Category Archives: Kick-ass! (Matt)

Matt says: go see it. Now.

NHFF 2017: An Exceptional Year for Documentaries (Part 1)

Last year, the New Hampshire Film Festival was as swept up in the 2016 election drama as I was. They featured an impressive selection of politically themed documentaries and even hosted a standing-room only panel discussion on Politics in Film. I couldn’t get enough last year and took in as much of it as I could.

The documentary selection this year was noticeably less overtly political, presumably because the NHFF is as burnt out on American politics as I am at this point. Still, in keeping with tradition, the New Hampshire Film Festival remains the one time of year that I favour documentaries. The four docs I saw this year have very little in common in either subject or structure but are all challenging and depressing in their own way.

sacred cod

Sacred Cod: The Fight for a New England Tradition– Due to climate change and overfishing, the cod population in the Gulf of Maine has been dwindling like never before. As a result, fishing communities in New England that have thrived for generations are now struggling as many are forced to sell their boats.

Far from being just another climate change documentary, Sacred Cod focuses instead on the people who are affected by federal government restrictions that severely limit the number of cod that they can catch. To many of them, it feels like government over-regulation is costing them not just their livelihood but their way of life and proud community traditions. Some even doubt the science that the government is citing, given that you can still cherry pick areas that are still rich with cod.

Of the documentaries I saw at the festival, Sacred Cod is the most traditional in style but is exceptional in its compassion. The decreasing cod population and the necessity of government intervention is indisputable at this point and directors Steve Liss, Andy Laub, and David Abel know it but they show as much empathy to those affected by the quotas as they do commitment to the facts.

the reagan show

The Reagan Show– “So, what is a Canadian doing in New Hampshire watching a documentary about our greatest president?”. A young guy I met in line asked me this before The Reagan Show and I have no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not about that last part.

Nor can I tell you with any confidence what the filmmakers behind The Reagan Show thought of America’s 40th president. There are no narrators or even original interviews with which they can betray their political biases. They rely exclusively on footage from the White House archives and TV news segments to tell their story. Specifically, they’re focused on the story of how Reagan exceeded the expectations of most critics in his arms race negotiations with then Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.

If The Reagan Show has a point of view, it’s that Reagan was the first President to really understand television and how to play to the cameras in shaping the public’s perception of him. As far as politics goes, your own point of view will likely be challenged. I went in with an anti-Reagan bias and found that point of view challenged just as I’m sure the Reagan enthusiast I talked to earlier had his challenged too.

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TIFF 2017: Bingo! I Got Bingo!, Part 2

Catching 3 films by female directors is easy. The TIFF lineup this and every year has lots of interesting films to choose from, many of them directed by women. Getting full TIFF Bingo isn’t so easy.

I have stress dreams about the Midnight Madness ball and avoid it like it’s a not deep-fried vegetable so that’s out. And, while Battle of the Sexes had its moments, I can’t honestly say that I thought “Now this I’ve got to try”.

But I did…

Thank a Volunteer

Mom and Dad– The festival and the city that hosts it can be a little overwhelming at first. Even though I feel like an expert by the end of my stay, every year I’m feeling a little disoriented when I first get into town. So I’ve just checked into my hotel, it’s 11:40 at night, and I’ve got a Midnight Madness screening of Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad in 20 minutes. I’m running around trying to find Ryerson theater and I’m getting stressed out imagining all the ways that I could humiliate myself trying to volley a beach ball in a crowded theater. Luckily, a friendly orange shirt is never far away and I was very thankful to the volunteers who helped me find where to line up. I never miss a chance to thank a volunteer and I applaud for them every time the TIFF commercial prompts us to.

So, anyway, Mom and Dad. Taylor (Crank, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengence) seems to be just begging us to make this a cult classic. An unexplained virus suddenly hits suburbia in the middle of the school day that infects parents with an uncontrollable urge to violently murder their offspring. Poor Carly (13 Reasons Why’s Anne Winters) and Josh Ryan (Transparent’s Zackary Arthur) are forced to fend for themselves against their now-deranged parents played by Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair.

