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.

Sebastian Silva and Michael Cera Make Magic in 2013

It’s hard enough to imagine producing and filming one movie in a year as an independent filmmaker, but two? Somehow, Sebastian Silva managed to accomplish that in 2013 with his two widely different films Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and Magic Magic. The two films have similarities in that they both are based in Chile – Silva’s country of origin, both star Michael Cera, and both focus on different anxieties of travel and growing up. However theme and tone between the two could not be more polar.

I’ll begin with Magic Magic as I watched this one first. I’ve recently developed a huge girl crush on Juno Temple, as I think she’s an immensely talented if yet still underrated actress on the rise. So while creeping her ouvre I came along this film. And while the rating was low, the cinematography from the trailer alone was enough to entice me into giving it a shot.

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I found the colour composition and symbolism in this film to be extremely beautiful, and possibly the best quality of this film altogether. The film follows Alicia’s first time travels to Chile to visit her cousin. She finds herself at odds however, by loneliness, an inability to connect with the new people she’s meeting and a increasing detachment from reality. At the same time, can you blame her? Cera does an amazing job at being a creepy weirdo in this film. A role I haven’t seen him play before without some kind of comedic undertones. This is just plain creepy. Would you want to be friends with this dude?

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I feel as if the film’s failure commerically came not from a lack of plot or any other significant short-coming on the filmmaker’s part, but rather the classic mis-marketing curse. The film’s trailer displays this as one of those “is she crazy or is there some sadistic cult happening?” thriller-mystery-dichotomy movies. It is anything but. In fact the film is pretty straightforward in it’s approach to Alicia’s mental state: she is not well. But character’s such as Cera’s Brink are not helping the situation, certainly. If you’ve ever known anyone with a delicate mental state, or even just traveled yourself and felt… culture shock, or complete detachment from your surroundings this film will possibly move you.  It also ends on a fairly ambiguous note depending on how you wish to interpret it, which I could see as a sore spot for the more conventional cinema lovers. I, however, revel in a film which is challenging, and especially films in which I may hate the ending. They force you to really think about why the conclusions upset you.

The second film, actually made first (in fact, Magic Magic was being funded while this movie was still filming, Cera also apparently learned Spanish on set), Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus a much more light-hearted and fun move. I had a debate recently with a friend who had also seen the film, and absolutely hated Cera’s character, Jamie, in that they felt he was misplaced. I could see this point of view, I, on the other hand, loved him in this role as well as in Magic Magic in that he seems to be breaking out of his regular awkward shy guy character-archetypes. It seems natural however that viewers will either love him or hate him.

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As mentioned the film follow’s Jamie as he travels through Chile. At a party he meets the overtly hippy American girl who introduces herself as Crystal Fairy. He drunkenly decides to invite this girl along on the road-trip he has planned with his buddies he’s met in Chile: A trip to find and consume the magical cactus peyote. The film quickly becomes a battle of personalities between Jamie and Crystal – One is a wound up impatient dude, the other a laid back “spiritual” girl. I actually found both character’s to be highly unbearable in their own ways: and I think this was the point of the film. Neither of them are “right” and neither of them are “wrong” but they learn how to love and accept one another, thanks in part to the peyote, of course.

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My favourite part of the film is when they finally consume the magical drug. And if anyone has ever done any psychedelics before will be able to relate to the events that unfold: a total breakdown of normal thinking, becoming totally vulnerable, being entertained by the smallest and seemingly most wonderful things, a breakdown in simple cognition, and, naturally, a strong desire to get naked. The film is a wonderful story in which the two character’s learn to appreciate and understand one another when they let go of an overbearing facade, and actually let their vulnerability show, to which they are ultimately both shown love and support.

I found this film to be less striking visually, as well as less shocking, but thematically more approachable and enjoyable. In the end it’s almost a take on the classic road-trip movie, as they’re not the same people who started on the trip to begin with.

Now my only query, or perhaps concern with Silva’s two films is that as a Chilean director, other than locale, the films have essentially nothing to do with Chile. The Chilean characters that are interspersed throughout both films often come off as flat and static. Not a whole lot of culture is engaged with. This doesn’t seem purposeful so much as negligent, as these actors are unable to come out of the shadow of the Hollywood counterpoints. Even Catalina Moreno, in Magic Magic, a very well recognized actress comes off as little more than a background bitch.

