Tag Archives: independent film

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.

 

 

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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.

Leave No Trace

This is a special breed of movie. In a summer of blockbusters, this quiet movie is a stand-out, a necessary refuge from the storm of testosterone and TNT playing at the local cineplex.

It’s about an army vet, Will (Ben Foster) who has made a home for himself and 13 year old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in a national park, where they read books, grow and forage food, and live a peaceful, low-stress existence. Until, that is, a small mistake trips them up and they are apprehended by park rangers and social services. Though Tom is obviously well-cared for and has been MV5BMjExNWUzZDItMTdmMS00ZjQ5LThlZTktYTE0Y2RhNzEzOWRkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzM1MTc3ODg@._V1_educated beyond her grade level, she should be in school, and have a roof over her head. At least that’s what the social worker says. But once housed and employed, things get sticky. Tom is a curious and lively teenager, making friends and thriving in her new environment. Her dad struggles to assimilate, and he’s largely unable to cope.

Trust me, I know the description sounds ordinary, but the execution is flawless.

  1. The casting is impeccable. Ben Foster isn’t a big, bankable name but he’s every casting director’s wet dream. He brings intensity and gravitas to every role he encounters, and the stoic approach he takes with Will is perfect, though few other actors would give themselves permission to try such subtlety. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie is fabulous. The movie is all about their dynamic and it only works if both halves of their little family unit is working in synchronicity. Tom is obviously bright but McKenzie gives her such a sense of vulnerability that we never lose sight of what’s at stake.
  2. The script, by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, is such a luxury. They find so much value and beauty in simplicity that I’m astonished at how much I felt for what amounts to a fairly sparse script. The difference is, they’ve edited carefully, they’ve pared it down to the essentials, and tuned them ever so carefully. What’s left is a lot of room for the actors to be comfortable and take ownership. Room for the director to make her mark. It’s so smartly-written. It would be easy to find melodrama in these circumstances but instead Granik and Rosellini consistently find empathy and dignity and it makes weepy just to write about it.
  3. The cinematography is astonishing. At times it looks like an expensive nature documentary – one that fits seamlessly into a feature film. Someone (Michael McDonough) took a lot of care with this. He films the park with such loving and patience we get the sense of how at home the characters are in this special place. By contrast, the city looks colder, less inviting.
  4. Granik’s direction is flawless. As you may be surmising from everything written so far, there isn’t much in the movie, not even silences and blank spaces, that aren’t actively working for the plot or the characters. And by keeping things trim, it forces the audience to be active too. The keys are all there, and the deft direction encourages us to pick them up, sort them out. This movie respects its characters and its audience – objectively, the events and circumstances are tragic, but they’re communicated with such restraint. It’s easy to have sympathy when no one is asking for it. Will and Tom do not describe their situation as homelessness, and the movie lovingly backs them up in this.

This movie is so thoughtful and caring and it shows a different model for living and loving with no judgment. There’s no malice, no villains. Even the social services are shown to be well-intentioned. But Will and Tom are hardly the only outcasts, and Leave No Traces embraces them as well. It has room in its heart for everyone and even though there is much to be sad about, the film is so sweetly assembled that I left the theatre with a little pocket of hope in my heart. There are no easy answers, but Granik’s gaze is fair and honest and I’m just bowled over by every inch of this movie. It’s a rare and precious thing, and though it may be called Leave No Trace, it actually leaves quite a mark.

 

Sorry To Bother You

Well.

I hardly know how to talk about a movie like this.

It’s radical.

Ostensibly it’s about “telemarketing” but that’s like saying Toy Story is about single parenting. It’s really about racism and assimilation and wage slavery and identity – by way of telemarketing, at least to start.

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is thrilled to get a shitty telemarketing job, working for commission. There’s almost no way to actually succeed doing this kind of work, but Cassius stumbles upon the secret, magic key: a white voice. A persuasive, approachable, overconfident voice, like Tobias Funke’s, perhaps. Using this voice, Cassius shoots straight to the top, rocketing past his buddies and even his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa MV5BMzNjZTZlZmYtODU0ZS00NzFkLTkyZGEtOTI5M2Q0YTZmNzg3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_Thompson) who are trying to organize a union that will help the little guys make a living wage too.

On top, Cassius is of course hypnotized by the wealth and privilege, but now that he’s rubbing elbows with “the man”, he’s finding it’s a little different than he’d imagined. “The man” is of course Armie Hammer, like you ever fucking doubted it. Hammer was literally born to be typecast as a slave owner – his great-grandfather was a legit oil tycoon and philanthropist, and the family is worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $200M. So yeah, he’s got owning slaves in his blood, and we can all read it in his cheekbones. In Sorry To Bother You, he plays a CEO who is “saving the world” by enslaving all the poor people and making them thank him for it. Signing a contract, they agree to work wage-free for him forever in exchange for housing (which looks surprisingly like prison cells minus the bars but with double the roommates) and food.

And everything is just gently pushing you. Pushing your boundaries, almost imperceptibly. In the beginning, things are near normal but they escalate, asking us to accept just one more inch of absurdity. It is THE best kind of satire, uncompromising but plenty challenging.

First-time writer-director Boots Riley has made a film that is gutsy and experimental. It feels like this is a guy who isn’t sure he’ll ever get to do this again, so he’s not leaving a single idea on the table. He takes huge risks and when they pay off, hot damn. Sorry To Bother you zigs and zags in unexpected places but the super talented cast helps this thing stay grounded. Riley is full of piss and vinegar and a comic outrage that’s infection. This is bold stuff, exciting to watch, fearless, outrageous, and I want more. Not for the feint of heart.