Aida’s Secrets


Two brothers meet for the very first time.

(2016) Documentary (Music Box) Shep Shell, Izak Sagi, Aida Zasadsinska, Giora Sagi, Melanie Shell, Dr. Erik Somers, Alon Schwarz, Laurence Harris, Janice Rosen. Directed by Alon Schwarz and Shmaul Schwarz

 

The end of World War II found Europe in shambles. Millions of people were displaced, often their families scattered all over hell and gone. There are some parallels to the refugee crisis currently facing Europe and the Middle East.

Izak Sagi lived in Israel. As a young boy, he believed that his parents were his biological parents. When local kids taunt him by telling him that they are not, Izak confronts his parents who reluctantly admit that they aren’t. His biological mother is Aida, a beautiful blonde from Poland who now lived in Canada. Aida comes to visit and then returns several times afterwards. She is oddly reticent to tell Izak about his birth father whom she’ll only identify as a “good man.”

In 2013 when Izak is 67, he learns that he wasn’t an only child. It turns out that Aida had a son just ten months younger than Izak. His name is Shepsyl and he lives in Winnipeg (great choice!); he lived there with Aida’s ex-husband whom Shep (as he now calls himself) doesn’t have fond memories of – in fact, Greg had cut Shep completely out of his will when he died in 2008.

Izak is overjoyed to meet the brother he never knew he had; Shep is willing to meet but a little more cautious. Izak is a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy to begin with; Shep is a little bit more world-wary given his background. The two men have a joyful union at the Winnipeg Airport – I don’t know if “reunion” is the operative word since the two had been separated since Izak was three – but Izak is clearly over the moon and can’t stop calling Shep “brother.” It takes a little longer for Shep to warm up to Izak.

Still, the emotional reunions aren’t over yet. It turns out that Aida is still alive and at 89 years old living in a Montreal assisted living facility. Izak conducts Shep to the facility and for the first time in his memory, Shep has a mommy. He is hoping that Aida is happy to see him and she truly seems to be.

But there are some nagging questions and Aida isn’t very forthcoming about them. When asked directly, she claims she doesn’t remember or doesn’t wish to discuss the matter. Laurence Harris, the online genealogy researcher who helped Izak and his family find Shep, helps locate other relatives and friends of Aida who are equally vague. It seems that Aida has secrets that she’s not willing to part with, not even to set the hearts of her children to rest. However Laurence finds one more revelation that shocks both of the brothers.

Alon and Shmaul Schwarz are the nephews of Izak making their feature film debut and the story is so powerful and emotional that the somewhat prosaic style the brothers have in shooting the movie can be forgiving. I would have liked to have seen a more deft touch on the editing; it felt that certain scenes went on a bit too long, others felt rushed. At times that can be frustrating.

If you come to this film expecting every question to be answered neatly with a ribbon tied around it, you are going to be very disappointed. Aida died shortly after her first meeting with Shep – the film opens and concludes with footage from her funeral – and took with her to the grave the answers to many of the questions the two men really needed to know. Why did she seem to favor Izak over Shep? Why keep the brothers’ existence secret from each other but tell other family members who eventually spilled the beans? Who was the mysterious man in a photograph on a riverside beach that Aida identified as Izak’s father – but wasn’t her husband who appears in another photo on the same beach apparently taken on the same outing? Why did she and her husband divorce? Why was she so reluctant to talk about those events even though it would clearly ease the minds of her children to know these answers?

Some questions are never meant to be answered and the only people who can answer these questions are gone now. As frustrating as that is for the viewer, one can only imagine how frustrating it is for the two men who have to live the rest of their lives with those nagging questions hanging over their heads. However, they can take solace in knowing that their family circle has grown more than a little bit larger – and anyone will tell you that you can never have enough family love.

REASONS TO GO: The film is very powerful from an emotional standpoint. Izak and Shep are compelling subjects and very different men, understandably.
REASONS TO STAY: This feels very much like a missed opportunity.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie’s themes are pretty adult and there’s some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp is now a military base and off-limits to the public.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sky and Ground
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Jane

Cold Nights, Hot Salsa


Latin passion.

Latin passion.

(2015) Documentary (WDR Productions) Victor Contreras, Katia Morales, Eddie “Mambo King” Torres, Tito Ortos, Tamara Livolsi, Edson Vallon, Albert Torres, Billy Fajardo, Katie Marlow. Directed by Edwin Gailits

Some years ago as a rock critic, I did a cover story for the newspaper I worked for on the salsa scene locally. It was concentrated mostly in the Latin Quarter of the town but I wanted to show more than just what preconceptions of the scene might bring; I chose as the person through whose eyes my readers would enter the scene through was an affluent tech company administrator; he was third generation American, had graduated from Stanford and loved to go to the clubs on weekends and dance to the beat of the irresistible music that was played in his home the entire time he grew up. He was young, forward-thinking and often brought his non-Hispanic friends with them. Some went once and never returned but quite a few, he told me, came back almost every time he went dancing and some even on their own.

This film gives us a glimpse at why that happened to a very large extent. Salsa is a form of dance that is sensuous and requires virtually no instruction to become proficient in it. Salsa isn’t about formal moves so much as it is about passion; you either have it in you or you don’t and quite frankly, most of us do. I’ve heard it described as sex without getting naked, and that’s about as accurate a description as I’ve encountered.

