Review: Ghostland: The View of the Ju/Hoansi

Ghostland: The View of the Ju/Hoansi is a look at the Ju/Hoansi, an ancient tribal culture indigenous to Namibia, in southern Africa. In its opening scenes, the documentary displays text informing us that the Ju/Hoansi (also known as Bushmen), is the oldest culture on the planet, tracing its roots at least 25,000 years; however, in 1990, the Namibian government enacted laws forbidding them from hunting, thus shutting them out from their traditional method of gathering food. The doc doesn’t explain why they’re forbidden from their traditional lifestyle, but it seems to not be the point of the film. Instead, it focuses on a small group of Ju/Hoansi as they sustain an economic existence by putting on a show of their traditional lifestyle for European tourists.

The documentary follows, among many people, Xoan and her baby; Chau, who became the first Ju/Hoansi to get electricity and an email account; Tci!xo, who bought a double bed that fills her entire hut; Gao, who has TB and Ui, who looks after a development project for the tribe. The documentary captures many scenes that display a culture in a dichotomous cultural transition. The first scene, for example, shows Ju/Hoansi kids and teens, all of whom are in robes that display body parts (female chests and sex organs) that Western and Western-influenced culture would never allow. The kids stand in front of a chain fence while watching planes taking off from the airport. In later scenes, the adults, dressed in their traditional clothing and armed with hunting weapons, put on a show for European tourists eager to watch them. The Ju/Hoansi openly complain in their native language about feeling like they are on display.

In later scenes, some of the Ju/Hoansi are taken to  Germany, where, dressed in Western clothes, the group are in dismay at the fast pace and loudness of Western culture. It’s their turn to do the watching and it’s a reversal of the film’s early scenes, except that one of the filmmakers, a balding white man with a bushy beard, accompanies them and follows them around. He may be the film’s director or perhaps its producer, but the scene in which they arrive at the airport and he shows the group’s passports to German customs officials negates the Ju/Hoansi members’ ability to watch and navigate on their own. Customs may be new to the tribe members, but it’s not as if they hadn’t had previous exposure to Western culture.

It’s a slow-paced documentary without a soundtrack or voice-over narration, although it has minimal text throughout the film (it needs a better translation from the original German). The result is a quiet, creeping film that a Canadian audience most likely isn’t used to. But that’s not to say it isn’t worth watching. If you’re fascinated by cultural differences, cultural genocide and the Western gaze, watch this movie.

Review: Neruda

Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín weaves a pulpy, but literary detective story with Neruda, an atypical biopic that also serves as a debunking of the mythology surrounding one of his country’s most beloved and controversial cultural figures. It’s his most entertaining and stunning effort to date, which says quite a bit considering that it’s the third film of his to be released this year following The Club (released in February) and the recent Oscar buzzworthy release of his English language debut, Jackie. He’s had quite the run, but Neruda, which was selected by Chile as its official entry for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, remains the high point of a busy year.

When famed senator and poet Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) goes into hiding following the Chilean government’s outlawing of Communism in 1948, a tenacious, hardboiled government gumshoe (Gael García Bernal) leads the manhunt. It’s a pretty straightforward story that offsets Neruda’s words and works against the political background of the time, often asking if it’s possible to be wealthy and be a Communist in a time when most of your fellow countrymen are suffering and before things are about to get worse for everyone. It’s half about outrunning persecution and half about outrunning responsibility.

Disinterested with telling history how it is and even less interested in turning either of his protagonists into saints, Larraín instead mounts a fugitive vs. dogged marshal picture that doesn’t tip its hat towards any sort of literary pretensions. Much like he does in Jackie, which looks at a famous person during a fixed period of personal crisis,  Larraín concerns himself more with the feeling such people must be going through rather than the point for point historical accuracy of things. Some might bristle at the approach and style being employed, but Neruda is all the better for these touches.

Bernal’s skeptical, purposefully derogatory, hardboiled gumshoe narration makes it known from the outset that Neruda will quickly become critical of its subject, and at times decidedly less than laudatory. I’m sure that Larraín isn’t entirely against what Neruda stood for, but the director and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón (co-writer of The Club) are having a blast poking holes into sacred cows. The detective trying to track Neruda down isn’t made out to be a nice fellow, but the famed poet is sometimes made to look cowardly and duplicitous. He’s unfaithful to his wife (Mercedes Morán), and his treatment of her grows worse and worse as the narrative goes along. His relationship to his own wealth and fame causes him a lot of anxiety, but his own introspection of such matters seems to stop at the page. Despite a wealth of characters waxing rhapsodic about Neruda, the audience knows that the hero of some of these people is just as flawed of a man as anyone could be.

It’s written and staged like a bygone style of film, with Larraín filming people driving cars in front of obvious backdrops, employing colour schemes meant to evoke the feeling of fading photographs, and moving the camera around just enough to take in all the scenery, but never too much for it to become an exercise in style. This further deepens the crisis of heart and mind Larraín seeks to explore. He’s a savvy enough filmmaker to presuppose the intelligence of the viewer and allow them to draw their own conclusions about the subjects at hand. He stages Neruda’s political battles as carefully constructed and thought out series of manoeuvres and motions, creating an engagement and investment in the materials and themes instead of a bland hagiography.

Larraín has also cast two leads perfect for such subtly playful, but respectable material. Gnecco plays Neruda not only as an academic, but also like a mob boss; his appearance, cadence, and demeanour akin to that of Tony Soprano. Bernal matches Gnecco by imbuing his copper with an arrogant, determined, yet restrained swagger that calls to mind Kevin Costner in The Untouchables. They’re perfectly classical foils for one another.

Sure, none of this happened the way Neruda says it did. It’s all building towards a twist conclusion (that viewers who are paying attention can figure out by about the 75 minute mark) that finally tips its hat to Neruda’s literary accomplishments in an almost operatic fashion. There’s clear embellishment, and Larraín stops just shy of calling the award winning writer an outright hypocite, but by employing such style, wit, and creativity the filmmaker finds a way to the metaphorical heart of history and one of the world’s most celebrated authors at the same time.

