Tag Archives: female directors

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.

 

 

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Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent

Jeremiah Tower, if not the father of American cuisine, is at the very least its very fun uncle. But a case for fatherhood can be made. He burned bright and then disappeared. This documentary finds him.

One of Tower’s earliest memories: sitting on the beach, maybe 6 years old, watching an old man prepare barracuda for dinner. Holding his hands as they held the knives, watching him rub some spice from the jungle on them, the aroma as the fish cooked. The old man said that next they would eat snake, or perhaps iguana, and those exotic dishes got confused as the old man also referred to the “little lizard” in young Tower’s pants. That child’s confusion, food and sex already mixed up in his head, is perhaps why he went on to be a renowned chef. But it’s not the only reason.

CNN Films: Jeremiah Tower documentaryHe had an unconventional childhood and perhaps not a happy one, travelling extensively with his parents who exposed him to culture and glamour while largely forgetting he existed. Food became his friend and companion, and he’d gluttonously study the menus of all the great restaurants he visited, making friends with the kitchen staff in all the best dining establishments in the very best of hotels.

He never intended to become a chef, but circumstance had made him a cook, and when opportunity knocked, Jeremiah Tower answered. Not only did he answer, he opened the door to a transformation of food and ingredients, and how we thought of them. He was perhaps the first celebrity chef but abandoned it all at the top of his game. Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, and Martha Stewart all speak of him reverently, but it’s clear his legend is still shrouded in mystery.

A couple of years ago, Jeremiah Tower resurfaced, and the foodie community went bananas foster (that’s me making a foodie joke, fyi). He was to be the new Executive Chef at Tavern on the Green, a large restaurant in New York known more for its touristy location than the quality of its food. It seemed a strange move for such a king of the kitchen, but then again, what do we really know of this culinary superstar who walked away from his own fame and success?

This documentary is fun and interesting from start to finish, but a lot of Tower’s mystery remains intact. Lydia Tenaglia shoots him like the lone wolf he is, perhaps a little scattered and deliberately artsy at times, but the truth is, Tower is a force that pulls you in, his charisma alone enough to compel. The Last Magnificent made me hungry – sure, for some of his California cooking, but mostly just for more of him, of this fascinating, elusive man.

 

 

 

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent opens Friday May 5th in select cities: Toronto,
Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax, and right here in Ottawa, luckily enough.

 

 

The Whole Truth

It’s possible that if Keanu doesn’t play a lawyer at least once per decade he’ll die. That’s the only reason I can think of to explain his casting as a lawyer ever, because he’s barely credible as the sandwich guy who delivers lunch to law firms.

hero_TheWholeTruth-2016-1In The Whole Truth, Keanu does indeed play a lawyer who is defending the son of a former colleague and longtime friend. The son is accused of killing his father, that very same former colleague and longtime friend. I’m sure Keanu would like to believe that his client is innocent, but his client isn’t talking. And his client’s mother (Renee Zellweger) is mostly weeping, and begging Keanu to save her son’s life.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who is above this material, plays a lawyer assigned to help Keanu, and be less of a dick in the courtroom than he is, which is a role that could have been fulfilled by Andy Dick or Jeremy Piven or goddamned Jim Belushi, who was actually busy playing the murder victim, but you catch my drift. It wasn’t a high bar.

Anyway. It’s derivative. It’s one of those “unravel the plot” movies probably based on a mystery novel only sold in drug stores. When “the whole truth” is finally revealed, you probably won’t be around to hear it, having already changed the channel, and you certainly won’t give a shit. The ending isn’t earned, it doesn’t pack a punch, it’s just a fart in the wind (is that a saying?).

I’m dubious, Keanu.

A United Kingdom

In the late 1940s, Prince Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland is studying law in Britain to help prepare for his eventual ascension to the throne back home. As the fates would have it, while he’s there he meets and falls in love with a clerk, Ruth Williams, and they plan to marry. One slight hitch: she is a white woman. He is a black African prince. Hard screen_shot_20160825_at_4.36.44_pm_1.png.CROP.cq5dam_web_1280_1280_png.pngto say who their love most angers: her family, his constituents, or the status quo. Interracial marriage wasn’t exactly popular in 1940s England, and her whiteness isn’t even the whole problem: her social status is far beneath that of a prince. But they marry anyway, anticipating disapproval, unprepared for the reality of the diplomatic firestorm and political tumult their marriage would actually entail. His right to the throne is threatened, as is her life. He is threatened with exile, she with ostracism. Still, they persist in their love, not just of each other, but for the people of the new Republic of Botswana.

