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Film Review: WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? (Canada 2018) ***1/2

What Is Democracy? Poster

The National Film Board of Canada (NFB)’s WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? just nominated for Best Canadian Documentary by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle is the kind of educational film made for students to watch in schools where lots of information is provided on the subject as if coming directly from a textbook on democracy.  The origin of the word is also explained in the film, to illustrate the amount of detail going into its research.

The film questions what it means to want to live in democracy.  Therefore the question asked is what the word even means.  WHAT IS DEMOCRACY? is an idiosyncratic, philosophical journey spanning millennia and continents: from ancient Athens’ groundbreaking experiment in self-government to capitalism’s roots in medieval Italy; from modern-day Greece grappling with financial collapse and a mounting refugee crisis to the United States reckoning with its racist past and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Celebrated theorists Silvia Federici, Cornel West, Wendy Brown, and Angela Davis are joined by trauma surgeons, activists, factory workers, asylum seekers, former prime ministers and others, in a film speaking to the camera or interviewed by Taylor, that connects past and present, the emotional and the intellectual, the personal and the political, to provoke critical dialogue about our future.

Though not really a feminist film, it should be noted (not a bad thing) that most of the interviewees and those involved in the making of the film including the director (who doubles her function as interviewer) are women.

  Trump is given screen time. Surprisingly Trump is not dismissed as a bad President but given due respect as well as reasons he got elected.  An identical situation can be applied to Brexit.  The masses are fed up with the elected who have forgotten the people. The Democrats have forgotten the people, says one American.  So when Trump goes down to the people at their level, he won their confidence.

An eye-opener is also revealed on how Americans are cheated on democracy in voting, especially the poorer and black parts of the United States.

Also interesting is the segment on Greece.  Greece has been in financial crisis and has to be bailed out by the other European Union countries that claim that Greece have lived beyond their means and now they have to pay. The film reveals another side that does not reflect well on the banks and the authorities.

There are lots in the film that will titillate the mind.  After all, it is the philosophers who had a big deal to do with the concept of democracy, as the film implies.  The film’s best segment has young students talking about democracy.  They talk about the results of their complaints in school, one in articular that resulted in the school taking away the vending machines.  They claim that the teachers say that they get paid regardless what they do and that the students need to go to college to success and be happy.  Yet they do not set the example.  It is a very moving and realistic situation that touches the heart.

The film summarizes democracy simply as justice – the right to self rule.  The film also demonstrates selective democracy and that real democracy is practically unattainable.  

The film will be back in the city on January 26 at Ryerson University at the DemocracyXChange Summit—a new annual event co-founded by the Open Democracy Project and the Ryerson Leadership Lab—where Taylor will deliver a keynote address, followed by an evening screening of her film.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/266692157

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Film Review: PUGLI: A PUG’S LIFE (Canada 2018) ***

Pugly follows the triumphs and struggles of 3 rescue pugs, and explores the current craze for flat-faced dogs.

For dog lovers, especially pug lovers, arrives this lovable documentary of the lives of 3 rescue pugs together with some insight on the world of pugs.  Even for those who are unamused by pugs, PUGLI is an enjoyable if not educational doc on the subject.

The film explores the current craze for flat-faced dogs and follows the trials, tribulations and triumphs of three pug dogs as they journey from rescue, to foster care, to their forever homes.

The first pug is Gunner.  Gunner is a two-year-old pug in the care of Pugalug, Toronto’s pug rescue network led by self-professed “Crazy Dog Lady” Blanche Axton.  As she prepares Gunner for adoption, we meet a growing community of “squishy-faced dog” devotees with big personalities, and follow their stories of heroism, humour and heartbreak.  Dogs are not allowed for adoption until they are at least well and adopters are made aware of the new pet’s ailments as pets medical bills can come out to the thousands.  Gunner is adorable and his medical problems do not show.

Next, the audience sees the glamorous side of the pug life, as cover girl Miss Pickles the Pug wins the Now Magazine (the Toronto few news and events weekly) prize for Best Instagram account.   

There is Helmut, superstar of the monthly “Pug Grumble” at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park, as he takes a break in his busy schedule for a photo shoot for the Canada Pooch clothing company. 

