The Meddler

A widow moves across the country to be with her only daughter. It sounds trite and cliched and we’re only one sentence in. Hold up. Does it help if I tell you that Susan Sarandon and Rose Byrne play the mother and daughter? It should. Keep reading.

In fact, The Meddler may very well be tale as old as time. After her husband’s death, themeddler_trailer1Marnie has a little bit of money and an awful lot of time, so she packs up her New Jersey home and finds herself a condo in L.A. where her daughter Lori writes for television. Marnie’s California awakening is intoxicating. She loves all the things that most of us hate about L.A. But shopping at The Grove and volunteering only fill up so many hours. The rest are spent calling or visiting her daughter. Her daughter is not impressed.

Marnie calls Lori when a new Beyonce song comes on the radio. She calls her when she hears about a serial killer roughly in the area. She calls her when Lori hasn’t called her back, and she calls her again when that one isn’t returned either. Then she texts. Then she knocks on the door with bagels. Or doesn’t knock but just comes in.

Small cracks in Marnie’s Positive Polly act surface: she’s grieving and trying hard not to show it. And she’s achingly lonely. So when Lori suggests that her therapist has meddler_xlargeencouraged her to set boundaries with her mother, Marnie sees the therapist herself. And when that doesn’t go as expected, she finds other people to mother, like the ‘genius’ she overuses at the Apple store, and a friend of her daughter’s who’s more receptive to advice and well-intended intrusiveness.

 

None of these really get to the heart of her pain though; her meddling is just a bandaid on her very wounded heart. She isn’t prepared to be alone so early in her golden years. She feels guilty about an inheritance that feels like blood money. And the only person who understands her grief is the daughter who’s pushing her away. Marnie wants to hold Lori close because her daughter is a piece of the husband she’s missing, but Lori needs distance from the mother who only reminds her of her father’s absence. The disparity is heart-breaking.

The Meddler is a very interesting meditation on grief and the various ways it’s expressed. The movie is marketed as far fluffier than it is, however with Susan Sarandon in the lead, there’s a lot of joy and laughter mixed in with everything else. She gracefully navigates between the bubbles of emotion as they rise to the surface. The writing is stronger as a drama than as a comedy but Sarandon is talented with any material, and lights the way with her stunning luminescence.

Audrie & Daisy

Audrie & Daisy is a documentary on Netflix that provides an in-depth look at the effects of cyber-bullying on two teenaged girls in the aftermath of their sexual assaults.

We live in a fucked up world. I was sick, and sad watching this. Sick that this is the world we’ve made for teenagers today, and it’s goddamned horrible. These little girls (14, 15 years old), nearly comatose with alcohol poisoning, are being 8747a7dd79a1b69c9906f86148c4a53cnot only sexually assaulted by gangs of their peers, but that assault is being recorded. Welcome to the digital age. These photos and videos are widely and quickly disseminated and before the bell even rings on Monday morning, everyone knows. The public shame feels overwhelming, all-encompassing. It’s nearly impossible to convince such a young girl that in fact things won’t always be this way, won’t always feel this bad.

Hearing Audrie Pott’s story made me ask Sean – was this the Canadian case, the one out in Nova Scotia? It wasn’t. Her name was Rehtaeh Parsons but the case was strikingly similar: rape, pictures, bullying, suicide. How often has this pattern repeated? OFTEN. So, so often. Daisy faced not just bullying after her attack, but open disbelief and derision from a whole town when she attempted to face the perpetrator in court. The mayor of Maryville, Jim Fall, and sheriff Darren White will make you see red. It wasn’t their sons who committed this crime, but it could have been. These are the disgusting individuals raising young men to be so crass and so entitled that they will boast about rape and take pictures for evidence. And these are the men who turn their backs on the victim, and the law, when such a crime occurs.

I was livid watching this movie, and you will be too. Good. We need to get riled up about this. Because we are endangering our daughters and quite obviously 479832cdcef9699caec033974a50b507failing our sons in some very basic way. Two of them, sentenced to testify on camera for this documentary, have learned nothing. No remorse, no responsibility. One young man volunteers that the only thing he’s taken away from this is that “girls gossip.” And these boys are free – to graduate, attend college, rape again, whatever. Free, and alive, unlike Audrie, unlike Rehtaeh, unlike so, so many.

