It’s that time again for the Yellowknife International Film Festival (YIFF) and I’m the man reviewing the films previewed at this festival. This time, I got a chance to pre-screen the films so I can post the reviews before showtime. From a satirical take on the Standing Rock protests to a documentary of the Tragically Hip’s final concert, we got a wide variety of films this year. We get that variety in our first screening with two hour-long films that couldn’t be more different. Journeys to Adaka is a documentary about a festival dedicated to Indigenous artists. The Last Walk is a collection of short films sharing a premise of a sister’s journey to forgive her exiled sister.
You’d better bring some Kleenex cause this film takes a lot out of you. Based on The Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, Lion tells the true-life story of Brierley’s decades long search for his birth family after losing them as a child. For his directorial debut, Luke Davis takes us through the man’s real life journey from the streets of India to a suburban home in Australia and back. He earns every tear shed.
As a little boy, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) would help his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) sell stolen coal so they can help their mother (Priyanka Bose) provide for the family. With this being set in India, we are treated to some beautiful imagery, especially in the opening scene of Saroo surrounded by butterflies in the desert. Just as beautiful is loving relationship between Saroo and Guddu. They seem inseparable. But then one night at a train station, Guddu leaves Saroo behind while he searches for work. That night, he doesn’t come back, and Saroo finds himself trapped on a train, headed to Calcutta. Now, he’s far away from home in a city whose language he doesn’t understand. You find yourself holding back your tears when Saroo calls for his brother.
Whoever said girls can’t do math have never met Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. They were three amongst many women of colour whose math skills help bring America into space. They are finally getting their dues in Hidden Figures, a lighthearted biopic from Theodore Melfi, director of St. Vincent.
When we first meet Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae), they’re car is stalled. To make matters worse, a cop pulled over to give them a hard time. How does it end? With the cop escorting them to NASA. “Three Negro women chasing a white police officer down a highway in Hampton, Virginia.” As Mary would say; “That there is a God-ordained miracle!” It’s 1961 and the space race is on. Our lady trio are among many black women working as “Computers” for the program. From this position, each woman begins a push beyond what’s expected of them.
Ladies and Gentleman, Mel Gibson is back!
After a long career hiatus, due to his drunken anti-Semitic comments, the once beloved filmmaker has returned to Hollywood’s good graces with Hacksaw Ridge, a biopic of a Desmond Doss, the first soldier to ever receive the medal of honour without ever carrying a gun.
When we first meet Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) he is an awkward country boy from 40’s Virginia. The scenes of his upbringing play like a folksy tale along the lines of Old Yeller. Doss’ awkward manner can come off as too hokey, especially when he tries to woo nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer). However, the scenes with the family are excellent. Haunted by his time in the Great War, Desmond’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) drowns his grief in alcohol, which can make him violent to his wife and kids. Desmond’s mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) raises her boys in the pacifistic principals of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Weaving delivers an excellent performance as a troubled man battling PTSD. You come to understand why he doesn’t want his sons to enlist, and his anger when they go against his wishes.
If you are curious to watch these short, you can rent them in the following link.
BEST ANIMATED SHORTS:
And so, we start with the first Canadian import.
Vaysha was born with two sights. With her left eye, she sees the past. With her right eye, she sees the future. Everyone she meets is both a child and an elder, which proves a problem when suitors try to court her. This creates a sense of blindness for Vaysha, walking into trees because she can only see it as a seedling and a stump. Her double vision also makes it hard to sleep when her dreams consists of both the dawn of man and the apocalypse. It’s up to 3 medicine women to bring her eyes into the present.
This must be a horrifying way to live. Vaysha’s unable to live in the present, seeing only what was and what will be. It gets so unbearable that Vaysha considers gouging one of her eyes out. Too bad each eye presents its own problems. If she takes out her left eye, she sees only a bleak world. If she takes out her right eye, it’s going to be awkward to see her parents as infants. Either way, she’s still not living in the present.
The animation takes on the style of an old wood cut art style, fitting with the folk tale storytelling. You get lots of beautiful images, including the scene of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The animation also exaggerates movements, especially with character’s stretching their necks. Adding to the folksy tale is the narration by Caroline Dhavernas.
In a way, this feels like a folk tale, the kind cultures would tell to teach children a lesson. This lesson: “Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” It sure gets the message across with its excellent animation.
Click the film titles to watch a clip.
– Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, an ornery, reclusive janitor who becomes a reluctant guardian for his nephew.
– Andrew Garfield As Private Desmond Doss, a real-life WW2 combat medic who won the medal of honour despite never carrying a gun.
– Ryan Gosling as Sebastian, a struggling jazz pianist who falls for a struggling actress.
In LA LA LAND
– Viggo Mortensen as Ben, an off the grid father of 10 whose unconventional parenting methods are tested when he takes his kids to their mother’s funeral
– Denzel Washington As Troy Maxson, an ex-ball player turned alcoholic garbage man and resentful family man
Who Will Win?
