Category Archives: Kick-ass!

Seder-Masochism

When director Nina Paley’s father was on his deathbed, she and he had conversation about Passover that turned into a discussion about her long-ago decision to drop out of college to pursue her art, and how he wished she would have found a way to increase her savings.  It strikes me as a typical conversation between a father and daughter, particularly a Jewish father and daughter.  But it becomes much less typical when animated into a conversation between seder masochisma bearded dollar bill and a goat.  Those pieces form the heart of Seder-Masochism, a unique look at the story of Exodus from the perspective of a couple lapsed Jews.

In between, the story of Moses is told as a musical, with the Jews dancing their way through oppression in Egypt and then chaos in the desert to a collection of toe-tapping classics, one of which, naturally, is “Go Down Moses”.  Underlying the whole thing is the reality that in escaping from under the Pharaoh’s thumb, the Jewish patriarchy remained a source of oppression for women.  Paley admits that she had no idea how to seder masochism 2resolve the conflict between the Jewish God and the goddesses, but she does an excellent job of highlighting that conflict in the sunniest way possible.

The animation, all done by Paley, is unbelievably cheerful and bright, contrasting in every way with the subject matter.   That cheery art style, combined with the upbeat soundtrack, ends up making the film feel even darker as we see these awful events depicted as if in a Saturday morning cartoon, enhanced with the largely upbeat (and unlicensed) music.  Paley was up front about not having paid for the music in order to keep costs down while using the songs that best fit her vision.  The strongest scenes from the film, though, are those featuring the conversation between Paley and her father, as they are funny and starkly honest at the same time.

Whether or not you know anything about Judaism or Exodus, Seder Masochism is a well-made, charming, and surprisingly personal film.  And once Paley has completed the festival circuit this fall, she plans on making this movie available for free, so you’ll soon be able to see Seder Masochism yourself even if you aren’t able to catch it on the festival circuit.

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This Magnificent Cake!

There’s a definite trend toward using gimmicks to give depth to films, and it’s particularly prevalent in animated movies.  These days, almost everything is available in 3D, and often for new releases it’s hard to find a screening that’s NOT in 3D.  This Magnificent Cake! (Ce Magnifique Gateau!) is not in 3D but in no danger whatsoever of feeling two dimensional.  ThereCMG_concert is so much texture here, you’ll want to pet the screen.

The texture comes from the animators’ use of felt and yarn for basically everything you will see on screen.  Co-creators Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels have ensured that the characters, the animals, and even the water are fuzzy.  All the texture will captivate you throughout the film’s short 45 minute run time.  Every frame is packed with a ton of details and textures for the viewer to notice and absorb.  So even if you are lost in the narrative, which will happen due to its nature, you never mind all that much and are happy to just absorb what’s on screen.  The animation is incredible, and I would say that the visuals are the main reason that This Magnificent Cake! was the Grand Prize Winner (Best Feature) at the 2018 Ottawa Inter
national Animation Festival
.

The narrative is easy to get lost in because it’s left to the viewer to determine what is real and what is a dream or a hallucination.  This Magnificent Cake! features five interconnected episodes that revolve around Belgium’s colonization of Africa in the late 19th century.  The episodes begin and end abruptly and usually the next in the sequence starts soon after the previous one ended, but tells the story from a different perspective.  Most of the episodes unfold in Africa, but there is also some Belgium backstory as well as some bonding to take place during the several months (?) it took to travel by steamer from Europe to the colony.  How many of these events were imagined is hard to say (intentionally, I’m sure) but I “felt” at least half of it only happened in the characters’ minds, which hopefully includes a particularly memorable snail adoption by a lonely colonist.

This Magnificent Cake! is a unique experience that may leave you scratching your head when it ends, but your eyes will thank you for taking the trip.

 

TIFF18: American Woman

At first glance, Deb (Sienna Miller) is all-too-easily dismissed. She’s a former teen mom turned grandmother at 31. She’s a mistress whose hot date turns out to be a trip to a sleazy motel room, where she is handed a plastic bag containing either dollar store lingerie or a slutty devil halloween costume (same difference, really). The next morning, we see that she is waking up alone in her own bed, suggesting the motel room was paid by the hour.

At that point, we’re about five minutes into American Woman, and you’re ready to write Deb off.

But don’t. Don’t you dare.

AmericanWoman_02Because Deb is worth more than she even knows, which she stars to discover after her daughter fails to come home one night after a date with her basement-dwelling baby daddy.  A loved one’s disappearance must be life-shattering. Miller lets us see the dissapearance’s drastic effects on Deb in such a restrained and measured way that Deb’s resulting character growth is organic, believable, and most impressively, almost invisible at first. Deb’s evolution is captivating, and the Deb we know by the end of the movie is at once the same core character and a woman whose outlook and attitude have evolved beyond anything I could have ever expected.

