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Girl Rising

Sunday, September 29th, 2013—Film

Girl Rising (USA 2013, Documentary), Writers: Various; Director: Richard Robbins

This weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Girl Rising, 10×10’s gripping documentary about nine girls from around the world, and why educating them—and every girl—is vitally important to our future.

Each of these amazing, resilient girls comes from one of nine countries: Afghanistan, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nepal, Peru and Sierra Leone. They all have incredible stories to tell, each with unimaginable hardships, but also with hope.

Girl Rising features a beautiful mix of live-action, animation and narration, of reenactments and reimaginings, as well as real-life footage. It’s stunningly made, with fabulous cinematography, impeccable writing, and a unique approach to each story—fitting for nine unique and utterly captivating girls.

The film is also fair. It gives the girls a voice, which sadly has a lot to say about abuse at the hands of men, and being subordinated by both men and women. But it makes an effort to show positive male figures, like protective brothers and nurturing fathers.

Interestingly, the film is directed by Richard Robbins and its central narrator is Liam Neeson. To me, involving these men shows solidarity and an emphasis on healing the world together.

But that’s not to say the male voices overpower the female in Girl Rising. Women leave a lasting mark all over the film, from the producers to the writers to the rest of the narrators, who are all female and include the likes of Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Salma Hayek, Alicia Keyes and Meryl Streep.

See Girl Rising and I believe you’ll be deeply moved. The girls’ stories are sometimes painful, but always lead to powerful, triumphant endings. And between each one, you’ll discover overwhelming facts about the benefits of educating girls—benefits for them, their countries and the entire world.

I’m not sure when/if the film will get a wider release, but for now, you can visit to arrange a screening, get more information and, of course, donate to one of the most important causes.

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Thanks to JW and LG for spreading the good word, and to CARE Canada for helping make Girl Rising possible.

Don Jon

Sunday, September 29th, 2013—Film

Don Jon (USA 2013, Comedy/Drama), Writer/Director: Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Don Jon is the feature film debut from writer/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In it, he plays a New Jersey guy named Jon who’s addicted to porn, not to mention church, cleaning, road rage and bedding women—the rituals that get him through the week (or day, as the case may be).

Jon is sexist, shallow and one-dimensional. So, not surprisingly, he winds up with sexist, shallow and one-dimensional Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), whose addiction to romantic movies feeds her unrealistic expectations of the opposite sex just as much as Jon’s addiction to porn feeds his.

The relationship plays out as you might expect. And then Jon gets to know Esther (Julianne Moore), who’s older and far more self-aware than either Jon or Barbara. She has rituals of her own to get her through the day (to lose herself, as Jon might say). But they don’t stop her from trying to make a connection to Jon.

There are two reasons I’m writing about Don Jon: First, because it’s part of a long line of exceptional work from Gordon-Levitt, and an early indication of what he might become as a director. Second, because, in spite of its focus on porn and countless close-ups of women’s bodies, the film offers a welcome counterpart to some of the other pop media out there today—the kind that doesn’t bother to show a different angle.

I have a particular piece of pop in mind, but I’ll get to that a little later. For now, it’s first things first.

In case it needs to be stated, Gordon-Levitt is a highly prolific and unusually gifted actor. He’s been in tons of first-rate films, including Brick, Looper, Inception, 50/50, The Dark Knight Rises and Lincoln.

He’s also founder of a really cool open-collaborative production company called HITRECORD. They’re putting out a slew of fascinating, high quality pieces, including books and even a forthcoming TV show. (Check out this call for artists for a documentary segment on unity.)

As a fan of Gordon-Levitt’s work, I was eager to see Don Jon. And I wasn’t disappointed. Already, with his first feature film, he comes across as an assured director with a strong grasp of visuals and editing. It’s not like he’s a rookie; he’s been on sets for nearly three decades and has already directed several short films. Still, Don Jon is an impressive first feature.

I’m looking forward to seeing Gordon-Levitt go further into creating mood through cinematography, and develop more complex storylines. But as it stands, Don Jon presents a lovely character arc, as Jon stumbles through romantic entanglements, and offers poignant observations on how we treat one another and the dangers of falling prey to the influence of popular media.

Which brings me to my secondary point. Because Robin Thicke’s idiotic song Blurred Lines certainly doesn’t deserve to be front and centre. It’s the kind of thing I hate so much that I wouldn’t normally give it any space on this blog. But it came to mind while I was watching Don Jon, so here it is.