Review: Harry Benson: Shoot First

Photographer Harry Benson has captured some of the most iconographic images of celebrities, world events, and culturally relevant signposts and figureheads since the mid-twentieth century. You’ve probably seen a Harry Benson photo or portrait without even knowing who the lightly Scottish accented lenser was. In his early days with The Daily Express, Benson, who then considered himself a rather serious journalist and not a paparazzi of any sort, captured some of the most notable images of The Beatles at the height of their meteoric rise to fame. Anybody who was anybody practically demanded that Benson take their picture, something that led the hyper-competitive photographer to become respected and sometimes feared by many colleagues.

But while he captured some of pop culture’s most noteworthy names, he never abandoned his work as an astute photojournalist. He was somewhat infamously on hand for the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, an incident that had many questioning how uncomfortably close Benson got to its bloody aftermath. He was embedded with the KKK and IRA. He operated on the outskirts of both sides of the Watergate scandal. Benson was also one of the first foreign journalists to document the violent migratory crisis in Somalia.

He’s an icon in his own right, but in the documentary about him, Justin Bare and Matthew Miele’s Harry Benson: Shoot First, there’s precious little outside the borders of the images he created. It’s not so much a documentary designed to allow audiences to get to know its subject, but one to further propel the myth of a brand. It’s the kind of film that Miele is starting to become known for following the equally flattering, but substance free documentaries Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s and Crazy About Tiffany’s, and a track I’m sure will continue with his next project (a look at the formation of the Coca-Cola bottle made with their full participation, which is about as corporate as one can get). You won’t learn very much about Benson or his process, but you sure will get a lot of interviews with a star-studded list of celebrities and former employers practically falling over each other to sing his praises.

There’s no real through-line to Harry Benson: Shoot First, preferring to string together anecdotes from various talking heads to link into one another. It’s not exactly conducive to figuring out what makes Benson tick, and it only occasionally broaches the subject of what makes the photographer so good at his job. He was able to create a vibe to fit any situation. He worked tenaciously to stay on top of his game, and even today at age 87 he retains a great deal of fire in his belly. Subjects liked him because he never made anyone look stupid or embarrassing. His combination of fortitude and a great eye make him formidable, but Bare and Miele are so enamoured with quips and stories behind Benson’s images that any hints of personality gets very quickly kicked to the curb in order to move on to the next recognizable picture.

Part of the film’s lack of true insight beyond surface level readings of his work can’t be blamed entirely on Bare and Miele, though. Harry Benson: Shoot First casts the photographer as reticent and loathe to talk about the person who created the images. He isn’t exactly forthcoming, but he’s only occasionally cantankerous and combative. He clearly doesn’t like talking about himself very much, and any attempts by Bare and Miele to get him to open up during their interviews are often handled with a certain degree of evasiveness from their titular subject.

That could be part of the reason why so few of the cavalcade of stars trotted out by the filmmakers have much of anything relevant to add outside the obvious. They knew him about as well as anyone else did, which is not very well at all. Even the few family members that pop up (and have shockingly little screen time) don’t know much about the man; so all that’s left is a softball work of pure fan service aimed squarely at admirers of Benson’s work. Across ninety minutes, repeatedly hearing variations of “I love Harry!” or “Do you remember the picture where…” becomes tedious to sit through. It doesn’t matter that people like James L. Brooks, Bryant Gumbel, and Dan Rather have great things to say about him. All one learns from Harry Benson: Shoot First is that he’s one of the best at what he does; something that could be gleaned from simply browsing a lot of work on one’s own time instead of watching a film that will simply spoon-feed the viewer that sentiment. It’s a great looking pedestal where someone forgot to build the statue.

Review: The Eyes of My Mother

In a remote farmhouse, Francisca (Olivia Bond as a child and Kika Magalhaes as an adult) lives with her mother, a former surgeon from Portugal, and her hardworking father. Her mother has shown her some of her surgical skills on the cows on their land, and Francisca has never really feared death. When their peaceful life is shattered by an intruder who kills her mother, Francisca is left to live with her withdrawn father and the strange desires this event has awakened in her. As the years pass, Francisca’s need for an outside connection leads her to some very disturbing behaviour.

I’ve always been fascinated by “nature versus nurture,” the idea that a person exhibits behaviours based on the way they’re raised, or something they have inherited. Obviously both play a role in people, but the idea that someone could be born “bad” is one that plays into a lot of horror films. It’s this idea that drew me into Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother.

When Francisca was little, her mother exposed her to things that other children would find horrific. An image of the two of them sitting at the table with a cow head would send most kids screaming from the room, but Francisca is not bothered by this. When her mother is brutally murdered, she doesn’t even scream, and when her father arrives home in the middle of the crime, she simply states that she couldn’t leave mother.

This begins a life of disturbing behaviour for Francisca, not all of it her own doing. Saying more would only spoil the twisted fun of The Eyes of My Mother, but she finds herself in a number of situations that opens up a new world for her. A world where pain and murder bring her a pleasure she’s never really known.

Visually, The Eyes of My Mother can get quite graphic. While onscreen death isn’t really something that happens, the aftermath of an attack is typically on display for all to see, and that’s graphic enough. This isn’t what makes the film so disturbing though. The performance from Kika Magalhaes as Francisca is what’s truly terrifying. She displays no empathy for anybody around here, and views other people in a clinical way, much like her mother would have viewed someone she would operate on. It’s Magalhaes who brings the terror to the film.

This brings it all back to nature or nurture. Was Francisca born with this lack of empathy towards people, or was the fact that her mother brought her up in a place where things were more cold and calculating the reason for her actions as an adult? Thinking about the glimpses of her traumatic childhood while watching an adult Francisca take part in some frightening behaviour gives The Eyes of My Mother an level of intelligence rarely seen in horror films.

