AFF Review: Weirdos (& New Waterford Girl)

I wanted to like Weirdos much more than I did.

It’s got a lot going for it: a Daniel MacIvor script directed by Bruce McDonald and shot in beautiful black and white, a groovy soundtrack of 1970s hits, performances by veterans of the Canadian screen and two able young leads (Julia Sarah Stone is the stand-out), and Cape Breton Island as its setting (along with Antigonish, which wasn’t made clear in the promotional blurb).

But here’s the thing: It’s no New Waterford Girl.

Drawing comparisons between these two films is unavoidable. As I pointed out in my festival preview, when I read the program blurb about Weirdos, it sounded to me a lot like New Waterford Girl, which I consider to be the quintessential Cape Breton coming of age film.

Weirdos centres around Kit (Dylan Authors), a teenager who runs away from home along with his girlfriend, Alice (Stone). He loves Andy Warhol and wants to go to New York. In New Waterford Girl, Moonie Pottie (Liane Balaban), a precocious teenager from New Waterford, hatches a plan to flee Cape Breton for New York. Both are set in the 1970s and have either overt or covert queer themes.

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Moonie (top), Kit and Alice hitchhiking to Sydney in New Waterford Girl and Weirdos.

There has been a welcome move away from focusing on coming out as the only story worth telling about queer people, but that story needs to be replaced by another interesting story. This is where Weirdos falls flat for me.

Kit is closeted and afraid to come out, particularly to his father (Allan Hawko) and girlfriend, but his anxiety isn’t clearly justified based on what we see of Dave and Alice. They both seem too cool to be homophobes – even if his dad did once use a homophobic slur – which removes the dramatic tension, leaving only Kit to experience relief and leaving me a bit bored.

By contrast, it is immediately and abundantly clear in New Waterford Girl that Moonie does not fit in with her family and that although they love her, they do not understand her. Moonie’s feelings of social exclusion are justified. The dramatic tension remains in tact as the Potties’ familial incompatibility leads to frustration, levity, and eventual compromise.

New Waterford Girl is bolstered by the fact that it was shot in and around New Waterford and Sydney (as evidenced by a bunch of people I went to school with showing up as extras). It’s difficult to convey how much the movie feels like Cape Breton even to someone like me who wasn’t alive there in the 1970s.

The same cannot be said of Weirdos. This will only be an issue for local viewers, but I simply couldn’t suspend my disbelief when I saw Dartmouth and Eastern Passage standing in for Sydney and Dominion Beach. Stand-in locations aside, despite all the Nova Scotia scenery, the film didn’t manage to feel familiar to me.

All that said, I do think Weirdos is worth seeing for the reasons mentioned above, but do yourself a favour and also watch New Waterford Girl if you haven’t already done so.

AFF Review: Pays (Boundaries)

With its women-centred glimpse into political back-rooms, Pays (Boundaries) may be Canada’s answer to Borgen, the must-see Danish TV series. Directed by Chloé Robichaud who led a crew composed of 85% women, the film is an examination of the machinations of politics and the resulting doubts raised in the minds of three women involved in the process.

Félixe (Nathalie Doummar) is a young rookie Member of Parliament who travels to Besco – a small fictional island nation off the coast of Labrador – with a delegation from Canada led by the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Rémy Girard).

The delegation is welcomed by Besco’s President Danielle Richard (Macha Grenon) and her negotiating team, including Ministers of Finance and Environment.

Emily VanCamp gets to put her bilingualism to use as an American mediator, incidentally also named Emily, leading the two groups through the negotiation of Canada’s role (and the role of a pushy Canadian company) in the extraction, refinement, and distribution of Besco’s iron ore.

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The smaller country is in the midst of an economic crisis, which has led the government to pursue the development of its mining industry. Over the course of a few days, the strategies and tactics displayed by politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and unions are as fascinating as they are frustrating.

In addition to the inner-workings of the negotiations, which will admittedly only appeal to a rather niche audience of those of us who find this sort of thing compelling, the film also portrays the more personal lives of its central characters.