I’d heard bits of Blurred Lines on the radio, and let it play because it’s catchy. But when the lyrics sank it, even just those approved for the radio stations I listen to, I tuned out; something about wanting a “good girl” who still likes to “get nasty” was a little off-putting.

Then, when the damn thing got stuck in my head again (“‘Catchy’ is not a redeeming quality,” says my wise buddy ACR), I looked the lyrics up and was totally appalled. The original version is beyond sexist; it’s misogynistic and threatening. I’m thinking of one line in particular, but the whole thing is just grotesque. Now when it comes on the radio, I always change the station, never mind how addictive the beat.

Anyway, I was really appalled and wanted to see what kind of reaction others were having to Blurred Lines. So I went online and found an interview in which Thicke acknowledges that his song is degrading to women, but says that it’s okay because he’s married and has respected women all his life. How big of him.

If that kind of “context” is going to carry any weight, it has to be established within the song. Take Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie, a far superior listen; yes, it’s got references to violence against women, but its lyrics have a clearly ironic tone. And by including the woman’s voice (Rihanna’s, no less, a woman who has borne evidence that abuse is no joke), he brings her perspective into it, redefining the lyrics and underscoring the irony.

Coming back to Don Jon, I’m not sure exactly at what point in the film I was reminded of Blurred Lines. But when Gordon-Levitt took care to show that people—of both sexes—are more than just their appearance, it made me very grateful that we also have men like him contributing to popular culture. And that he understands the importance of losing yourself with a real-life human being, one you can look at, but also one who is able to really see you.

Here’s to more insights like these, from Gordon-Levitt and all artists who want to create works that will bring people together, rather than further divide, isolate and objectify.

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“You better lose yourself in the music, the moment… You better never let it go.”
– Eminem, Lose Yourself


Wednesday, September 25th, 2013—Film

Prisoners (USA 2013, Crime/Drama/Thriller), Writer: Aaron Guzikowski; Director: Denis Villeneuve

I owe a thank you to Kickass Canadian Sam Hudecki for pointing me towards Prisoners—or, more to the point, for reintroducing me to the fascinating work of writer/director Denis Villeneuve.

Sam was a storyboard artist on Prisoners, not to mention a graphic artist on The Incredible Hulk and assistant art director on Splice. I met him at Queen’s University when we were both in the film program, and, to my great fortune, he wound up working as 1st assistant camera on my first non-student short, Sight Lines. He’s done amazing things since; check him out on IMDB.

Several weeks ago, Sam mentioned he’d had the pleasure of travelling to Georgia to work on Prisoners. So naturally I couldn’t wait to see it, especially when I realized it was one of Villeneuve’s films, and that its cast was ridiculously good: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano. If I had a list of favourites, all those actors would be on it.

I saw Villeneuve’s 2000 feature, Maelstrom, back in my film school days, when my pal TS and I were regulars at Kingston’s The Screening Room. It’s been more than 10 years now, and I have to admit I don’t remember the movie too well. But what I do remember is all good. The film is narrated by a soon-to-be-departed fish, stars the fabulous Marie-Josée Croze, and demonstrates Villeneuve’s ability to reflect on and appreciate women’s issues (for example, abortion).

I was very struck by that, much as I was when I saw 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a staggering Romanian film that was also written and directed by a man, yet showcases a remarkably sensitive and insightful look at the particularities of being a woman. In both cases, I found it moving and reaffirming to see that kind of appreciation from male filmmakers.

Anyway, my own appreciation for Maelstrom, coupled with Sam’s connection to Prisoners, made me want to get reacquainted with Villeneuve before seeing his latest film. I finally got around to renting Incendies, the writer/director’s crushing 2010 drama that won eight Genie Awards (including for Best Motion Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay) and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Incendies was just as good as I’d heard. It had a very different flavour from what I remember of Maelstrom, but again it showed a real sensitivity to women’s issues, including rape, enforced pregnancy and a mother being separated from her baby.

So that’s where I was coming from when I saw Prisoners—from a place of great respect for Villeneuve’s profound humanity and artistry, and his talent for aligning himself with the views of the opposite sex. (I haven’t felt ready to watch his film Polytechnique, based on the horrific shooting of 14 young women in Montreal, but I’ll get there.) And while Prisoners doesn’t show the same sensitivity to women in particular as do some of Villeneuve’s other films, it still reveals the director’s underlying sensitivity toward the human condition in general, both in his touch with the actors and his ruminative, insightful camera direction.

Unlike Maelstrom and Incendies, Prisoners isn’t written by Villeneuve, and its lead characters aren’t women; instead, they’re two very macho men—Keller Dover (Jackman), a man on the hunt for anything that will lead to his missing daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), and Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), the man officially charged with finding her.

