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Little Men

Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri) are two 12 year old boys who form a quick friendship when Jake’s family movies into the apartment above Tony’s Mom’s store. It’s a nice friendship for both as Jake, a budding artist, is a bit of an outsider without many friends, and Tony, an aspiring actor, has plenty of soccer buddies but not a lot of fellow artists to relate to. And it just so happens that Jake’s dad (Greg Kinnear) is an actor himself.

The friendship weathers bullying and other outside forces but takes a hit when the two families conflict. Jake’s dad  Brian has just inherited this apartment when his own father littlemendied – not just the apartment, in fact, but the building, which includes Leonor’s (Tony’s mom) store. Brian’s sister is demanding her fair share, and that means increasing Leonor’s rent, which has languished very generously far below market price for years. She can’t afford to pay the higher rent and insists that Brian’s father wanted her there. Brian is pulled by his sister, who is rightfully wanting her share of the inheritance, and his wife who supports the family herself (what little acting work he gets doesn’t pay much).

The parents force this tension onto their children, trying to keep them apart, forbidding them to set foot in each other’s homes. It’s an awkward situation and one of the reasons why this film is titled Little Men: these two 12-year-olds are dealing with pretty mature issues, which is why it’s so sad and frustrating when they’re unable to be each other’s support system. It’s further heart breaking because Tony, having an absent father, was rather leaning on Brian for some fatherly advice. Jake will perhaps recover more quickly, having two loving parents, but what of Tony? It’s a question that doesn’t quite get answered but I think is worth asking.

Little Men is an interesting reminder of how economic power can poison relationships. The grown ups each believe themselves to be not just right, but righteous. Their strained politeness turns cold, then hostile. It’s a cloud that casts a dark shadow over the friendship of their sons, and that friendship is willingly sacrificed by the adults. But those adults are kept at a remove; director Ira Sachs doesn’t judge them much, he’s more interested in what the boys are going through. Their experience is somehow discounted because they are young. We, the cynical audience, watch the parents declare that they’d do anything for their kids while in reality, they flush a genuine relationship down the toilet over money and real estate.

NHFF 2016 – You in?

We’ve still got a few straggly posts from the Toronto Film Festival and the Animation Festival, but we’re already looking ahead to our favourite trip of the year: Portsmouth. Portsmouth hosts the New Hampshire Film Festival and it’s about as scenic as it gets (and getting scenickier by the day, this time of year).

NHFF has just released a pretty stellar lineup of films, which you can peruse at your leisure here. I know I’m already looking forward to several:

Stray, about a Muslim refugee who befriends a stray dog.

The Eyes of My Mother, about a woman consumed by dark desires after a tragedy. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve certainly heard about it from fellow film fanatic, Film Grimoire. I’m just trying to work up the intestinal fortitude.

Things to Come: A philosophy teacher played by Isabelle Huppert soldiers through the pain of grief.

God Knows Where I Am: a heart-wrenching documentary that I’ve seen and can’t wait to show to Sean and Matt.

I’m not sure you can lose with all the great movies they’re screening (we didn’t see a single bad one last year) but I’m not just excited for the movies. Portsmouth is a town with character. It’s such a vivid and friendly place that I can’t wait to revisit. Also clam chowder.

Since so many of you commented last year that you didn’t know about this charming festival ahead of time, consider this your fair warning. We’ll be there for the duration and we hope to see you too. Who’s in?

NHFF: The Best For Last (Chicken)

The New Hampshire Film Festival was full of great movies – in retrospect, we didn’t see a single bad one, and that’s not supposed to be possible when you’re ingesting just as much film as possible in a single weekend. There has to be a dud in there somewhere – that’s science, isn’t it? Or mathematics? Law of averages? Just my luck? But no, not a bad one in the bunch. There were, however, some super duper standouts.

chickenYou’ve already heard Sean crow over his favourite, Robert Eggers’ The Witch, but you haven’t yet heard me swoon over Chicken, the absurdly titled (and I should know) movie that will break your damn heart. There is no way to summarize this movie and do it justice. It’s about a 15-year-old kid named Richard (Scott Chambers) who suffers from some unspecified developmental delay. He lives in a trailer with his brother Polly, who is neglectful at best and I’ll let you use your imagination for his worst. Richard’s only true friend is a chicken who gets included on his many adventures about the property he and his brother (Morgan Watkins, Kingsmen: The Secret Service) are illegally squatting upon. But then one day he meets the daughter of the new owners, Annabel (Yasmin Paige, Submarine), whose abrasive tongue might lose its barbs for such a gentle creature and his faithful chicken. Now take that inadequate synopsis and sprinkle it with magic.

