Hot Docs 2019 Reviews: THE DAUGHTER TREE (Canada 2019) ****

The Daughter Tree Poster

THE DAUGHTER TREE is a cinematic character-driven feature documentary with unprecedented access that explores the aftermath of a cultural preference for baby boys sweeping through interior … See full summary »


Rama Rau

Indians are stubborn to have a boy.  They abort the girls.  Changing the natural order results in unbalances in the human ecology of things.  There are insufficient girls to be married off and many males end up singles, unable to find a wife.  Brides are often sold to willing males.  

The insightful doc THE DAUGHTER TREE, filmed in India is an entertaining  and absorbing examination of the problem.  This is a totally new Canadian documentary written, produced and directed by Rama Rau, an epic documentary film, six years in the making, about the disappearance of women in India resulting in all-male populations in some villages.  If there is a feminist themed movie, this is the one as it deals with the subject from the roots.  

Females are just as important if not more important than  their male counterparts.  The film explores the aftermath of a cultural preference for baby boys sweeping through interior India, through the eyes of a fearless Warrior midwife called Neelam who counsels and advocates for baby girls, while a lone man in the Village of Men – so called because no girl has been born here the past three decades – goes on a quest to find a wife.  

The film is also beautifully shot by D.P. Nagaraj Diwakar.  India never looks so stunning, especially not in a documentary.


Film Review: BLUE NOTE RECORDS: BEYOND BLUE NOTES (Switzerland/USA 2018) ***

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes Poster
A revelatory, thrilling and emotional journey behind the scenes of Blue Note Records, the pioneering label that gave voice to some of the finest jazz artists of the 20th and 21st centuries.


Sophie Huber


Sophie Huber

The second documentary after her critically acclaimed HARRY DEAN STANTON: PARTLY FICTION, BLUE NOTE RECORDS: BEYOND BLUE NOTES is about the record label company called Blue Note Records and the artists mainly jazz musicians that played on the label.

The founders are apparently still alive and they are seen in archive footage together with their artists they signed on.  

The question is what is so special about Blue Note Records.  Director Hubert is clear to let her audience know.  For one, it is a label that the owners sign jazz musicians on because they love their music.  Making money is only the secondary reason.  An example is the commitment one of the owners had for jazz (or alternative) pianist Thelonious Monk.  It took a while before people liked and got familiar with his music and the owner believed in the man and his music.  Other artists that made Blue Notes Records their home include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bud Powell and Art Blakey, as well as present-day luminaries like Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire and Norah Jones.

The founders are just as interesting as their company.  The company was founded in New York in 1939 by German Jewish refugees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf who fled the Germans.  If, the history of Blue Note Records goes beyond the landmark recordings, encompassing the pursuit of musical freedom, the conflict between art and commerce and the idea of music as a transformative and revolutionary force.

The film also includes an impressive cast of interviewees: Ambrose Akinmusire, Michael Cuscuna, Lou Donaldson, Robert Glasper, Robert Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Norah Jones, Keith Lewis, Lionel Loueke, Terrace Martin, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Kendrick Scott, Wayne Shorter, Marcus Strickland, Rudy Van Gelder, Don Was.

The film’s best moments are, s expected the artists performing.   This is rare footage where the audience gets to see and hear the best jazz performances as delivered by history’s best artists.  Who can ask for anything more?  Even non jazz lovers will be converted.|


Film Review: THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE (Canada 2018) ***

Through Black Spruce Poster

The disappearance of a young Cree woman in Toronto traumatizes her Northern Ontario family, and sends her twin sister on a journey south to find her.


Don McKellar

THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE has one scene where a character walks through wooded black spruce.  There is something subtle about the scene though one can not be 100% clear what the meaning of it all is.  The same thing can be said overall of Canadian actor/director Don McKellar’s (LAST NIGHT) mesh of missing persons mystery and indigenous people statement.  The film is an ambitious and diligent work but the two genres fit uncomfortably in a somewhat drab thriller, not for want of trying.

There are two things going for McKellar’s movie.  The first is the beautiful and stunning Ontario landscape of James Bay.  The shots of the lakes, forests and vegetation are typical of the beast scenery Ontario, Canada has to offer.  The second is the impressive performances of the film’s indigenous cast.  Veteran Graham Greene returns as well as the Toronto Film Critic’s Association’s darling (they recently honoured her), Tantoo Cardinal as well as Brandon Oakes.  New is Tanaya Beatty in the title role of Cree woman Annie Bird.