There are many themes and symbols in the film. Religion, entrapment, prisons of all kinds—both of one’s own making, and those imposed by others—not to mention puzzles, snakes and deer.

Prisoners opens with a gorgeous shot of a deer, standing unknowingly in the crosshairs as Keller guides his son in making his first kill. From there, the film takes us through a maze of characters and storylines, as Anna and her friend disappear over Thanksgiving, and Keller takes the law into his own hands when a suspect is released from custody.

We’re privy to many points of view, and each is somewhat obscured as the story moves from one character to another, not always stopping to catch us up on what we missed in between. In this way, Prisoners creates a scattered feeling, like waiting helplessly (hopelessly?) for the missing pieces to fall into place. With the film’s emphasis on faith, maybe we’re meant to imagine that this is what it’s like to live in a godless world.

Still, for all its twists and turns, Prisoners has a strong emotional pull. That’s thanks to strong performances; dark, moody cinematography that calls to mind the graininess of film stock; and, most of all, Villeneuve’s artistic eye. Because of the director’s great vision, he turns what could have been a fairly typical thriller into something more layered and impactful.

Villeneuve is a gifted filmmaker and, by all indications, a remarkable person with a lot to say. I definitely want to hear more. (For more on this, see my Kickass Canadians article on Villeneuve.)

I’m looking forward to Villeneuve’s next film, Enemy, due out in a few months. It’s based on José Saramago’s book The Double, which I intend to read before the movie comes out. Saramago’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, Blindness, made an interesting film (see my Blindness review), and with Villeneuve reteaming with Gyllenhaal, a multi-faceted actor who excels onstage as well as the silver screen (see If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet), this next adaptation is bound to be worth watching.

Plus, Sam returned for motion graphics and storyboarding on Enemy. How could I resist the work of so many great artists?

Blue Jasmine

Friday, September 6th, 2013—Film

Blue Jasmine (USA 2013, Drama), Writer/Director: Woody Allen

What can I write about Blue Jasmine that hasn’t already been written? The film has been widely heralded as a modern-day Streetcar Named Desire or Gone with the Wind, with Cate Blanchett’s brilliant depiction of a formerly well-to-do socialite, who grapples with newfound financial struggles and desperately tries to outrun a full-on breakdown, lifting Jasmine to the iconic status of Blanche DuBois or Scarlett O’Hara.

Blue Jasmine is a fantastic film that had me hooked from the moment I saw its trailer at a screening of Before Midnight. It’s one of Woody Allen’s finer works, and definitely his best in recent memory.

Thanks to Kickass Canadian Geoff Morrison for pointing out a great Entertainment Weekly review that outlines why Blue Jasmine is also the writer-director’s most relevant, topical film to date. The article is spot-on; Allen’s focus on the sharp downward spiral of a woman suddenly stripped of her financial and social status is a keen reflection of today’s economic uncertainty and spiritual void.

Because Jasmine defines her self-worth by such superficial and, evidently, evanescent qualities, she loses a lot more than dollars when her accounts are seized—she loses her fortune, her identity. Without a solid core to return to, Jasmine has nothing left. She starts to unravel, floating away scene by scene, her sanity practically vanishing before our eyes.

As with all his films, Allen assembles a strong supporting cast, including Sally Hawkins as Jasmine’s sister Ginger, and Alec Baldwin as Jasmine’s former husband Hal. But it’s Blanchett who takes the lead. She’s so mesmerizing and fully in the moment that I felt as if I were watching her onstage, in person, rather than a projection on a screen. It’s a staggering, note-perfect performance that builds to a quietly magnificent end.

Bravo to Blanchett, and to Allen for recognizing that all he needed to do was step back and let his star shine—and burn out, and come crashing down.

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For some reason, I’ve always associated Cate Blanchett with Tori Amos. Maybe it’s because both are so gifted, versatile and prolific. In any case, here’s an Amos song that reminds me a bit of Jasmine: Bells for Her.

The Hunt (Jagten) & Elysium

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013—Film

The Hunt (Denmark 2013, Drama), Writers: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg; Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Elysium (USA 2013, Action/Drama/Sci-Fi), Writer/Director: Neill Blomkamp

I recently saw two very different films: Elysium and The Hunt.

