Thursday, 24 March 2016

ACROSS THE LINE, 20 MOVES, THE SABBATICAL - 3 2 C @ CFF2016 - Reviews By Greg Klymkiw

In light of the disgraceful wins for fake, non-Canadian co-productions at the 2016 Canadian Film Awards and the fact that Telefilm Canada and a whole lot of government agencies made the taxpayer-financed investments in the first place, the 2016 Canadian Film Fest at Toronto's Royal Theatre, cleanses the palate with three fine ALL-CANADIAN feature films: one charged with racial violence in the least likely place imaginable, another a breezy doc, and yet another, a witty prairie Canuck comedy. All three pictures are reviewed here at The Film Corner.

Two brothers. One's a pimp. The other's a new NHL star.

Across the Line (2015)
Dir. Director X
Scr. Floyd Kane
Starring: Stephan James, Sarah Jeffery, Shamier Anderson,
Lanette Ware, Steven Love, Denis Theriault, Cara Ricketts

Review By Greg Klymkiw

In the movies, racial violence and hatred has almost always seemed like the domain of urban concrete jungles in cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and, among others, Detroit.

But in Halifax, Nova Scotia?

We're talking a big, old small town in Eastern Canada with fiddle players on every corner. The bustling metropolis of Metro Toronto has seen several Canadian films (like the classic Rude) dealing with the African diaspora in the land of Mounties and Beavers, but it's never seemed as mean-spiritedly infused with the kind of roiling racism just looking to explode in violence as the burgh detailed in Across the Line.

The picture focuses on Mattie Slaughter (Stephan James), a hot young hockey forward on the verge of a major N.H.L. deal whose rise to the top is affected by said racism in the seemingly quaint seaside Halifax Harbour and surrounding environs. Add to this a pressure cooker of challenges, many of which are placed in the path of any young man on the verge of sports superstardom, but for a Black kid in a tough school in a backwards backwater, they're exponentially multiplied.

Floyd Kane's script nicely balances a group of engaging characters in a setting that's not only wholly, indigenously Canadian, but is one we're not familiar with (yet feels altogether real). Mattie's brother Carter (Shamier Anderson) brings shame to the family as he pimps out teenage girls from the high school. The relationship between the Slaughter brothers, though not without precedents in the sports movie world, has enough touches of darkness to deliver the sibling strife not unlike Foxcatcher (though nowhere near the twisted Bros in Scorsese's Raging Bull).

Our hockey hero's peer group, Black and White include his friend John (Steven Love), who is dating the mixed-race beauty Jayme (Sarah Jeffrey). In spite of the friendship twixt the two lads, John always feels like Mattie's eye is roving towards the woman he loves.

He wouldn't be wrong about this either.

So suspects the venal, rich boy Todd (Denis Theriault) who is always quick to hurl racial epithets and instigate fisticuffs and/or bullying against Black students in the school. In a nutshell, tensions are running high and a race riot twixt Black and White seems inevitable.

One of the nice things about the movie is how we're pulled into a setting so antithetical to the cliches of other gangland warfare pictures about African-Americans/Canadians pitted against Whitey. No high-rise projects on view in this setting - the families live in Haligonian bungalows in the burbs and the parents are hardworking working stiffs (Mattie's Dad is a self employed cement finisher, Jayme's pops is a uniformed beat cop and John's Mom is a weary nurse).

At times Across the Line reminded me of Charles Burnett's classic of African-American "normal" life To Sleep With Anger, but also, it manages to seethe even a bit closer to Burnett's Killer of Sheep where a working stiff eventually questions the future quality of life for his family due to the overwhelming pressures of daily life amongst his fellow African-American friends and neighbours.

If Charles Burnett made a movie in Halifax, it might feel a lot like this one. Alas, there are moments where Across the Line doesn't quite work as well as it should. The film flip-flops between gorgeously observed, almost Neo-realistic touches to some semi-klunky, seemingly shoehorned-in TV-issue-of-the-week shenanigans. In a sense, the screenplay, which is full of terrific writing, also betrays itself by feeling a bit too worked and polished. There is, for example, a clumsy subplot involving one of the teachers, played by Cara Ricketts, whose experience with racial tensions in her past informs her teaching ethos in the present. This makes sense, but a very strange, near-breakdown sequence she has during a White vs Black school riot just doesn't ring true, except maybe on a CBC Sunday Night made for TV movie.

What does ring true, though, are the elements of the story involving Mattie needing to "keep his nose clean" to ensure himself an NHL spot. Each moment that threatens to upset this apple cart adds considerable conflict to the story which increasingly feels so unfair that we're open-mouthed at how racist the world of pro sports is - especially one so "white" and "Canadian" like hockey. It is implied constantly and even stated very clearly that because Mattie is Black, he's got to tip-toe around every eggshell.

