Docs vs Biopics. Movies reviewed: In the Wake of the Flood, Cry of the Andes, Nowhere Boy, The Social Network

Posted in Acting, Biopic, Canada, Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, High School, Movies, Sex, UK, Uncategorized, US by on October 16, 2010

This week I’m looking at two documentaries and two bio-pics. First, let me say that in general these are my two least favourite genres. Lots of docs are too boring, lots of biopics are too earnest or stiff, and you know what’s going to happen, since the characters are already famous. But that doesn’t mean they’re aren’t some good ones out there.

The documentaries both come from the international Environmental Film and video festival going on in Toronto right now through October 17th, called “Planet in Focus.” Through lectures, workshops, films, and events — some aimed at school kids, some at adults – it’s an excellent place for people wanting to learn more about environmental issues.

The opening night film, directed by well-known Toronto documentary maker Ron Mann, was “In the Wake of the Flood”, and it’s a record of Margaret Atwood’s recent book tour. But unlike most book tours, she had local theatre groups and choirs performing with her. And she conducted it all as a fundraiser for birds! She also traveled by train, and boat, from Scotland to Sudbury, Ont, espousing environmental topics and showing her interest in the migration of songbirds and how they’re threatened by pollution, development, and environmental degradation. Her readings, in this movie have a quasi-religious feel to them; inside empty churches she preaches the ecumenical gospel of environmentalism, organic coffee, and the protection wild birds.

The movie is extremely low-key, with sort of a massive, anglo- Canadian Tilley-hat aesthetic to the whole thing. What I liked most are the historical clips and quotes of environmental saints – as one group refers to them; Saints like Eual Gibbons, Rachel Carson, Terry Fox, and Henry David Thoreau. The nature scenes are also really beautiful. So look out for this documentary, both for fans of Margaret Atwood, and people who want to help save the birds.

Cry of the Andes
Dir: Carmen Henriquez and Denis Paquette

Another documentary, Cry of the Andes, is also playing at Planet in Focus. If you’ve been watching TV listening to the radio, reading a newspaper, or just catching news headlines on-line, you cannot help but know about the incredible rescue of the miners trapped in Chile. But how much do you know about mining there, and what it’s doing to Chile, the people there, and the environment?

Toronto-based Barrick Gold, a mining multinational, is planning on putting mammoth open-pit gold mines into the devastatingly beautiful but ecologically fragile mountain region of the Andes. It’s water source is the mountain glaciers, that slowly melt and feed the streams that trickle down the rocks. The mining company plans to dig the glaciers up and truck them away. And it uses deadly poisons to bring the metals to the surface.

Without water, the community can’t function, and their orchards, rocky pastures, indeed their whole way of life would disappear. But the mines would also be a source of jobs and money, at least in the short term. It mines gold – Barrick Gold is the biggest gold mining company in the world – so it literally pits money and gold against the traditional and ecologically sound cultures.

This movie shows the dilemma facing the local indigenous population: go for the gold or keep the water. Barrick has set up lots of nice sounding commissions and compensation boards they present to the locals, but in absolute terms, it’s do the indigenous people there own the water rights – or just the land? Canadian filmmakers Henriquez and Paquette show the hidden effects of Canada’s international mining companies, and give voice to the largely unheard local side in their protests against the mines. Cry of the Andes follows the grassroots activists as they take their political cause from their small villages all the way to Bay st. in Toronto, and then home again for a local election that could decide their future. This movie has beautiful landscape shots of the Andes. And it’s screening on the 16th, at Planet in Focus.

Now the biopics:

Nowhere Boy
Dir Sam Taylor-Woods

John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), a high school student in the late 50’s, is growing up with his cold aunt Mimi and nice uncle George in a middle class home in Liverpool. But at a funeral he discovers his long-lost mother is still alive. Not only that she lives a couple blocks away. He confronts her, and his life begins to change.

His new-found, passionate and eccentric mother teaches him how to strum a banjo, and takes him to a movie where the girls in the audience shriek when Elvis appears on the screen. You can almost hear the gears turning in his head:  yeah, I want to be like him. He combs his hair like a rock ‘n’ roller, and becomes rebellious, cocky, almost a local tough, joy-riding around town on the roof of a double decker bus, smoking, drinking, kissing strange girls.

When he gets suspended he decides to secretly wait it out at his mom’s place, so his icy and strict aunt Mimi won’t find out. Who des he choose as his parent: his passionate mother Julie or his cold but committed aunt Mimi? He also starts up a band, eventually including a young Paul McCartney– who looks like a cute, 14 year old lesbian in this movie.

This movie works – I was expecting yet another tedious biopic about a much-too-famous rock icon, but the story of how he ended up being raised not by his mom but by her sister is really good. (It’s a bit of a tear-jerker, actually.) Kristen Scott-Thomas as Mimi, Anne Marie Duff as his mother, and especially Aaron Johnson (he played Kick-Ass earlier this year) as John give three great performances. It’s well worth watching.

A bit of context: the director, Sam Taylor-Woods was a YBA (young british artists) a group of, well, young conceptual British artists in the 90’s, who changed the world’s art scene into a series of bed-hopping, money-making, artists-as-celebrity entities.

So, when watching this movie, it’s hard to look at John Lennon’s mother’s incredible, almost sexual, touchy-feely affection she has for him, without also seeing the director’s own obvious affection for the actor playing Aaron Johnson. (She recently gave birth to the boy’s baby. Nothing directly to do with the movie… but, in my mind, it informs the whole story.)

The Social Network
Dir David Fincher

You’ve probably heard of this bio-pic about the founder of Facebook, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s an interesting, clever, and pretty funny drama about Mark Zuckerberg and his various friends, enemies and frienemies from his Harvard days.

The story is narrated by the various people suing him: his former best friend Eduardo, and the rich crew team preps the Winklevoss twins who claim he stole their ideas. But it all harkens back to Mark being dumped by his girlfriend – which inspired what was originally a revenge site, to the phenomenon Facebook is now.

The script is intricately plotted, almost too dense; the acting is great (Jesse Eisenberg is excellent as the funny, driven, uptight geek; with Justin Timberlake surprisingly convincing as a slick-talking dot-com sleaze); even the scratchy, creaky soundtrack is effectivek disturbung. Only problem, it’s one of those movies where it’s hard to sympathize with any of them, or to care which millionaire or billionaire ends up with the most money and status in the end.

Also on this weekend is what might be your only chance to see Margaux Williamson’s experimental film Teenager Hamlet — a movie that strips away the artifice of film in order to explore the artifice of art, drama, and conversation — at the Royal Cinema tonight and on Sunday.

And the Toronto Jewish Film Festival’s “Chai Tea and a Movie” program is showing Avi Nesher’s film The Matchmaker – which is about a kid who meets a mysterious matchmaker from the wrong side of town – is the kind of movie  (one with a great story, comedy, passion, romance, intrigue, betrayal, and truly memorable characters) that you rarely encounter anymore. It’s playing one screening only on the 17th at 5 pm at the Sheppard Grande also this weekend. Look online at for details.

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