Tag Archives: female directors

Can You Dig This?

Inspired by the OG gangster gardener, Ron Finley, film maker Delila Vallot gets to know the people taking up gardening in South Central Los Angeles and follows them for a year to see if the simple act of growing things can in fact transform someone’s life.

Can You Dig This? is Planet In Focus Film Festival’s closing night film and it’s one you’ll enjoy watching as much as you enjoy learning from it.

Compton is a food desert – the neighbourhoods are packed with fast food joints and liquor stores, but the sale of healthful food is rare. Ron Finley thought it reasonable that he should therefore get to growing some right in his very own yard, but doing soslide-1 attracted the ire of a neighbour who reported him. A cease and desist letter from the city made him think twice – not about the rightness of gardening his own land, but about the rightness of this world. Never before motivated to activism, Finley took up the cause, providing free soil so that others could plant too. Now you’ll find the neighbourhoods dotted with planters, and if you think that’s interesting, just wait until you meet the people who are cultivating them.

The film follows a high school dropout cum drug dealer, a woman who is gang-affiliated, a little girl who wants to grow greens for her diabetic dad (and wouldn’t mind making some cash on the side!), and a few elderly men living in a halfway house after extensive prison sentences. These are terrific subjects, each one revealing a little bit about their neighbourhood. You might not expect something as innocuous as gardening to stir up a lot of emotions, but when the film starts unpacking issues like the legacy of slavery contributing to the black community’s loss of contact with the soil, you start to realize how impactful this seemingly small act can be. Gardening as subversion? Yes, actually.

Not only is this documentary well done, it’s a fun and funny watch too. And inspiring, I don’t mind saying.
CAN YOU DIG THIS? plays at the Planet In Focus film festival in Toronto
Sunday 22 October, 7:45pm ­ Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
Ron Finlay will be in attendance

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Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller: you may not know her name, but you should.  She was the first woman elected Chief of the Cherokee nation but her story is more complex than any list of her achievements would imply.

Born to a Cherokee father and European mother, she was raised with  sense of her culture but was influenced by a lot of things. She married young but continued her studies, and upon leaving her husband (with 2 small children in tow), Mankiller underwent a cultural and political awakening that led her down the path that would cast her as a role model and inspiration to her people, and to women. But she started out in an entry level position, only wanting to “help her people.”

Mankiller-DocumentaryThis documentary is not particularly imaginative when it comes to film making; it is straight forward, with few tricks up its sleeves. But Mankiller is a compelling subject, and a documentary shedding light on her story is important when it is omitted from so many history books. When Mankiller was first elected chief in 1985, it was to a male-dominant political structure that she broke into with patience and tact. She persevered, secure in the knowledge that the traditional Cherokee way was a more gender-balanced approach. She overcame a lot of obstacles in order to improve the lives of her people, and many believed her work with the federal government might have led to a national political career had her own health not stood in the way.

Mankiller has a legacy worth notice. If the story-telling by director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl is a little bland, Mankiller’s message of empowerment and equality still resonates.

A film like this can be difficult to get off the ground, and a Kickstarter campaign was necessary to secure the least bit of funding. Luckily, the “First Lady of Sci-Fi” Gale Anne Hurd was on board as a producer. Her career was launched when she produced and co-wrote The Terminator but followed up with Aliens, The Abyss, Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk, Dick, and more. Today she’s the executive producer of The Walking Dead, which means she had lots of famous friends to call upon for lucrative Kickstarter rewards. Creator Robert Kirkman signed comic books; composer Bear McCreary contributed copies of the score; the costumer Eulyn Womble designed special tshirts; Norman Reedus volunteered a custom voicemail message; Hershel himself, Scott Wilson, offered up a spaghetti dinner; showrunner Scott Gimple signed scripts. I think it’s really special when people come together to back a project like this. And I think it’s a credit to Mankiller’s memory that this documentary came together under the supervision of two strong and capable women. You can see this film when it screens at the ImagiNative film festival, Saturday October 21st at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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.

TIFF: First They Killed My Father

Angelina Jolie first visited Cambodia in her mid 20s to film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. She fell in love with the country but having to dodge landmines made her realize how much about world history she hadn’t been taught in school. While there, she bout Loung Ung’s memoir for $2 on the street, and it changed her life.

