Author Archives: Addison Wylie

TIFF: Review: Mina Shum’s ‘Ninth Floor’

“Ninth Floor”Vero Boncompagni/Courtesy of NFB

With “Ninth Floor,” filmmaker Mina Shum (“Double Happiness”) jumps into feature documentary filmmaking with heavy subject matter and a new take on talking-head formats.

Shum’s film booms deeply; its focus is the controversies over the 1969 protests and riots at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University). The events were sparked when a group of Caribbean students voiced concerns that a professor had directed racist comments and actions toward them. The university’s handling of the complaints caused students from across the city to band together and the situation evolved into a war with the administration.

The heated events took place over 40 years ago, but the outspoken individuals who are interviewed in “Ninth Floor” vividly recount every harrowing instant of the sit-ins, protests and occupation of the university, honouring the significance of this tumultuous and tainted moment in Canadian history. The audience can feel the film reverberate with passion throughout, and the feeling is astonishing.

That overpowering sensation that Shum builds so well with archival footage and courageous interviews plays more quietly in the latter half of the film, but the use of cinematographic styles and crisp editing keep “Ninth Floor’s” heart continuously beating like a steady drum.

“Ninth Floor” has its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Saturday, September 12 at 7:15 p.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre.

The second screening will be on Monday, September 14 at 2 p.m. at the TIFF Lightbox.

Missed the TIFF screenings? Keep an eye on the “Ninth Floor” web page on the National Film Board of Canada’s site.

Review: ‘The Amina Profile’

A still from Sophie Deraspe’s “The Amina Profile”Courtesy of GAT PR

“The Amina Profile” fittingly makes its way into the spotlight at a time when many Internet users indulge in “catfishing,” a term referring to the act of using a fictitious online persona to lure an individual into a relationship.

Just as MTV’s Catfish” tracks its participants from initial skepticism all the way to a big reveal, Sophie Deraspe’s compelling documentary follows the same movements. However, “The Amina Profile” brings more depth, including touching upon the rushed truth behind online journalism and the power that the right words can have to manipulate.

It all starts with a friendship between a Montrealer, Sandra Bagaria, and a spirited Syrian-American, Amina Arraf. The women’s relationship gradually grows into a passionate online romance, leading Amina to propose a plan to publicly out herself as a lesbian and to lay out her anti-regime opinions during the Arab Spring in on-the-ground dispatches in her blog “A Gay Girl in Damascus.”

Arraf’s popular blog made national headlines. It was her writing that sparked conversation and controversy until she suddenly went missing. Then the discussions turned to her whereabouts, her safety and to locating her contacts. As more people came forward to confess they could not pinpoint specific information about Arraf, suspicions arose over the credibility of her writing and whether Amina Arraf was – in fact – a real person.

A still from Sophie Deraspe's "The Amina Profile" Courtesy of GAT PR

A still from “The Amina Profile”   Courtesy of GAT PR

Deraspe relays much of the story by displaying text messages and e-mail on the screen and the writing becomes increasingly unclear following Arraf’s purported arrest. Textual conversations are superimposed on blurred footage of an alluring woman, often walking down narrow streets or reclining in the nude and frequently filmed from the back. Deraspe is also very careful to maintain the sense of unknown identity, often filming the figure from the back. These ingenious decisions not only drive home the points about the indeterminacy of the blogger in question, but also paint a sensual picture of how Bagaria might have envisioned Arraf.

As the viewer travels down the rabbit hole and tries to solve the mystery behind Arraf’s identity, Deraspe never loses her grip on the politics that provide a substantial part of the groundwork for the film. The footage can be graphic, but the filmmaker uses her tricks wisely; she obscures the visual to maintain the seriousness of the film, while skipping over unnecessary gore.

Deraspe worked closely with Bagaria to make “The Amina Profile.” Their collaboration, and Bagaria’s willingness to relive her grief through her participation in the film – a process that has earned her closure on this phase of her life – has paid off in an outstanding piece of work.

“The Amina Profile” opens in Toronto today, August 21, at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West).

Director Sophie Deraspe will participate in a Q&A at the August 22 screening.

