Tag Archives: social issues

Behind The Curtain: Todrick Hall

Dear Todrick Hall,

I’m sorry. As a film reviewer at a festival, we have dozens and usually hundreds of choices to make, and a tight schedule to keep, and we just cannot see them all. This documentary was available to me and I didn’t make time for it because I had no idea that it would blow me away. I’d have to wait to discover that for myself on Netflix. So I’m late to the party, but I brought tequila and nachos. Peace?

You may or may not know Todrick Hall as a Broadway and Youtube star. Having found the roles for gay African-American men to be quite limited, he simply started creating his own. He re-wrote other people’s songs and created short films to accompany them, and gained huge notoriety on Youtube because of it.  But Todrick Hall is no flash in the pan; his talent is of such cosmic, galactic proportions that of course he would burst out of MV5BNDY3YmM4OTUtYjRiMy00ODMyLWI1OTEtM2ZjNmRiNzJiMjEzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI4MjIwMjQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_Youtube and make a scene wherever he landed. But one of his absolute greatest accomplishments is a musical that he wrote and produced himself. Biographical, and inspired by The Wizard of Oz, Straight Outta Oz is an all-original production that covers the yellow-brick road he followed from being gay in small-town Texas and the struggles and hurdles that led to fame and acceptance and being fabulously gay anywhere he goes, including but not limited to small-town Texas.

Hall is enormously talented and handsome enough to coast on his looks, but what makes this documentary great is that he’s transparent and genuine. Behind The Curtain means actual access. And director Katherine Fairfax-Wright’s skill is for setting her subject within real social context. This musical was being mounted in a time when young black boys were being gunned down by police, a fellow Youtube star by the name of Christina Grimmie was murdered by a “fan”, and Hall’s old stomping ground, Pulse nightclub, was terrorized, a hate crime that left 49 dead. Both Todrick Hall and this documentary operate within this very real world, but both manage to remain optimistic and inspiring.

I hope one day I’m lucky enough to sit in his audience, but until then we can content ourselves with some of the amazing Youtube content he’s created.

I’m sorry we still live in a world that couldn’t immediately recognize the glittery, amber rays emanating from this shining star, but this kind of light cannot be contained under a bushel for long. Todrick Hall is destined for success because he knows the value of friendship, which is evident by the tight crew he keeps around him and the family that he’s made of his own choosing. And because of his voice, which is strong and knowing. And because he actually has lots to say with it, and the means to write it down, coherent and catchy. And because he wants it. He wants it so bad he’s not going to sit down and wait for it, he’s going to go out there and create it, and god damn do I admire that.

 

 

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Cornered in Molenbeek

cornered_in_molenbeek_1Few things are more ubiquitous than a group of old men chatting about life in a local barbershop.  Cornered in Molenbeek starts innocently enough as it drops us, seemingly randomly, into one of those barbershops.  Sure, the customers are speaking Arabic, but they are also speaking about things that I might talk about with my barber (sorry, stylist).

The shop closes for the day and then, in an instant, everything changes.  News breaks of a terrorist attack on Paris.  It’s November 13, 2015 and when the dust settles, 130 people are dead and 413 more are injured in a series of coordinated attacks at a number of locations throughout the city.  The investigation quickly determines that the attackers are from Molenbeek, Brussels, the very neighbourhood where this barbershop is located.  Of course, the attack becomes the main topic of conversation here, just like it was everywhere else.

Not surprisingly, this barbershop collective has no real answers as to what made the attackers do what they did.  Because guess what?  I have no real answers either.  The lack of answers here is revealing, though, particularly as the collective’s attempt to find an explanation weaves through a wide variety of possible causes, often looking for someone or something to blame, such as government, poverty, and the attackers themselves, with one notable exception: these people do not try to place blame Muslims as a group for these attacks, because they are Muslims themselves.  Contrary to the torrent of right-wing nationalist propaganda that is so often shouted at me online by a host of faceless idiots (oh, and also by the President of the United States), this group of Muslim acquaintances in this barbershop are just as innocent, just as angry and just as confused about the attacks as the rest of the world, and maybe more so because their religious and geographical association with the attackers draws them personally into the aftermath, exposing them to significant consequences that most people don’t have to worry about.

