Reviews

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.

On TV: ‘Full Out’ perseverance: The Ariana Berlin story

Actor Ana Golja, director Sean Cisterna and the real Ariana BerlinCourtesy of Sean Cisterna

“I have a secret for you: this isn’t about gymnastics; it’s about life.” Wise words offered up by “Miss Val,” the celebrated UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, played by Jennifer Beals, in the made-for-TV movie “Full Out.” And no truer words could apply to the message of this inspiring film, directed by Torontonian Sean Cisterna.

I have a secret for you: this isn’t about gymnastics; it’s about life.” 

– Coach Val

Based on the life of Ariana Berlin, a talented California gymnast who suffered devastating injuries in a debilitating car accident, the film invites viewers to reflect on the true meaning of following one’s dreams in the face of adversity. Confronted with the possibility that she might never do gymnastics again, Berlin inadvertently found herself in the world of hip-hop where she discovered the strength to persevere in both body and spirit.

Cisterna has great admiration for Berlin and took seriously the job of portraying her trials and triumphs. To meet the challenges of making the film, he looked to her story for inspiration.

“We were honestly just taking our cues from this remarkable young girl’s life,” he said.

For Cisterna, the greatest challenge wasn’t shooting the dance or gymnastics scenes; the real question was how to strike a balance between family appeal and the intensity of Berlin’s story. Part of his approach in finding this equilibrium was creating a window into Ariana’s mind, giving the audience greater access to her emotional journey. It also allowed him to enter into some grittier territory, while still maintaining the lighter charm appropriate for younger viewers.

The director said that finding the perfect Ariana was a difficult task, “This was the hardest part we’ve ever had to cast because, not only did they have to be engaging and a talented actor, but they also needed strong dance ability, as well as gymnastics and athletic ability.”

Ana Golja (“Degrassi: The Next Generation”) wound up being the ideal fit – a young actor who not only possessed the dramatic range for the role, but also the physical skills and stamina for what was involved. In preparation for the part, she had to undergo eight weeks of gymnastics training. The real Ariana Berlin was also a key part of the project and performed the complicated gymnastics routines in the movie.

The film does a fine job of alternating between the loose and fun world of hip-hop and the more structured and rigid life of a professional gymnast. It is at times playful and light-hearted but does not shy away from encouraging the audience to ask themselves some hard questions.

“Full Out” will entertain viewers of all ages and, in a world where so many young (and not-so-young) people too easily embrace the words “I can’t,” the film and Berlin’s story move us to think and talk about who and what truly holds us back in life and how we might overcome. It seems Miss Val was right; it’s not really about gymnastics.

 

“Full Out” premieres Friday, September 11 at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT on the Family Channel. For additional airing dates, go to the film’s 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.

Review: ‘Me And My Moulton’

It is easy to see why Torill Kove’s latest short film, “Me and My Moulton,” won this year’s Canadian Screen Award for Best Animated Short and recently garnered an Oscar nomination. The film’s simple but colourful animations accompany what turns out to be a delightful, yet quite complex, foray into family life.

Set in Norway over the course of spring and summer in 1965, the story is told through the eyes of a 7-year-old girl who longs for everything normal – and a bicycle to share with her two sisters. As the middle child of markedly modernist architect parents, she yearns to be like those around her. The family that lives below her seems the model familial unit, complete with attentive parents, two children – one boy and one girl – a dog and a cozy home with plush wall-to-wall carpeting. Meanwhile upstairs, the girl and her two sisters are encouraged to thrive in an unconventional household, but instead spend much of their time awkwardly navigating their parents’ usual ways. Even their dinner hour is made an exercise in the avant-garde, with the girls trying to eat but spending most of their time attempting, and failing, to stay atop three-legged dining chairs.

The middle daughter is lost in a sea of envy. While her father is the only man with a moustache in the entire town, the father downstairs is clean-shaven and performs manly duties, like yard work, hunting and military service. The mother downstairs stays at home, makes after-school snacks, and shops for beautiful dresses for her daughter, while the 7-year-old’s own mother makes clothing for her and her sisters out of brightly coloured and eclectic fabrics. All of this leads the little girl to a great deal of inner struggle over the notion of what a conventional family should look and act like.

Throughout the film, Kove maintains a careful balance. She takes on challenging themes of identity, envy and the differences in the ways parents and children view the world, all while maintaining a sense of whimsy and humour. As the little girl and her sisters struggle to understand why their parents have ordered a “special” bicycle all the way from England, they are also confronted with the reality that what seems normal and perfect, often is quite the contrary.

With pitch-perfect narration by Norwegian actress Andrea Braein Hovig, the audience is invited to share the variety of emotions that are portrayed – sadness, confusion, envy, loneliness. Ultimately though, it is love that overcomes and the mature realization by our young characters that their parents’ greatest flaw is not their proclivity for the avant-garde, but rather simply that their idea of what is a great bike differs from that of their daughters. What Kove masterfully reminds us is that it is through the eyes of children that we are taught that the acts of giving and receiving are ultimately ones of love.

“Me and My Moulton” is available through VOD on the National Film Board website and iTunes Canada.