Review: The Second Time Around

The Second Time Around is a simple little tale set against the grand soundtrack of the opera. The film follows Catherine (Linda Thorson), an elderly woman who loves music and dreams of seeing the opera at the Scala Opera House in Milan. When she has a bad fall and breaks her hip, Catherine is forced to move into an assisted care facility where she meets Isaac (Stuart Margolin). The two bond over their mutual love of music and begin to explore the possibilities of a romantic relationship.

At its core, The Second Time Around is about longevity and the beauty of age. The settings of the film are mundane and simple, nothing out of the ordinary, but with the music of great operatic works providing the soundtrack, music by Puccini, Verdi and Mozart swell to dominate the image, leaving the characters either awestruck or so caught up in the passion of it that they can’t help but join in and sing along. It’s a lovely juxtaposition of the ordinary and the spectacular, elevating even the simplest moment of the film into a grand gesture.

It is also about synchronicity from opposition. While this starts with the music contrasting the image, it is also apparent through the interactions and personalities of the characters. This is seen between Catherine and her daughter, Catherine and Isaac, and Catherine and her granddaughter Sarah providing the most striking visual contrast. Catherine is an elegant woman, impeccably dressed and articulate. By contrast, Sarah boasts a bleached pixie cut, a face full of piercings and a mumbling speech. The two women could not be more different and yet there is a deep affection between the two and an acceptance of what each has to offer.

Which is what makes The Second Time Around such a pleasant film. It makes no assumptions, taking for granted that a punk rock borderline goth girl could have a close relationship with her classy and elegant grandmother with no opposition. It never bows to the idea of the high versus low. The opera might be fancy, but that’s no reason that ordinary people can’t enjoy it as well.

Review: Cameraperson

For over twenty-five years now Kirsten Johnson has been working as a cinematographer and camera operator, predominantly in documentary filmmaking. She has participated in such high profile docs as Fahrenheit 9/11, Citizenfour, and The Invisible War just to name a scant few. She’s shot more footage of real life human beings, incidents, and happenings around the world than most people can fathom. Relating and empathizing with an image she’s trying to convey is her life’s work, so it’s of little surprise that her cinematic memoir, the artful and unforgettable Cameraperson, would take a lot of inspiration from the work that has helped to define her life.

It’s not a standard memoir, and it comes across more as an essay film or a deeply personal bit of introspective poetry where the viewer has to fill in the blanks, glean meaning from the footage, and piece together what Johnson is trying to say. It’s a daring approach – showing the viewer a lot of seemingly dissimilar footage discarded from various projects devoid of context or any sort of narration or commentary from Johnson – but one that thankfully presupposes a great deal of intellect and emotional intelligence on the part of the viewer.

If you aren’t going to pay attention and you aren’t going to deeply engage with what’s happening, there’s nothing for you here. This isn’t a film that can be watched passively (and no film should be), but Cameraperson slowly becomes one of the most resonant films of the year, almost without the viewer even noticing that it’s happening. It’s a film where the viewer has to reflect on an image that caused the person creating the image to reflect on it in a different way, and it’s an approach where now that it has been done, it can likely never be duplicated again.

For the first thirty minutes or so of Cameraperson, I wasn’t sure precisely where – if anywhere – Johnson was headed with all of this. Johnson starts off by showing seemingly unrelated footage that clearly has some sort of meaning to her. Boxers getting ready for a Golden Gloves match at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn; an anonymous young woman in Alabama talking about how hard it is for her and her child to receive proper health care; riding on a Ferris Wheel in Kabul; doctors tending to newborns in an African hospital; evidence from a Texas murder trial getting spread across a table for the camera to document it; the pre-game festivities at a Penn State football game immediately following the sexual abuse allegations levied against the school; lots of recollections of time she spent in Bosnia; even footage from her own New York apartment playing with her twins. It still works as a film because it’s always intriguing to think about how we process images in our daily lives. It’s like looking at a photograph and immediately being transported back to the day it was taken and under what circumstances the image was captured. That’s one of the basic questions most people have about images, so Cameraperson starts off as something that’s just fun and stimulating to think about.

Chronologically, the footage jumps around, but eventually a structure that the viewer initially didn’t realize was being built up begins to emerge, and things start to take a turn towards the personal and slightly away from the professional around the time the viewer gets introduced to Kirsten’s mother. From there, Johnson will go back and forth between scenarios previously glimpsed to show greater detail or introduce newly relevant material, all of it designed to flow together almost rhythmically. Each passing sequence begins to dovetail and rhyme with the one that preceded it. Going far beyond the sometimes off-putting auteurist theory that an image is created exactly how the artists behind the camera want them to look, Cameraperson becomes possibly the first time in history that a film has effectively, gradually, and intimately placed viewers into the mindset of the person creating these images without the creator showing up on camera, speaking a word, or writing out what the viewer has witnessed. She didn’t write what she’s capturing, and therefore Johnson feels no clear ownership over it, but she remembers how each of these moments impacted her and made her feel.

What starts off as a look into the life’s work of a talented artisan slowly becomes a look at what it means to be a mother, daughter, woman, and human being in a sometimes harsh and indecipherable world where awful things fall upon people who did nothing to deserve them. Cameraperson never errs too far on the depressing side as to become cynical or cold, and Johnson balances the bleakness of the world around her with a good deal of hope and humour.

If one watches Cameraperson closely and intensely, the experience becomes almost transcendent. At a certain point, I felt so moved that I began to cry and it took me a moment to figure out why I was doing that in a film made up of such seemingly random segments that have often been excised from other films. It was because I had become fully immersed in what Johnson was trying to do, and I empathized with her as much as she did with the people she had been filming. That’s a difficult thing for any documentary to try and pull off, but Cameraperson does it perfectly.

