Tag Archives: writer-directors

Blue Iguana

If you’re going to make a movie about seedy undergrounds, small-time criminals, and scary mob bosses, you need to pick the right tone. Make it funny like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Make it clever like Pulp Fiction. Make it suspenseful like The Town. But don’t you dare try to make your movie all of those things, because odds are you’ll end up with a mess like Blue Iguana.

Two ex-cons, Eddie (Sam Rockwell) and Paul (Ben Schwartz), are working in a diner trying to turn their lives around when Katherine (Phoebe Fox) offers them a job too tempting to turn down. Of course, it’s not a legal task, and of course, it goes sideways immediately as the target of their snatch and grab operation falls off a balcony face-first. Do they try to disappear after mucking things up? Of course not. They double down and go after the Blue Iguana, a giant diamond that they’re going to steal from mob boss Arkady (Peter Polycarpou), after he steals it first.

0818-stills-bi-day16-010816There’s just no one to root for in this film, which is surprising considering Sam Rockwell has made a nice career for himself playing various charming idiots (winning an Oscar as an amazingly bad cop in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).  And when someone like Rockwell can’t make us care about his loutish dirtbag, no one else has a chance. These characters just have nothing to offer.

No matter how many quick cuts were taken, no matter how many slow motion shootouts were paired with carefully selected songs, no matter how many montages contained colourful disguises, Blue Iguana never felt comfortable in its own skin. In trying to be lots of other things that writer/director Hadi Hajaig clearly admires and aspires to match, it just tries way, way too hard, to a painful degree.

At no point does Blue Iguana ever get close to being great, and worst of all, in trying so damn hard to emulate greatness, the result ends up being less than mediocre.


I admit that I’ve kind of been avoiding this one. This movie and I have circled each other awkwardly at several film festivals. I’d heard the buzz, sure, but couldn’t repeat it. I mean, just look at that aggressively confrontational title. It makes me uncomfortable. Understand that’s not a criticism; I believe it is intentional, and I admire that, forcing us to sit with this glaring four-letter message of hate, a word used by white faces to make others feel small and less than.

Gook is a movie shot in glaring black and white about the tensions between Korean Americans and African Americans during the Rodney King riots. Eli (Justin Chon) and Daniel (David So) are Korean-American brothers struggling to keep their late father’s MV5BMjU5MDQ2NDY4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjcwODE5MDI@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,740_AL_shoe store afloat even though its location in a predominantly poor and African-American neighbourhood is less than ideal. On this particular day, as the whole city awaits the King verdict, they get a visitor at the store. Kamilla (Simone Baker) is an unlikely friend and ally, being an African-American 11 year old girl, and yet she just won’t stay away, even though she should be in school, and she’s been expressly forbidden by her older brother, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.).

Aside from starring, Justin Chon wrote and directed as well, and you can immediately tell how many intimately personal details he’s incorporated. His choice to shoot in black and white only emphasizes the deeply emotional script, and allows simple but striking cinematography to transport. Rationally, I know the film wasn’t perfect, and there are even a couple of details I could nit-pick, but emotionally I felt hypnotized. I couldn’t take my eyes off the lovely Ms. Baker, which Chon must have known since he generously gives her top billing.There’s so much to praise here it almost has me tongue-tied, and I suppose I’d rather not give too much away. Gook is dense with beautiful observations and strong dialogue and aching insight.

Although I’ve always known that gook is an ugly word, an angry slur, I’m ashamed that it wasn’t until this film that I learned that it’s actually the Korean word (guk) that simply means country. Hanguk is Korea; Miguk is America. Americans took this word full of pride and used it against them during the war because it’s easier to kill ‘gooks’ than to kill people. Gook is a powerful reminder that America has oppressed basically every minority during its nearly 242 years. And yet the immigrants still come – to the land of freedom, wealth, and opportunity. And maybe someday, with their help, even equality.


James Fanizza writes, directs and stars in Sebastian but does not in fact play him. He plays Alex, the guy who meets Sebastian  (Alex House) and initiates a fling – this despite that he has a boyfriend, a boyfriend who just happens to be Sebastian’s cousin. They both agree to feel bad about what they’re doing, but they don’t consider not doing it. It’s full steam ahead (and it DOES get steamy).

