A still from "The Grab" (2022)
Nearly a decade after her devastating SeaWorld documentary “Blackfish,” about the captivity of killer whales, writer-director Gabriela Cowperthwaite outdoes herself with an eye-opening investigation into global food insecurity. More so than “Blackfish,” “The Grab” is much trickier to digest and dives deeper in its subject matter. Multiple documentaries could be made from the sheer volume of information presented. To crystalize focus, Cowperthwaite echoes a statement uttered decades ago by Alfred Henry Lewis – “there are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” The world is essentially nine meals away from chaos. Food is not only a human right that people will fight to protect, it also wields power that governments exploit. At the core of the documentary’s narrative is how countries grab food and water resources for themselves, leaving arable pieces of land (and the people that populate them) in the dust. Damning facts are gathered, but at what point is the line drawn to present findings to an audience? Cowperthwaite passes the threshold and gives emotional urgency to an alarming ongoing crisis. While messages become swamped in non-linear storytelling, the power of “The Grab” as a thrilling investigative documentary is unmistakable.
“The Grab” initially follows a project spearheaded by investigate journalist Nathan Halverson of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). After a multi-billion dollar Chinese takeover of an American company (Smithfield Foods) to control their pork supply, Nate’s questioning of the acquisition of pigs leads him to discover the Chinese government was behind the deal. Nate then falls down a rabbit hole of re-emerging patterns in other countries. A Saudi Arabian company buys massive land in the Arizona desert; Arizona residents are left with severe water shortage. The morally compromised founder of Blackwater (“the ugliest face of American power”) grabs land in Africa; residents in Zambia are forced out of their homes. An American cowboy is recruited to Russia to work at a farm; he’s in an environment that was once far too cold for green crops and cattle. These unearthed revelations speak to dots connected by various threads, from stealing another country’s resources to profiting off the ramifications of climate change. It’s not long before Nate finds himself at a crossroads of how best to proceed with a sea of information rising like dangerous waves, about to come crashing to shore.
Nate contacts fellow journalists Emma Schwartz and Mallory Newman, so that the three can work together in bringing truths to life in a way that demands action. When they reach the trove, the “eureka” of the investigation, the documentary reaches its climax. Thousands of emails and documents leaked to Nate reveal Blackwater founder Erik Prince’s involvement in the raiding of African land for its food supply. Rather than focus solely on the leak, Cowperthwaite charges toward all the new threads that multiply from this revelation. She frames Prince’s emails as a playbook to show how people actually go about food inequity and raid resources that aren’t theirs. Cowperthwaite takes on such vast material that “The Grab” feels never-ending in its global interconnectedness. Like a Russian doll, a new layer is waiting to be unearthed.
Numerous floating heads speak to how far the subject reaches, from the war in Ukraine, and silent donations from royals, to the draining of American pensions for land investments. Cowperthwaite does a fine job exploring how a single inquiry can spark a trove of information at a journalist’s fingertips. By jumping so frequently from one subject to the next, she starts losing focus on how to share all these threads in a coherent way. She introduces some interesting techniques – the occasional use of visual tools makes it easier to see the connections mapped out. As well, a simulation with government officials recreates what conversations could happen if two countries go to war over food and water supply. These underused techniques are a welcome change to how information is presented.
Cowperthwaite finds an engaging subject in Nathan Halverson, whose persistence maintains urgency. His collaborative efforts with Emma Schwartz and Mallory Newman raise the curtain on what’s been happening in the shadows of food inequity. The documentary is paced like a thriller. Each new reveal of information elicits suspense and keeps you on edge, wondering how many more layers there are to the story. From an enormous subject, Cowperthwaite manages to narrow down key figures and their involvement in the grab. This shines a much-needed light on who is responsible, and what kinds of patterns have emerged from various countries’ dwindling resources.
Where “The Grab” succeeds the most is not only considering the political and national urgency of food insecurity, but the human urgency as well. Parts of the documentary shows you the heartless way human beings are treated. Caught in the middle of the scramble to control food are people on the ground whose resources for their livelihood are stolen. People who lack the power and control to make decisions about their own lives are hit hardest. In the face of injustice, it’s heartwarming to see the documentary identify good-hearted individuals – such as Zambian human rights lawyer Brigadier “Brig” Siachitema – fighting for the people. Cowperthwaite’s storytelling has a global reach that grabs you from the start, and maintains palpable urgency throughout a sea of information. “The Grab” may be challenging to grasp at times, but when the stakes are alarmingly high, the passion to tell as much story as possible is understandable.