I cannot overstate the magnificence of Sienna Miller’s performance in American Woman. She is magnetic and conveys a mix of strength and vulnerability that is as authentic a performance as I can remember. And while Miller is the standout, he excellence is almost always matched by the rest of the cast, including Christina Hendricks as Deb’s sister, Amy Madigan as Deb’s mom, and Mad TV’s Will Sasso as Deb’s brother-in-law. Deb is rightly the focal point but it’s great that the strong supporting characters each get the chance to shine.

The gauntlet thrown down by the cast’s fantastic performances is picked up by those behind the camera, and they are up to the task. Brad Ingelsby’s script is smarter than it has any right to be, discarding obvious answers on a regular basis, and showing off by giving effortless depth to secondary and tertiary characters (including turning an obvious villain into an earnest guy deserving of our sympathy). Director Jake Scott uses care and moderation rather than flash and sensationalism, particularly in a crucial scene at the film’s climax, proving beyond any doubt that less is more. Scott consistently makes brilliant choices even in small details, such as by using visuals and settings to indicate the passage of time, rather than title cards.

The result of all of this individual brilliance, naturally, is a standout character study that can hold its own against anything that TIFF18 has to offer (which I can say with certainty since I saw If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma on either side of it). American Woman is as smart, rewarding and satisfying a cinematic experience as anyone could ask for, making for a film that you absolutely do not want to miss.

TIFF18: If Beale Street Could Talk

If this movie review could talk it would say: wow. And also: thank you.

How is it possible that Barry Jenkins is making GOAT movies right out of the gate? Is he for real?

If Beale Street Could Talk is about a love story, interrupted. Tish (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo (Stephan James) are young lovers and the world is theirs as they fall in love inside their bubble. He’s respectful, she’s adorable, they’re so in sync their clothes begin to match, the colours mirroring each other as they walk hand in hand in a highly-saturated stroll through the park, the perfect date that just happens to end at prison, where she drops him off. Alonzo is going away for rape – a crime he didn’t commit, not that the justice system particularly cares. Beale Street is both love story and tragedy at the same time.

The most powerful thing about this film, and indeed about James Baldwin’s original work, is how little shock we see from either family – and both families, and their community, rallies around them. And of course they’re upset, they’re devastated, and they should be angry and incredulous, but no one seems all that astonished that such a MV5BMjMxMWQ5MjctN2MwMC00ZGY1LWJkNWUtNmUwOWFmYzAyNWJjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTE4NTE0NjU@._V1_thing could happen, because of course they’ve seen it happen before. So they swing into action, because they know the drill. Though they have little money, they will fund-raise and do whatever it takes to work the case themselves because they know whatever lawyer’s appointed to them will be inadequate (though he’s actually not painted as a bad guy, interestingly), and that the system is rigged is against them. They aren’t wrong.

I said earlier that this was a love story, interrupted. Thanks to director Barry Jenkins’ genius, that’s true on more than one count. First, the literal one, where the two lovers are separated just as she’s discovering they’re pregnant and would have made a home together. Through flash backs we see their love story, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity, in its sweetness, but every scene is tainted by our knowledge of where it ends up. Jenkins obviously has a respect for the poetry of Baldwin’s prose. He uses it as a bridge between scenes, uniting flashbacks which almost seem dream-like with the harsh realities and razor-precision detail of their present day (1970s). The interruption is an opportunity for Jenkins to show how lyrically he can manipulate time as well as genre. Because for every pause he takes to explore a character and make note of some sweet detail, this story is also infused with a greater cry for social justice. This Beale Street could be any Beale Street. Alonzo could be any black man. And the system of oppression, which is not limited to crime and punishment, applies just as much today as it did then. This is a cry meant to be heard across generations.

James Laxton’s stunning cinematography helps establish not just breathtaking film, but black culture itself, the streets coming alive and vibrant under his lens. The way Jenkins plays with colour astonishes me, the virginal whites, the lust-drenched reds; somehow this movie is everything a movie can be. It’s everything. And this is only Jenkins’ third feature. The costumes are perfection. The set design is perfection. The way the camera talks to us, showing us where to linger, communicating hunger, or desperation, or separation. The emphasis is masterful but never gets in the way of itself.