MV5BMzBjYmE1YWEtZmNiYy00YTQyLThiMzAtYmFhMzI3ZmFlY2ZkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjIxMDkwMTk@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_Sebastian is an Argentinian student in Toronto for just one week; both know that the relationship (whatever it is) ends when he catches his flight back home. But the affair is irrepressible. They’re falling for each other whether or not they say the words, and it’s the kind of relationship that changes them, unlocks things hidden deep inside (and who can resist a boy with a dark and unspoken past?).

This is not the most polished piece you’ll encounter at the Inside Out Film Festival, but for a first directorial effort, it’s got promise and panache. Shot around Toronto, the city provides a bustling backdrop to the conflict of feelings. If this budding relationship begins to feel to us, the audience, like a Once in a Lifetime thing, we must wonder whether one week is enough for these two men to recognize it, and if yes, whether they will be brave enough to act on it. And that sort of anticipation has a vicarious thrill to it that is not unlike falling in love. But as we all know, love is complicated, and Alex and Sebastian will not be exceptions.

Handsome: A Netflix Mystery Movie

The first thing you need to know about this mystery movie is that it’s not much of a mystery. You’ll know who the killer is right away, and not just because of your excellent deductive skills. While it doesn’t keep you guessing in the traditional mystery way, it does keep you on your toes because it delights in being flat-out weird.

Jeff Garlin directs, co-writes and stars as Gene Handsome, an L.A. homicide detective _Z6A7088.CR2who will strike you as half bumbling fool, half savant. His partner Fleur (Natasha Lyonne) is more interested in getting laid and his superior (Amy Sedaris, playing delightfully against type) is a stranger case still. Not to mention the fact that Handsome is in charge of “detective school,” training up the new recruits, not all of whom are destined to become ace detectives. So he’s got his hands full when a decapitated body is found on the manicured lawns of a minor celebrity (Steven Weber), splayed out in the shape of a Star of David. Handsome tracks down all of the dead girl’s known associates, including his own beautiful new neighbour, in order to crack the case.

Like I said, the detecting is rather beside the point. This movie feels more like an exercise in the bizarre. I happen to like Jeff Garlin and find him watchable, but this movie may have set a new record in our house for number of arched eyebrows I shot at Sean. There’s little plot but quite a lot of satire in the police-procedural vein. If you’re up for some of Garlin’s trademark witticisms and you don’t mind if your movies exist outside the box, then this  might be a WTF way to spend some time with Netflix. At any rate I admire the experimentation and the improvisational feel; Netflix certainly has become home movies who would otherwise remain homeless. And even if they don’t always hit it out of the park, at least it’s not another super hero franchise!

Donald Cried

Peter returns to his hometown for the first time in a long time when his Nona dies. It’s supposed to be a quick, in-and-out trip, but Peter loses his wallet, which complicates things. He asks an old buddy, Donald, for a favour, a favour that turns into A WHOLE THING.

Donald is the kind of friend that makes you question what the hell you were thinking in high school. And he hasn’t changed a bit. He’s still a moron, and there’s nothing he loves better than reliving the glory days, days that deeply embarrass Peter now.

03DONALD-master768Kris Avedisian stars as moronic Donald, while also writing and directing. He’s made a film, with help from Kickstarter, that is relatable. Awkwardly, hopelessly relatable. Who among us does not have That Friend?

You can never go home again. Know why? It’s because the things you imagine you’ve left behind are still there, lurking beneath the thinnest little scab.

Donald is unbearable. Peter, it turns out, has always treated him less than kindly. Now he’s tolerating him with condescension, and only because he needs something from him. Ever oblivious, Donald is ingratiating to his old buddy, desperate to keep him around. His attitude and actions induce the heaviest of cringes, and yet the genius of Avedisian’s script is that the balance of sympathy shifts. The past is a clingy bitch, and no matter what Peter believes, he hasn’t quite broken up with her yet. And we, the viewers, feel just as suffocated as he does in the situation, we feel his intense urge to flee.

