'the little mermaid' review
Halle Bailey in "The Little Mermaid"
With each new live action remake from Disney comes a dose of apprehension. The studio’s track record of reimagining their vault of animated films runs the gamut from enjoyable (Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,”), to average (David Lowery’s “Peter Pan and Wendy”), to painfully empty (Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King”). Last year’s soulless offering of Robert Zemeckis’ “Pinocchio” may very well have been rock bottom. One can only go up from there, and the studio certainly does so with “The Little Mermaid,” a charming musical adaptation which soars comfortably in the top tier of Disney live action remakes. At the helm of theater and film director Rob Marshall, “The Little Mermaid” shimmers with splashes of romance and spirited energy throughout. Marshall’s vibrant theater background compliments the beloved story of Ariel, a young mermaid whose curiosity and drive for adventure opens up a world of possibilities. “The Little Mermaid” tells a familiar story in a familiar way, on a much more grandiose scale. At times, the film is visually distracting and narratively flat. But overall it resonates primarily through Halle Bailey, whose magnificent star-making performance holds the film together.
Those who have seen the 1989 animated version will pick up on the story’s main features — mermaid dreams, family expectations, trusty sea creature sidekicks, an evil sea witch, a lost voice, a dashing prince. Marshall’s adaptation of this underwater universe retains the magic of a classic story while finding an incredible star in Halle Bailey for a new generation. From the moment Bailey appears on screen and her voice is heard, she exudes Disney Princess. She exudes heroism, wonder, curiosity. She brings heart and soul to Ariel. From melody to facial expression, you could feel the character’s longing. Her determination to detach from the expectations of her father King Triton (Javier Bardem, who oddly sleepwalks in the role), and become part of a new world are the driving forces of the film. It’s why the iconic song ‘Part of Your World’ resonates so deeply. The lyrics encompass the character’s spirit. Bailey’s rendition of the song is a show stopping musical experience that hits all the high notes.
Beyond a beautiful singing voice, Bailey also navigates the dramatic shifts of life above water when she and Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) fall in love. The film expands on the animated version by spending more time with their on-land romance. The two characters bond out of a strong desire to gain independence from family pressures. Hauer-King’s passionate performance of ‘Wild Uncharted Waters,’ a new song penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda, is a strong expression of character. Eric too leads with his heart and desires new adventures. The decision to include this song adds a layer to the romance, as it provides a behind-the-scenes of why Ariel feels attracted to him. Similarly, the inclusion of another new song, ‘For the First Time,’ gives Ariel an endearing ‘fish out of water’ moment where she discovers the world above the sea. Once lonely underwater, she’s now on the cusp of independence and the exploration of new experiences. Ariel and Eric’s spirited musical sequences show the strength of their romantic spark and what draws them to each other. The characters’ spark is complimented by winning chemistry between Bailey and Hauer-King. Bailey also conveys how Ariel maintains a meaningful connection with Eric without the use of her voice. As those familiar with the story will know, the loss of Ariel’s voice is a sacrifice made through a spell that turns her into a human.
When it comes to iconic Disney villains, one would be hard pressed not to mention the sea witch Ursula. In the animated version of “The Little Mermaid,” Ursula was voiced by the brilliant Pat Carroll and inspired by drag queen Divine. What made Ursula so entertaining was that in her eyes, she was the hero of her own story. She was euphoric in her own dark magical power, and Carroll gave the character a compelling theatricality by voice work alone. The animated Ursula was lively and terrifying in equal measure, which matched and flowed with Carroll’s vocal range. The 2023 live-action Ursula, played by Melissa McCarthy, pays homage to the icon who came before, sometimes to a fault. McCarthy has a lot of fun with the role. She infuses her own comedic charm, and utilizes her character’s hair and makeup as an extension of her performance. She also holds her own vocally during the classic ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ number. But she doesn’t embody the role beyond a surface level. The experience feels very much like one watching McCarthy in costume, as opposed to feeling immersed into a villainous character. By no means a bad performance, and it is no easy feat following the animated version. But given the similarities in approach, it does feel as though McCarthy does her best Carroll voice without bringing a more unique quality forward.
Of all the supporting performances in the film, Daveed Diggs stands out through his voice work as Sebastian the crab, who becomes Ariel’s primary protector and encouraging ally in place of King Triton. Sebastian is another role made iconic in the animated version, considering the late Samuel E. Wright’s entertaining performance as the lovable crustacean. But Diggs makes his own mark on the character and brings out excellent comedic timing. His line delivery elicits consistent laughs throughout. Plus, his singing voice tackles not one but two big musical numbers — ‘Under the Sea’ and ‘Kiss the Girl.’ The only downside of such vibrant voice work is the hyper-realistic CGI, which doesn’t always flow with the actor’s energy. Sometimes the voice work overpowers the effects, and sometimes the CGI is a distraction. This is most noticeable with the character of Skuttle, played with super heightened enthusiasm by Awkwafina but lacking the visual energy to match.
Contrary to very premature online chatter that scenes are too dimly lit, there is a lot of vibrancy and color to be found throughout the film. However, there are a number of rough patches that stick out particularly during the ‘Under the Sea’ musical number, and in the dullish animation of characters like Skuttle and Flounder. While the film looks and feels grandiose, the inconsistent visual effects takes you out of the escapist experience at times. It’s a missed opportunity in really immersing into a colorful underwater universe, especially given the set pieces and unconventional direction Rob Marshall tends to go in. He brings strong theater energy to “The Little Mermaid.” There are some visually interesting choreographed sequences that unfortunately clash with distracting CGI.