The film is bookended by the violent beating of Annie’s Uncle, Uncle Will (Oakes) of a golf club by the local drug dealer.  The golf club is one of the most awful weapons used in film – the last time it was used was when Randy Quiard took out Sandy Dennis, the school councillor in PARENTS.  The story of what happens in between is the movie.

Suzanne, Annie’s sister has gone missing after chasing her modelling career in Toronto.  The subplot emphasizes Canada’s major problem of missing indigenous women.  Annie stays in Toronto hunting for clues for her missing sister.  She learns of her sister’s drug habits including some shady dealings with ex-drug dealer boyfriend Gus.  In the mean time, she has a mild romantic fling with her sister’s last photographer, the fast-rising Jesse (Kiowa Gordon) before thing with the sister started falling apart.

In the mean time, Uncle Will takes off on his plane despite not having a void pilot’s license for a decade up north into hunting territory for reason revealed at the end of the film.  These segments are interspersed with Annie’s mis-adventures in Toronto.  The two segments do not flow well, and the dramatic effects of each are lost when the segments change.  Thankfully, all makes sense at he film’s climax when all is explained.

Despite the film’s flaws, credit must be given to McKellar for mounting such an ambitious indigenous film.  The hunting scenes especially the ones with the grizzly bear and the moose’s carcass bring authenticity into the story.

The Toronto famed scenes are also well done.  McKellar seems fond of Toronto’s Queen Street where streetcars frequent (as observed by an overturned streetcar in LAST NIGHT).  The club scene with the throbbing vibes whee Annie gets totally stoned look chic and trendy.

Not a total miss and not without its intrinsic pleasures, THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE is an entertaining mystery while shedding a little isight on the troubles of the indigenous people of Canada.


Film Review: DUMBO (USA 2019) ***

Dumbo Poster
A young elephant, whose oversized ears enable him to fly, helps save a struggling circus, but when the circus plans a new venture, Dumbo and his friends discover dark secrets beneath its shiny veneer.


Tim Burton


Helen Aberson (novel), Ehren Kruger (screenplay) |1 more credit »

Everyone loves and remembers Disney’s 1941 favourite animated feel-good fantasy, DUMBO.  Dumbo, the baby elephant is born with huge ears that allow him to fly thus becoming the sensation of the circus.  Don’t expect the same with the live action film DUMBO written by Ehran Kruger and directed by Tim Burton.  Burton’s most famous films were BEETLEJUICE, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS all known for its darkness and nightmarish ideas.  It is not surprising then that Burton’s DUMBO is dark and gloomy. Dumbo rarely smiles, the scenes are mostly dark and the soundtrack is filled with loud and annoying sounds like chimpanzees screening, loud circus music and people yelling rather than talking normally.  Those prone to migraines best stay away from this one.

The films starts on a bleak note where a rundown train carrying the circus that is falling on hard times travel through poverty America.  Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) is returning by train home to his children after the war.  It is revealed that he has lost one arm.  His wife has also passed away from influenza.  Holt is out of a job because circus owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito) sold his horses).  How more gloomy can the plot get?  

More!  Baby Dumbo is born and separated from his mother.  The circus is sold to a conniving entrepreneur, V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) who is out to make money out of the new sensation of the flying elephant.  Dumbo’s act needs to be polished and creates havoc when Vandevere wants the bank to invest money in his amusement world.

The magic of the original DUMBO emerges only a few times in the movie – mainly when Dumbo soars into the air.  Even then, most of the flight takes place in the enclosed tent and if outside, occurs in the dead of night.

A lighter note is added with the characters of Max Medici and Vandevere’s French girlfriend Colette (Eva Green).  Both have the propensity to do good.  The end up taking Dumbo’s side.  Even the one henchman of Vandevere ordered to kill Dumbo’s mother tells on the deed, and quits his job out of disgust at his boss.  Keaton in full powder-packed make-up, hams up his villainous character to the extreme of being cartoonish.  His love for money ends up his downfall.