There is something broken in our culture if something like this is a trend. Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk don’t condemn the Internet, they sensibly promote it as a tool for these girls to band together, to realize they are not alone. But it clearly has far-reaching implications that we need to take more seriously. Sending or sharing a video of a 14 year old girl getting raped isn’t just taking part in the sexual assault, it’s disseminating child pornography. Penetration isn’t the only crime here. Social media is making all the looky-looks culpable. As Daisy so eloquently quotes in the film, the words of our enemies aren’t as hurtful as the silence of our friends. It takes a whole community to do the right thing. This isn’t just a bad apple scenario, it’s a blight on the whole damn orchard.

TIFF: The Journey Is The Destination

This is supposed to be the inspiring biopic of photojournalist/artist/activist Dan Eldon. But something is lost in the translation between his real-life journals that inform the story, and its appearance on the big screen. Namely, the inspiring part.

Supposedly Dan Eldon was an activist from a young age, raising money for various good causes. British-born but raised in Nairobi, he had a silver-spoon life, having the best in x9kbt0q2zcmaybswkkqklezuxi3education, the ability to visit over 40 countries while still in his teens, and loads of opportunity. He sprinkled his good fortune with charitable acts for others. But in the movie we don’t see a lot of Dan Eldon, activist. Rather we see Dan Eldon, purveyor of white privilege, with a side of white saviour to further sour the milk.

The film is brought alive under Bronwen Hughes’s able direction. She attempts to turn the film into a literal scrap book of sorts, travel-logging his adventures to honour creative source material, though this conceit is used sporadically. And it’s also not a great fit for the film, tonally. By the movie’s end, The Journey Is The Destination will have brought you to some very dark places. Cutesie scribbles and doodle a la Diary of a Wimpy Kid don’t really belong somewhere that ultimately ends up more Hotel Rwanda.

I want to believe in Dan Eldon, good person. It’s just that this movie keeps showing me Dan Eldon, man of many advantages and almost no self-awareness. The cast is strong: Ben Schnetzer is charming as Eldon, plus the likes of Maria Bello and Kelly Macdonald in particular are welcome additions, but they can’t do much with material that’s inconsistent and contradictory. In fact, in researching this guy, I’ve learned that most of what we see in the movie is just plain wrong. And the edits they’ve made, perhaps to make him seem less flighty, more substantial, also make him less sympathetic.

If you’re truly interested in the man, reading his writings is likely the better bet.

TIFF 2016: The Best

 

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Graduation

From time to time, we all have to compromise our own values. It’s part of growing up. But do you remember the first time that you betrayed your own moral code?

According to Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, director of the brilliant and beautiful 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (which I have not seen), Graduation is about a lot of things. “It’s about family. It’s about aging. It’s about you. It’s about me”. But mostly, as the Cannes Best Director winner articulated at the North American premiere, it’s about that pivotal moment in one’s life where they make a conscious decision for the first time to do what they know in their heart to be wrong.

Romeo (Adrien Titieni) couldn’t be more proud of his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) when she gets accepted into a fancy British school but he still can’t relax. Despite her stellar grades, she still needs to pass her finals to get out their Romanian town. When a vicious random assault threatens to shake Eliza’s confidence just days before her exams, Romeo can’t help feeling tempted to use his position as a well-respected surgeon to bargain with her educators in exchange for some leniency.

Graduation takes its time. It takes time to establish the relationships, set up the scenario, and let the story play out. Mungiu doesn’t resort to melodrama or even a musical score to beg for our attention. Almost every scene plays out in just one meticulously framed take. It’s an approach that gives his actors plenty of room to shine and his story the time to come alive. If you don’t mind the slow pace, Graduation asks big questions and will get you talking. It’s a very rewarding experience.

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My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea

Dash Shaw was in high school when James Cameron’s Titanic was in theaters and couldn’t help imaging what it would be like if his school sank like the famous ship with all of his classmates inside. When you think about it, to avoid drowning to death in a sinking building, the smartest would head for the top floor and try to get to the roof. Once Shaw, director of My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea and apparently quite an accomplished comic book writer,  started imaging each floor being occupied by a different grade level, he knew he had a story worth telling.

