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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A still from "Wendell & Wild"
From the brilliant visionary behind “Coraline,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and “James and the Giant Peach” comes another dark stop-motion animation picture. Director Henry Selick is back in his element with “Wendell & Wild,” an entertaining coming-of-age fantasy that comes thirteen years after his previous film. Is it worth the wait? While not as terrifying as the button-eyed nightmare fuel in “Coraline,” the director once again proves his artistry in an awe-inspiring sub-genre of animation. His signature spooky style is crawling all over “Wendell & Wild,” which introduces an exciting collaboration between Selick and co-writer Jordan Peele for a tale of inner demons. Peele’s insightful humor and remarkable experience in the horror genre shine with something to say. There is plenty to admire in the sprawling ambition of the story, and the stunning handmade animation that brings creative ideas to life. Clever punk elements add layers to a recurring core theme of rebellion. The world-building is vivid, and the characters are fun, but the story is over-packed with subplots. “Wendell & Wild” stands out as a horror-comedy that fulfills its animated promise, only leaving you wanting more focus on the story.
The story follows protagonist Kat Elliott (Lyric Ross), a teenager holding onto survivor’s guilt from the death of her parents when she was a little girl. Ever since her parent's death, their hometown of Rust Bank deteriorated into a ghost town. Once full of thriving people and businesses, the town is now plastered with posters of a corporation that wants to build a private prison on the land. The villains of the film are quickly identifiable, and their plot looms over Rust Bank like a stormy cloud. Meanwhile, Kat attends the town’s Catholic school where she meets a variety of characters: teen classmate Raul (Sam Zelaya), teacher Sister Helley (Angela Bassett), and headmaster Father Bests (James Hong) to name a few. Walking the halls with her father’s boom box blaring, Kat is not in the mood to make friends. But all that changes when she unearths supernatural powers and meets her demons, who have names.
Kat’s inner demons take on the form of scheming brothers Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele), who reside under the nose of their father Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames). When the demons discover that Kat has a portal to the Land of the Living, they propose she summon them above ground and she agrees on one condition: they must bring her parents back to life. What follows is a rebellious adventure in a world where demons are not the scariest part. The story is embedded with punk-rock energy that also lives in the characters, who challenge positions of authority and learn more about their surroundings in the process. Kat’s character speaks to the significance of approaching one’s inner demons face-to-face and being lifted by the company of a supportive community. When the film is focused on the protagonist and her relationship with the demons, the story flourishes. Kat navigating a new setting while facing obstacles from inside and out is a strong core. But the screenplay has a lot of moving parts, not all of which are fleshed out.
“Wendell & Wild” is pulled in multiple directions, often at odds with where to go. Commentary on the prison-industrial complex is one example of how the film establishes a narrative in real-life horrors. The villains reek of dollar sign eyes and heartlessness. As they scheme their way to take over Rust Bank, using various characters as pawns, their actions spawn subplots that are too loosely connected. Not enough time is spent fleshing out all these new threads and the characters born from them. As a consequence, the film feels rushed in terms of character development and story revelations. This can be felt strongest in the final act, where several subplots are given conclusions too quick to even digest.
While the story is swimming in an overflow of ideas, there are plenty of positive elements to the film that make it stand out. The characters are interesting to watch and feature fantastic voice work. There is strong representation to be found in the film, most memorably with trans character Raul, who holds space as Kat’s sidekick while also having his own backstory. The screenplay incorporates different aspects of his life and personality as well. The film also lives up to the expectation of Selick’s return to stop-motion animation. The world-building is wondrous. Spooky, gooey, nightmarish production design brings the land of the living, the dead, and the in-between to life with a punk edge. The detailed animation is a marvel – from the fuzz of a hair strand to the lifelike material of a doll. As well, the look and sound of a pop-up booklet unfolding – when Wendell and Wild show their theme park presentation – is a great example of sound design adding weight to the visuals.
A lot goes on in “Wendell & Wild,” and while not all of it comes together coherently, the level of ambition and creativity is admirable. The film has heart and touches on strong themes from facing your inner demons, to the grip horrors of the past have on the present. The punk elements are a hit, including a wonderful soundtrack that gives a boost of energy to scenes. The soundtrack features hints of choral music that will remind you of “Coraline,” and is used effectively here as well. Enough of “Wendell & Wild” works to overpower the weaknesses in pacing and story-building. The film does well at starting with a strange idea, then adding elements to ground the story from there. If only there were a neater grip on bringing all the subplots together into a more coherent experience.