I’d been greatly anticipating Elysium, having loved writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s previous feature, District 9. But I hadn’t heard of The Hunt until flipping through the Ottawa Citizen last week. A great headline (“Danish drama is a beautifully acted and subtle piece of moral drama”) and its star (Mads Mikkelsen) were enough to pull me in. Mikkelsen has been excellent in everything I’ve seen him in, including the wonderful Danish film After the Wedding. So the first chance I got, I was off to catch his latest film.

Set in small-town Denmark, The Hunt tracks a mild-mannered teacher named Lucas (Mikkelsen, in the role that won him Best Actor at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival). Laid off from his teaching job and battling his ex-wife over their teenage son’s custody, Lucas lives alone and spends his days working at a kindergarten. His lonely life takes a turn for the better, but it’s all shot to hell when one of the kindergartners—young Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), daughter of Lucas’ best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen)—tells a damning lie.

The lie comes about innocently enough. Inappropriately overlooked by her parents, Klara develops a crush on caring Lucas, who very appropriately rejects her clumsy, child’s advances. But the timing is terrible. Having recently glimpsed her older brothers’ porn magazines, and stinging from a sense of abandonment, Klara tells her kindergarten principal that Lucas exposed himself to her.

It’s a childish lie from a child in pain, and she quickly tries to retract it. But the lie takes on a life of its own. Her mother tells her that it did happen; her mind just doesn’t want to remember. Her principal, Grethe (Susse Wold), advises the students’ parents to look for signs of abuse in their children—bedwetting, nightmares and headaches. And her classmates soon follow her mismatched suit, making up their own stories about Lucas.

None of their lies turn out to be true, but that doesn’t matter to the townsfolk. It’s a hunting community, after all. (Even Lucas is seen stalking and killing a deer at the beginning of the film.) The Hunt narrows in on people’s reactions to the rumours, observing their need to target a scapegoat and their fear of standing out from the pack.

It’s an interesting premise, particularly for a film that presents an unusual take on the issue of sexual predation. Writers Tobias Lindholm and Thomas Vinterberg align the audience with the falsely accused “predator,” when, as a character in the film points out, Lucas is the exception; most of the time, the child isn’t lying. It makes me wonder why the filmmakers wanted to tell a story about that minority, when all too often people err on the side of dismissing a child’s cries for help, for fear of ruffling feathers. Still, it’s a powerful story worth telling, and one that extends beyond the film’s storyline, speaking more generally to people’s tendency to give in to mob mentality.

What’s remarkable is that Lucas never becomes bitter toward Klara. He doesn’t even seem to be in a hurry to declare his innocence, probably because he knows so firmly that he is. And the film lets that be. It doesn’t get bogged down in a mysterious “he said, she said” scenario or a fight to defend one’s honour. Instead, it keeps the focus simple, keeps the issue of herd behaviour directly in its crosshairs. And it’s more than enough to target.

Elysium, on the other hand, veers away from that kind of simplicity. As mentioned in my Elysium teaser, the film is set in the year 2154, when the rich live on a closely guarded man-made space station called Elysium, and everyone else lives on a ruined, overpopulated Earth. One of those remaining many is parolee Max (Matt Damon). When he’s exposed a lethal dose of radiation, he becomes hell-bent on getting to Elysium so he can hop into a miraculous med pod (there’s one in every home), which can cure whatever ails you in seconds. But it’s not so easy to get to Elysium. Those who try tend to be shot out of the sky—even when all they want is to land long enough to get medical treatment for their children.

If the filmmakers had focused more on that “simple” storyline, on the growing tensions between the haves and have-nots, I think Elysium would have been more powerful. Instead, they throw in several other complications, and the net result of the multiple storylines is that we don’t spend enough time with each character.

The movie also does many things right. Blomkamp is a gifted artist with a keen eye and a wonderful knack for directing action. While Elysium may not deliver on the promise of its premise in quite the same way District 9 does, the film offers a chance to see what Blomkamp can do visually with a bigger budget—and it’s awesome.

The extra funds also mean an impressive cast that includes the always-wonderful Damon, and Jodie Foster as Elysium’s Secretary of Defense Delacourt. Although my favourite casting choice was to bring back Blomkamp’s District 9 star, the immensely talented and, evidently, incredibly diverse Sharlto Copley. I didn’t even recognize him as psychopathic and sadistic special agent Kruger until the credits rolled. Very glad to see that the bigger-budget opportunities are extending to Blomkamp’s collaborator!

After starting out with a series of inspired shorts and a feature film as special and impressive as District 9, Blomkamp set the bar pretty high. From the get-go, Elysium had a tough row to hoe. And in many ways, it stands up well. It still holds the flavour of Blomkamp’s earlier work—his values, recurring themes and unique visual approach. But its narrative makes me wonder how much involvement the studios had, and how much freedom Blomkamp was given to tell the story he set out to.