Other minor pug stars include red-carpet movie star Igor Pugdog and his little brother Zombie are featured in their very own yearly calendar – a Pugalug Pug Rescue fundraising initiative driven by motorcycle-riding pug-lover Tracey Silverthorn.

The film also pays special attention to the owners.  Yes, there are dog ladies as well – but with supportive husbands.  These people are revealed to be committed owners who must nurse their pugs through the myriad medical problems that can plague flat-faced dogs.  Titus is a half-blind pug crippled by a congenital condition but he will not give up barking and chasing after speeding trains.  His doting owner Erin carries him everywhere he goes, and ensures that he gets his meds and his thrice-daily catheterization. As a result, for the past three years, these two have never been apart. And then there’s Tawnie, the “sassy bitch” with a lengthy list of maladies, beloved by Blanche, Sigrid and the rest of the Pugalug team, but whose continual (and costly) vet visits have made her adoption prospects doubtful.

Movie pieces frequently feature villains.  What is a good movie without one?  In this case the villains are the breeders.  The breeders are shown to be obsessed with breeding the perfect pug – which means a smashed nose and a curly, short tail.  The nose means difficulty breeding with lots of pugs with respiratory problems.  The shot tail entails spinal problems as well.  As they keep breeding those with short tail or pug noses, the pups face medical problems on growing up.

The audience sees Jessica Kelly, dog behaviourist and Todd Kaufman, a psychotherapist who works with emotional support animals who both express their dislike for breeders who aim for the “smushiest face”, the highest tail, and other extreme features.   The film shows Jim and Mary Lou Dymond, an older couple who have spent 30 years trying to breed the healthy “perfect pug.”

  The film has a especial screening on on Sunday, January 6, 2019 at 1:00pm- Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema before opening on different platforms.

Assorted clips: 

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/z4qlh2grh4jhfy3/AAC5U__naEb5juf4iAFlg7_Ua?dl=0

Film Review: OUT ON STAGE (USA 2018) ***

Out On Stage (Movie Version) Poster

Something different for the New Year?  The stand-up comedy “OUT on Stage: The Series” hosted by Zach Noe Towers, releases Jan. 17th on the usual streaming platforms.  Produced by Comedy Dynamics and Dekkoo, “OUT on Stage: The Series” features an eclectic lineup of renowned LGBTQ stand-up comedians.  

It is so rare that a grouping, let alone a series of all queer stand-up comics even exists.  The host is Zach Noe Towers, an LA-based comedian, actor, and writer who was recently named one of Time Out Magazine’s “2018 Comedians to Watch.”

OUT ON STAGE is comprised of 6 episodes, each episode with 3 gay stand-up comics, all introduced by Towers.  Towers gets to do his routine in Episode 2.  Needless to say, not all episodes are of the same standard.  A few are funnier, just as a few others are better than others.

Host Towers can get a bit annoying with his infectious laughter, but one has to give him credit for trying.   He does even give the worst jokes (the trans-ginger joke and the corny ‘all the comedians here suck’) a go.

All the comics share a few things in common.  They all make fun of themselves being gay.  The jokes also get dirty and the language occasionally foul, though one may argue there is no need to be.  As with all comics, timing is of the essence.  As all the comics come on stage one after the other, one would automatically make a list of the favourite ones and the ones who really suck, and not in the sexual way.

Here are the episodes:

Episode 1:

The first episode is quite hilarious, setting the tone for the other 5 to be watched.  The first is Jared Goldstein who demonstrates expert timing in the delivery of the material.  The second one, Ranier Pollard is the best of the three.  He is black, muscular and comes on stage with super-tight pants.  These muscles are just for show, he quips, they are for my ‘instagram’ followers.

Episode 2:  This, to me is one of the most mediocre of the episodes.  The host Towers is the first comic in this episode.

Episode 3:  The first comic Gloria Bigelow is the best of the lot, generating the most laughs of the episodes.  She, the first one one, makes fun of being gay, black and a woman while tackling topics like hairy bears.  The third comic is a butch lesbian, A.B. Cassidy, who could have been funnier.