What “The Little Mermaid” achieves that many live action Disney releases don't is the retelling of a familiar and beloved story without feeling aimless. The combination of Rob Marshall’s lively direction, a mix of old and new lyrics, and a brilliant performance by Halle Bailey help create an enjoyable experience. The story itself doesn’t change much from the animated version’s blueprint, which leads to some dullness in the narrative and pacing. But where the film lacks in that respect, it makes up for with the most significant element of them all: the casting of Ariel. Halle Bailey seamlessly bridges the worlds of enchanted fantasy and grounded reality. She is the little mermaid, and the film sings to her tune.
"The Little Mermaid" releases in theaters on May 26.
A still from "Bystanders" (2023)
Friendship reunions run the gamut of emotion. Some relationships are able to pick up where they left off as if no time has passed. Others have been shaken by the very common occurrence of simply drifting apart, without rhyme or reason. Approaching a reunion is a cocktail of expectation and uncertainty, as you are getting to know someone all over again, for better or worse. The Canadian film “Bystanders,” written and directed by Koumbie, explores what happens when six childhood friends ruminate on the disturbing past experiences of someone in their circle. The group, who gather for their annual weekend getaway at a remote cottage, are forced to confront the knowledge that one of them is guilty of sexual assault. Each friend takes a stance, ranging from defense and bewilderment, to accountability and punishment. “Bystanders” tackles the aftermath of sexual assault from the perspectives of those who personally know the abuser. Will the circle of friends maintain silence and complicity? Or will the abuser be confronted? Adhering to its title, “Bystanders” is an uncomfortable story of how people navigate confessional wrongdoing and how their decisions reflect society at large.
The story begins with an air of innocence. In watching the group of friends arrive at the getaway home, Koumbie refrains from giving an early indication of the difficult conversations to come. She initially brings a more light hearted tone to the film, engaging in a secret romantic relationship between two characters Ayda (Marlee Sansom) and Zeke (Cavell Holland). The two of them toy with the idea of telling the rest of the group that they are seeing each other. The viewer also sees jovial moments among the friend group overall. Though as the film progresses, the tone becomes more dramatic with the arrival of Justin (Taylor Olson), Adya’s first love and Zeke’s roommate. From the chemistry that Sansom and Olson share, to the energy they bring to their performances, it’s clear that their characters have a history. Ayda appears to have moved on, but Justin is adamant about continuing to pursue her attention. The film establishes from early on that he crosses boundaries and lacks accountability.
The tensions between characters, and the way they all observe one another in a shared space, eventually build to a shattering dinner table conversation. It is revealed that Justin is guilty of sexually assaulting his girlfriend when they were university students. When he describes what happened, he fails to grasp the wrongdoing of his behavior. Rather than turn into a character study about the perpetrator, the film branches outward to his surroundings. How each of them reacts to this information is extremely telling of their character. One of the friends, Sophia (Katelyn McCulloch), immediately calls him out and stresses to the group that Justin should be jailed for what he did. Justin’s brother, Kyle (Peter Sarty), carries the frustration that a family member committed something horrible, struggling to fathom that his own brother would do such a thing. The film’s bystanders constantly navigate not only how to approach Justin, but whether their own reactions align with their core beliefs and values.
Co-written by Koumbie and Taylor Olson, the film explores literally and figuratively how shared spaces are utilized. Whether sharing a physical space, or an intimate experience. Justin shatters the safe space that held his friend group together; trust is broken upon them finding out someone they thought was a decent human being had committed violence. The film also explores how a man’s actions puts a woman’s experiences into perspective. In light of the news, Ayda begins to reexamine her own relationship history with Justin, and specifically the times she felt that her own safety was violated. It is an unsettling moment in the film that speaks to how women are so often gaslit, and their experiences are not taken seriously.
The biggest missed opportunity in “Bystanders” is not centering Ayda’s character throughout. The majority of her scenes tend to revolve around Justin’s presence, rather than elaborate on her point of view. This is a character with conflicting emotions, trying to reconcile the person she once had feelings for with the person he reveals himself to be on the weekend getaway. While there is a strong imbalance of perspective, “Bystanders” makes for a promising feature debut by Koumbie. In exploring the bystanders of the story, she takes an intriguing and introspective approach to heavy subject matter.
'Midnight at the paradise' review
Emma Ferreira, Allan Hawco, Liane Balaban, and Ryan Allen in "Midnight at the Paradise" (2023)
The Paradise Theatre on the corner of Bloor Street and Westmoreland Avenue has been a part of Toronto’s neighborhood for decades. With its 1930s art deco style and welcoming atmosphere, the Paradise brings audiences together. It’s a place where people not only watch films, but create memories, and make connections with people that last forever, no matter how much time passes. For the characters in “Midnight at the Paradise,” a gem of a picture directed by Vanessa Matsui, the theatre is a checkpoint. It represents a moment of reflection, and a reminder of the past. It is through the significance of this landmark that the film gently finds its way. From passion and grief, to the fickleness of time, resonant themes are explored with care and the power to evoke strong emotion. With terrific subtext and authentic performances, “Midnight at the Paradise” shines as a meditative slice-of-life story about personal journeys.
