Tag Archives: independent film

Indian Horse

imagesThe residential school system is not the only black mark on our country but it has to be the darkest stain. We and our government could not have done worse by our indigenous people if we tried. We should have known from the start that this imperialistic plan would go horribly wrong. After all, we chose to put the Catholic Church in charge of many of these awful residential schools (and not just the Catholic Church, but a bunch of others share the blame, including the Anglican, Presbyterian, and United Churches of Canada), because it wasn’t enough to tear children from their families and literally beat their culture out of them, it seemed appropriate for some reason to facilitate child molestation too, feeding 150,000 potential altar boys and girls to more than a few insatiable priests over the lifetime of the program. 150,000!

Not surprisingly, the end result of this utter disaster was the destruction of generations upon generations of indigenous people, something we cannot ever be ashamed of enough. And this is not something we can blame on our long-dead racist ancestors, since the last residential school did not close until 1996.  1996!

Indian Horse tells the story of one of those unfortunate kids who was sent to residential school, a boy named Saul Indian Horse. Saul happens to be a natural at hockey, quickly becoming the star of the school’s team. But for some reason, despite his hockey-playing prowess, Saul is clearly struggling to find his place. Could the reason for his struggles be that he and everyone he knew were subjected to horrific abuse every single day?

You don’t have to watch Indian Horse to learn that yes, all those years of abuse hurt Saul really, really badly. And you don’t have to watch Indian Horse to grasp that his story is just one of 150,000 about those who were directly and irreparably harmed by residential schools, not to mention the thousands more who were harmed just as badly by the loss of their family members to the schools, and not to mention the subsequent damage caused by attendees of the schools when, surprise, surprise, after being removed from their families and their culture as kids and abused by those who were supposed to take care of them, they were unable to even care for themselves, let alone their children, a cycle that we still haven’t been able to break. But you should watch Indian Horse anyway.

You should watch Indian Horse to remember that to the extent that Saul or any other survivor of residential schools fell short, it’s not for lack of will or effort on their part. It’s because the Canadian government, and by extension the white Canadian majority, failed them monumentally.  Indian Horse demonstrates our country’s massive failure clearly and effectively despite its shoestring budget, while at the same time paying tribute to the inner strength of one survivor who, but for his race, would have been a hockey-loving Canadian kid on his way to stardom.

So here’s to Saul and to each of his friends. I’m so sorry for what you had to suffer through, and I promise not to ever forget it or let anything like this ever happen again.  I know that’s not enough to right these wrongs and nothing ever will be.  But hopefully it is a step in the right direction after hundreds of years of horror. It is truly a shame that the Pope doesn’t feel that way, but hardly surprising the Catholic Church won’t acknowledge any of its wrongdoings – we’ve seen that movie already.

 

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SXSW: Most Likely To Murder

Billy was the king of his high school but high school was a long time ago. He puts up a pretty glamourous facade which is easy(ish) to maintain as long as he’s a long way from home but if people could see the reality of his Vegas life, they might see him as a figure more to be pitied than celebrated. So of course he’s uneasy about returning to his hometown in New York state, especially as it’s likely to be his last visit (his folks are selling up and moving away).

You can never go home again. Home isn’t home. Even if your parents are freaks who have let your childhood bedroom be preserved for the ages, you’ll never be the same person occupying it. The town has changed. Your friends have changed.

Billy (Adam Pally) comes home to find his parents have sold his prized shitbox car to the weirdo next door and worse still, Billy’s ex girlfriend (Rachel Bloom) is dating him! Lowell (Vincent Kartheiser) from next door was a loser in high school, and the guy still lives with his mom. What can Kara possibly see in him? And just when MV5BNjkxM2Y1OGEtMjQzOC00OWI5LWE3NDgtNzBkOGY0YWNlYjU3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1497,1000_AL_Billy’s head is about to explode with all the backwardness, he sees something out his bedroom window that leads him to believe that Lowell is a murderer. But everyone in town has had a lobotomy, ie, they all think Lowell is this stand up guy. What the heck? Even Billy’s own best bud thinks Lowell is a nice guy, so Billy’s got an uphill battle – against popular opinion, and his own less than stellar reputation.

Of course Billy’s got a serious case of wanting to tear someone else down in order to make himself look better (which doesn’t mean his wrong). Dan Gregor’s film is about dealing with who you were, who you thought you’d become, and who you actually turned out to be. Seeing old friends who ‘knew us back when’ really forces us to reassess, and to see ourselves, our progress and success, or lack thereof, through their eyes, and it’s not always easy to see what’s reflected back. We experience insecurity through Billy, who isn’t used to feeling that way. He sees himself as a laid-back, fun guy, so neuroses aren’t his comfort zone. His paranoia acts out on a pretty grand scale, where he’s scaling fences and cowering among dead possums and calling the police, but there’s still a sense of relatability there. And of course, being a fan of Pally’s and basically this mumblecore, indie stuff that he’s so well-known for, I like the improvisational style of the film. I thought it was funny and interesting in a way where you do actually care how it turns out. Who is this creepy Lowell, and does his identity change Billy’s? Do any of us turn out how we think?