Mom and Dad is bananas. Almost every aspect of the film- from the basic concept down to the music and over-caffeinated editing- seems driven by the same manic energy that fuels Cage’s typically unhinged performance. The actor, who in the eyes of the enthusiastic Midnight Madness crowd may as well have been John Lennon, already starts overacting long before the virus starts making everyone crazy. He outCages himself in this movie and- while it would be a stretch to call it a good performance- it feels like the right performance for this movie. But it’s Blair, surprisingly, who somehow finds a way to keep this runaway train from going off the rails. From the start, we can tell that her character is a good mom. She loves her kids but she’s exhausted and taken for granted. She’s the only believable character in the whole thing and her presence brings Mom and Dad back to earth. It’s through her that we start to sense that the virus is tapping into an existential crisis that was already in place before the infection.

To call Mom and Dad good would be ridiculous but it’s not really trying to be. It just wants to be fun and, for the most part, it is. It’s often funny, even coming dangerously close to smart, especially when it’s in terrible taste.

Phone Dies

I got some great photos this year, many of which you can see if you follow us on Twitter. I like sitting in the front row so I was able to get some shots of Nicolas Cage, Alicia Vikander, Alexander Payne, and Darren Aronofsky that I’m really happy with. But you won’t see a photo of Ellen Page (who, if I’m not mistaken, counts as a superhero out of spandex) because my phone died.

The Cured– So I did manage to get a couple of pictures of Ellen Page during the Q&A for The Cured. They’re just not tweetable because my phone didn’t have enough juice left for the flash to work. So it’s not a great picture. It’s a shame because I love her.

And, yes, fortunately for my TIFF Bingo card, my phone officially died on my way back to my hotel.

On to The Cured. This debut feature from Irish director David Freyne finds yet another way to breathe new life into a genre that seems to never run out of ways to reinvent itself: the zombie movie. Once this version of the zombie apocalypse has died down, two thirds of the “infected’ have been successfully cured and are slowly being reintegrated into society. Ex-zombies don’t have it easy though. They still have painful memories of the suffering that they inflicted and most people still don’t trust them.

Senan (Sam Keeley) has just been released from a treatment facility and is taken in by his brother’s wife Abbie (Page) who has been widowed by the outbreak. When he falls in with a militant group of zombie rights activists, Senan struggles to find a balance between his desire to fit in and atone for his crimes and his instinct to stand up for his fellow cured.

To Freyne, his film is really about how we treat each other in today’s mixed up world. It’s a serious movie with serious themes that somehow finds time to deliver the goods when it comes to zombie scares. Freyne’s direction is confident and precise, more so than almost any other movie I saw at the festival this year.

So there you have it. I wore out my phone battery, saw 3 films by female directors, thanked every volunteer that I spoke to, and even managed to see some good movies while I was at it. By now, experienced Bingo players have probably already spotted my path to victory but please feel free to stay tuned for more details.

 

Genocidal Organ

In the near future, a devastating terrorist attack in Sarajevo shocks the world. The governments of most industrialized countries use the widespread panic to justify an increase in surveillance of their own citizens. While the developed world is safer than ever before, the third world- without the means to conduct such widespread surveillance- descends into chaos and mass murder.

Captain Clavis Shepherd  is one of the few Americans unfortunate enough to have to navigate this chaos. As a covert intelligence agent, Shepherd conducts bloody and dangerous missions around the world while his superiors monitor his vitals from Washington to make sure he’s not feeling too much compassion. His latest mission is to track down the mysterious John Paul, the architect of so many genocides around the world.

Genocidal Organ is not always easy to follow but will reward those who try to try to keep up. It took me about twenty minutes, given that this is a Japanese film with Japanese animation and Japanese voice actors speaking Japanese, to realize that most of these characters are supposed to be American. It feels weird at first. This must be how Russian people feel watching Eastern Promises. Once you’ve figured out who everyone is though, it’s easy enough to settle in and just enjoy the movie.

Visually, Genocidal Organ is an impressive film. The animators create a believable setting and the shootouts have better choreography than most live-action films do. As I’ve said before, I’m no good at describing animations so here are some stills to give you an idea.

genocidal organ 1

genocidal organ 5

genocidal organ 4

genocidal organ 3

As a story, it’s an engaging spy thriller that tricks you into having fun because it looks so good. At its heart though, Genocidal Organ is hopelessly bleak. It’s a movie that, like John Paul (who is quite fond of monologuing), has a lot to say. While the script probably has a couple of speeches too many, its musings on linguistics, psychology, American foreign policy, and freedom are always interesting and often troubling. Be prepared to sit and think about this one for a few days after you see it.

