Archive for July, 2009
Tuesday, July 28th, 2009
TV pick of the week: Les Invincibles, Saison III (8/10): A French-language only TV series from Quebec, the third season is the final one in a terrific show. But it’s in French only.
Blu-Ray of the week: 12 Monkeys: A still-underrated movie, it’s creepy and intense and Bruce Willis and Madeline Stowe are amazing. And it is visually impressive, just right for Blu-Ray.
Jim Breuer: Let’s Clear the Air (3/10): Jim Breuer’s stand-up routine, where he continually drops names like Dave Chappelle, and makes references to those times when he was at least a little famous. In 1998.
Fast And Furious: Vin Diesel and that blonde guy are back. I don’t care about this movie at all. Then again, I was one of the few who really, really, really hated the first one.
Miss March: Yet another movie where some nerdy virgin tracks down a Playboy centerfold. This time, the guy has come out of a coma! So…it’s different!
Also out today:
The Fifth Commandment
Green Lantern: First Flight
An American Affair
Battlestar Galactica Season 4.5
Bart Got a Room
Angel of Death
Union: The Business behind getting high
On Blu-Ray today:
2 Fast 2 Furious
Bad Boy Bubby
Battlestar Galactica Season 4.5
Battlestar Galactica Complete Series
Champions of Faith
Doctor Who: Planet of the Dead
Dollhouse Season One
Eagles Over London
Fast & Furious
The Fast And The Furious
The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift
Green Lantern: First Flight
Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
The Inglorious Bastards (1978)
Mahler: Symphonie No. 2 in C Minor “Resurrection”
Picturebox HD: Aviation – 100 Years Of Flight
Pirates of Penzance: Gilbert and Sullivan / Australian Opera
A River Runs Through It
This Is Spinal Tap
Torchwood: Children of Earth
Torchwood: The Complete Second Season
On DVD next week:
Race To Witch Mountain (5/10)
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Che: Part II
An Empress And the Warriors
True True Lie
Fight of the Conchords: Complete Second Season
On Blu-Ray next week:
Big Trouble in Little China
Concert Hot Spot Gift Set
Concert Hot Spot Nature Gift Set
Four Seasons – Peak Escape
Jamiroquai: Live At Montreux 2003
The Last Starfighter
My Cousin Vinny
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
Puppies And Kittens
Race to Witch Mountain
Stargate Atlantis: Fans’ Choice
Tuesday, July 28th, 2009
Language: French only
Starring: Pierre-Francois Legendre, Francois Letoureau, Remi-Pierre Paquin, Patrice Robitaille, Catherine Trudeau
Run time: 9 hours, 15 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
I have not seen seasons one and two of Les Invincibles, a French TV series from Radio-Canada. Season Three comes to DVD today, July 28th, from Alliance Films, and it is the final season in what appears to have been a very, very good show. At first, I thought the series was about four guys who were superheroes hiding their identity from their wives and girlfriends. That’s because when I started watching Season Three, I was right under the central vac outlet in the house, and my wife was running the vacuum, and I couldn’t hear a thing. All I saw was weird guys in white suits and gas masks appearing at dinner parties and on porches in mysterious fashion.
When the vacuum finally ended, I discovered that this DVD is French only. No subtitles, no dubbing, no English of any kind. From what I understand, however, an English-language version of this series is being considered. And that’s a good thing. This series is funny. It’s charming and dramatic, and it’s not about superheroes. Well. Not really. It uses a superhero format with four guys who have signed a pact to break up with their girlfriends and live an unpredictable, chaotic life together. That was in season one.
Now, we’re in season three. And of course, like every guy who tries to live free and clear and unencumbered, it can only last so long. As season three opens, all the guys are in committed relationships and one of them, Carlos (Pierre-Francois Legendre), is in the process of getting married. But old habits die hard, and Remi (Remi-Pierre Paquin) manages to screw up the wedding by getting drunk in the back of a limo with a couple of hotties, then driving the newly married couple to the airport, drunk, and crashing into some parked cars and then taking off across the parking lot.
Even funnier is Pierre-Antoine (Francois Letourneau), who is a psychiatrist. He is late for Carlos’ wedding, but he has an elderly patient waiting for him. So he tries to conduct a session with her in his car as he drives her home, but she refuses to go home because her kids are nuts, so he brings her to the wedding. And leaves her in the car for the whole thing. But at least he is kind and thoughtful enough to bring her a small plate of sweets when the wedding finally ends several hours later.
The series is very good, and very funny, and I’m glad they’re thinking about making an English-language version. But I’m worried as well. The best thing about the show is the chemistry between the four stars, and without that this show would be average at best. I also don’t know if the French humour would translate well into English. I guest we’ll see, if this actually happens. Is the concept alone good enough to make for a great show, or have the people behind Les Invincibles caught lightning in a bottle?
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“Half Baked, Saturday Night Live, I thought I was taking off!”
Jim Breuer’s career did not take off since he appeared in Half Baked and Saturday Night Live. In fact, it appears to have stagnated. I know this because he opens his brand-new stand-up DVD, Let’s Clear The Air, out July 28th from Paramount Home Entertainment, with stories about being on the set in Half Baked. And he tells us how the SNL character “Goat Boy” came to be. Well dude, Half Baked was eleven years ago. Goat Boy was fourteen years ago. Most of us have forgotten both of them.
From his memories of himself during that movie and TV show, he moves on to memories of others from that movie and TV show. He does a solid impression of Dave Chappelle, but really he just appears to be using that as an excuse to say “hey…guys…I know Dave Chappelle”. His story about Sylvester Stallone is similar, in that it’s not very funny and it appears to be name dropping more than anything else. At least he didn’t say he knew Stallone. He goes through a few other reasonably well known people, then he jumps the shark, about seven minutes into the special.
