Tag Archives: independent film

Black Bear

Holy pickled beets, Black Bear!

Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is a filmmaker who’s treating her writer’s block to a remote lake house retreat. There she finds a young, pregnant couple who have perhaps been living in isolation a little too long. Gabe (Christopher Abbott), a musician, and Blair (Sarah Gadon), a former dancer, seem to actively loathe each other; it’s an awkward situation I would never choose to take part in but Allison doesn’t just stay, she picks at the scabs. She even gets in a few fresh jabs herself. These frustrated artists release on each other with pretentious arguments. It’s awful for Gabe and Blair’s relationship but apparently that’s a sacrifice Allison’s willing to make, baby on the way or no.

That’s where Allison’s little game of muse-inducing desire and jealousy takes a turn for the decidedly meta. Blurring the line between autobiography and invention, the film divides itself between two chapters – perhaps both the inspiration and its result. Clearly the bears in the woods have dark companions.

Watching this film is like getting to peek behind the curtain at the Wizard of Oz manipulating all his levers and pulleys. It basically deconstructs itself right in front of us and we get to decide how much of it is fact or fiction, and where exactly it turns into a work of imagination. It is certainly an act of ringing art out of pain, telling the story in a brain-teasing sort of way. Writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine enjoys playing with us, and I admit, the game is addictive.

Props to Aubrey Plaza, who has transformed herself from prime time cable sitcom star to veritable art house indie queen. She has sought out many brilliant, risky, offbeat roles over the years, but this is one suits her and stretches her in new and fascinating ways. Her dark and caustic seems tailor-made for the part, which is actually at least two parts, subtly defined, and maybe more. Black Bear is a bit of a mind-bender, definitely not straight-forward story-telling, perhaps not to the taste of all, but a near-perfect morsel for true cinema lovers.

Available in select Canadian theatres as well as 
On Demand and Digital on Friday December 4th, 2020.

Canadian theatre openings on Dec 4th:
Kingston, ON – The Screening Room
Sudbury, ON – Sudbury Indie Cinemas
Ottawa, ON – Mayfair Theatre
Calgary, AB – Canyon Meadows Cinemas
Leduc, AB – Leduc Cinemas
Wetaskiwin, AB – Wetaskiwin Cinemas

Kajillionaire

Miranda July’s Kajillionaire is absurd, absurdly absurd, but the slightly off-kilter universe she concocts for her characters is eminently watchable and surprisingly endearing.

Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) (yes that’s her name) (yes it’s horrible) was named after a homeless man who’d won the lottery. Her parents hoped this might get her into his will. It was the first scheme the family worked as a threesome, but not the last.

Living “off the grid” seems like it involves a reclusive shack, enough farm land for self-sufficiency, and possibly an underground bunker. Old Dolio and her family – mom Theresa (Debra Winger) and dad Robert (Richard Jenkins) – live in the city, but outside of society. Their home, if it can even be called such, is condemned office space that is flooded with bubbles on a daily basis. They are charged a nominal rent for these quarters but they can never seem to pay it. Many months are overdue. The family subsists on a series of scams, most of which feature Old Dolio on the front lines. Old Dolio, it goes without saying, is a strange young woman having had such an untraditional upbringing, and, it must be said, some pretty faulty parenting. Theresa and Robert aren’t exactly the loving, supporting types. Their family runs more like a business (an unsuccessful business) where expenses and profits are split 3 ways. Having never known anything else, Old Dolio doesn’t notice anything amiss in this arrangement before her parents meet and all but adopt another young woman, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who is quickly taken into the fold and absorbed into their schemes.

Miranda July has crafted some characters that are unique and interesting yet completely (hopefully) unrelatable. Still, she uses their unusual circumstances to speak toward larger themes of toxic relationships and learning to identify and fulfill one’s own needs, which are universal tenets of growing up. Old Dolio hasn’t had the opportunities, or even considered them, before now; only in comparing herself to Melanie does she begin to realize the iniquities she’s been suffering. We only know what we know.

With strong, engaging performances across the board, a knowing script, and a unique vision from writer-director Miranda July, Kajillionaire is must-see independent film and genuine oasis in the cinematic desert that is 2020.

Good Kisser

Jenna (Kari Alison Hodge) and Kate (Rachel Paulson) are ubering to their first threesome as a couple. Jenna is nervous, blabbering to their driver. Kate is excited, anxious to appease Jenna’s insecurities. They discuss code words and safe words and rules and limits but all that good stuff goes right out the door in the heat of the moment.