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘Guidance’

Emily Piggford and Pat Mills in “Guidance”Courtesy of Search Engine Films

Most leap to the never-ending strand of “Bad Santa” copycats starring Billy Bob Thornton when they think of movies featuring a surly adult abusing his power and stature. However, for me, the strongest comparison with writer-director-star Pat Mills’ “Guidance” is Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” – another movie in which a self-centred burnout living in the past proceeds to steamroll those who dare to criticize.

That said, “Guidance” improves and delights in places where “Young Adult” angered me. Reitman’s dark comedy didn’t work for me because too many bystanders enabled bratty princess Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) for no good reason. The people who enable “Guidance’s” main character David Gold (Mills) are inspired by his frank carelessness, and thus are persuaded through to give their head a shake.

Pat Mills as "David Gold in "Guidance" Courtesy of Search Engine Films

Pat Mills in “Guidance”     Courtesy of Search Engine Films

In reality, Gold (under the pseudonym “Roland Brown”) is “winging it” – as he does with most things in his life. He can’t hold a job, simmers on his former success as a onetime child actor, fibs his way around an irritated landlord, and cheats his way into a job for which he has zero experience. He’s also apathetic towards his family (showing no pain when he dramatically scribbles out faces on family portraits) and has developed an alcohol addiction that serves as his best friend.

A character like David Gold is a difficult creature to tame. But Pat Mills does so flawlessly, while also serving as the film’s director and screenwriter. He does a helluva great job showing how well he can spin multiple plates on a film production.

Mills knows how to set up awkward conversations and run-ins, but he also knows that irresponsible people eventually have to take ownership of their missteps. When “Roland Brown” is caught in a lie, he doesn’t continue to spin his web. He denies, and is almost too lazy to bend the truth even further. The filmmaker has crafted David exceptionally well and provides enough conviction behind why he manipulates and how easily he can fool himself. One example: David records affirmation phrases during his fleeting day gigs, and these gradually help him gain confidence in all the wrong ways.

Around Mills’ stellar performance is a collection of funny, supporting characters. The students all hold their own, and their affection for David as their new off-kilter guidance councellor is very amusing. Meanwhile, the eccentric teachers don’t know whether to be impressed over his progress or scared that students actually like him.

”Guidance” is hilarious and earnestly clever. The third act has the appearance of a tangent-laced dream, as a new-found interest and concern between Gold and a troubled student spirals out of control. But Mills – always persistent in balancing tragedy with comedy – recognizes the repercussions, and isn’t afraid to allow the film’s maturing characters to face them head-on, leading “Guidance” towards a satisfying bittersweet conclusion.

Review: Toronto Youth Shorts 2015

“Blue Eyed Drunks” Courtesy of TYS

I’m always willing to throw support towards the Toronto Youth Shorts for good reason. The festival offers an accessible platform for aspiring filmmakers to screen their work, and to engage the audience through a stimulating Q&A.

Toronto Youth Shorts stands out as an exceptional film festival because it rarely hits rough patches. Then again, it’s to no surprise, considering that the selection process and the overall festival presentation are handled with coordinated grace, courtesy of festival director Henry Wong and his staff – all of whom are equally as passionate to screen inspired work and give hopeful voices a new opportunity to be heard.

In the past, I’ve offered pre-coverage and reflections on the festival, and I’ve often admitted that I’m inclined to remove my critic hat because I become so enwrapped in what I’m watching. The same case can be made for the selections I’ve watched this year out of the 30 titles from the Greater Toronto Area and Southern Ontario.

A New Reflection

“A New Reflection” Courtesy of TYS

Toronto Youth Shorts usually hosts some documentaries. It’s no different this time around. I was enlightened and exhilarated by Pauline Beal and Lindsay Fontaine’s “A New Reflection.” The delicate doc primarily focuses on Katie Atkinson – a student with multiple facial differences – and her recollection of how she learned to use her vibrant personality to overcome critical and nosy comments. Atkinson is an inspiration, but the scenes featuring her optimistic and curious mother – who also shares some of her daughter’s traits – are evenly enriching.