To see a film called My Entire High School is Sinking Into the Sea without feeling like you’re seeing something completely unique would be a letdown. So I’m pleased to announce that, whether you love it or hate it, Shaw’s debut feature will not let you down. The unusual animation style takes a little getting used to at first and, even once you get comfortable, there is so much to look at that many of the movie’s jokes- and the jokes are almost constant- can be easy to miss. My Entire High School may eventually be best remember for its carnage (those who are spared from drowning are mostly impaled, electrocuted, or eaten by sharks) but it’s made all the more special by the hilarious and sometimes touching dynamic between three adolescent friends whose bond is in crisis just as their lives are in imminent danger. And it’s all brought to life by some of the best voice acting you’ll hear this year from Jason Schwartzman, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph, Reggie Watts, and Susan Sarandon.

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It’s Only the End of the World

I was one proud Asshole walking out of the Toronto premiere of Quebec director Xavier Dolan’s latest family drama. I was genuinely moved by a Xavier Dolan film. I admired Mommy, his last movie, I really did. It was just too self-indulgent for me to really relate to it in any real way.

So I was pleased to find myself loving this movie, more than almost anything else I saw at the Festival this year. I was finally starting to get it. I was quite disappointed to see that not everyone was as impressed as I was. It’s Only the End of the World currently has a score of 48 on Metacritic. If you’re not familiar with that site, let me put that in perspective. That’s only four points higher than Batman v. Superman’s score. Ouch.

I stand by my recommendation though. Based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, It’s Only the End of the World tells the story of a family who are easier to relate to than to understand. After a 12-year absence, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is finally coming home but he is bringing sad news with him. He is very sick and doesn’t have much time left. He’s not quite sure how to bring it up but it wouldn’t matter anyway because his mother, brother, and sister can’t stop alternating between picking fights with him and each other and awkwardly trying to force reconciliation. They try to bond over trivial things and fight over tiny details but can’t seem to bring themselves to talk about anything important.

The claustrophobic family reunion atmosphere seems to rein Dolan in a bit. He still manages to make Lagarce’s play his own though. For such a talky film, it’s surprisingly cinematic with its unnerving score and great performances from Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Marion Cotilliard, Lea Seydoux, and Vincent Cassell. Using his signature tight close-ups, Dolan works with the actors to find subtext amid all the shouting. No easy task. Hard to act like you’re holding back when you’re screaming at each other.

I’m still not entirely sure what they were fighting about. But the story feels real and profoundly sad.

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Nocturnal Animals

Careful with this one. The people around me at the TIFF encore screening of Nocturnal Animals were basket cases watching it.

It’s easy to imagine yourself in the same position as Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a husband and father whose family finds themselves terrorized while driving a lonely Texas highway in the middle of the night. The tension is nearly unbearable as this story unfolds. Those around me could barely sit still watching it and Susan (Amy Adams) is getting even more stressed reading about it. See, the scary part of Nocturnal Animals is but a story within a story. It’s the plot of a manuscript that Susan’s ex-husband (also Gyllenhaal) has sent her of his latest novel. As unnerving as the novel is to watch, it’s even worse for Susan. She’s quite sure the novel is about her.

The three narratives (there are also a lot of flashbacks of Susan’s marriage) are balanced beautifully in the second film from director Tom Ford (A Single Man). Susan is a successful art dealer and everything around her is beautiful and fake. In the story within the story, Tony’s world is harsh and all too real. Nocturnal Animals is sure to be divisive. Ford lays out his themes very clearly and I’m sure I feel comfortable with all of his implications. But there’s so much to look at and so much to feel, think,about, and talk about that you kind of just have to see it.

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Oh, and if you’re not sold yet, Michael Shannon plays a crazy cop in it.

TIFF: Salt and Fire

Pain and suffering. No, those aren’t themes in the movie, it’s just what I felt while watching Werner Herzog’s narrative feature film at TIFF this year. The man is a legend, an icon, a talented film maker. A talented documentary film maker. His stab at narrative cinema was an atrocity worse than the one detailed in the film.