Donald Cried is uncomfortable to watch because it’s achingly authentic. Jesse Wakeman as Peter and Avedisian have believably thorny chemistry. But it’s Donald we’ve come to see, tears or no tears. It’s pathetic Donald who inspires pity and revulsion in unequal, guilt-inducing measure. It’s a smart little movie that will subtly worm its way into your popcorn-eating gut.




Shit. This is not some easy-breezy coming of age story, I’ll tell you that much for free. You’d be forgiven for assuming as much when the camera originally picks up with two teenaged girls who goof off in class and daydream about making big money, but that’s just the first sign that you should buckle the fuck up.

Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maiimouna (Deborah Lukumuena) are from the shanty side of Paris, where they’re expected to train as receptionists at school. The teacher is as clueless as divines-movie-download-english-subtitlesthe class is hopeless, and you can’t quite bring yourself to blame these girls for dropping out. But then Dounia meets two people who might potentially change her life:  Djigui, an untrained but talented dancer, who makes her think a different kind of life is possible, and Rebecca, a glamorous young drug dealer\sex worker who makes that different kind of life accessible.

Dounia is nothing if not an upstarter. With boundless energy and roiling teenaged cynicism, she and her friend put themselves in situations they’re too stupid to realize are crazy dangerous. They’re both too mature and too naive, eager to make their mark but easily manipulated. The camera’s gaze is unflinching, even if ours is not. No matter how big and bad the girls pretend to be, their youth and inexperience betray them.

Writer-director Houda Benyamina gives a  gritty but sympathetic look at the less polished side of Paris, where money, race, and power are unapologetically at the forefront of everyday existence. The film is raw and filled with rage, which means it’s got this really buzzy undercurrent that makes you feel like anything is possible and you have no idea where it’s all going. The energy is astounding, especially from a largely unknown cast (Amamra is Benyamina’s little sister), and even though this isn’t a typically “enjoyable” film, I felt pulled inside of it, headlong, and we all just prayed that we’d make it out alive.


Two best friends, Elliot the wanna be screenwriter, and John the aspiring actor, are lamenting their 30th birthdays. They haven’t made it. Loserdom is somewhat charming among the LA set in your 20s, but after 30? Embarrassment.

So they make a pact: they’ll give themselves 24 hours to get famous, at any cost. They’re downloadnot going to query studios or go to auditions, they’re done with doing it the Hollywood way. Now they’re desperate enough for the lowest kind of fame: Internet fame.

While director Chris Prynoski’s film takes deliberate aim at consumerist culture, Elliot (voiced by Patton Oswalt) and John (Paul Rudd) are enthusiastic consumers who want to be consumed themselves. They’re hapless idiots, basically, brilliantly brought alive by Oswalt and Rudd, and written with just the smallest dashes of sympathy to ensure they’re still tolerable to watch among their shenanigans. It’s clear they long to be shenanigators, but they’re not even smart enough to be in the right place at the right time, or inventive enough to produce something for their own. So as their 24 hour deadline ticks by, their search for fame makes them compromise…in the name of infamy.

There’s satire hidden in here somewhere, even if the payoff is pretty mild. The story feels more like several episodes, strung together by these two numbskull protagonists. They keep moving forward even as we feel a little left behind. Still, there are moments that make it worth it: Elliot’s attempt at rebooting Rip Van Winkle as a character who wakes up now and goes on a shooting spree, for example, and the watching of notorious nerdland_press_2underground tape X-V, literally a supercut of every fantastically horrific, violent, gory thing that has ever happened on film, set to some delicious pop. It’s nauseating good fun.

Both the characters and their animated world are quite ugly to look at. LA has never looked worse, but I suppose that’s a reflection of how two guys who didn’t make it feel about their adopted home, not the city of dreams, but the city of broken dreams. Nerdland embraces the vulgarity of it all: the homelessness, the dirt, the emptiness, the waste, the superficial people and their superficial parts. This movie won’t be for everyone and that’s okay. If you’re a fan of Titmouse, you’ll want to check it out.

TIFF: Birth of a Nation

It is sometimes difficult to separate the message from the movie. I’ve already braved backlash by confessing that I didn’t care for 12 Years a Slave. This is not the same as saying I love slavery or I hate black people, but some people will choose to hear it that way. I can see with my own eyes that 12 Years A Slave does have artistic merit. Steve McQueen has a stylistic sensibility I can’t ignore, and Chiwetel Ejiofor gave a riveting performance amongst a strong cast. But the movie felt derivative to me. In a crowd of slavery movies, this one didn’t have a distinctive voice and I was bored. How does Birth of a Nation compare?