Beale Street’s ensemble cast is the beating heart of this film, with James and Layne both claiming rights to future stardom. Their fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are terrific as well, but for me Tish’s mom Sharon (Regina King) was the real standout. She is fierce and unwavering. The scene in which she confronts Alonzo’s accuser is deeply affecting, and it’s because of King, of the layers of emotion playing out on her face. I couldn’t look away. Notably, I also thought the mother in The Hate U Give (played by Regina Hall) was the best part of the movie, so I’m not sure if black moms are having a moment, or if it’s Reginas specifically, but watch out, they’re coming. Jenkins puts together a cast that becomes the fabric of his film. There is no detail too small to have escaped his love and attention. This is one of the better adaptations I’ve ever seen on film, and possibly the best. It works on so many levels at once you don’t even see the train coming until it hits you. It’s hard to outdo yourself when your last film won Best Picture, but Barry Jenkins is a director not to be fucked with.

TIFF18: The Sisters Brothers

Murder and machismo, that’s what you’re in for when you sit down to watch The Sisters Brothers. Charlie and Eli Sisters are a couple of guns for hire. They care deeply about maintaining their bad reputations, which shouldn’t be a problem as long as they keep working for The Commodore, a fearsome and violent man.

Their next mission, should they choose to accept it: kill Herman Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), who’s got something The Commodore wants. A professional scout, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), is already tracking him, and once located, the Sisters Brothers ride in for the dirty work.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play the brothers – Phoenix the younger brother, Charlie, but natural leader of the two. He’s more violent and more gung-ho. Reilly, on theMV5BNWE3MDAwMDgtZGY0MS00OGM3LTk4MzEtYjIxODZkMDc0NGY2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1496,1000_AL_ other hand, gives Eli a slightly sweeter disposition. He dreams of retirement but remains in the game to keep watch over his brother, who’s a drunk always looking for trouble, and always, always finding it. Eli pines for a woman who was kind to him once. He laments the fate of his pitiable horse. He cuts his brother’s hair.

When the foursome finally meet up, Herman isn’t the villain everyone anticipated, and his commodity proves irresistible to anyone who hears about it. But if his body and potion aren’t offered up to The Commodore in a hurry, there’ll be hell to pay. With allegiances divided and a different ending standing tantalizingly before them, what will the Sisters Brothers choose, and how will the body count be affected? Because there WILL be a body count, make no mistake on that.

The Sisters Brothers is adapted from a book I absolutely adored and passed around to nearly everyone I know, by  Canadian author Patrick DeWitt. John C. Reilly also read it and loved it, and he optioned the book in 2011; he produces this film alongside his wife, Alison Dickey, an indie film producer he met on the set of Casualties of War when she was an assistant to Sean Penn – they’ve been married for over 25 years). They’ve tapped French director Jacques Audiard to helm this shoot-em-up western, and Audiard gives it a sensibility that’s weird and eccentric. Not your typical western, not your typical anything. It’s as funny as it is violent, and both characters and story break out of the genre frequently enough to surprise you.

The acting is great. Riz Ahmed especially gives Herman’s character a bit of a twist, colouring the movie with a slightly more optimistic or meditative vibe. But of course the film belongs to Reilly and he knows it. Though I wish we would have spent a little more time with Eli alone, away from his brother’s influence, deeper into his psyche (flashbacks, I suppose, would have been nice), there’s still something very special going on there, something half-sweet (Eli is still a bad man), half-innocent, half-introspective, half-other-worldly. These aren’t necessarily the kind of cowboys you’re used to but I enjoy the genre’s subversion, the clever hacks that elevate it to something unique and fun to watch. DeWitt’s novel is quite good and I urge you to read it. But unlike many adaptations, this film captures some of its surprising warmth. Despite the Sisters Brothers being contract killers, we find a fair bit of compassion for them as they unravel the traumas of their past and seek a path forward, perhaps not quite forged in enlightenment, but in understanding, and from a need to do and be better.

Charlie and Eli are a some of the most interesting characters to come out of the western genre. Charlie simmers with anger. Eli ooze regret. The brothers bicker like an old married couple but they have each other’s backs when needed – and if often is. But no matter how much sympathy we’re feeling for them, Audiard doesn’t shy away from the fact that the guns on their hips are used to commit murder, for money. Their morals are for sale to the highest bidder. It makes them complex, and eminently watchable.

 

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: First Man

You know the story. The whole world knows the story. Neil Armstrong, an aeronautical engineer and Apollo astronaut, was the first man to walk on the moon. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – that was him. American hero, international phenomenon, global icon. First Man is his biopic, tracing the 304400 km path he took from humble test pilot to living legend.

First Man is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to the ethereal La La Land, which made him the youngest Best Director to ever be awarded the prize at the Oscars. To say I was highly anticipating screening this movie at TIFF is like saying Armstrong was kind of an interesting guy – a resounding understatement. But when the lights came back up, I was feeling a little…underwhelmed? Bored? Disconnected.

