Tag Archives: Canadian content

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.

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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.

Good Boys

Eleven is such a precious age. You’re straddling the cusp of childhood and adolescence. You’re feeling big in your britches but the world’s still treating you like you’re a little kid.

I remember going to Denny’s once, and the waitress brought me one of those paper kid’s menu-placemat hybrids with 3 crayons so I could choose between the grilled cheese or the chicken nuggets. I was insulted. Beyond insulted. The kid’s menu was for 12 and under and I was 9. Nine! Practically a grown-ass woman, I thought. How dare she. I have never been back to a Denny’s. That’s a true story. I hold a grudge. The point being, those tween years are tough. They didn’t even call us tweens back when I was a tween. In fact, my little sister gave me a homemade card calling me a “teeny bopper” which makes it sound like I grew up in the 1950s – actually, that’s just a word she got from my grandfather, but it stuck. I didn’t care much for that either, but surprisingly, I still speak to both my sister and my grandfather, though I do sometimes still harbour dark doubts that they deserve it.

Max (Jacob Tremblay) is the undisputed leader of the bean bag boys, a trio including golden-voiced Thor (Brady Noon) and nervous nelly Lucas (Keith L. Williams). They have just unlocked the most coveted of achievements: they’ve secured an invitation to cool kid Soren’s (Izaac Wang) party, a kissing party with girls and everything. None of them know how to kiss, which is a problem, but not insurmountable. Between the 3 of them, they come up with quite a plan for learning how, but their brilliant plan falls apart when they lose Max’s dad’s work drone to a couple of teenage girls, then steal their drugs in retaliation, then spend the rest of the movie in an epic quest to make things right.

I loved the characters from the start. The script really captures the line they’re straddling between youth and adulthood. The kids are just beginning to think about sex but haven’t got a clue. They talk big and swear hard, but their innocence is always quite apparent. As a grown-up, you just want to clasp your hands to your heart and declare them precious, but doing so would probably have them die of embarrassment. Oh lord it’s hard to be eleven.

All 3 kids are well-cast and have a great rapport. You believe them as a unit, even as they’re starting to realize that they may not be destined to be best friends forever as previously believed. The script is a magnet for vulgarity, and perhaps embraces it a little too heartily, but for all its gross-out humour, it has a lot of heart. I especially love how much the kids have internalized the concept of consent. It gives me hope. Good Boys reminded me of my own awkward transitional years, but mostly it made me think of my oldest nephew, who will turn 8 in a couple of weeks. I cradled him in my arms the day he was born, he peed on me while I gave him a bath, he’s clung to my neck when he had a booboo. But every day he’s getting bigger, and thinking more for himself, and growing apart from the very adults that he used to want nothing more than to play with on the living room floor. It’s nearly impossible for me to stop seeing him as a little guy, but since I’ve known him, all he wants to do is grow. I remember when his biggest goal in life was to weigh 40 lbs so he could go from car seat to booster seat. And then he wanted to be just tall enough to ride the Vortex water slide at the Great Wolf Lodge. Now he wants to be old enough to watch End Game. Meanwhile, who among us doesn’t occasionally wish we could hit pause? Have him stay cute and cuddly forever, sweet smelling and polite?

Good Boys made me laugh, but more than that, it made me smile.

Astronaut

Becoming an astronaut was always a dream of mine.  As early as I can remember, I was fascinated by the idea that there were other planets and stars surrounding us, and the idea that I could float around in outer space and jump so much higher and further on the moon than on Earth.  At the time I lived in Kentucky and learned at school that I could write to NASA and they would send back random photos of space shuttles, planets, satellites, and so much more.  So write I did.  I wrote almost as many letters then as Jay does now (she is singlehandedly keeping Canada Post’s lettercarriers employed), and ended up with stacks of photos that I treasured throughout my childhood.

AstronautObviously, I am not the only one who dreamed of becoming an astronaut.  Space travel is clearly on a lot of people’s bucket lists, as shown by the proposed reality show cataloguing a one-way mission to Mars (which went belly-up earlier this year), the numerous space flights available for purchase (Virgin Galactic has collected $80 million in deposits for 90 minute voyages costing $250,000 each), and NSYNC’s Lance Bass attempting to buy his way onto a Russian rocket (he couldn’t afford it after Justin Timberlake left the band), among other examples.

