ever seen (hopefully), sort of soft-core tantric porn, but it’s also a really good documentary, and very entertaining. And you know what? The people in the movie all seem happy with what’s going on, so who can argue with that? Even though nothing Dez says makes any sense.

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