Category Archives: Kick-ass!

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.

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.

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!

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain should truthfully be titled The MURDER of Kenneth Chamberlain, and I’m pretty sure everyone involved in this film hears the correct word shouted over the one that’s used every time it’s pronounced. The film does the shouting for them, of course, leaving little (no) doubt in anyone’s mind who watches it. Kenneth Chamberlain, a Black man, was murdered by the police. It is such a familiar refrain by now that it may seem redundant to make yet another film – but that’s exactly the point. These stories need to be told, heard, and shared until actual changed is effected. Kenneth Chamberlain was an old man in his bed when the police came knocking on his door. This is his story.

On a November night in 2011, Kenneth Chamberlain rolled over in his sleep and accidentally triggered his life alert button. The police showed up to his apartment in White Plains NY’s public housing do a wellness check around 5:30am. Rousing him from his bed, Kenneth was confused as he fumbled for his hearing aids. He was a retired Marine struggling with bipolar disorder; he was listed as ’emotionally disturbed’ by the police dispatch but in fact he wore the life alert for a heart condition. He refused to let the cops in but verbally assured them that he was fine and the button was pressed accidentally. The cops would not leave. Having assessed his neighbourhood as predominantly poor and Black, they were furious to not be let in, and wanting to teach him a lesson, they mused he might be hiding a meth lab, or a dead prostitute. Kenneth held his ground, growing increasingly agitated by the insistent banging and attempts to push their way in. Keeping the door firmly locked, Kenneth placed panicked calls to the life alert agency, pleading for his safety. Overhearing the police intrusion, the woman on the other end does everything in her power to call off the cops, but no matter what she or Kenneth, or Kenneth’s family do, the cops will not back down.

How do things go from a wellness check to gunning an old man down in just 90 minutes? Frankie Faison as Kenneth paints the troubling picture of yet another innocent Black man murdered by the police. The lengths the police will go to in order to murder him are astounding. While not a documentary, it almost watches like one, determined not to stray from the truth, which was recorded in its entirety by Kenneth’s staying on an open line with his life alert company. For some this will be old news, and for others eye-opening, but either way, this is must-watch viewing.

Silent Night

Is TIFF the most wonderful time of the year? For a movie reviewer, it’s pretty close. Every year when the schedule gets locked down, I peruse the titles, research each film, and work up a short list of films I’d optimistically like to watch, if time was unlimited and schedules never conflicted and sleep was optional. In my trusty notebook, I write down titles, directors, actors, and a small blurb to job my memory as to what on earth I might be watching. I had “girl with ice cubes for teeth” and “quirky martial arts romance” and “Afro-sonic sci-fi musical”; for this one, I’d merely written “Keira Knightley Christmas movie.” I don’t normally love watching Christmas movies outside of December, but the chronology of film festivals is mystifying and not to be questioned.

What did I actually get?

A lovely Christmas party, actually, in which hostess Nell (Knightley) greets her friends and family for a fantastic meal, friendly reminiscence, merry making, followed by mass suicide.

It’s the end of the world, you see. That thing we keep predicting but doing nothing about. The environment collapses, sending a cloud of poison, more or less, into the world, where it is spreading death, horrible, horrible death, wherever it goes. Blood leaking out all your orifices kind of death. Not a great death. So the UK, generous to a fault, have provided their citizens with a suicide pill. Everyone’s enjoying one last Christmas with their families, and as the cloud approaches, the pill will ensure a peaceful death in the arms of loved ones instead of painful and bloody convulsions.

The movie broke my damn heart. The adults did their best to act jolly, or stoic when jolly couldn’t be produced, but the kids were confused and vulnerable. Nell and Simon (Matthew Goode) have three kids; the oldest, Art (Roman Griffin Davis) is old enough to be angry at what’s happening to him. He’s angry the adults neglected the environment until it came to this. He’s angry that his parents plan to murder him. He’s angry that he’s so helpless. I was angry too.