He does a (relatively) long piece about…Tracy Morgan. Remember Tracy Morgan? From “Pimp Chat” on Saturday Night Live? Yeah. That guy. And, seriously, Breuer really appears to be name-dropping him too. Now, as far as I’m concerned, Jim Breuer is more well-known and famous than Tracey Morgan. When he feels like he has to name-drop that guy to be cool, to affirm his comedy cred, then he’s got some serious career problems. That’s kind of like an actor bragging that he knows the guy from the Goodyear commercials. OK – I believe you know him – but I’m not impressed, I don’t care, and you’re not being funny. Stop it. No, don’t do a Tracey Morgan impression. No one here remembers what he sounds like.
His impressions are decent – he really does sound pretty close to Chappelle (and Morgan, for that matter), but they aren’t terribly funny. Soon he moves on to some other stuff that isn’t terribly funny. That would be the rest of the hour-long show. Some really standard, breaking no boundaries stuff about his kids. A kangaroo bit that feels like lame Dane Cook. (Yes, there can be someone lamer than Dane Cook.) Remember that AC/DC video I was running on my blog for a long time, of Breuer doing his Brian Johnson impression singing the Hokey-Pokey? Anyway. It was pretty good.
This time, he does more heavy metal stuff. Metallica, which sucks. And AC/DC again – this time, it’s “Row Row Row Your Boat”. And it isn’t even close to the “Hokey Pokey” bit. I guess that bit has lost something in the last six years. The best part of the DVD is the stuff on the menus, where Breuer harasses his elderly father, and abuses you, the viewer, for not having hit “play” on the disc yet. (Also, there’s a photo shoot. What’s with the standard “photo shoot” feature on stand-up DVDs? Who cares?) But that stuff is far better than the special itself, and I would not recommend picking up a DVD to watch the menus. And I wouldn’t recommend this one at all.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“The baby we got was not the one we ordered. We got a dud. A lemon.”
Countries: Canada, UK, Central African Republic
Starring: Colm Feore, Amanda Plummer, Lothaire Bluteau
Eye Candy: Jennifer Tilly, Donna D’Errico, Andie McDowell
Director: Mary McGuckian
Run time: 106 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
There is one big problem with Inconceivable. And it is big enough to almost entirely ruin what could, otherwise, be a reasonably funny and solid movie. And it’s the filming. And the number of characters. OK, two problems. But they’re BIG. The filming is strange. At first, it’s kind of neat. As a way to open the movie, it works. It’s like a series of snippets that all run on top of each other, so one conversation blends into the next conversation. In that opening scene, Dr. Freeman (Colm Feore) is discussing artificial insemination with a series of patients. Nine patients, to be exact. Which means that we hear him say almost the exact same words, nine different times.
OK to start a movie. But five minutes in, it’s time to stop. And thirty minutes in, it is absolutely infuriating. Every woman Feore is dealing with seems to require equal screen time. So at every step of the way in the film, all nine of them have their thirty seconds on screen, and by the time he repeats the same exact words to the fifth one, I want to dunk my head in a vat of snapping turtles. When the movie was over, I felt the same sense of sweet, sweet relief that I feel when I hold my urine in during a long drive home, then finally and gloriously release it into the toilet bowl. It’s like that. This movie is like urine pressing on your bladder.
It’s too bad, because the movie could have, and should have, been much better than urine. Feore is solid as always, and each of the supporting characters is interesting in their own way. Toward the end of the movie, as we start to learn the stories of the gay couple with the surrogate, the lesbian couple, the mother and daughter in line for a big inheritance, and the weird train wreck of a woman that is Jennifer Tilly, I was far more interested. Again, the structure of the movie isn’t the problem. In fact, the movie is structured really well. It’s the editing that’s awful. It’s like a small child making a mosaic with movie frames instead of Barney stickers.
Do kids still watch Barney? Is that show still on TV? Am I really that old? I bet kids who grew up on Barney are now playing for the Cubs and running for office. I probably am that old. Anyway. The movie centers around the discovery, some time after eight of the nine women, remarkably, get pregnant, that all of their kids look exactly the same. Which would seem to indicate that they all have the same father, even though they brought their own donors with them. They should have eight different fathers. (Now, ideally, it would seem to me that for eight children to look exactly the same, they would need to have both the same father and the same mother. Otherwise, they would likely look maybe a little similar.)
There are some funny performances, like Donna D’Errico as a dumb blonde hippie lesbian and Sarah Stockbridge as the foul-mouthed blonde Trixie. There are some dark performances as well, like Tilly’s desperate, mournful and sad one or Amanda Plummer’s twitchy, painful one. But they are all wasted by the editing and the repetitive nature of every single scene. There is a good movie in here. But the editor sure didn’t find it. I was thinking about calling out the editor in this review, but it occurs to me that it is almost certainly not his fault. Although he has no other credits. It could be someone telling him how to put the movie together, and then it’s that person’s fault. I won’t even call out the director, just in case it isn’t her fault either.
But it’s someone’s fault, and that person should not be involved with movies. Inconceivable came out July 14th from Alliance Films.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“I would leave everything for you.”
“You’re very sweet, but I think if you knew me better you’d feel differently.”
Country: United States
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw
Eye Candy: Gwyneth Paltrow’s left breast, and Vinessa Shaw is gorgeous
Director: James Gray
Run time: 109 minutes
DVD distributor: Alliance Films
Two Lovers is a movie that sits on the edge of cheesy melodrama from beginning to end. It is saved from the turd bin by Joaquin Phoenix, Vinessa Shaw and Gwyneth Paltrow, who really surprised me. I have never thought of Gwyneth Paltrow as a smoking hot sexy babe. I have always thought she was sort of the sweet, pretty girl-next-door who, at best, might stretch her acting ability to play a hippie. I think I was pretty wrong. Michelle (Paltrow) is utterly convincing (to me, at least) as a seductive, wild-sexy-hot, dangerous siren. I get that Joaquin Phoenix would disappear from the world entirely just to be with her. I get how he could be head-over-heels infatuated with this woman. She’s not trying to be, not really, but she just exudes that sexuality and vulnerability that drives him crazy because she has been putting out that vibe her whole life and just can’t turn it off.