Félixe is trying to maintain a relationship with her boyfriend now that her work takes her to Ottawa and elsewhere (with a handsome press secretary in tow). She also endures comments about her looks and wardrobe from both the Minister and his Deputy. Emily, whose work also takes her away from home, has a young son and is in the midst of a divorce. Even President Richard, who has not had to leave home for the negotiations, is struggling to not let the pressures of her job interfere with her interactions with her family.

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The experiences of the three leads resonate at a time when greater attention is being paid to the systemic misogyny hurled at women in political institutions, but Félixe’s dissatisfaction with the way senior officials operate may be felt by anyone regardless of gender. She is a capable young person who got into politics for the right reasons and is now having her eyes opened to the realities of partisanship, special interests, and seniority. All of this leaves her with her hands tied to such an extent that even accomplishing something as inconsequential as naming a street in her riding is complicated.

Although protocol would dictate non-communication outside of the formal meetings, the women do form bonds with one another, discussing tangential matters of relationships, parenting, and their chosen careers. Given all the interference built-in to the system and coming from the (mostly) men inside and outside the negotiation room, I would like to see the alternate universe version of this story in which just Félixe, Emily, and President Richard sit down and sort everything out among themselves.

It might look something like this:

AFF Review: Two Lovers and a Bear

Take note, Leo – Two Lovers and a Bear goes to show you can make a film where everyone looks cold most of the time and not make a big deal about it.

The latest feature from Canadian Oscar nominee Kim Nguyen (Rebelle) is not quite as outdoorsy as The Revenant, but does provide a rather uncompromising look at beauty and challenges of life in Canada’s Far North and love in the aftermath of trauma.

Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan portray Lucy and Roman, a couple living in a fly-in community in Nunavut.The central conflict in their relationship at the film’s outset is their need to each escape personal traumas. While Lucy plans to move south and away from the abuser who haunts her, Roman moved north to flee an abusive father and is very reluctant to go “back there.”

However, it is the empathy they feel from their shared experience of trauma that enables them to pull together and support one another amid the ripple-effects of their abuse – paranoia and alcoholism among them.

Tatiana Maslany and Dane DeHaan snowmobile in Two Lovers and a BearAt various points, it’s a grim relationship drama, a road movie with a few laughs, and a horror film. There’s also a bit of magical realism thrown in for good measure. While some may find the film’s tonal shifts off-putting, they are a reflection both of life and of the story’s Arctic setting.

People naturally find humour amid tragedy. Emotionally, we can walk and chew gum at the same time, which is why we see Lucy and Roman on the verge of collapse and planning for a future together. Similarly, the North is simultaneously beautiful and bleak. We are treated to vistas of tundra and Aurora Borealis alongside shots of the characters riding their snowmobiles through a snow-covered garbage dump. And while there is comfort in the solitude of the barren landscape, there is also danger in the isolation.

Dane DeHaan and Tatiana Maslany in Two Lovers and a Bear
With minimal scoring or other music, quietness conveys isolation and realism. The perceived tranquility of the setting makes any noise feel like an intrusion. It is the sound of loud engines – from snowmobiles, cars, and airplanes – that most often cuts through the silence and through a southern audience’s romanticized idea of the North as a land of sled dogs and snow shoes.

The quiet of the external environment extends to the interior scenes, as well. In the third act, horror movie-style silence builds anxiety leading to the film’s climax. And the sex scenes lack music, which is rare enough in film that watching them feels more like an invasion of privacy than is typical.

Lucy and Roman, too, display moments of silence contrasted with loud emotional outbursts. Maslany’s ability to convey more with her face than many actors can with pages of dialogue is on full display when Lucy retreats into her own mind while the camera lingers on her face. Similarly, Roman is at times withdrawn from Lucy, but they each urge the other to communicate. Both actors excel at balancing their characters’ darkness with moments of levity.

While these various juxtapositions (of tone, scenery, and sound) may feel awkward at times, such is life, and somehow even a talking polar bear don’t undermine the realism of this tragic love story.