Mélanie Bray, Keris Hope Hill, Alex Trahan, and Constance Bernard in "ROSIE" (2022)
Among a festival populated by big names and high profile titles, Canadian films feel more and more like hidden gems. Watching a film made so close to home, especially one as vibrant and energetic as Gail Maurice’s “ROSIE,” is a heartwarming sensation. In her feature debut, the Métis writer-director tells a bilingual story of chosen families set in 1980s Montreal. Home is defined not by places, but by people. People such as Frédèrique (Mélanie Bray), a Francophone street-smart artist on the cusp of being evicted, who finds beauty in trash and turns it into hard-to-sell paintings. When met with a young Indigenous girl named Rosie (Keris Hope Hill), the daughter of Frédèrique’s deceased sister, Frédèrique (known more commonly as Fred) reluctantly becomes the girl’s guardian. With support from friends Flo (Constant Bernard) and Mo (Alex Trahan), the group steers through the responsibilities of being present for Rosie. There’s no rulebook on how best to go about this, a sentiment the film reflects vividly. “ROSIE” is at its best during moments of spontaneity, when the story feels fluid and unpredictable. But the majority of characters are overwritten and stilted, creating a challenge to connect with the film’s openheartedness beyond a surface level. While consisting of resonating themes and a quirky energy with colorful 80s influence, Maurice’s sweet slice-of-life plays it safe as a standard coming-of-age drama/comedy.
Adapted from Maurice’s 2018 short film of the same name, “ROSIE” balances focus between the perspectives of Fred and Rosie as their lives intersect on the fringes of Montreal. Fred is initially against the idea of taking care of Rosie – without a stable foundation to provide for herself, let alone a child, the child services agent assigned to the case is met with fervent reluctance. But when the agent explains that Rosie would otherwise be placed back into foster care, this sparks Fred’s interest in protecting Rosie from a broken system. Through conversations between Fred and social services, the film makes resonating reference to experiences of The Sixties Scoop – a period in which Canadian policies permitted Indigenous children to be “scooped” from their homes, placed into foster care, and adopted by white families. Fred’s impassioned dialogue – talking of children being ripped from their parents and placed into empty homes with empty souls – strongly conveys the character’s motivation. Fred is still a picture of conflict – a scene of her leaving Rosie at a park with a stranger is a striking example of her reluctance. But over the course of the film, Rosie’s influence on Fred’s life blossoms, opening up the possibility of togetherness as a family unit.
“ROSIE” is framed around the titular character’s impact on the lives of others, which is both joyous and bittersweet in equal measure. Keris Hope Hill’s performance as Rosie brings an adorable, vibrant energy to the film. Her character also acts as a reminder of the many children whose identities were lost during the Sixties Scoop period and beyond. Identity and alienation are prominent themes in the film that are strongly expressed through the characters. An English-speaking Rosie adapting in a French-speaking community, and meeting a Cree man (Brandon Oakes) with whom she forms a bond, further shows how the filmmaker expresses the power of identity through this character. Rosie’s connection with the Cree man in particular stands out, showing her regain her Indigenous identity piece by piece. Telling the story with a child’s perspective in mind gives the film a sense of wonder, innocence, and openness. Maurice’s screenplay brings an unfiltered approach to the characters and story, without strong judgment. But in the attempted balance between Rosie’s perspective and Fred’s, there is a missed opportunity in getting to know more about the titular character herself, beyond how she is viewed in relation to other people in the film.
While “ROSIE” is a mostly sweet experience to take in, the screenplay often plays it safe with the storytelling. Given the subject matter and themes at play, not digging deeper leaves a lot to be desired. Maurice relies heavily on surface-level character traits to provide backstories. As a consequence, the film explores characters from a distance. The actors bring enough presence to make up for gaps, though some of the performances feel stilted in moments of heightened drama. Among the adult cast, Mélanie Bray shines brightest as Fred. She brings a rebellious spark to this character and makes Fred’s predicament feel utterly believable. Bray’s lived-in work reaches impressive moments in the scenes of Fred engaging with social services. Constance Bernard and Alex Trahan give fine performances, but both are let down by writing that half-engages in their backstories without delving much into who these characters are.
While the character development is lacking, “ROSIE” does a sweet job in creating a community-driven energy throughout that warms your heart. The colorful cinematography and 1980s setting make you feel part of this world, as though you’re walking along the streets with the characters and being welcomed into their chosen family. It is not hard to miss Maurice’s love and affection for telling this story, bringing a fresh perspective to the screen. Themes of family and rebellion, identity and resilience, are handled superficially at times. Despite a surface-level approach, this film has a big heart and remains to be a delight to watch.
Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy in "The Menu" (2022)
“Yes, Chef” are reverberating words in the culinary world. The phrase is a form of reassurance between a kitchen team and their leader, to ensure every single staff is on the same page of meal execution up until the moment a dish is served. Perfect execution takes precision. The process is painstaking, at times even frightful as stress levels soar in pressure cooker environments. The pressure for a meal to become more than “just food” haunts Chef Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) in Mark Mylod’s wickedly entertaining thriller “The Menu.” At the esteemed Chef’s restaurant Hawthorne, a sleek and mysterious-looking structure located on a remote island, the heat is on to craft a culinary experience that will shock and awe for one special evening. As a group of wealthy guests arrive for the lavish meal, among them young couple Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), you get a first taste of intrigue about who has a dinner invite and why. Slowik’s right-hand woman Elsa (Hong Chau) greets each guest with meticulous composure and an amusing bluntness. As she gives them a tour of the premises, anticipation gnaws for what the staff at Hawthorne have cooked up for the soon-to-be recipients of a meal truly like no other. “The Menu” is not just an appetizer, it’s a wholly satisfying meal you’ll want to savor every twisted last bite of.
Mark Mylod turns the phrase “Yes, Chef!” into a frenzied chant. It echoes with an obligation to fulfill Slowik’s obsessive desire for conceptual fine dining. The menu is more than the food. Hawthorne stands to give guests an unforgettable meal not to “eat” but to savor, relish, digest, with pleasure. That is the principle Slowik swears by. He not only executes experiential meal concepts for each course, but takes into consideration the people he and his staff are serving. He knows each and every one of the guests invited to this fancy dinner. All except for one, whose presence puts a wrench in an otherwise carefully planned full-course meal. The most astonishing ingredient of Mylod’s storytelling is how the film visually feels like a lavish menu come to life. Each course gets a vivid title card, complete with delicious food close-ups and frequently amusing menu item descriptions that play on developing plot points in the story. The technical precision, from lavish cinematography and production design, to exquisite art direction and set decoration, would be up to par with Slowik’s finely tuned expectations of perfection if he had a say.
Like any truly good and memorable dish, taste is just one element. The emotions mixed into the preparation of a dish play a strong role in how any given person experiences it. How much is enough to truly satisfy your guests in the food service industry? What will it take to reach the glow of fulfilling everyone’s taste buds? “The Menu” is a heightened play on ultimate satisfaction with the kitchen on the receiving end. By turning customer satisfaction on its head, screenwriters Seth Reiss and Will Tracy push the idea of a fine dining experience to horror-fueled extremes. Chef Slowik’s deranged approach to culinary arts keeps the story fresh and unpredictable. The concept is fully realized and alive, swirling in a fun balance of thrills and chills. With a consistent tone that leans into dark comedy, the laughs come and go in equal measure.
The film also satisfies with one of the year’s best ensembles, featuring Ralph Fiennes in the most entertaining role of the bunch. His commanding screen presence is an ideal fit for Chef Slowik’s uncompromising and intense nature. In keeping with the film’s dark humor, Fiennes’ comedic abilities shine bright through the character’s scorching one-liners, which singlehandedly cut through the nonsense of his wealthy customers’ problems. Anya Taylor-Joy can now add “The Menu” to her repertoire of horror-fueled storytelling with another compelling performance. She too has a commanding presence that gives her character a mysterious edge. Taylor-Joy and Fiennes together are a match made in culinary hell. Nicholas Hoult, John Leguizamo, and Janet McTeer shine among a stacked supporting cast, but the biggest standout here is Hong Chau. From the moment Chau appears on screen as Elsa, she captivates your attention. You want to follow this character, study her every move and concealed expression in the hopes of raising the curtain on Hawthorne. Her deadpan delivery is a pleasure to watch.
“The Menu” is made with a love for satisfying storytelling. Impassioned direction, a tremendous cast, and great technical prowess are the garnish sprinkled over layered themes at the core. One of the more fascinating layers is the underlying sense of community among kitchen staff, whether current or former. That Chef Slowik is able to recognize people who have worked in the service industry having never met them previously, is a welcome nod to kinship. There is a mutual understanding in knowing what the inside of a pressure cooker environment looks and feels like when the expectation is to satisfy everyone. The film plays on that kinship in the final act, where the dynamics shift particularly between two central characters on a gratifying level. Much of “The Menu” explores gratification, whether from the perspective of appreciation or obsession. Slowik’s guiding principles of eating food – savor, relish, digest – are easy to follow in a film that gives you plenty of bite to do just that. Bon appétit.
A still from "Butcher's Crossing" (2022)
Between truffle hunting with a foraging pig in Michael Sarnoski’s “Pig” and buffalo hunting in Gabe Polsky’s “Butcher’s Crossing,” Nicolas Cage is building onto his repertoire of stories about human greed at the expense of an animal. Giving a compelling performance with a hint of feverish madness, his latest role in Polsky’s brutal environmental Western has him play notes of obsession in the 1870s Colorado wild. His character, Miller, is a hunter hell bent on the slaughter of as many buffalo as humanly possible. His insane ambition attracts bright eyed Harvard dropout Will Andrews (played by Fred Hechinger), eager to join the hunt after leaving city life behind in pursuit of a new experience. Will is the “outsider” of this Western story. He enters into frame with a fire in his eyes, not hungry for anything in particular except what he hasn’t yet seen. Miller holds the key to a new world, and the meeting of these two characters is what sets “Butcher’s Crossing” on its bleak course. The journey is slow-moving, and doesn’t arrive to a place of fully fleshed characters by its conclusion. The performances do just enough to tug the story along, Cage in particular a solemn and fierce presence. Polsky reaches some fine peaks with a thematically resonating view, but ultimately “Butcher’s Crossing” takes a far too simplistic approach to the psychologically layered source material.