Director Joe Stephenson absorbs us into Richard’s world immediately, and we can’t help but fall in love. There isn’t much plot wasted on this character-rich drama, but you’ll never be bored. Richard is MetSomeonenot quite like any character you’ve seen before, aptly and considerately brought to life by the excellent Scott Chambers who wisely chooses empathy over pity. Stephenson knows that Richard is the key to the audience’s heart, but he’s not after some melodramatic tear-jerker, he’s looking for honesty, and he finds it in unlikely places. You’ll be startled to find such compassion from such a young filmmaker but he’s brave enough to give his actors lots of room – literally and metaphorically. You’ll see this translate on the screen as he often takes full advantage of his scenic location rather than closing his characters into too-close shots. He injects a strong cinematic element into what was once a play and has room to spare. Though there’s some Chicken-1unevenness to the script, I easily forgave all not because I cared for Richard, which was easy enough to do, but because I came to care for the brute Polly. And once you have seen Polly in action you will appreciate the enormity of  Stephenson’s accomplishment of making you care about both brothers.

You don’t always feel it, but the movie is lathering up to something bigger than the sum of its parts, and once you get there, you won’t want to watch but nor will you be able to look away. At the climax, just as through the whole movie, the characters are complex, sympathetic, and real, and that’s what sets this movie apart and elevates it to a whole new level.  These wonderful characters make this movie one you have to watch and one that will stick with you long after you leave the theatre.

IMG_2851Both Chambers and Stephenson were in attendance for this, its North American premiere, and the audience was all too glad to be able to reward their effort with a heartfelt standing ovation. And yet, as I’ve found myself thinking back on this movie even as I’m attending other film festivals, and in fact have watched more than a dozen movies in the week since, I realize that it’s not enough. It’s not every day that a movie gets under my skin, and I’m probably more cynical than most.

This film took home the Narrative Grand Jury prize, and jury member John Michael Higgins Chicken-1-456x320presented the award to Stephenson noting “It was a very special experience for me to watch. This film had an incredibly delicate tone, sustained over each event, which is very hard to do.” I’m glad these guys have a trophy to lug home, because this movie’s not going to win an Oscar but it does deserve something that will sit on a mantle and proclaim: I made something moving, and people saw it, and they fucking loved it. Because all of us who were lucky enough to see this film loved it and I have no doubt that you will love it too.

Inside Out Film Festival

hr_1986_IO_2015OttawaFestival_websitebannerNot to be confused with the latest Pixar offering, Inside Out is a not-for-profit film festival that runs in both Toronto and Ottawa and showcases movies from around the world that are made by or about the LGBT community. Access to queer cinema is a big draw in the community, as evidenced by a packed house at the Bytowne and the enthusiastic applause that ended the night. Inside Out screened The Girl King earlier this week, which you may know we took in a few days ago at another film festival. That’s right. We hit up two film festivals this weekend alone.

We did catch a screening of Fourth Man Out, about a small-town car mechanic who comes out to his best friends on his 24th birthday. They promise him that their relationship won’t change…famous last words. Because things fucking change. Of course they do. The quartet of young actors are greatfourth-man-out together, but I’m not going to call this a bromance because I think that word cheapens and mocks friendship between men. They are good friends, and Adam’s coming out does mark a big transition for the group – although it’s someone on the outside who has to remind them that this is not really about how hard it is for them. The movie is legitimately funny and accessible, but as Matt pointed out, feels a bit dated. “It’s okay that our friend is gay” feels like something that should have been made 15 years ago, and if it’s taken this long for a movie like this to get made, that’s a sad commentary indeed and even more justification for festivals like this to exist.

Another movie that we haven’t begun to talk about yet is Mississippi Grind, which Sean and I saw at the New Hampshire Film Festival (a third festival, but that was last week, keep up!). Mississippi Grind is about a chronic gambler (Ben Mendelsohn) who meets a human good luck charm, or so he MSGbelieves (Ryan Reynolds), who bankrolls his new loser buddy on a redemptive road trip. They scheme to travel the country together raking in the big bucks, but let’s remember that gambling is a serious addiction, and these people never know when to quit, and, voila: you know this isn’t going to get a happy ending. Ben Mendelsohn is great, and as much as I loved him in Animal Kingdom, it’s nice to see him in such a nuanced role; he seems quite comfortable straddling the line between pathetic and hopeful. Ryan Reynolds is at his best, which is nowhere near what Mendelsohn is doing, but he’s in his comfort zone so this odd pairing works on a strictly chemistry level. The script is loose and leisurely, maybe too leisurely for its genre, but I enjoyed its unpredictability and defiance of the expected arc.