She went back to Cambodia two years later in 2002 for her work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She spent time with local schoolchildren and realized that her son was in this very country. She adopted Maddox there that same year. The book she’d read always stuck with her, and she knew it was the story she wanted to tell in order for her son to know what his countrymen were like.

Loung Ung is a survivor of what we now call the Cambodian genocide. She was just a child during the deadly rule of the Khmer Rouge led by the dictator Pol Pot. 25% of the MV5BYmI4YzY3MTAtZjk1My00NmYwLTg4MTgtMDdlZjFhZjQzM2NlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_Cambodian population died from malnutrition, forced labour, and mass murder in the time period between 1975-1979. Almost all Cambodian artists, actors, and film makers were killed during this regime, so getting the story out has been a difficulty. Cambodia’s film community had all but expired and is only now starting to recover. With Netflix fronting $24 million for this film, First They Killed My Father is the biggest movie shot entirely in Cambodia, and director Jolie was careful to use as many Cambodian cast and crew as she could (she herself in a Cambodian citizen since 2005). Some of them are genocide survivors themselves (such as producer Rithy Panh), so therapists were on standby on the set to avoid re-traumatizing the people who’d already lived through events depicted in the film. Jolie’s son Maddox worked on the film as well.

Though the film avoids showing us the worst of the gore, the threat and undercurrent of violence is still there. It sits quite heavily as we watch a young family try to survive the unimaginable, with constant reminders that death isn’t even the worst of it. But the camera lingers on the beauty of Cambodia too – particularly the lush greenery. The cinematography is pretty stunning.

Little Ung was only five when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and all of sevel whens he made it out, and the film reflects her child’s eye view. Although there are plenty of emotionally powerful moments, there are also times when we struggle to MV5BZDcyYmUyZjItYmUyNS00OWIyLWIwZTQtOTllYWE2MDEyY2FmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDkzNTM2ODg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,937_AL_adsorb all that is happening around her, like she herself must have been at that young age. The film also engages our inner protectors: watching this little girl plant land mines and fire guns is just too much to process.

For the most part, the film’s most tragic scenes are deliberately underplayed, almost but not quite detached, because we come to understand that this story is being told in retrospect. There is a greater context but mostly the film is not so much interested in the historical facts as it is in giving the genuine experience of what it felt like to live (or die) through it. There’s no triumphant spin, no big, redeeming moment. It was a bleak time and it is painstakingly recreated through the camera’s lens. Jolie avoids any typical Hollywood ending and keeps our focus right where it belongs: on a little girl who surived.

 

TIFF: Outside In

Chris has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for a crime he didn’t really commit. That sounds like a cop out but the shades of guilt were complicated and I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. But he was sentenced at the age of 17 as an adult and it was only thanks to the hard work of his high school teacher Carol that he’s now out.

A couple of things: Chris (Jay Duplass) had developed quite an intense relationship with said teacher (Edie Falco) but now that it’s not a strictly phone friendship, things are different. She’s married. She has a teenage daughter, in fact. But Chris doesn’t really have MV5BMTc3MTE2MzU2NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg4ODMzMzI@._V1_very many other people in his life, so he’s leaning very heavily on her. His brother isn’t a lot of help – yeah, he’s staying in his garage, but things are pretty tense since Ted (Ben Schwartz) never visited him in prison, and seems to have had something to do with the crime that sent Chris away. Things are very, very tense.

Also: freedom isn’t quite as free as Chris has imagined. I mean, being outside the walls of his cell is intimidating. But he’s also dealing with the confines of probation – not drinking, not traveling, finding a job suitable for an ex-con, etc, etc. And I couldn’t help but feeling like Carol’s less than ideal marriage is a little more prison like than she’d like to admit. So shit’s complicated.

Duplass and director Lynn Shelton wrote the script together and though it’s not very action-oriented, it’s packed with emotional awkwardness and personal growth. Duplass doesn’t make for a typical criminal, whatever that means. Even 20 years of prison doesn’t seem to have hardened him, he’s sensitive and introverted and a little lost and needy. The movie really follows his struggles to readjust to this life, and it’s quickly obvious that the superficial stuff like texting and bike helmets are the least of his concerns. The world has changed, but more importantly, so has he. He’s struggling to catch up; the film shines in small moments, like when Carol’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) teaches him it’s no longer okay to use the word ‘retarded.’