Salt and Fire’s premise: Some corporation is wreaking havoc in South America. saltandfire_03The landscape has significantly changed, the salt flats growing exponentially. A volcano that runs underneath shows signs of erupting as a result, which would mean a global disaster. Like a wiping out of humanity disaster. So, in a strange bid to fix things, a misguided man (Michael Shannon) kidnaps a scientist (Veronica Ferres) and abandons her on the salt flats along with two blind boys.

It’s such a flimsy excuse of a story it’s hard to take it seriously. Gael Garcia Bernal plays another scientist in the delegation, but his character is given massive diarrhea and written out of the script 5 minutes in. Yes, you read that right. We were flabbergasted too.

The film has worse symptoms than just an unbelievable premise and a bad case of the runs. It’s also got the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard in my entire life. At first I wanted to chalk it up to Herzog not being an Anglophone (still, I believe there are things you can do about that, such as hire writers). The “dialogue” (I loathe to even call it that) sounds suspiciously like the narration of a documentary. It’s textbook and stilted and has no business coming out of a person’s mouth.

Salt and Fire was billed by TIFF as an “ecological thriller” but we got it straight from the horse’s mouth that this was not the case. Boy was it not the case. To salt-and-fire-1-620x413suggest that there is a thrill to be had here (other than the panicked state of Bernal’s panties) is laughable. Most of the film is just unending shots of salt. There’s a good 10 minutes just watching the kids play Trouble (the board game) for the blind.

I wondered why in the hell Michael Shannon, celebrated and usually reliable actor, would sign on to such an abortion. I have a sneaking suspicion it might for the same reason I attended the screening – to get close to Werner Herzog. And the truth is, seeing him in person was everything I hoped it would be. He was very Herzogian. He’s a man full of fire and passion. He is animated and dynamic and tireless. And as it turns out, he claims that the things I hated most about the movie are things he did on purpose.

He called the dialogue “highly stylized” (check out the comments for segments from his Q&A). Highly stylized! My highly stylized ass. He also called the film “a daydream that doesn’t follow the rules of cinema.” Which is admittedly a nice way of saying “I have no idea what I’m doing.” The story is so passive that it fails to engage its main theme. We never feel ignited. We never really even understand what’s going on. Does the movie have a purpose? Do the characters?

Werner Herzog is unapologetic, and I like him that way. But in the future, he and I should both stick to his documentaries.

The Magnificent Seven

magnificent-seven-2016-castThis is a western where the good guys wear black. Where you cheer for the outlaws, where a woman shoots better than most of the men, and where a black man can be the unquestioned leader of the posse. It is a more multicultural west than we are used to seeing, and it feels natural, like this is how it always should have been.

And why not? If you have Denzel Washington in your western, then he should be in charge.  He’s the lead. He takes command here and it’s clear right from the start that what Denzel says goes. haley-bennett-magnificent-seven-2016All the outlaws he recruits fall into line and work with him and for him, to save a little town that a gold baron has taken
by force.

Chris Pratt is the first to sign up and it’s great to have him along for the ride. His brand of comedy is welcome and he also manages a convincing quick draw.

The other five join up quickly thereafter, from Ethan Hawke’s shellshocked southern sniper, to Byung-hun Lee’s soft-spoken knife expert, to Vincent D’Onofrio’s nigh-unstoppable hick
who’s been in the sun too long.  Manuel Garcia-Rulfo’s Mexican outlaw and Martin Sensmeyer’s kick-ass Comanche warrior sing up as well. I would have liked to see more opportunities for the last two to contribute, as the movie was at its strongest when the entire crew was riffing off one another while preparing for the final showdown against Peter Saarsgard’s gold baron and hundreds of his henchmen. That’s an indication of the strength of the cast, from top to bottom.1461168127-the-magnificent-seven-trailer

We seem to be in the middle of a western revival over the last few years, illustrated by the fact this was not my first western this month. The Magnificent Seven is not an instant classic like Hell or High Water, but Antoine Fuqua delivers an enjoyable popcorn movie that earnestly serves up a high noon showdown. Feeling like a throwback already, catch it as a matinee for extra authenticity.

Naturally, the Magnificent Seven gets a score of seven rootin’ tootin’ gunslingers out of ten.