Either way, I see Silva as a very promising director. Not perfect, but I am excited to see what else he has to say about our generation, and what other films he wishes to pursue. Because so far based on these two films, he’s willing to take on some pretty interesting topics (travel, insanity, drugs, identity, etc) with surprising restrain and maturity.

Listmania: 10 Epic Death Scenes

Who doesn’t love a really good death scene? I tried to pick here less of the mindless gore that I’m accustomed to, but scenes which had a lasting impression because they were so shocking. I call them epic because they surprised us in some way, we honestly did NOT see that coming, and maybe uttered a “DAMN” when it happened.

Definitely contains spoilers.

Okay let’s begin! In no particular order:

1) Billy, The Departed

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Things never go quite right for poor Billy do they? Just when it seems like things are finally wrapped up and going his way an unfortunate elevator ride has to happen…

2) Marvin, Pulp Fiction

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Did anyone see this coming? No way! Due to the nonlinear nature of the film, any hints were hidden, the fact that Marvin survived the first massacre seemed a miracle, and then this.

3) Oscar, Enter the Void

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Unless you read the synopsis before watching the film, this is a pretty unexpected death. I mean, killing off the main character 30 minutes in who we’ve essentially had first person POV privileges with? Not your most conventional approach.

4) Anonymous, Cube 

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The movie opens, a man moves through a creepy cube hesitantly, what is he so afraid of? We soon find out.

5)Russell Franklin, Deep Blue Sea

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After an inspiring speech, it’s Samuel L. to save the day! Or not.

6) Palmer, The Thing

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What is the Thing? A horrible alien monster from outer-space that grotesquely mutates its victims. How do you find out who is infected by the thing? The Infamous blood-testing scene – made me jump the first time I saw it!

7) Bill Murray, Zombieland

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Both hilarious and tragic. Who really thought that he’d get shot in the film after a heroic cameo? I mean it’s Bill Fucking Murray after all!

8) Blanche, Drive

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There’s a lot of love, and a lot of hate for this film. But what’s never disputed is how unexpected this death is. Christina Hendricks getting her face blown off in slow motion, yeah! I had a “BUH” moment. It’s this death, amongst many, that really straps you in and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

9) Julian, Children of Men

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Just when they’re getting their lives back together, an unexpected attack on the car which then turns into a thrilling and one of the most brilliantly filmed tracking shots I’ve ever seen.

10) Glen, A Nightmare on Elm Street

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One of my personal favorite deaths in a film ever, Glen has waltzed through the film without any trouble from Freddy, but I guess no one is safe. Blood Smoothie anyone?

Listmania: Top 10 Drug Scenes in Film

Drugs scenes can be very interesting in films. Sometimes they are moralizing and judgmental. Other times we laugh at the hilarious hijinks. Either way they are very often well made and contain moments which linger long in our memories. Here are my top 10 drug scenes in films, some obvious but perhaps there are a few ones you haven’t seen before:

10) Almost Famous – 2000 – Cameron Crowe

I am a golden god!

This scene triumphs in its random spontaneity as well as following with a group chorus of Tiny Dancers.

9) Big Lebowski – 1998 – Joel & Ethan Coen

After he is drugged on his search for Bunny, The Dude enters this dreamy bowling-themed fantasy world.

8) Requiem for a Dream – 2000 – Darren Aronofsky

This film shows the ups and mainly downs of a group of New-Yorkers. And while it’s an extremely depressing, and often disturbing film, it’s visually stunning.

7) Easy Rider -1969 – Denis Hopper

It would be hard to make a list about drug scenes without the king of drug scenes. A crazy hippy fulled acid trip through the heartland of America. Like On the Road… but with more drugs.

6) A Scanner Darkly – 2006 – Richard Linklater

Your sins will be read to you ceaselessly, in shifts, throughout eternity. The list will never end

My favorite scene in both the book and the film, an inter-dimensional alien comes to read Freck all his sins when he mistakenly takes psychedelics instead of sleeping pills when trying to commit suicide. The poor boy can’t even get suicide right.

5) Pulp Fiction – 1994 – Quinten Tarintino

I couldn’t choose between the two scenes because I love them both so much. Vincent makes heroin looks pretty damn tasty in the picture above, while Mia accidentally overdosing shows the rather shady side to it. And it’s a pretty epic moment, of course.