It helps too (for believability) that Leonard (Phoenix) is a bit of a nut as well. The movie opens with a bizarre, half-assed suicide attempt that may just be something he did on a whim, rather than a real attempt at killing himself. He lives with his parents (Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshonov) and works for them at their dry cleaning business. His parents are selling the company, and are trying to hook him up with Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the sweet young daughter of their buyer. Sandra is, remarkably, drawn to Leonard, even though he is strange and withdrawn and rarely calls her back. She seems to be the nurturing type. She wants to take care of him, and she is drawn to the darkness inside him.
And it’s that darkness that makes Leonard such a compelling character. When Michelle convinces him to come out to dinner with her and her married boyfriend, he can’t help but go because he’s under her spell. She wants his opinion as to whether her boyfriend is actually planning to leave his wife for her. During the entire dinner, Leonard is a coiled spring. He comes across as intense, on the edge, like he could explode at any moment. He doesn’t, but the whole time we know he’s capable of something extremely dark. Michelle doesn’t notice because she’s way too self-involved. Her married boyfriend doesn’t notice, because he can’t imagine Michelle would ever consider being with anyone but him.
It’s the relationships in the movie that work. Ronald (Elias Koteas, the married boyfriend), treats Paltrow terribly because he is more intent on keeping the relationship from his wife than he is on making it work. Paltrow treats Leonard in almost the exact same way - keeping him around for companionship when Ronald isn’t around. And Leonard does the same to Sandra vis-a-vis Michelle. He will drop Sandra in a second if Michelle calls. He ends up lying to his parents and sneaking around his apartment, breaking dates with Sandra all the time, and basically existing at Michelle’s beck and call.
However, that’s about all that works in the movie. The acting (especially from Phoenix and Paltrow) is superb, and the interaction between all the characters is strong and believable. But the structure of the movie is weak, and the resolution is just too obvious. The end of this movie could have gone one of many different ways, and I think it picked the exact wrong (but most obvious) one. As the movie comes to a close, Leonard is still a coiled spring. He is still filled with a darkness that has to come out sometime. And in this case, the promise of Leonard’s eventual undoing is not nearly as powerful as it would be if we could actually see that undoing.
For Paltrow (and her left breast) and Phoenix alone, Two Lovers is worth it. Elias Koteas and Isabella Rossellini and Vinessa Shaw are all superb as well. But that’s about it. If you’re looking for a romantic movie, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for light fare, this isn’t it. And if you’re looking for a classic, brilliant film, you’re better off looking elsewhere. Two Lovers came out July 14th from Alliance Films.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
There are seven movies contained on the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features. I have chosen to review each of the seven seperately because I think many of them are terrific films that deserve their own reviews, and all of them are worthy efforts in terms of furthering human rights around the world. A quick recap:
Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World (4/10): A documentary about gays and lesbians who are oppressed far worse in their native countries than anyone could imagine in North America. The thing is, I get it. It’s worse in Iran than it is in the U.S. But I need more than just a list of abuses that I could find online.
Silent Waters (8/10): A powerful film about a Pakistani Muslim woman whose past comes back to haunt her when her son gets caught up with a group of Islamic fundamentalist nutjobs. Not terribly well made, but it has a lot of heart.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (10/10): A small but very ambitious documentary surrounding the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 70s. A genocide that claimed the lives of 2 million people, a film maker brings the victims of the toruture and genocide together with the perpetrators of the same events at the place where it all took place. A magnificent film.
The Devil’s Miner (9/10): A remarkable, charming and heartbreaking film about a 14-year old who has worked in the mines of Bolivia since he was ten, and his 12-year-old brother who is joining him in the mines for the first time. Miners work themselves to death searching for silver that may no longer be there at all, and pray to the devil since they believe that it must be he that controls the mines. A terrific movie.
Dreaming Lhasa (8/10): A passionate, moving story about Tibetan exiles living in Dharamsala, India. An American film maker goes to India to learn more about her roots and the freedom fighters and the Chinese occupation of her homeland, and end up on a journey of revelation and self-discovery. Mostly cast with non-actors, Dreaming Lhasa has a uniquely genuine feel to it.
Roses in December (5/10): This is the story of Jean Donovan, a lay missionary who was murdered in El Salvador along with three nuns by military police in 1980. The U.S. government tried very hard to ignore the whole thing. But instead of exploring any of the reasons behind the murder, or the reasons behind the United States platform of non-involvement, the film is an hour-long biography of Jean Donovan. She was a remarkable and interesting woman, to be sure, but I wanted to know more than just that she rode a motorcycle.
The Camden 28 (8/10): A remarkable documentary about several priests and ministers, part of the anti-war “Catholic left” in the 1960s, who broke into a draft office to destroy draft cards in an act of protest against the Vietnam war. What ensued was a trial that changed protests, changed peoples’ perception of the war, and even changed the laws of the United States.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“The voice of the true Muslim will be the one that matters.”
