Tag Archives: social issues

Nona

Nona is a young mortician in Honduras. She lives alone: her father was gunned down on his way home from buying a bag of chips, her brother was stabbed to death during a home invasion, and her mother has fled to the U.S., too poor to pay for her daughter’s passage over to join her.

So you might say Nona is ripe for escape when she meets Hecho, a bad boy on a Vespa. He’s a traveler, a laid-back, rootless guy as evidenced by his ubiquitous nona2bowler hat. They have a fun, flirty road trip, ambling toward their destination, taking their time, getting to know each other. And we’re treated to these beautiful countrysides and colourful images that make us feel like we’re on vacation with them. Nona is fleeing a very hard and dangerous life, but once she’s on the road, it’s clear she feels free. She’s a different person.

Until they near the border, and it turns out that Hecho traffics in humans, and this whole transaction has not been what Nona thought. Yeah. It’s a bit of a blow. The last third of the film takes an abrupt turn, as I’m sure it feels to Nona, who clearly doesn’t see it coming. Is she that naive, and is Hecho that villainous?

The shift is harsh, I’m not gonna lie. But how can I complain when a woman goes from romance to brothel in about ten seconds flat? You’re going to have to watch this one for yourself, if only to commiserate.

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Letter From Masanjia

A woman is rooting through her garage, looking for Halloween decor she can repurpose for her daughter’s 5th birthday, which falls around the holiday. She retrieves a styrofoam grave marker that says RIP, purchased at Kmart 2 years prior but not yet used. Out of the box falls a note, a plea really, begging the recipient to turn it in to a human rights organization. The note details the abuses suffered by the man who made the decorative headstone; it is signed by a prisoner from China’s most notorious forced labour camp – Masanjia.

The woman is understandable freaked out but she complies with the note’s directive – she contacts Human Rights Watch but they are unresponsive. She goes to Kmart with it but they ballsily deny using labour camps, which are illegal. So she goes to her state newspaper, The Oregonian, and it publishes an investigative piece, and basically the story blows up from there – even reaching so far as China, where the people have to bypass a firewall in order to read western news. a man named Sun Yi is surprised to read the story and recognize his note.

Sun Yi had been released from the camp 2 years earlier, but is still haunted by the torture he suffered there. This documentary explores Sun Yi’s experience, the common labour camp experience. Director Leon Lee interviews prison guards, civil rights lawyers, and Sun Yi’s wife. Sun Yi suffered corporeally while in the prison, but his wife and their family faced raids, discrimination, and harassment on the outside.

Sun Yi is not a criminal. He’s a practitioner of falun gong, those slow exercise paired with moral philosophy that espouses tenants of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance – the mind body improved together. China’s communist party felt threatened by the sheer number of falun gong followers, and began persecuting them systematically. Since 1999, Sun Yi had been arrested, detained, or abducted 12 times. Pressure increased around the time of the Olympics (circa 2008) and Sun Yi was ultimately sentenced to two and a half years for being in the possession of printer paper, suggesting he’d printed materials about his beliefs.

To really understand the torture and the suffering of this labour camp, you simply must watch. Sun Yi is a wonderful subject but his stories are tough. His experiences are horrific. But this isn’t just about one man’s harrowing time. It’s about the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of news stories going viral; about paying attention to where and how things are made; about the China’s long arm and continued human rights abuses. Letter From Masanjia is the best kind of eye-opener, unsettling to its core.

TIFF18: The Hate U Give

It’s a sad sign of the times that police shooting an unarmed black man seem to be one of the unofficial themes of TIFF’s 2018 program much like tennis was last year.

Starr Carter (a sensational Amandla Stenberg) lives in a poor black neighbourhood but goes to school in an affluent white part of town. Starr Version Two- the censored version of herself that her friends see- can’t quote hip hop lyrics like her white friends do all the time because “when they do it, they sound cool. When I do it, I sound ghetto”. Moments after reconnecting with a black childhood friend at a party in her neighbourhood, the two are pulled over by a white police officer which quickly and tragically ends with her friend getting shot and killed.

Not only does Starr now have a lot of grief and trauma to work through. Her once compartmentalized life has suddenly gotten a lot more complicated as she- the only witness to the shotting- starts getting pulled in every direction. Everyone, from the kids at school to the local gang leader (Anthony Mackie) to Starr’s cop uncle (Common), has an opinion that they’re not shy to share and some are all too happy to resort to threats and even violence.

Whereas Reinaldo Marcus Green’s excellent Monsters and Men was a thoughtful and nuanced indie, The Hate U Give works a lot harder at being accessible to a more mainstream audience. Our introduction to Starr’s life and the world around here is often funny and Starr and her family are immediately easy to like and root for. The soundtrack doesn’t hurt one bit either. Things are obviously a lot less fun once shots are fired and Starr’s friend is killed but The Hate U Give is still the kind of movie that seeks to entertain while it makes us think and feel.

