Tag Archives: Canadian content

Phil

Phil (Greg Kinnear) is a depressed dentist who becomes obsessed with his patient Michael (Bradley Whitford) who seems to have it all. Chasing the secret to happiness, Phil more or less stalks the guy and his perfect family. Phil’s as surprised as anyone when Michael suddenly, and seemingly inexplicably, commits suicide. If the guy who has everything takes his life, where does that leave guys like Phil who most decidedly do not?

If you answered black-out drunk on Michael’s grave, you answered right! That’s where Michael’s widow Alicia (Emily Mortimer) finds him the next morning, hung over with a face full of dirt. But it does not account for why Phil decides on the spot to impersonate Michael’s long-lost Greek friend Spiros as a way of ingratiating himself into the grieving family. Before you know it, he’s renovating their bathroom while digging through Michael’s belongings trying to answer the age old question WHY?

I get it. Suicide is one of those tricky things, like cancer, that leave us feeling vulnerable. We want to know why so that we can feel safe. If someone got cancer because they smoke, we feel relieved because we ourselves are not smokers. Bullet dodged. If someone commits suicide because they have huge gambling debts, lucky us again, because we aren’t gamblers. Phew. We need these tangible markers to help us feel insulated from these scary possibilities. When a vegetarian marathon runner gets cancer, well, that reminds us how random it can all be. And when someone who lives a good life ends it – well, don’t we all sleep a little worse at night wondering why?

Both Phil and Michael’s widow Alicia would like to understand Michael’s motivations, but the truth is, those aren’t always knowable. Mental health is complicated and the things that make one person feel hopeless and helpless don’t always translate. Is better, then, to have each other – even if one of them is not who they claim?

Greg Kinnear stars and directs himself in Phil, a very dark comedy that doesn’t work more often than it does. And it’s not just the tricky subject matter, though it’s difficult to feel good about watching one man find the meaning in his life because of another man’s suicide. Doesn’t quite feel right. Or maybe it’s just not pushed far enough to be convincing. It’s obviously got dark undertones but Greg Kinnear often pushes the goofy side, and those two things don’t always pair well. The script is clunky and the direction doesn’t help – even the performances struggle to rise above. Phil is fine, a mild disappointment I suppose. There’s worse to watch but better too, so I suggest you scroll a little further before clicking on this one.

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How To Bee

Naomi Mark has set out to make a documentary about beekeeping. Her father Don kept bees for a time when she was a child but gave it up for lack of time. Her fascination, and his, has continued.

Don left America and came to Canada’s Yukon in search of wide open spaces and adventure. He trapped, ran dog sleds, and worked in fire towers: the whole northern Canadian experience. And then, a little late in life, he settled down with Ruth and had a family, one he hoped would be self-sustaining. Now that the kids are grown and he’s retired, Don has taken to keeping bees once again and now has one of the most prolific apiaries the Yukon has ever seen.

Naomi’s documentary, shot over three beekeeping seasons, is a way to pass Don’s knowledge on to his daughter. Naomi believes this to be a documentary about beekeeping until it becomes clear that it’s actually a way to keep her dad alive and spend time with him in his dying days.

Don has been living with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) for longer than anyone knew. Naomi begins to realize that there’s more than one reason for her father pullig away from his beloved bees.

The documentary isn’t always my favourite kind of doc; too much melancholic staring silently into the camera, too many flowery narrations. But it’s hard to deny the real, raw emotion behind the film’s original premise and how deeply affecting it can be to watch someone lose a parent, even when many of the people involved are in pretty deep denial. It’s also interesting to watch Naomi, a novice beekeeper at best, struggle to keep her hive alive when we know important bees are to our environmental well-being. Meanwhile, her father, crucial and vital for so many years to her family’s well being, is also in decline. It’s a downward trend that perhaps gives the hive an elevated status in Naomi’s mind since she has some control over the life of her bees if not that of her father. At any rate, with such a loving film, it’s nice to know that honey won’t be Don’s only legacy.

TIFF19: This Is Not A Movie

Director Yung Chang sets his sights on Robert Fisk, a ground-breaking and game-changing longtime foreign correspondent. Reporting primarily from the Middle East, the documentary visits his old stomping grounds – Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and revisits many of his old stories, some of which (many of which) are ongoing. Problems in the Middle East are a revolving door, and a journalist has to have fortitude and determination to keep reporting with the same urgency and integrity when the story seems unending.