At the start of this, it seemed like the winner would be Casey Affleck all the way. But now it looks like Denzel Washington will be taking the top spot away from him.
It had to be quite a challenging role for Ben Affleck’s little brother. His character is a withdrawn reclusive who avoids meaningful conversations at all cost. So, Affleck faces the task of making us feel for a character who shuts people out. On top of that, Lee isn’t the most pleasant guy to get along with, often picking fights with random strangers just for looking at him.
Despite his flaws, we still empathize with Lee, thanks to Affleck’s performance. Though he doesn’t show it, he still love his family and is willing to take care of his nephew. But he’s torn between his duty to care for Patrick and his desire to send him to another guardian so he can return to his reclusive life. Through his restrained performance, Affleck still brings out signs of emotions billowing inside of Lee, trying to get out. When someone tries to start a conversation with him, he politely tries to finish the conversation as quickly as possible. Like Patrick, you wish he would break out of his shell and try to connect with people, but he always disappoints you.
What makes it sadder is seeing the man he once was. In the flashback scenes, Lee is a different person; a happy, social average joe who enjoys drinking with his buddies and playing with his children. But then he goes through a tragedy so traumatizing he’s unable to bring himself out of his psychological shell.
Affleck was the frontrunner for winning this award, but some factors have derailed his success. First, there’s sexual harassment allegations made against him by I’m Not There co-workers. The Jury’s still out about whether he’s guilty, but it can still hurt his chances. The biggest factor working against him is Denzel Washington winning the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actor; an award well known for its 90% accuracy in predicting the Best Actor Oscar. So, it looks like Denzel is the new frontrunner.
Denzel seems to be taking roles less squeaky clean then his previous roles. His most recent roles include a paranoid drug kingpin in American Gangster, A manipulative fugitive in Safe House and a drug addicted pilot in Flight. Now he portrays a bitter alcoholic, philandering father, a role he’s portrayed on Broadway.
The power of Denzel’s performance is best conveyed when Troy’s son Corey asks him “How come you never liked me.” Often shown in the trailers, this scene sums up Troy’s complicated relationship with his son. Troy doesn’t hide his contempt toward his son when he demands to know “what law is there saying I got to like you?” He reveals his need for dominance through his interrogation, insisting Corey always put “Sir” at the end of an answer. And yet, he also makes his sense of duty clear when he says he does it because it’s his duty as a father to take care of Troy. When he tells Corey to care more about whether he’s being treated right by others, Troy’s bringing in his experience coping with racism. There’s complex layers of character in these two minutes.
I also admire the fact Denzel chose to make his character look pathetic. He puts on a few pounds to convey Troy having let himself go. He also never hides the fact he’s an unlikable cad who bullies his son and takes advantage of his wife. Though he makes his motivations understandable, Denzel never excuses Troy’s resentful behavior. It certainly doesn’t excuse his drinking or philandering.
So, it looks like Denzel has a high chance of taking home the award, but his success isn’t 100% certain. This could be among the 10% chance the SAGS will get it wrong this year. Continue reading
Click the link below to see the trailer.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:
– Eric Heisserer for ARRIVAL
Based on STORY OF YOUR LIFE by Ted Chiang
– August Wilson for FENCES
Based on the stage play by August Wilson
– Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder for HIDDEN FIGURES
Based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly
– Luke Davies for LION
Based on A LONG WAY HOME by Saroo Brierley
– Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for MOONLIGHT
Based on the play IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Who Will Win?
The winner is Moonlight all the way. Tarell Alvin McCraney teams with director Barry Jenkins to adapt McCraney’s unpublished play to give us a beautiful tale of growing up in Miami. On the surface, it’s a coming of age tale of a young black kid coming to terms with his homosexuality. But as the film progresses, it reveals more layers.
McCraney and Jenkins divides the story into three stages of Chiron’s life; each one titled by the name he’s referred to in that period. As a child, he’s an innocent, shy boy the other kids call “Little.” As a teenager, he is a resentful target of bullying, sticking to his real name. As an adult, he is a muscular, gay ex con nicknamed “Black.” In a way, these names serve to convey the kind of person he’s become in these stages. In the first stage, he is an impressionable kid whose nickname is forced upon by bullies. In the second stage, he sticks to his own name, trying to not to get noticed. In the final stage, he has embraced his black identity and his homosexuality, yet still seems to be missing something.
A common theme throughout the script is how the people around Chiron influence him. The most consistent influences in his life are his mother Paula and his friend Kevin. Paula starts out as a concerned nurse only to descend into drug addiction and prostitution in Chiron’s teens. In his adulthood, Chiron finds Paula in rehab. At first, Kevin is Chiron’s closest friend, trying to get him to toughen up. In his teen years, Kevin is a cocky Don Juan who develops a closeted relationship with our protagonist. In the adult years, these estranged friends reunite after a betrayal breaks them apart. Each character influences Chiron in their own little way, from Kevin calling Chiron “Black” to Chiron dressing like father figure Juan as an adult.
