Tag Archives: Canadian content

Passengers

If you were looking for a review of Passengers (2016) about a dick named Chris Pratt who pulls the grossest act of total bullshit and gets away with it, click here. Otherwise, Passengers (2008):

Captain Raymond Holt, who of course only plays Capt. Holt on Brooklyn 99 (Andre Braugher), calls in a highly educated but personally rutted psychologist, Dr. Claire Summers (Anne Hathaway) to support a small handful of passengers who have just survived a plane crash. She holds group sessions for grief counseling and quickly finds that the 5 passengers disagree on what happened. Some remember a flash or an explosion that the airline aggressively disavows.

Despite several degrees that should tell her otherwise, Claire becomes personally involved, not only in untangling the mystery, but romantically with the most secretive of the passengers, Eric (Patrick Wilson). Eric’s reaction is strange in a different way. He’s almost elated, feels better than ever. But this little group of survivors has all kinds of inconsistencies to it, and Dr. Summers is practically tripping over herself to break all the ethical and professional boundaries that exist for a reason. Of course, when the members of her group begin disappearing one by one, it seems not even professional boundaries would keep them safe.

Passengers feels like someone conceived of a “twist ending” and then reverse-engineered the movie around it. It spends almost no time justifying or earning its end; instead it builds smoke screens around it, protecting an ending that then comes out of the blue because no one was clever enough to drop those juicy little hints that make your mind tingle and a surprise ending feel oh so tantalizing. An unearned ending feels more like a relief than a delight or a shock. It creates frustration instead of alleviating it. Because that’s the thing about thrillers: they’re supposed to build on themselves, creating suspense while leaving behind a subtle trail of clues. The mystery is an itch and it’s a flood of relief when finally everything comes together to scratch it.

Passengers is a bit of a mess in terms of logic and plot. The story is emotionally manipulative. Anne Hathaway is a bland leading lady. Are those things that might bother you? Or are you the kind of person for whom everything about the movie is incidental to the mere watching of it. In which case, Passengers is definitely a movie you can watch on Netflix. It begins, it plays for a while, and it ends. Thankfully.

The Christmas Calendar

When Emily’s grandmother passes away, she quits her job as a lawyer and returns home to run her fledgling bakery. Emily (Laura Bell Bundy) quickly learns that keeping the bakery going is likely to be an uphill battle, especially when esteemed French pastry chef Gerard (Brendon Zub) opens a competing bakery across the street (this town isn’t big enough for the both of us!).

Not to worry though: Emily’s got a pretty decent distraction going on. Some anonymous suitor dropped off a Christmas calendar to her bakery, and each day she’s drumming up business by opening up a little door to find a hand-written love note inside. The town’s women are swooning over them, the town’s men are laying bets, the town newspaper is following the story, but nobody knows who sent it. And don’t go assuming you know either, just because the secret admirer and the sexy French baker arrived in town on the same day. Purely coincidence. And the townspeople agree because every time they discuss potential admirers, a whole bunch of walk-on characters are mentioned but Gerard is constantly, conveniently left off the list. And Emily’s not going to jump the gun and find out too soon – this little mystery is good for business.

The leads are not charmless but you’ll notice that ‘Brendon Zub’ is not exactly French sounding and, well, neither is his accent – but it does manage to come off as unintentionally sinister. For a movie about competing bakers, there is a curious absence of food porn. None of the bakers ever bake. They do, however, handle the food barehanded and sell stuff that’s fallen on the floor. But perhaps it’s the editing that is most baffling. One moment the two bakers are feuding, the next they’re feeding each other truffles. Even considering the typical phony will they-won’t they of a Hallmark Christmas movie, this film feels like it’s missing a very important 15 minutes from the middle. Or maybe it’s the script, which sounds like it was written by someone raised in a locked closet. But no, let’s be real: the worst part is definitely that accent.

 

 

To cleanse your Christmas palate, here is my niece Ella, a 4 year old in pre-kindergarten, and her cousin Jack, 5 (nearly 6, he would want me to tell you), a kindergartener, both in the same class at school, singing you a little song – in French 😉

As you can see, Ella wisely abandons the deadly choreography while Jack makes it his own (pretty sure he ad-libbed the dabbing). Both are pestered by older brothers.

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.

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.