The Honor Farm

Honor farm

I hadn’t seen my friend Josh in months and was eager to tell him all about the exciting new movie I saw at the Fantasia Film Festival. “I just saw The Honor Farm and I’m still trying to figure it out,” I told him while seated at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

I hadn’t seen the baby boomer somehow standing right over me until he chose this moment to cut me off. “I just saw that,” he complained. “It was terrible“.

I didn’t really want to get into it with this guy nor was I even confident that I had understood the film well enough to defend it so I just smiled politely as he told me that it wasn’t even scary. I bashfully admitted that I was the guy who jumped and cried out during the final act.

honor farm 2

The Honor Farm is exactly that kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie that you need to let sink in while you ignore those who will immediately and loudly dismiss it. Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate) seems to feels like she’s just going through the motions as she prepares for her prom. After her drunk date embarasses her and tries to force himself on her, she reluctantly agrees to accompany her best friend Anne (Katie Folger) and a classmate she barely knows into the woods to take shrooms in an abandoned prison farm.

Other than that, the less you know about The Honor Farm the better. Although you should probably be warned that horror fans like the one described above may be disappointed. Because the set up seems bloody perfect. Eight teenagers, most of them seeming to fit a typical scary movie stereotype, entering a creepy prison on prom night might make you start placing bets on who will be first to die but this isn’t your typical scary movie. What follows is truly surreal and genre-bending and few of these character arcs play out like you’d expect.

I may have been a little lost during the closing credits but The Honor Farm keeps getting better the more i think about it. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Manchester by the Sea

I knew going into Manchester by the Sea that it was one of the most critically acclaimed American movies of the century so far but I was still somehow surprised by how blown away I was.

Kenneth Lonergan has made a fantastic film about family, grief, and how easy it is to push people away when we’re hurting. It’s one of 2016’s best films not because it has any particularly new ideas or innovative style but simply because it’s refreshingly honest.

Casey Affleck (believe the hype, he kills it in this) plays Lee Chandler, a reclusive janitor who returns to his hometown after the sudden death of his brother (played by Kyle Chandler). Lee is surprised to learn that he will need to be staying home a lot longer than he had planned when he discovers that his brother’s will has named him as the guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). Losing a brother and raising a grieving teenager is further complicated by the memories of unspeakable pain and tragedy that his hometown holds.

Manchester by the Sea isn’t always pleasant but, with its sense of dark humour, never feels like a chore. Lonergan is an expert at finding humour in the unlikeliest of situations without it ever feeling forced. Actually, nothing really feels forced. It’ll make you feel powerful emotions without resorting to sentimentality. Even its non-linear structure doesn’t feel like a gimmick.

And there’s not a bad performance to speak of. Affleck has never been better and his scenes with Hedges are priceless. 2016 Golden Globe nominee Michelle Williams makes great use of her limited screen time as Lee’s ex-wife in her emotionally rawest performances in years.

Go see it!

Zero Days

I was so nervous the morning of the election that I could barely concentrate on anything else. I worried about voter intimidation at polling stations and about what would happen if Donald Trump and his supporters refused to accept a Hillary Clinton victory. I think my biggest fear  was a close enough race that would send the message to future candidates that, despite Trump’s loss, there was still a place for his brand of inflammatory rhetoric.

Well, most of you now know that I may have lacked imagination when dreaming up Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Keene, New Hampshirethe 2016 American Election’s worst-case scenario. Misogyny and xenophobia  seem to have its place in American political discourse after all- the Oval Office on weekdays and Trump Tower on the weekends. A lot of people have said a lot of things to try to make me feel better. “Geez, give him a chance. If he succeeds, we succeed,” they say. “He’s not going to do any of the things he said,” seems like a popular response, which even if true seems to miss the point. One person even made the bizarre claim “Don’t worry. Orange people never do anything”.

zero-days“Sure, he’s unprepared and easily distracted but give him time,” would makes more sense if the world was a simple place where nothing all that important or complex were going on. Zero Days, the new documentary from Alex Gibney and the film I’m using as an excuse to talk about the feelings I can’t shake since the election, paints a scary picture of the complexity of the security threats that face the United States and the world. Specifically, Zero Days is focused on cyber security and the story of  the Stuxnet virus.

