Tag Archives: female directors

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.

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Los Reyes

Well, I’ve never seen anything like it before, that’s for sure.

I’m not even sure what to call it – documentary seems inaccurate and also somehow inadequate. “An enchanting nonfiction portrait of canine companionship” is what the Planet In Focus film festival has settled upon, and I’m game enough to go along with it. Set in a Chilean skate park, the film somehow makes 2 stray dogs its focus.

Chola is a sweet, proud girl who finds joy in chasing cyclists and is endlessly fascinated by dropping her beloved tennis ball town the skate park’s many ramps. Futbol, on the other hand, is more sedate, more stoic perhaps, but is rarely seen without some ‘toy’ to chew on, though that toy is most often garbage and if all else fails, a rock.

Besides the dogs, the skate park is often full of skaters, mostly teenage boys, slight no-goodniks, young rebels who are just learning to navigate an adult world they aren’t quite ready for. But there are no human faces in this film, just occasional body parts, the merest hint of human, as if the dogs don’t quite care to pay them full attention. More likely to be on screen: patches of sky, blades of grass, close-ups of bugs – whatever might be considered a dog’s eye view. The film is laconic. There is a lot of laying about in the sun, or obsessively sniffing a suspicious mound of earth. Perhaps mimicking the mind of a dog, there’s a lot of open space in the film, room to contemplate individual things but rarely a larger whole.

The film fest posits that Los Reyes will “delight dog- and doc-lovers alike” and while that may be the case for some, I’d guess that it won’t be for everyone. Largely silent, the film only occasionally picks up snippets of conversation from the nearby youth who seem to always have a domestic situation or a drug deal going down. The dogs remain uninterested. Two years into filming, the dogs are also surprisingly comfortable with the cameras, allowing for extremely up close and personal explorations of their bodies and the other inhabitants of their fur. It is not always pleasant viewing, especially because the lives of stray street dogs are probably not exceptionally long. I love dogs, but I love them to have homes and be cared for, and for me, this movie never shed its inherent melancholy.

TIFF19: My Zoe

If you love Julie Delpy, as I do, you probably love her talky scripts, her hyper-verbal, over-analytical characters who leave no thought unspoken. She has a knack for combining drama and comedy and elevating both with intelligent commentary. My Zoe is quite a departure. Which isn’t to say that it’s not smart or insightful. But it is very, very different.

Isabelle (Delpy), loving mother to Zoe (Sophia Ally) is going through a divorce from her husband, James (Richard Armitage). Their daughter’s custody is their battleground. They both love and want her desperately, but they might also have the need to hurt and wound each other however they can. It hasn’t been easy. Zoe is a sweet little girl who is too young to understand the animosity. When James notices a bruise on Zoe’s arm, he is not un-accusing of Isabelle. When Isabelle hears Zoe sneeze, she is not un-accusing of James. They are suspicious of each other’s parenting, determined to be the Best and Most Devoted One. I wish I could say that all dissolves when it turns out Zoe is gravely ill.

A mystery illness strikes quickly, and severely, and the waiting room where the two parents wait is a literal tiny glass box where their tension just bounces off the walls and back into their bodies, ratcheting up the hostility with each allegation lobbed. Is it love gone sour that has them at each other’s throats, or just fear and frustration? Truly, to be the parent of a sick child is the most helpless one can feel. It’s no wonder they seek their scapegoats. Up until this point, the movie is riveting: emotional and raw, full of anger and spite. But then it makes a u-turn.

The next half is so materially different that you might wonder if you’d fallen asleep and woken up during an entirely different movie. It’s still Julie Delpy, still playing a devoted mother, obsessed, even. But everything else has changed: the characters, her surroundings, and most of all: the tone. It’s disorienting trying to get your bearings in this new reality.

Delpy is of course quite good – sometimes astonishing, sometimes vehement, often dangerous and despairing. Her performance is a wail heard by mothers everywhere. But if also reaches beyond the normal, natural borders of motherhood and asks: what else? The answers are not necessarily comfortable.

TIFF19: Abominable

Yi, a young woman with serious cankle problems, is grieving her father – not just his loss, but the music they shared and the adventures they’d planned but never went on. She spends less and less time at home, with her mother and grandma Nai Nai. Which is why her absence doesn’t raise any resounding alarm bells when she disappears suddenly.

Where has Yi (Chloe Bennet) gone?

Excellent question! The answer may surprise you! Unless of course you’ve seen the trailers, or the movie, in which case, the answer will be quite obvious.

A Yeti squats on the roof of her apartment building. He’s hiding out from the collector, Burnish (Eddie Izzard) who found him, and the scientist Dr. Zara (Sarah Paulson) who is determined to get him back. But poor Yeti (who Yi names Everest) just wants to go home – to, well, to Everest. So yeah, Yi sucks at naming pets, but the quest is clear: return Everest from whence he came, escaping bad guys in a series of escalating near-misses.

Along for the ride: next door neighbour and perennial cool guy Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor) and his rambunctious little cousin Peng (Albert Tsai).

