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.


Film Review: THE AFTERMATH (UK/USA/Germany 2018) ***

The Aftermath Poster

Post World War II, a British colonel and his wife are assigned to live in Hamburg during the post-war reconstruction, but tensions arise with the German who previously owned the house.


James Kent

A few years ago, a sprawling war romance TESTAMENT OF YOUTH captured the heart and awed moviegoers.  Its acclaimed director, James Kent  has understandably been handpicked for another war themed romantic drama entitled THE AFTERMATH.  THE AFTERMATH is based on the novel of the same name by Rhidian Brook.  It should be noted that the novel was written after Brook’s screenplay was commissioned by one of the producers, BLADE RUNNER’s Ridley Scott.  The script is written by Joe Shrapnel and Ana Waterhouse.

The story is set in postwar Germany in 1945.  The film begins with an aerial scanning in black and white of a war torn city that is revealed to be Hamburg of 1945.  It is later stated that more bombs landed in Hamburg one day than all the bombings in London.  

Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives in the ruins of Hamburg in the dead of winter, to be reunited with her husband, Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), a colonel charged with rebuilding the shattered city.  Germans in Hamburg are angry as evident in the violent protests around the city.  Many of the more determined citizens are willing to sacrifice their lives to do away with the British.  But as they set off for their new home, Rachael is stunned to discover that Lewis has made an unexpected decision:  they will be sharing the grand house with its previous owner, a German widower, a past architect, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his troubled daughter, Freda.   It does not take genius to guess that Rachel will start a tempestuous affair with the architect.  In this charged atmosphere, enmity and grief give way to passion and betrayal. 

The film is clear to emphasize the differences in the attractiveness of both men, Morgan and Lubert.  Morgan is ruffled, disheveled and makes frequent comments angering Rachel.  Even Morgan’s military uniform is not smart or pressed but wrinkled.  This is compared with Lubert’s attire.  Lubert is always shown smartly dressed, always wearing a shirt and tie even at leisure in the house.  His immaculate white sweater (who wears a white sweater to a dirty cottage in the middle of winter?) in the cottage scene looks ridiculous.

All actors carry their eclectic roles well.  Knightley is British and Clarke, Australian has proven he can carry other non-Australian roles well.  He was excellent as Ted Kennedy in CHAPPAQUIDDICK  and is more than in apt in this role that demands more from him than required from the other actors. Swede Skarsgard has the distinguished German look and is sufficiently hunky to sweep any married woman of their feet.

The production design is worthy mention from the vehicles to the interior setting of the architect’s  stunning residence.  The period atmosphere with cinematography by Franz Lustig is worth the film’s price of admission.

Kent’s film ends up as a sprawling romantic drama that could have been more effective if the film emphasized certain parts instead of playing everything with uniform importance.


Film Review: GHOST TOWN ANTHOLOGY ( Répertoire des villes disparues)(Canada 2019) ***

Ghost Town Anthology Poster
In a small and isolated town, Simon Dubé dies in a car accident. The stunned townspeople are reluctant to discuss the circumstances of the tragedy. From that point on time seems to lose all meaning, and the days stretch on without end.


Denis Côté


Denis CôtéLaurence Olivier (loosely based on novel by)

Before appreciating the small budget pensive drama GHOST TOWN ANTHOLOGY, a bit of background on its writer/director Denis Côté should be worthy of note.

Denis Côté is a Quebecois direct born in New Brunswick.  He is known as an experimental filmmaker with five of his previous film with no scripts and 5 with scripts.  In films like his documentary BEASTAIRE, he had lots of footage he shot at the zoo and wondered what to to with the footage before assembling the footage into a coherent film.  The films of  Denis Côté have been respected over the years and a number of cinematheques around the world have already organized retrospectives of his work.  Personally, I  admire Denis Côté‘s work.  They are pensive, meticulously crafted and intelligently conceived.

His latest work, GHOST TOWN ANTHOLOGY has its experimental roots but is arguably his most accessible wok to date.  The film bears  his trademarks like carcasses of dead animals that are frequently found in the story – in this case a dead deer.  The film can be described as a different kind of zombie (or ghost) film.  Zombies appear in the film but no one is hurt.  No one attacks the zombies and as a result the zombies do not attack the town folk either.  But they appear and the villagers recognize them as being previous dead residents.  If all this sounds too weird or feels that this is not your kind of  movie that stay away – but the film definitely has its rewards.

The film is set in the small town of Sainte-Irénée-les-Neiges, Quebec with a population of only 215.  The film opens with a car on a road that swerves to the side hitting stacks of hard objects casing the death of its driver, revealed soon to be a leading respected citizen of the town who everyone loves.  The town is shocked and speechless.  They claim the death as as suicide but from the scene, it looks more like the car took a deliberate turn, implying a suicide.  Suicide or accident?   The inhabitants of the town struggle to cope with the death of Simon Dubé, the teenage son of the family.  The odd thing is that two figures wearing masks witness the crash and are seen running away from it after.   More figures wearing these ‘ghostly’ masks appear later in the film as well.  It is a small town where everyone knows everybody as she does, prides the mayor, Simone Smallwood (Diane Lavallee) who becomes visibly upset when the county sends a stranger to her town to help the people cope with the tragedy of a death.  Director Cote knows how to grab and hold the audiences attention despite the film’s slow pace.  More odd incidents occur as well as more characters are introduced into the story.  A welfare teen is the first to see the zombies.  The dead Simon appears to both his brother and mother.

GHOST TOWN ANTHOLOGY is another of Cote’s pensive teasers, so don’t expect any resolutions to the zombie crisis.  Also: great sound effects and occasionally great gothic atmosphere.


Human Rights Film Festival Capsule Reviews: NO BOX FOR ME. AN INTERSEX STORY (France 2018) ***

(French title: Neither Eve, Neither Adam: An Intersex Story)
Directed by Floriane Levigne

“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that do not seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.   It is estimated that 2% of the population are born with some kind of gender variation.  For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside.  This doc is abut Intersex people.  The main issue is to decide for the intersex person whether to be male or female and in many cases, an operation done at an early age to fix the gender.  However, as the body develops, the chromosomes might turn out the opposite.  NO BOX FOR ME examines this problem with 3 intersex subjects, letting them have their say.  Animation is used to illustrate the problem they go through.  The film though running just around 60 minutes, will be an eye-opener for many, myself included for the one reason that I do not know any intersex people.  The films best line is uttered by an intersex man to an intern lady, of the people that have insulted him because of his condition: “I pity them.  They will always be normal.  We will always be different.”