Author Archives: Matt

Planet in Focus: Genesis 2.0

“After what happened in Jurassic Park, is it good science to play God with the dead?” This is the question posed by the Planet in Focus page for Genesis 2.0. For a documentary to pose such a question feels surreal. Well, we’re living in a surreal world and, after watching this new documentary from directors Christian Frei and Maxim Arbugaevit, you may very well find yourself praying that we’ve learnt the lesson s of a 25 year-old science fiction movie.

Genesis 2.0 address some ethical dilemmas in the field of molecular engineering using the ambitious quest to bring back the woolly mammoth. It’s an idea that’s so crazy that I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. I find it both exciting and scary. If the geneticists at Harvard and an elite lab in China share my apprehension, they are doing an excellent job of hiding it. Even the less privileged Siberians who take the treacherous trip to the Siberian arctic every summer in search of  mammoth tusks don’t seem too worried.

The film divides its time pretty equally between scientists and tusk hunters. The stuff in the arctic is gorgeously shot and Frei, who spent a summer up there, clearly bonded with the Siberian hunters. Their job is dangerous and offers no guarantees. Every year 1 or 2 people don’t make it back and many will not find enough “white gold” to make the trip worth the time and risk.

The scientists in the US, China, and South Korea (where they’re cloning dogs for grieving pet owners) that we follow live in a completely different world. They work with state of the art technology and don’t risk their lives the way the arctic hunters do. The filmmakers respect the geneticists just as they do the hunters, watching them work and letting them make their case for the importance of their work. Only one question on the ethics of molecular engineering is asked of them throughout the entire movie and it’s answered only with an awkward silence.

Genesis 2.0 mostly saves it’s editorializing for the final minutes of the film and when it comes it feels a little awkward and out of place. All in all though, it’s a fantastic documentary. It’s thought-provoking and beautiful to watch and has an interesting point of view that seems to tie the whole thing together. The future of genetic research is like the treacherous Siberian arctic. It’s not easy and is full of risk. But pushing forward into the unknown and taking great risks is just human nature. Will the future look olike the first act of Jurassic Park? Or will it look like the scary part after all the dinosaurs get loose? Only time will tell.

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TIFF18: The Front Runner

Jason Reitman has been busy lately. It’s been just four short months since the release of the bizarre but undeniably interesting Tully but the Oscar-nominated director was at the festival this year with a new movie and a very entertaining live read of the original Breakfast Club script to host.

Tully was the kind of movie that takes a couple of days to digest and decide how you feel about it. The Front Runner is a much more straightforward, Altmanesque look at three dramatic weeks during the doomed Presidential campaign of Gary Hart. I’m just young enough to be too young to remember Hart (played here by a fantastic Hugh Jackman) but even I know that his campaign was derailed after a story broke that he’d been cheating on his wife (Vera Farmiga).

When we first meet Hart, it’s 1987 and he’s the clear front runner for the Democratic nomination to run against George Bush. Hart just wants to talk about the issues and resists the distractions of talking about his private life and pandering to voters with cheap campaign stunts. His campaign manager (a rarely better JK Simmons) supports this approach and watching he and his staff debate strategy and plan campaign events while twelve things seem to happen onscreen at once is just a blast. Both Altman and Sorkin would be proud. Even as scandal begins to dampen everyone’s spirits, the pace rarely slows down. Intimate character moments of two people alone on screen tend to be so few and far between in this movie that it makes those moments resonate all the more.

I try not to read too many reviews before I post one but I can already see that critics have tended to respond to The Front Runner less enthusiastically than I have. On the one hand, I can understand why. It’s easy to get burnt out at this point on movies and conversations about how much political campaigns and political discourse has changed so much. Despite its clever dialogue, fast pace, and excellent acting, I can’t claim The Front Runner has much to add to the discussion nor does it give its audience much to debate or think about after.

I would argue that there is one very important subplot that keeps The Front Runner from being a classic case of all style and no substance. Hart’s scandal didn’t just affect Hart, his family, and his campaign. Young Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) was thrust into the public eye with little support from anyone except for one sympathetic Hart campaign volunteer (very well played by Molly Ephraim). A lesser movie wouldn’t have given Rice so much screen time (or at least have lost interest in her after the sex scenes).

Still, I’ll concede that maybe we didn’t need this movie. It’s less an Important movie than it is an impeccably made one. Which is really all I need. I plan on seeing again next chance I get.

TIFF18: The Hate U Give

It’s a sad sign of the times that police shooting an unarmed black man seem to be one of the unofficial themes of TIFF’s 2018 program much like tennis was last year.

Starr Carter (a sensational Amandla Stenberg) lives in a poor black neighbourhood but goes to school in an affluent white part of town. Starr Version Two- the censored version of herself that her friends see- can’t quote hip hop lyrics like her white friends do all the time because “when they do it, they sound cool. When I do it, I sound ghetto”. Moments after reconnecting with a black childhood friend at a party in her neighbourhood, the two are pulled over by a white police officer which quickly and tragically ends with her friend getting shot and killed.