To Jenna, Mia (Julia Eringer) is a mysterious but seductive stranger. Kate and Mia, however, have some sort of history, one that Kate seems pretty intent on rekindling, pressuring Jenna to get those fires lit quick. But while Kate wants it more, it’s Jenna and Mia who seem to really connect, at least on an intellectual level. They have great chemistry outside the bedroom, but inside is another story, Jenna’s anxieties prevent her from really enjoying an intimate encounter with a random person, an issue that should have been clear to both Jenna and Kate, her partner of nearly two years, well before they got into bed with a third party. But it seems this was an effort to “spice up” their relationship, and is clearly a mostly one-sided endeavour. You’ll never see this coming but – spoiler! – turns out, a threesome isn’t a quick fix for a rocky relationship. In fact, it seems to be extra good at exposing the flaws in the foundation.

This is an indie movie with a pure, pure heart. Talented writer-director Wendy Jo Carlton has put her soul all over the page and the screen. None of the actors are completely natural on camera yet, but their professionalism and eagerness go a long way. And so does the spirit of the project itself, an LGBT movie that speaks to its own people. Far too often, movies about lesbian couples especially get made for the male gaze, the male hetero gaze, it probably goes without saying. That’s how you make a lesbian movie marketable. But Good Kisser isn’t afraid to deviate from the kissing. It’s talky, it’s neurotic, it’s questioning without being judgmental. What started out as a night billed as pleasure turns into one of pivotal evaluation and reassessment. If Good Kisser isn’t quite a Good Movie, it is at least obviously from a Good Director who deserves to have her next project have a Good Budget.

I Used To Go Here

Kate’s new novel isn’t doing very well. The book tour’s cancelled and as she’s posing between the three enormous baby bellies of her three best friends, she simply holding a book, she’s realizing that maybe her baby was better off aborted.

But then her old professor calls, asking her to do a reading at her alma matter, and maybe things are a bit redeemed? Kate (Gillian Jacobs) returns to her former stomping grounds, 15 years later. Is it a triumphant return? Well, besides the fact that no one’s read the book and professor David (Jemaine Clement) isn’t quite as welcoming as she’d hoped and the B&B lady might be slightly psychotic and she accidentally wore the same blazer to the reading as she’s wearing on the book jacket. Apart from that, sure?

But her feelings of inadequacy and malaise seems to have her untethered, and instead of heading back home to Chicago, she hangs out maybe a little bit longer than she should. She drops by her old frat house and makes friends with the kids she finds there. They were in kindergarden when she herself was in college, but what’s a little age difference? Their problems seem so trivial compared to hers. They are young and full of promise, with their whole lives ahead of them. They haven’t compromised their dreams yet, their hopes haven’t been dulled by the brunt force of survival, they haven’t experienced the steady sucking of one’s soul. But this is a temporary balm at best, a bit of respite maybe, but eventually Kate will need to confront and make peace with reality vs. expectation, surely?

Writer-director Kris Rey has a playful style, but well-observed. I was pleasantly surprised to find Gillian Jacobs not resorting to an insufferable whininess that could have easily made this comedy boorish. Instead we find a lovely little character arc and a tidy if light comedy about a second coming of age.

Straight Up

Netflix just dropped a bizarre comedy this weekend starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. Netflix will green-light just about everything, which was music to Ferrell’s ears – literally. Finally, his semi-chub for Eurovision would pay off! If it’s not already the #1 viewed film on the streaming platform, I’m sure it will be soon. And it does have its funny moments, even I can admit that.

But Straight Up is also a new release on Netflix, and this one’s a movie you actually should see.

Todd (James Sweeney) is a confused young man. He’s neurotic, he’s OCD, he’s phobic, he’s addicted to therapy, which tends to stir up more questions than answers. One recent question is: am I actually gay?

Sexuality may be quite obvious to most, but Todd is wondering if maybe he just internalized the label from having been bullied as a child. He hasn’t really had any relationships, nor has he had sex thanks to an aversion to bodily fluids. He tests out this new theory on two long-time (/only) friends, who are less than enthusiastic for this line of thinking. Of course he’s gay, they assure him. Of course. But Todd is petrified of dying alone, and since adding females to the mix more than doubles the dating pool, the math is on his side. More or less. It may be a tad difficult to attract women with his distinct “I’m gay” vibe.

But not, it turns out, impossible. He meets Rory (Katie Findlay) and they immediately bond of Gilmore Girls, which is apt because they too are hyper-verbal. The dialogue zings between them rapid-fire and yet feels natural. Sweeney and Findlay have an incredible chemistry that belies an instant connection and intimacy. They are intellectual soulmates. But can they sustain a romance?

This film is all kinds of incredible. First, we get to explore a young and fluid concept of sexual identity. These kids are not afraid to redefine society’s so-called institutions to suit their own needs. They don’t ask whether they can be romantic partners but not sexual ones – they just get to it. Nothing’s off the table and everything can be negotiated.