2016 Atlantic Film Festival Picks

With what felt like the blink of an eye, September is upon us once again – the season of decorative gourdsbouquets of newly sharpened pencils and, for East Coast filmgoers, the Atlantic Film Festival.

For seven days, I will be spending more time at Cineplex Park Lane* than I will in my own home. Here are a few reasons why:

Two Lovers and a Bear and The Other Half

It is astounding that Tatiana Maslany finds the energy to work during Orphan Black‘s hiatus given the monumental task she’s pulling off on that series. (In the most recent season, she appeared as 8 of the 11 clones she has portrayed on screen thus far.) So, the fact that last year she worked on two films during the break would be unbelievable if it weren’t true. And the films she’s choosing in her downtime are not light fare. Two Lovers and a Bear finds Maslany and Dane Dehaan living in a remote northern community. In The Other Half, Maslany and her real-life partner Tom Cullen play Emily and Nickie, who fall in love amid their personal challenges with grief and bipolar disorder.

Tatiana Maslany in Two Lovers and a Bear and The Other Half

Chicken People

Once you watch the trailer for Chicken People, I think you’ll agree that my attendance at this screening requires no further explanation:

Continue reading “2016 Atlantic Film Festival Picks”

Minister of Official Languages requires dictionary

If you live in Canada, you’re likely all too familiar with Vince Li because he committed one of the more memorably heinous homicides in the country’s recent history when he decapitated Tim McLean onboard a Greyhound bus.  Li has schizophrenia and, as a result, was deemed not criminally responsible for his actions.  Since then, he has been treated at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre in Manitoba.  Now, seven years later, Li’s doctors are recommending he be transferred, first to a locked medical ward in Winnipeg and eventually to a high-security group home with access to short-term day passes.

In light of the news about Li, Manitoba MP and Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages Shelly Glover gave an interview yesterday with Carol Off on CBC Radio’s As It Happens.  You can and should listen to the full interview.

Be warned: Like a lot of interviews with politicians, the back-and-forth is what I imagine cognitive dissonance feels like.

Glover’s remarks are the latest rage-inducing example of a Conservative Member of Parliament eschewing scientific evidence in favour of anecdotes and personal opinions when defending government policy.  (In this instance, I believe Glover refers to Bill C-14, the Not Criminally Responsible Reform Act, which came into force in July 2014).  This is not new, nor are the issues of fear-mongering and stigmatizing mental illness.

However, in her conversation with Off, Glover takes the matter (down) to a whole other level by seemingly not even knowing the definition of the word “anecdotal.”

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Off asks Glover to explain why she believes individuals like Li — those who have committed acts of extreme violence, been judged not criminally responsible and, following treatment, deemed a low risk to reoffend — should be regarded as a risk to the public regardless of the opinions of medical professionals and criminal review boards.

“We’ve had this before,” Glover responds, citing the case of Robert Chaulk and Francis Morissette, two teenagers who were deemed not criminally responsible for a murder they committed together in 1985.  Chaulk was released after treatment and later, in 1999, killed two people.

Off points out that this case is anecdotal and presents Glover with statistics about the remarkably low (almost 0%) rate of recidivism among those who have been hospitalized for violent crimes for which they were deemed not criminally responsible:

Off:  Those are the statistics.  I know that as a police officer, you have some stories, some observations, but does it not matter that there are actually some statistics here?

Glover:  Well, first and foremost, nothing I said about that case is anecdotal at all.  It is fact.  You can look it up.

Lisa (yelling at the radio):  Everything you just said about that case is anecdotal!  Help me out here, Carol.

Off:  No, I just mean that’s an anecdote.  I’m not saying it’s not true.  I’m just saying it’s one particular incident.

Lisa:  Thanks, Carol.  You handled that much more calmly than I would have done.

Glover:  But there are several of those, just to be very clear.  And I think you may have the stats that the doctor’s presented maybe a little bit off because most people who actually go to prison are not recidivists.  […]  I’ve seen the cases where they get out with that designation and they kill again.

Lisa:  This Cabinet Minister doesn’t understand what an anecdote is!  How can we possibly expect her to analyze statistics?!