An entire competitive salsa dancing scene has sprung up over the past decade or so with a world championship event being broadcast on ESPN. Victor Contreras and Katia Morales are two Canadians living in Montreal who met in a dance company and found a mutual love for salsa that brought them into a romantic relationship. The two became dance partners as well as boyfriend and girlfriend, and tried to hone their craft in a city which isn’t known for its Latin population, although there is a fair portion of Hispanics there.

With the help of teachers like Albert Torres and supporters like fellow dancers Billy Fajardo and Katie Marlow, who are semi-retired from competition and have become head judges for the World Salsa Championships, they hone their craft and eventually win the Canadian championship, earning them the right to compete at the World Championships.

The film follows the couple through their first international competition and through bitter disappointment at the 3rd Annual World Championship. Their relationship undergoes severe stress as they return home to lick their wounds and start over, ever-striving to improve until they are ready to tackle the 4th Annual World Championships in Orlando.

We see an awful lot of rehearsal, but the scenes from the competitions are the most compelling; we see the fluid movements, the almost erotic body positioning, the colorful costumes and the incredible interaction between partners; the rehearsal footage serves to put the finished routines in context as we get a sense of the work that goes in to perfecting these routines.

The trouble is that towards the end we see couple after couple at the championships and it all begins to blend together a little bit. There are a number of different divisions within the Championships and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what the differences were between them; some seemed to be more athletic and others more romantic. I would have liked a bit more explanation as to what these different divisions were and how the dancers were judged.

Like a lot of documentaries that take place in competitive environments, the dramatic tension comes from getting to know the participants and gaining a rooting interest in their success. Contreras and Morales are both engaging young people who clearly love to dance and just as clearly love each other, although at times the road is a bit rocky, romantically speaking. While Victor is a bit more outgoing, I found myself more focused on Katia not just because of her beauty but because she has a kind of genuineness that Victor occasionally doesn’t; at times he sounds like he’s reading a promo script rather than speaking from the heart, but that isn’t a bad thing. He’s more articulate in a lot of ways than his partner when he is speaking genuinely.

This is a short documentary, just under an hour long. It is just entering the festival circuit so expect to see it at your local film festival this fall and spring. Likely it will also find it’s way onto either TV broadcast or online streaming service or both; keep an eye out for it when it does.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the dance moves are incredible. Victor and Katia are engaging subjects.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the different dance routines begin to blend together. Could have used an explanation of the different divisions of competition and how the competitions work.
FAMILY VALUES: Some dance-based sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The filmmaker was inspired to pursue this as a documentary subject after a trip to Havana when he noticed during a walk back to his hotel after a night in the clubs how music was coming out of nearly every open doorway and he observed people dancing on their balconies and in their living rooms.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Turbo Kid

Gabrielle


The essence of joie de vivre.

The essence of joie de vivre.

(2013) Romance (eOne) Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, Alexandre Landry, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Vincent-Guillaume Otis, Benoit Gouin, Sebastien Ricard, Marie Gignac, Isabelle Vincent, Robert Charlebois, Veronique Beaudet, Bruce Dinsmore, Gregory Charles, Maxime Allard, Marc Primeau. Directed by Louise Archambault

Woman Power

Florida Film Festival 2014

Navigating through entering adulthood and independence isn’t easy, particularly when you have a number of complicated relationships. If you’re developmentally challenged, it is so much more challenging.

Gabrielle (Marion-Rivard) has Williams syndrome, a rare condition that creates learning difficulties but also an unusually cheerful demeanor and strong social and language skills (Marion-Rivard has the condition in real life). She lives in a group home in Montreal, supported by her sister Sophie (Desormeaux-Poulin) who takes her out shopping and for the occasional mani-pedi. Her mother (Vincent) has a very distant relationship with Gabrielle.

Gabrielle, as is not unusual for someone with her condition, smiles all the time but she has two particular reasons to smile. The first is her participation in the Muses, a chorale of developmentally challenged adults that has actually become good enough to appear in concert with the legendary French-Canadian pop star Robert Charlebois (playing himself). She is a talented singer in her own right and is often tasked with performing solo parts for the chorale. The second, and most important reason for her smile is Martin (Landry), her boyfriend who lives in the same group home and also sings with the chorus.

Gabrielle and Martin have begun to get sexually curious and when they are found half-clothed in Martin’s room, Martin’s over-protective mother (Gignac) yanks him from the home and forbids any contact with Gabrielle. Despite her Williams-derived cheerfulness, Gabrielle is devastated. She isn’t aware that she did anything wrong and all she knows is there’s an ache in her heart that only Martin can fill. She becomes a little testier than usual, insisting that she can be independent and live on her own in an apartment. When she tries to take the bus to go see Martin, she gets lost and confused, further frustrating her. To make matters worse, Sophie is getting ready to move overseas to be with her own boyfriend in Africa where she’ll teach, a dream of hers.

Archambault, to her credit, doesn’t sugarcoat the issues in the movie. On the surface, the issues here facing Gabrielle are pretty much the same as have appeared in dozens of movies but given the circumstances, things are a little more tricky. We get to see the challenges people like Gabrielle and those of other developmental disabilities face every day. We get to see them as human beings.