[And just to satisfy your curiosity and save you a google search: yes, he is the grandson of  THE Tenzing Norgay, first man to reach the summit of Mount Everest alongside Sir Edmund Hillary. Nice reference, Abominable.]

Anyway: cue some effusively pretty animation of Chinese landscapes and countrysides, beautiful rivers and fluttering flowers. In fact, even the city scenes are pretty astonishing what with the attention to detail regarding lights and architecture and even advertising (I see you, McDonalds). And great use of music. It all works together to create something magical, and this movie wasn’t exactly short on magic, what with a yeti who speaks to nature with specific requests, and nature responds in creative yet helpful ways. But the script doesn’t sit back and let the animation do all the talking. There’s a sweet story in here about valuing what’s most important. “Sweet” is often a synonym for simple and perhaps minor, and that may be a fair assessment here. It’s most a movie for kids, with a King Kong reference or two thrown in for the grown-ups. And while it’s not really showing us or telling us anything we haven’t already seen, it is inherently endearing.

TIFF19: Honey Boy

Oh man. It’s already been more than a week and in many ways I’m still digesting this.

Honey Boy is an autobiographical movie that Shia LaBeouf wrote. Deep breaths.

Now we know a couple of things about Shia LaBeouf: he has suffered a pretty lengthy and public meltdown, and he has continued to put out some pretty worthy performances, albeit in smaller vehicles (American Honey and The Peanut Butter Falcon recently). In a review for Charlie Countryman, I attempted to parse the nature of his problems and his pain, but of course from the outside, you can only guess, and wish him well (or not). But Shia is at that point in his healing where he is letting us in. He is performing an exorcism here. The ghosts in his closet have been let loose – but will they haunt him less?

“Selfishly,” he told us, “I made this movie for 2 people: me, and my dad.” Let’s unpack that a bit.

First, you need to know that in this movie he wrote, Shia plays his father. His own father. Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges play young Shia and older Shia, though the character goes by Otis in the film. What does it mean that he’s written this painfully intimate autobiographical film, but called his character by another name?

Shia’s father James was (is) an addict, an ex-con, abusive to both Shia and his mother. And yet when we meet young Otis, who is hard at work on the set of a show not unlike Even Stevens, he is living in a dingy motel with his dad. His dad is not just acting as a parental guardian, but as a paid one. James doesn’t work. He takes money from his kid. Which doesn’t stop him from neglecting the son he’s being paid handsomely to watch, or from hitting the child who is technically his boss.

This makes for a complicated relationship and a complicated childhood. And though Otis’s mother is seldom heard from , you do have to wonder – if it’s dad who has custody, just how bad is mom?

So you start to realize that this little kid has no parents. Or, actually, that he’d be better off without the ones he does have. But what he does have is a full-time job and more money than most adults. But he’s also got family obligations and staff who are also relatives but virtually no one telling him how to navigate these complex situations. So by the time Noah Jupe magically transforms into Lucas Hedges, Otis has PTSD and his own struggles with addiction and no idea how to take time out from his busy career and the pressures of Hollywood to deal with them. Until a court gives him very explicit directions to do so (and thank goodness).

But maybe his best therapy has been writing this screenplay. Clearly troubled after the TIFF premiere of Honey Boy, Shia is quick to reassure us that he’s happy to be here with us, but he’s quiet, introspective, quick to deflect to his costars and the director he so admires, Alma Har’el. As his struggles have become increasingly public and undeniable, he is coping with the tools he has available: creatively. But will his creation be his catharsis? And is any of this interesting or entertaining to those of us who have to personal stake in his recovery?

Resoundingly: yes. The absolute best bits are between young Otis (Jupe) and his father (LaBeouf). Mostly stuck in a crappy motel room, the anger between them is never at less than an aggressive simmer, and it’s ALWAYS on the verge of boiling over. Even the quiet is not to be trusted. The tension is awful and soon we too are responding like an abused kid, ready to flinch at the least provocation. If you come from a conflict-filled background yourself, you won’t fail to identify the triggers. Be gentle with yourself.

Honey Boy is a moving, emotional movie-going experience. I also hope it brought a certain amount of closure to a young man still wrestling with his demons.

TIFF19: Harriet

Harriet Tubman was born a slave named Araminta “Minty” Ross in Maryland. She suffered all the usual indignities and violence inflicted upon slaves, but one injury in particular left her with permanent brain damage, which gave her, as she described “premonitions from God.”

According to a legal will, she was supposed to have been freed long ago, but when she eventually went to plead with her owner, it wasn’t for her own freedom but that of her unborn child. She had married a freeman who visited her frequently, but he didn’t want to have a baby who would be born a slave, and I suppose you can guess how her masters answered her.

So that’s when Harriet got it in her head to run away. I mean, it must have been in every slave’s head every day of their lives, but finding the courage and the opportunity to do it was prohibitive. Runaways were brought back and tortured before being put to death, to set an example for others. It would have been a powerful motivator for staying put, to say nothing of having to leave behind your loved ones. Of course, when your loved ones can be sold away without notice, it is perhaps not such a big risk after all.