So, two films worth getting to: See The Hunt for its thoughtfulness and artfulness, and a beautiful performance by Mikkelsen. See Elysium for its visuals and effects, its social relevance, and because it’s exciting and part of the body of work of an incredibly talented, thought-provoking young filmmaker who’s only just getting warmed up.

Elysium – Teaser

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013—Film

Elysium (USA 2013, Action/Drama/Sci-Fi), Writer/Director: Neill Blomkamp

Very excited for the upcoming film Elysium, the latest from writer/director Neill Blomkamp. Have a look at the trailer and you’ll see why. Set in the year 2154, the movie pits Jodie Foster against Matt Damon, as she fights to protect the elite space station Elysium—safeguarding it for the privileged few while the rest of humanity scrapes by on a ruined planet Earth—and he does whatever it takes to restore balance to humankind.

After watching District 9 and Blomkamp’s short movie, Alive in Joburg, which inspired it, I’d see pretty much anything he makes; his work is bold, creative, insightful and thought provoking. The fact that Elysium stars two of my favourite actors sweetens the deal even more.

On a side note, Blomkamp’s next feature, Chappie (currently in pre-production), is based on another of his shorts, Tetra Vaal, about a robot in South Africa that helps police impoverished areas. It’s really cool that the filmmaker is getting the opportunity to revisit earlier projects, with a budget and ever-increasing recognition. To think he’s still only in his early 30s!

Elysium opens August 9, 2013. Check it out. I know I will.

Before Midnight

Friday, June 28th, 2013—Film

Before Midnight (USA 2013, Drama), Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke; Director: Richard Linklater

Before Midnight is the third installment of the ongoing love story between American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy). First was 1995’s Before Sunrise, in which the characters meet at age 23 and spend a blissful night wandering the streets of Vienna, talking endlessly and falling in love.

Then, in 2004’s Before Sunset, the couple reconnects for the first time since Vienna. They spend an evening wandering the streets of Paris, talking, of course, and discovering that Celine never found true love, Jesse is unhappily married (with a young son), and they probably shouldn’t have parted nine years ago.

Now, in Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine are 41 years old, living together in Paris and raising their twin daughters. We catch them at the tail end of a summer holiday in Greece. Jesse’s 14-year-old son has just returned to Chicago, where he lives with his mother, and it quickly becomes clear, through more witty and winding conversation, that married life (or at least common-law marriage) has tested the strength of Jesse and Celine’s commitment to one another.

All the Before films have their charms and merits, and feature exceptional writing, acting and cinematography. But each one is more substantial than the last, and with good reason. The first is about falling in love; it should be the most frothy and fun. The second is about deciding whether to give the relationship a go. And the third is about trying to make good on that decision.

It makes sense that Before Midnight is the one that sticks with you the longest and packs the biggest punch. Eighteen years in, and with more than one night’s memories to build on, Jesse and Celine’s story is weighted down by much more baggage, but it’s richer because of it.

There are moments in each of the movies that carried over for me through the years. In Before Sunrise, there’s Jesse and Celine’s make-believe phone call in a restaurant, or Delpy’s perfectly delivered performance at the pinball machine, when Celine steals the conversation while staying totally focused on her game.

In Before Sunset, the ending sealed the deal for me. It was so leading and provocative, you didn’t need to see what was coming next. The film faded out on a fabulous note of anticipation.

In Before Midnight, it’s the lengthy conversation in a hotel room that left a lasting impression. The scene plays like a microcosm of Jesse and Celine’s relationship. They take turns dodging and tackling feelings of comfort, love, resentment, inadequacy, verbally waltzing through the bitter and the sweet and back again in the space of minutes, sometimes only even seconds. It’s an incredibly poignant look at married life, and so real and fluid that you almost forget you’re watching a performance.

I don’t know of any other films, or even television shows, that present live-action characters over the span of 18 years. It’s very special to be able to see these snapshots of Jesse and Celine’s life, presented in near-real time and taken as the actors age. It creates the magical sense that these characters really exist; that, rather than catching a movie, you’re actually catching up with old friends you don’t see often enough. (There’s even that trippy encounter you had several years back in Linklater’s rotoscoped wonder, Waking Life.) The Before experience is even more special given that the snapshots are so well executed.

Like its predecessors, Before Midnight has a hopeful but open-ended finish. Perhaps nine more years down the road, we’ll be treated to another day, or night, or few hours, in the lives of Jesse and Celine. Here’s hoping.