Not only does Starr now have a lot of grief and trauma to work through. Her once compartmentalized life has suddenly gotten a lot more complicated as she- the only witness to the shotting- starts getting pulled in every direction. Everyone, from the kids at school to the local gang leader (Anthony Mackie) to Starr’s cop uncle (Common), has an opinion that they’re not shy to share and some are all too happy to resort to threats and even violence.

Whereas Reinaldo Marcus Green’s excellent Monsters and Men was a thoughtful and nuanced indie, The Hate U Give works a lot harder at being accessible to a more mainstream audience. Our introduction to Starr’s life and the world around here is often funny and Starr and her family are immediately easy to like and root for. The soundtrack doesn’t hurt one bit either. Things are obviously a lot less fun once shots are fired and Starr’s friend is killed but The Hate U Give is still the kind of movie that seeks to entertain while it makes us think and feel.

The Hate U Give hooked me much quicker than Monsters and Men did. Monsters and Men needs time to sink in. It doesn’t aim for big dramatic scenes and speeches like The Hate U Give does. The Hate U Give pays a bit of a price for its more mainstream approach. Because it always feels like a movie albeit an extremely effective one. Some parts seem a little too contrived while others are a little over-simplified.

There’s a place for both movies. Monsters and Men was a great conversation starter is a mostly satisfying and cathartic emotional experience. It’s just that I fell in love with this movie over the first half or so and somewhere along the way I lost some enthusiasm for it.

TIFF18: Gloria Bell

Why is Julianne Moore even still making movies? I can think of few American actors with less to prove than Moore, fewer still who have turned in as many brave and egoless performances as she has over the last three decades.

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) admires her too. In fact, he says that he chose to remake his 2013 film Gloria as his English-language debut specifically because he was such a big Julianne Moore fan that he wanted to see what she would do with the role. To anyone like me who has not seen the original, it would feel like the part of Gloria was written for her. Gloria is a 50-something divorced mother of two adult children (Michael Cera and Caren Pistorious). She has a full-time job and her kids do spend some time with her but it’s not enough to keep her from getting lonely.

Luckily, Gloria loves disco and loves to dance and she never cuts loose quite like she does when she’s alone on the dance floor on Singles Night. That’s where she meets the charmingly awkward Arnold (John Turtorro). The two quickly strike up a relationship even if Arnold’s co-dependent relationship with his ex-wife and adult daughters seem to hold him back from completely commiting to Gloria.

Thinking back, there is something very sad about Gloria Bell. But that’s only in retrospect. Lelio, like Gloria, chooses not to dwell on the sadness. Instead, his film spends so much time being laugh out loud funny that and is just optimistic enough that you can almost mistake it for a mindless crowd pleaser. It’s only three or four movies later when I realized that this was the one that I was still thinking about that I realized what a fully realized character they’ve created (or recreated) together. It doesn’t hurt that those in her life, the supporting cast, all seem to have real lives of their own when they’re not onscreen and could easily have starred in films of their own. I for one would have loved to know a lot more about Arnold. But really this is Gloria’s story and Lelio and Moore do her proud in a really impressive and effective film.

 

TIFF18: Homecoming

Has TV been more exciting than movies lately? People have been saying so for some time and, given that we aren’t Assholes Watching Television, the idea sometimes makes me a little defensive. I have to admit though that the first four episodes of Homecoming were the most challenging and exhilarating two hours that I spent at TIFF this year.

The current legitimacy of episodic television is hard to deny when Julia Roberts, one of the biggest movie stars in my lifetime, starts turning to tv for interesting roles. In the new series directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, Roberts plays a counselor in a facility whose mandate is ostensibly to help American soldiers returning from their deployments to adapt to life back home. It’s clear from her first phone call with her superior (Bobby Cannavale, as awesome as ever) that there’s something more nefarious or at least more secretive going on at this facility. What is less clear is exactly what that is. Things start to reall get interesting when Julia’s favourite patient (If Beale Street Could Talk’s Stephan James, who will almost definitely be a huge star this time next year) starts to suspect something is amiss.

Homecoming may not be quite the best thing I saw at TIFF this year. That honour probably goes to Widows. But it’s definitely the most original. Just like in Mr. Robot, Esmail’s strange choice of camera angles and Maggie Phillips’ score which often doesn’t seem to match the tone of what we think we’re seeing all contribute to the feeling that there’s so much more going on here then we realize. I can’t wait for the show to finally air in November so I can watch the rest and find out what that is.