Review: Sugar Mountain

In the drab, low budget indie thriller Sugar Mountain, two brothers in the titular Alaskan community concoct an elaborate scam with the hopes of pulling themselves out of massive debt. Irresponsible Miles (Drew Roy) has run their dead mother’s boating operation into insolvency on top of accruing massive gambling debts to a local heavy named Joe Bright (Jason Momoa). In cahoots with his girlfriend, Lauren (Haley Webb), and his smarter, but still kinda shady brother Liam (Shane Coffey), Miles concocts a scheme to fake getting lost in the Alaskan wilderness for ten days, therefore creating a fraudulent survival narrative that he can sell to the press.

It’s a stupid plan, stupidly executed and Australian director Richard Grey and writer Abe Pogos can’t overcome the idiocy at the heart of Sugar Mountain to make anything compelling out of it. In Fargo-light fashion, this harebrained scheme leads to the brothers getting in way over their heads once they set the plan into action, depicted in as pat of a three act structure as one can get: there’s the set up, the scheme, and the aftermath. Lauren’s father (Cary Elwes), who also happens to be the chief of police, thinks that Liam might have purposefully set Miles out into the woods so he could finally take action on the secret romantic feelings he harbours for his daughter. Joe Bright really wants his money. Various townspeople are either sympathetic or draw unwanted attention to what could be a hoax. Meanwhile, there’s probably a great chance that inexperienced mountaineer Miles might have died out there or gone missing for real.

It takes a massive suspension of disbelief to buy that anyone at their most desperate – especially seemingly intelligent young men like Miles and Liam – would come up with a get rich quick scheme that could be so easily unravelled and disproven, and the fact that anyone in the small town would buy into it comes off as slightly ludicrous. It’s a convoluted and (more importantly) poorly executed plan, but it’s also dull to watch it unfold as monotonously as it does here. There are no real surprises until the final third when a pair of illogical, impossible to telegraph plot twists (both surrounding the dead mother of the brothers) attempt to goose the story to no avail. These twists should change the direction and tone of the film, but they’re staged, acted, and tossed off like they’re just another thing that happened.

It doesn’t help that none of the characters – save for Momoa’s charismatic, underused turn as a psychopath – are exciting to watch or follow. The actors are fine and basically doing what they’re told is being demanded of them, but then again one could say that about everyone behind the camera, too. No one gets a chance to shine in Sugar Mountain because it’s impossible to shine this much cardboard. Miles is patently unlikeable from start to finish, so his well being never becomes a true concern. Liam is just as bad as his brother, but the film tries its best to make the viewer sympathize with him somewhat, failing terribly in the process. Lauren is just there to further drive a wedge between the brothers, and her father just seems to hate the whole lot of them, so why should he even bother stressing out over any of this?

Everything that happens in Sugar Mountain comes off not only as a waste of time to the viewer, but a waste of time to the characters, making any sort of emotional or intellectual investment impossible. When you’re actively thinking about better scams that could have been pulled off to greater effect and success, you know a film about a grift gone awry has completely lost your interest. Such shoddy plot and characterization could have been saved somewhat by a sense of energy and pacing, but Grey can’t be bothered to inject any life into this, instead settling for a “point, shoot, repeat” technique that feels not only overly serious for this kind of potboiler fodder, but also distressingly half-assed. Sugar Mountain is the kind of film where it feels like no one wants to be there, but everyone involved has made a pact to make the best of it.

Review: Sword Master

Hong Kong director Derek Yee began his career as an actor, debuting in the 1977 martial arts film Death Duel, based on Gu Long’s novel of the same name. It is only fitting that nearly 40 years later, Yee directs its 3D remake, entitled Sword Master. Unfortunately, it lacks a strong narrative to match its beautifully choreographed martial arts scenes.

Sword Master follows Yan Shishan (Peter Ho), a sword fighter employed as security at a brothel, despite the fact that he no longer wishes to kill. He becomes romantically involved with one of its prostitutes, Xiao Li (Jiang Mengje), much to the dismay of brothel owner Murong Qiudi (Jiang Yiyan), who is seemingly romantically interested in Yan herself; she will use force to win both Yan and her former prostitute back. At the same time, Yan must resist his father, an aristocrat who uses an army and much force to woo his son back. Adding complications, Yan has a love/hate relationship with Sword Master (Lin Gengxin), who both helps and fights Yan.

The fight scenes are well choreographed and the exquisitely choreographed action scenes will no doubt be enhanced in the 3D theatrical release (this review is based on a 2D media release). It’s too bad that the action is bogged down by the almost soap-opera back stabbing and conniving that overshadows the action scenes. It seems that director Yee wanted to add an emotional accent to the film — and it’s a noble thing to do in an action film — but it becomes a confusing mess and a distraction from the action sequences, which no doubt will be attracting audiences to the film. It’s too bad it wasn’t done more effectively, because it could have elevated Sword Master to a complex and interesting action movie.

Review: Jackie

The assassination of John F. Kennedy serves as the catalyst for Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, but the former president is quickly eclipsed by the presence of his wife. This film is about Jackie. From the opening moment, she makes it clear that she is the one in complete control of the story you are about to hear. She looks directly into the camera and tells the reporter from Life Magazine “I will be editing your story. Just in case I say something I didn’t mean to.” It is an unsettling beginning to a biopic that refuses to follow convention.

In many ways, the construction of Jackie mirrors the construction of the legend of the Kennedys, but also serves to shatter the illusion. It is blunt and direct. Like the Kennedy’s themselves, Jackie has been very deliberately and carefully crafted, just like the former First Family’s public persona that has made them such a fixture in the collective imagination of Americans. The film is meticulous. Everything has been painstakingly recreated, from the dress Jackie was wearing when John was shot to Natalie Portman’s perfectly pitched accent. Archival news footage blends seamlessly into fictional recreations as reality bleeds into myth.