Feeling uncomfortable with my initial reaction, I turned to my favourite critic in a whole cinema full of press, and invited him to discuss and unpack this movie over sushi burritos. First – Ryan Gosling. He gives a terrifically reserved, very stoic performance as a famously quiet, attention-shirking man. Armstrong is surprisingly passive when encountering life-altering choices. He’s dispassionate. He’s obsessed with technical detail and getting things right but he never seems overly impressed with the great heights involved in his job. Wait a minute – is it possible Neil Armstrong was on the spectrum? To be clear, I’ve never heard that he’s an Aspie, or had high-IQ autism. Nor have I heard it mentioned in the context of this film. However, his wife at the time, Janet (played in the Film Title: First Manmovie by Claire Foy), called him “emotionally disconnected.” In the film, he struggles to speak to fellow astronauts and even his own children, and goes out of his way  not to. But it’s not that he doesn’t care. He clearly grieves the loss of his infant daughter, and thinks of her often. And he’s sensitive to the deaths of his colleagues. But these are internal struggles that rarely get expressed, or expressed correctly. He’s not unfriendly or unapproachable, exactly, but human connection is hard for him. Is undiagnosed autism what Gosling is hinting at with such a performance? And with that question in mind, the rest of the movie unlocks before me.

I trust Damien Chazelle as a director. If I’m feeling underwhelmed, isn’t it because he wants me to? After all, this is the guy who made me sweat while watching a movie about jazz (sorry, jazz). If he wanted me soaring among the stars, he certainly has the vision not to mention the skill. He swept me away with La La Land; I danced out of the theatre even as I ugly-snot-cried. If my feet are more firmly planted on the ground for this film, there has to be a reason.

What if Chazelle is attempting to put us not just in Armstrong’s shoes, but in his head? I felt very removed during the movie, but maybe that’s exactly his intention: to show the greatest, most ambitious, most adrenaline-fueled achievement in the history of humankind through the eyes of someone who doesn’t express feelings in the usual way.

Whoa.

Now that I’m re-examining the film through this  new filter, I realize that I don’t remember Gosling smiling even once in the whole 120+ minutes. He doesn’t cry when he’s sad, nor does he ever appear to be particularly happy. At a pre-flight press conference, a journalist asks him how it feels to find out he’ll be the first to walk on the moon, to which he simply responds “I’m pleased.” Finding this response lacking, the reporter probes further, asking him to compare it to finding out he’d been selected for NASA’s astronaut program, to which Armstrong can only repeat “I’m pleased.” Although he’s certainly capable of more complex emotions, communicating them seems impossible. Another scene that struck me is one in which Armstrong is trying to sneak out of the house without saying goodbye. He’ll be gone for 2 months, strapped to a bomb that will explode him out of the atmosphere to land or crash on the moon and no one knows for sure if he’ll ever come back. His family has attended the funerals of many friends and colleagues who’ve perished in various missions. His two young sons are sad and scared and he tried to sneak away. His wife has to beg him to say a few words, but “I love you” are not among them. Knowing his father doesn’t like hugs, his brave son offers a handshake instead, not knowing if this is to be their last embrace.

This film is strangely muted, with even the score a tad alienating with unfamiliar instruments. And check out that photo from above – doesn’t that blue wash make him seem lonely, and isolated? This great adventure in the sky should be exciting and staggering, but the biggest sensation we’re given is physical discomfort as we’re rumbled and tumbled about during liftoff sequences. Not that Armstrong complains. There’s no swelling pride or patriotism, no heroic speeches or manly tears. In fact, there’s very little awe. In the vastness of space, the screen is often filled with a solitary face. I wonder if the emphasis on extreme close-ups is supposed to symbolize Armstrong’s challenge in deciphering non-verbal cues, or if it’s merely to give us a better view of his consistently flat affect.

The camera seems to offer things up from Armstrong’s point of view – one small chunk of moon dust rather than an entire lunar landscape. His trip into the infinite universe feels very small, and very  humble, but he’s not unmoved. He just has a narrow focus, more fascinated by his own boot print than by the multitude of stars. Does Armstrong feel more at home in the empty quiet of space? Maybe. But we’ll never know because he sure as heck didn’t say so.

If my little theory is correct, I wish I had know it going in rather than piecing it together in hindsight. What more would I have noticed? I can’t wait to re-watch and find out. I can’t wait to appreciate Armstrong and his accomplishments in this new light, and to celebrate Chazelle as a director who can so completely immerse and saturate you in someone else’s experience. Remarkable.