Friday, 5 October 2018

What They Had (2018 EIFF 5)

Family dramas set at Christmas rarely excel, but Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had is an exception, coming in among my top five films at the 2018 EIFF. It will be released later this month.

Hilary Swank stars as Bridget, who flies back home to Chicago (from California) to help her brother, Nicky (Michael Shannon), after her mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner), wanders out into the snow late on Christmas Eve, wearing only her nightgown. Ruth has Alzheimer’s and Nicky is convinced she should be in a nursing home, but his father, Burt (Robert Forster), is in denial about the severity of Ruth’s condition and isn’t ready to have his wife move out. Nicky wants Bridget to help him convince Burt that it’s necessary, but Bridget isn’t sure it’s the only way forward.

At the core of What They Had is a sense that all of the characters are as lost as Ruth when it comes to understanding their relationships with each other (and, in the case of Bridget and Nicky, with the people in their own lives). Bridget is the focus of our attention and we learn that part of her reluctance to push her father is a history of doing whatever her father tells her (including getting married to a man she may not have loved). Nicky, on the other hand, is as stubborn as his father and has had a very different kind of relationship with Burt, which doesn’t help him in this situation. Bridget is also distracted by misgivings about her marriage and about her daughter, Emma (Taissa Farmiga), who has lied about her college registration. This short Christmas visit is so full of conflict and mixed emotions for the whole family that Christmas itself is almost forgotten.

What They Had is a quiet unsentimental drama, with moments of wry humour, that feels real and gives us characters with lots of depth, all of whom have our sympathy. It’s a great screenplay and solid direction - hard to believe this is Chomko’s first film. The acting is outstanding by all concerned and the cinematography and score are exactly right. If the film has a flaw it’s that it feels a little too neat in its resolutions, though there are surprises.

I am giving What They Had somewhere between ***+ and ****. My mug is up.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Giant Little Ones (2018 EIFF 4)

One of the best surprises of the 2018 EIFF is this Canadian indie gem, written and directed by Keith Behrman. Set in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario (though it could be anywhere in North America), Giant Little Ones is a marvellous unsensationalized study of teenage sexuality. I’m not a huge fan of films about teenagers, but this film’s unique characters won me over. In my opinion, Giant Little Ones is just as good, or better, as last year’s critical indie hit, Call Me By Your Name

Franky (Josh Wiggins) is your average likeable 16-year-old. He’s very angry at his father, Ray (Kyle MacLachlan) for leaving his mother, Carly (Maria Bello) for a man, but otherwise Franky is doing just fine. He’s part of the swim team, along with his lifelong best friend, Ballas (Darren Mann), he has a trans friend called Mouse (Niamh Wilson) and he has a girlfriend, Cil (Hailey Little), who wants both of them to lose their virginity on his 17th birthday. Life is good. 

But Franky’s 17th birthday party doesn’t go as planned. Something happens between Franky and Ballas that will cause Ballas to end their friendship and destroy Franky’s reputation in school. Only Mouse and Ballas’s sister, Natasha (Taylor Hickson), stand by Franky as his life takes a dark turn (though it’s not as dark a turn as the one other characters are facing, or have faced).

Giant Little Ones presents a fascinating glimpse into how teenagers today struggle with their sexual and gender identities. Without ever being didactic, the film explores all the issues from many different angles in an honest and refreshing way, though the overall situation seems a little improbable. The acting is outstanding by all concerned (Canadian actor Peter Outerbridge is also on hand, as Ballas’s father), but especially by the teenagers, with Wiggins being entirely convincing and always sympathetic. The writing is natural and nuanced, and the cinematography and score are more than good enough. 

Giant Little Ones doesn’t feel like a small Canadian indie film made by an unknown filmmaker. That is meant to be a compliment, but it also highlight’s the film’s most noticeable flaw: everyone looks a little too nice and there’s a bit of a Hollywood feel to the story’s ending. My only other complaint is the lack of character development for some of the lesser characters, but that’s a lot to ask for and Franky’s character development is terrific. So Giant Little Ones gets somewhere between ***+ and **** and will almost certainly be among my five favourite films at the 2018 EIFF. My mug is up. Write down the title for future reference.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Silent Revolution (2018 EIFF 3)

My favourite film of the 2018 EIFF (so far - I still have four films to watch) is The Silent Revolution (German: Das Schweigende Klassenzimmer), a German film written and directed by Lars Kraume, based on the book by Dietrich Garstka, which is based on true events.

Set near East Berlin in 1956, The Silent Revolution shows what happens when a twelfth-grade classroom learns, through unofficial channels, about the Hungarian Uprising (against the Soviet occupation). Kurt (Tom Gramenz) and Theo (Leonard Scheicher) are best friends who use the visit of a grandfather’s grave in West Berlin to sneak into a theatre. There they see a news report of events in Hungary, which they share with their classmates. Kurt suggests a two-minute silence in memory of those who were killed in the Uprising and the majority of the class agrees. But their teacher is not impressed. Neither is the principal (Forian Lukas), but he wisely decides to keep the matter quiet. Unfortunately, word spreads and soon the school board (represented by Frau Kessler, played by Jördis Triebel) and the Minister of Education (Burghart Klaußner) are involved, threatening to expel the students if they don’t say who started this ‘counter-revolution’.