Marion-Rivard is so personable and likable it’s hard not to get behind Gabrielle. It’s also hard to tell where the actress leaves off and the character begins, given the Williams syndrome. Her elfin features (another byproduct of Williams) are adorable and her smile is genuine, coming straight from the heart directly to the lips. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a girl like that?

A lot of time is spent in the rehearsals and performances of the chorale (with Charlebois contributing his distinctive voice in the final third of the film). It illustrates the true healing power of music; no matter how down Gabrielle is about her situation, singing and participating in making music always brings her back up which is true for a lot of us. Incidentally, while the pop music of Charlebois is less well known in the States, I defy anyone to walk away from this movie without the final song performed at the concert, “Lindberg” with its distinctive chorus of airlines being ticked off followed by hand claps, stuck firmly in their heads.

While there are some professional actors in the production, a lot of the roles are filled with actors with developmental challenges and non-actors alike. That gives the movie a raw, unrefined feeling that is a refreshing contrast to the usual Hollywood gloss – when you think about it, life is raw and unrefined too. It’s those like Gabrielle – who carry a surfeit of innocence and cheer – that counterbalance the harshness and drama that most of the rest of us contribute to global karma.

REASONS TO GO: Doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. Marion-Rivard very personable.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally steers towards the sentimental.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality portrayed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Canada’s official submission to the Academy for the 2013 Foreign Language Film Oscar.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Short Term 12

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Woman Power continues!

Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires)


Pretty girl, prettier boys.

Pretty girl, prettier boys.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (IFC) Monia Chokri, Nils Schneider, Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval, Anne-Elisabeth Bosse, Olivier Morin, Magalie Lepine-Blondeau, Eric Bruneau, Gabriel Lessard, Benedicte Decary, Anthony Huneault, Patricia Tulasne, Jody Hargreaves, Clara Palardy, Minou Petrowski, Perrette Souplex, Louis Garrel, Sophie Desmarais. Directed by Xavier Dolan

Love is tricky, particularly when friendship is involved. You feel one way towards your best friend and another towards someone you love. Once in awhile though you find yourself competing with your best friend for the love of someone and that makes perfect sense. When you think about it, if you have enough in common to be best friends, why not tastes in lovers?

That’s what happens to Marie (Chokri) and Francis (Dolan). He’s a gay man and she a straight woman. They share a Montreal apartment and well heck, just about everything. However when they meet Nicolas (Schneider) at a party, all bets are off. Marie falls for him deeply and Francis does as well. Both of them are reading things into Nicolas admittedly flirtatious gestures. Each one believes that Francis is more interested in them.

Things escalate as each of them vie for Nicolas’ attention and shower him with increasingly lavish gifts. Things culminate in a vacation at the cabin owned by Nicolas’ mom. Who will Nicolas choose?

This is a movie that isn’t always easy to take in. For one thing, Nicolas is a bit of a jerk. He is clearly manipulative and misleading the both of them, although for their parts they do a lot of seeing things the way they want to when it comes to him. This isn’t the kind of love story you’re used to seeing – these are very flawed people in not always nice ways.

There have been a pretty good number of promising French-Canadian directors that have come along in the last ten years and Dolan is one of the most talented of these. This isn’t my favorite of his films – it carries with it a little too much self-conscious hipness which I always find abhorrent. While I understand that hipsters are people too, I find their attitudes to be somewhat condescending at times and that kind of bugs me. Being cool generally means understanding that everyone has their own idea of what cool is and that may not necessarily be what you think it is.

In any case, the performances here are solid and the story well-written and realistic. While it has received a good amount of critical attention, it just didn’t connect with me. Fortunately, other Dolan films have and I’m pretty sure future films will.

WHY RENT THIS: Looks at the effects of a love triangle somewhat more realistically.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hipper than thou.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of sexuality with some nudity as well as some rough language and adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dolan supplies the voice of Stan in the French version of South Park.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $588,383 on an unknown production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jules et Jim

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: U-571

Good Neighbors


Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

Jay Baruchel is lost in the kitchen.

(2010) Psychological Thriller (Magnolia) Jay Baruchel, Scott Speedman, Emily Hampshire, Xavier Dolan, Gary Farmer, Kaniehtiio Horn, Pat Kiley, Michelle Lanctot, Jacob Tierney, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Clara Furey, Diane D’Aquila, Sean Lu, Kevin Tierney, Nathalie Girard. Directed by Jacob Tierney

We like to think we know our neighbors. We hang out with them, invite them into our homes, share confidences with them, sometimes we even have their backs and expect that they have ours. But how well do we really know them?

Louise (Hampshire) lives in an apartment building in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace district. She works at a Chinese restaurant as a waitress. When one of her co-workers disappears under suspicious circumstances, she suspects it’s the work of a serial rapist and murderer who has been terrorizing the district. She begins to follow the case in the newspaper obsessively.

She’s kind of a cold fish who lives with her cats and generally eschews human contact in favor of feline contact. One of the few exceptions is Spencer (Speedman), a paraplegic who lives on the ground floor of the building. He lost the use of his legs in an automobile accident that claimed the life of his wife. Like Louise, he’s a bit obsessed with the same serial killer. He can be randomly cruel and disarming literally in the same sentence.