 

 

Waffle Street

Waffle Street is a slice of life with too much syrup and not enough sustenance.

A Wall Street-type loses his job at a financial firm – doesn’t just lose it actually, gets fired and scapegoated for the firm’s shady dealings, of which he is also guilty. Wanting to redeem himself by doing “honest work” for a while, his fancy suit and attache case get his 160316114714-waffle-street-still-01-780x439resume thrown out of places from carpet fitters to mechanics. Only a chicken and waffle restaurant will take him, where he’ll fall under the tutelage and benevolence of grill man Danny Glover, who insists on being called Waffle Daddy.

 

This career downgrade means he and his wife have to sell their nice cars and sprawling home just as they are expecting a baby. But driving a Honda and owning a bungalow don’t elicit a whole lot of sympathy. The financial crisis that this dude helped create had far more dire consequences for millions of people.

This “riches to rags” tale is apparently based on a true story, but the movie feels the furthest thing from authentic. Low budget, bad acting, and sub-par script are all at play. This just doesn’t ring true. The voice overs, however, are unforgivable, and inspire almost as much nausea as the disgusting clogged toilet scene that for some reason was necessary to show in gory detail.

Since this is a rich white dude’s story, he of course isn’t satisfied with being a lowly server for long. Instead, he’s punching his time card with the ambition to soon open up his own franchise. And don’t worry – if the path isn’t as straight-forward as he thinks, he’s got a rich white father and a rich white grandfather both prepared to step in with wads of cash at a moment’s notice – but only if he’ll agree to take some time off soon. Because it turns out that working as if you’re poor and your life and family depend on it is really hard. It’s just too bad the film doesn’t know enough to be self-conscious about this.

La guerre des tuques

You likely know the Assholes are proud Canadians but you may know not know that I (Jay) am French-Canadian. I didn’t grow up in Québec (the traditionally french-speaking province), but in a small eastern Ontario town that borders it. I grew up speaking both languages but for the first ten years of my life, I was educated solely en français . It was a little school, about 100 kids covering grades from la maternelle (pre-kindergarten or jk) to la huitième année, or grade eight. When the temperatures dipped below -20 into frostbite snowtime_stillterritory, the whole school would assemble into our tiny gym, and one of the few movies screened for us on a 24-inch TV was La guerre des tuques. It was a movie about a bunch of kids who wage an all-out snowball fight in the vicinity of a huge snow fort during their winter break. La guerre des tuques literally translates to war of the tuques, but the English version was called The Dog Who Stopped The War.

This year, a new, animated version of the movie was released so a new generation could appreciate it. I was excited to revisit my childhood. Matt and Sean, dumb anglos, didn’t know it from a baseball cap battle, so they were in for a treat. It’s screening this week as part of Ottawa’s International Animation Festival, conveniently in English and everything (this time the English title is Snowtime!)

Being animated, they can take things a little further than a live-action movie made in the 80s could. The fort is several stories high, with CCTV, a secret railroad, and constantly simmering hot chocolate (though they draw the tech line at telephones: the old tin can method is still used, despite the fact that kids today rarely see a landline with a cord). It’s still got all the things kids look for in a fun movie: fart jokes, slightly crude humour, references to girls being icky and boys being stinky. It’s also quintessentially Canadian: snowtime-still-1yes there are hockey sticks, but also lacrosse sticks and curling brooms.

There’s a lot of good fun to be had and despite it being a “war”, most of it pretty benign. However, the end forcibly inserts a teachable moment and a dog must make the, ahem, ultimate sacrifice. It doesn’t quite fit and I wish it went differently.

Sandra Oh makes her second appearance as a voice actor in this festival (she was in Window Horses as well); this time she plays 4-eyed Frankie, and despite it being a bigger stretch, I’d say she does it more seamlessly this time around. And because this is a shamelessly Canadian production, it wouldn’t be complete without a soundtrack featuring Walk Off The Earth, Simple Plan, and Celine Dion. Is this a great movie? No, it’s not. But I can see kids liking it. And when you have winters as harsh as ours, you need entertainment aimed specifically at getting us through it.