But mostly I was sad. Sad that we’d failed these kids, yes, but also sad that any parents had to make this choice, no choice at all really. Sad that there’s so little comfort to be had at the end of the world.

And I was a little impressed, impressed that writer-director Camille Griffin could use Christmas apocalypse to talk about privilege. Nell has the perfect old house to host her closest friends, their kids, and even semi-unwelcome plus ones (that would be Sophie, played by Lily-Rose Depp). But she’s also a citizen of a prosperous nation with efficient (enough) infrastructure. They’ve delivered a peaceful way out to its citizens – but not to everyone living within its borders. If you aren’t there legally, you’re not worth the pill that will save you needless agony. Even kids understand this inherent inequity, and if you think you can look a kid in the eye and attempt to justify it, you’ve got another thing coming. Come armed with kleenex; Silent Night sounds harmless but beneath its shiny gift wrap is scathing indictment and a death sentence for all.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

I was too young to know Jim and Tammy Bakker in their heyday. They were a perky husband and wife youth pastor team who used songs and puppets to reach out to Christian children in the hopes that their parents would soon follow. They espoused some new Christian values, mainly that you need not be poor to be pious. And the best and fastest way to get Christians to part with their cash was to beam into millions of homes at once: television!

At one point, they were popular, beloved, and rich, rich, rich, using “church” donations to fund a family compound, a Jesus in Jerusalem water and theme park, and furs for everyone. Everyone! And then the scandal hit: Jim Bakker wasn’t just skimming profits, he was shoveling them right into his own pockets. Plus, he’d been having a string of homosexual affairs – and one woman with whom things did not go well, and he paid off to keep it to herself that he couldn’t get off. Or up. By the time I knew about the Bakkers, the pastoring was behind them. Jim was in jail. Tammy Faye was a punchline. You may remember her as the woman who wore an entire tube of mascara every single day.

This movie is Tammy Faye’s biopic, the chance to finally get to know the woman behind the man, trying very hard to get in front of him.

I’ve enjoyed director Michael Showalter’s work (The Lovebirds, The Big Sick, Hello My Name Is Doris) in the past so I was excited to check this one out at TIFF.

Jessica Chastain plays Tammy Faye and let me assure you: enough said. She is phenomenal. She sings, she sobs, she stands up to the sexist pigs running the ministry. She’s a total firecracker, and incredibly infectious. Jim Bakker is played by Andrew Garfield, who isn’t bad, but inevitably pales in comparison. The film is a straight biopic, starting with Tammy’s childhood obsession with religion and hitting all the major hallmarks of her life. The film paints Tammy as a pure and nearly innocent soul, just a nice girl who loves God, and all His people, and Diet Coke, in that order.

I was completely entertained by this movie, but I did find Tammy’s depiction to be suspiciously and relentlessly positive. Even more of a problem was the film’s refusal to really dig into the story – into Tammy’s true role and culpability in defrauding her ‘people’ and into what this whole fiasco means to the church generally and televangelism especially. It feels like Showalter is so dedicated to reshaping her legacy that he isn’t willing to be critical of the actual facts. Still, Showalter’s brilliant casting saves him. Chastain is so charming and charismatic that it’s easy to overlook any superficiality. I’d watching this again, 10/10.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an official TIFF selection.

Hold Your Fire

In 1973, four young Black Muslim men went into a sporting goods store to steal some guns. It didn’t go as planned, as these things rarely do. The cops got there too soon, pinning the would-be thieves inside, with a loaded gun counter, and a bunch of hostages. This would be the longest hostage siege in NYPD history.

With the four men holding captives inside, and the police outside preparing to meet them with deadly force, the media reported round-the-block updates while crowds gathered around the police perimeter. The fear and anxiety was high. The crowd took sides, and became aggressive. The journalists reported misinformation. When the police department showed up with tanks and ultimatums, the hostage-takers grew angry, and uncooperative. Communication was very poor. Looking back at the bungles on both sides, it almost feels like a funny game of cops and robbers, but the guns were real, and so were the stakes. The young Black men knew they stood little chance against the cops, not exactly known for being kind to people of colour at the time. A Black hostage refused to be released because she was afraid of the cops; she’d rather take her chances with the men holding her captive, of whom she was also quite afraid.