It’s still pride month, and you may have noticed that among all of the letters of the rainbow (LGBTQia2+), the Q stands for both queer, and for questioning, which doesn’t necessarily mean that someone’s sexuality is in limbo. It can simply be an admission that sexuality is a spectrum, and one’s place on it may be in flux (a sort of agnosticism for sexual orientation, if you will). Generation Z much more readily embraces these gradations. And I don’t mean that it’s easy or it’s perfect, just that our understanding continues to expand, and there’s a lot more nuance than just the binary female/male, hetero/homosexual.

Five years ago, James Sweeney was a lowly assistant to Duke Johnson, who himself is not a household name, but he was co-director on that wonderful stop-motion animated film by Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa. Flash forward only a few years, and he’s already writing and directing his own films, and even more incredibly, they’re actually first rate. He’s not just putting sexuality on trial, he’s questioning our basic definition of romantic love. As he should. The truth is, no relationship strictly conforms to a dictionary’s ideal. Maybe love can only be defined by the people who are feeling it. And maybe we should just chuck out these meaningless labels anyway.

I feel energized by these challenges to the status quo, but most of all I was just falling a little in love with Rory and Todd myself. Their wit and effervescence perfectly captures that consuming and in fact addicting aspect of new love. Recognition of this higher connection is intoxicating and exhilarating and you just want more, more, more. While I would categorize Sean as “distressingly straight” and myself as “pansexual,” still we recognize a bit of ourselves in this young couple, because those first heady days of romance are unmistakable. Sweeney and Findlay give generous performances and make easy work of what I can only imagine was a pretty hefty script. And an impressive one at that.

Look for Straight Up on Netflix.

Rich Kid$

Matias (Gerardo Velasquez) has had a rough start to his day. The sheriff showed up with the landlord to evict his family. Mad at his father for being too proud to ask for help, he wants escape, but his neither his low-income neighbourhood or his similarly economically deprived friends offers much reprieve. So you almost can’t blame him when he and buddy Carlos (Ulysses Montoya) hop a fence to swim in the luxurious backyard pool of a wealthy neighbour who’s out of town.

They have such a nice time it seems almost criminal to keep their good fortune to themselves, so they’re soon joined by Carlos’ car-thieving, trunk-full-of-stolen-goods cousin Steve (Justin Rodriguez), and the girls: Vanessa (Michelle Magalon), Jasmin (Alessandra Mañon), and Isabel (Naome Antoinette). Of course, with the pool such a refreshing success, it’s only a matter of time before the group infiltrates the house as well, trying on clothes, microwaving food, inhabiting a life that, let’s face it, feels awfully good.

You can already sense that the stakes are getting incrementally higher; trespassing is one thing, breaking and entering another. But the kids aren’t doing a smash and grab, they’re cooling their heels on fine furnishings, drying off with plush towels, drinking top shelf booze. They’re pretending to be rich. They’re trying on wealth like a coat in a department store and it looks and feels so good they’re reluctant to part with it. But it’s not theirs, and thanks to subtle directing by Laura Somers, the audience never quite forgets it. Tension mounts the longer they stay; there’s a certain inevitability in the air, like the world they live in will want to put them back in their place.

Somers builds a line (or a wrought-iron gate) between the haves and have-nots. There’s no malice and there doesn’t have to be: the line simply exists. Wealth and privilege and the colour of one’s skin. It’s all tied together and it’s clear these kids have already felt how difficult these knots will be to untie.

A strong ensemble cast and some directorial restraint make Rich Kids a must-see.

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.

The Wrong Todd

Todd’s girlfriend Lucy accepts a job in Seattle, whether he’s prepared to follow or not. Todd (Jesse Rosen) doesn’t react particularly well. The next day, Lucy (Anna Rizzo) storms out mid-fight and then the doorbell rings. Todd answers. It’s Todd. Another Todd, a doppelganger, or evil twin, or future Todd from another dimension. At any rate, New Todd has arrived to make things right, and he wrestles Regular Todd into a time machine (ish) and sends Todd to some sort of alternative universe.

Once there, Regular Todd is out of his depth. Someone else lives in his house. His best friend Dave (Sean Carmichael) has a mustache, and a baby (and we’re not sure which one is more surprising), and Lucy is dead. Everyone living thinks this Todd is crazy.

Meanwhile, back in the original timeline, New Todd is the perfect boyfriend who of course would go anywhere for the girlfriend he loves, and lights candles for, and dances in the living room with. If stealing someone’s girlfriend is the best way you can imagine to exploit parallel universes, you’re a pretty lame dude.  And this guy’s gone to great lengths – extraordinary lengths to steal Lucy away from Regular Todd, but the script goes to no lengths at all to establish Lucy as the kind of woman who’s worth all that. I’m not  sure I’d split a plate of nachos with Lucy, if we’re being honest.