Jennifer Lawrence in "Causeway" (2022)
When it comes to breakout performances, a conversation without Jennifer Lawrence in Debra Granik’s independent drama “Winter’s Bone” would be incomplete. At age twenty, Lawrence was a prodigy. Her Oscar-nominated performance as Ree, a teenager in rural Missouri trying to hold her family and home together, showcased an exciting new talent. She gave the feeling of someone who possessed so much more knowledge and experience than her years. Ironically, following her breakout role as Ree, Lawrence was often cast in roles that accelerated her on-screen age – from “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” to “Joy.” Her career took off with studio-driven roles that subverted a coming-of-age thread and held a magnifying glass further from the indie world. So much so that when a film like Lila Neugebauer’s feature directorial debut “Causeway” comes along, it’s a refreshing change of pace for one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. But this film is well beyond a ‘welcome back’ star vehicle. It’s a meditative unpacking of people who gravitate towards each other through the innate need to be understood.
“Causeway” tells the story of a soldier struggling with PTSD who re-enters a life she thought she left behind for good. After an explosion in Afghanistan, Lynsey (Lawrence) sustains a traumatic brain injury and is sent back to the U.S. The film opens with a pin-drop moment of quiet as a caretaker (Jayne Houdyshell) helps her regain mental and physical strength. This intimate introduction sets the stage for a measured character-driven story of recovery. Lynsey returns to New Orleans and moves in with her mother (Linda Emond), which does not provide the peace of mind nor the independence desired. Being back in a home of open wounds puts Lynsey face-to-face with her own childhood, along with the uneasy feeling that she no longer serves the purpose she found as a soldier. For Lynsey, being home is temporary. Her main priority is convincing her concerned neurologist (Stephen McKinley Henderson) to sign medical papers that would allow her to redeploy. In the meantime, when she’s not cleaning pools, she’s wandering around a familiar neighborhood unsure of how to fit back in. The camera lingers idly behind, but when a chance meeting opens up a new path, “Causeway” jolts from slumber.
Lynsey meets James (Brian Tyree Henry), a mechanic who fixes her broken-down truck and offers her a ride home one day. Both on a different path of personal healing, they carry their emotions close and keep a measured tab on what pieces of backstory they share. James has a personal tragedy underneath the surface that the film draws out with patience, matching the character’s hesitance to share right away. As Lynsey and James spend more time together, they ultimately begin to rely on each other like a second nature. Their gravitational journeys build the foundation for a conversation-driven drama, which can be refreshingly low-key one moment, and too subdued for its own good the next. Neugebauer’s direction feels lost in thought at times, as if navigating a story through a daydream. For every moment of reflective silence, there is one of impassivity. The inconsistency puts up a challenge to feel the characters’ connection beyond what is explained on the surface through revealing backstories. The jolts of energy come from two thoughtful, stirring performances that say more with a look than words on a page.
Lawrence plays Lynsey with exceptional restraint and a lived-in quality that makes her performance all the more honest. You can feel this character’s sense of isolation and tenacity as she tries to navigate life after a debilitating injury. Lawrence also has stunning moments of stillness, especially in the first half of the film when she exudes micro-expressions with quiet intensity, like a rollercoaster perpetually ticking upwards. Wonderful as Lawrence is, even more resonating is Brian Tyree Henry as James. To name a few stellar performances, from “Atlanta” and “Widows” to “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Eternals,” Henry is a star with remarkable range. In “Causeway,” he personifies the exercise of concealing grief. James is a complex character on a journey of healing, which takes on physical and emotional tolls from being reserved about his emotions. In a nighttime pool scene – one of the most resonating moments of the film – he lets his guard down and that vulnerability is shattering to watch. While “Causeway” is being touted as a ‘welcome back’ for Lawrence, the film often plays in the realm of a steady two-hander and would not fully work without Henry’s incredible performance. So much of the story is about a blossoming endearing friendship and the effects of two people sharing their stories.
The screenplay (written by Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Elizabeth Sanders) is full of interesting material to unpack. This is a story not necessarily about traumatic experiences but the way people conceal them, and the overwhelming loneliness that comes from doing so. Lynsey and James are two vulnerable people who carry an invincible spirit. It is through their growing bond that one starts to see the cracks, until they decide to let their emotions fall to the wayside. Lawrence and Henry play the roles with ease, especially Henry whose work is so richly detailed, he brings to life the most memorable character in the film. “Causeway” moves to the slow melody of a slice-of-life character drama, where you are not sure where everyone will end up, but they’ve experienced an awakening of some kind. Neugebauer can get a little too lost in thought, but her pensive point of view makes for some truly reflective storytelling that lets the chips fall where they may.