SXSW: Prospect

prospect-126347Hard science fiction is a tough sell, especially cinematically. Soft sci-fi is far more exciting and eye-pleasing. It lets us hop around the galaxy at faster-than-light speed, meet aliens at every space station, and have luxury accommodations in the starships on which we’re travelling. Conversely, hard sci-fi travel is slow and cramped and space is largely empty. Prospect is a hard sci-fi movie that remains resolute in the face of the obstacles posed by its chosen genre, and by and large overcomes them.

Prospect’s aesthetic is reminicent of Alien and I’m sure that was intentional. Like in Alien, Prospect’s version of space travel is analogue, with lots of switches and dials and flashing lights. It’s also utilitarian with a wild-west feel, as space travelling prospectors hitch their “wagons” to a large transport on its last run to a forest moon, the site of a gold rush that seems to be coming to an end. We follow a father-daughter duo in search of one last score, with only a short window of time to get in and out before the transport leaves, as if they miss that ride they will be left to die on the poisonous moon.

Prospect does a great job at dropping clues about the way this world works, showing us the desperation and pressure felt by this working class family from nowhere, hinting at the boom and bust that has hit this moon and those who work it, and suggesting that the colonization of the universe has made humanity revert to a savage, lawless existence on the frontiers. If set in another era, this story would work perfectly as a western, and that seems fitting when our protagonists are travelling to the edge of the known universe to stake resource claims, hoping to strike it rich.

Despite its indie-movie budget constraints, Prospect manages to convincingly portray space travel and an alien world on the big screen. The special effects are not spectacular but they are effective. Prospect succeeds due to its excellence in world-building, both visually and narratively. While Prospect is definitely a niche film, it is one that science fiction fans will enjoy.

Brigsby Bear

One day the cops show up at James’ house and take away from his parents and his home. He’s surprised he can breathe the air outside their bunker, but that’s the first of many surprises. Turns out he’d been kidnapped as a baby and raised by his captors (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams!) to believe that Brigsby Bear, a TV show that unbeknownst to him was being made by his “father” and seen only by himself, was the culmination of human existence. You haven’t heard obsessed fan theory until you’ve met a man who has never done or seen anything else, ever.

Now that he’s “free” it’s hard to let go of his favourite, most important show ever, and brigsby-bear-images-kate-lyn-sheil-kyle-mooneywhen he learns that it was Mark Hamill making the 700+ episodes all along, his main takeaway is: anyone can make a movie! So why not him? Unfortunately, the cop (Greg Kinnear) isn’t keen to turn over the confiscated equipment, and his therapist (Claire Danes) isn’t keen on the idea, period. But this is the only thing giving a grown man comfort now that he’s out in a world he never knew existed, let alone how to exist in it.

Kyle Mooney plays James, a man who still identifies more with his captors and their cult-like lifestyle than with his biological parents who have spent 25 years looking for him but only a couple of weeks knowing him. This is man’s search for meaning, but no one is comfortable when he finds it in an animatronic bear head. But teaching him history, or how to drive, or what slang to use, isn’t going to be enough. He just doesn’t belong to this world, or to his new family, and that’s a sort of sadness that’s translatable even as it’s played for laughs on screen. It’s kind of neat to be able to see the impact of pop culture on someone who hasn’t been part of it. Brigsby Bear is a true indie film, not just marching to a different beat but spasmodically interpretive-dancing to the synthesized stylings of a keytar. It’s on a slightly different frequency than most movies, but if you feel like joining it there, you’ll find yourself having a surprisingly earnest, often charming, feel good time.

Band Aid

Once in a blue moon, Netflix offers up a rare gem. Band Aid is a Netflix diamond.

Written, directed, and starring Zoe Lister-Jones (who you may already love from Life In Pieces!), Band Aid is a little piece of indie cinema genius. It’s about a married couple, Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (king of indies Adam Pally, who you may already love from The Mindy Project), who on their last legs, relationship-wise. Even their therapist claims she’s moved to Canada just to avoid them. The fights are vicious, and cyclical. But while high as a couple of kites at a child’s birthday party, they discover the one thing that can still bring them joy: music. And so they start a band where they sing their fights back and forth in front of their sex addict neighbour (Fred Armisen), who conveniently is a drummer.

band-aid-2017-adam-pally-zoe-lister-jonesIn fact, music alone is not enough to save them. Turns out they’ve suffered a tragedy that neither has fully grieved, and singing about it is going to be very difficult since talking about it has been impossible for years. They’re still a broken couple, now they’re just putting all their dirty laundry on the stage for the consumption of others. A particularly ambitious dream of them getting a record deal never seems all that impossible because actually, their music is good, and fun (so long as you are currently in a good space with your loved one). Sean and I found ourselves communicating in that subtle hand squeezy way that some couples have when they are relating a little too well to the awkwardness on screen.