Adapted from John Williams’ 1960 novel of the same name, “Butcher’s Crossing” is framed around the protagonist Will, a preacher’s son from immense wealth who decides to finance Miller’s hunt out of sheer naiveté. Much to the annoyance of an entrepreneur in town (played with gusto by Paul Raci, a treat to see in a new film following “Sound of Metal”), Will gives Miller the golden ticket of a lifetime: a fully funded hunter expedition. Along with a mountain man and a buffalo skinner (played by Xander Berkeley and Jeremy Robb), the group sets off on a nightmarish trail. Co-written by Polsky and Liam Satre-Meloy, the screenplay finds strength in juxtaposing the protagonist with Miller, because the character of Will in this film is far too much of a void to carry the story alone. Through no real fault of Hechinger, doing his best at portraying the character’s shift from naiveté to insight, he is at the hands of a screenplay that feels unfinished. For a film about a protagonist in search of who he is, it really is a wonder who this character is, as very little time is spent getting to know him in the first place. In retrospect, the narrative themes touched upon are far more interesting to think about than the key players in this story.
Capitalism consumes Will and Miller; one through economic contribution, and the other through obsessive ambition no matter the cost. The writing builds on that strength by exploring a growing distance between the two characters through their evident relationships to nature. Intended to be a three-week buffalo hunt, the expedition becomes a rough ride through changing seasons. The longer Miller is surrounded by earth’s elements, the deeper into madness he falls. Whereas the time Will spends surrounded by nature, whether taking in the sights of a forest or staring a buffalo in the eye out of reverence, crystalizes a newly found insight into what he cares about. While still very much a mystery who Will is on this journey, witnessing the destruction of a species first-hand reveals who he isn’t. In the face of all the horror mankind is capable of, particularly the heartless superiority shown over animals, nature holds breathtaking power in its untouched serenity.
Considering the lost time getting to know the characters, it is a challenge to find an unwavering connection to “Butcher’s Crossing” when the film so intently centers its action around the men’s shared experience in the wild. Polsky draws out the journey with flickers of characters’ fever dreams, suggesting a madness brewing but not paying enough attention to the power of a good buildup. What does help craft suspense is a thunderous score by Leo Birenberg, evoking the feeling of a dangerous sweeping epic when it kicks in. The performances help bridge a connection as well, namely Cage who embodies his role as the intimidating Miller. While not in the top tier of his most recent one-two punch, “Pig” and “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” the actor’s unique presence works its magic in the West. His magnetism plays a key role in luring Hechinger’s character down a path of destructive consumption and the toxic fight for survival. The supporting cast turn in fine work, even though most of the characters feel surface level. The same sentiment can be extended to the film itself, a merely fine accomplishment that fails to dig deeper beneath intriguing themes.
Amandla Stenberg, Maria Bakaolva, Chase Sui Wonders, and Rachel Sennott in "Bodies Bodies Bodies" (2022)
How well can you trust the company you keep? That is the question posed by Halina Reijn’s horror-comedy, “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a blood-soaked satirical blend of murder mystery and fragile Gen Z friendships. Written by playwright Sarah DeLappe, and based on a story by author Kristen Roupenian, the entertaining A24-produced slasher has an endgame with a twist. The film takes place in one setting, a remote family mansion in upstate New York, where a group of rich twenty-something friends gather for a hurricane party. A storm is on the horizon, and tensions within the group are about to make impact like crashing waves. When an ice-breaker drinking game leads to an actual murder, the friends must identify the killer among a group where everyone is a suspect. Ah, the classic “party gone wrong,” a familiar trope in the horror genre designed to disrupt safe spaces. There are some parties where you do not want to be a guest at. But sometimes horror films are best enjoyed with the company you keep, especially a wickedly fun experience like “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” which deploys a good ensemble as the driving force for its story. Reijn’s film is stacked with a brilliant cast — from the tremendous comedic timing of Rachel Sennott, and the mysterious effervescence of Amandla Stenberg, to the appealing naivety of Lee Pace. “Bodies Bodies Bodies” shape shifts around the company it keeps, and mutates into a sharp narrative about vulnerable relationships in a digital-obsessed age.