Some Independent Titles to Look Out For, Courtesy of the NHFF

A Light Beneath Their Feet – Taryn Manning plays a bipolar mother who has worked hard to get her life back on track. After a severe episode left her hospitalized, she lost custody of her LightBeneathTheirFeet-W1-210x157daughter for several years and only with diligent, close work with a doctor did she earn back that custody and now has a very close relationship with her. The daughter (Madison Davenport), however, a high school student in her senior year, is feeling the pressure of that relationship. This is really the daughter’s story. She dreams of going away to college – to California, where the weather is “stable,” but knows that her mother remains medicated only for fear of losing her. If her daughter is gone, what’s the point? I liked this for the portrayal of bipolar disorder – not always done well or compassionately or truthfully or fairly in the movies. Yes, Hollywood likes to dramatize. But at this film’s poignant core is a loving mother who would do anything for her daughter. And she happens to have a disorder that’s really tough to manage – tough on her, and tough on her loved ones. And yet we’re able to talk about the daughter’s challenges without vilifying her mother. It’s an honest conversation that I wish we’d see more often.

Director Valerie Weiss is also the kind of film maker we need to see more often. With a dual passion for both art and science, she majored in Molecular Biology at Princeton while earning a Certificate in Theater and Dance.  “It was at Princeton that I transitioned from acting to directing plays and really felt that I’d found my niche.  Directing was so much more suited to my personality and my desire to think about the whole picture as well as the minutiae.  So, I decided to keep going with these dual interests and went to Harvard Medical School to do a Ph.D. in X-ray Crystallography (the 3-D photography of molecules) and founded a film program for graduate students so I could continue directing and learn to make movies.  I made my first film while I was writing my dissertation, and two weeks after we wrapped production, I had to defend my thesis.”

The Second Mother: I enjoyed this movie even more in the discussing than the watching. Brazil’s official submission to the 2016 Oscar race for best foreign language film, The Second Mother (actual title: Que Horas Ela Volta) tells the story of Val (Regina Case), a long-time a28cdd43-1308-4ed2-b04b-3d862cf7263a-1020x612housekeeper to an affluent family, who spent years caring for someone else’s child while her own daughter is raised “back home”, the recipient of Val’s hard-earned paycheques but not her physical presence. After a decade’s absence, her daughter moves into the employer’s home, and cracks open the class system, exposing hypocrisy. The film is quite subtle, and I struggled with the fact that I actually found the daughter to be quite abrasive, which made it hard for me to admit she was making some valid points. The film is character-driven, but I suspect that you’ll find afterward that it has provoked the heck out of your thoughts at the same time. What’s interesting is that eschewing the drama, this film is actually quite mild in tone, and often more than a little comic. It’s not lecturing you, but there’s a subversive undercurrent that builds. The writing is taut and the acting on-point; Regina Casé is so good that we inhabit her shabby shoes despite the fact that the action belongs to everyone else.

Director Anna Muylaert (that’s right, two female film makers in a row! – good job, New Hampshire!) co-wrote the piece with star Casé and held two special screenings in Brazil. The first was for housekeepers and nannies, including the woman who worked for her parents for 30 years. There were lots of tears at this screening. The second screening was attended by friends of family, many of whom felt uncomfortable watching the film, and recognized themselves in the mirror staring back. The country’s social dynamics are persistent, Casé remarks “If you cannot change the world, at least you can change the situation that is close to you.”

Bridgend: Sara and her dad move to a small village in the county of Bridgend (Wales) where the quiet teenaged girl starts to make friends with a group of kids her cop father doesn’t approve of, and not because of their clothes or manners or grades or attitude. It’s because this small town is having an epidemic of teenaged suicide, and now his daughter’s smack in the middle of Bridgend_PresseStill_0000346it. If that’s not unsettling enough, this film is actually based on real events – between 2007 and 2012, 79 suicides were reported in the tiny borough of less than 20 000. The movie never explains why these suicides are happening because the real world was never able to either. Cult mentality? Small town boredom? Irresponsible press? Teenaged rebellion? Bad parenting? It was disorienting and I felt helpless and scared – one by one these kids just disappear. There’s a communal depression that’s oppressive, and yet it’s pain-stakingly well-shot, at times visually beautiful, a jarring juxtaposition to what we’re experiencing emotionally. The memorial rituals and obsession with mortality deteriorate near the end into what I can only describe as a fever dream, because I honestly don’t know what to make of it. I’m desperate to know one single other person in the world who’s seen this movie and who can guess as to why I felt this movie was so…aggressive. Grounded sadly in reality, this film still has the shivery feel of a horror, and it’s been hard to shake.