Nico Parker as Milly Farrier, Holt’s daughter and Finley Hobbins as Joe, Holt’s son are sufficiently charming reminding audiences that this is supposed to be a family movie.  The other circus performers are just there for show with little much to do except for Miss Atlantis (Sharon Rooney) who does a few mermaid tricks and the snake charmer (Roshan Seth) who gets to utter the magic words “Fly my little one!”

But for whatever is director Burton’s vision for the film, he does effectively capture the gloom of a struggling circus as he does on a world recovery from the war.  His mark is certainly stamped on this movie.

For all that it is worth in terms of gloom vs. feel-good, DUMBO does grab the audience into the adventure of the circus and one does feel sorry for the elephant when his mother is forced to leave him.


Film Review: GIANT LITTLE ONES (Canada 2018) ****

Giant Little Ones Poster

Two popular teen boys, best friends since childhood, discover their lives, families, and girlfriends dramatically upended after an unexpected incident occurs on the night of a 17th birthday party.


Keith Behrman


Keith Behrman

GIANT LITLLE ONES is the second feature from Vancouver filmmaker Keith Behrman (FLOWER & GARNET) that has already won accolades including three DGC (Directors Guild of Canada) nominations and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle’s BEST Screenplay for a Canadian film.  It also made this year’s Canada’s Top 10.  It is a film about youth – and one that captures the bullying and expectations of both upon youth.  The film has a gay slant and one that straight youth cannot accept, even in these days of gay acceptance.

The film opens with the protagonist, Franky Winter (Josh Wiggins) riding his bicycle around his neighbourhood.  It is a great scene that celebrates writer/director Behrman’s love for filmmaking.  The plot and story is not yet established and the camera just spans and moves around in  exhilaration as if to celebrate the joys of filming.  And the joy is catching.  The audience gets to enjoy this spanning of the landscape before the story settles on a more serious subject.  What is seen on screen could very well be a suburb of a Canadian or American city – but the setting is left ambiguous.  But one would wish that since it is a Canadian film, that the setting would be more deliberately stated as Canadian.  Money talks – and an American setting means a bigger target audience.  

The story is about labelling.  A straight swim team member is labeled as gay and the story concerns on what he does to survive the labelling.  Things do not help that his father (Kyle MacLachlan of BLUE VELVET) has recently come out gay and his mother (Maria Bello who also co-produced this film), has written the book “Whatever… Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves”.

It all started off at Franky’s 17th birthday party when his girlfriend, Natasha (Taylor Hickson) leaves after the incident in which they both fail to lose their virginity.  Her brother, Ballas (Darren Mann) also on Franky’s swim team spreads the rumour that Franky may be gay.  That is when all the trouble starts.  And continues through the film.

Behrman is brave enough to attempt certain daring lines in his script.  In one key family scene, when Frank is told his visiting gay father has been told of the incident, he storms out of the room screaming: “I am not f***ing gay!”  The words that might offend a portion of the gay audience are left intact to emphasize the emotions Franky is undergoing.  Credit to Behrman.  The film also shows the teens behaving maturely, as adults thug still dealing with teen issues.  This aspect of the film shows that teens demand more respect as adults.

Excellent performances are delivered by all the young performers aided by Bello and MacLachlan.  MacLachlan does not have many scenes but he creates quite the impact in those he is in.

So how does it all end?  Is there a message for the audience?  Revealing more would definitely be a spoiler to what is an excellent paced and remarkably moving film about coming-of-age, acceptance, family acceptance and a whole lot more issues.


Film Review: THE QUIETUDE (LA QUIETUDE) (Argentina 2018) **

The Quietude Poster

Two sisters, as close as they are different, find themselves after a long separation.


Pablo Trapero


Alberto Rojas Apel (collaborating writer), Pablo Trapero

THE QUIETUDE is the name of the sprawling ranch in Argentina where a wealthy Argentine family resides.  The quiet ranch will be shown to be not that quiet or restful by the time the film ends.

The film begins with a beautiful young lady in Buenos Aires, Mia (Martina Gusman) entering the house and interrupting a nasty argument that is heard but not seen, which is likely all for the best, as the audience gets the picture.  Mia follows the father to the D.A,’s office where he suffers a stroke and is bedridden.  This brings back to Buenos Aires the other member of the family – Eugenia (Berenice Bejo, the actress and wife of the director of the Oscar Winning Best Film THE ARTIST.)