Into this mix comes Victor (Baruchel), a somewhat socially awkward school teacher just returned to Montreal after spending time in China. He develops an instant crush on Louise and lobbies hard to develop a friendship with Spencer.  Victor’s attempts at romance begin to take a creepy turn – he refers to Louise as his fiancée even though the two of them haven’t even been on a date yet.

When an abusive alcoholic woman in the building turns up dead, signs point to the work of the serial killer and it becomes apparent that he may well be among them in their own building. Is there safety in your own home when there is already a killer living there?

Canadian director Tierney has a fine hand with suspense and knows how to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. This isn’t a generic thriller in which the identity of the killer is revealed at the end of the film – in fact, this isn’t a whodunit in the sense that you find out surprisingly early who done it.  It becomes more of a cat and mouse thriller, although at times you’re not sure who the cat is and who is the mouse.

As far as I can make out, there is a highly Freudian aspect to the film; Louise, Spencer and Victor represent the superego, the id and the ego which I think is a terribly innovative idea, although I wish they’d have been fleshed out just a teeny bit more. The characters are a bit on the one-dimensional side, although Baruchel, Speedman and Hampshire all do pretty well with what they’re given.

Some of the violence and sex here is pretty graphic and disturbing in places, so those who are susceptible to such things might think twice before streaming, renting or buying this bad boy. And while I understand the motivation to keep things more or less in the apartment building, you have this incredibly beautiful city (Montreal) which is even more beautiful in many ways in the dead of winter and choose not to use it which completely mystifies me. Cinematographer Guy Dufaux shows a really good eye in some of his shots but  sadly doesn’t get to exercise it as much as I would have liked.

However despite some of the film’s flaws, the engineering of it is so masterful and the suspense layered on so perfectly that I can overlook some things that don’t work as well. Overall this is a taut, well-paced thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and a nice little hidden gem worth seeking out on Netflix, Blockbuster or whatever source of streaming you choose to patronize.

WHY RENT THIS: Skews the genre somewhat. Nicely suspenseful despite telegraphing identity of killer too early

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessarily claustrophobic. Character development is a little bit one-dimensional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly intense violence and just as intense sexuality as well as some fairly explicit nudity not to mention a plethora of cursing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title was Notre Dame de Grace named for the district in Montreal where the action takes place and where the movie was filmed.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7,072 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pacific Heights

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Redemption Road

Stories We Tell


Veracity may fade with time but love never does.

Veracity may fade with time but love never does.

(2013) Documentary (Roadside Attractions) Sarah Polley, Michael Polley, Diane Polley, John Buchan, Harry Gulkin, Mark Polley, Geoffrey Bowes, Joanna Polley, Susy Buchan, Cathy Gulkin, Anne Tait, Claire Walker, Marie Murphy, Mort Ransen, Pixie Bigelow, Robert Macmillan, Tom Butler, Deirdre Bowen, Rebecca Jenkins, Peter Evans, Alex Hatz, Mairtin O’Carrigan. Directed by Sarah Polley   

 

There is a maxim in law enforcement that eyewitness testimony is generally unreliable. That is because human memory is generally unreliable; it is shaded too much by our perceptions of things and people. A liberal for example will have a different point of view of President Barack Obama than a conservative would and not just politically – the man as a person as well.

This also goes for our personal memories. Oscar-nominated director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, a movie that you definitely should check out) turns the cameras on her own family. Her mother Diane passed away when Sarah was only 11 but remained a huge presence in her life. Her family members and family friends describe Diane as a “Good time Charley,” someone who loves to dance and be around people, whose heavy walk would cause records to skip.

Her four children – Sarah and Mark, along with John and Susy who were Diane’s children from a first marriage – clearly adored her but the more that everyone talks about Diane the more clear it becomes that nobody truly knew her well.

We get bits and pieces of the story – her marriage to Michael, a stage actor in Toronto who shared a stage with her and eventually a life – and how truly mis-matched they were as a couple, with Michael preferring solitude and self-reflection, her first marriage to an abusive husband who eventually divorced her and the consequences of her actions. How both Diane and Michael gave up acting to raise a family, although Diane later returned to it.

On paper, this sounds fairly boring and self-indulgent. Trust me, it is far from that. Like most people, Diane harbored secrets (although at least one of her friends stated with absolute certainty that she was so open that she kept no secrets) and some of them are shockers. A Google search will reveal some of them but I urge you not to if you intend to see the movie – the film is far more effective that way.

The movie isn’t so much about Sarah but about the persistence of memory. It is about her family yes but inasmuch as her family are characters in the story. The story may change from teller to teller but it is essentially all part of a larger truth. One of the interviewees (Polley calls them “interrogations” which I suppose is accurate) is loathe to have others tell this story, because he feels that only the two main characters who were involved in it really can get at the truth (he refers to it as hitting bottom) but that’s not quite true – things have a way of creating a ripple effect and affecting more than just the people immediately involved.