The Preppie Connection

A gifted teenager from a working-class family gets accepted into a hqdefaultfancy prep school, with scholarship, without ever having applied. His mother has certain pretensions you see, and wants to see her family move up in the world. So she did the applying, and the accepting, for him (her depression and classic guilt trips assure compliance). But Tobey (Thomas Mann) knows he doesn’t belong there – “Before I even started Sage, I knew he was finished.”

A Columbian exchange student lets him know how to fit in (copious amounts of Lacoste go a long way – it’s 1984) and a pretty blonde girl, Alex, (Lucy Fry) gives him the motivatiimagesCAZ3G5GCon to stay. She’s in love with the preppiest, poppiest collar of them all though, so that spells trouble. How to get into the inner circle? Well, keeping in mind it’s 1984, Tobey figures it out pretty quickly: cocaine. Lots and lots of blow.

This movie is actually based on a true story of how a high school kid smuggled $300k of uncut cocaine into the US (remember that conveniently Columbian friend he made on the first day of school?).

You may have cut school once or twice in your day. What kind of shenanigans did you get up to? Pot? Sex? Soap operas? This kid flies to a foreign country and makes friends with a drug cartel. You can probably guess that things kind of get out of hand. The reason to watch this movie is to find out two things:

  1. Did he have fun while it lasted?
  2. Was it all worth it?

I really liked Thomas Mann in Me and Earl & The Dying Girl, and Screen+Shot+2014-10-27+at+8_44_22+PMagain in The Stanford Prison Experiment (he even popped up in Welcome to Me); this kid is someone to keep your eyes on. He’s excellent in this, effortless.

Director Joseph Castelo went to boarding school himself in the 80s, and remembers hearing about this story. Ultimately, it broke on 60 Minutes and then the whole country knew, and were aghast. Reflecting on his own experience, Castelo says “I was looking back on many of my own experiences and my own feelings of being an outsider in a boarding school. I wasn’t from a wealthy family and I was experiencing culture shock when I went to boarding school, just like Tobey experiences culture shock. You know you very much want to be a part of tThe+Preppie+Connection+Casthose circles, and it’s like any kid in high school, you need to figure out what’s the way in, how do I get into that inner circle, how do I become a part of this system that you have suddenly been thrust into and either you rebel against it or you work at being a part of it, and in a way, Tobey did both which is interesting. It made me think about my own impulses and my own thoughts and feelings when I was in boarding school. It really was cathartic. I really did feel like I worked through a lot of my own life.”

Sam Bisbee, the film’s music composer, adds his own personal touch, having worked and toured during the 80s. He says he “jumped at the chance” to work on the film because “the world and universe of the film is the same universe I grew up in, at almost the same time as the film’s setting. In the mid 1980’s I was a boarding school student at a New England prep school, and this was the time when I fell in love with music (I, also, clearly remember when the real life scandal happened at Choate).”

This film debuted just a few weeks ago at the Hamptons Film Festival, and was an excellent choice for the New Hampshire Film Festival as well. It’s not your average coming of age story, but it’s funny how even a rags to riches high school drug kingpin can still feel relatable and familiar. Maybe it has something to do with the intimacy of the film – it feels like we’re very close to Tobey. We know what he’s thinking before he says the words. We’re really inside his head, but there’s a cinematic wash, an 80s patina if you will, that still gives the movie an interesting sense of style.

I really enjoyed this one, and I’m pretty sure you will too. It’s playing at the St. Lawrence International Film Festival this weekend – Saturday October 24th in Potsdam, where it is receiving the inaugural Empire State Award, for excellence in filmmaking for either a New York Story or a New York Filmmaker. I’ll keep you posted on its wide release date – this is an independent movie that deserves to find its audience.

New Hampshire Has Reason to be Proud

Sean and I made the beautiful drive down to New England last Thursday for a long weekend of film festing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  We also made a frenetic drive back on Sunday in order to cover a local happening (The Monster Pool Horror Anthology – review coming soon) last night and because today is election day here in Canada, and there’s no way we were missing that.