Edie Falco is a wonder. I especially loved the complicated relationship between her and her daughter. But the movie flounders a bit, with Chris’s plight a little too internalized. The story’s predictability makes this film good, but not great.

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: Lady Bird

ladybird_01In making a coming of age film about a high school student, Greta Gerwig has come into her own – as a writer, as a director, as a woman with a voice.

Lady Bird is the name that Christine (Saoirse Ronan) has given herself. It’s her senior year of high school and all she wants is out. Out of Sacramento, out of her parents’ house, out of her own skin which doesn’t quite seem to fit anymore. Like most teenagers, Lady Bird is kind of a d-bag. She thinks she knows more than any adult she’s ever met. She’s self-centered and blind to the needs of others, but in the sympathetic hands of Ronan, we don’t hate her and we certainly never tire of her. Her flaws should push us away but instead they endear us – maybe even remind us of ourselves at that age.

Her relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is relatable as heck and among the best I’ve ever seen written or performed on the big screen. Their relationship is a series of clashes between pragmatism and whimsy. Lady Bird doggedly indulges one artistic pursuit after another while her mother does the precarious high-wire act of balancing the needs of an entire family. Ronan and Metcalf are incredible together, the chemistry is electric and complicated and feels so real you’ll intermittently want to send your mother a fruit bouquet of thanks, and a nasty hate letter condemning her every decision. Or was that just me?

But the real kicker is that Lady Bird is not just a mother-daughter movie. Lady Bird’s life is full of characters and it’s amazing how fully realized they all are. We spend time with her father, her brother, her best friend, and several love interests, and Gerwig’s fabulous writing doesn’t lose sight of a single one of them. And her cast – her cast! Have I said yet that Saoirse Ronan is a vision and she brings so much to the role and this is truly the best I’ve ever seen her? Fun fact: she and Greta first met at TIFF two years ago, and Gerwig couldn’t imagine the role going to anyone else. And even though the writing is so, so good, and the character is absolute perfection on the page, Ronan just makes it even better. Even wonderfuller.

And Metcalf. This is such a great role and she really makes it her own: loving, frustrated, conflicted, supportive, scathing. Goddamn. She plays opposite Tracy Letts, who plays her husband and Lady Bird’s dad. He’s the good cop parent but not without his own challenges – believe me, the script does not neglect him. Lois Smith, Timothee Chalamet, and Lucas Hedges all help bring Lady Bird’s world into bold, bright, living colour while also contributing a little of their own. I’m telling you, this has got to be a contender for best script. The layers are many and I have never wanted to peel anything faster in my life! For my money, though, the lovely, luminous Beanie Feldstein has got to be the breakout star here. She plays Lady Bird’s BFF Julie. Don’t mistake her for a second banana. She may have shades of wallflower but she never gives you a second to discount her.

Lady Bird is absolutely one to watch, so do.

Buster’s Mal Heart

Buster is a mountain man on the run from authorities. He survives the cold winters by breaking into vacation homes and living off the spoils. He’s pursued by the police but also by flashbacks to his prior, family-man life, and by persistent daydreams of being adrift at sea. He calls radio shows to warn others about the impending “Inversion”.

The film, which eschews conventional story-telling, seems to have three distinct time lines, if I may call them that. 1. Buster (Rami Malek) as an overworked father and husband. He works as the night manager at a creepy hotel and the shift work is killing him. He lives with his in-laws, which might be killing him too, come to think of it. At the MV5BMzgzNjFhMmUtZDNmYy00N2M2LThiMzMtYjkwMjA4NjlkZjIwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUxMjc1OTM@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,735_AL_hotel he encounters a drifter (DJ Qualls) begging for a room for the night, and this encounter will change the course of Buster’s life forever. 2. With matted hair and a dirty beard, Buster’s mind appears to be cracked. He lives off grid, barely surviving, almost no semblance to his former self. 3. He is half-starved, lost at sea in a small rowboat, sending letters in bottles overboard. We don’t know how long this has gone on for.

