Tag Archives: social issues

Test Pattern

Renesha’s just had a good first day at a new job and is looking forward to having a good second day, so she’s a little hesitant to go out and join her friend at their favourite place for a drink, but she vows to her boyfriend that it’ll just be a quick one, and she’ll be back home at a decent hour. Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) invites Evan (Will Brill) along of course, but drinks with the girls isn’t his thing, so he stays home and she goes out, and doesn’t return home that night at all. When she turns up the next morning, she’s been raped. Plied with free alcohol the night before, a man takes her back to his place, not just against her will, but when she’s so inebriated she no longer has any will at all.

The next day, Renesha and Evan will negotiate the difficult intersection of race and gender at the heart of the justice system and health care. But we’re not just talking institutional injustice and inequality; her private life is also unraveling. Director Shatara Michelle Ford examines this topic from every angle and none of them are flattering. The film doesn’t fall into the easy trap of victimhood, it’s much more complicated, intimate, and heartbreaking than that. Ranesha’s trauma is relived at every turn, and Hall’s performance is so nuanced we can see her being crushed in slow-motion.

You might mistake this for a small film but it packs a hell of a punch. Ford’s observations are as meticulous as they are tragic. Renesha suffers through so much: guilt, shame, embarrassment, resentment, self-recrimination, anger, even doubt, and that’s before uncaring institutions start revictimizing her. Sexual assault is obviously a sensitive topic but also a necessary one. Ford treats it with respect and specificity, but the film’s greatest achievement is also its most devastating: naked realism.

Test Pattern is available through virtual cinemas, including Toronto’s Revue Cinema and Vancouver’s The Cinematheque.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

This “moviefilm” could have been simply called Borat 2 but clearly Sacha Baron Cohen figured, why not have an 18 word title instead? Considering that Borat 1 had a 12 word title, a troublesome pattern is emerging, and that’s far from the least troubling pattern in the Borat franchise.

Borat is a terrible character and you can rest assured that Cohen has not toned things down in any way for the sequel, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Borat is just as offensive as ever, a racist, misogynistic reporter travelling through the U.S. and A., on a mission to gift a monkey to Vice President Pence as a tribute to Trump’s great success in undoing a hundred years’ worth of human rights. The difference this time is that everyone in America has seen his first movie so it’s much harder for him to sneak up on anyone. Fortunately for him, his non-male son Tutar (Maria Bakalova) stowed away in the money cage, and she has always wanted to follow in her journalist father’s footsteps. Unfortunately for Borat, he does not believe women can be journalists (or really anything other than residents of cages). Unfortunately for both, Tutar had to eat the monkey to survive the trip to America. So naturally, Borat decides to gift his daughter to Pence instead. And off we go on an adventure that includes Borat embarrassing a number of people who should know better, most notably Rudy Giuliani, who I expected to have been better coached by his friends in the KGB in the art of kompromat.

In 2006, I have to admit that I enjoyed Borat’s first moviefilm. Who could believe that people would say such outrageous things on camera after being offered a little bait by Cohen? It seemed unbelievable at the time. Fast forward to 2020, where no matter what Borat “tricks” people into saying, it pales in comparison to what happens every day on President Trump’s Twitter feed, or any given afternoon at Giuliani’s hotel suite. Cohen’s brand of shock humour seems almost quaint in comparison, which is terrifying.

For all its improvised scenes, Borat 2 has a remarkably focused and cohesive narrative, and contains quite a few funny character moments. But by nature, it also serves as a near-constant reminder of the ongoing nightmare that is American politics, which for me sucked all the fun out of the movie. No matter how hard Cohen and Bakalova tried (and they tried hard), I just can’t laugh at this stuff right now.

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet

For most of us, David Attenborough is the voice of nature. His soothing narration has taken us across the globe, from the coldest arctic waters to the hottest deserts to the wettest rainforests. The 93 year old Attenborough has spent his whole adult life exploring the world and documenting nature. During that time, he has seen drastic changes, and he has taken it upon himself to try to help us avoid an impending disaster.

Themes of conservation are not new to Attenborough’s documentaries but Netflix’s new A Life on Our Planet has no time for subtlety. Clearly, Attenborough feels he has no time to waste, which is less a function of his age and more an indication that catastrophe is imminent. Wisely, Attenborough’s warnings are interspersed with the beauty of our world, to show what is at stake and what could be saved or lost depending on which path we choose. Even better, Attenborough lays out a plan for saving ourselves, which he presents clearly and sells by pointing out that our planet is going to keep spinning, but our place on it is not guaranteed.