Countries: Pakistan, Germany, France
Language: Punjabi w/ English subtitles
Starring: Kirron Kher, Aamir Malik, Arshad Mahmud
Director: Sabiha Sumar
Run time: 99 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
There have been many movies recently that dealt with the conversion of regular young people to radical Islam. The young folks go from decent and hard working young people to rabid, bloodthirsty jihadists in what seems like a matter of hours. Some of these films have been very good, (Syriana), and others have been absolutely awful. Treating the radical Islamic movement as though it were the weed in Reefer Madness. Silent Waters treads some middle ground here. When young Saleem (Aamir Malik) is approached by some fundamentalist bullies, he is at first skeptical, and in fact laughs outright and calls them ridiculous. And it’s fairly clear in Silent Waters that these jihadists are, in fact ridiculous and that any reasonable Muslim in the area can see through them and their bilious rhetoric.
But they show Saleem some pictures, you see. And within about four minutes, he goes from the reasonable position (these people are ridiculous) to the inexplicable one (these people speak the truth and this is the life for me). It’s a bit much. What photos could someone show you that would make you renounce all reason and join a group of maniacs? I would argue there is no such photo that could accomplish the job in four minutes. Which means Saleem is instantly a bit of a cartoonish character. The weak-minded offspring of a strong-minded mother. Except that Saleem is not a man with a weak mind. He shouldn’t be this easily persuaded.
Then again, more than most films with a similar character, Silent Waters rings true in the case of Saleem, because you can tell the director (Sabiha Sumar) and the actors all understand what they’re doing and what they’re talking about. Saleem’s transformation into a radical may be badly written, but it is superbly acted and ultimately entirely convincing. Aamir Malik is one of the best things about this movie. But then, it isn’t really a movie about Saleem. It is a movie about Saleem’s mother, Ayesha, played by Kirron Kher, who is the best thing about the film, without a doubt.
The movie is based on real-life tensions between the Muslim community and the Sikh community that stem from some serious brutality several years ago. Sikh men slaughtered Muslims, Muslims slaughtered Sikhs, and in order to dishonour their enemies as much as possible, they abducted each others’ women. This led to a number of dreadful ”honour killings”, where men on both sides murdered their wives and sisters rather than have them fall into the hands of their foes. Ayesha is one of the women who escaped. As a young Sikh, she escaped murder at the hands of her own father only to fall victim to an abduction by Muslims. But she was (and still is) tough. And she adapted. And eventually found a young Muslim man, fell in love and got married.
Now her husband is dead, and Ayesha teaches the Koran to local children. But when her son comes under the spell of the extremist Muslim reactionaries, and sets off with them to make war on the Sikhs, everything in Ayesha’s life and history threatens to come apart. Silent Waters is not a perfect film. Some of it is trite, some of it is silly, and occasionally it can be a tad ham-handed. But it works. It works because of the actors, especially Kher and Malik, and it works because it is telling a story it knows. There is real tragedy still lurking under the surface in Pakistan and other parts of the world, and the current climate is more likely to bring it to the surface than any before.
Silent Waters is a part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“Until now, has anyone said this past action was wrong – that two million dead among the Khmer people was wrong? Has anyone begged forgiveness?”
One thing that bothers me about the Holocaust in Germany is when people use the phrase “never again”. It seems like such an empty phrase when, since 1944, it has happened again. Many times, in many countries. And perhaps never worse than in Cambodia in the late 1970s, when more than two million people lost their lives to the Khmer Rouge in the worst genocide since World War II.
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a unique and powerful movie that seeks to explain the genocide, the torture, and the brutal actions of the Angkar (the party in control of Cambodia at the time). Rithy Panh, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge atrocities, brings several people together at one of the most infamous sites, the S21 Security Bureau, in the heart of Phnom Penh. There, 17,000 people were tortured and executed between 1975 and 1979.
Three prisoners survived S21 and are alive today. Panh brings those three survivors back to the Security Bureau, where they endured some of the most horrific things men have ever done to other men. The building is now a genocide museum, but it clearly carries devastating emotional significance to these men. Joining them for this pilgrammage are some of those who were on the other side – the torturers themselves.
It isn’t really about clearing their conscience, or receiving forgiveness for their sins. These men are, in their own way, as broken as those they tortured. They try to repeat the mantra “I was just following orders”, but faced with those they brutalized, they seem to realize that those words are terribly empty. The idea behind this movie is simply to recreate the conditions and the terror that went on in the S21 Bureau. And it certainly succeeds.
One of the most chilling aspects of the movie is the ease with which the former torturers fall back into their routine of the time. One of them, who was all of 12 or 13 years old when he began “working” at S21, goes through the motions in a rote sort of way, checking imaginary handcuffs and locks, blindfolding prisoners, beating other prisoners, taking water away from others, and threatening the imaginary “enemy” as though he has never left this place.
I can’t help but feel for that particular guy, because he was really a child soldier, asked to do some horrendous things. The others explain their involvement by citing their families, or a fear of the Angkar, or the idea that if they didn’t kill the “enemies” of the state, then they would be branded as “enemies” themselves. It’s probably all true, but other phrases are more telling.
“I had power over the enemy…I never thought of his life.”
Female prisoners were raped and tortured with their kids in the room. When hospitals needed blood, four bags worth were taken out of prisoners until they collapsed and died. All the prisoners were forced to sign a declaration of the things they had done to make them prisoners, even though none of them ever appeared to know why they were there. They were tortured until they made something up, and then eventually executed for the crime they had invented.
I have been complaining for a while about the scope of certain documentaries, many on the same box set as this one. They are either too narrow and I don’t learn enough about the story surrounding a particular event, or they are too broad and I don’t care about any one person. And S21 doesn’t really tell the story of the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge, or any Cambodian history leading up to the event. They mention, briefly, the Vietnam war and the American bombing of their country, and that’s about it.
But S21 is a movie that works really well because of it’s narrow scope. Just these men, in this place, is all we really need to know. We know they were detained for no reason. We know these beatings and torture sessions took place for no reason. And we know that these actions were suffered by human beings and performed by human beings. Seeing them together, the tortured and their tormentors, is moving and devastating and S21 becomes transcendant.