It is rare to see a film, particularly one ‘based on a true story’, that is this forcefully authored, with a clear hand directing every moment on screen. As we follow Jacquline Kennedy through the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, funeral preparations are placed side by side with press interviews, flashbacks to the event itself, and private, personal moments of Jackie. Characters stare directly into the camera, never truly breaking the fourth wall, but addressing the audience nonetheless. This is an unusual choice, but one that serves this unconventional biopic well. It is constantly keeping the viewer off balance, forcing them to reassess the validity of what they are seeing.

Larrain has structured Jackie to deconstruct a modern legend. He celebrates the strength and resilience of the former First Lady, but coming in as an outsider has no mythical associations with the Kennedy name. Jackie asks you to think about what goes into building modern day mythology and reminds us at the end of the day, that these people were, and are, simply flesh and blood, not the stuff that legends are made of.

Review: Sadie’s Last Days on Earth

Sadie Mitchell is a 16-year-old who struggles with anxiety, which reaches crippling levels after a school project in which she learns that the end of the world is near. She spends her days alternating between stockpiling for the apocalypse and trying to salvage her friendship with former best friend Brennan. When she forms an unlikely friendship with doting schoolmate Jack, who finds her idiosyncrasies quirky as opposed to neurotic, what starts out as the road to regained happiness quickly descends into total teenage torment.

Michael Seater’s script is really smart, often too smart. While brimming with wit and sardonic humour delivered in rapid fire dialogue, the overall tone of Sadie’s Last Days on Earth is a bit too self aware. The characters come off almost a bit smug, as if to say ‘look at us, we’re so quirky and weird it’s cool’. While Seater’s target audience might proudly see reflections of themselves in Sadie and the cast, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that most teenagers are simply not that profound.

Sadie’s Last Days on Earth can be a fun viewing experience, but clearly targeting a very specific demographic. While teen angst transcends many age groups in contemporary cinema, the specific references and conversational cadences will leave some puzzling. To those on the outside looking in, the film is like Noah Baumbach meets a meme machine.

Seater directs a strong cast, Sadie’s Last Days on Earth is a who’s who of faces from Canadian television. Morgan Taylor Campbell is terrific as Sadie, giving the character a certain naturalness amidst so many emphasized eccentricities. Paula Brancati produces and has a supporting role in the film as Connie, a high school teacher/friend of Sadie’s who’s deteriorating marriage provides the basis for several important life lessons. Connie is the primary ‘adult’ in the film as Sadie’s parents are written more like a weak afterthought. While it seems to make sense for Sadie and Connie to form a friendship, there is a certain awkwardness about the presence of Connie’s character that takes some time for the audience to get used to.

Overall Sadie’s Last Days on Earth is an energetic film with a well-paced story and a well selected cast to drive the plot, but it’s not going to appeal to everyone.

Review: Antibirth

If there was one film to sum up the kind of experience you should be looking for at a genre film festival, Antibirth would be it. This is one movie you don’t want to miss out on. The film follows Lou (Natasha Lyonne), a drunken stoner who spends most of her time hanging out with her friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny). After a drunken party that Lou can’t even remember, she realizes that she may be pregnant, but can’t figure out how. As Lou tries to figure out what happened during her blackout, she starts to become incredibly sick. Soon she’s hearing voices and seeing things, and her pregnancy becomes a part of an even bigger nightmare.

That’s about as much information as you should know about Antibirth. The twists and turns in director Danny Perez‘s film are best experienced without knowing very much. The film manages to smash a variety of genres together quite successfully, and the slow build towards an outrageous ending is captivating. It can be difficult to follow at times, but viewers won’t really mind when the result is so successful.

This is the kind of film that you’ll want to watch over and over, just to catch all the little details you may have missed on previous viewings. Lyonne and Sevigny give outstanding performances, while Meg Tilly steals the show towards the end of the movie as Lorna, a woman who shares some things in common with Lou, and someone who happens to know more about what’s going on. The finale delivers on the promises that the film has made, and while not everybody may enjoy it, it’s impossible to deny that it’s powerful and filled with some of the most amazing effects on display.

Review: The Apology

During the Second World War, more than 200,000 women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army. A small handful of these women are still alive, referred to now as “grandmas” and many of them are in their 80s and 90s. All they want is an apology from the government, but that seems to be a dream that may never come true. The disrespect these women still face is astounding, and even government officials aren’t above slinging insults towards the women. Looking at the lives of three of the “grandmas,” The Apology is a shocking look at a practice that somehow still seems to be accepted by a government fearful of admitting their past mistakes.

It’s not unusual for documentaries to infuriate viewers, but The Apology may be one of the most difficult and maddening films to screen over the years. Known as “Comfort Women,” these hundreds of thousands of women were simply taken from the street and forced to live in brothels to service men in the army. When the war was over, they were left with nothing and many couldn’t even return to their families.

They felt shame for what they had done, and this response is thrown back in their faces to this day. Watching one of the “grandmas” head to a protest while people scream derogatory terms at them and tell them to “go home” is outrageous. That anybody could hear their story and insult them for it is disgusting. Even the government has been known to make inappropriate comments without remorse. It’s difficult to hear, but important for all.

Review: Theater of Life

As with many large cities, Milan is a thriving financial centre that is unable to shelter the thousands of homeless citizens on its streets. Inspired by a food-themed exposition, renowned Italian chef Massimo Bottura decides to put together a soup kitchen in the city’s working-class Greco neighbourhood. Alongside many masters in the kitchen, he strives to use the expo’s leftover food waste to craft flavorful meals for the city’s struggling and disadvantaged. As Bottura explains, even something as banal as stale bread “can become gold for so many people.”

Theater of Life is a richly satisfying doc. It hooks us with its insatiable images of kitchen confections before affecting the viewer with an important message. Director Peter Svatek’s smartest choice is ensuring a relative balance of screen time between the chefs and those they serve. Bottura and a variety of food maestros from around the world provide inspiring messages about the responsibility of feeding. Nevertheless, the doc’s most probing moments come in the small vignettes with locals.