Sally Hawkins in "The Lost King"
From the team behind the Oscar-nominated “Philomena” comes another breezy adaptation of a true story. Directed by Stephen Frears, with a screenplay by Jeff Pope and actor-writer Steve Coogan, “The Lost King” is based on amateur historian Philippa Langley’s discovery of King Richard III’s long-lost remains in a Leicester car park in 2012. The film aims to give credit where its due by focusing on Langley (played by an effortlessly charming Sally Hawkins), whose historic finding appears sidelined by academics. She challenges Leicester University and all others in her way to restore the King’s defamed reputation. The story glides by and is engaging enough to follow along, but doesn’t amount to much beyond the sum of its parts. Frears explores historical material from an often lightweight perspective; whether it’s the aforementioned “Philomena” or the opera biopic “Florence Foster Jenkins” for example, he maintains a paint-by-numbers approach that can overlook complexities of character. He has a remarkable track record of working with a plethora of wonderful dames and legends – Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Michelle Pfeiffer. The list continues with Hawkins, who paints beyond numbers and carries “The Lost King” on her shoulders to a degree just as successful. Though much like the actors listed, she is guided by pedestrian storytelling. The biggest weakness lies in the screenplay, which relies heavily on a limited thread of a story and stretches a piece of fiction too thin.
“The Lost King” starts with the promise of something jubilant. Alexandre Desplat’s twisty score during the opening credits has you strapped in for a diverting drama. The music evokes the feeling that something big is about to happen, a great parallel to where the story begins. On the cusp of a centuries-old discovery, Philippa Langley is about to go on a journey towards commissioning a historical investigation on King Richard III. Langley’s interest in the King begins early on in the film, with a local Shakespeare production of Richard III. She notices how the play leans into misconceptions about him as a murderer and usurper. Most of all, she feels a connection to the way his disability is misconstrued, and the way her own experience with chronic fatigue is dismissed. This sparks a curiosity in her that doesn’t go away. After the local production, she starts seeing visions of Richard III (played by a poker-faced Harry Lloyd). She considers his haunting presence a reaffirming sign – that his story should be retold, and that she should be the one to pursue it. With a break from her job and the push of a local ‘Richard III enthusiasts’ group, Philippa is on her way to make history.
The film is at its core about a woman finding her voice and using it. Watching Hawkins go against the rulebook and stand her ground throughout is certainly satisfying. She gives her character’s journey heart and entertainment. While admirable to center Langley in this narrative, are the trio of Frears, Coogan, and Pope the ones to successfully tell a dramatized version of her experience? Not really. Their collaborative efforts search for moments to tug at your heartstrings but fall short with an approach too lightweight for its own good. Given the focus on Hawkins’ character in moving the story along, the screenplay avoids a more in-depth exploration of her. Hawkins does her best to ground heightened realism and play Langley’s campaign with conviction. Her efforts are let down by a film that glosses over rich details and glides on frivolity to tell the story. The twee elements of “The Lost King” can be endearing, but the film doesn’t strike the balance of being the feel-good true story it wants to be.
Given recent news of potential legal action against the filmmakers for their portrayal of Leicester University as villainous, “The Lost King” is based on a true story to an extent. The artistic liberties taken unfortunately don’t have much effect on elevating the film beyond an exercise of simply shedding light around Philippa Langley’s curiosities that led to her discovery. With the direction and screenplay on borderline autopilot, probing conversational scenes between characters fall flat. Even Steve Coogan, who appears in the film playing Langley’s disinterested husband, lacks energy and presence. Hawkins makes up for this in spades, though without the strengths of insightful and memorable storytelling to support her performance.
Without very much to say beyond what a Wikipedia page can lay out, “The Lost King” falls short in its own discovery as a standalone piece of work. What the film aims to illuminate through figments of imagination and a feel-good campaign story, is surmounted by reading about Philippa Langley’s real-life journey. The commitment of Hawkins to her craft, along with the joyousness of Desplat’s original score, are delightful hints of life. But the film falls short of the energy they bring to elevate the story. Frears’ oddly disorientated direction, along with an uneven screenplay and editing, contribute to an inconsistent tone. Floating somewhere between historical drama and whimsical fantasy, “The Lost King” is a sporadically charming and forgettable afterthought.