The answer is, we can’t, and that is a sad state of affairs.  The next federal election can’t come soon enough.  Let’s not screw this up, Canada.

AFF Review: The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho)

The Way He Looks, a sweet coming of age film out of Brazil, was a highlight of the Atlantic Film Festival for me.  It tells the story of Leo (Ghilherme Lobo), his friendship and eventual romance with a new student and its effect on his relationship with his devoted best friend, Giovana (Tess Amorim).

As Jay Weisberg points out, the film doesn’t deviate much from the formula for a teen romance, but because it’s about a same-sex relationship, following the formula is significant.  So many gay and lesbian coming out/first love stories turn dark, it’s nice to see one where gay panic and suicide take a back seat without ignoring homophobic bullying.

Ghilherme Lobo & Fabio Audi in The Way He Looks

Blind since birth, Leo is desperate to assert his independence, particularly from his overprotective parents.  He convinces them he’s capable of being at home alone for a few hours after school and goes on to express an interest in international student exchange programs. Giovana, who is also protective of Leo, does not understand his sudden desire to leave home and is hurt when he doesn’t appear to consider the ramifications such a move would have on their friendship.

The arrival of Gabriel (Fabio Auci), a new student who accompanies Leo and Giovana on their daily walk home, further tests their friendship when he and Leo begin spending time one-on-one as a result of a class project.  Giovana, accustomed to having Leo’s undivided attention, does not take kindly to being left out and responds by giving Leo the cold shoulder.

Fortunately, the triangle is not complicated by having Giovana pine after either boy.  In that way, the story does deviate somewhat from the expected formula.  In the opening scene, Leo and Giovana’s poolside conversation centres around Leo’s “never been kissed” status.  Others might not share my reading of the scene, but I did not glean from Amorim’s performance that Giovana wants to be Leo’s first kiss.  While she shows minor romantic interest in Gabriel (with those curls, who could blame her?), her arc focuses on her platonic loyalty to Leo.

The film is not heavy-handed in its presentation of Leo’s blindness; it’s no pity party.  Though he is bullied, Leo is portrayed as capable and confident in spite of being coddled.  That confidence only grows when he is able to assert his sexuality.

The Way He Looks is written and directed by Daniel Ribeiro.  The film won the Teddy Award at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival, as well as Best Feature awards at several gay & lesbian film festivals.

AFF Review: My Old Lady

My Old Lady played to a sold out crowd at the Atlantic Film Festival.  Based on the cast and trailer, I went in with fairly high expectations, which were not entirely met.  Unable to strike a balance between the comic and tragic, the film fails to establish a clear tone as evidenced by enthusiastic laughter from some in the audience while others (like myself) wondered what was so funny.
Kevin Kline in My Old Lady Certainly the set-up has comic potential. Mathias “Jim” Gold (Kevin Kline) arrives in Paris penniless and planning to sell the apartment he inherited from his father only to find there is someone living there.  He learns from British ex-pat Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) that thanks to a French real estate contract called a viager, she (the previous owner) is entitled to live in the apartment until her death.  Oh, and he also has to pay her a monthly fee.  At the ripe age of 92, Mathilde is in excellent health with no plans to croak in the near future.  Her daughter, Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas), lives with her and immediately butts heads with Mathias, so of course they’re going to fall in love.

The premise shifts ungracefully from “stereotypical American jerk goes abroad” to “middle aged man copes with abandonment issues by drinking too much wine and acting like a jerk.”  Mathias’ interactions with the Girards and his means of scraping together a few thousand Euros provide a few light laughs in the first act, but when Mathias uncovers hidden details of his father’s life in Paris, the film becomes more serious.  He opens up about his unhappy childhood, depression, failed marriages, and alcoholism.  His drunken antics and outbursts might be funny if they weren’t so desperate.

The film’s failings aren’t to be attributed to its actors.  Kline and Scott Thomas both give nuanced performances and nobody can play a quick-witted senior citizen quite like Dame Smith.  The trio adeptly navigates the film’s tonal shift even if the audience fails to do so.

My Old Lady is written and directed by Israel Horovitz.