TIFF Top 10: Sleeping Giant

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Sleeping Giant is an excellent comparison piece to my previously reviewed film Les Demons, in that this film touches on similar themes of youth and fear, but, as the boys in this film are slightly older, themes of sex, desire and rebellion coalesce.

Synopsis: Adam meets troublesome cousins Nick and Riley while on summer vacation on the shores of Lake Superior. Clearly from different worlds, Adam struggles to fit in and find his place in their stimulating world of carpe diem adventures.

The film, written and directed by Andrew Cividino is a first feature-length for the young director and a very touching and humbling film. The film avoids strong assertions and obvious lessons; like Les Demons, this is another film where often what is left unspoken is much more powerful and important than what is overtly stated. These dynamics are played out on screen visually with the interactions between the boys: Nick and Riley are loud, often saying far too much about superficial things, while Adam is quiet, not nearly speaking up enough, even in defense of himself. What the film lands on is the possibility of language to fail us – that we may feel things we cannot express, and that simply by speaking one may be suppressing their true emotions.

I am specifically avoiding labeling this film as a “Coming of Age”, in that there is no singular defining moment in the film that fits this genre. The movie is riddled with moments, rather, of “coming of self” in which every character (except, notably, one) on screen at some point, eventually, has the realization that their actions have consequences, and affect others, perhaps more than they wish.

We are also subject as viewers to some powerful cinematography, by James Klopko,which truly gives power to those moments of quiet emotion as previously mentioned. We as an audience, can often only assume or sympathize to how the characters are feeling, we are not overtly or explicitly told. Thus, the film is a tactile, sensual, affect-experience. 

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This film is also, joyously, as Canadian as it gets. The location is never hidden and is rather celebrated (Sleeping Giant being an actual physical canadian location as well), full blown Canadian accents are often in effect, and even the musical score is Canadian, from original score by the band Bruce Peninsula, to tracks by beloved Canadian singer-songwriter Mac Demarco. This is a rare distinction for many English-Canadian films that bend to outside pressure and “Americanize” in order to reach a wider audience. By not “avoiding” place, Cividino has actually presented a story defined not by place itself, but by true human experience. 

 

 

 

TIFF Top 10: Les Demons

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This is a continuation of some of the films that were showcased at Toronto International Film Fesitval’s annual top ten of Canadian Content: #seethenorth.

While I struggled to see the merit in Patricia Rozema’s Into the Forest, Philippe Lesage’s Les Demons is, in a word, exceptional. Undoubtedly Canadian, the film is complex, nostalgic, quirky, funny and simultaneously tragic. The film follows Felix, a young boy on the brink of adolescence, who comes to understand the emotion that plagues so many adults: fear.

Les Demons is the first (completed) feature film by Lesage, and as such is a tremendous accomplishment. We can see Lesage’s work history as a documentarian influence the film in that one of the strongest features of the film is the camera-work and cinematography. The film evokes constant use of the deep-focus long-shot: in which the camera slowly zooms-in on something on screen while never having any of the shot go in or out of focus. It is a beautiful technique that fits the lackadaisical pace of the film.

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The film focuses on main character Felix, but also those immediately around him: His family and their friends, his friends and their problems, his teachers and other authority figures. All of the characters, however long they are presented on-screen are adequately rounded, dynamic and complex – a very difficult feat to reach, but one Lesage accomplishes admirably and thus a feature of his film-making I look forward to seeing more of in the future.

My one critique of the film, however, is the story-arc involving the life-guard from the neighborhood pool. While it’s a necessary and poignant plot-line, at times it feels too disconnected from Felix’s world, in that these are scenes that are not facilitated by Felix directly, and as such feel strangely added-on at times. It’s a shame because these scenes could have been integrated more smoothly into the narrative without coming across as disruptive to Felix’s story.

As previously mentioned the film revolves around the emotion of fear: fear riddles Felix but also every character in the film to some degree: Fear of rejection, of punishment, of heartache, etc. all the fear is being gazed upon by Felix who quietly acknowledges and reacts to it all. There are some very real fears in the film, a possible pederast and kidnapper, but mostly it is the emotional fears that are at play, fear of the family breaking apart, fear of abandonment and so on. By employing a dark, ominous classical score, the music in the film is also an excellent accompaniment to help instil a constant stream of dread while never fully giving way to full-blown misery.

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Fear is the driving movement in the film, yet, the film has surprising and touching moments of relief when the pain is somehow rectified by points of happiness and joy. This makes the film much more even-handed and relatable, in that, while youth can be a scary time, there are still junctures of joy and safety.