Luckily music video director, Director X, has a decent eye and good sense of rhythm. Working in tandem with cinematographer Samy Inayeh, editor Dev Singh and a first-rate cast (Stephan James, Shamier Anderson and Sarah Jeffrey all deliver sprightly, star-making and camera-loves-them performances), much of the picture pulsates and sparkles with the stuff of real life and bigger conflicts which pull the picture out of its occasional TV-movie-like toe-dipping.

And hell, the picture's main backdrop involves hockey.

It doesn't get more engaging and Canadian than that.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three-and-a-half Stars

Across the Line has its Toronto premiere at the 2016 Canadian Film Fest in Toronto at The Royal Theatre. It's an A71 release which opens theatrically in Canada just after the CFF on April 8.

ABOVE: The inventor of the Rubik's Cube, now and then,
and BELOW, the Cube's tireless promoter.

20 Moves (2014)
Dir. Harv Glazer

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Did you buy a Rubik's Cube in the 1980s? I did. I tried it once and the puzzle so infuriated me, that I tossed the brightly coloured plastic cube in the trash and never though about it again until seeing Vincenzo Natali's 1997 science fiction thriller Cube (wherein an assemblage of potential victims are trapped in a humungous Rubik-like cube and we delight in their paranoia, claustrophobia and grisly deaths). After that low budget genre classic, I gave little more thought about le cube Rubik until seeing 20 Minutes.

As the picture unfurled, I realized I'd be watching a feature length documentary on that idiotic puzzle game which bored and infuriated me over three decades earlier. Needless to say, I suspected I'd be taking a 75 minute nap.

I was wrong. This conventional, but skillfully assembled, downright entertaining and often fascinating look into the life of inventor Erno Rubik's hugely successful puzzle game had me hooked almost from the beginning. Hell, better to be hooked by a movie than some stupid puzzle I couldn't solve (my gaming needs as a lad were simple: pinball machines, Asteroids and eventually straight-up shooter extravaganzas).

Something an elderly Rubik himself says at the beginning of the picture (amidst a whack of de rigueur interviews with celebrity admirers) intrigued me immediately. He claims not have been the inventor, but rather, someone who "discovered" the cube. Given the insane worldwide success of the cube, his heartfelt modesty seemed refreshing, but also a perfect way in to the story that unfolds.

We spend a fair bit of time with Tom Kremer, a toy inventor and promoter who brought the Rubik's Cube from its humble origins in Communist Hungary to the rest of the world. He's a great "narrator" for the film and his own story is as fascinating as that of the Cube and feels inextricably linked.

Spanning the decades between the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, through to the crazy 80s and eventually to the present, Canadian director Glazer keeps us riveted to the screen with a series of great interviews with various toy company impresarios, a rich and judicious use of first-rate archival footage and a pace just breathless enough to keep you wanting more, but allowing you to savour all the salient details of a damn remarkable story. We learn about the Cube as a game sensation, but also as both a learning tool and an inspiration (quite literally sometimes) to visual artists. Imagine, if you will, hundreds, if not thousands of Rubik's Cubes being manipulated and placed together to great stunning pop-art and art works of the highest order.

In its own way, 20 Moves is as much about the Cube as it is a tale about capitalism coming to communism - about creating a fad, watching it die, then seeing it resurrected for all time - a feel-good movie about geeks and for geeks.

Hell, I might rue the day I ever saw Glazer's picture. Even now, I plan to buy a brand new Rubik's Cube - just to give it another try. And why not? I am, after all, a geek.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three-and-a-half Stars

20 Moves has its Toronto premiere at the 2016 Canadian Film Fest in Toronto at The Royal Theatre.

Hands up! Be honest!
Who doesn't enjoy middle-aged schlubs
romancing HOT young babes?

The Sabbatical (2015)
Dir. Brian Stockton
Scr. Stockton, Whittingham
Starring: James Whittingham, Laura Abramsen, Bernadette Mullen,
Mike Gill, Candy Fox, Paul-Gui Crapeau, Kevin Allardyce

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Be honest. You love comedies about schlubs who get a new lease on life when they nab themselves a hot filly, don't you? Virtually every Woody Allen comedy falls into this hallowed category as do several Judd Apatow pictures. In contemporary movies, the schlubs are usually portrayed by the likes of Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Adam Sandler, John C. Reilly or Kevin James (amongst many other fine examples of schlubs who get hot babes). The babes are oft-played by the babe-o-licious likes of Mila Kunis, Amy Adams, Katherine Heigl, Drew Barrymore and Megan Fox.

