Tag Archives: independent film

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.

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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.

TIFF18: Gloria Bell

Why is Julianne Moore even still making movies? I can think of few American actors with less to prove than Moore, fewer still who have turned in as many brave and egoless performances as she has over the last three decades.

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) admires her too. In fact, he says that he chose to remake his 2013 film Gloria as his English-language debut specifically because he was such a big Julianne Moore fan that he wanted to see what she would do with the role. To anyone like me who has not seen the original, it would feel like the part of Gloria was written for her. Gloria is a 50-something divorced mother of two adult children (Michael Cera and Caren Pistorious). She has a full-time job and her kids do spend some time with her but it’s not enough to keep her from getting lonely.

Luckily, Gloria loves disco and loves to dance and she never cuts loose quite like she does when she’s alone on the dance floor on Singles Night. That’s where she meets the charmingly awkward Arnold (John Turtorro). The two quickly strike up a relationship even if Arnold’s co-dependent relationship with his ex-wife and adult daughters seem to hold him back from completely commiting to Gloria.

Thinking back, there is something very sad about Gloria Bell. But that’s only in retrospect. Lelio, like Gloria, chooses not to dwell on the sadness. Instead, his film spends so much time being laugh out loud funny that and is just optimistic enough that you can almost mistake it for a mindless crowd pleaser. It’s only three or four movies later when I realized that this was the one that I was still thinking about that I realized what a fully realized character they’ve created (or recreated) together. It doesn’t hurt that those in her life, the supporting cast, all seem to have real lives of their own when they’re not onscreen and could easily have starred in films of their own. I for one would have loved to know a lot more about Arnold. But really this is Gloria’s story and Lelio and Moore do her proud in a really impressive and effective film.

 

Searching

Searching Pie

1999. It was the summer that I graduated high school, started preparing for CEGEP, and took my first trip across the country without the parental units. If ever there was a summer that felt like I had my whole life ahead of me, that was the one and- even though it was that same summer that I saw The Goddamn Matrix for the first time, the movie that really brings me back to that feeling- the movie that I saw four times- was American Pie.

Looking back on that scene where three teens repeatedly scream “MILF” at a picture of Stiffler’s Mom, I’d call it misogynist. But 19 years ago, that didn’t stop my friends and I from laughing our asses off. And to this day (and I’m sure this would make him so happy) I can’t look at John Cho without thinking of “MILF’ Guy #2. (Wait, who was “MILF” Guy #1 then?).

It’s almost depressing to think about how long ago that was. Times have changed and a lot of those changes are good. Jason Biggs doesn’t have to watch scrambled porn anymore and Cho can find work without having to lick a framed photo of Jennifer Coolidge. And I’m proud that my sense of humour has gotten a little more sophisticated and hopefully a lot less sexist. Still, I don’t know many people who love thinking about how many years have passed since high school while they weren’t looking and in his new movie John Cho is back to remind me of just how old I’ve gotten by playing the father of a 16 year-old girl.

Searching 1

That Cho is now old and mature enough to carry a tense thriller about a father’s desperate search for his missing teenage daughter isn’t even the most obvious way that Searching reminds us of what a strange and different world we’re now living in. First-time director Aneesh Chaganty shot the entire movie from the point of view of a mock computer screen. So as Cho’s David Kim talks to his daughter’s friends and searches for clues on her laptop, the whole story is told through Google searches, text history, Facebook posts, Skype, and YouTube videos.

Searching 2

My first response to Chaganty’s experimental approach during the first few minutes of Searching was “Alright. I’m impressed so far and am on board for now but can easily see how this can get old pretty quickly”. It’s a testament to Chaganty’s storytelling that the novelty never wears off and is rarely distracting. It’s not a perfect film. I’m not sure all of the laughs it got at my Fantasia screening were entirely intentional and as a thriller one or two of the twists may be a little too far-fetched.

Not all of the changes since 1999 are great and Searching is at its best as an exploration of what a double-edged sword the internet can be. It shows how it can make it easier both to reach out and to retreat into our. How easy it is both to reveal and conceal our true selves. And, most importantly, how useful a tool the internet is for concerned parents and stalkers alike.

Despite its flaws, Searching is a much more gripping and emotionally satisfying experience than you’re probably imagining and Cho nails what I can only imagine must have been a challenging role. I highly recommend it.

The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot

Sam Elliott knows he’s recognized for roles in Tombstone or The Big Lebowski. And he’s instantly recognizable too, from his trademark mustache to his deep, commanding voice. But as anyone who’s hit the film festival circuit lately knows, Elliott has shown a preference for independent film in the later stages of his career, and indie film loves him back. In fact, not that long ago he had a role written especially for him – it suits him like a lustrous patch of facial hair. It’s called The Hero, and you should definitely check it out.

But at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, Sam Elliott is playing a different, and more specific kind of hero: he’s playing the man who killed Hitler, and then the Bigfoot. These bigger-than-life events serve to bookend the man’s career. When we meet MV5BNjdkNzYwNjYtZDc3MC00Y2Y2LTgzYTctMjkxYTJkYzY1ODE3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTk4ODI4ODE@._V1_Calvin, he’s a tired old man, safe in his routine, happiest at the bottom of a bottle. But one night the FBI shows up at his door, with a delicate problem on their hands. It’s the Bigfoot. He’s patient zero for a world-ending virus, and he’s already decimating populations up in Canada. Calvin, with a reputation for excellent tracking and a specific immunity to the disease, is a last resort. If he can’t stop the Bigfoot, the president is going to nuke Canada to keep himself safe.

I realize that the title alone spells out two really big scenes that you can’t wait to watch (Aidan Turner plays a young Calvin), but the truth is, it’s what’s in between that really matters, to us and to Calvin, who downplays his heroism and manages to come across as a normal, if heartbroken, man. But it’s the specific ways in which he’s broken that’s interesting. It’s the pain in his face, the pain in his body, the way he loses focus and we get drawn into another intense flashback, and after being inundated by all these memories, we start to realize what life has been like for Calvin in between bouts of adventure, and it’s not a beautiful life.

First time director Robert D. Krzykowski evokes the headline of an obituary with his splashy title, but the story focuses more on aging than on adventuring. This is the winding down of a big life and the toll such a life has taken on a man who is, after all, just a man. Sam Elliott is perfect casting, and I have to imagine to a first time director, it’s also dream casting. There’s something deeply satisfying and not a little cathartic in Elliott’s stoic, deadpan acceptance of some pretty absurd situations. And Krzykowski, in love with process, and detail, is more prone to showing the little moments than making a big spectacle. So the most shocking thing about a movie involving the plot to kill humanity’s embodiment of evil AND a mythic monster infected with a doomsday virus is that it’s really not shocking at all. It’s a moody, bittersweet little indie film with a lot to say about every day things.