Monthly Archives: April 2017

Hot Docs: Sunday Beauty Queen

Hong Kong, like many cities around the world, benefits from the help of underpaid Filipino workers. A local domestic worker would cost $8 an hour, but a Filipina in the same role works round the clock, 6 days a week, for just $500 a month. There are strict rules for these poor workers, who aren’t allowed to maintain their own residences (if they could even afford them). They often sleep in the kitchen, which is also where they eat, alone, after having served the family. These are the people who care for the elderly or nurture the very young. Away from their own families, often even leaving young children behind, they pour love and care into their duties while receiving very little in return.

sunday_beauty_queen-4Sunday Beauty Queen examines these workers, and the pastime they enjoy in their very limited time off: beauty pageants. Every Sunday they gather in events they organize themselves, strutting their stuff in costumes equal portions prom dress and cardboard accoutrements.

This well-intentioned documentary by Baby Ruth Villarama sheds light on important issues faced by migrant workers but lacks real depth, raising more questions than it answers. These women run themselves ragged serving others, sending all of their money back home to the families they left behind. They reclaim their dignity and their personhood on Sundays, competing in made-up beauty pageants. If the awarding of crowns and sashes runs late, they could lose their jobs on the spot for coming in past curfew. Instantly homeless in a foreign country, they have 14 days to find new employment or they are forced to leave. Many can’t even afford to leave, due to fees charged by both Hong Kong and the Philippines coming and going, on top of airfare and the shame of going home empty-handed.

I loved getting to know the women in this documentary, but I wish I knew them better, had a fuller sense of their stories. Sunday Beauty Queen is an excellent start, but these workers deserve a bigger piece of the pie, both in life and on film.

 

 

This review first appeared at Cinema Axis.

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Monsieur Mayonnaise

Only a few minutes into Monsieur Mayonnaise, my brain’s got an itch. Something about this feels familiar but it can’t be the movie as it’s making its Canadian premiere at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Rather it’s the man himself, artist Philippe Mora, who I’ve lately seen in Three Days in Auschwitz, about how his mother narrowly escaped being MonsieurMayo2-750x506sent to Auschwitz. Philippe Mora is an artist of all mediums; while he did not direct this particular documentary, he did write and illustrate the graphic novel of the same name.

Monsieur Mayonnaise is about Mora’s father, a member of the French resistance. He earned the code name Monsieur Mayonnaise when he suggested the resistance smuggle important documents inside sloppy, mayonnaise-filled sandwiches, after he observed Nazis avoiding greasy foods in order to keep their pristine gloves clean. His father’s position allowed him to protect and shelter the family of the young woman with whom he was quickly falling in love. After the war, fearful of another, Mora’s parents fled to Australia, where they made their home, raised a family, and opened several restaurants which would feature hand-made mayonnaise prominently.

These are the reminiscences that inspired the colourful artwork that makes up Monsieur monsieur-mayonnaise-2Mayonnaise, both the comic and the film. Director Trevor Graham films the madcap artist as he careens around the world, meeting up with heroes, villains, and the ordinary people still alive today because of his father’s efforts – teamwork improbably involving Marcel Marceau – smuggling Jewish children across the border.

Mora is practically a subject unto himself, and if his flightiness is mirrored in the documentary, so too is his exuberance.

You can catch a screening of this film on the following dates:

Thursday 11 May, 3:30 PM – Alliance Francaise (Director Trevor Graham will Skype in for a Q&A)

Sunday 14 May, 1:00 PM – Cineplex Cinemas Empress Walk 9

30 Years of Garbage: The Garbage Pail Kids Story

I was probably too young for Garbage Pail Kids. I was possibly too young for Cabbage Patch Kids too, for that matter, but had one anyway, given to me when I was 2 years old and my dumb Mom replaced me with a brand new baby. My Cabbage Patch Kid was named Maud (they came pre-named, with a birth certificate) and she had red yarn hair. My babyGPK_8a_adambomb sister also got one, a brunette named Valerie, which I felt was unfair because she’d done nothing to deserve it besides poop and scream and steal my parents’ love.