If you are as unfamiliar with Stuxnet as I was, I won’t spoil it for you. Even thoughzero-days-2 Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie, Going Clear) takes his subject seriously, his documentary can’t help feeling like a Hollywood thriller and the twists can feel pretty exciting until you remember that this is real life. The director is wise to play up the suspense given that all this talk of worms and centrifuges can get a little technical and continually reminding us how high the stakes are is an excellent motivator to pay attention to all the tech talk. The interviews with the security company that discovered Stuxnet, the politicians who can neither confirm nor deny anything, and the NSA whistleblowers are all gripping.

Maybe it’s all these film festivals that have me so worried. If you’ve been watching the documentaries we’ve been watching lately, the future- even without Trump- can seem like a pretty uncertain and scary place. From cyber attacks to nuclear weapons, climate change to sexting scandals, the challenges facing our and future generations can seem overwhelming. Electing wise and level-headed world leaders would have seemed like a logical place to start.

 

 

American Honey

American Honey is one of those rare American movies that are so beautiful that even Shia LaBeouf couldn’t ruin it.

I’m not exaggerating. It really is that good. In fact, Shia’s in it. And he’s really goodamerican-honey-3. Really, really good.

American Honey works neither in spite of or because of his performance. Instead, he is just one of many important parts of an impressive cast of mostly non-actors with not a single weak link in the bunch. Jake (LaBeouf) leads a team of about a dozen runaway youths who earn their living by travelling across the United States selling magazine door-to-door. Their newest recruit Star (Sasha Lane) isn’t so sure that she is comfortable with the lies that her new colleagues use to sell their product but, having seemingly nowhere else to go and having quickly fallen for Jake, she starts to feel at home with them anyway.

american-honey-2I struggle to communicate what it is that works so well about American Honey. My writer’s block was so bad that I went to see it a second time, quite a commitment with its 163-minute running time. All I’ve really learnt from two sittings is that writer-director Andre Arnold creates a believable world around these characters and makes it easy for the audience to feel like they’re a part of it. (Well, maybe I should just speak for myself. At my first screening, the film had lost over half its audience by the end).

To keep from getting too bored or discouraged while on the road, Jake’s team engage in american-honeyany number of traditions and rituals that are often somehow both unsettling and charming. Their favourite songs, games, and chants serve the film well in helping create a subculture that we can believe and relate to. Beautifully naturalistic performances from an exceptionally well-chosen cast, great choice of music, and some terrific (though sometimes elf-indulgent) cinematography help bring their world to life.

It’s hard to describe what works about American Honey because it works mostly on an emotional level. Intellectually, I’m not sure if it’s really “about” anything other than an unusually honest and surreal coming of age story but the power of the filmmaking gave me chills.

 

Weiner

“Good to see a bunch of political junkies like me,” quipped a beaming NHFF programmer as he introduced last week’s screening of Weiner. “You’d think most people have had enough of political scandals at this point. But not you”. The packed Music Hall Loft cheered in agreement.

I’ve been so busy feverishly reading everything I can find about the American election lately that I couldn’t help seeking out anything the festival had to offer on elections and the issues facing voters this year.

There’s nothing quite like a public meltdown. I’ve caught myself snickering out loud all morning just thinking about some of Trump’s most quotable sulking from last night’s debate. I didn’t know nearly as much about Anthony Weiner’s crash and burn so was looking forward to learning more with Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary Weiner.

Directors Kriegman and Steinberg were given seemingly unlimited behind the scenes access to Weiner’s 2013 campaign for Mayor of New York City, just two years after his resignation from Congress after his first sexting scandal. Amazingly, everything seems to be going just fine with the campaign until another embarrassing photo resurfaces. Kriegman and Steinberg’s cameras are there from day one to capture his staff’s attempts at damage control and some seriously uncomfortable moments between Weiner and wife Huma Abedin.