*            *            *

For GC.


Sunday, June 9th, 2013—Film

Mud (USA 2012, Drama), Writer/Director: Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols has done it again. The writer-director’s latest creation, Mud, is as beautifully shot and soulfully written as his last feature, Take Shelter, which I absolutely loved. And although the two films’ plots are quite different, their territory is familiar; with Mud, Nichols again explores ideas of perception, and how our experiences and belief systems inform our take on reality.

Mud has also been found (by many a reviewer) to share turf with the works of Mark Twain—in particular, the escapes and escapades of two adventuresome young boys, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The movie is about 14-year-olds Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who go exploring in their boat and come upon a fugitive living on an island on the Mississippi River.

The fugitive’s name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and that fact, along with his disheveled look (complete with snaggletooth and hand-knotted hair) and freewheeling lifestyle (he sleeps in a boat lodged in a tree), not to mention his whimsical, childlike quality, almost make you wonder at first whether the character is imagined by the two boys. Mud certainly matches them—and Ellis in particular—in his raw emotion and fierce stubbornness.

You wouldn’t blame Ellis if he had constructed such a character. The boy’s life seems to be sinking beneath him, as he faces his parents’ separation and an impending move to the city, away from his beloved home on the river.

Ellis is also discovering girls. He’s got his eye on an older high schooler named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). And no matter how careless she is with his heart, it seems to belong irrevocably to her. Love and romance are lifelines for Ellis, and as he gets hit by a wave of change, he clings desperately to them.

So when Ellis learns that Mud’s crimes were committed in the name of love for his sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), he does everything he can to reunite the pair, even if it means butting heads (or fists and heads) with the bounty hunters who are hot on Mud’s trail. Neckbone, of course, comes along for the boat ride.

Mud is a special film that paints fairytale and coming of age with a slightly sinister brush. Its darker hues and fantastical tones remind me of several other great movies about children at odds with growing up: Where the Wild Things Are, Moonrise Kingdom, Winter’s Bone and even Son of Rambow.

The film is full of gorgeous imagery (flowing down the river; slowing long enough to linger on scrambling spiders or sun-streaked plants) and golden nuggets of truth and humour.

It’s also buoyed by exceptional performances. In particular: Sheridan, who debuted in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life; Lofland, in his first movie role; and McConaughey, who uses Mud to further his habit of delivering ever-better performances.

I saw the film with two good friends, LG and TG. As we were leaving the theatre, TG asked whether Take Shelter depicted women as negatively as did Mud. I was too tired to get into it at the time, but I’ll say now that I don’t think Mud ultimately does portray women in a poor light. Ellis’ mother is revealed to be the stronger, more responsible parent. Juniper is redeemed. And although May Pearl is no gem, we see glimmers of brighter treasures to be found.

In the end, Mud suggests the promise of greatness—in love, but also in adventure, discovery and friendship. Ellis is left with hope, and so are we.


Friday, March 8th, 2013—Film

Wanderweg (Canada 2013, Documentary), Writer/Director: Neeko Paluzzi

Early last week, I got an email from Neeko Paluzzi inviting me to watch and review his debut film, which premiered at the Mayfair Theatre last night. He sent this synopsis of Wanderweg:

Five years ago, when I lived in Switzerland, I wrote a letter to my future self. I hid this letter in a house somewhere in the mountains. This past summer, I mapped out an extensive 1,000km journey across Switzerland to reach the letter only by foot. With only a backpack and a camera, this documentary follows my unexpected two-month journey.

Watching Wanderweg, and in fact the entire experience of meeting Neeko and hearing him speak, was an utter delight. I’m so impressed by his talent, drive and reflection, not to mention his bravery—in making the trip on his own, revealing his raw emotions, presenting the film (along with those emotions) to the crowd at the Mayfair, and reaching out to make contact with others, which isn’t always an easy thing.

Even before Wanderweg began, Neeko’s flair for words and symbolism was obvious. He introduced the film as being, in essence, a postcard. On one side, it shows Switzerland’s physical beauty—an eye-catching snapshot. On the other side, it contains his personal thoughts and anecdotes about the country and his time there. He wrote it last summer, he said, and was now delivering it to us, his audience.

Then the movie started playing, showcasing a real gift for storytelling through film. Neeko’s editing is fantastic—the choices he makes to further the narrative, but also his sense of rhythm and pacing. He’s unafraid of holding on long static shots of him talking to the camera, but he also incorporates effects, abstract imagery, cross-cutting and other devices to vary the beats and, most importantly, advance and enhance his story.