TIFF: Loving

Director Jeff Nichols quietly tackles the subject of racism by holding up one Loving couple. Richard and Mildred Loving (their real last name) went to jail in Virginia in 1958 just for being married. Well, for being married to each other. For being married to a person of a different race than their own.

loving-movie-posterThe movie’s success lies in what a small, personal story this is. We never feel like the whole south is against them – but it feels worse that it must be one of their neighbours who keeps ratting them out. The police come, guns drawn, to break down their door in the middle of the night in order to catch them in a crime – that of sleeping next to itch other in marital bliss.

Richard Loving is the world’s quietest man, and Joel Edgerton has quite an uphill battle to portray him and not come off as unemotional. Ruth Negga exudes talent beside him as his wife, Mildred, who is also shy and meek but the talkier of the two out of necessity. Neither wants any trouble. You get the sense they’d be happy not to challenge anything if only they could be left alone. But in order to avoid prison they get exiled from the entire state of Virginia for 25 years. 25 years of raising their babies with no parents, siblings, or friends around to watch. Their love of family is what encourages them to push back, with the help of a nervy lawyer from the ACLU (Nick Kroll). He wants to present the case to the Supreme Court. He’s ready to fight against discrimination and prejudice. Richard and Mildred just want to be married.

Jeff Nichols embraces their humble nature and keeps his movie similarly loving-movie-trailer-focus-features-ftrreserved. There’s not a lot of grandstanding. In fact, he turns his back (and his camera) away from the big, sweeping court scene in order to keep it once again in the heart of the family. Easily eliciting a flood of emotions, it’s actually a relief to see them played out so superbly on Negga’s face, and in Edgerton’s shoulders, rather than some melodramatic speech. The restraint here is a credit to Nichols’ directing, but also to this wonderful casting.

The decision in their case, Loving v. Virginia, was not unanimous, but they did declare Virginia’s “Racial Integrity” law to be unconstitutional, which voided similar laws in other states as well. Actually, it’s the Loving v. Virginia case that was cited in the 2015 decision to allow same-sex marriage as well. Richard and Mildred, two humble people who just wanted to be a family, allowed the same for countless others.

It’s the kind of movie you’ll want to applaud.

Nerdland

Two best friends, Elliot the wanna be screenwriter, and John the aspiring actor, are lamenting their 30th birthdays. They haven’t made it. Loserdom is somewhat charming among the LA set in your 20s, but after 30? Embarrassment.

So they make a pact: they’ll give themselves 24 hours to get famous, at any cost. They’re downloadnot going to query studios or go to auditions, they’re done with doing it the Hollywood way. Now they’re desperate enough for the lowest kind of fame: Internet fame.

While director Chris Prynoski’s film takes deliberate aim at consumerist culture, Elliot (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and John (Paul Rudd) are enthusiastic consumers who want to be consumed themselves. They’re hapless idiots, basically, brilliantly brought alive by Oswalt and Rudd, and written with just the smallest dashes of sympathy to ensure they’re still tolerable to watch among their shenanigans. It’s clear they long to be shenanigators, but they’re not even smart enough to be in the right place at the right time, or inventive enough to produce something for their own. So as their 24 hour deadline ticks by, their search for fame makes them compromise…in the name of infamy.

There’s satire hidden in here somewhere, even if the payoff is pretty mild. The story feels more like several episodes, strung together by these two numbskull protagonists. They keep moving forward even as we feel a little left behind. Still, there are moments that make it worth it: Elliot’s attempt at rebooting Rip Van Winkle as a character who wakes up now and goes on a shooting spree, for example, and the watching of notorious nerdland_press_2underground tape X-V, literally a supercut of every fantastically horrific, violent, gory thing that has ever happened on film, set to some delicious pop. It’s nauseating good fun.

Both the characters and their animated world are quite ugly to look at. LA has never looked worse, but I suppose that’s a reflection of how two guys who didn’t make it feel about their adopted home, not the city of dreams, but the city of broken dreams. Nerdland embraces the vulgarity of it all: the homelessness, the dirt, the emptiness, the waste, the superficial people and their superficial parts. This movie won’t be for everyone and that’s okay. If you’re a fan of Titmouse, you’ll want to check it out.