The ‘bodies bodies bodies’ game of “killer” and “victims” playing in darkness is an effective framework for a film with silent dynamics at play. When the lights are out, the killer taps other players, who must pretend to play dead on the spot. Once the lights are turned on, the surviving players vote on who the killer is. But “Bodies Bodies Bodies” goes beyond a simplified whodunnit. The film is not just about the killer’s identity, but asks where the killer resides from a big picture. Is an outside threat slashing their way in, or is the call coming from inside the house? A literal storm may be raging, but what’s brewing behind closed doors is far scarier. Sarah DeLappe’s screenplay pushes characters to the edge of their respective breaking points. All the thoughts left unsaid between them are coaxed out through backstabbing, resentment, jealousy, paranoia, and passive aggression. Staring fear in the face, they reveal dark sides of themselves to one another that they may not have intended to. As more bodies fall, the film leans more into the complicated dynamics at play between the characters and offers something else to chew on, beyond simply escaping from a house of horrors. The film constantly makes you second-guess the characters’ intentions and convictions. The idea of everyone being a suspect in a deeply satirical setting has been done before, expertly in films such as the “Scream” franchise. “Bodies Bodies Bodies” feels fresh and twists in all the right places.
DeLappe’s sparkling script, Rejn’s energetic direction, and a fabulous cast captures lightning in a bottle. While questionable on whether this will stand the test of time, the film has a lot of fun conveying Gen Z social relevance and privilege, sprinkled with buzz words and a strong meta self-awareness. The characters are well defined, and the actors do a tremendous job fleshing them out. “Bodies Bodies Bodies” has one of this year’s best casts — naturally, some (Rachel Sennott, Lee Pace, Myha’la Herrold) shine brighter, but all of the actors bring a burst of charisma here. The film zones in on Amandla Stenberg and Maria Bakalova who play Sophie and Bee, a new couple visiting Sophie’s friends at a luxurious mansion. Pete Davidson plays the chaotic house party host, and Chase Sui Wonders plays an aspiring actor in a toxic relationship with him. Myha’la Herrold plays the tough passive-aggressive friend, and Lee Pace plays the goofy intimidating older guy of the group. Then there’s Rachel Sennott, who absolutely runs away with this film as self-obsessed Alice, who loves having a good time and has a podcast. She brings levity to the more tense situations with dazzling spirit, and in equal measure, tangible panic in the face of immediate danger. One can’t help but wonder just how much of Alice’s lines are improvised by Sennott herself. Her comedic timing and pitch-perfect delivery shine brighter than her character's glow-stick jewelry.
The cast share an entertaining push-pull dynamic that pulls you into the characters’ emotional, problematic mayhem. Every moment of paranoia and distrust feels high-stakes. The friend group’s crumbling relationships become the focal point in a setting of murderous bloodshed. Reijn brings an up-close-and-personal quality to her direction. She achieves an impressive feat where you feel trapped in the stormy mansion alongside the characters, as opposed to being unpleasantly stuck with them. While the friends are subjects of deep satire and mockery, they are not left for dead. The screenplay is full of strong characterization and keeps an enlightening thread open for each of the characters. The actors bring out interesting layers and are complemented by Reijn’s remarkable empathy, never veering into Gen Z caricatures but instead holding a mirror to the universality of wanting to belong. The balance of generational specificity and ubiquitous themes speaks to a grounded, relatable sensation. Looming in the darkened corners of the remote mansion is a deep-down desire to be part of something. Proving to be as good as the company it keeps, “Bodies Bodies Bodies” is an energetic slasher that blends humorous satire with sincerity.
“Bodies Bodies Bodies” arrives in U.S. theaters on August 5 and Canadian theaters on August 12.
Eleana Ignazzitto and Liliana Suarez in "Abuela" (2022)
Having spent most of my childhood with my grandparents, I have since carried into adulthood an unbreakable bond, indescribable but unmistakable in the emotions it stirs. The relationship between a child and their grandparent can be a beautiful thing. Precious lessons and memories are passed from generation to generation. Whether it be through a favorite past time, or a particular food dish. Making a family recipe is a powerful way of connecting to your loved ones, as seen in writer-director Rebeca Ortiz’s debut short film “Abuela”. This beautiful short, which premiered at the 2022 Future of Film Showcase (FOFS), feels like a warm hug of a story. “Abuela” tells the story of a young girl named Kathy (played by Eleana Ignazzitto) and her visiting grandmother/Abuela (played by Liliana Suarez); the two initially struggle to connect through different languages, but ultimately find a way to break through barriers. One afternoon, when the grandmother starts making empanadas, the granddaughter switches off the TV in the next room and is drawn toward the kitchen. In one moment, through a traditional family recipe, their relationship begins to blossom.