Director Amma Asante did the film Belle, which I truly loved. In this movie you can feel how earnestly she strove for realism: the real home of Ruth & Seretse was used. Their grandson makes a brief appearance. Botswanans were invited to be cast as extras, with 3000 showing up for the first day of filming! The real hospital where Ruth gave birth is used. And the singing  during a pivotal scene in which Ruth finally gains a measure of acceptable from the tribe’s women, that was spontaneous and beautiful.

 

head-2-large_trans_NvBQzQNjv4BqLCkbV0Cud8CVjQLblQrpKnudqrdmUogVvFNupiOyznIDavid Oyelow and Rosamund Pike play the lead roles and you couldn’t ask for a better acted movie. Oyelow is dignified as this humble prince, Pike strong and heart-breaking. They help strike a balance between the passion of their love and the stark reality of apartheid. It would be easy for one of these plot lines to swallow the other, but Asante manages float above it, entangling both, as would have been the case in real life.

It’s an inspiring forgotten story, tastefully and thoughtfully made, but for me, it just failed to really engage. Such a soaring story should really stir you up in the watching, but I found it a bit boring, the story telling too conventional. It’s still a worthy watch for knowledge’s sake alone, but it lacked a true spark.

 

SXSW: Prevenge

Alice Lowe has stumbled upon a new kind of body horror: that of a heavily pregnant woman. Ruth is on a murder spree, guided by the wee voice in her womb who just happens to be a misanthropic areshole. The little voice chimes in, pointing out the bad people, or the disappointing people, or the less than desirable people, and encouraging mom to kill, kill, kill. Apparently there’s blood lust in umbilical cords these days!

Alice Lowe is my hero. She wrote (and starred in) Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, appeared in Adult MV5BN2EzNTdlOGEtNWViZC00MmE5LWFiNzgtOTIzODNlMjBjM2M2L2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1399,1000_AL_Life Skills and Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, and lent her voice to Locke, among a flurry of other activity, including fucking. That’s crude, but the end result is that she found herself pregnant, and instead of taking maternity leave like a sane person, she wrote and directed herself, at 7.5 months pregnant, in this film about a homicidal fetus. And it’s her first feature as director!

Ryan Reynolds became murderous when his cat Mr. Whiskers told him to, but Alice Lowe has done him one better. Prevenge is blackly comic and wryly British, if I may say so. Ruth’s unborn baby seems to be holding the world accountable for her absent father, slyly suggesting to her mother that certain someones might be deserving of a gory end. Ruth seems to indulge baby’s every whim but does struggle with her conscience. Is this a new kind of pre-partum, um, madness? And what the heck is going to happen when the baby comes out? Yikes!

Shudder, “Home of Horror” hosted a screening in NYC where all pregnant women were admitted free. I suppose those who weren’t superstitious attended, and hopefully saw the humour in a pregnant lady killing for two. If that’s something you might be into, the good word is that Prevenge is streaming on Shudder right this very minute. 

 

 

 

 

 

SXSW: Lemon

At some point we started to wonder if South By SouthWest wasn’t a little incestuous. Yesterday I wrote about a movie called Win It All, which was directed by Joe Swanberg, who has a bit of a creative flirtation going with Jake Johnson. Joe Swanberg also happens to write for the Netflix series Easy. Meanwhile, the writers and director of Lemon also make appearances on another Netflix series, Love. Is Netflix the meeting ground for mumblecore indie spirits?

Anyway. Lemon was written by husband-wife team Janicza Bravo and Brett Gelman. Gelman has the unenviable task of starring in a film that was called Lemon because Isaac, the lead character, is a complete dud. If he was a car, you’d return him directly to the lot and tear your hair out while screaming at the manager. If you’re his girlfriend of a decade, well, you start creating distance, and then you cut and run. That’s what Ramona (Judy Greer) does; she’s only stayed as long as she has because she’s blind, and while her sight hasn’t improved, her self respect has.

The film feels like it has chapters to it. In the first chapter, we see Isaac at work.  He’s a theatre lemon-movie-sundanceteacher, where he over-praises one student, Alex,(Michael Cera) while simultaneously ripping apart another (Gillian Jacobs). Whether he identifies with Alex or is simply jealous of him I can’t divine, but we know that Isaac’s own acting career is in the toilet, almost literally (just about the only thing he’s up for is an incontinence ad). But bonus: Michael Cera, inexplicably bad hair and all, does earn some serious laughs as a super pretentious thespian who’s always “doing some animal work” or some other crazy-obnoxious thing.