The phenomenon of terrorism is worthy of examination, and it was a refreshing approach to do so through the familiar lens of this barbershop, which otherwise would be functionally closed to me as a uni-lingual white Canadian (Arabic and French are the only two languages being used in these conversations).  The film’s structure serves to enhance the fly-on-the-wall feeling by letting us experience the barbershop’s normal environment before the attack happens.  The stark contrast in what is being discussed before the attack as opposed to afterward clearly shows that these types of attacks affect everyone regardless of their religion or native language, and really, we all need to be involved in this discussion on terrorism in order to stop it.  Cornered in Molenbeek does its part to start the conversation, and it’s up to us to keep it going.

 

 

 

The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter

It’s hard to imagine a movie more out of touch with the greater culture right now. In the era of #neveragain, this movie puts an assault rifle in the hands of a gleeful, stupid 12 year old, and expects it to be funny.

Buck Ferguson (Josh Brolin, 40 lbs heavier, with an inexcusable mustache) is an asshat hunter who makes his living making juvenile hunting videos caught on film by his faithful manservant\camera man, Don (Danny McBride). Now, I don’t care for (white) featured_legacy_whitetail_deer_hunter10hunters any day of the week. Unless you’re preserving a (native) way of life, food can be purchased in a civilized manner at the super market, and anything else is just fulfilling a latent desire for murder. So I already despise Buck and his way of life, but now he’s bring along his son Jaden (Montana Jordan), ostensibly to “reconnect” after divorcing his mother, but actually because he hopes it’ll be ratings gold.

If arming a preteen doesn’t nominate Buck for worst father of the year already, he’s also just checked out and uninterested. His son has plenty of other hobbies, but Buck either ignores them or flat-out forbids them (or tosses them in the river, because he’s an intolerant bastard). The only acceptable form of bonding is hunting, and the only acceptable form of hunting is to stalk a beautiful animal and then watch the life leave its frightened eyes as it bleeds out all over your boots.

I would like to believe this kind of insensitive fatherhood and unfathomable personhood is a dying way of life, but whether or not I’m right, it’s definitely no joke. I’m pretty sure I didn’t crack a smile this whole entire movie because as long as a trigger is twitching near fingers that aren’t even finished growing yet, I could not take my eye off the gun(s). It made me angry. As tens of thousands of kids walked out of class to protest their continued slaughter at the hands of fellow students, armed to the teeth, the world just doesn’t have room for this kind of “entertainment”, or for the kind of people who would be entertained by it. Shame on Netflix for picking this one up.

SXSW: Blindspotting

So by now you know we’re in Austin, Texas for the almighty SXSW (South By Southwest, or “South By” for short) film festival (and comedy, music, gaming, plus TONNES of crazy cool conferences and networking for professionals from around the world), and we’ve seen some really cool, high profile movies like A Quiet Place, Blockers, and Ready Player One (which was a secret screening we got into by the skin of our teeth). Did we flip out to watch Ready Player One WITH Steven Spielberg? Of course we did. Did we visit the taco place recommended by Emily Blunt? You bet. But all of those movies will eventually get big theatre releases. They’re not the reason we come to film festivals. We come to festivals to see the little guys, movies that might otherwise get overlooked. In the age of Netflix, our chances of those movies being available to us are actually better than ever, but you need to hear about them in order to look them up, and we take pride in being a part of that process.

That said, Blindspotting isn’t exactly low profile; it played at Sundance earlier this year and audiences and critics came away buzzing. While Sean sat in an incredibly long line for Ready Player One (and that theatre reaching capacity two and a half hours before the screening start time!), I had a much cushier seat inside a theatre, watching a movie that just blew me away.