Enter Harvey Schlossberg, a traffic cop with a PhD. Since Attica, he’d been struggling to be taken seriously as a psychologist who could train the police force with new negotiation tactics, potentially saving lives and making the officers more community-minded. He believed that words were more powerful than bullets, and that time should be taken to speak and to listen to the captors, to find peaceful resolution rather than force violent altercations.

Director Stefan Forbes interviews surviving hostages, cops, and robbers, and everyone’s got a conflicting story about what went down in the sporting goods store. When emotions and tensions are high, it’s way too easy for violence to be a first response, but Schlossberg’s methods focused on finding common ground and understand motives.

All these years later, this hostage siege is not well-remembered, but you can see how Schlossberg’s work basically founded crisis negotiation and influenced the concept of restorative justice as we know it today. His name may not be known, but his work has saved untold lives. This documentary is his origin story.

Hold Your Fire is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Julia

Julia Child is part of the American holy trinity of beloved personalities, right up there with Bob Ross and Mr. Rogers.

When she and her husband moved to France for (his) work, she fell in love with the country, and especially with its food (and who could blame her?). Inspired, she resolved to learn to cook it properly, attending the famous Cordon Bleu culinary school, the only female in the class – and likely the oldest, not to mention the largest. She loved French cooking so much she wanted to make it accessible back home, to American housewives who were, at the time, swept up by food of convenience, presenting TV dinners to their families as the height of technology and efficiency. Her cookbooks, however, made delicious French food seem possible. Even more impressively, she pretty much invented the modern cooking show along the way. They didn’t have a lot of editing tools, so early shows were long single takes of her cooking a recipe all the way through. But people didn’t just watch for her recipes, they watched for her. Even non-cooks watched, enjoying her stream-of-consciousness patter, her love of butter, her appetite, her willingness to embrace mistakes and use them as teaching opportunities.

She came into this surprising and successful career late in life. Her loving husband supported her. She learned to be a businesswoman, not just a chef, learned who to trust, who to leave behind, and how to hold a grudge. Her enthusiasm for food was contagious, creating future foodies all across the country. Her legacy has influenced
American cuisine, and every cookbook author/TV chef today owes a debt to her.

You already know Julia Child is an interesting woman; let directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West remind you why she deserves to be remembered. Their documentary Julia is a tribute to her, clearly made with love and admiration. We hear from cooking greats like Ina Garten and José Andrés, but most wonderfully, we hear a lot from Julia herself, via vintage footage the directors have shrewdly crafted together to tell her story from her own point of view. As a legend and an icon, there’s no one better to tell her story, and I think she more than most would appreciate having the last word.

Julia is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

It is scheduled to be released on November 5, 2021.

Ferguson Rises

Say his name: Michael Brown.

Michael Brown had graduated high school just 8 days before the police shot him dead. He was planning to study heating and air conditioning repair at a technical college just two days later. Instead, an altercation with officer Darren Wilson, just 90 seconds from start to finish, led to Wilson discharging 12 bullets, 6 of which hit Brown, the last of which resulted in his death. Eye witnesses share conflicting accounts of what happened, but some are certain that Brown took the shots to his front while raising his hands in surrender and saying “Hands up, don’t shoot”. Michael Brown, completely unarmed, lay dead in the street, where his body remained for over four hours.

In the wake of Brown’s murder, protests, both peaceful and violent, continued for more than a week in Ferguson, and the police department’s response was botched, criticized for the tactless insensitivity of their highly militarized response. A grand jury failed to indict Wilson, adding injury to injury and reinforcing a divide in Ferguson based on the shade of one’s skin.

