Author Archives: Jay

Archipelago

Writer-director Félix Dufour-Laperrière presents an animated film unlike any other. On a black background, the outline of a woman appears. Inside the woman’s outline is moving water, a river, la fleuve. I know it well. I grew up on this river. It’s the St. Lawrence, a great river that flows along the provinces of both Québec and Ontario, connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean, a source of food, of commerce, and of dreams. Leonard Cohen sang about it in Suzanne. I’ve swum in it, eaten from it, skimmed its lively surface while sitting (screaming) in a tube, and once, unadvisedly, I attempted to water ski on it. I fished it for years in my grandfather’s little aluminum boat, it’s how we bonded, and where we loved, and every single person mentioned it at his funeral 3 months ago. The St. Lawrence ran in my grandfather’s veins. You can smell it from my mother’s house. I still think of it as home.

Dufour-Laperrière’s film is moving poetry dedicated to a river, to a land, to islands real and imaginary. Tracing a people’s history along the river, chasing their future and their ambitions, Archipelago is always beautiful, often philosophical, hinting at a truth truer than true.

Two narrators, the woman from the beginning (Florence Blain Mbaye), perhaps the voice of the river herself, as well as a man (Mattis Savard-Verhoeven) engage in a verbal waltz, like a pair of figure skaters dancing across the frozen river, sparring in such an elegant and delightful way that it’s impossible to look away.

This strange work, not a documentary but not not a documentary, reflects on time, community, our sense of belonging, our shared memory, our fractured identity. It demands little from us but suggests much more than simply the sum of its words and images. It absorbs you into its own landscape, its own reality. We may not know who is speaking to us, or from what time, or which place, but the effect is absorbing, and hypnotic. Archipelago is not a movie, it’s an experience.

Lo Invisible

Luisa is an elegant woman living in a spacious and luxurious home, surrounded by servants to do her every bidding, including an on-call masseuse to rub her cares away. Luisa and her family have a cushy life, their wealth and status apparent. But that doesn’t mean they never have troubles. Luisa has just returned home from a stay at a psychiatric clinic. Post-partum depression doesn’t care if you have a night nurse or a top-of-the-line stroller. It can happen to anyone. It has happened to Luisa. Back home, she’s expected to rest while the servants take care of everything else (including the baby), keeping Luisa’s struggles an invisible secret.

As Luisa, Anahí Hoeneisen gives a very strong performance, nuanced with grief, guilt, depression, and detachment. It’s very subtle, and doesn’t require a lot of plot, yet her instability and inner turmoil are clearly communicated. Accused of trying to hurt her child, Luisa finds it essential yet nearly impossible to simply reinsert herself into her former life. She tries to perform as if nothing is wrong, but the pressure is too much, perhaps even was too much, and posing as the perfect housewife is no longer an option. Something invisible is stopping her from assuming her old role; everyone assumes this is what she must do, yet they’re also reluctant to let her hold her baby again. Is there any place left for her?

Director Javier Andrade and writing partner Hoeneisen do great work together, making each scene a deliberate step down the slope of Luisa’s quickly unraveling mental health. Privilege has given Luisa almost everything, but as Andrade’s film illustrates, almost doesn’t count.

Lo invisible is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over

When Dionne Warwick says “Don’t make me over,” what she really means is don’t fuck her over. Don’t you dare underestimate her.

The music industry wasn’t so friendly to people like her when Dionne Warwick came along with that big, undeniable voice of hers. But she wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and with talent like hers, she wouldn’t have to. With tenacity to match her talent, and a savvy way with people, Warwick went from singing in her church choir to international superstardom.

Directors David Heilbroner and Dave Wooley assemble a who’s-who of talking heads: Quincy Jones, Elton John, Gloria Esteban, and of course cousin Whitney Houston, who appears through archival footage. Oh, and don’t forget Bill Clinton, who seems to have dedicated his retirement to appearing in a truly vast array of documentaries. I think he pops up in at least 1 in 3.

The film’s greatest asset is of course Warwick herself, who seems ageless and resplendent, and highly entertaining. As a formative and influential player, she’s got so many great insights into the industry -as an artist, a woman, a person of colour, and the woman tells a hell of a story. She’s been everywhere, won everything, met everyone.

As far as music documentaries go, this one feels essential.

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over is an official 2021 TIFF selection.