Written by and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, it’s about some very current issues in Oakland California. Collin (Diggs) served a short term in prison and is serving MV5BMjk4YmVjMDUtZjJiZC00ODI2LTk4NDctMzRkNmYzNjA0YmM0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1642,1000_AL_his year of probation, with just 3 days left. Can he survive the next three days without any thing going wrong? The chances of that are increasingly unlikely when, while driving home before curfew one night, a young black man nearly slams into his truck at a deserted intersection. Relieved to have avoided a serious accident, Collin is unprepared for what happens next: a white cop, giving chase, pulls out his gun and shoots the man 4 times in the back, killing him.

So for the next 3 days, Collin suffers the PTSD resulting from witnessing that kind of violence, but in his neighbourhood, you’re not exactly allowed to show fear. In fact, projecting this tough guy image is maybe what got him in trouble in the first place. His best friend in the whole world, Miles (Casal), is always there for him, but he’s also always causing trouble. And though they’re both Oakland natives, born and bred, when the cops show up to break up the trouble, Collin knows that they’re more likely to blame and\or shoot him, the black guy, than Miles, who is white.

This film, directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada, takes an unflinching look at race. They understand that you can’t talk about race without mentioning the environment, which is rapidly gentrifying, or the culture, which is splitting. Everything intersects with class and opportunity and it makes for some complicated themes that the writers have unraveled a bit with hip hop, or spoken word poetry if you will, which is actually how Diggs and Casal met, at a program for at risk youth in Oakland. The script born out of their friendship and shared experience is truly genius, and makes for a movie experience that literally had  me pushed back in my seat, gulping in admiration. This movie is a cultural powder keg that the world needs right now; it’s a touch-stone that will be remembered for decades in the future as a film that really spoke not just to its time, but to the people living in it.

But please don’t think for a single minute that this film is some boring piece of art that is merely ‘important’ – it’s also wildly fun to watch, funny and thrilling and bursting with energy. Visually, it’s a love letter of sorts to Oakland. But it’s not the kind of film that pretends to have all the answers. With so many issues raised, all Blindspotting can do is point them out, and trust us to do the rest, which is a kind of self-assurance I don’t expect from a first-time film maker, but there’s a deep well of talent here, one that deserves to be tapped, so I hope I’ve inspired you to seek this one out.

SXSW: A Vigilante

Sadie picks up her messages. There’s a code phrase, and then a woman’s voice, shaky and furtive. She wants to leave her abusive husband. She needs help. Can Sadie come?

Sadie is a one-woman vigilante ass kicker. She gets bad husbands gone, and if they won’t go quietly, she will mess them up. It’s not just the krav maga that makes her strong, it’s the history she shares with her clients. But no matter how many women she helps flee violent situations, she can never truly escape her own, because her husband is still out there, never brought to justice for his sins.

Writer-director Sarah Daggar-Nickson wanted to make a film about domestic violence MV5BMTc2NzM2NTk0NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjQ1MTc3NDM@._V1_that would really speak to the urgency and the desperation and the severity of the issue. She did scrupulous research, and the details that come through – like the fact that New York state will pay for the funeral of anyone murdered during your escape (fucking think about that for a moment) – are depressingly, frighteningly authentic. Real-life abuse survivors make up the support groups which Sadie attends. They share stories that will haunt you.

But this is Sadie’s story. Sadie is intent on being strong now, for herself and for others. But as badass as Olivia Wilde is in the role, we never forget that Sadie’s husband, though no longer in the picture, still has a hold on her. It sounds easy to leave, and logical to move on, but abusive relationships are a sickness, one that keeps you coming back. So while Sadie may have trained herself to assault any man she has to, her trickiest opponent will always be the demons in her own head, and it’ll take more than physical fitness and a bunch of clever disguises to defeat those.

The film is interesting because we get to see themes like control and confidence evolve throughout. We get to know Sadie and her story through flashbacks, but the film keeps a forward momentum that manages to keep its pressure building. This movie is not exactly an easy one to watch, but neither is living with the reality of domestic violence, and for that, I think we can all dig down and find a little inner bravery.