For a movie entitled The Demons I was expecting an all-out Canadian fare: depressing, and everyone dies at the end. And while there is most certainly a tragic and horrifying few scenes in the film, mixed with the light-hearted moments I mentioned previously, it is a much easier film to digest than other French-Canadian, suburban-Montreal studies of coming-of-age, such as the beautiful but emotionally gut-wrenching Canadian-classic Leolo (Lauzon, 1992). That being said it also appears to me that while tragedy seems to be on it’s way out, the other distinctive attribute of Canadian cinema, “weird sex”, does not seem to be a defining narrative for many of these newer Canadian films anymore. Felix beginning to discover his sexuality is briefly covered in the film, but not dwelled upon, and certainly not as disturbing as when touched on in other films like, again, Leolo.

Based on the few movies I saw for the festival, I think new-Canadian movies are moving away from the depressing. While not abandoning it completely, it seems that sad-moments and pure anguish are no longer the conclusion to a film, but rather a plot point the characters move around, and try to survive against, hopefully, coming out stronger in the end. Despite tragedy, there is still joy, despite fear, there is still hope, making this new era of Canadian cinema much more accessible.

 

 

TIFF Top 10: Into the Forest

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Toronto International Film Festival recently played their collection of Canadian content in their annual screenings of Top 10: #seethenorth.

The festival was initiated by the high-profile Patricia Rozema film Into the Forest (2015) starring Evan Rachel Wood and Ellen Page.

The reception of this film is as turbulent as the psudeo-sci-fi plot line: In the not-too-distant future a massive power outage causes two sisters to band together in the face of apocalyptic adversity.

This is not a movie of quiet subtlety. I’m convinced it was intended to be, however, with moments that included Crystal Pike’s dance-choreography, the secret eating of chocolate, the importance of half a can of gasoline, etc. All moments that were intended to make the audience realize our reliance on modern technology. Thus, small moments unfold obviously, and at many times without adequate or satisfying explanation.

Is this a feminist film? While not overtly feminist it is clearly feminine. The primary location is set deep within the forest, as the title would suggest, and as such there becomes a clear and rather forced binary between the forest (feminine) and the man-made (masculine). This dichotomy tends to follow the same tired association of the feminine being linked with safety, warmth and comfort, while the masculine is connected with pain, hardship and hurt.

There is a painfully obvious motif at play with the girls “tree fort” in the woods behind their home. The fort, built into the stump of an old tree, and only accessible through a small opening one must crawl through. It is a place in the film where Ellen Page has sex (for the first time), that keeps the women safe during a storm, and a place where Wood’s character gives birth. Plainly, this is a womb: a place of pleasure, safety, and creation, it even LOOKS like a womb with the entry one must crawl through to enter or exit. The family home, a man made creation, natch, is spontaneously and inexplicably burnt to the ground using the remaining gasoline – man-made destroyed by man-made: a taste of it’s own medicine. But why did the women burn down the house that contained ALL the books page’s character referred to throughout the film? The ones that helped them eat, survive and, you know, give birth? The movie is riddled with such thoughtless momentum.

All of the men in the film are portrayed as static archetypes: the father, potentially the only interesting character in the film meets his end after having his chainsaw backfire while trying to chop down a tree (read: he attempted to use a man-made instrument while attacking the feminine thus he deserves to die of his own hubris). Page’s boyfriend is portrayed as “annoying” and irresponsible, ultimately problematic as he is a wedge that would drive the sisters apart. And the only other male character on screen: a rapist who inexplicably finds the girls home, literally in the middle of nowhere in the woods, and proceeds to rape Wood’s character making her, temporarily, afraid of the outdoors and the feminine, since it betrayed her sense of safety.

In place of what could have been an interesting feminist study in the face of apocalypse, one is left feeling annoyed by the obviousness of it all. Across the board, reviews seem very set on the mediocrity of the film, some arguing that the film didn’t push hard enough. However, I felt that the film pushed too hard, just in all the wrong places. 

There is is another problematic aspect to this film in the wake of a “canadian top 10” film festival. Again, this is a film largely hidden in its “place”. Though one can recognize the superb, pristine British Columbian landscape, it is still easily interchangeable for California redwoods. This is coupled with the fact that half-way through the film “Boston” is dropped as a pin on the map. This is simply an example of yet-another “Canadian” film disguised, hidden, as if that very label is somehow shameful.

To conclude, this is a “Feminist-Canadian” film that is neither feminist nor Canadian; a “sci-fi” that relies solely on melodrama;  an obvious-film trying too hard to be subtle; a film one can confidently say fails. Lights out, just like the power in the diegesis.