Not just a documentary about a bunch of bad stuff that happened, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is a dark, frightening look at human nature, and about the things ordinary men can do to other ordinary men. Panh, much like he does with paintings that crop up every now and then in the film, has created a masterpiece out of an outrage. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine is part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“Only if the devil’s generous will he give us a good vein of silver and let us get out alive.”
Country: Germany, U.S., Bolivia
Language: Spanish w/ English subtitles
Starring: Basilio Vargas, Bernardino Vargas
Director: Kief Davidson
Run time: 82 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
If you were going to be spending a large portion of each day in hell, you would want the protection of the devil, wouldn’t you? And the best way to get the devil’s protection is to give him offerings and pray to him every day, right? Even the most fervent Christian believers in the mines of Potosi leave their faith at the door to the mines, bringing offerings to “Tio”, the devil, and stopping by his effigy before going to work.
Every day is another day closer to death for the miners in “the mountain that eats men”. The dust from the mines gets into their lungs, and kills them quickly – few of them live past their 40th birthday. But that is an accepted fact of life for those who mine for silver in the mountains of Bolivia. Tio will not save them from that agonizing slow death. Really, all Tio can do, they believe, is protect them from explosions, and maybe let them hit a rich silver vein. Of course, he doesn’t always do that.
The Devil’s Miner tells the story of two of those miners. Fourteen-year-old Basilio has been working in the mines for four years. You read that right. He has been working in the mines since he was ten years old. Now, his brother Bernardino, at age 12, is old enough to join him in this incredibly dangerous and back-breaking work. The Devil’s Miner follows these two young boys as they put on their hard hats and trudge down into the sweltering depths in search of silver.
That search is an important one. For them, moreso than for anyone else. You see, if the miners don’t find a vein of silver, they don’t get paid. And Basilio needs to get paid, so he can get his family out of the mountains and quit working at the mine. He goes to school when he is not working, in the hopes of gaining an education so he can make a better life for his brother, his sister and his mother. Their father is dead, which is why Basilio now has to be the primary bread-winner for the family.
The rest of the family have jobs as well. His mother and sister (one of the cutest little girls imaginable – about six years old) provide security at the mines, making sure the valuable mining equipment isn’t stolen. Although they all work, in their own way, Basilio is now clearly the leader of the family. It’s sweet, and also heartbreaking, when his little sister plays with him, hugs him, and then calls him “Papa”. He’s fourteen. He’s just a kid too. I have a fourteen-year-old stepson. He can’t boil water on his own.
The biggest problem in the mines though, is that they are pretty much tapped out. Once, the Cerro Rico silver mines were the the largest cache of silver in the entire hemisphere. When the Spanish conquistadors invaded, they named this particular mountain “The Rich Pinnacle” (Cerro Rico). The mine produced two-thirds of the world’s silver, and Potosi was one of the richest cities in the world. But that was several hundred years ago. Now, there is little silver left in those mountains, and the miners are desperate.
Basilio and Bernardino are not the only children working in the mines. There are many others, and it’s tragic to see kids spending their childhood in this way. It’s easy to forget how young these two really are, until they stop by the effigy of Tio and Bernardino won’t go by it without his brother because it scares him. Or when they show us the wall upon which they occasionally stop to draw and doodle. However, it’s certainly indicative of their situation when they are too scared of the devil to doodle anything except for images and the name of Tio.
When the mining gets really slow, the miners sacrifice a llama to the devil underground. The local catholic priests watch helplessly as the hard working miners worship God one day and Satan the next. Sometimes both in the same day. At the end of the movie we get to see the Bolivian Carnival in Potosi, where the miners dress up and do the dance of the devil in a parade down from the mountain, through the streets and into the church, where they get blessed by a priest and begin mass.
The best thing about the DVD of The Devil’s Miner, other than the terrific movie itself, is that it comes with some good special features. Most are just text, about the film and about the ways in which you can help the children of the Cerro Rico mines, but there is also a featurette that catches up with the subjects of the documentary one year later, as they watch the film premiere and react. Basilio no longer thinks girls are icky, and he has managed to get a girlfriend.
Of course, he doesn’t really want his girlfriend to see the movie, because then she would know he worked in the mines and might not like him any more. But that’s the best thing about this update. Basilio no longer works in the mines (thanks in large part to this movie). Movies can make a difference, and The Devil’s Miner is one that does. It’s terrific, and available on the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, out July 21st from First Run Features.
Monday, July 27th, 2009
“If he [The Dalai Lama] returns, the political situation will change…and the day of happiness will dawn on Tibet.”
Countries: India, UK
Language: Tibetan w/ English subtitles, English
Starring: Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso, Jampa Kalsang, Tenzin Jigme
Directors: Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam
Run time: 90 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
The Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet 40 years ago, in 1959. Since then, many other Tibetans have joined him in exile, many of them moving to India. Dharamsala, in Northern India, is the headquarters of the Dalai Lama in exile, and that is where Dreaming Lhasa takes place. Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso stars as Karma, a gorgeous young woman who travels to Dharamsala to make a film about former political prisoners living in exile and to reconnect with her Tibetan roots. She meets Dhondup (Jampa Kalsang), an ex-monk who has come from Tibet to India to search for a missing resistance fighter named Loga to fulfill his mother’s dying wish.
Karma joins up with Dhondup to take part in his quest, and their journey becomes a powerful story of Tibetans living in exile, of their connection to their homeland, and of their extremely complicated interaction with the outside world. The actors in the movie have stories just about as interesting as the story in the movie itself. Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso is an American citizen who works for Chevy Chase bank. When the movie was finished, she went back to her bank job. Jampa Kalsang is from Kathmandu, Nepal and seems to be the only experienced actor in the cast.