 

 

 

 

 

For more South By coverage, read Sean’s review of Ready Player One, Matt’s review of The World Before Your Feet, or my review of Blockers – and check out our Twitter feed – we’ve been to Westworld, and to Roseanne’s living room, and we saw Barry Jenkins and Rian Johnson and Mark Hamill and more! @assholemovies

Black Panther

MLD-01496_R.JPGThe Marvel Cinematic Universe is so bloated at this point that Marvel usually crams as many superheroes as possible into the “solo” movies in between Avengers instalments.  For example, Iron Man pops up in Spider-Man: Homecoming, Falcon briefly gets in Ant-Man‘s way, and everyone other than Cap and Bucky in Captain America: Civil War are clearly uninvited guests.  The result is that every movie is more or lScrooge-McDuck-Money-Biness the same movie.  Clearly, that’s Marvel’s goal with a shared universe as that way, we movie-loving rubes have to see them all, and throw even more cash into Disney’s money bin (which by now must be bigger than Scrooge McDuck’s).

Black Panther is different than those other movies.  It feels fresh.  This is a side of the Marvel Universe we have not seen, with new characters, new challenges, and new disputes.  There are no distractions in the form of random heroes from other movies (full disclosure: there are two supporting characters we’ve seen before but I am willing to overlook that, because both felt like they belonged).  Instead, we are introduced to a whole host of new characters who we quickly feel like we’ve always known, thanks to director/co-writer Ryan Coogler’s stellar work (he’s now three for three in his young career, having already giving us Fruitvale Station and Creed).  Refreshingly, none of these new characters are white, and the female characters are just as important as the men (and maybe even more so).

Best of all, this part of the MCU is not based on good versus evil.  Most of the “bad guys” aren’t bad at all, and the biggest bad, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, is one of the most complex villains we’ve ever seen in a superhero movie.  I’d put him second only to Sir Ian McKellen’s Magneto (and that’s a largely unfair comparison because Magneto has been both hero and villain throughout his 55 year career) and well ahead of Heath Ledger’s Joker (who for all his awesomeness is essentially one-dimensional in that his goal was simply to destroy everything). Rather than having a standard comic-book focus, the conflict in Black Panther stems from a substantial philosophical and political question, the answer to which shapes your view of the world.  This is nationalism versus globalism, superhero style, which means that rather than choosing and lobbying elected officials who then debate and vote on these important issues, these weighblack-panther-comic-con-25jul16-02ty disputes in Black Panther are resolved through lots of punching and kicking (which, for all its flaws, is clearly a more efficient political system than the one the USA is currently using).

Black Panther does absolutely everything right.  This is essential viewing and, along with Wonder Woman, shows why diversity in Hollywood is so valuable.  It’s not about political correctness at all.  It’s because a fresh perspective and cultural diversity makes the movie-going experience that much more real and, moreover, provides vitality and energy to a genre that otherwise has been beating the same horse for the last ten years.

Miles

Ron’s heart bursts while reading the Saturday morning paper in his lazy-boy. He leaves behind a wife, Pam (Molly Shannon), and a teenage son in his senior year of high school, Miles (Tim Boardman). His family is devastated, but not in the usual way. Miles is desperate to escape the confines of his small town for film school in Chicago next year, and Pam has been slowly asphyxiating in her crappy marriage for years. Turns out Ron wasn’t a very nice person, and he recently used his son’s college fund to buy his mistress a Corvette. The mistress is the only one without dry eyes at the funeral.

Pam copes by flirting with a widower (Paul Reiser) in her grief group, and by threatening the mistress, and the mistress’s mother. Miles copes by joining the girl’s volleyball team. Apparently it’s the only scholarship he’s eligible for.

The movie is set in 1999, which means the AV club consists of rolling a large tube TV around on a trolley and chatting looks boxy and pixelated and awful. But it still encompasses a pretty big chunk of the plot. There’s really to recommend setting the movie in 1999 except it’s based on a true story, which is also an awkward implication.