Directed by first-timer Rob Schulbaum, the film is relatively low on production values but stuffed with questions about identity and relationships and taking things for granted. And about the rules of the universe(s) too of course – this wouldn’t be a sci-fi dramedy without them!

Please Stand By

Wendy went to live in a group home when her sister got pregnant. Wendy (Dakota Fanning) has never been allowed to meet her baby niece for fear of her (autistic) tantrums, but under Scottie’s (Toni Collette) care, she’s doing much better. They work on routines, sustained eye contact, and interpreting emotion. Wendy lives by the rules she carefully writes down in the notebook around her neck. She has a job at Cinnabon, a pet dog, and a penchant for speed-knitting sweaters for said dog – Pete, a chihuahua. In her spare time, she has written a 400+ page manuscript, a Star Trek episode. She’s a fan of the show and a particular fan of Spock’s, a dude whose half-Vulcan blood means he too has trouble understanding human emotion.

A visit with her sister (Alice Eve) that’s meant to be celebratory turns sour when Audrey MV5BMmQ5MzJlNmItNzg3MC00MTZjLTkwNTUtYzllOTdlZGM4ZjdhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQxNzUzNzQ@._V1_has again not brought baby Ruby, and hints that she may be selling the family home and moving away. A meltdown seems imminent, but Wendy is fixated on her script, and getting it to Paramount Pictures on time for a contest. When she’s mysteriously not in her bed the next morning – well, let’s just say it’s not much of a mystery.

I love Toni Collette and she’s faultless in this, but it’s not her movie. It belongs to Dakota Fanning, who is Dakota Fantastic. Her portrayal may not be 100% authentic to autism, and could never be representative of everyone’s experience, the material is revived by using Star Trek as a tool for talking about her challenges. Dream sequences serve to reinforce this.

The story is slight but the heart is big. I really enjoyed Please Stand By, its attempt to show a different kind of coming-of-age, its commitment to keeping things light and fun but true. In an age where super heroes overcome astronomical, impossible, unbelievable things in at least 3 different acts of each movie, it’s refreshing to see a young woman overcome such humble obstacles and know that they mean so much more.

 

 

TIFF18: American Woman

At first glance, Deb (Sienna Miller) is all-too-easily dismissed. She’s a former teen mom turned grandmother at 31. She’s a mistress whose hot date turns out to be a trip to a sleazy motel room, where she is handed a plastic bag containing either dollar store lingerie or a slutty devil halloween costume (same difference, really). The next morning, we see that she is waking up alone in her own bed, suggesting the motel room was paid by the hour.

At that point, we’re about five minutes into American Woman, and you’re ready to write Deb off.

But don’t. Don’t you dare.

AmericanWoman_02Because Deb is worth more than she even knows, which she stars to discover after her daughter fails to come home one night after a date with her basement-dwelling baby daddy.  A loved one’s disappearance must be life-shattering. Miller lets us see the dissapearance’s drastic effects on Deb in such a restrained and measured way that Deb’s resulting character growth is organic, believable, and most impressively, almost invisible at first. Deb’s evolution is captivating, and the Deb we know by the end of the movie is at once the same core character and a woman whose outlook and attitude have evolved beyond anything I could have ever expected.

I cannot overstate the magnificence of Sienna Miller’s performance in American Woman. She is magnetic and conveys a mix of strength and vulnerability that is as authentic a performance as I can remember. And while Miller is the standout, he excellence is almost always matched by the rest of the cast, including Christina Hendricks as Deb’s sister, Amy Madigan as Deb’s mom, and Mad TV’s Will Sasso as Deb’s brother-in-law. Deb is rightly the focal point but it’s great that the strong supporting characters each get the chance to shine.

The gauntlet thrown down by the cast’s fantastic performances is picked up by those behind the camera, and they are up to the task. Brad Ingelsby’s script is smarter than it has any right to be, discarding obvious answers on a regular basis, and showing off by giving effortless depth to secondary and tertiary characters (including turning an obvious villain into an earnest guy deserving of our sympathy). Director Jake Scott uses care and moderation rather than flash and sensationalism, particularly in a crucial scene at the film’s climax, proving beyond any doubt that less is more. Scott consistently makes brilliant choices even in small details, such as by using visuals and settings to indicate the passage of time, rather than title cards.

The result of all of this individual brilliance, naturally, is a standout character study that can hold its own against anything that TIFF18 has to offer (which I can say with certainty since I saw If Beale Street Could Talk and Roma on either side of it). American Woman is as smart, rewarding and satisfying a cinematic experience as anyone could ask for, making for a film that you absolutely do not want to miss.