The film shows a sweet glimpse into family dynamics and the dichotomy that dissolves between both characters by sharing an activity together. Resonating themes of generational bonding and tradition are wrapped into a few short minutes. Ortiz finds strength in simplicity; with a brief runtime, one setting, and two main characters, “Abuela” is a memory in the making. In real-time, as the young girl helps her grandmother make empanadas, Ortiz engages with the power of generational bonding. She sits with the idea that the young girl will carry this memory with her when she grows up, and that the grandmother has made a mark on the younger generation. The richness of perspective and detail is impressive. Ortiz brings a marvelous voice to this story, sure to resonate as a memorable depiction of generational relationships. Well-acted and beautifully shot, “Abuela” is a heartfelt directorial debut filled with the promise of a great filmmaker.
Wo Chan in "Little Sky" (2022)
From June 17-26 at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, the 2022 FOFS presented a showcase of Canadian short films that explored a range of subjects and complex storytelling. One of the shorts that premiered at this year's showcase was Jess X. Snow’s incredibly cinematic “Little Sky”. The short is executive produced by Andrew Ahn (director of “Fire Island,” “Driveways,” and “Spa Night”). "Little Sky" is about non-binary Chinese American drag sensation Sky (Wo Chan), who returns to their hometown to confront their estranged father. The film shows glimpses of Sky’s childhood memories through hazy flashbacks that give the viewer an idea of what their experiences were like within a nuclear family household. Their father can be seen in those tense moments. But the impact their father had has never truly left Sky. In the present day, those childhood memories haunt their frame of mind and feel difficult to shake. When Sky and their father finally meet face to face by surprise, the tensity is raw. As Sky emotionally reaches out to him, he fails to recognize them for who they truly are. Instead of attempting to understand, their father backs away in rejection of their child. Jess X. Snow tells this story (along with co-writer Moxie Peng) of identity from an intimate, consuming perspective. With a strong voice and resonating emotional core, “Little Sky” is a beautiful portrait of childhood memories that linger into adulthood. As well, a striking depiction of self-acceptance, chosen families, and the comfort of expression drag performances give to Sky.
Tom Choi in "Til it Blooms" (2022)
Calling all moviegoers! The Future of Film Showcase kicks off tomorrow, and believe me, you will not want to miss this year’s tremendous lineup. Running from June 17-26 at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, the 2022 FOFS presents a showcase of Canadian short films that explore a range of subjects and complex storytelling.
One of the shorts premiering at the festival is Wendy Xu’s “Til It Blooms,” a 10-minute horror-comedy about grief. A distraught father, just before his big speech at his own father’s funeral, desperately tries to suppress a “grief flower” sprouting from his face and body. Written, directed, and edited by Xu, the film has an original premise around the significance of flowers at a funeral. Not only can grief be difficult for mourners to express into words, but the process of grieving is often hard for family and friends to understand. Flowers are a visual condolence, an expression of sympathy and healing. The life of a flower is also fragile, beautiful, and fleeting.
“Til It Blooms” explores the flower as an expression of grief, that the film’s protagonist Bo (played by Tom Choi) wants to push away. The film uses florals to convey body horror and achieves realistic-looking effects. An eerie scene of a flowerbed in a bathtub, rising and falling as if taking breaths, stands out as a vivid image. The film has a strong sense of place; as a viewer, you feel immediately drawn to the setting and understand the weight of being in a room of mourners. Xu strikes a great balance of fantasy, horror, and drama with an interesting concept. The film makes a memorable mark among this year’s FOFS lineup.
“Til It Blooms” premieres June 19 at the Scotiabank Theatre Toronto. Visit www.fofs.ca for online and in-person tickets. The shorts program will also screen nationwide on CBC Gem starting June 20.
Imani Lewis and Sarah Catherine Hook in First Kill (2022)
In the vampiric underworld of Savannah, The Fairmonts and the Burns are two powerful feuding families. After all, vampires and vampire slayers are destined to be at war for eternity. That is until the families’ youngest, Juliette Fairmont (Sarah Catherine Hook) and Calliope Burns (Imani Lewis), meet and fall in love. Juliette had been crushing on Calliope (nicknamed Cal) at school for a while, and clumsily invites her to a house party. After a quick round of spin-the-bottle, they are alone in a room together for the first time. But this ‘first time’ quickly becomes a potential ‘first kill’ as the teenagers reveal their true nature. Both on the cusp of achieving this ‘milestone,’ they feel pressure from their families to prove themselves worthy. Juliette and Cal are taught the three golden rules of a first kill: stay calm, keep your head on, and be prepared for anyone. But nothing could prepare them for the emotional rollercoaster following their first kiss. Based on the short story by best-selling author Victoria “V.E.” Schwab, First Kill is an entertaining queer YA series and a modern day Shakespearian Buffy with a love story at the core. Many young adults will be able to see themselves on screen given the open-hearted storytelling, subversion of queer tropes, and strength of representation.