Compartment Number 6

Laura is a Finnish grad student who bids a reluctant goodbye to her Russian lover and boards a train headed for Murmansk in the remote Arctic circle to see the petroglyphs, a fitting farewell to her time spent studying in Russia. For the duration of the long ride, she’s been assigned to share a tiny sleeping compartment with Vadim, a rough and roguish man on his way to work in the mines. He makes a bad impression immediately and though Laura pleads to be reassigned, there are no other spaces available, and it’s Vadim or nothing. She wisely chooses nothing for as long as she can, but returns to compartment no. 6 when she can no longer fight sleep.

Juho Kuosmanen’s film is shot authentically on a series of Russian trains. You feel the claustrophobia, the inability to escape, the blurry landscape rushing by impassively outside the compartment’s window. Eventually loneliness and isolation win out, and Laura (Seidi Haarla) feeds her hunger for human connection by letting Vadim (Yuriy Borisov) in, little by little. They are not well matched, separated by class, nationality, and even language, but Vadim continues to surprise Laura, who stands in for the audience as she revises her assumptions and first impressions. Still, we fear for Laura, who seems vulnerable in her naivete, in travelling by herself such a long distance, so far from home.

I’ve heard this film compared to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, but I wouldn’t put them in the same category myself. I struggled with Compartment No. 6 because the introduction does such a good job of painting Vadim as an undesirable that I was totally convinced, and not nearly as ready to forgive as Laura. This is a general problem for me lately, my reluctance to accept vindication for a man I’m not sure deserves it. I feel Kuosmanen pushing us to challenge our implicit presumptions, but I don’t believe Vadim has truly earned redemption. His character starts out too abhorrent for me to believe in his transformation in just one train journey, no matter how endless it felt.

Of course, the beauty in film is that you may feel otherwise yourself (many do). Their time together being limited, perhaps you’ll be moved by their connection, impressive considering the limitations of the ride. Their inherent expiry date will either fill you with a sense of warmth and urgency, or leave you feeling that it’s all a bunch of nothing. And you wouldn’t be wrong either way. We are merely silent observers in this, and we’ll either find compassion for these two and their choices, or we’ll be left out in the cold wind of the Arctic circle.

Compartment Number 6 is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People

Welcome to the Ottawa International Animation Film Festival, a festival which always includes an eclectic lineup of fantastic animated movies, movies that will likely challenge your notion of what an animated movie can be. Most are not kid-friendly. There are no Disney princesses here (though we have seen the folks from Pixar attend, give great talks about their creative process, and host a hiring booth at the career fair). You’re more likely to see something about the war, or Alzheimer’s, or an esoteric exploration of the meaninglessness of life. Although not always dark, these movies are likely to leave you with something meaningful to chew on. So what better way for us to start this year’s festival than with Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People, a meta, self-referential claymation about a popular comic book, and its creator.

Director Cesar Cabral interviews popular Brazilian cartoonist Angeli, who bemoans his current writer’s block, and his evolving style, feeling like he’s no longer the artist he once was, or that others would recognize. The interview is of courses stop-motion animated, there’s nothing live action to see here. Angeli decides to overcome his block by killing his most famous character, Bob Spit, an aging, angry, misanthropic punk.

We deep-dive into Angeli’s head, where character Bob Spit lives in a post-apocalyptic desert with mutant cutesie pop stars who want him dead. A couple of his old followers help him confront his creator (Angeli himself) to make a plea before it’s too late.

Part documentary and part comic book adaptation, where both get equal treatment in clay, Cabral makes an interesting connection between the artist and the art he creates. The relationship is clear; the delineation is not. Bob Spit is Angeli’s most autobiographical character, a character Angeli is now determined to kill off.

This film defies expectation, defies label, defies genre, defies logic. It is, however, eminently watchable. Bob Spit, caught off guard on the toilet by a bunch of homicidal pop stars, picks them off one by one with his trusty shotgun. His pants around his ankles (full-frontal claymation!), the popstars burst with a riot of glitter in place of blood. The Bob Spit universe inside Angeli’s head is a marvel. Angeli himself is a mystery, but it sure is fun to live in his world for a bit. This film needs to be seen to be believed and lucky for you, it’s screening online at the festival right now.

Bob Spit: We Do Not Like People is an official selection of the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

7 Prisoners

Mateus is one of 7 boys recruited by a familiar face in the country villages outside São Paulo. This man selects only the best, and competition is fierce; there are no jobs in the countryside, and 18 year old Mateus is keen to earn money for his family. His family celebrates his luck with a special dinner and goodbye gifts that they can scarce afford. Mateus is proud to go.