Robert Fisk clearly has a lot of deeply held beliefs about a journalist’s integrity, and it is clear that his has been questioned many times over the years. He writes what he sees, whether or not it’s what readers back home want to hear. His angle isn’t always the popular one. He’s been called racist, he’s been called an anti-Semite. But to him, truth is truth, even if it’s uncomfortable.

He also talks about what it’s been like to be amidst armed conflict so many times – and certainly, he seems inured, wanting to stop and poke around even as local guides nervously caution him of the danger. Wars are notoriously “dodgy things to predict” he tells us, as he barrels straight in. But there are consequences to this bombardment. One’s sensitivity becomes anesthetized; emotions are suppressed in the name of objectivity.

He’s a bit of a dinosaur, no longer truly of this world, which has moved on a bit in his absence. He still clings to newsprint even if his own words are purely digital. He’s realistic about the story’s ceaselessness, but keeps a fresh eye because “I still want to see what’s next.” Even in the face of great human tragedy “I can’t draw myself away.”

In the age of social media and fake news, Fisk is perhaps the kind of dinosaur we need. A reminder of how important it is to seek and expose truth. His rule of thumb: be on the side of those who suffer. Challenge authority. Don’t look away.

TIFF19: No Crying At The Dinner Table

Director Carol Nguyen interviews her own Vietnamese-Canadian family, mining them for secrets.

Mostly they share their losses, their grief. The short film explores the cultural and generational differences in how her father, mother, and sister have experienced loss, from physical expressions of sympathy to regret and shame and forgiveness. It’s incredibly personal and soberly realized. What Nguyen accomplished in just 16 minutes is a veritable portrait of grief, and a moving, and living, family history. Her precisely-composed shots reflect the range of emotions, from raw to repressed, and her unobtrusive camera allows us a spot at the dinner table, preferably close to the tissues.

I love how we get to experience the difference between old country new country for this immigrant family, but the truth is, all families are different. Nguyen’s mother shares that she only kissed her own mother once, when she was very ill. Just once. She’s fairly matter of fact in the recounting, but her eyes betray some anguish.

I come from a very physically affectionate family, though I wouldn’t have described us as such until I met Sean’s family. We don’t necessary feel the urge to hug and kiss all the time, but I think our casual touches are actually a testament to our closeness. We might stroke each other in jest, or pinch each other with affection. Rarely does a family gathering go by without someone’s hair getting brushed, or braided. Or perhaps feet rubbed or nails painted. And we might sit very close together, even touching, even lying on top of each other if someone needs the cuddle, or sitting atop each other, if someone’s being a pain. Sean is not naturally a physically affectionate person. I call him a robot all the time, and he assures me that he has feelings, and I pretend to believe him. We just didn’t grow up the same way. It’s fine. We’ve just had to get used to each other. But now he’s the one always reaching for my hand, and he gives me a backrub almost every night before bed (of course, he mislabels this as foreplay, but that’s another story for another short film whose review I’ve highjacked). With coaching, I’ve even gotten him to admit to his mother that he loves her right before hanging up the phone. That’s huge for him. And occasionally he and his father have exchanged a hug rather than a handshake.

And that’s kind of another great revelation hidden inside this film’s 16 minutes. People do change, even just one generation to the next. We learn. We do better. Trauma changes us, but life goes on, and maybe next time, we do it differently. That’s a beautiful thing.

TIFF19: Sweetness in the Belly

Though not ironically titled, the fact remains: Sweetness in the Belly is actually quite bland. I suppose there are worse things than blandness, but if you are going to spent several million dollars and the better part of a year to make something, it better be worthwhile.

Perhaps you’re a fan MV5BMWQ4NDEwZDktZTcyMC00M2VmLThlNjEtMzdmZmZiMDc4MTMxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTQxOTM1NTc@._V1_of the novel by Camilla Gibb, and of course I read it myself about 500 books ago. I have little memory of it, but had the vague impression of not having appreciated it much.

In 1975, in the wake of Haile Selassie being deposed, many Ethiopians flee, fearing for their lives. Many others do not have the opportunity, and pay with theirs. In the chaos of so many people emigrating at once, Lily Abdal (Dakota Fanning) finds herself in London without knowing what happened to her lover, Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

Lily is a special case. Though she is Muslim like the other immigrants fleeing Ethiopia, her skin is white. This means she is plucked from a long line of black women and given special treatment. While hundreds of others share cots in a community centre, Lily gets an apartment to herself, though it’s not long before she invites another woman, Amina (Wunmi Mosaku), to join her. Together they start trying to reunite families amid all the chaos.