Asylum seekers and those living on the Milan streets imbue their stories with grit. While the film does tend to lionize the charismatic chefs, it does not treat the Refettorio guests as mere customers, but souls still worried about where they will sleep that evening. There is scope to Svatek’s doc: we move between stories of recent arrivals on Italian shores, such as the Nigeria-born Christiana, and those like Fawaz, a longtime resident who still struggles to find a room to avoid the blistering cold.

Svatek understands how food can become an equalizer between the classes, just as the chefs at the Milan Refettorio realize the value of having their guests sitting and sharing stories at communal tables. The interactions at these mealtimes provide insight into the conditions of these subjects. The film’s crusade for a sustainable “social gastronomy” means much more when we know the people benefitting from such terrific (and tasty) initiatives.

Co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada, this 94-minute film resembles the carefully prepared meals it features. Theater of Life packs in a lot of substance and lets certain ingredients (that we perhaps know less about) provide balance and texture. Meanwhile, for those more interested in drooling at images of food, Nicolas Venne’s camerawork artfully captures the dishes in all their glory.

Review: The Other Half

It’s a familiar story. A down on his luck man meets a pretty young thing who is full of life and teaches him how to live again. You can be forgiven for rolling your eyes at yet another film that relies on the Manic-Pixie Dream Girl trope. Emily’s (Tatiana Maslany) introduction in The Other Half paints her as the textbook embodiment of the trope. She’s a quirky, free spirit. She pushes Nicky (Tom Cullen) to move past his anger and start to feel happy again. This sets Emily up nicely to be Nicky’s saviour and lift him to the Hollywood happy ending.

But director Joey Klein is having none of that. He quickly pulls the rug out from under the proposed fairytale as The Other Half shifts focus to Emily and her daily struggle with bipolar disorder. That doesn’t mean that Nicky is relegated to the role of sidekick, even as he watches from the sidelines. At its core, The Other Half is about the relationship between Emily and Nicky – a partnership between two drowning people, desperately clinging to one another even as they are dragged under by each other’s weight.

It took Klein almost a decade to complete this film and the time put in shows. There is a ring of authenticity to every gesture and glance that Emily and Nicky exchange. Klein has painstakingly crafted a film that doesn’t shy away from the fact that relationships are work and that wanting and loving someone does not always equal a healthy relationship. Maslany and Cullen are completely in sync with their director, delivering performances that breathe with intelligence and feeling for their characters’ desperation to hold on, but also with a deep understand of the characters need each other.

Like Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, The Other Half refuses to put on its rose coloured glasses. It is unflinching in its portrayal of the heartbreaking reality that sometimes there is no happy ending, no matter how hard you try. This is a depressing thought, but the result gives us an achingly beautiful portrait of two damaged souls who refuse to accept their lot in life.

Review: Things to Come

Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) is a philosophy teacher with a happy family life and thriving career. Suddenly, new challenges start to tear at Nathalie’s content existence. Her aging mother, an ex-model (Édith Scob), becomes ill. Her husband of 25 years, Heinz (André Marcon), leaves Nathalie for another woman. Plus, the fire and enthusiasm she once brought to her career starts to diminish. Nathalie tries to cope with these setbacks as she rekindles a bond with an ex-student (Roman Kolinka).

The newest film from Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden) is patient, elegant and often affecting. Much of this has to do with the casting of Huppert, an actor who often deflects expression while still offering shades of courage and humanity. It is hard to imagine Nathalie in another actor’s grasp: Huppert reveals the cracks in her character’s life in subtle, original ways.

Things to Come is a touching portrait of middle-aged malaise that deftly avoids any overwrought plotting. The authenticity of Nathalie’s journey may have much to do with a proximity to real people. The writer/director’s parents were both philosophy professors. (This is Hansen-Løve’s second film in a row to be inspired by people in her family, after Eden.) However, audiences unaccustomed to Hansen-Løve’s languid pacing could find the film dull.  This is a film of small moments and character changes, and quite a lot of Things to Come relies on the protagonist reacting to conflict, rather than steering her life in one sustained direction.

Review: Sky on Fire

Sky on Fire, in title, draws on the legacy of Hong Kong action film heavyweight Ringo Lam’s box office success of the 1980s such as City on Fire and Prison on Fire. Joseph Chang and Amber Kuo portray siblings who become embroiled in a battle between pharmaceutical companies whilst they desperately seek a cure for her terminal cancer. Joining them are company chief security officer (Daniel Wu), and pharmaceutical heir (Zhang Ruoyun) as loyalties and morality become muddled in a fight for x-stem cells, justice, and a young girl’s life.

While Ringo Lam remains a long way from his greatest commercial successes that helped shaped the genre of Hong Kong Actions films, a lot of his trademarks and favourite themes make an appearance in Sky on Fire. Characters are placed in precarious situations, forced into double loyalties, but best of all placed into highly suspenseful situations frequently involving car chases and a rain of gunfire. Lam’s never lost his flare for splashy chase scenes intercut with sequences of close combat, and issuing guns that seem to have endless bullets for entire sequences, only to conveniently run out when the hero’s life hangs in the balance.

Sky on Fire‘s greatest downfall is its overcomplicated plot and muddled presentation. Lam introduces a futuristic element not present in his iconic films that’s utterly distracting and does nothing to further the story, worse is that establishing shots are a confusing mix of futuristic buildings and very recognizable Chinese street scenes, making the unfamiliar all the more out of place. Relationships between characters are hastily presented with short flashbacks that leave the audience puzzling over the past as they’re jerked back to present events. Despite his reputation as an action director, Lam has always aimed for ambitiously dense plots, but this one is a combination of too much plot and too little explanation. It takes quite a few leaps of faith to get through the film.