Well, it’s both better and worse. The first two-third to three-quarters of Nate Parker’s movie is a lot of the same old. We get it: slavery is bad. I actually don’t require 90 minutes of convincing on that subject. But the last chapter of the story is when it finally comes alive: the slaves rise up. birth-of-a-nation-nate-parkerNat Turner, a docile preacher, reaches his breaking point and leads a rebellion. A bloody rebellion. White slave owners will be slain in their beds. These scenes are so jarring that I can understand why one might think that 90 minutes worth of context are important. Those minutes establish that yes, slavery is bad. There were indeed lots of vicious slave owners who were just despicable human beings. But slavery movies often have a benevolent slave owner as well, one who is “not so bad,” I suppose so that white people don’t shout “They’re not all like that!”

As Samuel, Armie Hammer is this year’s Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s not too terrible. But his character’s arc is perhaps the most compelling of the film. As children, he and Nat are playmates. They aren’t equals, but maybe they’re friends. It is only as Samuel inherits the plantation and all of its chattel – which of course includes the human beings who work the land – that this relationship transforms. It is clear that Nat is not just his employee – there is a subservience to their interactions that is immediately repulsive. Times are tough in the south. Plantation owners are under a lot of pressure, and the slaves are of course the first ones to suffer, to work longer hours with less food. Samuel, being “one of the good ones” begins to drink, ostensibly to deal with the increasingly degrading things he must demand of his slaves. He slides from benevolent to aggressive, and it’s a great performance from the man you’re probably not watching as closely as you should. But that’s the problem with owning slaves. Once you accept that owning another human being is okay, of course it’s a slippery slope that leads directly to the rapes and whippings and deprivations we’re so used to seeing. There is no good way to own a slave.

As Samuel slides further down into the muck, Nat is rising from it, with increasingly radical ideas about his oppressors. So Nat Turner rises up. Samuel Turner gets cut down. Are we prepared toenter_slavery_2_la see this? Prepared to watch people be chopped up as they sleep in their homes? It’s brutal and shocking. And justified: the film has made sure of that. Of course this is a true story so you know there is no happy ending here. Nat Turner’s is a necessary voice in the story of slavery, and Nate Parker’s choice to make religion both a weapon, and salvation, are a fresh take on a crowded genre.

Nate Parker co-wrote and directed himself in The Birth of a Nation, and his passion is evident. I only wish he trusted his audience more. In the hands of a more competent director, we might have a Best Picture contender here, but instead he allows his slow build to be overplayed, turning his third act into a bit of a cocky circus act. It’s uneven. It neglects secondary characters – and with Aja Naomi King so damned good, it seems a crime not to give her more screen time.

Speaking of which. I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t bring up the skeletons in Nate Parker’s closet. The Birth of a Nation was a Big Deal at Sundance. Fox Searchlight eagerly bought it up and set an October release date, certain it would be on the path toward Oscar. But rape allegations in Parker’s past resurfaced. When he was a student at Penn State, he was accused and charged with sexually assaulting a woman along with his roommate and The Birth of a Nation co-writer, Jean Celestin. They stood trial; Parker was eventually acquitted but Celestin was found guilty before having the verdict overturned on appeal. The story gained traction when it was reported that the victim had committed suicide. Even with an acquittal to his name, an a newfound belief in god, Parker’s mea culpa press tour has been lacking. His remorse has been sparse. Gabrielle Union, the actress who plays a rape victim in The Birth of a Nation, herself a real-life survivor of sexual assault, has struggled to reconcile his past and her part in his present. Can we and should we separate the art from the artist? What kind of shadow does this cast over his film? As Union puts it, “As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly.”

The Birth of A Nation is an important story and deserves to be seen and heard. I said before that I thought it was both a better and a worse film than 12 Years A Slave. What I meant was: it’s not as good a movie. It’s more formulaic, more conventional, less sophisticated, a little too obvious. But as a piece of art, it inspires conversation and controversy. I can’t discount it.