The Hate U Give hooked me much quicker than Monsters and Men did. Monsters and Men needs time to sink in. It doesn’t aim for big dramatic scenes and speeches like The Hate U Give does. The Hate U Give pays a bit of a price for its more mainstream approach. Because it always feels like a movie albeit an extremely effective one. Some parts seem a little too contrived while others are a little over-simplified.

There’s a place for both movies. Monsters and Men was a great conversation starter is a mostly satisfying and cathartic emotional experience. It’s just that I fell in love with this movie over the first half or so and somewhere along the way I lost some enthusiasm for it.

TIFF18: Monsters and Men

In any other universe I’d just shake my head and keep walking if someone came up to me and said:

I think it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters, you don’t even know which side the protesters were on. But to allow someone to stand up and scream from the top of their lungs and nobody does anything about it is frankly — I think it’s an embarrassment.

But here’s the thing. It wasn’t just anyone who said that exact thing last week – it was the President of the United States of America. The supposed leader of the free world wants to silence people with whom he doesn’t agree. The worst part is that it’s not a bit surprising. In fact, it’s a common theme of this President’s as he preaches to his base and ignores the other three-quarters of the people in his country.

Included in that other 75% are a lot of people who don’t have many opportunities to be heard. The size and reach of one’s pulpit is, in large part, determined by her means and her inherent characteristics. For women, minorities and the poor, it’s hard to be heard at all as you’re all drowned out by white (male) noise. You need a bigger platform. A noisy one, a newsworthy one. Like, for example, a protest. Or, a thoughtful, well-acted conversation piece at a major film festival.

monstersandmen_HEROMonsters and Men is that conversation piece. Moreover, it is one of the finest cinematic conversation pieces I have ever seen. What makes it stand out from the rest is that it tries so very hard to stay impartial (and succeeds), to the point that a black cop at a dinner party (BlacKkKlansman‘s John David Washington) jumps to the defense of a white cop who recently shot an unarmed black man (in which Washington puts forward some interesting points). Which is not to say Washington’s character is right, because I don’t think he was, and I’m not sure he genuinely even felt that way in the movie (he is well aware of the systemic racism inherent in the justice system, there is never any doubt of that, and he has no love for the officer who pulled the trigger). But his views don’t even matter all that much. What matters most is that he tried to have a conversation about it and that’s what matters.

Societally, we don’t talk much anymore, and being real, really real, we rarely ever talked to anyone who didn’t look like us or dress like us or pray like us. In the “good old days”, you could get away with that type of isolation and insularism. That doesn’t work anymore. We have to talk and figure out how to live together. That’s a new thing and a harder thing. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Previous generations had it easier, but that doesn’t mean they had it better.

This film is part of the conversation. Protests are also part of it. But the biggest part? Listening. There is a reason Monsters and Men was made. There is a reason it is not the only film at TIFF18 about an unarmed black man being shot by police (The Hate U Give is also here). We have a problem here. We have a lot of problems, actually, but black men getting shot by cops is a particularly big one. There is no easy solution to that problem (or a lot of others) but there are answers out there. Let’s talk with each other and, more importantly, let’s listen to each other so we can figure this out.

 

 

TIFF18: White Boy Rick

The trailers for White Boy Rick deceived me. I expected a frenetic, over-the-top throwback full of 80s excess, rollerskating, and outlandish behaviour as fifteen year old Ricky (Richie Merritt) breaks into the Detroit crime scene in 1984, assisted by his gunrunning dad (played by the madcap Matthew McConaughey). I expected a dark comedy. I hoped for Scarface, the teenage years, with lots of action and quotable dialogue. I would have settled for half-assed ripoff of Boogie Nights, with a naive rising star breaking into a criminal enterprise.

But instead, I got a melancholy family drama about a group of deadbeats with whom I had no interest in spending any time at all. Not as friends, not as neighbours, and certainly not as the subjects of a two hour feature. Ricky’s story is not a story that deserves to be told on screen, and that’s fatal. I never could bring myself to care about him or his family, not even a little bit. That is in no way the fault of Merritt or McConaughey. It is also not an issue arising from the screenplay or the direction. It’s more basic than that: there was no saving these characters. They were simply irredeemable.whiteboyrick_01

It’s unfortunate because there is a story underlying White Boy Rick that does deserve our attention: the fact that the 80s “War on Drugs” was primarily a scheme to keep America’s prisons stocked with young black men. And, as a bonus in many states, strip them of their right to vote once convicted of a felony, which many might even plead to if they were locked up and mistreated for long enough prior to trial.

That is a story that has been much better told by Ava DuVernay’s 13th (which is definitely worth your time). That is also a story that should probably not be told from a white family’s perspective, as doing so suggests that mandatorylife sentences without the possibility of parole for crack dealers are only a problem when white people start getting locked away too.

Yet, here we are. Ricky’s life is onscreen for you to shake your head at, if you so choose. But you have much better options available to you in the coming weeks (such as The Predator and Life Itself, to name two I saw this past weekend at TIFF). Then again, if you are about bad choices, like choosing White Boy Rick over either of those, then maybe you will find the movie more enjoyable due to having something in common with little Ricky and his family, who never met a bad choice they didn’t like. Yes, I just went there, but it’s for your own good.