One of the many interesting things about the documentary is the window it opens into the creative process. As Neeko mentions on the Wanderweg website, the film didn’t go as planned. He had intended to tackle his adventure foot first, but life (and body) got in the way and altered his course.

At one point during Wanderweg, Neeko laments to the camera that he isn’t where he’s supposed to be—as far as his itinerary dictated, and presumably also in life. But as popular thought keeps saying, we are always exactly where we’re supposed to be. Once Neeko embraces this notion, he sets the film free to take on a life of its own, letting the creative process do all the heavy lifting (and hard walking).

Wanderweg is indeed a study of the creative process. It’s also a study of Switzerland. The film takes different looks at the gorgeous country, both in postcard-perfect vistas, and in peeks and glimpses as people, nature and buildings exist in the background of Neeko’s frame, gracefully letting him address the camera front and centre while they make a distant but lasting impression.

We also see some of the Swiss culture and history. In particular, Neeko’s visit to the Einstein Museum in Bern plays a pivotal role in Wanderweg. While exploring the exhibit, Neeko focuses in on Einstein’s ideas about time and relativity. Afterwards, Neeko is too excited to sleep. So of course he pulls out his trusty camera to listen to him mull over the concept of relativity.

Just as Neeko-the-subject is about to arrive at one of those late-night musings that always seems so brilliant at the time, Neeko-the-filmmaker cuts away. But he brings us back later in the film to revisit the moment, presenting another take of Neeko pondering the same thoughts. It’s the only time we see two takes of the same monologue, offering an interesting self-reflection on the filmmaking process (even a documentary can be rehearsed), but also building on the film’s exploration of time, relativity and perception—how the same thoughts can appear to have changed, or to convey alternate meetings, when they’re experienced at different times.

Wanderweg is a study of many things. But perhaps most significantly, it’s a study of the human spirit. Throughout his journey in Switzerland, Neeko shows us his breaking point, and then lets us watch as he rebuilds himself and finds his way back to a path he can travel.

During the Q+A after the screening, an audience member asked where Neeko hopes to go next, with the film and with his life. He said something along the lines of wanting the film to lead him to other wanderers, people who document their travels and experience the world in a similar way.

Maybe it was a matter of having Einstein on the brain, but Neeko’s response reminded me of another scientist’s work—Carl Sagan’s book Contact, and the idea of sending out a signal to find life on other planets, to reach other beings who are simply out there, existing. Really, that’s the ultimate story of humanity. We are all, in our own ways, trying to make contact within our own universes, however big or small they may be.

So Neeko, thank you for contacting me. I very much look forward to following your travels. And congratulations on a wonderful (wanderful) first film.

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Since posting this review, I’ve emailed back and forth a bit with Neeko, and he mentioned that I’d noticed things about the film that he hadn’t before. I asked for particulars, and also about something else that had me wondering: Whether the flashback component of the pivotal scene near the film’s end, when Neeko finally goes looking for the letter he wrote approximately five years prior, was actually filmed in 2012 rather than 2006. His response was pretty insightful and interesting, so, with his permission, I’m posting it here for you to read…

Right after I post the SPOILER ALERT I promised to include. Alright, here we go, Neeko’s reply:

I didn’t specifically make the connection between my being “not on the right path” with my not being in a specific place in life. It’s true. In some ways, I think this film reflects the life structure of many artists. Planning. Failure. Self-doubt. Epiphany. Resolution. Conclusion. The structure is actually quite straightforward.

I also enjoyed that you realized that the two relativity scenes were the same scene, just shot twice. I wanted to make it feel like I was interrupting myself. Also, part two is perfectly symmetrical. The first scene being me talking in the mirror, followed by my trip to the museum. The last two scenes in part two are the same, just swapped: my trip to museum and then talking to the mirror.

As for your other question, OF COURSE this would be the one question that I was most worried about. To answer your question simply, it was filmed while I filmed Wanderweg in 2012. I had originally filmed me writing the letter in 2006, which appears in the film right when I arrive at the house in Wengen. The camera is over my shoulder and I am writing it in my lap. When I arrived in Wengen in 2012, I had come to the conclusion of the twin paradox, so I knew I needed to represent a “bridging” between these twins at the end of the film. When I arrived in the house, I saw those two windows and I knew that I had found my “bridge.” I made the right image grainy to represent the past and the left was the “present.” That was the one scene that required an artistic interpretation. I don’t want to lie and say I filmed it all in the past when I didn’t, but I thought it would be visually more symbolic to re-film it involving both the windows.