Fans of Ringo Lam and devout followers of Hong Kong Action films of the ’80s and ’90s will surely enjoy some of the nostalgic elements of Sky on Fire. With characters plagued by their struggle between morals and corruption, ill-placed cliché moments of emotion, to over the top villains, it’s a real throwback to the films that put Hong Kong on the map. However, a bit of a shame that it’s a copycat film made by a master who’s meant to be forging ahead instead of retracing his footsteps.

Review: Be Here Now

After years of searching for his big break, Andy Whitfield landed the lead role in the television series Spartacus. While he had finally accomplished one of his goals in life, he was soon faced with the devastating news that he had cancer. With his wife Vashti by his side, Andy began treatment to overcome the cancer. Be Here Now follows Andy and his family on his journey through treatment, as well as the realization that none of his options seem to be working out.

Director Lilibet Foster brings viewers directly into the battle that Andy and his family must face with Be Here Now, and the results are heartbreaking. Many people may know where the story ends, and for viewers who have ever dealt with a loved one fighting the same disease, the film can be a difficult thing to watch. Andy is always hopeful that he’ll find some way to beat his cancer, whether it’s through chemotherapy or more natural methods, and his drive to make the most of whatever life he has left is infectious. It’s not always easy to watch, but if viewers can take away the message that life is meant to be lived, Andy’s struggle will mean something to the world.

You couldn’t think of a person more deserving of an easy and wonderful life. Andy is charming, open, honest, and kind. He loves his family, and it’s easy to see how much they love him as well. That only makes his diagnosis more heartbreaking. Through the very intimate look at his life provided by Foster, we are very quickly attached to this man we may only know through his roles in film and television. Andy and his wife Vashti hold nothing back, revealing their innermost feelings about the process and their fears and hopes for the future. It’s not exactly new to watch a documentary about what someone is going through while struggling with disease, but hearing Vashti speak about what is happening does feel different. It’s her hopes and fears that provide an insight that we don’t always get, and it adds another level of joy and pain to the film.

By the final moments, it will be impossible to hold back the tears. Even in the most dark moments, there’s always something good that can be taken away though, and Be Here Now will give that to viewers. Andy’s story may not seem like the happiest subject to explore, but the way he lives his life and the way his family comes together in crisis are messages we should all take to heart.

Review: I Am Bolt

Documentarians Benjamin and Gabe Turner get remarkable amounts of access to their superstar athlete subject in their film I Am Bolt, an inside look at Jamaican runner and international sensation Usain Bolt, told largely from his unique perspective. The wealth of detail on display in I am Bolt is commendable and meshes nicely with the athlete’s laid back attitude and largely sympathetic nature. He’s a fascinating figure to follow around and learn from, but also an everyman type of person who would just as much like to be going out and enjoying life as much as he strives to break every track and field record possible. I Am Bolt isn’t merely a peek behind the curtain and into Bolt’s training process, but also a refreshing reminder that larger than life sports figures are still everyday people deep down.

The Turners make sure that I Am Bolt starts in a captivating moment of logical importance. They begin following the most important and instantly recognizable runner in the world at the close of his 2015 season at the Beijing World Championships. The charming and gregarious Bolt is placed in opposition to brash, abrasive, and cocky American runner Justin Gatlin, who’s returning after a steroid violation. It immediately casts Bolt as an easygoing hero, almost Rocky-like in nature, but this would be the Rocky that took over around the third film in that franchise and not the story of a humble up and comer. It’s a great opening gambit, not just in a chronological sense with the rest of the film charting the ups and downs he faces en route to the 2016 Rio Olympics, but because the Turners frame it in such a way that the audience gets to know Bolt’s personality before they get to know the specifics of his greatness. Sure, in the film’s dullest moments the Turners feel the obligation to relive Bolt’s greatest victories and defeats, but the personal journey here always takes precedence over the professional details.

Bolt, by his own admission, is getting older, dealing with greater injuries than he ever has before, and he’s growing weary with the sport that gave him massive amounts of fame. He muses that the older he gets, the harder he has to work to stay on top and the more painful that work becomes. The injuries that have plagued him almost his entire career are catching up to him. Combine that with a level of fame that means he doesn’t get a chance to go out on his own, and you have a portrait of a man who likes to joke around and have fun off the track, but who feels like he’s not getting the most out of life that he can. He’s a man who’s seen as the apex of achievement in his sport, and all he wants is to take a lengthy vacation and eat a bunch of junk food.

There’s a refreshing frankness to Bolt that the Turners capture wonderfully. Bolt never says or does anything stupid or incendiary, but he also doesn’t have much of a filter, always coming off as being conversational and never rehearsed or practiced when telling an anecdote or expressing his true feelings. He seems constantly in awe and grateful for what he’s been able to achieve since he started racking up championships in his home country at the age of 14. He can admit when he’s being petty or lazy, but he also knows what he has to do to overcome those feelings. He even allows the cameras to capture how he sometimes gets stir crazy by virtue of not being able to leave his home or hotel rooms to have a quiet night out by himself, as exemplified by footage of a lonely Bolt singing along to “Bump N Grind” by himself while riding a hoverboard around his room. It’s as memorably amusing as it’s also quietly sad and almost brutally truthful to Bolt’s often solitary life.

There are interviews with his biggest supporters that are illuminating. His coach Glen Mills (who’s a lot bigger and older than one might think a modern track coach would be), his best friend and most constant road companion NJ, and Bolt’s equally charismatic and charming parents all pop up to talk about what makes Usain tick and the concerns they have for him. These personal recollections and talks about being in proximity to such talent and fame offer the Turners and the film much more to chew on than brief chats with celebrity admirers and fellow athletes like Serena Williams, Pele, and Donovan Bailey. They’re fine and offer some insight to the professional world Bolt runs in, but the personal stuff is the real meat of this and the main reason to seek this one out. It’s a flashy, crowd pleasing look at a flashy, crowd pleasing, and remarkably human sports icon.