Unfortunately, Attenborough’s pleas will probably be dismissed by those who deny the changes that Attenborough, and all self-respecting climatologists, are documenting. Instead of ignoring the problem, I wish the deniers would be honest in their selfishness, and admit they don’t want to make sacrifices to preserve the future for coming generations. Of course, that would require them to admit they’re bad people, so I’m not holding my breath.

It is up to the rest of us to take action. A Life on Our Planet shows us how to do it, and more importantly, Attenborough reassures us that we can still undo the damage we have caused. A Life on Our Planet manages to be hopeful without minimizing the problems we face. It is a nature film that is about us, and it is a fitting capstone for Attenborough’s life work.

I Am Not Your Negro

In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his agent describing his next book, “Remember This House.” It was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. But when Baldwin died, he’d only managed about 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck delivers a stirring documentary as an ode to the book James Baldwin never finished, a work that enmeshes the civil rights work not only of these 3 great men, but that of Baldwin himself.

Samuel L. Jackson narrates some of the strongest and most poetic words – which will not surprise you if you’ve read Baldwin before. He had his finger on the pulse of America, his America, the oft-forgotten America, and he reported on his people with undeniable lyricism, beauty, and confidence.

The documentary expands on his thoughts with archival footage, which is used most effectively when bridging words he wrote 40 or 50 years ago to images of modern conditions and protest, which still apply. I Am Not Your Negro is about civil rights, but it’s also an expression of identity, of unrest, of passion, of hope. He wrote about his people because he saw beauty there, even in the struggle. He was buoyed by it, as much as they were by him. They shored each other up, and as these same issues continue to be fought for even today, it is no wonder we still turn to his words of wisdom and of utter poetry.

Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story

Netflix is crowded with documentaries just like this one: someone, often a person of colour, has been completely failed by the so-called justice system. And for every documentary made, there are hundreds? thousands? of unnamed prisoners going through the same thing. It’s hard not to burn out on these stories, and we feel so helpless to do anything about it.

Cyntoia Brown was failed many times before the justice system ever had its chance. Her mother Gina was just 16 when Cyntoia was born, already addicted to alcohol and crack. She struggled to raise her for a couple of years, but Gina was herself the victim of childhood molestation and rape, as was her mother before her. When Cyntoia was 2, she was given up for adoption, but she struggled to fit in, and her undiagnosed fetal alcohol poisoning made it impossible for her to thrive in settings that were hostile to her. By the time Cyntoia was 16, she was being pimped frequently by her “boyfriend” and one night, during an encounter that had her feeling particularly vulnerable, she shot the man who had picked her up, fearing and believing that he was about to do the same to her.

The justice system spent very little time deciding her fate: first, to be treated as an adult in court, despite her young age, and second, to sentence her to life in prison for a crime she committed as a scared child in an impossible situation. In 2004, when she was arrested and charged, the court called her a prostitute. Today, it would call her a child sex slave, the victim of human trafficking. But that does her very little good when she’s already been behind bars for 14 years.

But you know what? Some of director Daniel H. Birman’s footage went viral, prompting social media users to retweet #FreeCyntoiaBrown until someone finally paid attention. Her cause went up for review, and Brown pled for a second chance though most of us can see that she never really got her first. Her sentence was commuted and after 15 years in prison, she finally walked free. Now she spends her time advocating for prisoners in similar circumstances, but I think her story is particularly powerful in that it proves that actually we can make a difference. Hearing these stories and sharing these stories is how we begin to mend a broken system.

Queen & Slim

When I get pulled over by the cops, I don’t ever worry about getting shot.  And that’s not because I am polite or non-threatening or have no criminal record.  It’s because of the colour of my skin.  It is a privileged position to occupy and I didn’t earn it, I just have it.

Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and  Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) don’t have that same privilege, because their skin is darker than mine.  When they get pulled over driving home after their first date, the cop is immediately suspicious, belligerent and demanding.  Slim is ordered out of the car, required to pop his trunk, and when he asks the cop to hurry it along, has a gun pulled on him as he is told to get on the ground.  Worse, when Queen jumps out of the passenger side and slowly and louQueenandSlimdly announces she is going to record this confrontation with her cell phone, the cop shoots her.  Slim goes for the gun and in the ensuing struggle, the cop is accidentally killed, instantly turning Queen and Slim into two of America’s most wanted.

Could Queen and Slim have done things differently?  Sure they could have.  There probably was a scenario where their lives and the cop’s life went on as normal.  But this isn’t that story.  Queen & Slim is about the repercussions of the traffic stop gone wrong, and its greatest strength is making the chase relatable to someone who wouldn’t necessarily make better choices but by reason of his skin colour would likely face very different consequences for any mistakes he made (and probably no consequences at all).