Her father Michael does the narration, much of it from a recording studio and from his own memoirs. That is fitting enough and he makes a charming narrator. The love Sarah has for her dad is clear and unequivocal. However, it should be pointed out that her second love is filmmaking and the movie is about that too – we see her setting up shots, taking part in interviews, a kind of in-movie “Making of” feature that we usually have to wait for the home video edition to come out in order to see. While family home movies and photos add to the film, Polley also re-creates some home movies on Super 8 with actors playing her family members in the 60s and 70s which are integrated seamlessly into the movie.

Early on in the film one of Sarah’s siblings asks “Why would anyone be interested in our family?” and the question hangs over much of the first part of the movie, particularly during the slow moving first reel when Diane is being reminisced about. I think Sarah’s aim was to provide as complete a background of who Diane was in order to provide some context for the rest of the film, but it does go on a bit longer than I thought it should.

By the end of the movie however the question becomes more or less moot. All of us can look at our family and find a story there – maybe one not quite like this one, but one nevertheless as interesting and vital to ourselves as the Polley story is to their family. It would be quite an interesting exercise to do something similar in your own family – take a story well known to all and quiz different members of the family on what happened. The results might surprise you and change your own outlook on things that happened to you – and grant you a new understanding of who you are and where you came from.

REASONS TO GO: Appeals to head as well as heart. Illustrates how events and outlook change with the witness.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a hair too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes here are pretty adult; there is some sexuality and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors playing Frances’ parents are actually actress Greta Gerwig’s parents.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100; thus far one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rashomon

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: A Dangerous Method

Starbuck


Here's how you'll likely feel after seeing this movie.

Here’s how you’ll likely feel after seeing this movie.

(2011) Comedy (EntertainmentOne) Patrick Huard, Julie LeBreton, Antoine Bertrand, Dominic Philie, Marc Belanger, Igor Ovadis, David Michael, Patrick Martin, David Giguere, Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse, Sebastien Beaulac, Patrick Labbe, Andre Lanthier, Patrick Caux, Catherine De Seve. Directed by Ken Scott

 Florida Film Festival 2013

Being a father is easy (and fun). It doesn’t even require a mom these days – just sperm. Being a dad however is a whole ‘nother story.

David Wozniak (Huard) is about as irresponsible as guys can get. He works for his father (Ovadis) delivering meat to various stores and restaurants around Montreal. It’s the easiest job in his dad’s business but even that David screws up. He uses the delivery van for personal business, forgets vital tasks (like picking up soccer jerseys for team picture day) and generally gets into trouble without meaning to. He’s been with his beautiful girlfriend Valerie (LeBreton) for four years and seems content to let things remain pretty much as they are.

He’s a bachelor slacker, well-liked but not respected. Then Valerie gets pregnant. HE is willing to do the right thing but SHE has taken a good hard look at David and realizes, perhaps regretfully, that he is anything but dad material. She wants to break up; he wants to prove to her that he can grow up.

But he is deeply in debt to loan sharks (who send thugs around to his apartment to laconically hold his head under water to remind him that if he doesn’t pay up soon he is going to end up floating face down in some unpleasant body of water) and nobody really takes him seriously enough to give him a chance to prove himself. To make matters worse, he is served with a summons that turns out to be quite a blast from his past.

As a younger man he had regularly donated sperm to a specific sperm bank in order to make some cash. Due to a clerical error, more than 500 of his samples have been used to impregnate different women . He is now the proud daddy of 533 kids and 152 of them are suing to get his identity revealed.

At first David is appalled and hires a friend (Bertrand) to represent him legally. That friend is also a dad, although his kids basically don’t EVER listen to him and treat him like a jungle gym more than anything else. His friend, the scruffiest barrister ever looks on this as an opportunity to argue a groundbreaking case, maybe the only one he’ll ever have.

After initial reluctance, he begins to look at the profiles of his now-adult children. He tells himself it will be just once. When that child turns out to be a superstar soccer player, David is ecstatic. It becomes like a drug, looking in on his kids and surreptitiously inserting himself into their lives as a kind of guardian angel. Gradually David grows to realize this might be the opportunity to prove himself that he can improve himself that he was looking for.

The movie has a profound charm to it and a kind of scruffy sense of humor. It is sweet at unexpected moments, sometimes tugging the heartstrings without warning. Huard is given a much more layered and complex role than at first it appears – David is certainly a slacker of epic proportions but he also has an amazing heart – his father tells him in one of the most affecting scenes in the movie “I never have to worry because everyone loves you.” In short, one of those rare dads who recognizes that there are different standard of success in life than the ones he measures himself by. It truly is one of the most difficult parts of being a parent – understanding that your definition of success may not be what your child is looking for in life.

Starbuck is one of those rare movies (although this year there seem to be more of them) that looks at what it means to be a dad – there have always seemed to be more mom movies than dad movies in Hollywood, particularly in the last 50 years. Being a dad has challenges of its own, and sometimes in our rush to exalt motherhood (and don’t get me wrong, motherhood deserves exaltation) we forget the important and vital contributions that father’s make in the nurturing of children. Parenthood isn’t a process or a science and it’s barely even an art form – it’s thinking on your feet, it’s being willing to change your own outlook before trying to force your kid to change theirs. It is frustrating, demanding, infuriating – and ultimately as rewarding an endeavor as a man can undertake.