Episode 4: The first comic in this episode cracks jokes mostly on drugs, completely omitting gay humour.  He could very well be a straight comic for all that matters.  The drug jokes come out awkward and are not really funny.  Funny however is the second comic, Chris Bryant, whose infectious good nature helps the audience love him.  He demonstrates expect comic timing.  He is the one who cracks the dirtiest of all the jokes and gets a good laugh from it.  Joe Dosch, the third comic does more jokes on South Dakota where he is from than gay jokes, but the South Dakota jokes are funny.

Episode 5:  Julian Michaels, the second comic proves again the black comics are the funniest.  The majority of his jokes are ‘coloured’ ones.

Episode 6:  The final episode leaves one wanting for more.  The last 2 comics are quite funny, particularly Eric Hahn who makes fun that he is now middle-aged and no longer looks gay.  The last one in contrast is a flaming queen making his delivery all the more flamboyant!

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/304184058 

Film Review: NANCY (USA 2017) ***1/2

Nancy Poster
Trailer

Nancy becomes increasingly convinced she was kidnapped as a child. When she meets a couple whose daughter went missing thirty years ago, reasonable doubts give way to willful belief.

Director:

Christina Choe

NANCY opens with the title character, Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) looking after her ill-tempered mother, Betty (Ann Dowd, last seen in HEREDITARY).  The mother is ungrateful, nasty, impatient and rude making Nancy wonder the reason she is that way, as she has always been pleasant towards her mother.  The two watch OLIVER TWIST on  television, the Charles Dicken’s story of an orphan.

When the mother dies, 15 minutes into the film, Nancy watches on television the news of a mother who has had lost her daughter about 30 years ago.  Nancy thinks she might be the missing daughter and contacts Ellen (J, Smith-Cameron) and her husband (Steve Buschemi).  Nancy heads out to meet them, the meeting being the rest of he film.  Revealing more of the plot would definitely spoil the film’s effectiveness.  All that needs be said is that writer/director Choe has made an effective psychological mystery drama.

The film is set in winter in the country where Ellen and her husband live.  The falling snow and snow covered woods are beautifully shot by cinematography her Zoe White, who went on to shoot THE HANDSMAID TALE after being noticed for her work in this film.

NANCY speaks to a lot of Americans for reason of the main character’s demise.  

NANCY gives voice to and represents the many disappointed, disconnected twenty-

first-century millennials making up the first-world.   These are adults struggling to grow up, yet

unable to identify where boredom ends and untreated mental health issues begin.   Nancy is a confused grown-up kid, unable to really function socially, unable to afford to fly the coop, their 

youth saturated by inflation, aware of the dream that capitalism promises, yet living on the 

outskirts of its failings. 

Longing for physical connection, and attempting to find it through online self-

misrepresentation, Nancy has a short meeting with a well-meaning Jeb played by John Leguizamo.  Nancy wrestles with unemployment, only able to obtain a temporary job with insufficient hours.  The character also, when the film opens, has returned from a visit to Korea – not South but North Korea, to the surprise of the person Nancy was speaking to.  Nancy claims that it was easy to go there.  The choice of North Korea depicts the kind of vacation Nancy would be interested with – going to a country with dispirited and oppressed people. Director Choe herself has visited North Korea.

The film’s message comes across loud and clear as voiced by Ellen (J. Smith-Cameron, who delivers the film’s best performance): “We have to appreciate what we have now.  It is the only thing that matters.”

NANCY belongs to the category of low budget films that often struggle at the box-office but is worth a look for effort and result.  The film has already received accolades having been nominated for the following two categories of ‘Best First Screenplay’ and ‘Best Supporting Female’ for the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards.  In addition, the film won the ‘Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award’ at Sundance this year.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDXSp8kfBGw

Film Review: THE RESISTANCE BANKER (Bankier van het Verzet) (Netherlands/Belgium 2018) ***1/2

The Resistance Banker Poster
Trailer

In Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, banker brothers Walraven and Gijs van Hall face their greatest challenge yet when they decide to help fund the Dutch resistance.

Director:

Joram Lürsen

THE RESISTANCE BANKER is a Netflix original film and perhaps the first one from the Netherlands.