Until he and the others are thrown inside a cage, locked up, that is. 7 Prisoners isn’t the only movie at TIFF this year to tackle modern slavery, but the circumstances here are different. The junk yard boss Luca (Rodrigo Santoro) knows what he’s doing. He presents his prisoners with an invoice for every cost incurred, which will conveniently take them a lifetime of forced labour at slave wages to repay. Some of the boys talk of rebellion, of overthrowing Luca in order to escape, but others can think only of their relatives back home living in poverty. Mateus (Christian Malheiros) has an even more complicated choice to make when Luca chooses him to be his middle man, the one who will be directly in charge of the other prisoners. Mateus gets better food, a better bed, a life outside the bars. He also gets a gun to point at his friends, and the job of hunting them down should he escape. The other prisoners have now fixed their hatred on him for turning on them so quickly, for being part of the system that traffics in humans. He’s on the wrong side.

Malheiros shows us Mateus’ agony, but also his determination, and his #1 priority, the family back home. In the few phone calls he’s been allowed, his mother is astounded by the money Luca has sent back on his behalf. She can labour less, save her bad back. For Mateus, this is worth it, but he’s in an interminably awkward position of being both the bad guy and a victim but unappreciated by either side. He has to make extreme personal and ethical compromises to survive, not the prisoners see it this way.

Director Alexandre Moratto transcends simple good vs. bad and presents a more complicated and evolving sense of right and wrong, the steady compromising of values necessarily to survive systemic oppression and corruption. No matter which side of the bars they sleep on, all seven prisoners are being exploited; there is no winning in the game of human smuggling, only injustice, cruelty, and a hopelessness that seeps in quick.

7 Prisoners is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

The Wheel

Albee and Walker met as children growing up in foster care. They married at age 16 to escape a terrible situation, and now, 7 years later, they’re on the verge of divorce. Albee (Amber Midthunder) has all but checked out, but agreed to spend one last weekend away to work through a marriage workbook and see what can be salvaged. Walker (Taylor Gray) hopes their relationship can be saved, but Albee isn’t even sure they ever loved each other so much as needed each other to build more stable lives. They’re committed to brutal honesty this weekend, but neither is really prepared to hear it.

Meanwhile, the couple who run the B&B where Albee and Walker are staying are having problems by osmosis. Planning to wed in just a couple of weeks, Ben (Nelson Lee) and Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) are tip-toeing around the their unstable guests, trying to avoid the awkwardness of witnessing a marriage disintegrate in their guest house. But as Albee and Walker tackle the issues suggested in the book, it begins to reveal cracks in Ben and Carly’s relationship as well. This weekend is going to be very hard on love.

Midthunder plays cruel and bitchy exceedingly well, her only displays of affection reserved for her phone. Gray is adorable like a kitten; it’s inconceivable that anyone should abandon him. It makes for an uncomfortable balance. Lind adds an interesting extra dimension to some already complicated dynamics. Love is hard. Love is very hard. Are any of these couples willing to do the work?

The Wheel is a wonderful little indie that I found quite charming, exceeding my expectations in the best possible way.

The Wheel is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Intrusion

Meera and Henry have left the rat race of Boston for a small town and their dream home, which Henry, an architect, builds for them. But paradise is about to be, well, intruded upon. A break in rattles the couple, and Meera (Freida Pinto) starts to feel uneasy in her luxurious but secluded home. What’s more, it turns out those responsible for the break in were also suspects in a case of a local missing woman. Meera and Henry (Logan Marshall-Green) might have accidentally built their home in the middle of something complicated and violent.

I think most of us would be frightened by a break-in. It’s very invasive, isn’t it? To feel like someone’s been in the place where you normally feel safe. Meera’s uneasiness grows when it seems that she and Henry are healing along different paths; Henry is ready, in fact insistent, that they move on quickly, while Meera doesn’t feel so confident. She’s a therapist, perhaps more in tune with her feelings, and recently in remission from cancer, so she feels lucky just to be here. Henry was by her side through every treatment and every bad day, so it feels strange to suddenly not be united in this, and issues only worsen as their case gets more complicated.