The strength of the script is its empathy. Most of the characters are portrayed as complicated people capable of both right and wrong. Sure, Chiron’s mom is a neglectful junkie, but she still loves her child. You feel for her as she pleads for Chiron’s forgiveness. Kevin seems like a supportive friend, but he is still vulnerable to peer pressure and in one scene turns on Chiron so he can look good in front of his peers. Though it never excuses their behavior, the script does understand their actions.
Click the film titles on the lists to see the previews.
Who Will Win?
It’s La La Land Vs. Moonlight in their first of many one on ones. In terms of cinematography, these two films have a lot in common.
There’s a notable use of colour in both films. For La La Land, cinematographer Linus Sandgren would bring out the reds, blues, yellows and greens of costumes and set pieces during musical numbers to contrast with the realistic scenes in between them. It’s especially notable in the opening number “Another Day of Sun,” Which sees the colourful dresses of the dancers clash with the realistic blue skies and grey freeways.
While that film emphasizes basic colours, cinematographer James Laxton emphasizes neon colours for Moonlight. Drawing inspiration from the film’s original title “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”, Laxton shoots night scenes with a hint of blue, especially when Chiron’s alone on the beach. Other colours he focuses on are greens from buildings, yellow for street lights, and pinks for neon lights, each one used in selective moments to bring beauty to the shot. A perfect example is a scene where Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) screams homophobic slurs at her son. Laxton shoots the scene with a point of view shot in slow motion, with pink neon beams through a door right behind her. He also shows a POV shot of Chiron standing in a dingy kitchen, taking the verbal abuse.
Both films use the colours sparingly. Most scenes are shot with realism, so when they go for a stylistic approach to a scene, it’s something special. At first, La La Land seems to only go for stylization for musical numbers, but they also use it for scenes when we go inside our main character’s heads. Whenever Sebastian starts to play a solo tune or Mia’s deep in thought, the world around them goes dark, with a spotlight on them.
Moonlight is more particular with their stylization. For the most part, Laxton brings a beauty to the lower-class Miami setting, portraying days with a bright sunny tone and nights with dark blue skies and yellow street lights. They feel realistic, and yet there’s a beauty to how he shoots the scenes. Even when it’s just someone’s just cooking’ it’s shot with a particular beauty. The stylization’s a little lower key with this one, but the film still equals La La Land in its beauty.
But the award’s going to go to the more impressive and flashy La La Land.
10) 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Who would have though a sequel to Cloverfield would not only surpass the original, but leave it completely in the dust? The fact this found footage monster movie even had a sequel in the first play was a surprise. But it’s a miracle that it turned out as thrilling as this film.
With the exception of having giant monsters and the word Cloverfield, these two films couldn’t be more different. 10 Cloverfield Lane not only does away with the found footage style, but it also it does away with the monster movie genre in favour of a paranoid thriller. It may not be epic, but writers Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle and director Dan Trachtenberg more than make up for it with pure tension, gripping performances and an unsettling environment.
The film makes the bold move of having the most of the film take place in a bomb shelter. What a setting it was. With cinderblock walls and low hanging lights both creates a sense of claustrophobia and recalls the atomic age. Then there’s the living room, which tries to create the illusion of perfect Norman Rockwell-esque homestead. These don’t hide the cinderblock walls.
But what really brings in the tension is John Goodman’s performance. Goodman is a rare actor who elevates every scene he’s in, but he really brings his A game as Howard. He presents himself as a gentleman to our heroine (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), taking her in and fixing her broken leg. Like Annie Wilkes from Misery, there’s something unsetting about his manners. He is so intense that a chuckle can set him off, as one uncomfortable dinner proves. He is such a paranoid lunatic that for all we know, he could be making up the chemical warfare in the outside world.
Sure, the ending leans too much into conventional action scene, but the earlier scenes are still excellent.
And now we get to the last best picture nominee, and the only film that could steal the Best Picture nominee from The Revenant. Based on a true story, Spotlight is a compelling journalistic drama about the team of journalists who helped expose the Catholic Church’s cover up of priests molesting children. Warning: this film will make you angry.
The title refers to the Spotlight team, a small group of journalists who work on the investigative articles. Led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), this small team spends months investigating specific subjects for the Boston Globe. New editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) assigns them to investigate a story of a Priest accused of molesting children from place to place. Joined by fellow Spotlight investigators Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), Robinson go into this assignment expecting an article about one priest being moved from place to place. That is until prosecuting attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) accuses Cardinal Law of knowing and covering up for the priest. Soon they find out there’s more than one priest they’re covering up. What begins as a simple assignment becomes months of investigations to know the full extension of the cover up.