Call Me By Your Name

Coming to FIN after rave reviews at Sundance and Berlinale earlier this year, and still hot from its Canadian premiere at TIFF, Call Me By Your Name is one of the festival's most buzz-worthy attractions. Even with the hype, the film does not disappoint. Coming just a year after the theatrical release of director Luca Guadagnino's underappreciated, but thrilling A Bigger Splash, this film sees Guadagino returning to film in his home country; a title at the beginning of the film reveals its setting "Somewhere in Northern Italy". A sun-soaked romance set in 1983, the film follows the relationship between Elio, a 17 year-old musical prodigy, and the 24 year-old understudy of his father.

 
 Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) meet for the first time.

Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) meet for the first time.

 

The pair are played, respectively, by up-and-comer Timothée Chalamet and Hollywood star Armie Hammer. The two  are both revelations. Anyone who caught last year's underseen Miss Stevens has seen Chalamet's acting chops at work. Here, he seamlessly navigates the difficult waters of portraying a character who's moody pretentiousness derives from an underlying insecurity. Hammer, who's been appearing on-screen as a blandly underwritten big, handsome blond in films like The Social NetworkThe Lone Ranger, and The Man From Uncle, gets a chance to play that role again here, but with a legitimate character arc. After appearing against type as an arrogant, bearded criminal in a 1970s Boston warehouse in Free Fire earlier this year, Hammer seems to be finally breaking through to display a talent he hasn't been able to elsewhere. His character, Oliver, is a bit pretentious (everyone is in the bourgeois home featured in the film), but also shy. His intellectual insecurity is a little less obvious than Elio's, but there nonetheless. Guadagnino's camera fawns over Hammer's body, a movie star physicality rarely afforded in an erotic sense to male performers other than Channing Tatum. In one scene, a bitter, skinny Elio essentially plays waterboy to Oliver's dominating athleticism in a volleyball match. In another, Oliver is unimpressed by Elio's arrogant refusal to play a Bach number as originally written. They are not quite opposites, but seem to perceive themselves as lacking what the other possesses.

Despite its American stars, the film has a European sensibility. Guadagnino's direction gives the script by James Ivory (The Remains of the Day, Howard's End) space to breath. The leisurely pace of its 132-minute run-time in the absence of obviously propulsive plotting may feel slow near the beginning, but it allows the characters time for a sincere growth, feeling their way through an initially thorny mismatching, to eventually only feel whole together. Without spoiling anything, the final act is perhaps the highlight of the film, and wholly dependent on the chemistry achieved in what preceded it; Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio's father triumphs with a heartfelt monologue that manages to convey an honest sentimentality rather than triteness, and the final shot of Chalamet in close-up is the best moment in his performance. If I misled you into thinking the pacing may be a bore, allow me to correct myself - it also gives us awhile longer to bask in the beauty of the Italian, creating a real sense of the setting.

 
 Oliver (Hammer) attempts to relieve some tension (Chalamet).

Oliver (Hammer) attempts to relieve some tension (Chalamet).

 

Although the great costume design is somewhat distinctly 1980s, the soundtrack of the film, ranging from classical, to The Psychedelic Furs (check out Armie's dance moves!), to Sufjan Stevens, creates a sense of timelessness. Out of the particularities of the setting grows a passion beyond time and space. Don't let the intellectual conversations of the characters mislead you into thinking the film is meant for the head, rather than the heart. It's formal beauty feels foreign, but its intimate details are deeply human. An erotic and emotional masterpiece, you will not want to miss it.

Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.