First Reformed

The Reverend Ernst Toller is the minister at First Reformed church, a small congregation in upstate New York. Mary, a young woman in the community, asks him to counsel her husband, who is struggling with her pregnancy. Michael is an environmental activist who is gripped by despair and hopelessness – he cannot imagine bringing a child into this world. Ernst (Ethan Hawke) takes him on, but it’s a tough case, and he relates more to the wife (Amanda Seyfried) than to the husband, who seems unreachable.

But the truth is, the Reverend is in no condition to counsel anyone. He’s messed up. MV5BYjA3OTJlODAtZjNlNi00ZTE1LTkxNzctNzJlNjQ5NjQxZTcyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_SX750_CR0,0,750,999_AL_And Michael’s question “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” messes him up even more. He defends god, but struggles privately. He takes up Michael’s obsession but continues to pollute his own body, as we watch his physical and mental health spiral downward.

The first half of the movie is a lot of Ernst feverishly and guiltily Googling, while also drinking himself to death. It’s is not overly compelling stuff. But it’s super jarring when there’s suddenly a scene that feels like a complete divergence from everything that came before it. It’s almost like director Paul Schrader is shaking things up to allow room for the spiritual. He reminds us that we’re not in charge. We may think we know what’s happening, but we don’t.

And that’s true. I was very caught off guard by the ending, and there’s not many stories in the world that I don’t see coming a mile away. I mean, we know this dude is having a breakdown in a major way. But things get extreme, and, um, open to interpretation? This movie is getting a lot of love from the critics, but it does boil down to: 90% boring, 2% omg wtf, and I guess 8% wrapping your head around Cedric the Entertainer’s casting. It’s one you’ll have to see for yourself.

Ethan Hawke is quite good, and he has to be because this character embodies so many conflicts – faith & science, love & fear, strength & despair, consecration & desecration. It’s hard to really put this one into words, which I think is kind of the point. Schrader tackles the inexpressible, he goes there, and treats spirituality with more seriousness than I’ve seen from a movie in a long, long time. It does not make for fun viewing. Can you hack that? Is that how you want to spend 108 minutes?

King Kong (2005)

king_kong_2005Even if you haven’t seen King Kong or its many remakes (like me, until yesterday), you probably know the story. A struggling filmmaker (Jack Black) leads a rag tag crew on a voyage to a forgotten island where he’s going to complete his movie against the studio’s wishes. While there, the filmmaker and his cast encounter a mess of overgrown B-movie creatures including dinosaurs, bugs, lizards, bats, and of course, the giant gorilla who rules them all.

In the course of this grand adventure (which ought to have killed everyone involved several times over), the gorilla falls in love with the lead actress (Naomi Watts), now the damsel in distress, who already has a thing for the screenwriter (Adrien Brody). That leads to a very awkward love triangle.  Things get even more awkward when the filmmaker conspires with the ship’s captain to bring the gorilla back to New York City as a way to salvage the mission once his camera and footage (and film crew) are destroyed.  Indeed, once back in NYC the situation gets so bad that Brody’s character even starts to feel sorry for Kong, as Kong is now trapped in the Empire City with nowhere to go but up (and then a long way down).

Peter Jackson helms this remake and it shows.  That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, it just means there’s a three-hour-plus runtime, a lot of CG rag dolls flying across the screen/into walls/off cliffs during action scenes, and a significant number of emotional orchestral swells combined with ethereal vocals and closeups of teary eyed actors to make sure we feel sad at the proper times.  For better and for worse, he delivers a movie that feels like a throwback to classic Hollywood cinema.

But the “for worse” is really, really bad.  Black “savages” feeding a white lady to a monster bad.  It is possible that the issue of systemic racism is particularly fresh in my mind right now thanks to BlacKkKlansman (which, if Jay’s review wasn’t clear enough, you should see immediately),  but a movie pitting backwards black natives against righteous white people only reinforces racist stereotypes that we need to eliminate from our society.   One way to help eliminate those stereotypes would be using discretion and thoughtfulness when remaking old movies to ensure we don’t recycle harmful racial stereotypes.  Jackson failed in that respect, and his failure gives power to those stereotypes instead of helping to put them to rest once and for all.  It’s a glaring mistake.

That Kong contains such racially insensitive scenes is truly a shame, on at least two different fronts.  First, it’s a shame because the Kong that Jackson and Andy Serkis created is absolutely amazing.  Even though many of the other special effects in this movie have not aged well, Kong remains a marvel, an expressive and lifelike CG character who’s worthy of being the hero of this picture.  Of course, hero status is Kong’s by default, since the humans in the film are consistently terrible, destroying everything they touch, acting entitled all the way through the carnage, and worst of all, blaming Kong’s unfortunate ending on beauty rather than the beasts who tried to exploit nature for personal profit.

Which brings me to the second disappointing aspect of the film: but for the racism, the film’s main message would have been as suitable for our times as it ever was, but the presence of racism or at least racial insensitivity makes this film one that is better left in the past.