Still Mine (and a bit of Bliss)

Friday, March 1st, 2013—Film

Still Mine (Canada 2012, Drama), Writer/Director: Michael McGowan

Bliss (Canada 2013, Drama), Writer/Director: Amanda Sage

I was pretty excited to learn that my short movie, Bliss, would be screened at the 2013 Kingston Canadian Film Festival. After all, Kingston was my stomping grounds during my Queen’s University days, and the festival was founded by my friend, and Kickass Canadian, Alex Jansen. But I was over the moon when I found out Bliss would be paired with the festival’s opening night screening of Still Mine, the latest feature from writer/director Michael McGowan.

McGowan is one of Canada’s most prominent filmmakers, with My Dog Vincent, Saint Ralph, One Week and Score: A Hockey Musical to his credit. I’ve been a big fan of his since seeing Saint Ralph nearly 10 years ago—not long after finishing my previous short movie, Sight Lines. So having Bliss shown at the same screening as McGowan’s latest film, on top of getting to meet him and hear him speak about Still Mine, made for a pretty kickass evening.

Things started off with a Q+A led by Saturday Night at the Movies host Thom Ernst, which revealed as much about McGowan’s character as it did about his process. He’s clearly as real, funny and sincere as the films he makes. That’s no small thing, given how varied and accomplished his career has been: runner (he won the 1995 Detroit marathon), carpenter, English teacher, novelist, journalist, screenwriter, film director.

Then we moved onto the movies themselves. After seeing Bliss on the big screen for the first time (having missed its premiere at the Vancouver Island Short Film Festival), I got to see the work of a real pro as Still Mine began to weave its spell. The film is based on the remarkable true story of Craig Morrison (James Cromwell), an elderly New Brunswick man who sets about building a better home for him and his wife Irene (Geneviève Bujold) when her advancing Alzheimer’s makes their current house unlivable.

The challenge—as if Alzheimer’s wasn’t enough—comes when the local building inspectors continually give Craig grief over code violations, even though his tried-and-true methods are shown to be superior to modern techniques. Old vs. new. Proven vs. assumed. Logic vs. bureaucracy.

The house is deemed invalid and Craig is ordered to stop working on it. No matter that he’d been building it with all the knowledge he’d inherited from his father (who’d been a professional joiner) and the skills he’d developed over eight decades. Or that there is nothing structurally unsound about the building. And so Craig is forced to choose between the right way or the legal way of going forward.

All the old familiar faces of a Michael McGowan film come out for Still Mine. That perfect mixture of heartfelt and humorous, which McGowan says he strives for in all his stories. A male protagonist butting heads with authority, choosing to chart his own course. A man trying to navigate a relationship with the woman in his life.

But of all the McGowan films I’ve seen, this one features the strongest female counterpart yet. Irene is a layered and complex woman who clearly matters deeply to her husband. Their history is long and firmly rooted, and as perfectly imperfect as the knots in the wood that forms their foundation. This richly drawn relationship is what gives the film its heart.

There’s a moment in Still Mine that reminds me of the most powerful scene in Sarah’s Polley’s Away From Her, another film about an elderly couple grappling with a woman’s descent into Alzheimer’s. The moment in Polley’s film features Grant (Gordon Pinsent) leaving Fiona (Julie Christie) for what may be the last time as their former selves—the last time she’ll still remember the life they had. In Still Mine, the moment comes when Irene asks Craig to undress for her.

“It’s been awhile,” he says, before removing his clothes. Irene does the same and then steps into his embrace, holding on tight. In that moment, you can see the years that came before and imagine how many times they’ve come together like that, their bodies slowly aging all the while, bringing them towards this moment.

In the Q+A, McGowan said that his goal in that scene wasn’t to capture nudity, but to capture intimacy. He absolutely succeeded. The nudity couldn’t be further from gratuitous. It speaks to the deep love and connection between the couple, while reflecting on the universal process we all face (if we’re lucky). The fresh, blissful encounters of youth, and how quickly they spool together to form worn, aged moments.

Craig’s search for a way to build a better home for himself and Irene, both literally and figuratively, is about more than simply refusing to give up. It’s about making something that honours who they are as people, and about creating a place that can house all the memories they share—those behind them and those still to come.

With this film, McGowan adds another success to his long list of accomplishments. And he definitely solidifies his standing as a favourite in my books. I’m thrilled, thankful and honoured that Bliss, my many-years-in-the-making movie, ended up being screened with Still Mine.

*            *            *

Still Mine opens in Canada on May 3, 2013.

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