Author: Adam Sidsworth

Review: 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows

Cineplex is currently playing an animated short before many of its screenings. It depicts a young girl and her magical friend: a snowman with whom she plays, watches movies, and makes shadow puppets. When the weather warms, she puts the snowman in a freezer and, as the girl ages, she forgets about the snowman. Years later, as an adult, she experiences a bad day at work and suddenly remembers. She goes home, takes the snowman out of the freezer and relives the childhood innocence. It’s sweet, but it also harps back to a time when animated shorts played an important role at the movies. Every studio would play animated shorts before its movies: Warner Brothers had Looney Tunes, Disney had Mickey Mouse and Universal had Woody Woodpecker. It’s unfortunate that contemporary audiences rarely experience animated shorts on the big screen. But if animated shorts are your thing, you’re in luck. The 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows will be screening in Toronto. Co-presented by the Toronto Animated Image Society, it amasses 11 animated shorts from many countries around the world, including Russia, Iran, Switzerland and France. Some of the animated shorts are creative, moving and stellar to watch. Unfortunately, by screening these quirky shorts in quick succession (some of the animated films are a couple of minutes long while others are up to 15-minutes long), it becomes a challenge...

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Human Rights Film Festival 2015 Review: Trials of Spring

Trials of Spring is a fascinating documentary playing at this year’s JAYU Human Rights Festival in Toronto. Focusing on Egypt’s Arab Spring, it goes beyond the media reports to explore both the revolution’s ultimate failure and Egyptian women’s precarious relationship with power and religion. Trials of Spring is formatted in talking heads, juxtaposing Western media reports and participants’ videos with interviews of Arab Spring revolutionaries—all women. But the documentary ultimately focuses on Hend Nafea, a young small-town woman who travels to Cairo to participate in the revolution. Hend speaks of the horrors she’s experienced: Beyond the police beatings and arrests at protests, men swarm and sexually assault her. Her experiences aren’t uncommon, as we see in the documentary. Graphic video clips show women under attack by hooligans. It’s hard to watch and listen to, especially hearing the women’s screams. Although the revolution successfully ousts Egypt’s 30-year dictatorship, the government is taken over by the Islamic Brotherhood, a religious fanaticism dominated by male clerics. The women in the documentary worry about its implications, and Hend—who has been arrested on trumped-up charges—faces life in prison. It’s fascinating to watch Hend on her journey: She evolves from an inexperienced young woman to a hardcore activist helping other victims. She escapes from the family and community that tried to silence her. And she seemingly sheds her religion, going from Islamic garb to Western...

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Reel Asian 2015 Review: Seoul Searching

Seoul Searching should be intelligent and thought provoking, as it tackles cultural identity and immigrants’ kids’ experiences. Unfortunately, in execution and tone, it is a sloppy and lazy John Hughes spoof that treads into Porky’s and Animal House. Set in 1986, the film opens with a documentary style montage telling us that the South Korean government hosted a cultural exchange program, inviting expatriates’ kids to Korea to learn about their heritage. The movie then jumps into the story, and that’s where things falter. The story has three story arcs: Sid (Justin Chon, of Twilight), from California, dresses like Sid Vicious and pines for Grace (Vancouver’s Jessika Van), who dresses like Madonna; Sergio (Esteban Ahn), from Mexico, who’s desperate to have sex and well-groomed Klaus from Germany (Teo Yoo), who helps Kris (Rosalina Leigh), adopted by a white-American couple, find her biological Korean mother. The movie’s perfectly set up to be an homage to John Hughes teen movie—think Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club—with which it shares a hard-ass educator (Pyo Cha in a good performance). But Seoul Searching lacks the sophistication of John Hughes because of the dull, one-dimensional writing. The first 20 minutes of the movie are the weakest. The kids arrive at the airport where Korean teachers and officials await them. And insultingly, as each girl walks through the gates, the camera needlessly focuses on her...