Somehow, Homecoming is an adaptation of creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s podcast which I’ve never listened to nor do I understand what it could possibly be. Together with Esmail, they have assembled an impressive cast that also includes Sissy Spacek, Alex Karpovsky, Shea Whigham, and Dermot Mulroney. Together they have made one of many compelling examples of how television can be just as creative and satisfying as an Oscar season feature film.

Searching

Searching Pie

1999. It was the summer that I graduated high school, started preparing for CEGEP, and took my first trip across the country without the parental units. If ever there was a summer that felt like I had my whole life ahead of me, that was the one and- even though it was that same summer that I saw The Goddamn Matrix for the first time, the movie that really brings me back to that feeling- the movie that I saw four times- was American Pie.

Looking back on that scene where three teens repeatedly scream “MILF” at a picture of Stiffler’s Mom, I’d call it misogynist. But 19 years ago, that didn’t stop my friends and I from laughing our asses off. And to this day (and I’m sure this would make him so happy) I can’t look at John Cho without thinking of “MILF’ Guy #2. (Wait, who was “MILF” Guy #1 then?).

It’s almost depressing to think about how long ago that was. Times have changed and a lot of those changes are good. Jason Biggs doesn’t have to watch scrambled porn anymore and Cho can find work without having to lick a framed photo of Jennifer Coolidge. And I’m proud that my sense of humour has gotten a little more sophisticated and hopefully a lot less sexist. Still, I don’t know many people who love thinking about how many years have passed since high school while they weren’t looking and in his new movie John Cho is back to remind me of just how old I’ve gotten by playing the father of a 16 year-old girl.

Searching 1

That Cho is now old and mature enough to carry a tense thriller about a father’s desperate search for his missing teenage daughter isn’t even the most obvious way that Searching reminds us of what a strange and different world we’re now living in. First-time director Aneesh Chaganty shot the entire movie from the point of view of a mock computer screen. So as Cho’s David Kim talks to his daughter’s friends and searches for clues on her laptop, the whole story is told through Google searches, text history, Facebook posts, Skype, and YouTube videos.

Searching 2

My first response to Chaganty’s experimental approach during the first few minutes of Searching was “Alright. I’m impressed so far and am on board for now but can easily see how this can get old pretty quickly”. It’s a testament to Chaganty’s storytelling that the novelty never wears off and is rarely distracting. It’s not a perfect film. I’m not sure all of the laughs it got at my Fantasia screening were entirely intentional and as a thriller one or two of the twists may be a little too far-fetched.

Not all of the changes since 1999 are great and Searching is at its best as an exploration of what a double-edged sword the internet can be. It shows how it can make it easier both to reach out and to retreat into our. How easy it is both to reveal and conceal our true selves. And, most importantly, how useful a tool the internet is for concerned parents and stalkers alike.

Despite its flaws, Searching is a much more gripping and emotionally satisfying experience than you’re probably imagining and Cho nails what I can only imagine must have been a challenging role. I highly recommend it.

TJFF: Future ’38

How do I explain this? . Future ’38 was filmed last year but is pretending to have been filmed in 1938. It is set in 2018 but, remember, this is the 2018 as imagined by fictional filmmakers from the 1930s. Or present day filmmakers imaging what 1930s filmmakers would think 2018 would look like.

Film historians or whoever’s job it is to uncover lost screwball comedies about time travel from 1938 have recently uncovered a lost screwball comedy about time travel from 1938. After a brief introduction by a real life scientist who praises the scientific accuracy of all the time travel bits, the film begins in black and white in the height of World War II. Essex (Nick Westrate) is the most dependable GI this side of the Atlantic. His mission: Leap 80 years into the future in search of the powerful isotope Formica which, according to Dr. Elcourt from the Laboratory of Science, will be strong enough by 2018 to win the war for the Allies.

Essex wakes up (in Technicolor) in 2018. A version of 2018 you just have to see for yourself. On the one hand, it’s a startlingly accurate picture of 21st century life. On the other, it’s filtered through the limited imagination of a fictional 1930s science fiction writer. They have a 24 hour news cycle, for example. it’s just a guy on a unicycle though yelling “Extry Extry”.

In 2018, Essex almost immediately meets Banky (Betty Gilpin), a streetwise hotel manager who thinks he’s just “a little queer” because he’s from Pasadena. Once she agrees to show Essex around (“I could use a little fun and you’re Coney Island without the smell”), Future ’38 quickly finds its rhythm. The way they get the 21st century both right and wrong at the same time is funny enough. But Future ’38 is at its absolute funniest as a straight 30s style screwball comedy that mimics the fast-paced dialogue, slapstick, and romance more than it mocks it.

There’s a joke or two here that are maybe just a bit much. Most do land though even once the novelty of the outrageous style and concept has worn off and Gilpin and Westrate play off each other like true stars of the 30s. This could have easily been unwatchable had the writing, casting, and attention to detail not been so spot on. I think you’ll like it.