“Midnight at the Paradise” follows two former lovers — Iris (Liane Balaban) and Alex (Allan Hawco) — years since they first met. Living in Toronto, Iris is unhappily married to Geoff (Ryan Allen), raising their daughter Alice (Lauren Brady), and caring for her terminally ill father Max (Kenneth Welsh). Meanwhile in Montreal, Alex feels disconnected from his girlfriend Anthea (Emma Ferreira), and is eager to make a trip back to where he found his everlasting early love. Upon being introduced to Iris and Alex separately, there is an intriguing unspoken connection between these two characters. Though physically cities apart, they feel joined at the hip. You pick up on their history without question, a testament to good acting and complimentary editing that flows incredibly well.
Iris and Alex have a tenderness and a shorthand that unravels slowly, leading up to when the two reconnect at the Paradise. They pick up where they left off, as if no time has passed. Often when it comes to films about lost lovers finding their way back to what they once shared, the story zones in on their personality traits and who they are as defined by each other. “Midnight at the Paradise” stands out in depicting a romantic connection from the perspective of daily life and how it informs the pursuit of revisiting past experiences. In addition to Iris and Alex, the screenplay (written by Bill Robertson) invests in the supporting characters of their lives and how the protagonists’ love impacts them in small ways. Instead of being defined by each other, the film incorporates the bits of life happening around them to create portraits of people that feel real.
The characters are brought together by the Paradise — Iris has plans to save the theatre with a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (1960), a prime example of French New Wave cinema. Both Iris and her father Max (a former film critic whose motto is to let a movie be a movie), hold “Breathless” in high regard. The Paradise screening is a tribute to Max, who is suffering from pancreatic cancer. The film depicts a complex father-daughter relationship that thrives in subtext. The emotions left unsaid between them speaks volumes as they share several scenes centered on just a look, or a parting word.
From the way Iris looks at her father, there is a heartache and a longing behind her eyes, that gives you a sense of how difficult it is to see him unwell. As someone who shares in a similar experience, the pain brings about deep reflections of the future and time itself. You remind yourself of what matters at your core, and feel a greater desire to follow what makes your heart sing. Iris reconnecting with Alex, even on a subconscious level before the two physically meet again, is a resonating manifestation of one of her deep desires. Alex takes her back to young love, endless possibility, and the experience of watching “Breathless” together for the first time. As well, her love and appreciation for her dad’s work and what films meant to him. “Midnight at the Paradise” excels at showing how a true love story continues to build — further away from reality — in its struggle to survive the everyday.
“Midnight at the Paradise” marks Vanessa Matsui’s feature directorial debut and an exciting new chapter in her career. One that has been long awaited considering her wonderful dark comedy web series “Ghost BFF,” which premiered its first season in 2018 and followed with a second in 2020. The series tells the story of two best friends (one alive, one a ghost) navigating their past and present life choices. “Ghost BFF” shines a light on mental health in a truly accessible and authentic way. Matsui brings a similar authenticity to the topic of romantic relationships in “Midnight at the Paradise.” The film balances Iris and Alex’s story while exploring sparks flying between Geoff and Anthea, as well as the long-lasting connection between Max and his wife Charmaine (Kate Trotter). Each of these relationships are given the time to unfold naturally, and feel rooted in truthfulness. The performances are grounded and bring emotional weight to the story, especially Balaban and Hawco who convey subtext beautifully.
Matsui embraces the messiness of love and the mixed emotions around what people want out of their partners. She maintains a compelling exploration of characters at different points of their relationships, and how the overlapping of their lives brings out their personal pursuits. In addition to being a great piece on complicated relationship statuses, “Midnight at the Paradise” is a sweet love letter to the power of films. From the backdrop of saving the Paradise theatre to the use of Godard’s “Breathless” as a compatibility test for the characters, there is so much love around this medium of storytelling and its power of bringing people together.
'mafia mamma' review
Toni Collette in "Mafia Mamma" (2023)
Step aside, Michael Corleone. A new mafia boss is in town. In Catherine Hardwicke’s slapstick comedy “Mafia Mamma,” mild-mannered mom Kristin (Toni Collette) unexpectedly inherits her grandfather’s mafia empire and reluctantly takes on responsibility as new leader of the Balbano family business. Guided by the family’s advisor Bianca (Monica Bellucci), Kristin defies expectations and climbs up the mafia hierarchy. This story of succession is exaggerated into one of silliness. Each scene has a lighthearted tone, and moments of attempted heartfelt emotion are brushed aside in favor of maintaining aloofness. “Mafia Mamma” aims to entertain, and succeeds goofily in doing so, but the parting note it leaves the viewer is forgettable. While Hardwicke’s direction is lively and Toni Collette gives a committed performance to make an absurd premise work, the screenplay lets everyone down in creating an emotionally engaging story. “Mafia Mamma” is a silly fish-out-of-water story that operates on surface level. When the fun and games are over, emptiness washes over.