In the meantime, we catch a glimpse into the home life of three of the students: Kurt, Theo and Erik (Jonas Dassler). Erik didn’t want to participate in the silence and is the one who initially tells the teacher what it’s about, precipitating the madness that follows. In all three stories, we will discover that family secrets have been kept from the boys. 

The Silent Revolution is a brilliantly-structured and incredibly intense examination of life in an authoritarian state that demands 100% loyalty and obedience from its citizens (i.e. where no one is allowed to voice an opinion that counters the official position). Unfortunately, such stories remain all-too-relevant in our time of fake news, kneeling football players and the labelling of those who question the “official” version of events as conspiracy theorists. The film also provides a nuanced look into how socialism, communism, capitalism and fascism were viewed by people in the early days of the Cold War. 

I have mentioned only a few key actors in a large ensemble cast that is universally excellent. The writing and direction are intelligent and tight, creating just the right notes of dramatic tension (some critics will no doubt see too much melodrama, but I found it entirely acceptable). The cinematography and score are outstanding, with a beautiful period feel. 

The Silent Revolution is a riveting tale of a minor but critical event. Having experienced something at least marginally similar when I was in grade seven, I was holding my breath from the opening minutes. An easy **** and a guaranteed place in my top fifteen films of the year. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Shoplifters (2018 EIFF 2)

I’ve already watched fourteen films at the 2018 EIFF, with six more to go. Almost half of those I’ve watched were directed by women, including three of my four favourite films (impressive!). It’s an excellent sign. 

Probably the most prestigious film at this year’s EIFF is Shoplifters, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. My expectations were understandably a little high and that may be why I didn’t give this generally brilliant Japanese film the four stars most critics think it deserves.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Shoplifters tells the story of a poor family living in a small bungalow somewhere in Tokyo, a bungalow surrounded by apartment buildings and somehow providing a perfect hiding place for a family with things to hide. Among the things the family has to hide are their regular shoplifting trips, but the film focuses on their attempts to hide the newest addition to the family: Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl who was found, cold and hungry on the street, by Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son, Shota (Kairi Jō) after one of their shoplifting excursions. Osaka’s partner, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) isn’t too thrilled to have another mouth to feed but eventually grows close to Yuri. Both parents work part time, while the grandmother (Kirin Kiki) adds supports through her late husband’s pension and the teenage Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) makes money at a kind of strip shop. Somehow the family gets by, eating what look like tasty meals and enjoying regular happy times. Until the family’s secrets start to unravel.

Shoplifters is a wonderful understated film, full of top-notch natural acting that makes the story feel real and writing that feels authentic and has a strong humanist message. That all sounds like the masterpiece critics are claiming the film to be, and maybe a second viewing would make it a favourite of mine as well, but the bottom line for me is that I didn’t find it engaging enough to award it four stars. So Shoplifters gets only a solid ***+. My mug is up.

Monday, 1 October 2018

The Grizzlies (2018 EIFF 1)

You can tell my life is way too busy when an entire month goes by without a film review. October will probably be just as busy, but look for one review every day for most of the month because I’m back at the Edmonton International Film Festival (EIFF).

The EIFF gets off to its best start ever (for me) in 2018, with an opening film that received a standing ovation (very rare at the EIFF). The Grizzlies, directed by Miranda de Pencier (who is Canadian) and written by Moira Walley-Beckett and Graham Yost, was filmed in Canada’s far far north: Kugluktuk, on the Arctic coast of Nunavut. Based on a true story, The Grizzlies shows what happened some 15-20 years ago when a naive young high school teacher came into this small community, which is suffering from teenage suicides and far too much drugs and alcohol. 

Russ Sheppard (played by Ben Schnetzer) has no idea what he’s getting into, and when one of his students slugs him during his first class, and almost all the rest walk out, he could be forgiven for hopping on the next plane. But instead he endures and finds a way to get some of his students excited about life again by introducing them to lacrosse and offering them a chance to maybe fly to Toronto to play in a national tournament. But this turns out to be an incredibly challenging dream, with Shepparrd facing opposition not only from parents but from the town council (led by Janace, who is played by Tantoo Cardinal). Fortunately, Sheppard gets support from some enterprising students (like Miranda, played by Emerald MacDonald) and a colleague friend (Mike, played by Will Sasso).

The Grizzlies was originally supposed to focus more on Sheppard’s experiences in Kugluktuk, but de Pencier wisely chose to focus her attention on the students and townspeople of Kugluktuk instead. Even as it was, my biggest complaint about The Grizzlies was the way it shows how a white man came into this Inuit community and gave them hope through sports. This would have been much worse if the film didn’t try so hard to say it was really the students who made the difference and not their teacher, who was often feeling very hopeless. 

The Grizzlies is a beautiful film, featuring lots of good acting and generally top-notch writing (there was one scene that made me cringe because it felt so unnaturally contrived). Most important, The Grizzlies provides us with an honest glimpse into the lives and struggles of the Inuit people of northern Canada, with a very strong comment on the role of residential schools in the difficulties facing young people in Kugluktuk today. I know it was an honest glimpse because the Q&A after the film featured members of the community who were represented in the film (along with the director, one of the actors and the real Russ Sheppard) and they told us the film was spot-on in its depiction of life in Kugluktuk.

The Grizzlies is an outstanding opening film and gets a solid ***+ heading toward ****. My mug is up and I encourage all readers to write the name of the film down so you don’t miss it when it gets released in the spring of 2019.