Tag Archives: Canadian content

Jim & Andy

The official title of the documentary is Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton and it’s ‘about’ how Jim Carrey became Andy Kaufman in order to portray him in the 1999 movie Man in the Moon.

Andy Kaufman was a comedian who defied definition. There wasn’t and hasn’t been anyone like him before or since; Kaufman existed outside the normal conception of stand-up comedy. For a lot of people he was simply too much – so who better to play him than this generation’s over the top comedian, Jim Carrey?

Having watched the documentary, it’s hard to decide who’s crazier. Maybe Andy MV5BMjM3OTY1OTAxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI0MTUxNDM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Kaufman just didn’t give a fuck – but Jim? The documentary has a tonne of footage from the set of the movie, which was filmed 20 years ago. A documentary was planned at the time (shot by an old girlfriend of Andy’s) but Universal pulled the plug, for fear that the public would discover their beloved Jim Carrey to be an asshole. Cut to 2017 and the cat’s pretty much out of the bag. And maybe asshole’s not even the right word, but there is no one right word: he’s a space cadet, a depressive, a nonsensical philosopher. And those things are all apparent in the documentary, which also features an interview with him present day. And it’s hard to know who to detest and pity more: the Jim Carrey on the set of Man on the Moon was was never Jim Carrey at all because he was so deep in the character Jim never showed up to work, or the Jim Carrey today who at times seems downright bewildered even in his own skin. He talks about fugue states and telepathy, but bottom line, he believes that the spirit of Kaufman inhabited his body during filming. When director Milos Forman or colleagues like Danny De Vito or Paul Giamatti tried to address Jim on the set, “Andy” would be angry and\or defensive. “Andy” was always on, and always creating a ruckus. You can see how that would wear thin. The real Jim Carrey, whoever that is, has recently claimed to have had a spiritual awakening, and depending how woke you are yourself, what he spouts is either enlightened or crazy.

Either way, it’s hard to watch. And while it starts out to be fascinating in a voyeuristic, train wreck kind of way, my tolerance for it eroded before the 94 run time was up. And I’m a little uncomfortable eavesdropping on the scattered thoughts of a man who is perhaps not mentally at his best. Having battled depression for years, he has lately taken to ascribing meaninglessness to everything, coming off loopy in red carpet interviews. And he’s still staring down the barrel of a wrongful death lawsuit, accused by his dead girlfriend’s mother and estranged husband of having introduced her to hard drugs, prostitute, and at least 3 STIs. Carrey maintains the the lawsuit is simply a shakedown. I don’t know who’s right, but I do know that the whole method acting thing was nutty to begin with and is downright unhinged the way he does it. Maybe it’s the counsellor in me talking, but watching this just made me think: this man needs help.

 

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Dreaming of A Jewish Christmas

Earlier this week we learned about the man who invented Christmas with a little novel he wrote called A Christmas Carol. This time we’re learning about the men and women who helped give it a distinct sound: Jews who wrote Christmas carols. It might seem like an odd pairing, but Jewish songwriters wrote about everything, so why not the biggest holiday of the year? Sure it’s a Christian day, but if you didn’t need to be in love to write a great love song, what’s stopping you?

Irving Berlin, a Russian Jew, was perhaps the greatest song writer who ever lived. He made a living out of writing songs, so to ignore popular holidays was just bad business. He wrote White Christmas; Bing Crosby’s version went on to be the best-MV5BYWExOWMzOGYtY2Q1OS00NjE2LWIyM2UtMjhlNmU5N2E3OTljXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTYzMTcyNTg@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_selling single of all time. It also served to “de-Christ Christmas”, restyling the birth of Jesus into a holiday about snow that also evokes nostalgia for home and for childhood, concepts we can all relate to.

To further illustrate the point, the film maker uses another Jewish Christmas tradition, the Chinese restaurant, to bring the greatest hits alive. As the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in America, they had an understanding of what it took to get through a holiday they didn’t really participate in, and they redefined it for each other.

