Fantasia 2016 Review: Shelley

A classy, atmospheric take on the hysteria of new parenthood, Ali Abbasi’s Shelley wears its influences boldly on its sleeve (and right there in the title), only the Frankenstein’s monster here is a baby born by way of our modern medical miracles.

Louise and Kaspar are a thirty-something couple well along in their successful twenty-first century careers. They have chosen to live in the pleasant isolation of a picturesque lake (pregnant with islands) in the Danish countryside. Enabled by their wealth and privilege, they grow their own food and even forgo using electricity for the sake of simpler, slower living.

The only thing missing from their life is that they cannot biologically have children. When a young Romanian housekeeper, Elena, arrives on their dime and quickly bonds over wine and intimate conversation, Louise appeals to her to act as a surrogate mother. The delicacy of such an interaction is not lost here, and some of the films best work takes place in the psychological set-up between two very different women.

I have no doubts these kinds of proposals happen in real life and perhaps they go professionally and smoothly as they possibly can. When they happen in the movies, any astute viewer knows things will not go anywhere near according to plan. The offer to Elena is thus: instead of her working for them for two or three years in Denmark, they will give her enough money to afford to return to her own young son (and extended family) with enough money to buy an apartment in Romania and make a step up in her current family lifestyle. Elena would need to lend her womb for nine months or so to one of Louise’s frozen eggs thereby artificially inseminated by Kaspar’s seed, and carry a child to term for them.

The director establishes the misty lake countryside early in the picture (blessedly bringing back the slow zoom!) perhaps to evoke the insular isolation where Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley hung out for the summer in 1816 with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and a few others whereby she conceived her iconic novel on the modern Prometheus. She effectively realizes Elena and Louise, the former, a practical minded but open girl and somewhat experienced mother who quietly scoffs at Louise’s license towards spiritual healers, crystals and other new-age paraphernalia.

Elena’s patience begins to be seriously tested as Louise starts to take over responsibility for her body as the baby grows. A glass of wine or snuck cigarette, a rash or even Elena’s weight sizzle with conflict, and the tension between whether or not to go to doctor is palpable. Who owns what in this transaction of bodies and life?

Louise’s perceived anxieties over new motherhood in someone else’s body starts to push the tone towards a favourite cross-cultural, upscale freak-out film of mine in recent times, Magic Magic. However, in a bid that fails to address so many consequences of this first and second act build, the writer-director seems to say, to hell with the consequences, I’m going to pack another film in the final act. Now I like that other film, in fact, I’d love to see another hour of that other film, but really, I question the motives and intent to not deal with what is so elegantly set up in the initial core thesis of the film.

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Preggoland Trailer

Preggoland

I always love a little surprise at a film festival but that surprise is usually a little foreign gem and rarely does it manifest as a comedy and a Canadian one at that.

Last year’s VIFF brought both the awesomeness of Welcome to Me (trailer, review) and Preggoland (review). The latter is written and stars Sonja Bennett, a talented Canadian actress who you’ve probably seen gracing either your small screen or the silver screen. She’s been around for a while but her turn here as Ruth, a 30 something woman who fakes her pregnancy, is really star making. Not only is the script funnier and smarter than the concept has any right to be, Bennett has excellent comedic timing and the movie, which also co-stars James Caan and Danny Trejo in an unlikely but hilarious role, is a big winner.

The entire thing is directed by Jacob Tierney and that right there is indication that we’re in good hands, but Preggoland really defies expectation to deliver a great Canadian comedy the likes of which I haven’t seen since Starbuck (review).

Preggoland opens across Canada on May 1st.

VIFF 2014 Review: Preggoland

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You know that moment when you realize you’re so deep into a lie there’s no easy way to turn back? Preggoland is exactly that. Except it’s also much more than that.

Sonja Bennett stars as Ruth, a single 30 something who lives at home with her dad. All of her friends are married with kids and her younger sister is the bane of her existence, making Ruth feel like a teenager and in a way, she is. She works at a local grocery store where she’s worked since high school, she hangs out with co-workers who are half her age and generally doesn’t appear to be doing much with her life. And then she’s mistaken for being pregnant. And she goes along with it. But then she tells her friends she’s pregnant and then suddenly her life seems to be taking on some meaning and actually moving forward except the whole time she’s living one big sham and lying to everyone.