This isn’t the ultimate fatherhood movie – there are a few too many easy-to-spot plot points for that. Still, I found myself enjoying the charm and outright manipulation the movie put me through. Huard is likable enough and the movie pulls just enough unexpected moments to drive the score as high as it winds up. If you’re looking for a case of the warm fuzzies, here’s your source.

REASONS TO GO: Heartwarming. Very funny at times. Huard does a terrific job.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit far-fetched occasionally. A tiny bit too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of sexual content, a pretty fair amount of rough language and a teeny bit of drug material.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers not only to the character from Battlestar Galactica but more specifically to a Canadian Holstein bull that during the 1980s and 1990s fathered thousands of progeny and is considered one of the most fertile creatures ever to have lived.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100; not what you’d call an overwhelming critical endorsement.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daddy Day Care

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Painting and more 2013 Florida Film Festival coverage!!!

Life of Pi


Some days you feel like you can grab a tiger by the tail; other days not so much.

Some days you feel like you can grab a tiger by the tail; other days not so much.

(2012) Drama (20th Century Fox) Suraj Sharma, Irffan Khan, Gerard Depardieu, Rafe Spall, Adil Hussein, Ayush Tandon, Gautam Belur, Tabu, Ayan Khan, Mohd Abbas Khaleeli, Vibish Shivakumar, James Saito, Jun Naito, Andrea Di Stefano, Elie Alouf, Shravanthi Sainath. Directed by Ang Lee

 

Things happen. Whether it is for a reason or if they just happen has been a question that we have been trying to figure out since we could put a coherent thought together. In many ways, this is what is driving our entire faith versus reason argument that we seem to be engaged in as a culture.

Piscine Molitor Patel (Sharma) was born in Pondicherry, India, where the French once held sway. He was named for a swimming pool in France where the waters were remarkably clear and his swim-crazy uncle (with a body that can only be described as cartoonish) was remarkably fond of. Unfortunately, his school mates pronounce his first name as something that young boys are prone to doing in swimming pools (think about it) and he decides to shorten it to “Pi” and paves the way for it by memorizing the numerals of Pi to many, many decimals in turn impressing both students and teachers in his school.

Nothing about Pi’s life is ordinary. His father (Hussein) owns a zoo although he really know nothing about animals. It is up to Pi’s mother (Tabu), his brother Ravi (Shivakumar) and himself to tend the animals. Even so, Pi finds time to fall in love with Anandi (Sainath), which looks like it could be going somewhere.

Unfortunately, fate has a curveball in store for Pi. The zoo is failing and his father has decided to move the whole family (including the animals) to Canada to start a new life. Pi is devastated. He has no desire to leave but this is not anything within his control. After a tearful goodbye to Anandi (which he doesn’t remember, only spending that last day with her) he and his family board a Japanese cargo ship bound for Canada.

Once again, fate steps in with another game-changer. In the middle of a terrible storm, the ship sinks and everyone aboard drowns. Everyone, that is, except for Pi, an orangutan, a zebra and a hyena. Oh, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker who find themselves marooned in a lifeboat. The law of the jungle prevails and the tiger kills and eats everything except for Pi who takes refuge on a makeshift raft made up of oars and life jackets. Richard Parker guards his territory well and as the boat and raft floats aimlessly in the Pacific, the odds that Pi and Parker will survive dwindle.

This is all told through a framing mechanism in which the adult Pi (Khan) relates the story to a writer (Spall) who was urged to hear the story from Pi’s uncle who remained in India. Pi is still affected by the emotions of his ordeal (breaking into tears at one point) but is remarkably sanguine about the whole ordeal which his uncle told the writer would make him believe in God. However, let’s just say that Pi may not be the most trustworthy narrator you can find.

This is as visually inventive and breathtaking a movie as you will see this year. Everything about it rings true but there is also a kind of fairy tale-like flavor to the story and even to the visuals, turning Pondicherry into an idyllic place, and a sea into a multiple personality disorder entity, alternately calm as glass with a cloud-streaked sky reflecting in it, to full of luminous green plankton and raging with storms. The water is a metaphor for life, changing when we least expect it and never into anything convenient.

The movie is based on a book that was widely considered unfilmable and it is to Lee’s credit that he found a way to make it work. However do keep in mind that the bulk of the action takes place on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with one human and one tiger. While it never gets boring, it can get slow.

Much about the film is fanciful and towards the end of the movie you are given a choice to make which essentially gives you the option of faith or reason. The movie heavily skews its own leanings towards one side and that might be offensive towards those who lean in the other direction. And while it is professed that Pi’s story will make you believe in God, quite frankly I don’t see it converting any atheists.

Still, it does lead you to ask some pretty deep questions as to the truth behind faith and reason. What is reality, after all, but our perception of it and what we perceive as fact and what we perceive as beyond our understanding can be tricky. The will to survive can’t be quantified or measured but it is undeniably there – yet a Bengal tiger that looks for all the world like a living, breathing animal can be completely computer generated. Is he any less real for that however? This is the kind of thing that used to give Aristotle headaches.