While film and television has been saturated with vampire content over the years, First Kill feels refreshing in its central themes around identity and belonging. Rather than turn queerness into a point of conflict, this is simply portrayed on screen as matter-of-factly and invites a younger generation of viewers to watch queer characters who feel real. Juliette and Cal are going through normal teenage insecurities and butterflies, plus dealing with a high standard set by their families to succeed within a very specific path. On top of all the typical teenaged angst, they face the otherworldly threats of ghouls, zombies, and stake knives to the heart. Juliette comes from a family of Legacies, powerful vampires who draw strength from their queen mother serpent and make it nearly impossible for slayers to kill. Cal is from a family of celebrated vampire slayers whose mission is to ward off monsters. Savannah is a tough city to keep clean, its centuries of violence the perfect hub for the Legacies to feed. In order to fulfill destiny, Juliette as a vampire and Cal as a vampire slayer, they must train to see each other as monsters. But when it comes to the heart, no amount of training can simply change how they feel. The first episode sets up the premise nicely; we learn the perspectives of both protagonists and their family dynamics at home. We also get to know how Cal in particular is able to see the signs of Juliette’s identity as a day-walker vampire.
This love story has Shakespeare written all over it: two young lovers destined to be together but whose love is forbidden by opposing families. Episodes five and six feature sweet references to Romeo & Juliet (in the protagonists’ case, Juliet and Juliet), from recreating the famous balcony scene to reciting words from the play. Whether Juliette and Cal will subvert tragedy and get a happy ending is enough reason to anticipate the green light of a second season. As well, the concept of First Kill works through interesting dynamics within the horror genre. The question of ‘what if the monsters are not all monsters inside?’ is the driving force for most of the conflict. Cal is taught that vampires don’t feel and don’t love. As the love grows between her and Juliette, she begins to question her family’s beliefs and her loyalty to them is tested. Meanwhile, Juliette uncovers ugly truths about her own family and in particular her sister Elinor (Gracie Dzienny), whose ‘perfect vampire’ persona has dangerous tendencies.
First Kill is a fitting example of how ‘cheesy’ is not necessarily a weakness. Sure, the visual effects are goofy and stick out like a sore thumb. Yes, the dialogue can be on-the-nose and a little stifled. But the episodes are certainly entertaining to watch unfold. The story is anchored by great chemistry between the two leads; Imani Lewis and Sarah Catherine Hook bring such conviction to their characters, it would be impossible for this series to have much bite without them. They have a push-pull kind of attraction and carry the emotional weight of their characters with an understanding of Cal and Juliette’s internal conflict. Also complimenting their work is a strong female gaze behind the camera. Felicia D. Henderson, show runner/writer/executive producer, is among a team of mostly female producers including Emma Roberts and Sarah Preiss. As well as a female writer, V.E. Schwab, who is adapting her own short story. From the way the protagonists’ backstories are presented, there is a clear level of care taken to exploring who they are and how they navigate the world as teenagers under pressure. Time is also given to a lot of the supporting characters, played by actors who are game for the material and know exactly how to draw that fine line between camp and earnest. Among the cast standouts are Aubin Wise, who plays Cal's mother Talia with such wonderful pathos and screen presence.
Schwab’s story resonates as one that older audiences may have wished they had growing up. First Kill is a campy 8-episode horror series centering queerness in a way that feels authentic and simply a part of the storytelling. The two protagonists are each given autonomy in their perspectives, and share a compelling dynamic that intensifies. Each episode ends with an unraveled thread that keeps the stakes high and makes you thirsty to watch more. While the ending opens doors to a second season, the decision to end on the development of less interesting supporting character journeys is questionable. Especially given the strong dynamics set up between Juliette and Cal for the series duration. Both protagonists are still learning about themselves, their capabilities, and whether to pursue the true feelings they have for each other despite the vampire/slayer roles. What Juliette and Cal come to realize is that there is a first for everything.
All eight episodes of First Kill are streaming June 10th on Netflix.
Jack Lowden in Benediction (2022)
The biopic sub-genre has seen plenty of films follow a similar trajectory: one that lands on the greatest hits of a person’s life and feels like a Wikipedia page adaptation in chronological order. With the ‘no stone unturned’ approach, a lot of material is crammed into a few hours of screen time out of obligation. As a consequence, you lose the intrigue of what makes a subject interesting to explore in the first place. For writer-director Terence Davies, his new film Benediction shines through an observational portrait of 20th century English poet and solider Siegfried Sassoon. The film is about Sassoon’s life in fragments, as he is in perpetual search for peace of mind over time. As a solider who lived through the first World War, his vulnerability was raw. As a gay man who expressed his sexuality at a time when it was dangerous to do so, his relationships under the pressure of societal expectations pushed him further from his own truth. Through narrative past and present, Davies makes such keen observations of Sassoon’s internal battle as someone drowning in regret while cushioned by privilege. With a sharp screenplay and non-linear direction, Benediction makes impact as a haunting story of a redemption that never comes.