With every member of the family at home, trouble ensues, as expected.  It is revealed that the two sisters have an unhealthy sexual incestuous relationship, as can be witnessed in the 5-minute or so oral sex scene that should keep many an audience aroused.  The two main actresses are both Argentine and they look so alike, they could pass on for twins.  This is a bit confusing during some parts of the movie when one needs to distinguish Mia and Eugenia, unless their names are used in the dialogue.

The events take place during the political unrest of the country due to the brutality of the current dictatorship.

But Trapero’s film, apart from the sexual scenes are boring for the fact that they are hardly credible.  It seems that anything goes for drama, and Trapero puts in any event convenient to create high drama, like the father’s stroke, the sex between two females and then male and female.   A bit more detail would have been helpful to aid the story’s credibility.  Nothing is mentioned of how the family’ wealth is achieved or the reason Eugenia went away to Paris or he reason father and mother stayed together despite huge disagreements.

Though shot on a ranch, most of the film’s scenes are interiors, with not much seen of the animals or in the farming. But the exteriors and production sets are quite good to look at courtesy of the cinematographer and production designer.

Trapero does not do anything to connect the audience with his characters.  The audience do not care if the father passes away or not or whether the two sisters will earn their happiness.  It appears that all Trapero is interested in doing is to titillate or shock his audience – as in the sex scenes and the oddities of behaviour of the family. 

The end result THE QUIETUDE is a rather boring family affair which could be quietly  dismissed.


Film Review: THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT (Canada/Belgium 2018) ****

The Hummingbird Project Poster

A pair of high-frequency traders go up against their old boss in an effort to make millions in a fiber-optic cable deal.


Kim Nguyen


Kim Nguyen

Canadian Kim Nguyen (EYE ON JULIET, WAR WITCH) directs his most commercial film to date based on a script he wrote.  

The film is about THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT.  This project will enable one of the characters, a bespectacled nerdy telecommunications fibre genius named Anton (the hardly recognizable Alexander Skarsgard) to earn millions in order to purchase a cottage in which hummingbirds abound and sing.  It also refers to the saving in timing provided by the fibre which is equivalent to a fraction of the flapping of the hummingbird wing.  

Young entrepreneur, Vincent Zaleski (Jesse Eisenberg) dreams of making millions by saving a millisecond of communication speed by building a direct fibre link involving drilling under ground beneath personal residential property as well as protected natural parks.  He succeeds in getting finance.  He just has to make it happen  This is what the film is all about – capitalism, done is a clever, entertaining and largely humorous way.  Vincent gets the aide of a telecommunications genius, his cousin Anyone (Alexandre Skarsgard) and buddy, Mark Vega (Michael Mando) to do the project.  The villain of the piece is Anton’s former employer, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek).  Vincent had to have Anton quit his job and Eva Torres is furious and killing to sabotage the project.  Another complication arises – Vincent is diagnosed with stomach cancer and requires immediate treatment.  All this craziness ceases more mayhem or vine and everyone.

The film’s best segment captures Trump’s white racist American to a ‘T’.  In the scene, the Eisenberg character and his driller approach the owner of a house whose property they need to drill under.  The driller, clearly of some non-white background asks the owner permission, who then asks the driller where he is from.  When the driller says he is American, he is questioned again  where he came from before arriving in America.  Eisenberg steps in, saying, clearly white American saying he is proudly American and explains, in sweet talk how the drilling would financially benefit the owner.  “You have this all on paper?”  A contract is immediately pulled out.  Similarly, Trump has fooled his whole America and promised benefits if he gets the vote, and he succeeded.  If you are offended by what is written, you are likely one of these people.  Hopefully, you are able to appreciate a little self-conscious humour.

Eisenberg reprises his sweet taking millions of words a minute sweet talking role he had in THE SOCAL NETWORK.  He is not able to convince the people in the film to accept what he says but also able to have the audience on his side rooting fro hi character.

THE HUMMINGBIRD PROJECT, which premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival to general favourable reviews.  What is also impressive is the turn the story takes towards the end where the project turns into complete mayhem (beautifully created) and then everything closes in compete synchronicity with nature.