Also interesting is Tenzin Jigme, who plays…appropriately…a character named Jigme. In a way, he appears to be playing himself. Jigme is a career musician, with his two brothers, in the band JJI Exile Brothers in Dharamsala. Throughout the movie, a band (maybe the same one) plays Tibetan freedom songs. I couldn’t decide whether those songs were cheesy and misguided or powerful and strong. By the end of the film, I still couldn’t decide. I think the songs are supposed to be a little of both. True words, real concepts, but there is a Quixotic feel to a lot of the music and sentiment that in a way comes across as cheesy.
Dreaming Lhasa is populated largely by non-actors, but this really works in its favour. For a film that touches at least briefly on such a long list of historical events and subjects, the stars bring their own life experiences to the screen. Karma is American, seeing Dharamsala for the first time and learning about her Tibetan roots. And so is the actress who plays her. Jigme is a Tibetan born in Dharamsala and knowing nothing but exile in his life. And so too is the actor playing him. The movie touches on the involvement of the CIA in the Tibetan resistance, and the subsequent violent Chinese crackdown. It touches on the attitudes of the exiled Tibetans toward the Dalai Lama and his stance toward the Chinese government. And of course dozens of other subjects.
Dreaming Lhasa a terrific look at an exiled people and their tenuous and awkward existence vis-a-vis the outside world. But it isn’t a documentary, and it’s more than just a list of facts and figures. It’s also a really interesting, really moving film. The relationship between Dhondup and Karma, as they travel together and develop feelings for one another, is genuine and unforced. The interaction between Jigme and Karma is charming. And the end of the film, when they finally find Loga, provides an unexpected yet powerful moment. I would suggest the aftermath of that meeting is a little easy and not as challenging as the rest of the movie, but that’s a pretty small complaint.
Dreaming Lhasa is a wonderful movie about a group of people who don’t make a lot of headlines. It works as a statement film, and as a feature. There are a few special features on the disc, including a short film called rights…and wrongs that is just pictures and video of people and the Tibetan resistance. It works, and it’s strong. There is also a “making of” featurette which doesn’t say much, and an interview with the director and the composer about the soundtrack (which is mostly Tibetan freedom songs and dub reggae). Altogether a very good DVD, Dreaming Lhasa came out July 21st as part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set from First Run Features.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children. The poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them?”
I wanted a lot more from Roses In December. The story of Jean Donovan is a compelling one, a nice one, and a heartbreaking tragedy. Interviews with her family and friends are interesting and sweet. Memories of Donovan are always good ones, and it certainly seems like she was a wonderful person. But I wanted to understand a little more about her death, and a little less about her. Or, at least, more about her death. You see, Donovan was an American lay missionary who was murdered, along with three nuns, by a military death squad in El Salvador in 1980. The American government, in bed with the regime in El Salvador, paid lip service to finding her murderers, and even charged her family money for helping to facilitate the return of her body to America.
This is, to me, the most interesting part of the story. Why were the American government officials so reluctant to do anything about the tragedy? Why did they help the El Salvador government basically cover up the crime? What about the three American nuns who were executed with her? Who were they? Why were the hit-squads in the country targeting religious figures? What was behind the civil war that started the whole thing? Who were the bad guys in El Salvador, and what was their role (likely or confirmed) in the rape and murder of these four women?
We get lots of pictures and video of the corpses, which certainly adds to the heartbreaking nature of the story. But we get about two minutes spent on the American government’s refusal to help. We have no real context for the civil war, and we don’t really learn what it was about the religious people that made them targets for these military death squads. We just get a nice biography, about a nice woman, who happened to be involved in a politically motivated murder in Central America in late 1980. The synopsis on the back of the DVD box says that the film is a “powerful indictment of U.S. foreign policy in Central America”, but so little time is spent on it that it comes across as a pretty weak indictment in the end.
As a one-hour biography, Roses In December works just fine. And Jean Donovan has a devastating and powerful story. I just wish it was fleshed out a lot more, and that her murder was put into more context. To learn about that event, click here. To learn about Jean Donovan, watch Roses In December. The film is part of the Human Rights Watch DVD box set, released July 21st by First Run Features.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
In 1971, a whole bunch of people, among them several religious leaders, decided to break into a draft office in Camden, New Jersey. Their intent was to destroy as many draft cards as they could, in an active act of protest against the war in Vietnam and the drafting of young men to fight in that war. The movie about their actions, Camden 28, asks the question “how far would you go to stop a war?” And although many people would likely go even farther than these men did, their act of civil disobedience was about as far as you can go without doing something truly dreadful.
Four Catholic priests, from what the media at the time dubbed “the Catholic left” and a Lutheran minister were among the 28 people eventually arrested and brought up on all kinds of charges. It turned out that one of the men in the group was an FBI informant. The subsequent trial became a sensation, in part because of the identity of the people in the courtroom and also because it was the first time, ever, that a jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” in a case of antiwar activism.
The Camden 28 reunites all the players in the drama – the men brought up on charges, the FBI informant, the FBI agent assigned to the case, and the lawyers both for the defense and the prosecution. The special features on the disc are 35 minutes long, including an extensive look at the years-later confrontation between these men. It’s fascinating viewing, and it’s a truly remarkable story. The trial came down to a question of entrapment. The perpetrators of the break-in couldn’t possibly have carried out their plan if it wasn’t for the FBI informant, who taught them how to pick locks, get around security, and even had to (seriously) teach them how to break windows and climb a ladder!
That informant’s name was Bob Hardy, and at the trial he actually appeared on the side of the 28, having been assured by the FBI that his friends would serve no time in prison. Now that they were facing up to 47 years each, he took their side and told of his whole involvement in the scheme. This film is a wonderful document about an important moment in American history, in terms of the war, the legal system, the protest movement, and the history of civil disobedience in the United States. Listening to these now-elderly men reminisce and tell their story is both powerful and charming.