Review: Manchester by the Sea

In Manchester by the Sea, the powerful third film from master dramatist Kenneth Lonergan, Boston area property manager Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is forced to confront the triggering memories of his past mistakes and traumas. He returns to his coastal Massachusetts hometown following the death of his older brother (Kyle Chandler, glimpsed in flashbacks throughout Lonergan’s subtle, time shifting narrative) and the unexpected legal guardianship of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee, a solitary man by design after his marriage to his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) came to a disastrous, heartwrenching end, wants nothing to do with Patrick. Similarly, Patrick doesn’t want Lee to be his guardian because that would entail him leaving all his friends (and girlfriends) behind.

I don’t want to give away too much about Manchester by the Sea, but it’s a hard film to talk about in all its humanist reverence without giving away the major reveal around the film’s halfway point about what drove Lee and Randi apart. While the death of the level headed, understanding, patient older brother is certainly a tragedy, it’s made known up front as a sort of sadly inevitable conclusion. The true pain of the film comes from witnessing how broken Lee became before that event. It all unfolds in one of the most operatic, haunting sequences in a film this year, one that should get the tongues of awards season pundits wagging based on the power of that single scene alone.

So while I’ll leave a close reading of Lonergan’s latest for another day, I will say that there’s plenty more to talk about and celebrate without spoiling the impact of the film. Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) and his cast have created one of the most dramatically satisfying depictions of loss, survivor guilt, and the grieving process ever committed to cinema. There’s not a false note to be found, with each scene feeling like a subtle revisiting of a loved one’s grave site. Like most great drama, the performance and artifice drips away, and all that’s left in Manchester by the Sea is a memory of times gone by and cautious hope for the future.

While Williams reminds viewers why she’s one of the best actresses of her generation in her relatively small amount of screen time, it’s the already reliable and perennially underrated Affleck who delivers some startling, career best work. He’s great in sequences when he’s reliving the marital bliss of his past, and he’s better in his scenes opposite a star making turn from rising star Hedges, with their witty, sometimes bleakly comic repartee providing the film with much of its heart and backbone. He’s best, however, in his portrayal of Lee as an irrevocably broken man.

Present day Lee refuses to make eye contact with people, and carries with him a metaphorical cloud of shame that Manchester’s residents have labelled him with. He thinks everyone talks about him behind his back and can be prone to fits of rage either founded or completely baseless. When confronted on his B.S. or confronted by the fact that he can’t move on, he’ll often offer up a half-hearted “Oh…” before trailing off and failing to finish his sentence. His means of keeping things together have created a completely internalized human being, and Affleck mounts a masterclass in how to create a well rounded character out of a bundle of subtle tics, neuroses, and traits.

It helps that Lonergan has crafted some of the best scripts of the decade and that his material gives actors quite often so much to work with that it’s impossible to know what to do with it all. His work behind the camera here is equally exceptional, expertly conveying a snowy, icy suburbia that mimics the emotions of many characters within the town. Lonergan knows that such delicate, at times emotionally challenging material rises and falls on the believability of the performance and the writing. Some of the most memorable moments in the film start off playing silently with actors conveying a wealth of meaning through action and implied intention before the scene will blossom and explode with dialogue. Other times, the dialogue will drift slowly away, the memorable, but unobtrusive musical score from Toronto native Lesley Barber will slowly begin to swell, and the audience becomes fully immersed not in the details of a scene, but in the raw emotion of it.

Manchester by the Sea builds to no grand climax, but a much needed conversation between an uncle and his nephew in which both men come to an understanding about their lots in life. It harkens back to the conversation Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney’s estranged siblings have at the end of Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me in the sense that the viewer wants to believe that things will be okay, but we’re still unsure what the future will bring for these characters. It’s as life affirming as something this painfully close to reality gets.

Review: Coming Home

Good intentions don’t always make for good films. That’s certainly true of Cathal Kenna’s documentary Coming Home, a film that boasts a bunch of fine anecdotes based around similar experiences and cultural identities, and no firm ideas on how to pull it all together.

For his debut feature, Dublin based filmmaker Kenna takes a look at the curious push and pull that Ireland has over those born there. When looking at population on a global scale, Ireland has always been a curious talking point. With a population of over six million people today, that number could have been higher had 10 million people not left over the past 150 years. Since the 2008 financial crisis, another exodus from the country has been occurring, particularly among young people.

To make Coming Home, Kenna spent several years documenting ex-pats living abroad who were planning to return to Ireland, a woman who moved to Australia in the wake of a tragedy with conflicted feelings about ever returning, and one young man named Gerard, an EMT helicopter paramedic, who left the country (and his girlfriend back home) for the UAE. Some of the stories are intriguing, as are their reasons for returning to Ireland or leaving for good, but there’s very little historical insight and even less of a way for Kenna to put these stories together as a cohesive whole.

Most of the film up to the final third, when some of the ex-pats are seen living renewed lives in Ireland, is comprised of rudimentary looking sit down interviews with subjects delivering anecdotes about their lives, and little else other than some decent looking B-roll of location shoots. It’s inherently uncinematic and dull from the jump, and Kenna has no way to compensate for the fact that everyone involved here has very different reasons for leaving. Gerard and Clare, a well travelled woman about to leave her Massachusetts home to return to Ireland, are fine people to listen to, but their stories tend to get lost or not go anywhere. The most emotionally gutting stuff comes from Vera, the woman from Australia, recalling the heart-wrenching decision to leave, but it still feels highly removed from the rest of the stories.

Mostly every scene ends with a cut to black as Kenna can’t find a way to transition from one story to another with any natural degree of ease, leaving a film that lurches and bounces around instead of flowing. There’s a distinct sense that Kenna had intended to make Coming Home a film about the experience of being an ex-pat and feelings of homesickness, but that film never comes because all of the subjects only have the country of Ireland to tie them together. It’s less a film about a culture or fractured national identity, and more just a bunch of semi-interesting stories slapped together under a shoddy unifying banner. It’s never ill intentioned or offensive in any way. It’s just not good.