The film establishes Kristin as a suburban mom who lives an ordinary life with her husband Paul (Tim Daish) and their son Domenick (Tommy Rodger). You see Kristin go through the motions of her day-to-day, until one day she catches her husband cheating on her. Distraught and blindsided, she finds solace in her friend Jenny (Sophia Nomvete). All the while, a life-changing phone call from Italy is about to change Kristin’s life. She is informed that her grandfather/mafia boss Don Giuseppe Balbano (Alessandro Bressanello) has died, and that she must attend his funeral in Italy. Kristin runs this through with Jenny at an exercise class; Jenny amusingly encourages her to “Eat, Pray, F**k,” a play on the 2006 Elizabeth Gilbert novel “Eat Pray Love.” Kristin decides to use this opportunity as a chance to explore Italy — meet a partner, have great wine and food, and forget her troubles back home. But she is in for a dramatic awakening.
The changes brought on by Kristin’s inheritance of the mafia empire are not only tangible. In addition to a new scenery and wardrobe, the character of Kristin is going through an internal metamorphosis. When the viewer first meets her, she is lacking confidence in herself. Her marriage has fallen apart. She is not appreciated at her job; her bosses reek of toxic masculinity and sexism in the workplace. Her voice is not being heard. During her time in Italy, she becomes more confident in herself. She leads a daring and dangerous life, from accidentally killing people to severing eyeballs. Her voice becomes heard in a cutthroat business made up nearly all by men. The film struggles to really engage with who Kristin is at her core; it’s clear that she is on a path of empowerment and destiny, plus tapping into female rage, but her character development is messy. Rather than engage with promising themes, the film opts for cliches, stereotypes, and slapstick.
Inconsistent as it is in terms of humor level, the slapstick element of “Mafia Mamma” is precisely what makes the film entertaining. From the absurdity of the fish-out-of-water story, and goofy supporting mafia characters, to the majority of Kristin’s actions throughout. Only a truly versatile and committed actress could take on this material and create a worthwhile experience out of it. Toni Collette has the range; in her illustrious career, she has taken on nearly every genre. Does “Mafia Mamma” rank high among her best films? No, but it serves as further example of how dedicated she is to giving her characters a sense of purpose. With her unique talent, she pulls off an equally unique feat of suspending disbelief and going along with her character from one bizarre situation to the next.
Where “Mafia Mamma” falls flat can be felt watching the end credits. The film is silly fun to watch, but excruciatingly forgettable after the fact. The screenplay leans too far into slapstick to the point where it overpowers characters. Certain plot points in the story are sped through, especially in the final act where a courtroom sequence appears out of thin air. Collette is giving the energy that the film calls for, but at the expense of resonating character development that isn’t just surface level and full of cliches. The romance plot in particular between Kristin and Lorenzo (Giulio Corso), a man she randomly meets at the airport when she arrives in Italy, comes and goes. The film also criminally wastes the talent of Monica Bellucci; her commanding screen presence is incredible, but her character is given little to do and not much time to make an impact in the story.
“Mafia Mamma” is surreal to watch in its incessant dedication to goofy punchlines and stereotypical storytelling. While the performances are committed enough, the characters lack the dimension to stand out beyond the circumstances they are in. The film’s emphasis on situational cringe comedy grows tiresome. But the entire cast are game, and their commitment (centrally Collette) in each and every scene pays off in creating campy entertainment. “Mafia Mamma” doesn’t hold a candle to resonant crime films, nor do the screenwriters have a good story on their hands. But ultimately this is a fun, goofy time from start to finish. “Mafia Mamma” arrives in theaters April 14.
'showing up' review
Michelle Williams in "Showing Up" (2023)
As the opening credits roll on Kelly Reichardt’s latest film “Showing Up,” the director’s perceptive sensibility is on full display. A collection of sculpted pieces are given uninterrupted focus. The viewer soon discovers whose artistic hand is behind each creation. Michelle Williams plays Lizzy Carr, an antisocial sculptor artist on the verge of a career-changing exhibition. In the lead-up to her show, she navigates the quiet stresses of her family, friends, colleagues, pet cat, temporary pet pigeon, and everyday life itself. As Lizzy tries to mould a place of solitude and protect her artistic process, daily setbacks get in the way. “Showing Up” moves at a gentle pace, which is exactly the kind of minimalist approach that has come to define one of the most distinctive filmmakers of our time. From “Wendy and Lucy” and “Certain Women” to “First Cow,” Kelly Reichardt tells low-key stories about characters going about their lives, simply passing through. A clear continuation of this type of storytelling, “Showing Up” is a wonderfully perceptive piece about nurturing creativity and navigating obscurity.
Lizzy lives with her cat and prefers an unbothered life when she’s at home. She has a tranquil workspace, where she makes sculpted people who are rough around the edges. Each piece, as you see in the beginning of the film, is about to be part of an upcoming gallery exhibit. Given the obscurity of Lizzy’s work, this show is a big deal, and she wants everyone in her life to be there, however dysfunctional. Lizzy works administration at a small arts college in Portland, Oregon. Her mother Jean (Maryann Plunkett) is her boss, a detail which the film reveals in a perfectly subtle way. Jean floats in and out of the story, as do Lizzy’s ceramicist father Bill (Judd Hirsch) and mentally ill brother Sean (John Magaro).