The second chapter shows him among his immediate family, which is rife with drama. He’s practically the normal one there, navigating rough waters between his siblings (Martin Starr is his brother) and half-heartedly joining in when his mother (Rhea Perlman) decides it’s sing-along time (a rousing chorus of “A Million Matzoh Balls” is as memorable as it is ridiculous). This is the weirdest family dinner I’ve ever witnessed and was uncomfortably effective at making me feel vicariously bad about myself.

The third chapter focuses more on his post-break-up love life. Despite being a complete loser, he seems to have attracted the attention (or at least the pity) of the beautiful Cleo (Nia Long), whose family is nothing like his. The film makers admitted that the two families represent their own in-law struggles, though I can’t imagine having the courage to put that kind of dirty laundry up on a big screen.

Do you delight in the suffering of others? Isaac is not a redeeming character. He’s thoroughly unlikeable. But the movie itself is almost aggressively odd, from the very first shot. What kind of enjoyment can you derive from schadenfreude? And are you in the mood for something obsessively quirky, something unapologetically, erm, esoteric? These are the questions you must ask yourself before settling in to Lemon.

 

SXSW: Signature Move

Zaynab is a Pakistani-American immigration lawyer who is a) learning wresting moves from a former pro wrestler who went by the name Jolt and b) keeping a new relationship with Alma secret from her conservative Muslim mother who doesn’t know she’s gay.

“Mothers and daughters aren’t friends in our culture,” Zaynab tells Alma. “That’s a very American concept.” Zaynab’s father is dead and her mother lives with her, almost claustrophobically, obsessed with SIG-MOVE-2-1024x683TV and spying on the neighbours but unwilling to leave the house. She’s particularly keen on spotting eligible men with her not-inconspicuous binoculars.

Zaynab, meanwhile, is just trying to find herself, in “life, love, and lady wrestling,” as the subtitle suggests. Signature Move, directed by Jennifer Reeder, is a mixture of culture and possibility, with Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza) wishing she could could live her life confidently out but juggling the reality of her mother’s disapproval and the pain the secrecy causes her new girlfriend. I particularly love seeing the generational difference between Zaynab and her mother (Shabana Azmi), how the mother will speak in her native tongue, and the daughter will respond in English as if this is the most natural thing in the world. Alma (Sari Sanchez), meanwhile, is perhaps her opposite, but she draws her out of the darkness while also having her own notions of identity and sexuality challenged. It’s an interesting little slice of life indie film that brings a refreshing twist on the tired romcom format to the screen.

SXSW: Bill Frisell, A Portrait

Bill Frisell’s discography is incomparable. He’s worked with the best of the best, all of whom consider HIM to be The Best. He’s an actual guitar hero, his influence widespread, his sound envied and copies and admired. But Bill remains an unsung guitar hero, his name not well-known to those outside the business, and he’s pretty content to keep it that way. This documentary, however, is a character portrait of this very interesting man, and very influential musician.

MV5BM2Y1N2I1OTktMGIxYy00N2I1LTljOTMtZjBjM2IzNDRiNjg4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzMwNzMyMjk@._V1_The good thing about this documentary is that so many people line up to talk about Frisell: director Emma Franz assembles the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, and more, and the amazing thing is that all of the people have nothing but glowing things to say about the man. The GREAT thing about this documentary, though, is that it contains plenty of live music to love and appreciate, and gosh he’s got a lot.

Bill Frisell seems reluctant to talk about himself (he is however, inclined to sing the praises of other artists), so every nugget teased out feels like a treasure. This documentary will look at the very things that shaped his sound, with particular time spent peering into his brilliant mind and trying to understand music the way he does. There’s lots of great insight here, an intimacy I hardly dared hope for.

His guitar collection is impressive, but not as impressive as his genuine love for each one. It’s so endearing. What a great documentary to have stumbled upon, and I sincerely hope that it’ll be available for your perusal also.

 

SXSW: Pornocracy

In 2006-2008, the porn industry suffered a great crash; as the economy tanked, internet piracy soared. The DVD market for porn virtually disappeared and the traditional porn studios became obsolete. Porn consumption, however, has never been higher – 100 BILLION porn videos are viewed every year, 90-95%  from free streaming sites. This has meant very bad things for the women making porn – less money (like, 10 times less), and less safety.

Director Ovidie was herself  the star of pornographic films for 17 years. Today her videos are being streamed for free without her consent, meaning they are much more easily accessed by everyone and anyone – including colleagues and relatives. Porn stars like Ovidie don’t really exist anymore. You may remember a time not so long ago when porn stars were worshiped. Today a woman’s name is rarely attached to her videos. Instead, she’s reduced to a series of tags and keywords, usually related to how many cocks are stuffed into her various holes – and yes, that number is going up and up.