Happy End

As anyone who has seen a Michael Haneke film may suspect, the title Happy End is an ironic one. Happiness is an emotion seldom glimpsed in Haneke's oeuvre. His first film, 1989's The Seventh Continent, chronicled the destructive undoing of a middle class family, concluding with their suicide. His 2005 film Caché depicted the psychological breakdown of an upperclass man in France as he is confronted with anonymous video tapes and has to reflect on the horrors he inflicted on his briefly adopted Algerian brother as a child. His last film, 2012's Best Foreign Film winner and Best Picture nominee at the Oscar, Amour, was the closest the filmmaker has come to romance. It depicts an elderly man, unable to handle his wife's illness, as their bodies betray them. Fun stuff. Happy End could either be seen as a pointless rehashing or a brilliant culmination of themes present throughout Haneke's career. Austria apparently believes the latter, choosing it as their submission to this year's Oscars. I'm inclined to agree.

The film opens with a series of Snapchat-like videos, with text commentary by the person holding the camera(phone). This person is 13 year-old Eve Laurent, and these are, hopefully, not the kind of videos you would expect to see on a barely-teenaged girl's phone. At first, she voyeuristically films her mom's boring routine, predicting the steps as they happen. Then she gives her mom's pills to her hamster. It dies. Then she gives too many pills to her mom.

 
 Fantine Harduin as Eve Laurent.

Fantine Harduin as Eve Laurent.

 

With her mom hospitalized, Eve joins her father and his family, a depressed bourgeoisie quartet made up of Eve, grandfather Georges (Amour's Jean-Louis Trintignant), his daughter Anne (Things to Come's Isabelle Huppert), her son Pierre (Victoria's Franz Rogowski), and Eve's father Thomas (Amelie's Mathieu Kassovitz). We soon learn her relatives may be in an even worse place than she is.  Georges' mind is leaving him, along with his will to live. Thomas has a new wife now, but is still working out some kinks. Anne is struggling to handle an accidental workplace fatality which happened on Pierre's watch, while Pierre just can't stop messing everything up.

The plot synopsis listed on IMDb and Wikipedia describes the film as "A drama about a family set in Calais with the European refugee crisis as the backdrop." While this is basically true, it is rather misleading. Refugees barely factor into the narrative, appearing only briefly and without any lines. Haneke's real target, as usual, is the cruelty and disillusionment of the upper classes. These characters are always the subject of Haneke's films; he even recycles variations of the names Georges and Anne, as though the protagonists of each of his films are interchangeable. This is not because he is interested in the glamour of the upper class, but quite the opposite. You could say his films' messages tend towards "money can't buy you love" cliches, but that is an oversimplification. The films don't make you envy the characters' wealth, but it doesn't sound much better to be the working class subjected to their cruelty. Haneke is mostly interested in analyzing the mental and physical tolls of upper class isolation, not just from the lower classes, but from each other. His characters possess immense amounts of self-absorption matched only by their ability to rationalize the harm they inflict. They just keep acting as they do until they realize how sad and bad they are. Then, they die.

 
 The "happy" family.

The "happy" family.

 

If one isn't turned off by all of this misery, there is a dark humor present in Happy End. Hard emphasis on dark. In one scene, Pierre performs Sia's hit single "Chandelier" in a karoake bar. He is break-dancing in a drunken stupor without any indication of pleasure. It's actually very sad scene, but one can't help but giggle at the absurdity. Jean-Louis Trintignant is brilliant as Georges, alternating between dementia and cold calculation. The interactions between 13 year-old Eve and the elderly Georges are some of the best scenes. Finally, members of this family are making a connection. Unfortunately, they're bonding over their inability to see the value of life.

Haneke is as aesthetically austere as his characters are with their emotions. He uses no musical scores, and often shoots scenes from the perspective of unseen characters or from a distance without dialogue, so that narrative gaps must be filled in by the viewer. The difficulty of these films makes repeat viewings beneficial; a first glance is rarely enough to catch all of the substance. Take your first chance to check out the film at FIN Festival next Wednesday, September 20th at 9:30pm.

Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.