A Woman Departed copy

“A Woman Departed” Courtesy of TYS

Then there’s Steven Czikk’s “A Woman Departed,” which tugged at my heartstrings and caused a lump in my throat. Czikk showcases how love can both empower and exhaust, as a grippingly emotional interviewee explains. A forlorn man pours his heart out about his relationship to his wife which has now become similar to that between a caregiver and a patient. The documentarian respects his subject, and gives viewers a bittersweet intimate film.

Of the films that that I screened, Abdul Malik’s “Blue Eyed Drunks presented the strongest scripted narrative and an impressive style. Malik’s coming-of-age short is akin to Danny Boyle directing “Superbad – under all of the flash are concrete characters who we can empathize with. Two high-school students discuss the struggle to keep their original Pakistani grassroots alive in their new, western-civilization living conditions. It’s gripping, smart, and a very attractive film.

Tanabata

“Tanabata” Courtesy of TYS

Animation fans will be whisked away by Annie Amaya’s lovely “Tanabata.” A parental epiphany is explained in Alicia Harris’ “Fatherhood.” And confident women steal the show in Dan Laera’s exciting wrestling doc “Pretty Dangerous” and in Joy Webster’s poignant “In the Weeds.”

If these selections represent the quality of this year’s Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival, then we have a hit on our hands. Moviegoers have a bright future ahead of them if these featured filmmakers decide to further carry out their craft.

The seventh annual Toronto Youth Shorts Film Festival takes place on August 8, 2015 at Innis Town Hall. For tickets and more information, hop on over to the Toronto Youth Shorts’ website.

Review: ‘Two 4 One’

Gabrielle Rose and Gavin Crawford in “Two 4 One” Courtesy of Strut Entertainment

Maureen Bradley’s “Two 4 One” is centred around a transgender male who is in the final stages of transitioning. After a recent story in the news and on television that followed a high-profile gender reassignment, one might be tempted to describe Bradley’s feature film debut as “timely.” I would, but for the filmmaker’s sophisticated approach towards her characters. Bradley refuses to use a current, much talked-about topic as a gimmick to elicit knee-jerk responses.

“Two 4 One” is highly original with a cast full of great performers. At the core is actor Gavin Crawford, taking a break from semi-blue comedy to play the role of Adam – formally known as “Melanie.” The support Adam receives is positive, but his world feels interrupted when Miriam – a past flame – enters the picture.

Miriam (Naomi Snieckus) is a bit of a wild card, and she knows this. Her choice to become a mother has Adam raising an eyebrow. However, she’s dedicated and, after much reluctance, Adam agrees to assist with her artificial insemination. But the simple procedure takes a turn when proper precautions are tossed away during the heat of the moment, leaving Adam to be unexpectedly expecting.

“Two 4 One” has a plot with indirect people dodging the obvious answer to all of their problems: if everyone had honest conversations with each other, there would be hardly any complications. But then “Two 4 One” would also be a ten-minute short.

Bradley’s film gets away with these contrivances mostly because of the dedication of the cast and the sweetness of the story. But “Two 4 One” is honest in other ways, as we see Adam attempt to prove to himself that he’s more masculine than before – and Crawford’s performance is particularly strong during these scenes in which he appears alone and his body language convincingly relays his internal struggle.

“Two 4 One” is a good movie that isn’t light on beauty shots of Victoria, BC. However, Bradley deserves to be applauded for knowing where she wants to take her film and for understanding the level of intensity it would require to venture down those untravelled roads. She knows that providing deep focus to certain themes means having to make compromises and critical changes to the story’s atmosphere.

“Two 4 One’s” time-leaping, shortcutting final third could be compared to the neat wrap-up of an after-school special, but I understand Bradley’s sensibility. Moviegoers, too, should be able to recognize her skillful touch as a filmmaker who keeps her lovely film light-hearted, while also revealing the gravity of difficult issues.

Beginning July 17, “Two 4 One” will be in Toronto cinemas and available on iTunes everywhere.

“Two 4 One” is distributed by Hoggwild Films.