Winter Wonderland

It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

Silver Bells

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

Sleigh Ride

Let It Snow

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Rockin Around The Christmas Tree

Do You Hear What I Hear

Once Irving Berlin had broken the mould, many Jewish song writers made contributions to the Christmas cannon. And the thing about any song that makes its way into pop culture is that it’s kind of universal. These songs, departing from mangers and baby messiahs, created a new mythology, one of snowmen and red-nosed reindeer – a version of Christmas we could all share in. This documentary explores the hidden stories behind many of these oft-recorded, beloved songs and gives them a context I (and likely many of us) have never considered.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

My bosom is glowing. That’s what we used to call boobies when I was little: bosoms. Pronounced bazooms, of course. My grandmother told us that eating our sandwich crusts would result in big bazooms and I gobbled mine up greedily, and those of my sisters, if they left them.

Is it a digression if I lead with it? Back to my glowing bosom, which is a line I lifted from the movie itself. It’s the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. He’d gotten a taste of success with Oliver Twist and was determined to live 58dd47c10c48e-e2i2h1u1qk5henceforth like a gentleman, but his next three attempts were flops – poorly reviewed, scarcely read. He was really under the gun to write his next best-seller and you know what pressure does to a writer: it blocks him. He pitched a vague idea for a Christmas ghost story to publisher and was laughed right out of the office, Christmas being a “minor” holiday and all. He determined to self-publish and gave himself the daunting deadline of just 6 weeks hence – a release just barely in time for Christmas. The only problem aside from funding was that not a word had been written.

The film follows Dickens (Dan Stevens) on his frantic quest to write a wildly popular novel without the merest hint of a concrete idea. He agonizes over the creation of characters and then is haunted by them, literally. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) mocks his attempts and grumbles when he isn’t given enough lines, or enough good lines. Dicken’s father (Jonathan Pryce) is visiting and provides constant distraction. If you have even a passing knowledge of A Christmas Carol, it’s kind of fascinating to watch its author draw inspiration from his own life and everything around him, turning ordinary things into ideas that have permeated our culture and helped to define how we celebrate our holidays. While director Bharat Nalluri of course takes some dramatic license, the spirit of the thing is largely accurate. 

Dan Stevens is well-cast as Dickens, and it gives me great pains to send any praise his way because I’ve always held a grudge for how he treated Lady Mary when he left Downton Abbey the way he did. But in The Man Who Invented Christmas, he brings Dickens alive, a man for whom his characters were more alive to him than his own loved ones, and though Scrooge et al literally do speak to him (and offer criticism), his genius and vivid imagination are not to be discounted. But if the film merely existed to give us Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, that alone would be enough. About to celebrate his 88th birthday, the man still has performance in his bones. He won his first Oscar at the age of 82 for Beginners, and it is possibly not his last – he’s got 4 movies in various phases of production, including his hasty replacement of Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s All The Money in the World. This movie is a perfect example of why Plummer is still in demand. He turns an invented character into a real, flesh and blood man.

Ben’s At Home

Ben is a whiny son of a bitch and I hated him almost on sight. But then he confesses he’s a movie reviewer who really likes the movie Mary and Max – watching him explain stop motion to blank-faced 20-somethings is an agony I related to all too well. And then that moment of synergy faded and I went back to hating the asshole. First impressions: there’s something to them.

maxresdefaultIn the wake of a bad breakup, Ben decides he just won’t leave his apartment anymore. His friends think he’s a dick but aren’t as concerned for his mental health as they perhaps should be. His world condenses down to shouting at 11 year olds over video game platforms, gaming internet dates with the same Richard Attenborough material, and chatting up whatever cute delivery persons cross his threshold.

Dan Abramovici as Ben (and the film’s co-writer, with director Mars Horodyski) is perfect for the role. I hate him as much as I hate the character. Ben is a loathsome guy who genuinely hurts his friends when he chooses his new “lifestyle” over celebrating their big milestones. And yet the film believes he is still worthy of love, still worthy of all the undercooked female characters they can throw at him. To say this movie fails the Bechdel test is misleading; you can’t administer a chemistry test to a remedial gym class and expect anyone to do well. And giving him a dog just made me feel sorry for the dog.