There are a few minor problems I had with The Camden 28. First, I wish there was actual footage of the trial in the film. I understand that this is likely impossible, and at least we get to see post-trial news reports to put the events into context. I would also have liked to see a little bit more time spent on the ramifications of the trial, the stand these men took, and the effects the verdict had on the public. After all, if we can’t see the trial footage, and obviously the people at the time couldn’t see the trial footage, then who was receiving the message? The jurors? The men took a stand and risked going to jail for the rest of their lives in order to make a statement against the war. But how many people heard it, and what effect did it have?
It’s easy to marvel at the courage these men displayed. It’s also easy to see why they did what they did, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that they were entirely in the right. (The conclusion reached by the jury as well, it would appear.) Some of the stuff that I felt was missed in the film appears on the extensive special features – a brief history of anti-war resistance, more information on the legal issues raised by the trial, and the relationships and animosity between the principle players that exist to this day. It’s a terrific DVD and the special features are a solid addition to a really good movie. The Camden 28 is included in the Human Rights Watch DVD Box Set released July 21st by First Run Features.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“I’m a hooker! A hooker!”
Country: United States
Starring: James Brolin, Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Connie Sellecca, Nathan Cook
Guest starring: Roy Thinnes, Vera Miles, Robert Stack, Martin Landau, Tori Spelling, Scott Baio, Robert Vaughn, Heather Locklear, Dick Van Patten, Engelbert Humperdinck, Mel Torme, Shelley Winters, Markie Post, Lynn Redgrave, Connie Stevens, Morgan Fairchild, Adrienne Barbeau, Lew Ayres, Eva Gabor, and dozens and dozens of others
Created by: Aaron Spelling
Run time: 19 hours, 29 minutes
DVD distributor: Paramount Home Entertainment
In 1950, Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were two of the greatest actresses in the world. Starring together in All About Eve, one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, Davis was already the greatest living actress, and Baxter was just becoming a superstar in her own right, winning an Oscar for her role as the scheming, backstabbing, ambitious Eve and going on to star in The Ten Commandments. A magnificent movie. Everyone in the world needs to see All About Eve at least once. I am mentioning it in my review of Hotel because no one, ever, needs to see Hotel. This TV series, created by Aaron Spelling on the heels of Dynasty and a bunch of other cheesy programs.
However, Hotel was actually more similar to The Love Boat than it was to any of Spelling’s other productions. The laughable, over-the-top soap opera silliness is pure Spelling, and the characters of James Brolin and Connie Sellecca could have appeared in 90210 or Dynasty without missing a beat. However, the format seems to owe a heck of a lot to The Love Boat. Every episode featured a number of guest stars who show up to have affairs, or to die mysteriously, or just to provide some comic relief through annoying behaviour. Then they are gone the next show, just like the guests on The Love Boat. Which was actually a better show.
At least with Hotel, the main cast of characters has adventures and romances and other soap-opera business that lasts from episode to episode, so there is somewhat of a connection from one to the next. But really, Brolin is playing Captain Stubing with a beard, Connie Sellecca is his Julie McCoy, and Nathan Cook is his Isaac the Bartender. Even the theme music, which seems to start at the beginning of every episode and end just before the final credits, is remarkably reminiscent of that earlier, cheesier show. However, The Love Boat knew it was cheesy. Hotel tries to pretend it isn’t. That’s why it’s worse.
Well, it’s also worse because it stars Bette Davis and Anne Baxter. To see these two cinematic legends, so late in their careers, be reduced to taking a role in such a preposterous inane melodrama is truly sad. I don’t blame either of them – I am assuming they were just not offered any real roles. At least Katherine Hepburn got On Golden Pond. Bette Davis and Anne Baxter got kicked in the leg. The irony here though, is this:
In their magnificent starring vehicle All About Eve, in 1950, Baxter played Eve, a scheming and duplicitous aspiring actress who wanted nothing more than to befriend Davis. Davis was the star of all stars on the stage, and taking her down would mean the Baxter would be able to assume her pedestal and become the star herself. In Hotel, Bette Davis appears as the hotel owner in the pilot episode, but due to poor health she had to step down and was replaced by…Anne Baxter. That may have been the idea, but I think even Eve Harrington would have been pretty pissed off at a role like this.
Hotel, Season One comes out on DVD July 21st from Paramount Home Entertainment.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“They lost their land by gradual encroachment.”
The idea behind “gradual encroachment”, as best as I can understand it, is as follows. The United States has said to the Shoshone natives that the land designated as their own is, indeed, their own, except for the parts that are not. And because the government and the authorities in the area have gradually moved in on their land, their land is no longer theirs. Because it has been gradual. The Shoshone are, understandably, not pleased about this. A quick analogy. Suppse you were unable or too busy, for a time, to go outside into your backyard. And, after six months, the guy who reads your hydro metre decides to annex your backyard. He has been in your backyard twice in those six months, therefore he has spent more time there than you have, and it follows that the backyard now belongs to him.
That is the outrage that opens American Outrage, a marvelously engaging and heartbreaking documentary about Carrie and Mary Dann, elderly sisters of the Shoshone tribe who are fighting a government whose motives and methods they can’t begin to understand. The outrages pile up from that point. The government comes onto their land and steals their horses. Actually, in the dead of night, steals their horses. You know, the kind of thing Lee Marvin or Lee Van Cleef or Eli Wallach would do in an old western movie. Old westerns were full of characters like this. Unscrupulous land barons who wanted to force the hapless settlers off their land.