Among Lizzy’s limited social circle, there’s sweet pottery expert/co-worker Eric (André Benjamin, also known as André 3000), and pesky landlord Jo (Hong Chau) who is also an artist. The majority of these characters represent a daily setback on some level, particularly Jo repeatedly ignoring Lizzy’s requests to fix the water heater in her rental house so that she could take a shower. The interactions between Lizzy and Jo are incredibly stressful to watch, made even more so by the discreetness of both characters. Their dynamic feels truthful, especially for Lizzy’s character who is more introverted and avoids confrontation. Another highlight is Lizzy’s return home from a stressful family situation, clearly in emotional distress, only to find that Jo is throwing a party next door. The camera stays on Lizzy as she walks from her car to her front door, and it’s one of the most quietly nerve-wracking moments in the film.
Rather than exaggerate for dramatic effect, “Showing Up” underplays conflict to the point where it fades into the mundanity of everyday life. Lizzy having to remind Jo to fix the shower becomes part of a routine. When a pigeon flies into Lizzy’s window and she carefully puts it back outside, Jo finds the bird down the road and hands responsibility over to Lizzy for nurturing. The pigeon becomes part of a routine. The film conveys several moments such as these, where Lizzy’s work schedule is interrupted by various people (and animals) and she shows up to face each mini challenge. It’s a slice-of-life story that unfolds the way daily life does: routinely, though not without a curveball or two, in varying degrees of extremity. No one captures the mundane like Reichardt. She has perfected the art of drawing out the significance from unassuming moments.
“Showing Up” shines in its focus on mood and atmosphere over a highly eventful plot. Not much is happening in this story. The screenplay, co-written by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond, prioritizes the bits of life happening right under your nose. It’s a patient character study just as much about Lizzy as it is about her surroundings. As is often the case in Reichardt’s body of work, characters are conveyed through a language of what’s left unsaid between them. When we first see Lizzy among a group of people, there’s an energy to the way she interacts with them, suggesting how close or distant she is to them. Explanatory dialogue is not needed. The inflections of a character speak volumes, and in this artistic world of Portland, reveal how creative impulses shape how you go about your day. Lizzy’s character is an engaging depiction of how it feels to immerse yourself in art and craft, while feeling the tug of responsibility.
The role of Lizzy is right up Michelle Williams’ alley. “Showing Up” marks her fourth collaboration with Reichardt and by this stage, the two have established an incredible shorthand with each other. It’s easy to see why Williams continues to show up, they feel made for each other on an artistic level. Williams slips into the unassuming slumber of Portland without missing a beat. Her performance is a subtle showcase of her instinctive, naturalistic gifts as an actress. While her character is emotionally reserved, Williams is an open book with perceptive expressions that call on your patience to sit with her and simply observe. She makes Lizzy’s insecurity palpable on screen, to the point where you do feel quietly stressed out (and at times mildly amused) by her day-to-day life.
In addition to Williams, Hong Chau is terrific and makes a case for becoming another wishful Reichardt regular. After her breakout role in 2017’s “Downsizing,” Chau has continued to show phenomenal range, from 2022’s “The Whale” and “The Menu” to the 2019 HBO stunner “Watchmen” and this year's crafty whodunit series “Poker Face.” “Showing Up” is another wonderful turn; the character of Jo is tricky to find. She’s self-centered and annoying in her neglect. She also has a deep impulse to create as much as possible, and despite previous challenges, she shows up for Lizzy’s big night. Jo and Lizzy show up for their art in different ways, and that dichotomy is resonating to reflect on.
Throughout “Showing Up,” there are blissful uninterrupted vignettes of artists making things. Artists in their element, focused only on the creation at hand. Reichardt finds a sublime balance between portrayals of isolated artists like Lizzy, and the prospering art world she’s surrounded by. “Showing Up” depicts the creative process in a way that you can assign your own perspective. Once you find your creative skill, how do you nurture and protect it? How willing are you to show up for it? Is your willingness at the expense of others, who need you and count on you for something that exists outside of your creative zone? “Showing Up” may seem specific in its focus on a small slice of life, but Reichardt engages in such resonating universal themes about wrestling with self-security as an artist, and finding a place in a community full of creatives.
cff 2023: 'babysitter' review
Nadia Tereszkiewicz in "Babysitter" (2023)
Following its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, “Babysitter” is arriving in Toronto to kick off this year’s Canadian Film Fest (CFF). The CFF is an indie-spirited festival dedicated to celebrating Canadian filmmakers. The festival returns this spring for its 17th edition, and for the first time, as a hybrid with both in-person and virtual screenings. This year’s slate has a strong focus on women in film, both in front of and behind the camera. “Babysitter,” directed by Monia Chokri and written by Catherine Léger, confronts misogyny with a sardonic point of view. The story follows Cédric (Patrick Hivon), who after committing sexual assault and losing his job, attempts to “free” himself from sexism by co-writing a book to attack misogyny. His wife Nadine (Chokri), a new mother exhausted by his behavior and in search of her own fulfillment, becomes drawn to their child’s babysitter Amy (Nadia Tereszkiewicz). Amy’s presence creates a more mysterious, playful environment. As Cédric and Nadine drift further apart, their lives become more and more like a fever dream.
The film plays up qualities of dreamlike strangeness, from the technicolor set pieces and cinematography, to the exaggerated acting. There is a cartoonish, eccentric energy to Chokri’s direction. The characters feel like caricatures instead of human beings. The costumes and sets have a coat of plasticity to them, not unlike pieces you would find in a doll’s house. While “Babysitter” has a specific vision aesthetically, the film lacks in a coherent narrative structure. Adapted from Catherine Léger’s 2017 play of the same name, Chokri’s genre-bending approach explores themes of toxic masculinity and gender politics through elements of horror and comedy. The use of different genres has its intriguing moments, particularly with the babysitter character who channels satire fairly well. However, the potentiality of this film resonating in its social commentary is overpowered by inconsistent direction and over-exaggerated performances.