It’s hard to dump on a movie with such noble subject matter – but hi, I’m Jay, and I’m an asshole. I watch a lot of movies and I guess I’m fairly critical of them. Sweetness in the Belly is more like a Mild Irritant in Your Eye. I just kept waiting for it to start, and when it didn’t, I started waiting for it to end. Zeresenay Mehari, the director, seems content with banality and the film never gathers any momentum. It’s occasionally moving and competently performed, but you will spend the whole movie waiting for it to get interesting.

TIFF19: Murmur

Donna has just been convicted of impaired driving and is sentenced to hours of community service. She lives alone in a serviceable apartment, her only company empty bottles of wine, and regret. Her grown daughter wants nothing to do with her.

Serving her time at an animal shelter, Donna gets the grubby, grotty tasks, which she performs uncomplainingly. She moves through her day, from mopping up shit, to alcohol counseling, back home to her wine, with little fuss, and little connection. It’s not until a mangy scruffball named Charlie is scheduled to be put down that we see Donna’s softer side. She begs her boss to allow Charlie to come home with her instead; Charlie is old, and sick, but she vows to take good care of him for his remaining days.

Her relief is obvious. Estranged from her daughter, isolated in her little apartment, Charlie is the first sign of affection we’ve seen from Donna. They bond. Are they maybe kinda sorta two of a kind? Both rejects? At any rate, the arrangement is so satisfying that Donna doesn’t stop at just one. Pretty soon she’s popping puppies like Pringles (no, she doesn’t eat them), her small apartment brimming with pets and still she can’t stop bringing them home.

Shan MacDonald is wonderful as Donna. She doesn’t try to pretty her up, or make her more likable. Donna is tough, and MacDonald rises to the occasion. I don’t imagine it’s an easy role to play, but there’s a universality in the loneliness that really resonates.

Murmur was a little slow to engage me as Donna’s life is bleak, and has so little personal interaction. But the dogs open her up in a lovely, tragic, humane way. It becomes easy to guess at the many ways in which Donna may relate to the dogs, may see herself in them. She certainly seems to find companionship easier with animals that with humans, and you know she’s not the first or the last to do that. Her social isolation is heart-breaking, and the film really manages to say something meaningful about addictions – empathetic without letting anyone off the hook.

TIFF19: Black Conflux

Set in 1980s Newfoundland, Black Conflux has an air of inevitability, and a foreboding sense of dread. There can be no doubt that this story will end badly. It seems certain that Jackie (Ella Ballentine) is going to cross paths with Dennis (Ryan McDonald). It also seems certain that if she does, it will not go well. You see, Dennis is an incel, or he would have been if that term had existed in 1987. He has a beer truck full of imaginary women who worship him, but he has nothing but contempt for the real women he meets. Jackie is a high schooler who has somehow caught Dennis’ attention, even though the two don’t seem to ever have met before. The more time we spend with Dennis, the more we come to think that the women in the beer truck might not be imaginary. They might be ghosts of other women that caught Dennis’ attention, and it seems like Jackie could be next.blackconflux_0HERO

Writer-director Nicole Dorsey’s talent and confidence are on full display in her first feature-length film. She has written two great characters in Jackie and Dennis. We quickly feel like we know them and can predict them, and Dorsey uses that to generate a great deal of tension in anticipation of the convergence (/conflux) of their stories. Adding to the tension are the slow pacing and the atmospheric shots of Newfoundland’s wild beauty, which reminded me there are plenty of places on the rock to hide a body or two or ten.

Dorsey is aided by two great performances from Ballentine and McDonald, who make their characters feel real. We care what happens to Jackie because we like her and we can relate to the teenage world she is trying to navigate, having been there ourselves. And while we don’t really like Dennis, we feel a bit sorry for his struggles to navigate the world he inhabits, even though he’s clearly making things more difficult than they need to be. Jackie is the more sympathetic one (mainly because she is not acting like a serial killer) but despite Dennis’ issues (or maybe because of them) I found myself fascinated by both characters.

It’s not that Black Conflux keeps the audience guessing, because a confrontation between Jackie and Dennis seems inevitable (after all, it’s in the title!). What makes Black Conflux so enjoyable is that it keeps the audience engaged, invested and interested in the journey to the climax. It’s a great debut feature for Dorsey and a great start to my 2019 Toronto International Film Festival viewing.