Politics. Movies reviewed: He Named Me Malala, This Changes Everything, 99 Homes

Posted in Afghanistan, Canada, Cultural Mining, documentary, Homelessness, Movies, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 15, 2015

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

A movie can be political as much for what it includes as for what it leaves out. Take Zero Dark Thirty, which said that torture is what helped catch Osama bin Laden. What it left out (according to Vice media) was that their source of these “facts” was the CIA. This week I’m looking at three movies with overt political themes. Two are documentaries: one about how a girl’s education affected her life; another about how climate change affects economics and politics; and a drama about how real estate speculation affects the “99 percent”.

banner-he-named-me-malala-malala_844x476_static-EVERYWHEREHe Named Me Malala
Dir: Davis Guggenheim

Malala Yousefzai grew up in the Swat valley of Pakistan, in an idyllic but isolated village near the Afghan border. This is also when a local Taliban begins preaching on the radio. At first they are welcomed — Mullah Fazlullah speaks their language. But the Taliban begins to restrict, and eventually to ban all girls from schools. Malala is a devout Muslim but opposes anything that might hold back women’s rights. She is unequivocal on this: men and women must have equal rights and opportunities.

A precocious student and the daughter of a teacher, she decides to do someone thing about it. 40eb99a45e7e0a29026d97dfcd6eaf1eFirst, at age 11, she shares her experiences with the world anonymously via a BBC blog. Then she comes out publicly as the face of all the girls their being denied an education. But the Taliban is not just a radio show. Their rhetoric escalates to bombing schools and physical attacking girls who disobey. And one night Malala and two friends are shot by a would-be assassin.

She falls into a coma, her family flees to England and the Taliban says if she ever comes back 10868271_710017355766115_8968207615678621192_nthey’ll kill her. But she survives and becomes an international activist.

This movie shows three things. It illustrates her history in a series of lovely animated sequences using colourful paintings. It follows her travels as an activist in Kenya and among Syrian refugees. In Nigeria she appeals to Boko Haram to release the 100 schoolgirls they kidnapped. And in the US she explains to Obama that drones attacks are inspiring, not stopping, would-be terrorists. Finally, the movie shows the life of an ordinary girl who does her homework, fights with her brothers and ogles pics of star cricketeers online. It lets us know that she’s not a victim, nor a saint, but a committed activist who deserves to be listened to.

Protesters against gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece. Still from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, a Video Services Corp. releaseThis Changes Everything
Dir: Avi Lewis
Wri: Naomi Klein, based on her book

Climate change is a huge problem, maybe our biggest. But Naomi Klein says polar bears just don’t do it for her. And turning off light bulbs is not the answer. So what can we do? To address this, the film takes it to the people, the ones immediately affected by environmental disasters. It follows their plight and how they fight back. A first nationsMarch against coal-fired power plant in Sompeta, India. Still from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, a Video Services Corp. release activist living right beside the oil patch in Northern Alberta, protests the effects of tailings on their water supply. Farmers in Montana suffer from an oil leak. Then there’s the mining industry moving into northern Greece… right at the moment the country faces economic austerity. The economy desperately Naomi Klein at Chicheley Hall in the United Kingdom. Still from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, a Video Services Corp. releaseneeds investment, they’re told, stop worrying about little things like the environment! It’s the “shock doctrine” at work, using a crisis as an excuse for economic exploitation. And in India where tens of thousands could lose their livelihood if they build a coal plant.

The movie is beautiful shot, with vast Burtynsky-like vistas of massive oil fields. It’s not just about people you already agree with – it includes many of the fiercest opponents to environmentalism. And it’s narrated by Naomi Klein herself, who pulls it all together. This highly watchable film is a good guide on how to think globally while acting locally.

Still_02 99 homes 99 Homes
Dir: Ramin Bahrani

Dennis (Andrew Garfield) is a single dad who lives with his Mom Lynn (Laura Dern) and his son Conner (Noah Lomax). Times are tough, but Dennis works, Conner goes to school, and they live in Lynn’s house where two generations were born and brought up. They miss some mortgage payments, but it doesn’t seem that important. Then comes the big shock. Seemingly out of nowhere there’s a knock on the door – a real estate broker flanked by police. His homes is being repossessed, and Still_01he and his family are given a couple of minutes to grab their valuables and vacate the premises. They kick him out and padlock the front door shut.

Dennis is desperate, so he takes on odd jobs. He needs to earn enough money to get his family home back. His new boss Rick (Michael Shannon) flips homes for a living and offers him a cash income doing minor repairs. The catch? This is the guy who stole his house! But if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Rick is an odd character, a mini Donald Trump. He doesn’t have time for losers – he’s a winner, Still_08and he got there by stomping on the little people the way. You can’t be sentimental or nostalgic if you want to succeed. And he’s determined to make it to the top of the heap.

Rick lives in a spacious (repossessed) mansion complete with swimming pool, swank car and beautiful girlfriend. But he has high hopes for Dennis, and soon enough Dennis is kicking families out of their homes. He wants to get hold of a big block of land – the 99 homes of the title – so he can become a big player in the game. Dennis finds himself turning into his own enemy… even while his family is still camping out in a cheap motel room. Which direction will he choose: wealth or happiness?

This is a movie about a very real problem: homelessness and the US housing bubble, which turned family homes into a negotiable commodity. The title – 99 Homes – is meant to evoke how regular people, the 99%, fare under the rule of the super-rich. I like one of Bahrani’s earlier movies (Chop Shop) for its improvisational, documentary feel but another one (At Any Price) didn’t work. 99 Homes has its realistic elements, but it also has big name stars (all excellent) and a strict plot and script. It may harken back to the age of silent movies with its old-fashioned heroes and villains twisting their mustaches, (you must pay the rent – but I can’t pay the rent!) but it’s still worth watching.