THE RESISTANCE BANKER is World War II banker Walraven van Hall, the hero who financed the Dutch Resistance against the German war machine.  Not many outside the Netherlands might have heard of him.  Therefore it is a story that needs be told, which translates into a film that needs to be seen.  It is of no surprise that the country has proudly submitted the film for the 91st Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.  Unfortunately, the film did not make the December Best Foreign Film Nominee short list.  But the film did become the most visited Dutch film of 2018 and was nominated for eleven Golden Calves, the first time a film received so many nominations for the award.  It went on to win four Golden Calves, among them the prize for Best Film and Best Actor.

THE RESISTANCE BANKER is the true story of the Dutch banker Walraven van Hall (Barry Atsma), a man who, witnessing the holocaust together with the Nazi occupation of his homeland, decided to finance the Dutch resistance with the creation of a shadow bank.  Walraven van Hall used the guise of a charitable fund to help Dutch sailors stranded abroad by the war to launder money into his shadow bank.  As the war continued, the needs of the resistance increased. Nazi leaders grew closer to catching van Hall.  At great risk, Van Hall decided to forge war bonds, secretly exchanging them for the real bonds at a major bank, and then redeeming them for cash at this same bank.

The film is not a bad one, being full of good intentions,  But it is not perfect with a lot of choppy parts.  For example, characters appear from nowhere like the girl on a bicycle carrying anti-German papers, then later explained in the story who she is.  Incidents are also inserted into the story before some crisis following it occurs.  A torture scene (and quite a nasty one at that) appears out of nowhere and a following scene shows van Hall sitting in a train that has German around checking for suspicious characters.

The film does play it safe in its storytelling.  The first third, which is quite slow moving, establishes the characters of van Hall.  He is shown to be a man who loves his wife, who sticks to his beliefs despite the danger he puts himself into.  He loves his children, even sacrificing his life for doing what is right.

The film spends quite a bit of time going through the mechanics of forging the Treasury Bills. Though some might find these sequences boring, they are necessary to show the difficulty of forging especially during war times when materials like ink and special paper are almost impossible to obtain.  At its best, the film contains a few genuinely suspenseful moments, though the one played at the bank is cliched-ridden.

THE RESISTANCE BANKER is currently playing on Netflix.  It is the story of a different kind of hero, but one outstanding one who knows sacrifice of family and love ones is necessary to do what is right.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXUkyudJoVg

Film Review: INVENTING TOMORROW (USA 2018) ***

Inventing Tomorrow Poster
Trailer

Meet passionate teenage innovators from around the globe who are creating cutting-edge solutions to confront the world’s environmental threats – found right in their own backyards – while … See full summary »

Director: Laura Nix

INVENTING TOMORROW follows 6 youth groups that enter their science projects for ISEF (the International Science and Engineering Fair)n- right up tot he winning announcement.  The robe with docs like this is that the director choses her groups.  It would be fortunate that the group the director choses wins, but often than not, it is hit and miss and intros one.  Not all the 6 group come off as winners.  A few do of course.  But audience might learn a thing or tow about competitive – fair or unfair the process.

The 6 young groups of scientists hail from Indonesia, Hawaii, India and Mexico as they tackle some of the most complex environmental issues facing humanity today – right in their own backyards.  Each student is preparing original scientific research that he or she will defend at ISEF.  Framed against the backdrop of the severe environmental threats humans  now face,the audience is immersed in a global view of the planetary crisis, through the eyes of the generation that will be affected by it most.

Considered the Olympics of high school science fairs, ISEF is the largest gathering of high school scientists in the world, attracting approximately 1,800 finalists from over 75 countries, regions and territories.  All the finalists want to do a good job, but the heart of the story isn’t about whether they go home with an award.  As they take water samples from contaminated lakes (Hawaii), dig up the dirt in public parks (Hawaii), board illegal pirate mining ships (Indonesia), and test their experiments in a lab, we see each student display a tenacious curiosity, and a determination to build a better future.  Motivated by the desire to protect their homes, these young people are asking questions about the issues they observe in their communities, and proposing innovative solutions to fix them.

The students spend close to 600 hours each on their projects, guided in their scientific quest by dedicated university mentors.   At home with their parents, grandparents, and siblings, they compare the world their elders knew with the stark reality of the one they’re inheriting.