Cabbage Patch Dolls were a huge phenomenon in the 1980s, and so too, eventually, were the little trading cards that parodied them. Topps bubblegum did Bazooka and other candy store staples. They’d paired baseball cards with bubblegum for years, and were expanding to “non-sport” cards as well. Failing to secure rights to do a legit Cabbage Patch line, they decided instead to do a “fuck you” line that would skewer these saccharine-sweet dolls.

30 Years of Garbage introduces us to the brilliant, twisted minds behind this idea that was obsessively collected by kids and doggedly censored by parents and principals. Jacques Cousteau, for some reason, cautioned parents that their Garbage Pail loving kids would inevitably end up on cocaine! I may have been too young to appreciate os4_132athis stuff at the time, but I have certainly been aware of them in retrospect. These bubblegum comic artists tapped into a vein of childhood rebellion and ended up making lasting work.

I was shocked to learn that a Garbage Pail co-creator was none other than Art Spiegelman, who wrote Maus, a deeply moving graphic novel about the Holocaust (he uses cats and mice effectively – if you haven’t read it, you simply must). I shouldn’t be surprised that I’d never known the connection – his publishers worked hard to keep it that way!

30 Years of Garbage provides equal doses nostalgia and insight. You don’t need to love the product to find this documentary compelling: who got screwed, who got sued, who won the war between the First Amendment, and Product Disparagement?

But it’s also interesting because I see this fad repeating itself. My little nephew Brady is into something called Shopkins, which as far as I can tell, is a really stupid “toy”. It’s a tiny rubber thing, shaped like some grocery store item, about the size of a pencil eraser. cards21n-2-webHe’s got a bag of rice, and a bag of flour that looks almost identical to the bag of rice. How these are fun toys I have no idea. We usually pile them on Lightning McQueen and race. But Brady’s own counter culture is already budding at 5 years old: Shopkins are parodied by the Grossery Gang, the same basic shitty toy, but disgusting (ie, mouldy cheese). I don’t get it, but adults aren’t meant to. It’s kind of cool that he’s got his own little act of rebellion, but if you’re in the mood for some throwback rebellion, here’s a hint: the Garbage Pail Kids are back.

30 Years of Garbage is playing at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival this Sunday, May 7th, 5:30pm at Innis Town Hall.

Joshy

Joshy has planned a fun bachelor-party weekend away in Ojai, just him and his buddies celebrating his upcoming marriage with as much booze and drugs and strippers as time and space allows. Except Joshy’s fiancee commits suicide, and the weekend’s now been downgraded to just a “hangout” among friends.

Only a few brave friends arrive, besides Joshy (Thomas Middleditch): stable Ari (Adam Pally), determined to keep things light, neurotic Adam (Alex Ross Perry) whose default mode is wet blanket, and Eric (Nick Kroll), the friend with coke and bad ideas. They pick 2f03a127a57d72e5de9a6d7fb71e9cf5up some hangers-on (Jenny Slate among them) and proceed to have a very weird weekend.

How do men mourn and commiserate with their grieving friend? They mostly don’t. They mostly tamp down their feelings in favour of whatever self-destruction’s close by. The film is largely improvised, making use of all the comedic chops, so the chemistry is crackling even if it feels like the plot goes absolutely nowhere. It’s really about the presumption of our perceptions, and maybe the unknowability of people. The characters disclose things to each other, and expose themselves to us, but we don’t come away really understanding them any better for it.

Joshy has a really ephemeral quality to it, a sense that nothing can last, good or otherwise, and things will inevitably be left unsettled. This may be a comment on closure and its real-life attainability, and that’s exactly when the movie feels the most honest.

This was a humbly entertaining watch for me because I like these guys, but it wasn’t exactly earth-shattering goodness. It’s kind of a cross between a raunchy comedy and mumblecore, so take that admonition with the grain of salt it deserves.

Ithaca

Should you tip the boy who brings you the telegram that says your son is dead?

That dilemma and others covered in Ithaca, loosely based on William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, which is not remotely funny. But it did give Meg Ryan some comfort when she was going through her divorce from Dennis Quaid, so what better material to use in her directorial debut?

ithaca9f-2-webShe plays the mother of sons, a hard thing to be in 1942; Marcus, who is off to war (played by Jack Quaid, Ryan’s actual son), Homer (Alex Neustaedter) who struggles with being the 14 year old man of the house now that his father (Tom Hanks) is gone, and little Ulysses (Spencer Howell) who doesn’t remember anything different.