I’m finding that our coverage of the New Hampshire Film Festival is going to read a lot like a love letter to the city of Portsmouth. Home to about 21 000 residents, it’s bursting with IMG_2951historical charm and significance. And I mean it’s just sick with quaintness. The downtown is distinctive and beautiful and eminently walkable. It feels cared for. And I suppose this is what has distinguished the New Hampshire Film Festival for me: it has a real sense of community. Don’t get me wrong, it’s attracting plenty of outside and international interest as well, and I think that trend will only continue as this little festival is landing some pretty major films. But each screening was attended by many locals who clearly took pride in this festival. We were greeted warmly everywhere we went. The volunteers were friendly. And though we found this festival to be well-organized and well-run, there was this pervasive feel of the insouciant. This is the laid-back film festival, perhaps a tribute to the unflappable New Englanders who have done an impressive job of making this look easy – and I tell you now, it is not. But the wrinkles, if there were any, were invisible.

portsmouth nhffPortsmouth bustles with tourists in the summer, but I think she may look her best in the autumn. Its historic seaport still sparkles, but I loved seeing leaves on the grounds of architectural highlights, including Colonial, Georgian, and Federal style homes. The city is replete with fall colours and decorative touches – it starts to feel like the set of an idyllic small-town, except when you sit down to eat, at which point it tastes like the very best of big-city eating.

IMG_2950The seafood. We sampled local oysters from Franklin‘s, scallops from The District, and the best-ever clam chowder from Robert’s Maine Grill (Kittery, Maine being 2 minutes across the river). And don’t get me started on the lobster rolls. The movies at this point were incidental – this trip was already a culinary and sight-seeing success.

Okay, I’m lying. The movies are never unimportant. We’re Assholes: it’s what we do and why we came. We’ll get to those. First, though, the venues.

We rolled up to Discover Portsmouth Center first, a visitor center (this is me taking pains to spellIMG_2767 centre the American way) extraordinaire. It’s a gallery, a gift shop, a museum, a gateway to the Black Heritage Trail – really the cultural heart of the city (which seems to have attractions worthy of a city  many times its size), and also serves as the vital headquarters of the New Hampshire Film Festival, which is how it got to host a meet and greet with John Michael Higgins and Jimmy Dunn.

Both of these fellows are New Englanders; Jimmy Dunn you’ll know as a stand-up comedian who also appeared on the sitcom The McCarthys, as Joey McIntyre’s (fraternal) twin brother. John Michael Higgins, as we’ve already covered, is an absolute favourite of mine because of his fantastic charactermgs in many of Christopher Guest’s best (like Best In Show), but this guy gets hired for everything, from Pitch Perfect 2 to Broadway plays, to roughly half of all running sitcoms, including Arrested Development and Happily Divorced. More on them later (they were part of a lively and crazy-quotable comedy panel alongside Tom Bergeron and Juston McKinney).

On to our first film of the festival, Touched With Fire. This one screened at The Music Hall, which immediately requires me to derail this review in order to gush about the venue instead. It was recently declared an “American treasure” – and yes, it is. It’s a 900-seat theatre that you’ll immediately waTMS Music Halllk into and think: how dare you be so charming? It’ll make you think twice about ever setting foot into a dirty old Cineplex ever again, I’ll tell you that much. Built in 1878, it’s the oldest operating theater (American spelling!) in New Hampshire and the 14th oldest in the United States. It’s clearly been lovingly restored and it’s rocking character like a boss. It’s a venue-of-all-trades, home to intimate concerts (Suzanne Vega), readings (John Updike), and of course, independent cinema (we saw a poster for upcoming screenings of Grandma, a film which weIMG_2952 heartily approve). The lobby makes a strong statement, and the auditorium is lovely, but it might just be an area usually unsung that wins you over: after using the facilities, Sean declared the washrooms to be “the best ever” and insisted that I had to pee. I have never heard Sean remark upon washroom facilities in my life, and am usually skeptical about any men’s room, but when I visited the ladies’ quarters, I saw instantly what he was talking about, and they ARE magnificent. Obviously, we Assholes are in the business of reviewing movies, not restrooms, but just to prove to you we’re not nuts, appreciation for these washrooms is such that they’re actually nominated for Best Restroom literally in all the land, and I urge you bathroom-575x346to vote now (until October 31st) – even if you haven’t peed there yourself,  you can take my word for it, I promise. (I was too shy to snap a photo, but thanks to braver souls and the Internet, check em out!)

So, here we are: a thousand words about the New Hampshire Film Festival, and still not a single movie review. It’s your fault, Portsmouth, for being a unique place to discover and enjoy in your own right. You don’t need a film festival to earn tourists, but I’m sure as heck glad you have one, because not only were we impressed by your lineup this year, we can’t wait to come back and do it again in 2016.

NHFF screened something in the neighbourhood of 100 movies, and like any festival, you can’t see ’em all. We missed some with regret but regretted none we saw, and I guess that’s the greatest compliment you can pay a festival. Our selections:

Touched With Fire

The Preppie Connection

The Second Mother


A Light Beneath Their Feet



Mississippi Grind

The Witch

Check back for more coverage of NHFF including the comedy panel and the red carpet, and for reviews for each of the films.