But anyway: we’re going to rock the boat in small town wherever, circa 1999, when boys didn’t play on girls teams and coming out to your parents was still an occasion. So maybe there’s still room for this kind of courage, whatever that means. There’s an effort here to be relevant but the truth is, our protagonist is narrow-minded in his own way. He sees only his own needs and wants, not the larger picture, so it’s hard to really extrapolate the kind of meaning that would make this film feel satisfying.

The Trouble With Pixar

A word about Pixar. For years it has been helmed by John Lasseter. He left the company this week – a “temporary leave of absence”, they called it, but with whiffs of sexual misconduct about, I’m thinking it’s likely a permanent and somewhat shocking move. John Lasseter IS Pixar, and I think we’re only beginning to understand why that is in fact a bad thing. First: we know that Pixar studios is a boy’s club. It doesn’t nourish and nurture female talent the way it has their male counterparts. Between its 19 films to date, there were 34 director credits and only one of them was female.

Brenda Chapman trained on The Little Mermaid, was an artist on Beauty and the Beast and became the first female head of story for The Lion King. She was the MV5BMzgwODk3ODA1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjU3NjQ0Nw@@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_first woman to direct an animated feature from a major studio with a personal favourite of mine, The Prince of Egypt. She came aboard Pixar in 2003. There were NO women at all in the story department and they needed her to fix the one-dimentionality of the female characters in Cars (they were too far along in production for her to have much impact). Next, she conceived Brave and directed the project until they replaced her because of “creative differences.” Since they still had to give her co-director credit, she became the first woman to win an Oscar for (co) directing an animated film. She left Pixar and went on to LucasFilm and back to Dreamworks. Of her exit, she has said “I made the right decision to leave and firmly closed that door. I have no desire to go back there. The atmosphere and the leadership doesn’t fit well with me.” And I can’t help but read that “me” as “women” generally. “This was a story that I created, which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.”

Of Pixar’s 19 films, only 3 have females as their lead protagonists (Brave, Inside Out, Finding Dory). That’s a really dismal number. Even worse: Miguel, from Coco, is its first non-white protagonist (although Up has an Asian boyscout sidekick – possibly). And Pixar has been head and shoulders above its competitors, leading the way in top-notch animation and story-telling, which means millions are exposed to movies that refuse to give an equal voice to girls, women, minorities, and other cultures. Rashida Jones (along with collaborator Will McCormack) had been brought on board by Pixar to pen the script for Toy Story 4. She has since left the project: “We parted ways because of creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences. There is so much talent at Pixar, and we remain enormous fans of their films. However, it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.” Out of 109 writing credits on its films, only 11 were women or people of colour. That’s eleven women OR people of colour, and 98 freaking white men.

So now we know why there is such a lack of female talent at Pixar: John Lasseter, proud president of the boy’s club, is a perv. Female employees had to develop a move they named “The Lasseter” just to keep him from running his hands up their legs. And though he paid lip service in 2015 to the lack of diversity in his studios, there are no female directors or writers attached to their upcoming films either.

John Lasseter won a Special Achievement Oscar for his ground-breaking work on Toy Story, but he has done so by overstepping women, and at the expense of diversity of thought and talent. He has spent his career groping women and refusing to promote them, creating a void of basic respect and decency – and he was the CCO (and when Disney bought Pixar in 2006, he took over leadership there as well). I don’t deny that Pixar has created some great films, but after shutting out diverse voices for over 20 years, it’s time to dump this loser and let someone else do some ground breaking for a change.

Civil Rights & The Cinema

Viola Desmond’s name may not be as well-known as Rosa Parks’, but she took her stand against segregation nearly a decade before Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.

Viola Davis was born in 1914, one of ten children to a white mother and black father in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Growing up, she noticed an absence of hair and skin-care CNSPhoto-PARDONoptions for women of colour and decided she would be the woman to correct this. But her skin colour prevented her from beautician training at home, so she went off to Montreal and then to New York to complete her education. Returning to Halifax, she opened her own hair salon, where she would tend to a young Gwen Jenkins, later to be the first black nurse in Nova Scotia. And she didn’t stop there. She went on to found The Desmond School of Beauty Culture so black women could train closer to home. Students were taught how to open their own businesses, providing jobs for other black women in their communities. Then she started her own line of beauty products, Vi’s Beauty Products, which she sold herself.