The one good thing I can say about this film is that it tops out at 70 minutes. Taking a page from Ben’s At Home, I’ll keep this review short too: nope.

 

Civil Rights & The Cinema

Viola Desmond’s name may not be as well-known as Rosa Parks’, but she took her stand against segregation nearly a decade before Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus.

Viola Davis was born in 1914, one of ten children to a white mother and black father in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Growing up, she noticed an absence of hair and skin-care CNSPhoto-PARDONoptions for women of colour and decided she would be the woman to correct this. But her skin colour prevented her from beautician training at home, so she went off to Montreal and then to New York to complete her education. Returning to Halifax, she opened her own hair salon, where she would tend to a young Gwen Jenkins, later to be the first black nurse in Nova Scotia. And she didn’t stop there. She went on to found The Desmond School of Beauty Culture so black women could train closer to home. Students were taught how to open their own businesses, providing jobs for other black women in their communities. Then she started her own line of beauty products, Vi’s Beauty Products, which she sold herself.

It was on just such a work trip when she found herself in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in 1946. Her car had broken down and was going to be in the shop overnight, so to kill time she went to see The Dark Mirror at the Roseland Film Theatre. At the box office, she asked for a main floor ticket and then took her seat, only to be told by the manager she did not have a ticket for that seat. She went back to the ticket booth but they refused to sell her a different ticket, claiming it was against their policiy to to sell a main floor seat to a black person. Desmond returned to her original seat with her original ticket, refusing to sit in the balcony designated for black patrons. She was forcibly removed from the theatre, arrested with enough violence to cause injury to her hip. She was jailed overnight without access to a lawyer or bail.

This was a private movie theatre and its segregation practises went against the law in Nova Scotia so Desmond was actually charged with tax evasion, believe it or not, for the one-cent difference in tax between the slightly cheaper balcony ticket she was sold and the main floor seat she actually occupied. One cent. She was fined $20 plus $6 in court costs; she paid and went home to Halifax. But her Minister really didn’t like how things went, and encouraged her to fight the charge. Carrie Best broke the story in Nova Scotia’s first black-owned and published newspaper, The Clarion. Best had previously written about The Roseland Theatre and was happy to take up the cause. So too was Desmond’s Baptist church and the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. Sadly, her lawyer made some bad decisions and they ultimately lost the case.

In 2010, Mayann Francis, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, invoked the Royal Prerogative to grant Desmond a posthumous free pardon – the first to be granted in Canada. It’s different from a regular pardon because it is based on innocence and recognizes that the conviction was in error. Francis was emotional as she signed the document: “”Here I am, 64 years later – a black woman giving freedom to another black woman.” The government of Nova Scotia followed up with an apology, acknowledging she was rightfully resisting racial discrimination.

So that’s how one small act of defiance in a rural movie theatre galvanized the Canadian civil rights movement, and it’s why Ms. Desmond will be featured on Canadian currency next year when her face graces our $10 bill. Thank you, Viola Desmond.

Kayak to Klemtu

Teenagers. They think they know it all, don’t they? They have this unbearable self-righteousness. They can take a motorboat to testify about the dangers posed by oil tankers and not feel a little hypocritical, not even a bit.  The big picture is missed. Kayak to Klemtu, Zoe Hopkins’ first feature, finds itself in the same quandary.  Various problems arise, the characters deal with them as they come, and then the scene shifts to the next problem, without ever engaging with anything of significance.

I wished throughout that I got to know the characters. Too often, characters would appear solely to serve the plot or provide a moral question of some sort, and then disappear once they had set up that segment of the film.  Discussions that would seem to be important often didn’t end up happening, whether it was the reason why the teenagers’ parents left Klemtu in favour of Vancouver, or why a mother and son never asked each other how they felt during their husband/father’s battle with cancer.

Those missing details pile quite high by the end of the film. By focusing so heavily on a crusade for environmental protection, Kayak to Klemtu misses the bigger picture. Paradoxically, the “bigger picture” here was one small family in mourning, looking for ways to cope with the loss of a loved one. Their journey takes a back seat to the film’s anti-pipeline, pro-conservation message, and it should have been the other way around.