This Changes Everything, He Named Me Malala, and 99 Homes all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening is Labyrinth of Lies, a German historical drama set in the 1960s about a courageous lawyer who dares to prosecute Nazi war criminals; and Guy Maddin’s wonderful The Forbidden Room.

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

Small Town Blues. Movies Reviewed: At Any Price, Blackbird

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

Sometimes ordinary people find their trajectories at odds with the people around them. Suddenly they have to get out of extraordinary situations, ones that affect not just their own lives but that of their friends and families.

This week I’m looking at two movies when small-town fathers and sons land into terrible trouble.

At Any Price 2 QuaidAt Any Price

Dir: Ramin Bahrani

Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) lives in Whipple, Iowa, on the family farm. His corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye. Those genetically-modified seeds he plants sure work wonders! He should know – he’s the top seed salesman in seven counties. But in order to succeed it’s grow or die, your farm has to get bigger and bigger just to survive. So Henry’s also a land shark, snatching up any acres that come available at local funerals.

Then there’s his family. He’s happily married… but fools around on the sly. His older boy is groomed to take over as soon as he comes home from college. Then there’s Dean (Zac Efron), the black sheep, the prodigal son. He’d rather hang out with his girlfriend Cadence, and drive his car in figure-eights. Forget farming, corn sucks. He’s gonna find his fortune as a champion stock car racer.

But things aren’t quite right. First, the older son never comes home – he’s in South America somewhere finding himself. And a competing seed salesman is infringing on his territory. Henry might loses Decatur county! And that same salesman’s son is a wannabe Nascar racer, too. So he’s an instant rival to Dean. Like father, like son: a two-generation feud. Henry wants to open up to Dean. But how can he get Dean to talk to him? Or even look him straight in the eye? It’s clear: Dean hates his dad.

And on top of all this, the GMO seed company hears a rumour that At Any Price Efron QuaidHenry is washing his seeds and reselling them – a normal farming practice, but a copyright violation if it’s a GMO seed. He could lose everything. His Dad already looks down on Henry, what would he do if he lost the farm?

At Any Price is a hard movie to grasp. Is it a family drama? A grain-conspiracy thriller? A rural slice of life? This movie interests me because the director, Ramin Bahrani, made a really good, low-budget super-realistic movie Chop Shop just a few years ago. Chop Shop was a neat little movie that almost felt like a documentary about a homeless kid who lives in a junkyard in Queens N.Y. So I thought this would be “Chop Shop in the Cornfields”. It’s not. It has big stars, bigger budget.

There are some good, drawn-out scenes – the movie conveys some emotions and events visually – no talking. This is no TV movie about life on a farm – it’s cinematic, it has big skies and endless fields.

The problem is it’s just not that good. It’s really slow, it’s really long and the plot just drags its way through all these convoluted relationships. It gets exciting (or at least dramatic) and heavy toward the end – in a good way — but that doesn’t redeem the blah-ness of most of the movie. The acting was very good, especially Dennis Quaid as Henry, and Maika Monroe as Cadence, the young woman who is both Dean’s girlfriend and Henry’s apprentice. I don’t want to completely dis this movie, since it has a sophisticated and satisfying ending, but if you see it go prepared for a long and slow film about father/son relations.


Dir: Jason Buxton

Sean (Connor Jessup) is a gothy-looking adolescent who goes to school every day wearing a spiky leather jacket torn-up skinny jeans, and a cloud of attitude. He likes his pet lizard, red wiccan stars, and camo sheets. He’s actually a big city boy, but his mom has pawned him off on his small town Nova Scotia dad, now that she’s remarried. Dad lives for hockey and works as a Zamboni driver; he’s not comfortable with his son always “dressing up for Hallowe’en” as he calls it. He says it’s not a smart thing to do in a small town. It also attracts the school bullies – the alpha-dog hockey players. He could just stay away from them but he really likes hockey bunny Deanna (Alexia Fast) who rides the bus with him. He’s attacked and humiliated by the school bullies, and Deanna doesn’t defend him. But when his guidance counsellor tells him to express his anger in story form, things turn from bad to worse. The police get a hold of his notebook, his website, and the short films he made on his cell phone and he’s arrested for supposedly plotting to kill everybody. And his lawyer tells him to plead guilty to cut down his jail time. Through no fault if his own, Sean is caught in a whirlpool of injustice with only his father and potential girlfriend to save him. The victim of bullying is painted as the criminal.

Blackbird is divided among a very realistic portrayal of life as a pariahblackbird_03_medium in a small town, the even rougher stay in a juvenile detention centre, and his ongoing relationship Deanna. Equally compelling is the in-prison run-ins with the unstable psycho-killer Trevor (Alex Ozerov) who labels Sean “Columbine”. Jessup is fantastic as Sean, as is Ozerov as Trevor, and the understated performances of Alexia Fast and Michael Buie as Sean’s girlfriend and dad serve as good foils for the main character. And it gives an eye-opening, stark portrayal of Canada’s youth justice system. I really like Blackbird – it’s one of the best things I saw at TIFF last year, and it’s an impressive debut for writer/director Jason Buxton.

At Any Cost and Blackbird both open today in Toronto. Also opening is another father/son drama, this one a Canadian psychological thriller called A Good Lie. When his mum dies, a young man (Thomas Dekker) discovers his late mother had a secret – his dad is not his biological father. That was dangerous criminal who had raped his mother. And Workman Arts is showing an interesting  series of short films dealing with addiction and mental health.

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

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