4) Trainspotting – 1996 – Danny Boyle

How to choose in this film. The drugs never really look good and yet they keep doing them, and often we keep laughing. There’s the overdosing, the dead baby crawling on the ceiling, but the crawling into the toilet of ultimate scum that is gag-worthy every time.

3) Enter the Void – 2009 – Gaspar Noe

While slow moving, and this film definitely did not need to be 3 hours long, the scene in the beginning where our main character smokes DMT is undoubtedly the closest anyone will ever come to showing the effects on screen visually. The rest of the film, in which the main character floats as a soul above Tokyo contains memories of the neon-lit city scape which are pretty psychedelic  in themselves.

2) Altered States – 1980 – Ken Russell

I literally cannot pick one scene from this movie. It is seriously tripped out. But what would you expect from a film that is about a scientist experimenting with hardcore ayahuasca and other psychedelics  while going into a sensory deprivation chamber?

1) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – 1998 – Terry Gilliam

Probably the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they think of “drug-movie” and with good cause. The film is a hallucinatory adventure in which dinosaurs roam and your friend tries to kill you with a giant knife. And everything in between. But of course, it’s Hunter S. Thompson. No one can beat that. Set against the backdrop of Las Vegas, this film makes you feel as if you’ve taken a little bit from their drug suitcase yourself.

Bonus: Drugstore Cowboy, Knocked Up, Natural Born Killers, Black Swan

Taste of Cherry and the Lacanian Real

Brace yourself, this is not a post about a horror movie! Egads! Instead this is about a lovely little Iranian film called Taste of Cherry (1997) by Abbas Kiarostami. This film falls into the category of poetry, meaning also that not everyone will have the patience for the slow pace and straight-line plot.

The film follows an Iranian man as he attempts to find someone who will bury him under a tree after he decides commits suicide. While seemingly straightforward, this is not a task as easily accomplished as he wishes. No one wants to help him, and no one wants to take part in his plans despite a handsome cash reward.

The key cinematic device used throughout is forced perspective. The camera is stationary and many of the same shots are repeated continuously throughout. Almost all of the action in the film takes place in a moving car as it traverses the isolated hillside roads. The stationary camera does not allow for fluidity in motion, rather we cannot look away implying a correspondence with our protagonist, in that he can no longer see the beauty of life.

To go back to film theory, this is a perfect example of French Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s Real, Imaginative and Symbolic. A quick overview:

  • 1) Symbolic – A shared set of symbols, in which communication is impossible without. In our everyday lives we live in the symbolic. This includes language, culture, religion, art etc.
  • 2) Imaginary – Private, incommunicable, fantasy, dreams, desire. These are elements that are unique to oneself. To communicate the Imaginary we must use the Symbolic which in turn kills the Imaginary. “Crazy” people are in the Imaginary in that the Symbolic fails them.
  • 3) Real – The external powers over which we have no control. i.e. Death and pain. We cannot bear the real, the symbolic and the imaginary protect us from the real. Our own bodies are in the real.

So now that we’re all caught up, we can apply these theories to the film. We are following a man who is tired, exhausted of the Symbolic, and in which the Imaginary can no longer provide comfort. He is a man driving towards the Real. Death is symbolized (lower capital) in the dirt he wants to bury him and the dirt he keeps visiting in the various construction sites he drives past. To him the dirt is the ultimate Real. He has such trouble finding someone to bury him in that they are not ready for the Real, and will not help him in his journey.

When our protagonist finally finds someone willing to bury him, this is the moment of hesitation. He says, do not just bury me, anymore, but asks the man to really check that he is dead. If he lives, then he wants to live. However, the final scene of the film does not allow us any real answers. In a self-reflexive ending, the film-maker takes us out of the Symbolic realm of the film and shows us the actual mechanisms of film itself – the director, the cameraman, the actors, etc. We do not know the ultimate fate of the protagonist, we simply know the car drives away and life goes on – it could be with the protagonist or not. The filmmaker himself denies the audience access to the Real as well.

A self-reflexive, realist film, Taste of Cherry forces us to analyze the world around us, and asks us to appreciate the little things in life, and to take joy in anything and everything. A sunset, a breeze, a cup of tea, or the taste of cherries.