Geek Girls

It's not easy being geeky. The term "geek" itself has primarily been used as an insult, a generic epithet hurled at anyone who doesn't fit in. It's 2017, though, and geeks are fighting back. Superhero movies dominate the box office, Star Wars is back in action, and video games are more popular than ever. "Geek" and "nerd" are more often used to self-identify as a passionate connoisseur of particular pop culture phenomena, then as a verbal weapon. What Gina Hara's new documentary Geek Girls argues, though, is that even as geek culture strengthens, it shuts people out based on difference. Mainly, women.

In the globe-trotting doc, Hara interviews subjects as diverse as Japanese and Canadian cosplayers, professional gamers, creators of "male objectifying" sports manga, NASA scientists, and Black Girls Nerds creator Jamie Broadnax. Despite the diverse areas of interest of the individuals featured, they are united by a few things; first, their gender, and second, the abuse directed at them because of their gender. These women are not only excluded from much of geek culture, but actively targeted with hate mail, sexist remarks, and threats of sexual violence.

 
 Geek girls of the world, unite!

Geek girls of the world, unite!

 

In the aftermath of Gamergate (a unified outpouring of misogynistic hate from the vilest, but unfortunately enormous section of the gaming community), even speaking publicly about sexist encounters as a geek girl can be risky. Hara reveals that many subjects for interviews would drop out at the last minute out of fear. Thus, the film must depend on a few dedicated subjects for its talking head interviews. From these conversations emerges not only an account of the abuses endured within the culture, but a call to action to form new bonds within the community and fight back. Although the conversation is mostly limited to the experience of cis women, the mission of the subjects is an intersectional one, seeking to include geeks of any gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.

Like many social documentaries, there is no groundbreaking filmmaking in Geek Girls' form, and even under 90 minutes there are some lulls in the endless interviews and narration. Still, it fulfills its intentions as an account of sexism and a manifesto for a more inclusive nerd culture. If it encourages some more women to proudly get their geek on, then it has succeeded.

Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.

A Better Man

(Dir. Attiya Khan & Lawrence Jackman, 2017)

Twenty-two years after escaping the man she thought would kill her, Attiya Khan invited Steve (understandably no last name given) into the public venue of film to talk about his years of violence. A Better Man's approach to the subject of abuse and healing is a unique one in that it welcomes the perpetrator onto its platform. This invitation might make for some initial bristling among viewers. Should we care to watch how sorry Steve is now, on camera? The answer to this is irrelevant. Of course, this is Khan's story to tell in the way she deems best. She introduces us to Steve by informing us his participation is in the hope that even one person might avoid violence because of it. In this we see that much of the film is addressed to a specific portion of its audience, others like Steve.

 
 Director Attiya Khan has questions for Steve in their first sit-down conversation after 22 years.

Director Attiya Khan has questions for Steve in their first sit-down conversation after 22 years.

 

What one might interpret as hand-holding becomes a practical approach in this context. Khan often nods patiently when Steve fails to remember his actions and uses evasive language. “I did this,” becomes, “this happened,” and “abuse” becomes “acting out”. Her position in the film is an incredibly difficult one. We see it in her expressions, which are often pained or tense in anticipation. Yet Khan's constant composure and optimism throughout these conversations are infectious. We watch as progress is made, not in the form of Steve's apologies but in his deferral to Attiya as he refuses to define, when asked, what progress or justice means here. It may seem to be the bare minimum to some, but it's a significant step for others and to see it represented is a handy thing.

Whatever abuse Steve endured before meeting Attiya is hinted at but not explored. Whether this is because of Steve's reticence or a directorial decision is unclear, but by not digging into other aspects of Steve's character and background, the film accomplishes two things: the on-screen discussion stays focused on his actions and their effects and, by remaining vague, he may be a more accessible stand-in for others who inflict abuse. A Better Man has a mission, one that's in keeping with the work Khan presently does in Toronto to help those in similar situations. She makes of her story a generous and hopeful exploration of what a healing process could look like on both sides.

Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup

Black Cop

It's a tale of sound and fury, but it's not told by an idiot, and it doesn't signify nothing. The story is divided into three parts, each introduced with a musical quotation. The first is from R&B legend Marvin Gaye, the second from hip-hop group Main Source, the third from Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. The film opens with real-life footage of Black Lives Matter protests of racially motivated police brutality and killing, set to a roaring blues soundtrack that will send a shiver up your spine. Then, we enter the specific world of our protagonist, a similar protest in Nova Scotia. This isn't about the protester, though. It's about the protested. Well, it's more complicated than that.

 
 Ronnie Rowe stares down protesters as the titular black cop.

Ronnie Rowe stares down protesters as the titular black cop.

 

Perhaps another of the film's rap references will help; KRS-One's righteous "Black cop, black cop, looking for your people when you walking down the block," from his song which shares the film's title. Cory Bowles' debut feature, expanded from his short film of the same name, focuses on the strange position occupied by its titular black cop (the character is never given any other name). The original short had a simple premise: we watch through the body cam of a black cop gone rogue, giving middle-to-upper-class white people the treatment people of colour are usually subjected to, while a radio host discusses the recent killing of a young black man. It's an interesting project, but it's difficult to form a deep take on such a complex subject in only eleven minutes. Bowles uses the expanded run-time in the Black Cop feature for the exact purpose of complicating things. The honest snapshot of a moment of racial tension and violence as narrated by a radio host may call to mind memories of Spike Lee's masterpiece Do the Right Thing.

Like I wrote earlier, the film is full of sound and fury. It's a maximalist work, with Bowles pulling out all the stops,. Among them: narration, fourth-wall breaking monologues, documentary-style interviews, a conversation between the protagonist and his doubled self. The black cop, played by Ronnie Rowe, gives us a running log of his thoughts, explaining, rationalizing, justifying his position on the force responsible for oppressing his race. Rowe's task in the role is no easy one, shifting between somber and satirical moments at the drop of a hat, balancing a calm cop with an outraged black man. Initially confident in his job and ideology, we watch as a series of events causes them to crumble. Eventually, we reach the premise of the original short. This time we get a montage of the misadventures cross-cut with the black cop dancing to a jazzy tune in an empty space. How are we to read this? An ironic Uncle Tom, referencing the shucking and jiving in the racist minstrel shows of the early 19th century? Is he the dancing devil of 1930's Hellbound Train, giving in to temptation and abusing his power? Or is he something else, not a reference to historical racial representation, but simply a man joyfully embracing his sadistic liberation?

 
Black Cop 2.jpg
 

Bowles doesn't give easy answers to questions like these, preferring to leave the discomfort and complexity of the material open. In a sense, it wears its politics on its sleeve, taking aim at more subjects than one can fit in a short review, but amidst all of the monologues it somehow avoids falling into simplistic didacticism. He's aware of characters' faults, but not judgmentally high-minded enough to distance the viewer from the material.  One of the white police officers in the station recites racist cliches about Muslims, claiming not to believe it, but just that he needs to entertain all sides of the debate. He's just the devil's advocate! That kind of bullshit racist rationalization isn't Bowles' game here. His approach is a more sincere humanism, an impressive willingness to grapple with the black cop's thorny position with an open mind. It manages to succeed as a morality play and a character study. Like any great work, different viewers will have their own takes. As the black cop in the film declares "My black is not your black." It is refreshing to have a film which confronts race as a non-monolithic issue head-on, especially when you are sitting in a theatre of mostly white audience members. 

Another significant choice is Bowles' decision to set the film in Nova Scotia. After a black person is killed by police in the United States, or any kind of racially motivated brutality, you hear the same responses. "Wow, America is so racist." "Thank God, I live in Canada." Black Cop doesn't let us off the hook. Is the political climate different? Sure. But racism exists in Canada, and specifically Nova Scotia, too. We need filmmakers like Bowles to put it on the big screen so we can't sweep it under the rug.