This thriller by Adam Salky is new on Netflix. It’s a home invasion movie like many before, and many afterward too, I’m sure. They’re effective because they literally hit us right where we live. Intrusion isn’t any great addition to the genre, but it’s fairly benign, and Pinto is lovely to watch. Character in these types of films, especially female ones, tend to be one-note, shrill and terrified, whereas Meera is a little more determined, more pro-active; not merely a victim, but an agent in her own fate. Give it a go if you feel like sleeping a little less soundly tonight.

Quickening

Sheila (Arooj Azeem) is a performing arts major at university, and is finding her dance class to be a particular challenge. She won’t admit this to her (over)protective mother, Aliya (Bushra Ashir Azeem), who thinks the North American university “lifestyle” will ruin Sheila’s chances for a reputable life, compromise her Pakistani values, and basically give her the opportunity to be negatively influenced by her peers, none of whom pass Aliya’s muster. The tension between mother and daughter is somewhat soothed by Sheila’s first love. But when her juggling act between parents, school, and boyfriend ultimately fails, Sheila’s breakdown is of a peculiar sort.

Pseudocyesis: a psychosomatic state that occurs without conception and is marked by some of the physical symptoms and changes in hormonal balance of pregnancy.

Sheila believes she is pregnant. She’s not, but she’s convinced she is, and she’s certainly going to stress out like she is. How will this affect parents, school, and boyfriend? Yeah, that’s exactly what Sheila’s worried about! Poor dear.

Azeem is quite lovely as Sheila, and this coming of age story is particularly complex. Sure you might feel lulled into a sense of security by the admirable cinematography, and the gently hypnotic score, eliciting a dream-like state much like the haze of first love. But make no mistake: inside, Sheila is roiling with conflict and self-doubt. The cultural expectation of pleasing one’s parents runs deep, but Sheila also years no break free and pursue her own ambitions, even if they’re outside the traditional life her parents have envisioned for her. Azeem is able to live in the skin of a second generation immigrant, with all the pressures and expectations bottling up inside, overwhelming her in part because she can’t really express them.

Writer-director Haya Waseem makes a bold choice assembling Azeem’s real-life family to play her on-screen one, but the risk pays off with an authentic-feeling bond that transcends culture. Quickening is a wonderful film about a universal stage in a young woman’s life, layered with cultural specificity for a cathartic journey about growing up, leaving home, and always being there for family.

Quickening is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

The Mad Women’s Ball

You have to hand it to the patriarchy: they set up an entire society designed to oppress women, to deprive them of any meaning or purpose in their lives, and then they act all surprised when it drives them crazy.

Of course, Eugénie (Lou de Laâge) isn’t actually crazy, but she does speak to the dead. But even just nonconformity is reason enough to lock her up, and in the not-so-long-ago (1885), all you needed was one male relative to want to get rid of you, and a woman could be imprisoned in an insane asylum for life. Eugénie is in Salpêtrière, a Parisian asylum, where she befriends wins over a skeptical nurse, Geneviève (Mélanie Laurent). This nurse no-nonsense and scientifically inclined, but when her dead sister starts sending messages through Eugénie, even she must admit that this woman doesn’t belong here. Together, they plan Eugénie’s escape under the cover of Le bal des folles, the mad women’s ball.

Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, this film is based on real events. Salpêtrière was a real asylum that locked up women and threw away the key based on some very flimsy excuses – and any who were actually crazy were mostly driven that way by the very men who committed them. The women were subjected to barbaric experiments, abused by staff, and the film (and the book upon which it is based) exposes the misogyny inherent in medicine at the time (not all of which has been eliminated today).

Thomas Jefferson once said “The measure of society is how it treats the weakest members,” a scathing indictment of himself, a slave owner, and every psychiatric hospital ever. The Mad Woman’s Ball was indeed a real event hosted ever year, inviting Paris’ high society to come and gawk at the mentally ill, all dressed up in cast-offs and costumes.

Mélanie Laurent writes and directs a story she makes seriously cinematic and strikes a timeless chord, showing the universality of society’s most interesting women being silenced, in board meetings or at the stake, but always one way or another. At the time, women were diagnosed “hysterical” for having an opinion; today she’s called “shrill” or “feminazi” or “sjw.” Bottom line: yes, there’s a message, a grimly timely one, but it’s also just a beautiful film that’s well-acted by an asylum’s worth of talented actresses, with a story to remember.

The Mad Women’s Ball (Le bal des folles) is an official 2021 selection of TIFF.

Look for it on Amazon Prime!