In fact, there are a ton of parallels here. Usually, in an old western, the evil land baron would push the benign settlers as hard as possible within the confines of the law. And when those tactics failed because the settlers were too tough, the evil landowners would eventually cross the line and start breaking the law, stealing horses and maybe even murdering some of the homesteaders. And, if they were powerful enough, they would actually change the law to allow them to do such things. And there is obviously no entity more powerful, in terms of changing laws and ignoring them if it sees fit, than the United States government, the evil land baron in this story.
It’s no secret that the government of the United States (and of course the government of Canada as well) has not always been a friend to the native people. But American Outrage makes it clear that the unfair treaties and the bullying treatment suffered by the natives hundreds of years ago continue today. The government does everything it can to force these earth-loving, spiritually strong old women off their land. Land that is, ostensibly, protected and sacred. And why? Because of gold. Beneath the land of the Shoshone, there is a massive lode of gold, and miners and jewelers and the government want to get to it.
Of course, gold mining is one of the most destructive things one can do to the local environment. And yet the government levels accusations at these elderly women that their herd of cattle is destroying the local environment. And eventually, the Shoshone are sued, by the government, for trespassing. On their own land. Eventually, the fight reaches the Supreme Court. And the United Nations. Which is a good thing. The persecution of indigenous tribes must be recognized, and must be brought to the attention of the world. It doesn’t happen just in developing countries, but it continues in places in the United States just as it did hundreds of years ago.
The two elderly sisters, Carrie and Mary, are inspirational in their toughness and their take-no-guff attitude. They are not capable of fighting the government alone, and the people who come to their aid are idealistic and passionate. And in a tight, powerful 56 minutes, the story of these women, of the Shoshone, and of government callousness will affect anyone who watches it. I have long said that anyone who wants their girlfriend or wife to stop bugging them to buy diamonds should get them to watch Blood Diamond. Now, if you want your significant other to think twice before asking for gold, look no further than American Outrage. If this doesn’t make you think twice about the true price of gold jewelry, you had better watch it twice.
American Outrage is a remarkable documentary that not only tells an amazing story of struggle and pride, but also features some terrific camera work, and it looks amazing. Well worth it in every way, the film came out July 21st from First Run Features.
Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
“They were going to rape me to take the lesbian out of me.”
I think most of us realize that even though it’s tough for homosexuals and lesbians and transgendered people in Canada and the United States, and that the fight for equal rights is ongoing and difficult, it is much worse in other parts of the world. Being gay in Iran is not like being gay in Vermont. The scary attitudes in developing countries twoard homosexuality do not compare with the intolerance faced by those groups in North America.
Dangerous Living explores those attitudes in the developing world, interviewing people from Uganda, Honduras, Samoa, India, Namibia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia, the Philippines, Fiji, Thailand, Kenya and many other countries. We meet a woman who had military police storm into her house in Honduras when she was away, looking to rape her. Instead, they tortured her babysitter and six-year-old son. And there are dozens upon dozens of stories similar to that one.
Rape, murder, public beatings and torture are de rigeur for the gay communities in many of these developing nations, and it is certainly an international tragedy. But I think most of us are aware that this stuff goes on. And just hearing one oppressed person after another talking about those hardships doesn’t tell me any more about the tragic attitudes of, say, Uganda than I already knew (or assumed existed).
And because there are so many interview subjects, I didn’t get to know any one of them well enough to feel for them when they recounted the horrors they have seen. It was just a long list of terrible stuff that goes on in the world. A few times, the movie returns to one event – the arrest of 52 men on a gay party boat in Cairo in 2001. This was a major event in the way the world looked at the persecution of gay minorities in developing countries.
Through the internet, and organizations dedicated to publicizing human rights violations like the ones inflicted upon the “Cairo 52″, the case became an international rallying cry for the LGBT movement. Dangerous Living uses that incident as a touchstone, occasionally returning to Egypt to delve a little deeper into the case and the media attention surrounding it. But overall it’s just another story in a sea of stories, all of which are crammed into a very economical 60 minutes.
The one thing I found interesting in the movie was the notion that homophobia is not innate to these countries, and that for the most part it is a western value that was introduced at certain points in history. In India, for example, gay men and lesbian women were not seen as a big deal throughout most of the history of the nation, until the British Empire ruled the country and began to make people feel bad about their sexuality. When the British finally left, the homophobia stayed.
In Cairo specifically, the city was seen as a (reasonably) safe place for gay men and women to congregate and party and love one another, until the shocking raid of the Cairo 52 put an end to that. In many of the countries of the developing world, escalating homophobia coincided with the rise in religious fundamentalism (not all of it Muslim) in the early years of this decade.
There are a few hopeful stories, like that of the Thai kickboxer who rose to be the champion of the country, adored by the people, even though he/she is transgendered. Some developing countries are still very tolerant of alternative lifestyles, and do not feature the oppressive policies that one might find in Iran or Kenya. But again, the bright spots are touched on so briefly in the film that I tended to forget them almost as soon as I had seen them.
The thing is, I would like to know so much more about every single interview subject in the film. I would like to see a 90-minute documentary on the Cairo 52. Or a 60-minute piece on the Thai kickboxer. Or the woman in Honduras who was the only one to march in a human-rights gay pride parade with her face uncovered, leading to the military police assault on her house. Each story is compelling and interesting.
But not in 30-second sound bites. There is a special feature on the disc that documents a bit more of the reaction outside the trial of the Cairo 52 which indicates to me that there is more than enough footage to create a documentary about that event itself. And that is something I would much rather see. A good example of this, focusing on just one subject instead of all of them at once, is the vastly superior A Jihad For Love, which focuses on the trials of just a few Islamic homosexuals.
That being said, the global fight for equality is an important one, and any documentary made on the subject is therefore afforded a certain amount of importance. I just think this one could have been done better. Dangerous Living is featured on the Human Rights Watch DVD Box Set, out July 21st from First Run Features.