This documentary, by director Mobolaji Olambiwonnu, revisits the residents of Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, 7 years later. Michael Brown’s death – the murder of a Black body by a white and racist police officer – was sadly one of many, but his was a rallying point, igniting protests against police racism and brutality in Protests erupted in 170 cities across the U.S., including Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. But for Ferguson, it was different. It was personal. Missouri was the last state to abolish slavery, and the aftereffects of that oppression are still felt today. While white residents of Ferguson watched protests turn to riots, they expressed disbelief, and disapproval. But Brown’s death and subsequent treatment wasn’t a surprise to Ferguson’s Black community. Darren Wilson wasn’t one bad apple; the entire Ferguson PD was institutionally racist, routinely violating the rights of Black citizens.

Though the Black Lives Matter movement that has sprung up as a result of all these protests does have some white support in Ferguson, there are a number of white people still firmly on the wrong side of right. Brown’s mother and father will tell you what it feels like to live in a community divided over your son’s death. His friends will tell you what it’s like to drive by the spot where he was gunned down. Protesters will tell you what it was like to get on a plane and fly back in time, coming home to a town in Missouri where a white police force was brutalizing Black weeping mothers, shooting tear gas at people filled with righteous anger, using rubber bullets against people trying to express their horror, their abhorrence, their shock, their sorrow.

Many voices contribute to Ferguson Rises, and themes of strength and resilience seem to create a pattern. Black Americans may have suffering and oppression in their DNA, but they’ve got determination in their souls.

I knew this documentary would be an emotional watch, but it feels essential to return to the scene of the crime with a clear head in the pursuit of truth, and perhaps more importantly, real change. We have so little to offer Brown in exchange for his life – this feels like the least we can do.

Montana Story

Estranged siblings Cal and Erin return to the ranch where they grew up. Their father is dying; he wasn’t a good man so neither needs a tearful bedside goodbye, they’re more keen to bid farewell to the land they once loved, the horse they used to ride, the housekeeper who’s kept in touch.

Cal (Owen Teague) and Erin (Haley Lu Richardson), once close, no longer speak, their troubled childhoods breeding resentment rather than unification. But this death watch provides the opportunity to finally come to terms with what they’ve lost, and who they’ve blamed. Their father is a footnote, beyond redemption, but the relationship between the siblings, each the other’s only remaining family, could be saved if only they can overcome their regrets, sadness, disappointment, and the space that has grown between them for the past seven years. Joining their vigil are Ace (Gilbert Owuor), a philosophical nurse from Nairobi, and beloved housekeeper Valentina (Kimberly Guerrero), a Native American whose family has worked the land longer than the dying man has owned it. Originally a lawyer, the slimy kind who helps corporations pillage the land, he bought the ranch and subsequently ran it into the ground; the bank only awaits his death to repossess it.

This is a quiet movie done right. Directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel understand intuitively that silence can be meaningful, can express things that too hard to say. Quiet moments can be healing as well, when done subtly, suggesting peace, or comfort. The directors let the dreamy Montana landscape become its own character, letting it fill not just the outdoor scenes, but every window and open door inside as well. Unlike The Power of the Dog, which is also set in Montana, this film actually filmed there, and they use the land to teach us about the characters – who respects it, who’s in awe of it, who’s afraid of it, who will use it up for profit.

Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens captures the natural beauty, but also helps to show that even wide open spaces can feel oppressive. In the end, when the body has been bagged, the nurse moved on to his next patient, the siblings packed up and gone their separate ways, only two things remain: the mountains, and Valentina. She and her family have cared for and protected the land for generations, and will continue to provide it stewardship through the comings and goings of many white families who treat the land as something they can own, and ranching as merely a hobby. American Indians have seven tribal reservations in Montana, home to a dozen tribes, including Blackfeet, Sioux, and Chippewa, on tiny slivers of land mere fractions of the land they once occupied. They are the real Montana story, the enduring one. This white family, with all its history and heartbreak, are but a blip.

Montana Story is an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival 2021.