Now brace yourselves for a cool fact: for her first movie, Zoe Lister-Jones insisted on an all-female crew. Like, Adam Pally was the only man for miles and miles. Truly all female. And the thing is, the movie is so good that I buried the lead. It doesn’t need any gimmicks. Because when a normal film would just throw out the old male-female sick couple cliches, Lister-Jones keep asking why. Why do couples drive each other crazy over time? Band Aid might not have all the answers but it confronts the questions honestly, while still being an entirely entertaining movie.

 

Darling Companion

Beth is feeling a bit like a neglected wife; her husband Joseph is a workaholic surgeon and her kids are grown. So it’s kind of perfect timing when she finds an injured dog by the side of the road. Nursed back to health, the aptly named ‘Freeway’ becomes her loyal and constant companion. When Freeway’s vet marries Beth’s daughter, the whole family comes together for the happy occasion – until Joseph manages to lose the dog and suddenly the family is down one very important member.

Beth (Diane Keaton) refuses to leave until she’s searched every corner of the back woods where Freeway was last seen. Her sister-in-law (Dianne Wiest) chooses to stay by her side, as does her new beau (Richard Jenkins), and her son (Mark Duplass). Finally feeling the guilt of his inadequacy, Joseph (Kevin Kline) stays back too, and the search party is more like search couples therapy.

It’s co-written and directed by the fabulous Lawrence Kasdan so I wonder how on earth that name paired with this cast could have sailed past me. What was I doing in 2012 that I couldn’t make room for a little Diane Keaton in my life? And the thing is, who better to relate to her character than myself, a woman who would most assuredly go full Billy Madison should any of my dogs ever go missing.

Alas, this is the least successful of Kasdan’s films and it’s not just for the lack of light sabers. I get what he’s trying to do: there’s a fraying marriage, a freshly minted marriage, and new romances for both the young and not so young. It all revolves around this missing dog, but it’s a lot to handle for a film with such a sweet and simple premise and the tone is sometimes a little too “family movie” for my taste or perhaps anyone’s. But dogs have such an uncomplicated relationship with us, in comparison. They like to cuddle and to be fed. They are never not 110% bowled over to see you come, whether you’ve been away 5 minutes or 5 days. Kasdan was inspired to write the script after he adopted a dog himself, and promptly lost him.

This is Kasdan’s first indie film and the cast, featuring three Oscar winners and two more nominees, were so moved by the story they agreed to work for scale. Even if it wasn’t his most successful, Kasdan lists it as his most gratifying, and I suppose in a long and lustrous career, that’s worth something too.

Monster Pool: Seven Deadly Sins

Was it really two years ago that Jay and I furiously drove back from New Hampshire to Ottawa to see the first Monster Pool Horror Anthology?  Apparently so.  As this site evidences, we have seen a truckload of movies since then, but very few of those have been as gory as the latest Monster Pool entry, titled Seven Deadly Sins (and even fewer have been as Ottawa-centric, considering this effort comes from a team of local filmmakers).

Monster Pool: Seven Deadly Sins wastes no time in getting to the gore.  Like, insides falling out kind of gore, and skinless body in a bathtub kind of gore, and cannibal eating dinner kind of gore.  And while these effects don’t have the gloss on them that a $200 million budget can provide, the fact they are still convincingly disgusting is a great credit to these talented filmmakers.  This is a well-polished effort that fits together well, and builds on the previous two Monster Pool entries (all three of which are available online through http://monsterpool.ca/ – and the first two films can be viewed for free!).

All these filmmakers put their talent on display and the result is a polished and cohesive product.  The quality of the effects was a highlight for me, as they were consistently good throughout each of the seven short films plus the “wrapper” story that linked them loosely together.  The acting was less consistent than the effects, though I’m not even sure that is necessarily a criticism (overacting is arguably a staple of the horror genre).

All in all, Monster Pool: Seven Deadly Sins ended up being an excellent and, um, festive way to spend my Halloween after handing out candy to 191 kids (Jay had to work so I manned the door by myself!).  My only regret is not saving more candy for myself.

 

 

 

NHFF 2017: An Exceptional Year for Documentaries (Part 1)

Last year, the New Hampshire Film Festival was as swept up in the 2016 election drama as I was. They featured an impressive selection of politically themed documentaries and even hosted a standing-room only panel discussion on Politics in Film. I couldn’t get enough last year and took in as much of it as I could.