Screenwriter Lena Waithe delivers a believable situation and sympathetic characters.  She also does well to detach the public portrayal of Queen and Slim from their actual personas.  They did not ask to be outlaws and they did not choose to become fugitives.  Those were the only choices they were left with after a cop accidentally got shot.  It helps immensely that we get to know Queen and Slim, ever so briefly, before their fateful confrontation with an overly aggressive cop.  We get to see how the chase is framed from the outside while also seeing that there are not two sides to this story, that the lazy media narrative framing these two as cop-killers is more than just wrong, it is dangerous.

Left unsaid, but hanging in the air to digest afterward, is the question of how many more times does this sort of thing have to happen in real life before our society stops arguing over whether there is a problem and starts working together to fix it.   The biggest strength of Queen & Slim is that Waithe doesn’t shy away at all from the underlying social issues but manages, above all else, to be a compelling love story about two people who just wanted a chance at a second date.

Just Mercy

As much as we may want to pretend otherwise, the justice system has two distinct tiers.  Those with money get an easier path than those without.  That disparity is never acceptable but is especially offensive in the criminal context, where poor people who find themselves in the system are likely to stay there whether or not they are guilty of the offences charged, because they lack the ability to pay for legal representation or to post bail.  Those disadvantages result in innocent poor people being locked up for extended periods of time, many of whom are on death row. justmercy

These effects are arguably a feature of the system rather than a bug, since these circumstances disproportionately affect black people in the southern United States (see Ava Duvernay’s 13th for more on that terrifying but logical conclusion).   Incidentally, the reason my criticisms are focused on the American justice system is simply because the U.S. is basically the only western civilization that still applies the death penalty.  

Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) was one of those innocent poor black people waiting on death row in Alabama. Convicted of the murder of a woman he had never met, by a jury from which black people were excluded, based entirely on the false testimony of a convicted felon, Johnny D seems resigned to his fate. Which is understandable, as there is no point in hoping for merciful treatment from a justice system stacked against you. That changes when Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young Harvard law school graduate arrives in Alabama to provide legal aid to the disadvantaged, takes up Johnny D’s case, and challenges the conviction despite constant opposition from the district attorney, the sheriff, and the legal system. Brie Larson is also in this movie, as Stevenson’s operations director, but it’s a bit role. Foxx and Jordan get most of the screen time and all the best scenes. The two of them are excellent and are worth the price of admission on their own.

Their performances helped me get through the depressing fact that this is a true story, and worse, a true story we have heard many times before. Just Mercy does a great job of shining a light on injustice but is also an entertaining courtroom battle in its own right, that more than holds its own against any fictional legal drama. I was particularly impressed that the drama was allowed to play out with a minimal amount of Hollywood glitz, so that the courtroom scenes were close to how they would have played out in real life. Clearly, the filmmakers believed the real story was compelling enough to stand on its own, and they were absolutely right.

TIFF19: Greed

Have we made Steve Coogan an honourary asshole yet?  He’s at his best playing someone despicable, and they don’t come more despicable than retail fashion billionaires, who’ve “earned” their fortunes by exploiting third-world workers and the “rules” of corporate governance.  Coogan’s character, Richard McCreadie, is not a real person but is clearly inspired by the owners of Zara and H&M, both of which are running the same scheme in the real world as McCreadie does onscreen.

Having come under some scrutiny for his business practices (though not as much as he deserves), McCreadie hopes to gain some more favourable press by throwing an extravagant 60th birthday party for himself, shelling out for numerous celebrities to attend, and building a plywood colosseum in which a rented lion and McCreadie’s aides will put on a spectacle worthy of Caesar.  It is all too real, this game of distraction that McCreadie plays, and having gladiator games as entertainment sets up a good parallel between the ancient Roman slaves who died in service of their emperor and the factory workers who are suffering in service of McCreadie’s business empire.

greed_0HEROGreed’s comedic and satirical elements work well, with Coogan ably and expertly leading the way.   I am sure Coogan could play this role in his sleep but he’s not phoning it in at any point.  He clearly relishes the chance to play this type of character and he delivers a wonderfully over-the-top take on a selfish billionaire (though really, is there any other kind?).