At any rate, Harriet did leave one night, alone. She traveled to Philadelphia on foot, 145km, evading slave catchers and bounty hunters, hiding by day, guided by the north star at night. Eventually she made it to freedom: she survived.

In the film, Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives in Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and conductor on the Underground Railroad. He is a meticulous record-keeper and Harriet’s is but one of many, many entries in his logbook. She then meets Marie (Janelle Monae), a black woman born free, who owns the rooming house where Harriet lives. Marie teaches Harriet a different kind of life. Of course, posing as a free woman is an improvement, but not exactly without risks or complications. People are still looking for her. Harriet could spend her whole life looking over her shoulder. But she doesn’t.

Instead, Harriet chooses not only to look back, but to go back. To rescue family, friends, and in fact dozens if not hundreds of strangers. To go back for others, and free them as well. If it’s hard enough to understand how someone could endure so much pain and torment, and then find the courage to escape, it’s darn near impossible to picture the kind of person who would risk it all to go back. But she does.

In fact, she went back 13 times over a period of 11 years, though each trip only put her more at risk. She became an esteemed conductor on the Underground Railroad, never having lost a soul on her midnight runs. Every successful conductor had a network of friends and allies, and though some were white abolitionists whose participation was a great risk, there were also many black people along her route who risked much more but did it anyway.

It’s about time someone put Harriet Tubman up on the big screen for all to admire, and director Kasi Lemmons seems to understand the weight of her responsibility. The incredible thing is, she chooses to do it without the usual trappings of the slave film. Of course, those are largely understood by now, and their threat is still heavily felt. Instead Lemmons focuses on Harriet’s repeated runs, and though their repetition does make each one feel less of a thrill, their sheer number begins to impress. Harriet is not a slavery movie. Harriet is a freedom movie. It is a showcase for resilience, and hope. It’s also a reminder of the kind of impact one single person can have.

To that end, Cynthia Erivo shines as its star. Harriet may not be a complete biopic, but it is a fascinating origin story for one of history’s greatest super heroes. If Erivo isn’t talked about at Oscar time, it would be a crime.

TIFF19: How To Build a Girl

I first came to know Caitlin Moran when her publisher sent me a copy of her book, How To Be A Woman, to review (Jay trivia: I did in fact review books before movies – scandalous!). That’s all it takes to be a Moran convert. She’s so…I mean, likable is both the right and wrong word. She does not asked to be liked. She does not write to be liked. But her don’t-give-a-fuck-edness is extremely likable. She is the role model we deserve: bold, brash, body-positive, full of piss and vinegar. She isn’t someone else’s shitty idea of a woman, she is a REAL woman, no apologies given and none necessary. She may have been new to me then but she was already a well-respected journalist and popular TV personality in England. But over here we’ve mostly had to make due with her books.

Lately she has embarked on a semi-autobiographical trilogy, the first of which is How To Build A Girl. It follows Johanna Morrigan, an educationally-uninspired, council-estate-abiding, overlooked teenage daughter in Wolverhampton who one day just decides that the best ticket out of there is one she writes herself. So she reinvents herself as the fast-talking, confident Dolly Wilde, music journalist extraordinaire. With a top hat and some swagger, Dolly trips through life, interviewing Britpop’s biggest bands at the beginning of their journey to fame, and swashbuckling through bedrooms as a Lady Sex Pirate (Moran’s words, but god I wish they were mine). Is it easy? Fuck no. The music industry is notoriously sexist, and Johanna/Dolly is, after all, still a teenage girl.

The movie has a lot going for it, but I’m going to start with its star, Beanie Feldstein, whom you might already love from Booksmart or Lady Bird, and with whom you will fall certainly and mightily and madly head over heels in this. Johanna Morrigan is the kind of character every actor wants and few will ever find; the personal grown charted on screen is nearly immeasurable. Johanna is every kind of dichotomy you could hope for in a character study of a young woman: brave and nervous, self-conscious and audacious. We see every attempt to ‘build’ her up by the men in her life – father, boss, boyfriend, brother. But then we get to see her break away from all that bullshit and start to build herself. And the ingredients for building a self-possessed girl are all here. It is glorious.

Caitlin Moran’s signature style is all over this film, which she helped adapt to screen. The humour is self-effacing, witty, rude, clever. It is amazing and liberating and just such a relief to see a young woman’s actual sexual awakening be told (though I think it may be slightly watered down from the book, if you can imagine). And that’s what will punch you right in the face: director Coky Giedroyc has given Johanna permission to be a real person, whose inner life and outer trappings are just as full and fully-realized as any man’s. Yes, she’s ambitious. Her peers find her intimidating and confusing. Her life isn’t perfect. She swears like a sailor. She likes her body. She likes sex. She wants more. Have we ever seen a better representation of a female character, ever? EVER??? Everything I like about this movie makes me dislike every other movie just a little bit. How To Build a Girls is vital and necessary – easy to fall in love with, because it’ll make you fall in love with yourself.