How many, if any, of these time lines is real? Are they manifestations of his wormhole conspiracy theory, or the product of a mind broken with grief and guilt, or just the insomniac’s daymares? That’s for you to figure out, without much help from director Sarah Adina Smith, who is perfectly comfortable with an audience full of head-scratchers and what-the-fuckers. In fact, she’s going to throw in a whole bunch of biblical allusions just to fuck with you some more.

One thing’s for sure: Rami Malek is ready to be a leading man. His minimalist style still conveys mental instability and eccentricity across all timelines. He contributes to the film maker’s ruse by making each version of Buster equally believe and unbelievable. All three feel authentic but all three cannot be. He gives away nothing. And in the end, if you’re going to enjoy this movie at all, you’ll have to be comfortable with that, with not getting any answers. By having bold questions shoved in your face and living with just discarding them. Is any version of Buster a real person, or are they all just metaphors for disillusionment? Or am I, the viewer, the one who’s disillusioned?

 

TIFF: Unicorn Store

Full disclosure: I own a unicorn named Mindy. She’s magical. She’s a goddamned magical creature. She’s also inflatable but don’t you DARE call her a pool toy. You can, however, call her the centre of attention, which is exactly what she was when I threw a goddamned magical unicorn party earlier this summer. I sent unicorn invitations. I had unicorn party hats, a unicorn pinata, and unicorn names for all the guests. I even made a unicorn cake. No, that’s not true. I actually made TWO unicorn cakes because Sean smashed the first one about 30 seconds after I finished it. And when you throw a unicorn party, people bring you unicorn presents, which is why I own unicorn slippers and a unicorn tape dispenser named Stuart and briefly had unicorn-coloured hair. This either makes me uniquely qualified to review this film, or I should recuse myself for the glaring conflict of interest.

I’m not actually obsessed with unicorns, but you know who is? Kit. Kit (Brie Larson) has literally been obsessed with unicorns her whole entire life. And after painting yet 422-logan.jpganother unicorn-as-self-portrait, she’s unceremoniously flunked out of art school and returns home to mope in her parents’ basement (Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford). In an effort to Not Be A Disappointment to them, she takes an uninspired job with a temp agency and just when it seems the world might be ready to beat the whimsy right out of her, the universe sends her a pop-up store that only sells unicorns, and only to her, run by a tinsel-afroed Samuel L. Jackson, of naturally. Turns out that owning a unicorn is something you have to earn, so Kit sets about getting her life unicorn-ready, and that’s going to take some major changes. But is unicorn ownership really the cure to what ails a directionless, fully grown woman who seems stuck in a perpetual unicorn phase? Isn’t there more to life than glitter and rainbows?

Samantha McIntyre’s script is winkingly funny. For some odd reason neither Sean nor I had gone into this expecting it to be funny, and yet the audience was in stitches. McIntyre has a very quirky style that endeared itself to me immediately. She creates sparks in the smallest little details. I also have to send a shout-out to costumer Mirren Gordon-Crozier who must have combed the known universe to find THE most fanciful pieces of clothing ever produced. Kit wears her personality on her body. Her shirt collection is all blue skies and rainbows. It reminded me of Kimmy Schmidt in that way, who is always seen in sunshine yellows and bright fuchsias. Their clothing is a reflection of who they are. That said, it might be Samuel L. Jackson’s suits that make the biggest and brightest wardrobe impression in this movie.

But the real rock star here is Brie Larson, who makes her directorial debut. She’s just finding her voice as a director so her style isn’t quite as quirky as the tone of the movie, but considering how much it shifts around, I think she handles it well, and I already can’t wait to see what other stories she’ll tell. She assembles a really great cast who are a lot of fun to watch. Cusack and Whitford are everyone’s embarrassing parents, and Mamoudou Athie as The Guy Who Will Build a Unicorn Stable Even Though He’s Not A Carpenter is a particular stand-out.

I really enjoyed Unicorn Store; it’s a sweet reminder that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on childhood dreams. Underneath the glitter there’s a message about conformity and how women are told to pull away from “girlish” things in order to fall into one of two male-approved categories: the drab, grim businesswoman, or the oversexualized dreamgirl. Anything seen as overtly feminine is assumed to be less serious, and even women themselves can internalize this notion. Not Kit. Brie Larson flexes her comedic chops by playing her as earnest but not naive. In a world where every man’s inner child is constantly catered to with movies about super heroes, robots, pirates, and zombies, this one, finally, is just for us.