The documentary selection this year was noticeably less overtly political, presumably because the NHFF is as burnt out on American politics as I am at this point. Still, in keeping with tradition, the New Hampshire Film Festival remains the one time of year that I favour documentaries. The four docs I saw this year have very little in common in either subject or structure but are all challenging and depressing in their own way.

sacred cod

Sacred Cod: The Fight for a New England Tradition– Due to climate change and overfishing, the cod population in the Gulf of Maine has been dwindling like never before. As a result, fishing communities in New England that have thrived for generations are now struggling as many are forced to sell their boats.

Far from being just another climate change documentary, Sacred Cod focuses instead on the people who are affected by federal government restrictions that severely limit the number of cod that they can catch. To many of them, it feels like government over-regulation is costing them not just their livelihood but their way of life and proud community traditions. Some even doubt the science that the government is citing, given that you can still cherry pick areas that are still rich with cod.

Of the documentaries I saw at the festival, Sacred Cod is the most traditional in style but is exceptional in its compassion. The decreasing cod population and the necessity of government intervention is indisputable at this point and directors Steve Liss, Andy Laub, and David Abel know it but they show as much empathy to those affected by the quotas as they do commitment to the facts.

the reagan show

The Reagan Show– “So, what is a Canadian doing in New Hampshire watching a documentary about our greatest president?”. A young guy I met in line asked me this before The Reagan Show and I have no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not about that last part.

Nor can I tell you with any confidence what the filmmakers behind The Reagan Show thought of America’s 40th president. There are no narrators or even original interviews with which they can betray their political biases. They rely exclusively on footage from the White House archives and TV news segments to tell their story. Specifically, they’re focused on the story of how Reagan exceeded the expectations of most critics in his arms race negotiations with then Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.

If The Reagan Show has a point of view, it’s that Reagan was the first President to really understand television and how to play to the cameras in shaping the public’s perception of him. As far as politics goes, your own point of view will likely be challenged. I went in with an anti-Reagan bias and found that point of view challenged just as I’m sure the Reagan enthusiast I talked to earlier had his challenged too.

Kayak to Klemtu

Teenagers. They think they know it all, don’t they? They have this unbearable self-righteousness. They can take a motorboat to testify about the dangers posed by oil tankers and not feel a little hypocritical, not even a bit.  The big picture is missed. Kayak to Klemtu, Zoe Hopkins’ first feature, finds itself in the same quandary.  Various problems arise, the characters deal with them as they come, and then the scene shifts to the next problem, without ever engaging with anything of significance.

I wished throughout that I got to know the characters. Too often, characters would appear solely to serve the plot or provide a moral question of some sort, and then disappear once they had set up that segment of the film.  Discussions that would seem to be important often didn’t end up happening, whether it was the reason why the teenagers’ parents left Klemtu in favour of Vancouver, or why a mother and son never asked each other how they felt during their husband/father’s battle with cancer.

Those missing details pile quite high by the end of the film. By focusing so heavily on a crusade for environmental protection, Kayak to Klemtu misses the bigger picture. Paradoxically, the “bigger picture” here was one small family in mourning, looking for ways to cope with the loss of a loved one. Their journey takes a back seat to the film’s anti-pipeline, pro-conservation message, and it should have been the other way around.

With so many beautiful shots of the northern British Columbia coastline to be found in Kayak to Klemtu, the conservation message would not have been lost if the characters had been driving the film instead.   If anything, the message would have been more impactful, as the onscreen journey through B.C.’s coastal waters argues more effectively in favour of conservation than a monologue ever could.

The Drop In

I enjoy short films because they are their own genre with their own rules.  Unlike feature-length film, there’s no standard runtime, only an upper limit of 40 minutes (including credits) in order to qualify for Oscar consideration.   The fact that shorts usually jump right into the action makes the genre feel freer and less predictable than feature films.  I also like that shorts tend not to use a standard three-act narrative structure (exposition-rising action-climax), forsaking it for the sake of moving right to the heart of the story.

The Drop In is only 12 minutes long, but in that time the film manages to delivers two big twists that took me by surprise (which I won’t reveal here).  The film starts with a seemingly innocuous encounter that soon turns into a tense, high-stakes confrontation.  Even before anything significant is revealed, that tension is apparent between the film’s only two characters. We may not understand why these two are in conflict but we know, whatever the reason, that this face-off means big trouble for Joelle, a Toronto hairstylist who agreed to stay late to help out a new client.

This short feels like the start of a TV series and the abrupt and inconclusive ending left me curious to see more. That’s often the best place to be, with interest piqued, trying to guess both what came before and what comes next.  But sometimes both past and future are better left unknown, and I think The Drop In makes the right choice by telling this story in short film form, rather than to try to make it feature length.  After all, the first rule of show business is to always leave them wanting more, and The Drop In does exactly that.