With so many beautiful shots of the northern British Columbia coastline to be found in Kayak to Klemtu, the conservation message would not have been lost if the characters had been driving the film instead.   If anything, the message would have been more impactful, as the onscreen journey through B.C.’s coastal waters argues more effectively in favour of conservation than a monologue ever could.

Unfractured

Greetings from Toronto’s Planet In Focus film festival, an environmental festival that highlights films that “question, explore, and tell stories about the world in which we live.”

Their opening night film is Chanda Chevannes’ Unfractured. It’s about fracking, but more than that, it’s about Dr. Sandra Steingraber, the tireless anti-fracking activist from upstate New York. The documentary follows her industrious and tenacious work to get her government to outlaw fracking. Chevannes follows her as she makes speeches, risks arrest at protests, and visits other countries to find out how others are dealing with this environmental disaster in the face of fierce opposition from its profiteers.

Dr. Steingraber is an eco-activist, a biologist, and a prolific writer on the topics of climate change and ecology. Her previous collaboration with Chevannes based on her highly acclaimed book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment resulted in a documentary seen by millions. Unfractured is a further exploration of the topic, linking fracking not just to damage to the environment, but to terrible risks to the health of the people living anywhere near it.

Dr. Steingraber is also a wife and a mother. Even when her home life is shaky, she doggedly pursues her advocacy because she genuinely believes in health and safety not just for her own family but for her community. Her commitment to the cause is inspiring; I was particularly moved by “The antidote to despair and cynicism is to fight with your whole heart.” This documentary speaks to any of us who feel sometimes that the fight is just too big, that things are hopeless as they stand. As Steingraber puts it, “We are all members of a great human orchestra and it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony. You do not have to play a solo, but you do have to know what instrument you hold and find your place in the score.”

 

OPENING NIGHT GALA & RECEPTION

Thursday, October 19, 2017
The Royal Cinema
6:30 PM (Doors Open at 6:00 PM)
Reception to follow at Revival Bar at 9:00 PM

 

Maudie

Maudie was born “funny” – sharp in her mind but infirm in her body. She is discounted, invisible to the world. Abused then neglected by her brother, his monthly sum to her caretaker aunt doesn’t mean the aunt is nice to her, not at all. So it shouldn’t be surprising when Maudie seeks to improve her situation by lending herself out as a housemaid. The only person who’d have her is an ornery (possibly autistic, in a time way before that would be diagnosed) fishmonger who lives out in rural Nova Scotia.

maudie_01Maudie (Sally Hawkins) and Everett (Ethan Hawke) are a couple of odd socks – the world has discarded them and they do not belong together but for lack of anything better have somehow become a pair. Their relationship doesn’t exactly blossom into romance but their mutual tolerance and sometime thoughtfulness or generosity does translate into a partnership of sorts, and marriage. And while Maudie may neglect her household chores, she blossoms in Everett’s house as a painter. Her arthritis makes it increasingly hard to even hold a brush but her joyful spirit paints their modest, one-room home in bright, colourful designs. Soon the community around her will embrace her for it. Maud Lewis (1903-1970) is one of Canada’s best known folk artists.

Sally Hawkins is phenomenal. She underplays everything because she can, because she can rely upon her talent to communicate big things in small ways. Her eyebrows alone are Oscar worthy. Her smile is reminiscent of the real Maud – wide and innocent. She gives such dignity to this character who really led a simple life, a life of poverty, but a life that was more than enough for a woman who needed only some space and a paint brush in her hand to feel happy. Maudie is not just a tribute to the artist, but to her way of life. I was moved by this film, for Maud specifically and women generally, for anyone who was marginalized and squashed and found a way to bloom anyway.

The Breadwinner

Not all men are bad, not even all Afghan men. That’s important to remember. Not all of them want to treat women like garbage, but the taliban sure does. It’s not enough to cover women head to toe in burqas, but new rules in Afghanistan prohibit them from leaving the house at all, except in rare cases when accompanied by a father, husband, or brother.