In Astronaut, Angus (Richard Dreyfuss) definitely has space travel on his bucket list.  He’s always looking to the stars and, as a retired civil engineer, possesses the type of scientific knowledge that might grant a seat on a NASA mission.  Unfortunately, he never secured a NASA spot during his career and his dreams of space travel seem more and more distant as his health begins to fail.   But the stars align when a billionaire (Colm Feore) announces a contest that will give the winner a seat on the first commercial flight to space, which otherwise would be too expensive for Angus (and the rest of the 99%) to afford.  You can probably guess who becomes one of the twelve finalists in that lottery, but even with that stroke of luck things don’t come easy to Angus, not only because of the health issues I mentioned, but also because he’s trying to settle his wife’s estate and he’s struggling with an impending move to a retirement home.

Astronaut asks us to suspend our disbelief on more than one occasion, and in exchange rewards us with a sweet and engaging fairy tale.  The pieces fit together so neatly and conveniently that there is never any real tension or possibility of failure, but the movie works even with relatively low stakes because of Dreyfuss’ stellar performance.  Angus is a great combination of gruff and personable, and Astronaut is elevated by Dreyfuss’ wonderful chemistry with Angus’ family and friends, particularly his daughter (Krista Bridges), his son-in-law (Lyriq Bent), and his grandson (Richie Lawrence).

Writer-director Shelagh McLeod wisely focuses on Angus’ personal relationships rather than the space flight itself and Astronaut is better for it, because the fantastical (and potentially unbelievable) elements of the film are just minor details.  What matters is watching Angus reach for the stars, and I happily cheered him on from start to finish.

Everything’s Gone Green

When Ryan wakes up, his girlfriend is moving him out. He’s just not motivated enough. He gets suspended from work because of the morbid poetry he writes. But the day can only go uphill from here right? Well you are right! His mother calls with news: they’ve won the lottery! $4.3 million! Tiny catch though: dad can’t find the ticket. The lottery people are pretty understanding, and in the meantime, they offer Ryan a job. 

The script is by Douglas Coupland, so you know that’s not all there is to it. I have a perpetual love-hate relationship with Douglas Coupland (author of Generation X, Shampoo Planet, Hey Nostradamus! and more), and I do mean that literally. Well, semi-literally, because I assure you this is a very one-sided relationship in which I have thoughts about Mr. Coupland and I do not exist for him. But the gist is: I’ve found no middle ground between love and hate. But he’s an ideas guy, and this is an ideas movie. Like: capital-c Capitalism. Ryan tangles with middle class contentment. Swindles and scams are all around – even his parents aren’t settling for the status quo. So he’s corruptible. Ripe for corruption. God I wish someone would offer to corrupt me. I’m super for sale. I’d definitely do shady stuff for money. It’s just that I’m not worth anything. Politicians really hog corruptions. We should work on making that a little more equal-opportunity.

There are several things I like about this movie. First, Paulo Costanzo. Talented guy. Second, the Vancouver setting. Vancouver gives Toronto a run for its money in terms of Canadian cities that always stand in for American cities in movies. Vancouver has a booming film business, and Everything’s Gone Green gives us a nice little behind the scenes look at it. For once, Vancouver gets to just be herself. 

The movie wants to marry high-brow themes with an easy, breezy, quirky, indie romance, which works about as well as a palm tree in a conference room. Good intentions but a little out of place. It sometimes feels a little lectury. Although I often sound pretty lectury, so who am I to judge? I mean, I’m also pretty judgy. Not that that qualifies me. Some would call it a defect of character. I call it an endless potential for comedy.

What were we talking about? Oh yeah. Paulo Costanzo. He should get all the roles Jesse Eisenberg’s considered for, because Jesse Eisenberg is a twat and the world could stand to be a great deal less twatty. Everthing’s Gone Green isn’t going to knock your socks into next Wednesday but it might relocate them 16 minutes into the future. It’s dependably pleasant, little-seen, and a pretty decent flick.