Ovidie’s film Pornocracy explores the consequences of this:

  1. If everything is available for free, who is making any money?
  2. When everything is so easily accessible on the internet, children are seeing it from younger and younger ages (the average is 11). This is actually changing what boys expect from girls when they’re dating and starting to have sex.
  3. The porn industry’s reliance on drugs is rampant. Guys inject their penises to stay hard for 5 hours straight. Women are given child birth drugs to dilate muscles so their assholes can accommodate the 3 cocks expected of them. Then they’re flooded with lidocaine so she can’t feel herself being torn to shreds by the act – she will later though, and she will never completely heal.

This is not appetizing food for thought, but this is the world we live in, regardless of whether you yourself are watching porn or not. Everyone else is, apparently. Ovidie, known as the “porn star intellectual,” manages to investigate this phenomenon very thoroughly, uncovering the kingpin behind all these seemingly independent streaming sites. They’re nearly all owned by the same multinational corporation which is so seedy and shadowy with offshore accounts and empty offices. Fabian Thylmann is the guy behind the monopoly, exploiting performers while also boldly, shamelessly stealing from them. Ovidie makes sure he doesn’t get to hide behind his anonymity. This is an important, revealing documentary about the porn industry – but also about how it affects us all.

 

SXSW: Unrest

Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), commonly referred to as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It’s a debilitating chronic disease as often misunderstood as it is misdiagnosed. People like to call it “the lazy disease” or “the I don’t want to go to work” disease. Doctors often diagnose a mental disorder rather than the autoimmune disease it actually is, telling patients “it’s all in their heads.” But to the 1-2.4 million people who suffer with it in the United States alone, it’s a disease that leaves you drained, sensitive to light and noise and possibly much else, perhaps unable to stand and walk. Permanently housebound and bedridden, they feel they’ve gone missing from their lives – it passes them by while they lie in bed, sometimes with cognitive impairments that make them feel like they’re not truly living.

Director Jennifer Brea is one such person. She was a happy newlywed when suddenly she just got hit with a disease she didn’t even know about. Robbed of the things she once loved doing, this film documents her daily struggles, the constant tug of war that must be waged against her body. She also reaches out to people around the world suffering the same thing, and together they try every supposed miracle cure on the market. When none work exactly as they hope, they stage a protest most are unable to attend. It’s really sad to see such vibrant people struck down by such sweeping disability. It is no wonder that despite serious medical symptoms, one of the most common causes of death for ME sufferers is suicide.

I am moved personally by this film because as you may know, I too have an autoimmune disorder. There are tonnes of autoimmune disorders and all but a handful are practically unknown, even to doctors. I admit to a small bit of jealousy when Brea complains about ME being the least-funded of the major diseases because my disease doesn’t even rate – we call it an “orphan disease”  – nobody’s even trying to cure it. There is no funding. There is no ribbon. There is no textbook. I’ve visited approximately 100 doctors and I’ve had to educate all but 2. The lives this disease ruins are too few for anyone to care. So in that way I understand perfectly what she’s going through; you have a terrible disease and you have no hope of cure. You have no hope, period. And on top of having no hope for yourself, you also have this huge burden of guilt because like her, I’ve dragged someone else into the equation. And while Sean is not sick, his life is also disabled by my disease. If I’m too riddled with pain to leave the house, he stays home with me. He cares with me. He deals with my terrible moods when I’m in pain, and my pushing him away when I’m in despair. He has brought me around the world to different doctors, and he feels the same low when I leave another appointment hopeless. In order to live our lives, I push myself out of bed and out of the house too often, and we both know I’ll pay the price. I’ve cried in anguish in Paris, outside the Centre Pompidou. I’ve bled across the Miami boardwalk. Even right now, in Austin, Texas for the South By SouthWest Conference and Festival, my suitcase is bursting with pills, gauze, and needles (that Sean has had to learn to inject me with) just to get me through, and I’ve limped along in secret pain, unable to even bring one of my most depended-upon medications with me because it’s illegal in this country.

So you’ll understand why I think a film like Unrest is so important. It sheds light in a dark corner of the medical community. It’s important to remember the real people who live their lives in this dark corner. They have voices. They have families who love them. They have friends who miss them. And if we cannot contribute to the cure, we can become allies. We can be witnesses and sympathizers and believers, so that nobody needs to hear from a doctor that “it’s all in your head.”

It’s screening at SXSW March 14 at the Vimeo Theatre and March 16 at Alamo Lamar, which serves great pretzels.