Parvana’s older sister hasn’t left the house in so long she’s forgetting what it was like. Parvana is “lucky” because her father lost his leg in the war and his livelihood more recently, so she assists him down to the market where they try to sell their possessions in order to eat. Her father respects his daughters, educated them, and wants better things for them, things he can no longer give them with the oppressive taliban regime patrolling with guns and indignation. When the taliban inevitably hauls him off to prison for no reason, suddenly the family is left without an escape clause. Parvana’s mother andMV5BMDg0ODM5NTYtMjNkMS00NDQ3LWI5MGYtMDg3ZTQ5MDE0OTRlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjQ1NjA0ODM@._V1_ sister and baby brother could literally starve to death waiting for a man to come release them from their own home so Parvana does the only thing she can think of to save them: she cuts off her hair, wears the clothes of her dead brother, and to taliban eyes, becomes a boy.

You may recognize The Breadwinner as a recent high-profile screening at TIFF; Angelina Jolie is a producer and her red carpet appearance really shined the spotlight on this important film. People were equally excited to celebrate it at the Ottawa International Animation Festival. It played to a packed house and I imagine it will again on Saturday so if you haven’t got your tickets, get on it!

The Breadwinner’s animation is stunning.  Stunning. Like, I want to get tattoos of it on my body. That’s really the highest praise you can give, or that I can give, an animated movie, a compliment I haven’t given before or even thought to. The story is kind of perfection. It’s by no means an exact replica of the book. It diverges significantly from it but still feels like an authentic and spiritual distillation of it.

If The Breadwinner isn’t talked about come Oscar time, I’ll be shocked and outraged. Not taliban guy seeing a woman “calling attention to herself” by merely being outdoors outraged, but outraged. It’s a great story coupled with the most amazing animation but it also could not be more essential viewing at this moment in time.

TIFF: Black Kite

blackkite_tiff2017.pngAfghanistan is the last place I’d expect to find a kid flying a kite. After watching Black Kite and seeing kites be such a prominent part of life, bringing a tiny bit of joy to those who are trapped in this war-torn land, it seems strange that I ever had a presumption on kites one way or the other.  The smallest of assumptions, something taken for granted without basis, led me to think I knew more about another’s circumstances than I do.  Being wrong about kites reminded me that actually, I know absolutely nothing about what it’s like to live in Afghanistan!  I have Black Kite’s writer/director Tarique Qayumi, a Canadian who came from Afghanistan as an eight-year old refugee, for brilliantly and effortlessly challenging my preconceptions.

Black Kite follows Arian, an Afghan man who has been captured by the Taliban and convicted of the highest crime.  Through a series of flashbacks, we learn how Arian came to be imprisoned and sentenced to death.  Kites feature prominently in his story, from childhood, through adolescence, to adulthood.  There’s a remarkable contrast between the bright coloured kites and Arian’s drab, washed out existence, not only in the prison but throughout most of his life as Afghanistan is oppressed by one ruling body after another.

There are some absolutely beautiful shots of the desert and sky, and some very poignant animation that conveys a lot about what these kites represent: freedom, a means of expression and communication, and a marker of milestones in a man’s life, both good and bad.

Another assumption that Black Kite dispels is that freedom is free.  Freedom is a foreign concept for Arian, not the inherent right that I treat it as.  Arian and his family constantly live in fear, under the boot of one regime or another, with seemingly arbitrary rules that have the sole purpose of keeping them down. The rulers may change but the rules remain more or less the same, so Arian and his compatriots are denied even the simplest pleasures.  It hurts to experience these denials second hand, making the first hand experience all the more difficult for my privileged mind to imagine.

Black Kite is a wonderful film and a timely one.  It showed me how much can be stripped away from individuals, and reminded me that the little freedoms are as important as the big ones.  If those little freedoms were preserved for all, this small world would be a much better place.  There is no easy solution but we should spend our energy searching for ways to help people less fortunate than us.  Instead, we spend our time arguing over how many refugees we should accept from war-torn countries like Afghanistan, places where every day could be your last and little freedoms, like flying a kite, cannot ever be taken for granted.

By the way, the answer to how many refugees we should accept is: as many as we can fit.  And we’ve got plenty of room.