Lucky

After an acting career spanning more than six decades and a life lasting 91 years, Harry Dean Stanton died last week. Stanton was never much of a leading man; this is not a insult to his abilities, but a fact of consistency. Due as much to his own lack of interest as Hollywood's, Stanton appeared mostly in supporting roles, with notable exceptions, like his iconic role in Wim Wenders' 1984 Paris, Texas. As if intended as a farewell gift before parting ways, Lucky gives us a rare, final leading performance from Stanton.

 
 Harry Dean Stanton stars in the titular role.

Harry Dean Stanton stars in the titular role.

 

The film does not feel this way only because of the timing of Stanton's death, but also due to its subject matter. Stanton stars as Lucky, a man embarking on a confrontation with mortality in his small town desert home. Lucky's got his routine; he does yoga, gets dressed, goes to a diner for coffee and crosswords, then sees his friends at a bar at night. After a sudden fall leaves him shaken, a doctor informs Lucky that he's not ill, just old, and everybody's got to die sometime.

Filled with close-ups of the unique naturalism in Stanton's face and philosophical exchanges with the people populating the town, its a film fit for its star. It is directed by another character actor, John Carroll Lynch, and filled with supporting roles by other actors who have made long careers out of small parts; Ed Begley Jr, Beth Grant, Tom Skerritt, Ron Livingston. In one of the film's greatest touches, David Lynch plays a friend of Lucky's who's dealing with the emotional toll his tortoise's escape is having on him.

 
 Stanton chats with co-star David Lynch.

Stanton chats with co-star David Lynch.

 

It's difficult to quite put a finger on what works about the film's oddball spiritualism. It's not filled with directorial flourishes from first-timer Lynch (John Carroll, not David), which could have made the rambling quirky existentialism of the script by similar first-timers Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks fall into a grating pretentiousness. What really holds the film together is this cast of people who are most definitely not first-timers, led by Harry Dean Stanton's hipster cowboy, a stoic John Wayne for the crowd that would rather watch David Lynch than John Ford.

The film plays today, Monday, September 18th, at FIN: AIFF at 3:30pm.

Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.

The Crescent

When you live in a region where all the most prominent exports are ocean-related — and that includes movies — it's a thrilling feeling to have it represented in a new light. For Nova Scotians, this happened last year with the backroad charms of Weirdos and the grimy formalist empathy of Werewolf. This year, Black Cop is shaking up the idea of Canadian exceptionalism and proving that we're not some pastoral peninsula removed from the worries of the world. So, in case you were wondering, Seth A. Smith's new atmospheric Atlantic Canada horror flick, The Crescent, is keeping some very good company.

Disconsolate and detached after her husband's funeral, Beth (Danika Vandersteen) takes her son, Lowen (Woodrow Graves), to a remote family cottage on the south shore of Nova Scotia. "The beach?" I hear you say, "You promised something we hadn't seen before!" I assure you, you haven't. This isn't the welcoming and familiar shoreline of our typical tourism-video-adjacent regional cinema. A desaturated palette renders the sky, sand, and sea in varying shades of the same grey-blue, their bleakness enhanced by a stark contrast with the vibrancy of the paints we often see Beth using. Save for a particularly gorgeous drone shot, the framing and editing of outdoor scenes keep the geography disoriented and isolating. It's not perfectly apt to call The Crescent a "ghost story", since twists and turns wisely never quite make it clear what might be happening, but it's definitely the perfect location for one. The interiors are just as stunning: geometric and sterile, and with, seriously, the best windows. 

 
  The Crescent  may be shot in Nova Scotia, but you won't find it in a Doers & Dreamers guide any time soon.

The Crescent may be shot in Nova Scotia, but you won't find it in a Doers & Dreamers guide any time soon.

 

Vandersteen brings a kind of panicked exhaustion to her performance as Beth; it's a common trope for mothers in horror films, done as well here as anywhere else. For someone in her first-ever credited film role, she wouldn't be out of place in a big budget Hollywood thriller. The real spectacle is young Woodrow, whose talkative and curious energy brings life to most scenes. He spends at least a third of the runtime completely alone on screen, which can be a feat for even seasoned actors, let alone a toddler. He's the son of director Smith and producer Nancy Urich, to which Smith attributes the resulting naturalism of Lowen's scenes. In fact, working with screenwriter Darcy Spidle, the script evolved around common phrases that the miniature leading-man-to-be was already comfortable saying — an impressive achievement, considering how cohesive the final draft feels.