“Babysitter” often difficult to follow and keep engaged by, which makes one curious for how the film could have worked better through a different perspective. By centering Cédric as the protagonist, the story is told largely from his point of view as he attempts to apologize for his sexist behavior. This relegates a far more interesting character to the background: Nadine. While she isn’t given much material to work with, Chokri brings an enjoyable stoicism to the character and maintains the film’s magical realism. Nadia Tereszkiewicz’s performance as Amy fits the fairytale-like directorial style; rather than a character who advances the plot, the babysitter appears to be a figment of one’s imagination. Of the cast, Chokri and Tereszkiewicz stand out in balancing the film’s erratic tone. The rest of the ensemble leans too far into exaggeration, reaching the point where they distract from the story. This is the case for the majority of factors at play in “Babysitter.” While refreshing in its genre-bending approach, and full of energy, the muddled screenplay and unfocused direction make for a wearying experience.
A still from season two of "Gay Mean Girls" (2023)
Welcome to your chosen family. The viral sensation “Gay Mean Girls,” a web series based on a short film that amassed 3.5 million views in 2015, returns with a second season. Following the first season, which premiered at TIFF Next Wave in 2019, season two maintains a heartfelt journey of resonating characters and sharply written dialogue. Season one tells the story of prom committee member Lucy Ching, who in looking to foster a more diverse high school community makes the prom contest queer. The story sheds light on intersectionality and the uniquely personal experiences of navigating high school. Season two exists very much in the same vein, with the added layers of complicated activism and finding your own voice in the middle of community-driven spaces. With this new season, “Gay Mean Girls” creator and director Heyishi Zhang builds upon a raw and inspiring foundation. A brilliantly conceived idea anchored by a compelling narrative, “Gay Mean Girls” continues to shine as a deconstruction of chosen families.
Season two centers on student journalist Savannah Lin (Jenna Phoa), who wants to make a documentary for a scholarship in the arts. In search of video essay subjects at Harper Heights High, she joins a queer POC safe space for young queer women and non-binary folks. A seemingly healthy discovery of individuality and friendship soon reveals to be a lot more complicated than expected. Issues of power dynamics and open secrets infiltrate what should be a safe space. As Savannah navigates the betrayal and corruption, she discovers the power of her own voice. Each episode builds on how her experiences — particularly at school and at home — shape the creator she is about to become. Savannah wants to be known as more than just a school reporter. The scholarship is an opportunity for a career in the arts and ultimately a turning point in finding her chosen family, a community that not only welcomes what she has to say, but believes in her voice.
The first episode sets the tone for a deeply personal series. From the detail of Savannah’s bedroom to the lived-in family dynamics, each and every element feels derived from a truthful place. The visual touches also create a vibrant environment. From the dreaminess of “The Business of Justice” episode to the neat VHS conclusion of the series, there’s a nostalgia for physical media and enduring content. The family dynamics throughout the series reverberate as well. Savannah’s home life is one of the more engaging aspects of the series as it gives insight into her fuel for creating. Her father has made for an abusive and toxic environment in what should be a safe space. Her mother is doubtful of the artistic pursuit, just as she is about Savannah’s surroundings. “Women ruin your life in ways men can’t,” she tells her daughter. This line plants a seed for what’s to come — grounds of corruption that calls into question the meaning of inclusivity. After Savannah experiences a very troubling assault and is met with the pressure to let it go (“hurt people hurt people”), this becomes a key turning point in the series where Savannah learns the lesson of trust. Not only with what constitutes a safe space, but also when it comes to her own voice.
In the protagonist’s search for a pitch for her scholarship, she learns how to be a storyteller, to invite conversation rather than demand it. She learns to unpack common phrasing such as “hurt people hurt people” and find trust within herself. It’s a scary place to be in, which the series depicts truthfully. A scene of Savannah sharing her first version of her video essay in front of an audience is something out of a horror film. From the palpable nerves to the surrealistic words of encouragement afterwards, so as not to make her feel bad about the film, it’s a strong depiction of vulnerability. What makes “Gay Mean Girls” resonate far beyond its short and sweet runtime is the creator’s commitment to those moments of being vulnerable.
Creating and being creative are a window to the soul. The sensitivity around finding what truly attracts you and sharing it with the world is a leap in the dark. Each and every episode evokes the feeling of taking that leap of integrity. In the wake of such troubling betrayal, Savannah takes creative control of her life and in that turn of events, begins to flourish in a safe space of her own. She joins a queer safe space thinking she found her chosen family, but through the corruption, teaches a lesson on the validity of her own experiences — that this is more than being part of an activist community, it’s about getting to choose how to tell your stories.
“Gay Mean Girls” premiered its second season on KindaTV from February 24 to March 3. All 8 episodes of season two are available to watch via KindaTV on YouTube.