“So, yes, I did the thing,” Weiner admits at the very start of the film. “But I did a lot of other things too”. His self-destructive habits, of which his fits of public anger are as damaging as his possible sex addiction, make it hard to find anyone but himself to blame for his downfall. But as tempting as it is to laugh at him (the festival audience laughed, cheered, and jeered at he screen so much you’d think you were at a midnight genre screening), a nagging feeling  of weird sympathy for him may give you pause. There’s something almost unjust about seeing a charismatic politician fighting so passionately for his constituents brought down by such an embarrassing scandal. Sure, the story plays well on late night comedy shows and his last name- hilariously appropriate to the fourteen year-old boy in all of us- makes his mistakes impossible to forget. But he did other things too. And this documentary makes a strong case that his wiener isn’t the only thing he should be remembered for.

Holy crap. Never mind. I literally just read an article about him carrying on texting a 15 year-old girl. Fuck that guy.

So…. still. It’s worth watching for the voyeuristic pleasure of watching an ambitious and prideful man dig a hole for himself. And it might just make you ask some important questions about what really matters when deciding who to vote for and about the media’s obsession with scandal.

 

 

 

 

Ottawa International Animation Festival 2016: Louise en hiver

Louise values her peace and quiet so she barely even seems disappointed when she misses the last train of the season from the small seaside town where she likes to spend her summers. Through voiceover, she claims to be more annoyed than afraid to be left alone in this increasingly stormy abandoned town.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m no good at describing animation but at least here I can tell you that the OIAF website praises Louise en hiver for its “beautiful pastel imagery”. I can also show you some pictures.

Louise may not be a people person but 9 months is a long time to spend by yourself. Plus, there’s the whole “no one seems to be looking for me” thing which can eat at you a bit, especially when left alone with your own thoughts. So, like Tom Hanks in Castaway, she needs someone to talk to. And with no other people or volleyballs around, a talking dog named Pepper will have to do.

Yes, the dog talks. Unlike in Castaway, where Hanks’ conversations with Wilson were largely one-sided, we see everything from Louise’s point of view. It’s not always easy following this story through the eyes of the occasionally confused and forgetful protagonist. Reality, fantasy, memories, and dreams are interwoven so beautifully that it isn’t always easy to tell which are which.

Louise en hiver is worth the trip into a lonely woman’s mind. It’s quite a beautiful film from its simple yet effective animation to its sad yet hopeful meditation on aging, memory, and looking back.

Here’s the trailer.

Ottawa International Animation Festival 2016: Window Horses

Young Canadian Rosie Ming has kept her interest in poetry a secret so her grandparents and best friend are shocked when she announces that she has been invited to a poetry festival in Iran. Though she can’t help wishing that the festival was in Paris instead, Rosie soon discovers that she has a lot to learn from her fellow poets from around the world about ancient Persian poetry and her own family history.

Of course, some of my favourite movies are animated but I am realizing lately how little I know about animation itself. I know very little about the different styles of animation and wouldn’t know how to go about describing the look of this film.

Luckily, I have some stills.

Window Horses is as much a story about multicultural identity as it is about family. Rosie was born and raised in Canada to a Chinese-Canadian mother and a Persian father. With her mother now deceased and her father now estranged, she knows very little about either family’s heritage. When asked about her father, she has only one thing to say “My father abandoned me when I was 7”. As she starts to realize that nearly every local she meets in Iran seems to know him, she is forced to revisit the oversimplified story she’s been telling herself about her father.

Yes, the resentments we hold on to, maybe especially when it comes to our own family, are more complex than we let on. We’ve seen this before in movies and I did find the family drama a little played out and predictable. Thankfully, Window Horses has a lot more to offer than just a mystery surrounding Rosie’s family. Window Horses works best when it shows us the transcendent power of art. Rosie spends a lot of the movie discovering Chinese and Iranian culture through poetry and barely even needs to speak a word of Mandarin or Farsi to relate to the words. German, Mandarin, French, and Farsi verses are all brought to life with some beautifully creative animation all without a single subtitle. It is the film’s most brilliant device by far.

Window Horses may drag a little when it relies too heavily on exposition  and voice actress Sandra Oh is badly miscast as Rosie but, for the most part, director Ann Marie Fleming has made quite a nice film. Its unique sense of humour and literally poetic animation more than make up for its any minor complains I might have.