Director Nix brings the personal issues into the equation.  The audience sees, in an emotional moment the proud tears of a grandmother as her grandson wins the prize.

One must admire the young contestants for their diligence and brilliance.   Most of the terms they use are newt many.  The film should spend more time explaining each project to the audience so that the audience can connect more with the characters.  At bets, these projects appear difficult to understand.

The judges judge hard too.  The Mexicans likely did not win as they have difficulties explaining their project to the judges.  The Indian also has difficulty having the audience understand her project, as she speaks a little too fast.

The film shows that it is not the winning that counts.  It is the beauty of competition and meeting other contemporaries in the field.  The film soars when the camera shows young strangers from different countries making friends, hugging each other for the purpose of saving the environment.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7bdRgf1BAY

Film Review: ON THE BASIS OF SEX (USA 2018) ***

On the Basis of Sex Poster
Trailer

The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her struggles for equal rights, and what she had to overcome in order to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Director:

Mimi Leder

Mimi Leder (director of the little seen PAY IT FORWARD and made-for-TV, THICK AS THIEVES) tackles a female issue film, ON THE BASIS OF SEX,  an American biographical legal drama film based on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  The film is written by Daniel Stiepleman, with an impressive cat that includes Felicity Jones as Ginsburg, with Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Reynor, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, and Kathy Bates in supporting roles.

If when watching the film, everything looks familiar, perhaps you might have seen a documentary released early this year called RBG, the letters stand for Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the subject of ON THE BASIS OF SEX.  The doc concentrates more on her career and what she has done to promote progressive change in the legal America system.  Leder ON THE BASIS OF SEX, opening during Christmas plays like feel-good stand up and cheer move while trying to keep to the spirit and truth of RBG, a legend in our times.  (One can imagine director Leder herself trying hard o get work as a female director as one notices her dry spell of films after PAY IT FORWARD.)  

The film covers the full life of Ruth Ginsburg.  The first third shows her struggle in an almost all-male (she was one of only 10 females) Harvard Law School.  The film is quick to emphasize that Ruth had more on her plate than her fellow undergraduates.  She was not only married with a kid, but her husband (Armie Hammer) suffered from cancer with hospitalization.  Ruth looked after him, their kid while attending his classes and her own the same time.  She came up top of her class.  The second part shows her at her job after graduation.  She teaches while inspiring her students to change the world.  Her subject was “Sex discrimination and the Law”.

Leder’s film reveals important truths.  The success of a woman depends on the support of her husband.  Clearly Ruth’s husband was always behind her, giving in and urging her to strive on.  The same can be likely said for husband of Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Teresa May. However, Ruth and her husband’s relationship appears too perfect.  “You are ready for this.  You have been ready for this your whole life.  Go in there and let the judges see the real Ruth Ginsburg I know,” is the husband’s best advice, obviously spiced up int he script for artistic purposes.  Despite the husband’s support, it must be certain that they must have had huge arguments that would have rocked their marriage.  No major disagreements are on display except for one minor argument which involves their daughter, now grown up.

English actress Felicity Jones is winning as Ruth Ginsburg.  Armie Hammer, also delivers a remarkable performance in a little written role.  But the best performance comes from little known Charles Milky who plays Charles Moritz, Ruth’s caregiver client denied his tax benefits for looking after his ailing mother based on his gender.

It is clear that more cane learnt about Ruth Ginsburg by watching the doc RBG than this Hollywood dramatization.  Audiences have seen similar films before, like MADE IN DAGENHAM and even the lighter and more hilarious LEGALLY BLONDE.   What is clear is that Ruth Ginsburg is still recognized as a major force in changing sex discrimination in America.  Her story needs be told in one form or another.

So the ultimate question is whether Ruth Ginsburg’s achievement in life can be trivialized into a 2-hour feel good movie?  Surprisingly, the answer is yes, judging that the real Ruth Ginsburg appeared the end of the film implying her endorsement of the film which was written by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman.  At least the words at the start of the film declared the film ‘inspired’ rather than ‘based’ on a true story.  But as far as feel-good movies go, Leder’s film is a textbook example of how to achieve the task

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28dHbIR_NB4

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