My personal meter for schlub/babe comedies is the aforementioned Woody Allen's magnificent Whatever Works, a movie that inspired many critics and audiences to vomit over the pairing of Larry David and Evan Rachel Wood, but for me, offered plenty of knee-slappers and the occasional stiffie.

But, only in the movies, you say?

There always seems to be a backlash against such pairings in films as if they're not at all realistic. Let me let you in on something, they're a lot more common in real life than people will admit to.

The math is simple.

Women are more mature then men and older men offer an element of intellect/experience that younger men are woefully unable to provide to many younger women. This is especially common in the halls of academia where one might be more likely to find individuals endowed with exceptional brains on both sides of the equation.

If for some reason, these assertions offend you, I pity you. It's only because you haven't personally experienced the joys of schlub-babe romance.

A new gunslinger has ridden his horsy into Schlub Babe Movie Town packing mega-six-shooters fully loaded with this great cinematic tradition. Brian Stockton's very funny feature film The Sabbatical even manages to take a few steps into, shall we say, "mature" territory. Closer to stories where schlub-babe relationships remain unrequited, is not unlike any Woody Allen comedy sans boinking, and then replaced with the mind-matched intercourse on display in such schlub-babe masterworks as Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

The biggest distinction of all is that Stockton's film is not set against the backdrop of New York or Tokyo or anything even remotely considered smoothly urbane, but rather in the Canadian prairie city of Regina. Comparing Regina to a similar Canadian city, Winnipeg, a friend of mine nailed the town perfectly: "Well," he postulated, "Winnipeg, unlike Regina, has at least one of everything."

It is into this city of prairie splendour, drab architecture, comfy suburban bungalows, alternating skies of blue and grey, a distinctive car-culture which renders public transit a choice only for the biggest losers and, of course, snow for 10 months of the year, we are introduced to one of the biggest schlubs in recent movie memory. James Pittman (Co-writer of The Sabbatical) is a fine arts professor at the illustrious University of Regina.

I'm not making this up.

There really is a University of Regina.

With a successful, best-selling, critically acclaimed street photography book under his belt, you'd think our schlub was set with a job for life. Alas, with budget cuts, James is warned he better have a new book by the end of his sabbatical since he hasn't published anything since his last hefty high-toned coffee table tome hit the stalls over a decade ago. So now, instead of a whole year of loafing, he might actually have to do some work to save his job.

To make matters worse, his wife Jillian (Bernadette Mullen) is a scientist who is on the verge of launching her breakthrough discovery - reproduction without men. She even insists hubby get sterilized, going so far to make the appointment for him and constantly reminding James when he'll be having his vasectomy. To top it all off, his rankings on the fame-meter have plunged, whilst his wifey is a fame-meter shooting star. Adding insult to injury, he's misdiagnosed as being prone to dizzy spells. Because of this, his drivers licence is confiscated until he's successfully completed a battery of tests.

One afternoon, feeling schlubier than he's ever felt in his life, James half-heartedly wanders around taking pictures until he spies something truly inspirational. He aims, shoots and gets a great shot of Lucy (Laura Abramsen) a gorgeous babe who registers an expression of melancholic sexiness.

Needless to say, the two start chatting and it's like they've known each other their whole life. Quips fly like a 30s/40s romantic comedy and when James hires the lovely, charming Lucy to be his personal driver, it seems like a match made in heaven. Of course, she has a boyfriend who's moving in with her and he's married.

Ah, details.

Their courtship is truly chaste, but also so delightful that we're waiting for him to dump his too-famous wife and for Lucy to turf the goofy, kind-hearted, but clear intellectual inferior to James. Until that can happen (if it can happen), we're treated to one hilarious set piece after another including James meeting his Fine Art rival, a blind photographer and engaging in a joyous round of joining some young people int a healthy round of shooting fireworks off - at each other.

However, fun as this all is, the potential of the platonic possibly moving well beyond that keeps gently roiling. I must remind you, however, that this is a Canadian comedy, and as such, I can't promise you more than bittersweet melancholia which, in and of itself, is truly moving and satisfying within the context of the film.

Conflict indeed exists in The Sabbatical, but it's incredibly gentle and low key. In fact, things never go as far as anyone in the film imagined they would, but we, as an audience, delightfully discover that in Canada, as in life, what we really want and need is hidden under the most delicate veneer.

And maybe, just maybe, if we, like our schlub James, settle for something, perhaps even settle for the forest we can't quite see for the trees, then happiness, true happiness is but a hop, skip and a jump away.

THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***½ Three-and-a-half Stars

The Sabbatical has its Toronto premiere at the 2016 Canadian Film Fest in Toronto at The Royal Theatre.