The good thing however is that you can give these thoughts whatever attention you believe they deserve or what you’re willing to give them. You can sit back and relax and take in the breathtaking images and let not a single stray thought invade your skull if so you choose. It’s all up to you. Now, there are those who won’t even consider seeing this without a single solitary star in the cast (Gerard Depardieu appears briefly as a ill-tempered ship’s cook but many Americans wouldn’t even consider the French Colossus in the same firmament of a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt), although several of the actors including Irffan Khan and Tabu are big stars in India. Still, that hasn’t been enough to really propel the film into stratospheric box office numbers which does give rise to the theory that Americans really don’t like movies that make them think. Ah well. Perhaps Lee should have figured out how to put a car chase in this one, or had the tiger fight the shark with machine guns and rocket launchers. And you wonder why our test scores suck.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully shot. Deeper and more thought-provoking than the average Hollywood film.

REASONS TO STAY: Loses momentum at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the emotions depicted here are pretty rough. There are also some action sequences that are pretty scary.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Khan doesn’t appear in any scenes with the tiger, this is the second movie in 2012 he has appeared in with a character named Richard Parker, the first being The Amazing Spider-Man.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The critics definitely love this one..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where the Wild Things Are

BENGAL TIGER LOVERS: Richard Parker, the tiger in the movie is mostly CGI – every scene in which he appears with Pi is CGI. However, real tigers were used in certain scenes early on in the film, as when the tiger was swimming for example.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Killing Them Softly

The High Cost of Living


 

The High Cost of Living

Zach Braff’s fortunes have plummeted since Scrubs was canceled as the mean streets of Montreal can attest.

 

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Zach Braff, Isabelle Blais, Patrick Labbe, Aimee Lee, Julian Lo, Sean Lu, Mylene Savoie, Paula Jean Hixson, Pierre Gendron, Nicole Barber, Anick Lemay, Graham Cuthbertson, Tony Robinow, Kyle Switzer, Ian Finlay, Nicole Jones. Directed by Deborah Chow

There are those who believe that life is a chain of random events strung together linked only by our presence in them. It’s not destiny, it’s not fate – it’s just random chance. People drop in and out of our lives like summer storms and some leave more of an impression than others.

Henry Welles (Braff) is an American living in Montreal on an expired visa. He sells stolen prescription drugs to make ends meet and goes club-hopping at night to  deliver his goods to a variety of clients. He lives above a Chinese food restaurant and those around him don’t know what he does for a living.

Nathalie (Blais) is pregnant and her husband Michel (Labbe) alternately dotes on her and treats her with indifference. One night she feels the labor pains begin – prematurely. Her husband is out so she calls a cab. The visibility on the snowy night is poor so she steps into the street looking for the cab to take her to the hospital. She is promptly struck from behind by a cab going the wrong way up a one way street.

She winds up with a concussion but worse still the baby dies in utero. Normally labor would be induced but the doctors don’t think that a stillbirth would be the best thing for her mental state so she is forced to carry the dead fetus for a couple of weeks longer. A couple of weeks after she gets out of the hospital, she is sitting in a cafe having a drink when a busybody chastises her for drinking while obviously pregnant. She loses it and is aided by Henry, whose compassion and gentle caring nature touches her, unlike her husband who grows more distant with each passing day, blaming Nathalie for losing his child. He and Nathalie eventually split up.

But she and Henry begin to form a strong relationship, even after she discovers what he does for a living. But she won’t be so sanguine when she finds out that it was Henry who ran her down and left her and her baby to die. And he doesn’t know how to tell her

This is not a sunshine and light kind of film but it isn’t a complete death dirge either. This is more about connections, and the very fragile nature of them, of how we sin against one another sometimes and how redemption is not always possible – but forgiveness can be. These are all some pretty deep subjects, and the lot of them in a single film is a pretty daunting task but Chow actually does pretty well with them.

Part of her success is in her casting. Both Braff and Blais (a veteran French-Canadian actress) do some superb work in their roles. Braff in particular is best-known for comedies (he became a fixture on hipper radars with “Scrubs”) but shows he has some dramatic chops that he can boast as well. I’m not sure he’s ready for mainstream leading man-ness but he certainly can hold a film on his shoulders.

Unfortunately there are too many plot points that simply don’t bear much weight. For example, there is no doctor alive who would have a woman carry a dead fetus in her womb for several weeks before she is emotionally ready to have it taken out. First of all, that’s essentially a rotting carcass she has inside of her and no doubt there would be dangers of infections galore and from a medical standpoint I’d think getting it out as quickly and as humanely as possible would be the order of the day. Even if that weren’t the case, I think it would be far more traumatic for a woman to be carrying around her dead baby inside her than to have it taken out. I don’t know; I’m obviously a woman but I suspect most women would agree with me.

The situation is a bit cliché but a movie could withstand that and still be enjoyable. It’s just that there’s too many of them here, from the quirky neighbors to the insensitive husband to…well, that would be telling. In any case, Chow the director deserved better than Chow the writer was able to deliver.

That’s not to say that Chow the writer doesn’t show some promise but I think it’s safe to say she’s more advanced at this moment as a director than she is as a writer. Given some quality material, I think she’s got a career chock full of potential. However, this film is merely a pretty good start for a first-time director with some good performances and some good moments. It’s worth seeing for Braff’s performance but those who aren’t into him might be forgiven if they give this a pass.