In the best performance of his career, Jack Lowden plays war poet Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry is a vivid reflection of his internal conflict. The film introduces him protesting a war of aggression, and the political eras against which men are being sacrificed. Having survived the war, he finds himself in a different dilemma. One that calls into question his morals, his responsibilities, everything he once believed in. From the way Sassoon carries himself, you can tell this character has crossed the bridge from passive resistance to active salvation. His engine of change is powered by the way he challenges the war, no longer willing to be part of suffering to unjust ends. In challenging his beliefs, he finds himself committed to an Edinburgh mental hospital for “questioning his superiors and his own duties as a captain”. A nervous breakdown, others call it. The film drives Sassoon to an endless crossroad; he is in constant search for truth and resolution, looking everywhere except the one place he ought to, within himself.
From Sassoon’s hospital time in Edinburgh, to his affluent interactions with members of high society, to the later stages of his married life, Benediction is a story driven by memory. The film explores the war poet’s life in the way he seemed to have left it: unresolved. While fragmented in structure, Davies has a measured eye. His attention to detail, both as a director and writer, is far too strong for the story to ever lose focus. Benediction takes shape with the use of poetry, which features as narration of Sassoon’s experiences from time to time. These moments recall how Davies shows a deep understanding of his subject. Through writing, Sassoon was able to articulate emotion that could not be explained outside of poetic expression. Davies honors the sentiment by choosing to convey pieces of Sassoon’s life as if they were dreamt up from reading the poet’s words.
The power of one’s mind is captured so beautifully, and tragically, throughout this film. Because of Sassoon’s internal conflict and constant search for contentment in life, the memories that flood in from his past experiences take on a haunting quality. With memory comes the painful regret of his destructive relationships; after befriending and losing fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), Sassoon falls for the wrong men over and over again; we see some who are cruel and indifferent towards him. Ultimately, his experiences lead him down a path later in life where he struggles to face all his regrets. The film includes elegantly shot transition scenes between young characters and older versions of themselves. Peter Capaldi plays the older version of Sassoon; while not given nearly as much material to chew on in comparison to Lowden, Capaldi brings a visible exhaustion that speaks to the life of someone who got lost along the way of finding himself. The later stages of Sassoon’s life show how, following years of unfulfilling relationships, he manages to carry on in a new life unrecognizable from the one he once led. The way Sassoon grapples with his decisions can’t be explained by just one reason. Getting from one point to another in life is a collection of tiny moments, many of which seem inconsequential, but for a filmmaker like Davies are the stuff of plentiful significance.
Working magic with Davies is Jack Lowden, who gives what is easily a career-best performance as Sassoon. His blend of sensitivity and rigorous detail is Davies’ match made in heaven. Lowden dives deep into an intriguing portrait of a character in the thick of grief and loneliness. His performance is layered, witty, and full of the command needed for this character to feel alive. Often times period films can generate and encourage performances that exist in the confines of a regimented structure. But with themes of morality and humanity on the table of discussion, Benediction gives Lowden the material to find something fresh to say through the vessel of such a mysterious subject. He consumes his lines with passionate spirit and delivers with a punch. Davies’ screenplay is full of biting dialogue, quick-witted and at times funnier than expected.
As the dialogue so carefully crafted in Benediction shows, the story cuts through pleasantries with an unapologetic straightforwardness. What appears to be an old fashioned war film very quickly becomes a reminiscent study of Sassoon’s life. The film has the look of a classic period piece, from Nicola Daley’s elegant cinematography to Annie Symons’ polished costume design. But Davies makes a point not to forget what lies outside the privileged walls of Sassoon’s surroundings. He juxtaposes wealthy and distinguished settings with grim 1920s footage from the First World War. It’s a reminder that while Sassoon and the circles he ran in were somewhat protected from a life of artistic influence, the lower class of the world were facing imminent repercussions.
The story of Benediction is a fascinating exploration not just of Siegfried Sassoon, but also the climate in which he lived. Davies mediates on the emotional aftermath of war and how it alters the rest of a person’s life. As well, the pressures around a gay man expressing his sexuality at a time when doing so could have resulted in jail time. Davies’ storytelling portrays Siegfried Sassoon like a collection of memories; ranging from poetic and funny, to lonely and tragic. There’s an unrelenting tang of regret in the character’s eyes that both Lowden and Capaldi capture well at different periods of the man’s life. Not much time is spent on articulating what Sassoon is thinking at any given moment, but by the end of Benediction, it is clear just how much sadness he carried across a turbulent lifetime. The film builds to a final scene that will certainly be hard to shake from one’s memory.
Benediction is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.