Bursting onto the screen with a bold title card, the film gets dreamier as it goes along. Consistently interesting artistic choices control the ambience, whether ratcheting up the tension with discordant score and piercing sound design or providing a brief but eerie respite via Beth's impressionistic paint splattering. Something psychological is certainly at play with the shifting aspect ratios and degrading film grain, but Smith is careful not to show his hand too early. As the film peaks there's even some B-movie slasher inspiration thrown in for good measure, complete with skin-crawling practical effects. The final product is a great mix of minimalism and genre influences that will please the diehards while still leaving enough to admire for those too spooked to sit still (read: me, certified wimp and The Crescent proponent).

Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.

Faces, Places (Visages, Villages)

"If we opened people up, we'd find places. If we opened me up, we'd find beaches."

So declares Agnès Varda in her autobiographical documentary The Beaches of Agnès. Released nine years ago, when Varda was 80 years old, Beaches seemed to be the final feature film from the French master of cinema, a memoir of her life, love, and art. As our great fortune has it, it was not. Varda is back once more, this time teaming up with French street artist JR, for the documentary Faces, Places, a title perfectly descriptive of the gifts her long career has given us. From the bourgeois couple in a small fishing village in La Pointe Court, to Corinne Marchard wandering the Parisian city streets in Cléo de 5 à 7, to Sandrine Bonnaire's glare of protest as she wanders the French countryside in Vagabond, to her portrait of her lover (filmmaker Jacques Demy) which takes him back to his childhood home in Jacqout de Nantes, Varda has always had a keen gift for intelligent visual storytelling which subtly links her protagonists with their environments.

 
 Varda and JR pose in front of one of their murals.

Varda and JR pose in front of one of their murals.

 

So, what better subject for her than this? Her and JR roam the country in his camera truck, taking peoples photographs, and blowing up the images to paste on buildings and ruins. Its a simple starting block, through which the pair create a tribute to the fading histories of the people who populate the humble land. On first glance, it may feel slight. Some people in the film are moved to see their image, like the last woman in an old mining town turned into a giant on her home as if she's a defender of the dying community. Others are embarrassed, like a shy waitress, annoyed at everyone who is now taking pictures of her pictures. Fill it in with short, silly bits, like JR pushing a wheelchair bound Varda through the Louvre in tribute to Godard's Band of Outsiders and Varda dancing and singing to "Ring My Bell" on the drive, and you have a fun little documentary.

 
Faces Places 2.jpg
 

And it is a fun little documentary. But it is also much more. Varda is sure to include scenes of herself visiting the eye doctor, as her sight, the greatest gift the filmmaker and photographer could lose, fades. Near the film's end, she also includes a visit to old friend and fellow filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who bails with a potentially cruel message. "You dirty rat. I liked you," she scowls to the camera, her heart broken. In another moment, one of her favourite images that they displayed immediately fades, washed away by the wind, water, and sand of the beach on which it was posted. 

This is how their mission and art works. They choose a piece to display, to try to preserve the history of a place's people, but even that effort will fade. It's also a passing of the torch, though, from the elder Varda, losing her sight, to the nimble young JR, just learning to take off his shades. It's not insignificant that Varda's first co-director is on what will likely be her last film. Hopefully, Varda can pass her wisdom on to him, and to us, to take the time to delight in and ruminate on the faces and places we encounter, no matter how ordinary their beauty. An artist can be like Godard, hermetically sealing himself into a self-absorbed world of art, or like Varda, using her art to form bonds with the world around her. Thank God for the latter.

Part of our AIFF 2017 Review Roundup.