But outside of the scenes featuring Coogan, Greed seems to lose its way.  It felt like Greed was too ambitious. In addition to the party scenes, Greed also shows McCreadie’s early days, both in private school and as he first sets up his business, factory scenes that are filmed documentary-style at real locations featuring real workers,  and a large number of side stories involving McCreadie’s ex-wife (Isla Fisher), their three kids (Asa Butterfield among them), McCreadie’s biographer (David Mitchell), and one of McCreadie’s top staff (Sarah Solemani).  There’s just too much going on, and it seems impossible for one movie to combine so many disparate parts  into a cohesive whole.

Undoubtedly, Greed’s failure in that regard is due to Michael Winterbottom having too much to say about the increasing divide between the rich and the poor, and it’s hard to fault him for being so ambitious.  But I have to think Greed would have been more effective, both in delivering its important message and in delivering its comedy, if it had taken a more focused approach and left a few side stories (including the story featuring McCreadie’s younger self) on the cutting room floor.

TIFF19: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel is David Copperfield – it’s an inspired bit of casting that’s instantly a perfect fit. In fact, the whole film is so overwhelmingly cast to perfection it’s almost embarrassing.

I worried about this film because though director Armando Iannucci’s previous film, The Death of Stalin, was extremely well-received by critics, it was not my the-personal-history-of-david-copperfieldcuppa, not by a long shot. As an introduction to this film’s premiere at TIFF, Iannucci informed/assured us the two films could not be more different. And while I’m not sure that’s true, I was relieved and elighted to find myself really enjoying it.

I hope it’s obvious that this movie is inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, though TIFF Artistic Director & Co-Head Cameron Bailey rightly called it an “audacious” interpretation, and it is that. Iannucci was struck by how timeless the themes of love and friendship were, so though the film is undoubtedly a period piece, Iannucci reminds us that for the characters, it’s present day.

As for myself, I was most struck by how convincingly Copperfield is portrayed as a budding writer. Even as a child he’s wildly observant, with a knack for accents and a fondness for “collecting” lovely turns of phrase. The way this movie explores and plays with language is unlike anything I’ve seen onscreen. It was setting off fireworks in the verbal parts of my brain. And there are plenty of visual treats too – beautiful costumes, dingy apartments, bustling markets, whimsical seaside abodes, and blooming gardens teeming with donkeys.

Sean did not feel so positively about the film – though he liked it, he also found it boring and meandering. Well, he said slow. I thought meandering sounded better.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a funny, perceptive, and inventive twist on an old favourite. I can’t help but think Dickens would approve.

American Factory

As the trade war between the US and China escalates, American Factory arrives on Netflix and shows why this war is one that China is likely to win.  The US is at a severe disadvantage in this war that it started, because the American Dream now belongs more to China than to the endangered American middle class, and because idyllic post-war America was built in large part on cheap imports from China and now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

American Factory is the first Netflix film from the Obamas’ production studio, and its release is perfectly timed.  China and the US continue to threaten each other higher and higher tariffs, announcing another round of increases to take effect american-factory-1this fall. Of course, these threats are not really to the countries themselves; they are threats to consumers, who will inevitably bear all these increases in the form of higher priced goods.

While American Factory isn’t really about tariffs, the tariffs are still an important part of the story. That’s because the tariffs were instigated by the US in order to bring manufacturing back to the American heartland, which has been decimated by the loss of factory jobs as more and more of those jobs elsewhere to take advantage of cheaper labour and lower safety standards.

One of those shuttered factories is a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. Its closure in 2008 put thousands out of work, but in 2015 Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-backed company, reopened the plant and brought hope back to Dayton. However, we quickly see that the reality is not quite as rosy as the fantasy, because the workers have taken a 30% pay cut, safety standards are not enforced, and management uses every dirty trick in the book to prevent the workers from unionizing.

Chinese workers are brought in to show the Americans how to operate the plant, and managers from the US are trained in China to help them better motivate the workers. American Factory captures the remarkable contrast between the workers’ attitudes in the two nations, and the attitudes of the nations as a whole. The Chinese are willing to work harder for less, sacrificing their bodies and family lives for the benefit of the company. The Americans, on the other hand, feel entitled to earn more money than their Chinese counterparts without making any of the same sacrifices.

Something has to give there.  In both the Fuyao factory and in the larger trade war, the Americans can’t possibly get everything they want but are oblivious to that reality.  Working-class Americans seem not to have realized that their consumer-centric society only exists because of other countries’ cheap labour, and that unskilled labourers will never again be “middle class”. If these American factory workers want to achieve their desired standard of living, they need to acquire marketable skills. Labour is no longer marketable on its own, and China and the rest of the world are eager to live the American Dream. China and the rest of the world also clearly want to realize that dream so much more than the Americans do, so in any head-to-head battle the Americans are going to lose out. The only question is whether the Americans will realize that before it’s too late.