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Rendezvous with Madness 2015 Review: Autobiography of Michelle Maren

An Autobiography of Micheele Maren is a fascinating exploration of family, abuse, identity, and mental illness that introduces an eccentric and at times bizarre character. When co-director Michel Negroponte receives an email from Michelle Maren, who states she would be an ideal subject of a documentary because she once attempted to kill herself after she caught her then-husband cheating, he depicts Michelle as an enigma. She survives parental and domestic abuse: her mother was mentally ill and abused her kids and shacked up with equally abusive men; her alcoholic yet financially secure father barely acknowledged her; and Michelle obviously suffers from mental illness and an inability to cope with reality. She is scared yet brilliant: she attended college on a full scholarship and was offered a spot at Columbia, yet she lives on disability cheques that dole out a mere few hundred dollars a month. By her 50s, she had had over 50 jobs. The first 30 minutes of the movie is a bizarre experience of movie watching, as the film is edited to depict Michelle as bizarre, incoherent, and completely out of touch with reality. As Michelle is interviewed, the editing is disjointed. When Michelle recalls traumatizing experiences, her voice is amplified to make it seem like she’s hearing voices and delusions. It’s a difficult introduction that makes it almost impossible to form a relationship with Michelle, making...

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Reel Asian 2015 Review: Zinnia Flower

In the meandering and ultimately pointless Zinnia Flower, two strangers struggle to cope with the loss of their significant others and take part in the 100-day Buddhist mourning ritual. Unfortunately, this leads to such an inane exploration of loss that it may leave you wishing for a quick cremation. Taiwanese director Tom Lin Shu-yu’s Zinnia Flower follows Lei (played by Taiwanese musician Stone), who survives a crash and in an early scene is asked by doctors to choose between his pregnant wife or the fetus (neither of whom ultimately survive), and widow Ming (portrayed by Vancouver’s own Karena Lam), whose fiancé dies in the other car. The two people deal with their losses in very different ways: Lei becomes angry and emotionally and physically distant from those close to him and engages in meaningless sexual encounters, while introverted Ming, unable to cope with her loss, chooses to go on the trip to Japan that she and her fiancé would have taken during their honeymoon. The movie suffers from a cultural distance: Western audiences may be unfamiliar with the drawn-out mourning process of the Taiwanese (or Buddhist) culture, although the movie’s inter-titles explain key days during the mourning process. Unfortunately, there is little emotional pay-off, so the film becomes one long, painful exercise in movie watching. It’s a movie in which there is little interest in the main characters, who go nowhere...

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Cinema Revisited: NFB and the Indigenous voice

In October 2013, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, in cooperation with the Ontario Media Development Cooperation and Telefilm Canada, commissioned a report entitled Indigenous Feature Film Production in Canada: A National and International Perspective. ImagineNATIVE “foster[s] and promote[s] the Aboriginal film and media sector,” culminating in its annual festival, based at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. In its 65-page report, imagineNATIVE concluded, “the Aboriginal screen-based sector is dynamic and vibrant,” despite the fact that Aboriginal people are “underrepresented in almost all areas” and that there is “a significant gap in Aboriginal feature film production.” The report analysed Aboriginal contributions to screen-based media and noted, “prior to 2000, Aboriginal filmmakers were working primarily in the realm of documentary, pioneered in the early 1970s by acclaimed filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, through the National Film Board of Canada.” The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) has a strong history of documentary filmmaking, which has been at its core since its beginnings in 1939. The NFB’s mandate is to help Canadians understand other Canadian perspectives, and because it is a government corporation, it was the government that chose English-born John Grierson to lead the NFB during its beginnings. The NFB’s website describes Grierson as “both a pioneer of the documentary and a filmmaker and specialist in the art of propaganda. He had a remarkable influence on the NFB, until his death in 1972.” Although...

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Review: Labyrinth of Lies

By all accounts, Labyrinth of Lies should be an interesting watch. It’s a German movie that deals with a touchy subject matter for Germans: the Holocaust. It focuses not only on the Holocaust but also Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp that witnessed the worst of Nazi mass murder. North American audiences, who often equate European and subtitled movies as art-film fare, may dismiss this movie as a challenge to watch. But make no mistake: in style and execution, it tackles a difficult subject with the flare of a watered-down Hollywood movie. The movie is a fictionalized account of the mid-1960s Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, in which 22 low- and mid-level SS (and other) officers were tried under German law for their roles in concentration camp murders. It follows the story of Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), a young idealistic lawyer working as a traffic court prosecutor. When a reporter (Andre Szymanski) creates a disturbance at the court house with his allegation that a former SS guard—an alleged murderer—is employed as a local school teacher, Johann is mystified that his older colleagues, who were old enough to have been actively involved in the war effort, become agitated and berate the journalist. He befriends the reporter and secretly begins his own investigation. After he submits a report that’s initially brushed off by his superiors (the standard response is “Thank you, I’ll hand this...

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