WHY RENT THIS: The acting is pretty good, particularly from Blais and Braff.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many indie clichés and a preposterous plot submarine the film’s best intentions.

FAMILY VALUES: There is drug use, some violence, and plenty of sexuality. There is also a plethora of foul words throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Chow’s first feature film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a brief interview with Braff and a short film, Mr. Stache.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Town

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Safety Not Guaranteed

Monsieur Lazhar


Monsieur Lazhar

The face may be smiling but it's the eyes that are haunted.

(2011) Drama (Music Box) Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nelisse, Emilien Neron, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart, Jules Philip, Daniel Gadouas, Seddik Benslimane, Marie-Eve Beauregard, Louis Champagne, Andre Robitaille, Francine Ruel, Helena Laliberte. Directed by Philippe Falardeau

 

We tend to take for granted what a strong impression teachers make on the lives of our students. Most of us can remember at least one teacher whose influence lasted throughout our lives. The student-teacher relationship can be a strong one.

In a middle-class middle school in Montreal that seems to be true. One day, however, Simon (Neron), a student in the middle school, comes to his classroom early to distribute milk and snack for the kids and discovers his teacher, Martine Lachance (Laliberte) hanging. One other student, Alice (Nelisse) also sees the body of her teacher.

The suicide shakes up everyone in the school. The principal, Madame Vaillancourt (Proulx) avails the class of a therapist but knows she has to find a teacher to fill the spot. As it is the middle of the school year, not many teachers want to fill in for a dead woman, particularly one who died so publically. However in walks Monsieur Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) who has 19 years of experience teaching in Algeria.

With no other options, Vaillancourt hires the quiet, softly smiling Algerian. At first he and his class have a rocky start. Lazhar is far more formal than the beloved Martine, ordering the desks in rows rather than the semi-circle Martine had utilized. He is also to give a misbehaving kid a little smack upside the head which of course is a strict no-no in the more liberal Canadian educational system than he’s used to.

Slowly, the kids start taking to Monsieur Lazhar, whose gentle nature seems to cut through the negative feelings they have. In fact, it seems that the kids are adjusting to the loss of Martine much better than the adults with one exception – Simon. Simon is acting out and it soon becomes apparent that he’d had some kind of run-in with Martine that might have had something to do with her decision to do what she did, particularly when she knew that it was Simon who would find her.

But it might just be Alice who has the most difficult time adjusting. And on top of that, Monsieur Lazhar has some secrets of his own. Something that has caused his smile to be so sad. Despite the efforts of comely fellow teacher Claire (Poupart), Monsieur Lazhar might just be the most wounded soul of them all.

Movies that have children dealing with death are few in number and those that are out there are generally treacly in nature, as are those that try to deal with the student-teacher bond. Monsieur Lazhar is anything but that. It takes kids, puts them in a situation that could happen to any kid and then lets them be kids.

The kids are wonderful here; there is no posturing and it really doesn’t seem like they’re acting, a major fault among most juvenile actors. Instead, they react to the things happening around them the way most kids do – sometimes in an annoying manner, sometimes rambunctiously and other times thoughtfully. This helps elevate the movie into something far more real and compelling. Particularly exceptional are Nelisse and Neron, both who show virtuoso abilities. Should they choose to pursue acting, they both have promising careers ahead.

Fellag is marvelous himself. He carries himself with great dignity and gentle self-effacing humor here. He imbues the character with great decency, but never lets us forget the pain that is just below the surface. As what the cause of that pain is revealed, one marvels once again at human resiliency; I don’t know if I could stir myself out of bed with all that Monsieur Lazhar is carrying around with him. Fellag displays that pain not through his dialogue but through his eyes. He may have that soft smile you see above but every time you get a good look in his eyes it becomes obvious that the man is bearing a terrible burden. It’s a shame that he didn’t get Best Actor consideration at the Oscars this year – he deserved at least a look.

This movie handles things in a kind of low-key manner. Other than the scene at the beginning of the film where Simon discovers Martine, everything takes place here at a kind of slow-paced quietude. Sure the kids scream and yell as kids do but the scenes here aren’t doing so; the action is subtle but authentic. There are a lot of nice little touches – personal effects for example play an important role in the movie, as does snow – both as allegories. I found myself wrapped up in the film and the people in it; I wanted to be part of it, talking to the characters and helping them get through that. A film that inspires that kind of compassionate urge is not only one to be respected and admired, it is one to be sought out, even if you must go out of your way to do so.

REASONS TO GO: Moving and ultimately unforgettable. Juvenile cast comes through magnificently.

REASONS TO STAY: Very low-key which some may find difficult to deal with.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are pretty adult and there’s one image that might be disturbing for the sensitive. There are also a couple of not-so-nice words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar this year as was In Darkness, a Polish-Canadian co-production which marks the first time in history that two movies with Canadian connections were nominated in that category.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100. The reviews are stellar.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Sir With Love

SNOW GEAR LOVERS: The kids (and adults) have a plethora of different snow apparel and accoutrements on display for those looking to enhance or upgrade their snow season wardrobe.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Jiro Dreams of Sushi