Maziyar Khatam and Amir Zavosh in “Baba” (2023)
Filmmakers Anya Chirkova and Maziyar Khatam are two of the most exciting emerging talents in the industry. From writer-director Chirkova’s summer romance “Flower Boy” (which starred Khatam), to Khatam’s clever Sundance short film “Bump” (which he directed, wrote, and starred in), these 2021 works exemplify clear artistic voices. Through relatable characters and impactful gestures, they tell stories of everyday life. “Flower Boy,” filmed in a dreamy summer haze, captures the hopes and dreams of a teenager figuring out who he is. “Bump,” in broad daylight of a city sidewalk, finds physical humor in the trivial altercation of getting accidentally bumped into. These films are the epitome of short and sweet, which has come to define what one can expect from Chirkova and Khatam. Their new collaboration is a short film called “Baba,” which screened at Sundance earlier this year.
Co-directed by Chirkova and Meran Ismailsoy, “Baba” follows a middle-aged Iranian man (Amir Zavosh) as he desperately tries to keep his apartment. All the while, his relationship with his son (Maziyar Khatam) is unraveling in real time. From the moment these characters are introduced, the parental tension is palpable. The father, behind on his rent, is dodging his son’s attempts at conversation. Not to mention pleas from the landlord (James Choy) as well as an upset neighbor complaining about the noise. The film excels at placing you in the thick of a claustrophobic environment, both on an emotional level and by way of setting. A narrow apartment traps chaotic conversations in its walls. Each character who steps foot in this space is immediately caught up in the chaos. The flow of dialogue and use of setting create an echo chamber, which is a strong reflection of the film’s protagonist — he exists in an environment where he engages only with opinions that reinforce his own. Whether it’s his son or his landlord, no one can really get through to him. “Baba” holds attention on a father’s fall from grace, doing so with such a visceral approach that you feel present not only in the apartment, but in his frame of mind.
Maziyar Khatam’s screenplay evokes a human experience in a way that feels effortless. The dialogue shines a light on the hurdles of communication barriers and the heartache of isolating from one’s surroundings. Amir Zavosh’s character is so deeply wrapped up in his personal scenarios, everyone else who steps foot into the apartment at some point becomes background noise to his centrality as a protagonist. It is also through the supporting characters that you get a glimpse into the protagonist’s relationships, such as that with his son. Amir Zavosh and Maziyar Khatam, who share wonderful chemistry with each other, bring a grounded quality to the story. You feel immediately drawn to the realism of their characters as they navigate one anxiety-ridden scenario after another. In feeling like a fly on the wall of their experiences, Zavosh’s character especially, the ending is made all the more reverberating as a stunning moment of self-reflection.
From the frenetic handheld camera work and overlapping tense dialogue to the claustrophobic setting, “Baba” unfolds mostly in a state of disorder. The direction by Chirkova and Ismailsoy finds strength in beginning the story at a place where tension has already risen and you find yourself in the thick of it. Given the tensity, it is an unexpected surprise how “Baba” ends with such peacefulness. The film’s strong use of a close-up stresses a poignant moment for the protagonist; it’s a well-earned window to his emotional vulnerability, which Zavosh plays very well. Aligned with the direction and screenplay, the acting showcases strong commitment to making a day-in-the-life story feel as realistic as possible.
"Adult Adoption" review
Ellie Moon stars as “Rosy” in director Karen Knox’s ADULT ADOPTION, a levelFILM release.
Credit : levelFILM
Director Karen Knox and actor-writer Ellie Moon make a charming collaborative team in the absurdist comedy “Adult Adoption.” Set in contemporary Toronto, the film follows Rosy (Ellie Moon), who has aged out of foster care and is now working as a bank teller. She has a solid job, but is living a life that does not feel personal to her. Rosy seeks to make sense of the world around her, to find a semblance of purpose and to fill the void felt from growing up without parental figures. One day her coworker Helen (Leah Doz) brings up the idea of meeting prospective parents, an idea to which Rosy immediately warms to. Through an online service, Rosy decides to connect with older adults who are in search of adult surrogate children. The journey of familial love introduces her to “dates” with various parental-like figures who have the potential of stepping into a guardian role, but they are figuring things out just like Rosy is. Karen Knox brings an off-center sensibility to her direction, which complements the protagonist’s awkward path of self-discovery. The zany storytelling accentuates the ridiculousness of assuming anyone has the answers to all of life’s mysteries.
From loneliness and neglect to chosen families and self-acceptance, significant themes are approached from a tinted lens. “Adult Adoption” is made with a soft pastel palette, as though depicted from rose-colored glasses. The production design by Talia Missaghi and the cinematography by J Stevens add to the cautious optimism this film evokes. The protagonist shares some of her deepest most vulnerable thoughts to strangers. One potential parental figure in particular, with whom Rosy spends increased time with, is not as attentive as Rosy would like. The sense of frustration Rosy experiences when the disillusion of life kicks in is one of the more resonating moments in the film. After years of not feeling wanted from foster families and adoption agencies, she wants to finally experience being part of a family. Ellie Moon’s strength both as an actor and writer brings a great level of openness to understanding Rosy’s perspective.
Moon’s screenplay finds strength in the dynamics shown between Rosy and two prospective parents. Through the characters’ interactions, the film engages with manifestations of love and loneliness in familial relationships. Everyone involved in the adult adoption process is searching for a balm to solitude in some way. Sometimes the simplest gestures can speak to a need of being comforted. Rosy at one point asks one of the prospective parents she regularly meets with to brush her hair. With a quirky pop song bopping in the background, the hair-brushing scene shows Rosy’s level of maturity as though she is frozen in youth. In addition to Rosy’s childlike bedroom and the various uses of pastel colors throughout the film, “Adult Adoption” makes use of visual cues to accentuate that the protagonist is emotionally stuck at a certain age.