This is really Homer’s story and the growing up he had to do. He’s such an exuberant kid at the start of the film, determined to be the best and fastest bike messenger in town. But 1942 means WW2, and WW2 means lots of devastating telegrams. How does it transform a 14 year old kid to deliver grief in an envelope? To witness the moment a woman is made a widow? To see a mother torn apart by pain? That’s pretty heavy stuff to be grappling with when you’re also mooning over your first crush and taking your little brother down to the local fishing hole. It makes for a heightened existance, but it’s also just life for Homer, who has his own little odyssey to live.

The film is a little under-achieving, a retread of themes we’ve seen elsewhere, and often. Sam Shepard has a pretty compelling role, which makes up for the very rare glimpses we get of Hanks. If it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, it’s still bittersweet in its nostalgia, and tucked sufficiently at my heart strings. Meg Ryan hasn’t hit it out of the ballpark on her first swing as director, but don’t count her out.

 

 

An Israeli Love Story

Margalit meets Eli on a bus and – zing! – for her, it’s love at first sight. He takes a little convincing, his head already crowded with ideas and responsibility. The catch in this little love story is that it’s Israel 1947. Things are…complicated.

Eli (Avraham Aviv Alush), son of the second President of the State of Israel, lives on a kibbutz where he works all day every day. When Margalit (Adi Bielski) pursues him An-israeli-love-story-1-1024x576there, she finds that he’s also helping the Palmach to smuggle Holocaust survivors into Palestine. This only makes her love him harder, but his reality is very different from hers, a drama student and theatre lover who is reluctant to give up a life of creativity. Her love is strong enough to make the necessary sacrifices, but the turbulent state of things in Israel means that love will not be enough to overcome all.

This is the true story of the love affair between Pnina Gary (who contributes to the script) and Eli Ben-Zvi. The film sets this passionate love story amid the political turmoil of pre-state Israel.

An Israeli Love Story makes its Canadian premiere as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Check below for dates and times – added bonus: director Dan Wolman will be in attendance.

Through the presentation of international and Canadian films, the Festival aims to be both a window to and a mirror of Jewish culture.  The Festival strives to be inclusive of all aspects of the Toronto community, regardless of age, affiliation or income.  We undertake to show films for their contemporary, popular value, and for their ability to address the subject of Jewish identity.  That is, to be a Jewish Film Festival, and not a film festival for Jewish people.

 

TJFF screenings for An Israeli Love Story:

Thursday 11 May, 6:15 PM – Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

Saturday 13 May, 9:00 PM – Famous Players Canada Square 2

 

Shiners

Shoe shiners: at the airport, a busy subway station, a kiosk in your local mall, even on the street corner. There they are, every day, providing a service to the people walking by. Yet this humble profession is often overlooked. Who goes into shoe shining, and why? Director Stacey Tenenbaum gives us a documentary that gives us the answers by putting us in the shoes of shiners around the world.

Filming in cities as diverse as New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sarajevo, La Paz, and more, shoeshining-640x480Shiners gives a good sense of the universality of pride in one’s work. However, it is also clear that the profession is not viewed the same from one country to the next. In America it is being reclaimed by hipsters who deride the neglect of older crafts. In Japan we see a lot of honour in the skill, in making something old new again. But in other places, it’s seen as degrading work, and the shiners work on the street, earning little money and even less respect.

In that way, Tenebaum quietly addresses poverty and social justice without quite mentioning it directly. Shiners is a character-driven documentary, the shiners speaking for themselves. A mother of young children barely earns enough to feed her family; she refuses to be shamed for her position but insists that her children will be ‘professionals.’

Don, a.k.a. the shoe dude, working a street corner in Manhattan, has a vibrant personality. A former accountant and pastry chef, he’s chosen shoe shining for the sense of freedom it gives him. He talks candidly about the racist connotations of shoe shining, and the satisfaction he’s derived from telling “uppity people” their shoes are dirty.

Shiners excels at providing an insider’s view. It cracks the humanity wide open, and guarantees that you’ll never walk by these people without seeing them again.

 

This review first appeared at Cinema Axis.