It was on just such a work trip when she found herself in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in 1946. Her car had broken down and was going to be in the shop overnight, so to kill time she went to see The Dark Mirror at the Roseland Film Theatre. At the box office, she asked for a main floor ticket and then took her seat, only to be told by the manager she did not have a ticket for that seat. She went back to the ticket booth but they refused to sell her a different ticket, claiming it was against their policiy to to sell a main floor seat to a black person. Desmond returned to her original seat with her original ticket, refusing to sit in the balcony designated for black patrons. She was forcibly removed from the theatre, arrested with enough violence to cause injury to her hip. She was jailed overnight without access to a lawyer or bail.

This was a private movie theatre and its segregation practises went against the law in Nova Scotia so Desmond was actually charged with tax evasion, believe it or not, for the one-cent difference in tax between the slightly cheaper balcony ticket she was sold and the main floor seat she actually occupied. One cent. She was fined $20 plus $6 in court costs; she paid and went home to Halifax. But her Minister really didn’t like how things went, and encouraged her to fight the charge. Carrie Best broke the story in Nova Scotia’s first black-owned and published newspaper, The Clarion. Best had previously written about The Roseland Theatre and was happy to take up the cause. So too was Desmond’s Baptist church and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Sadly, her lawyer made some bad decisions and they ultimately lost the case.

In 2010, Mayann Francis, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, invoked the Royal Prerogative to grant Desmond a posthumous free pardon – the first to be granted in Canada. It’s different from a regular pardon because it is based on innocence and recognizes that the conviction was in error. Francis was emotional as she signed the document: “”Here I am, 64 years later – a black woman giving freedom to another black woman.” The government of Nova Scotia followed up with an apology, acknowledging she was rightfully resisting racial discrimination.

So that’s how one small act of defiance in a rural movie theatre galvanized the Canadian civil rights movement, and it’s why Ms. Desmond will be featured on Canadian currency next year when her face graces our $10 bill. Thank you, Viola Desmond.

Can You Dig This?

Inspired by the OG gangster gardener, Ron Finley, film maker Delila Vallot gets to know the people taking up gardening in South Central Los Angeles and follows them for a year to see if the simple act of growing things can in fact transform someone’s life.

Can You Dig This? is Planet In Focus Film Festival’s closing night film and it’s one you’ll enjoy watching as much as you enjoy learning from it.

Compton is a food desert – the neighbourhoods are packed with fast food joints and liquor stores, but the sale of healthful food is rare. Ron Finley thought it reasonable that he should therefore get to growing some right in his very own yard, but doing soslide-1 attracted the ire of a neighbour who reported him. A cease and desist letter from the city made him think twice – not about the rightness of gardening his own land, but about the rightness of this world. Never before motivated to activism, Finley took up the cause, providing free soil so that others could plant too. Now you’ll find the neighbourhoods dotted with planters, and if you think that’s interesting, just wait until you meet the people who are cultivating them.

The film follows a high school dropout cum drug dealer, a woman who is gang-affiliated, a little girl who wants to grow greens for her diabetic dad (and wouldn’t mind making some cash on the side!), and a few elderly men living in a halfway house after extensive prison sentences. These are terrific subjects, each one revealing a little bit about their neighbourhood. You might not expect something as innocuous as gardening to stir up a lot of emotions, but when the film starts unpacking issues like the legacy of slavery contributing to the black community’s loss of contact with the soil, you start to realize how impactful this seemingly small act can be. Gardening as subversion? Yes, actually.

Not only is this documentary well done, it’s a fun and funny watch too. And inspiring, I don’t mind saying.
CAN YOU DIG THIS? plays at the Planet In Focus film festival in Toronto
Sunday 22 October, 7:45pm ­ Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Ron Finlay will be in attendance