Self-love plays a role in Rosy uncovering her hurt and finding a way to process it. She often searches for emotional support in other people. She brings with her a certain level of expectation from them, in addition to her needs of being accepted. The journey leads her to realize the importance of her own self-acceptance. With a single line in the film — “I am the creator of my own life” — Rosy embraces the practice of self-love with much greater complexity and control. As such, the world begins to open up for her. In one of the film’s most resonating moments, she walks out of a club with a spring in her step. Through Moon’s facial expression and the way this scene is shot, her surroundings become clearer. This moment is a fitting parallel to the very last shot of the film that sees Rosy surrounded by trees: a significant symbol of growth, change, nourishment. Rosy’s life is in bloom.
The film tackles a subject not often explored in many films — adult adoption. This subject is conveyed with care, and an emphasis on the wide range of emotions one would imagine this process involves. There’s also a quirkiness to the telling of this story. From the music choices and acting, to the direction and writing, “Adult Adoption” brings a mostly refreshing approach to big themes. While some scenes feel too lightweight for the subject matter, the film more often than not reaches a strong balance of humor and sadness. Above all, Ellie Moon’s performance as Rosy is an endearing anchor. She captures the sensibility of a young woman trying to figure out her path in life while frozen in time.
“Adult Adoption” is currently screening at the Revue Cinema in Toronto.
"desi standard time travel" review
Adolyn H. Dar and Ali Kazmi in "Desi Standard Time Travel"
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that your parents are more than your parents. That they have their own history, aspirations and dreams in addition to raising children. With time and the passing of it, comes a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices and responsibilities involved within parenthood. The weight of such responsibility isn’t always at the forefront of every conversation between a parent and child. Nor is the possibility that any given conversation could be the last. You don’t know how much time you have with someone on earth. Time is the one thing you can’t make more of — but what if you could relive past moments with lost loved ones? What if you could go back in time and say what you wished you could’ve said more often? Kashif Pasta’s “Desi Standard Time Travel” answers these questions with a gentle urgency. This sci-fi drama short finds a sweet narrative within the wishful train of thought that is, ‘If only I could go back in time’. The film tells a character-driven story centered on fatherhood and unconditional love. With an incredibly human story at the core of a fantastical plot, “Desi Standard Time Travel” is an enjoyable and poignant reminder to be present in life.
When new father Imran (Adolyn H. Dar) suddenly loses his own dad, an opportunity arises to travel back in time for an evening. Imran receives a call to accept a time travel voucher in his late dad’s name — in substitution of a will, this voucher is left behind for Imran to redeem wisely. He reflects on a time he was assembling a crib while on the phone with his dad. The conversation ended on a haunting note; that Imran will call one day, and his dad won’t be there to pick up. With regret and longing, Imran jumps at the opportunity to end things on a better note. But instead of the travel device taking Imran back to that particular phone conversation, he is transported to the early 90s — before he was born. His parents had recently immigrated to Canada. His father was not a father yet; he was on the cusp of it, awaiting Imran’s birth. When Imran steps into this 90s childhood home and is faced with a younger version of his father, the sense of rediscovery is overwhelming. His father didn’t have all the answers. He too felt uncertainty around becoming a parent for the first time.
The film packs plenty of resonating themes in a short timeframe, which is fitting for the overall message this story conveys about time itself. The relationship drawn between the concept of time travel and the fragility of life is beautifully depicted. The concept never overpowers the story; it has the opposite effect, where the characters and the family dynamics ground the sci-fi elements. Pasta’s direction, in addition to the screenplay he co-wrote with Nessa Aref, highlights intimate moments of being alone with your thoughts. You spend enough time with Imran’s character to understand he is quietly processing different stages of grief — from regret and anxiety, to much deeper realizations and his urge to understand as much about his dad as possible when presented the opportunity. Time travel as a plot device is used so intimately here, and is a touching reminder that the very concept of time after losing a loved one can be indistinguishable. Days blend together and before you know it, a year has passed. The abyss of grief can feel as though life has come to a standstill. “Desi Standard Time Travel” hits pause on the fast-forwarding of life in its unwavering focus on a father and son opening up to each other. Their emotional vulnerability, played beautifully by Adolyn H. Dar and Ali Kazmi, invites you to reflect on how present you are with your own loved ones.
Which particular moment in your parents’ life would you revisit, or want to learn more about? “Desi Standard Time Travel” poses just as many if not more questions than answers. Through an intimate use of the time travel concept, the film shines at its own pace and sparks moments of personal reflection. It’s a deeply personal story of second chances, new beginnings, and making memories full of joy. The decision to take the story back to before Imran was born stresses his parents’ individuality and particularly his father’s nerves about becoming a parent. The nostalgic warmth that radiates from Imran’s childhood home conveys a home full of love and possibility for what the next day will bring. "Desi Standard Time Travel" leaves you in a state of deep appreciation and wonder for the most cherished relationships in life.
“Desi Standard Time Travel” has screened across film festivals in Canada, and won a variety of awards including Best Short at Toronto Reel Asian. The film is currently in contention for a Canadian Screen Award this year; nominations will be announced on February 22.