The idea of going along with a misconception isn’t exactly new but Bennett, who also wrote the script, brings a charm and likability to Preggoland which I haven’t seen in other movies which feature the female version of the “man child.” Part of it is Bennett herself who fully commits to the role an delivers a great performance complete with outstanding comedic timing, but there’s also the script which takes a ridiculous premise and goes in some interesting directions with it exploring everything from friendship to strange and complicated family relationships and though it ends with a sort of happily ever after, it earns that ending.

Preggoland reminded me a little of Starbuck, that other Canadian gem from a few years ago. It features similar characters with similar story arcs about growing up and becoming better versions of themselves and I expect that when this lands a Hollywood re-make, it will turn out just as badly as the Starbuck one did. Thankfully, we’ll always have the original.

Preggoland has been picked up by Mongrel Media who will open the film Spring 2015.

Review: The Switch

The Switch Onesheet

Directors: Josh Gordon & Will Speck (Blades of Glory)
Screenplay: Allan Loeb, Jeffrey Eugenides (short story)
Producers: Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa
Starring: Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis, Patrick Wilson, Thomas Robinson
MPAA Rating: PG13
Running time: 100 min.

The problem with The Switch isn’t the movie itself (though it too has its misses) but the marketing. Yes, it’s difficult to sell a dramedy to the male population at large but to sell it as a romantic comedy is disappointing, especially when it features a great performance from the male lead. Perhaps it will work to the film’s benefit and women will see it with their girlfriends, like it and drag the men or heck, date night might be lady’s choice but however you cut it, this film is unlikely to reach the audience who will appreciate it most: new dads.

The Switch Movie StillDirected by the duo who brought us the travesty that is Blades of Glory, The Switch is a completely different ballgame, one that feels like the duo traded themselves in for someone who actually knows what they’re doing.

Based on a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides, it’s the drama of a woman (Jennifer Aniston) who wants a child so badly, she decides to find herself a donor. Her best friend Wally (Jason Bateman), a one time romantic interest who is too much of a realist to be Kassie’s boyfriend but who makes for perfect friend material, is against the idea but shows up to the “I’m getting pregnant” party to support the woman he secretly loves. A series of lightly amusing events later, we learn that Kassie’s pregnant, moving away to raise her son outside of New York and just like that, seven years go by. With a new job lined up, Kassie moves back to the Big Apple, reunites with Wally and the seed donor and then things get complicated.

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Bookmarks for August 31st through September 1st

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What we’ve been reading – August 31st through September 1st:

  • Paul Solet on Grace
    Serena Whitney has a few words on pregnancy horror film Grace, storytelling in general, and the double-X chromosome in horror films.
  • Stormtrooper vs. Star Trek Redshirt
    A geeky look at the classic conundrum of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
  • BAD LIEUTENANT: AESTHETIC INTERRUPTED
    “…I’m not doing the prequel to Aguirre: the Wrath of God, OK? Let me put it that way!”
    "These were the kindest words Abel Ferrara had to say about Werner Herzog’s upcoming Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans when asked in a 2008 Filmmaker interview about that unapproved reimagining of Ferrara's 1992 cult classic, released in a special edition DVD late last month….The only way we will ever get some closure on the matter is if someone makes a prequel to Aguirre: The Wrath of God. My vote for best helmer goes to Ferrara."

Toronto After Dark: GRACE

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Let us put the cards down on the table, shall we? Most horror movies these days aim to titillate, not actually scare. When you are cheering for the victims (or the slasher) to be splattered or carved on screen, this is lynch-mob entertainment or vicarious wish-fulfilment. An honest to goodness horror movie, in the humble opinion of this writer, should burrow at a deeply personal, individual level. There is nothing wrong with the former group spectacle (akin to blood-lust for gladiators in the coliseum or even the role modern sports entertainment), it is just not my personal cup of tea. When a movie like Grace comes along and shows how a few very well articulated ideas, specific amplifications of the anxieties of new parents, can really massage its audience with discomfort and bile, you will have to indulge me for getting a little giddy with excitement. The Sundance buzz around this picture, in the wake of a few audience members fainting or rushing for the doors, proudly proclaims to “See it at your own risk.” Believe that film is the real deal. Moms-to-be or folks who have a young one at home in the crib are going to have a more difficult time with Grace than some of the more acknowledged classics of the ‘pregnant-horror’ sub-genre À l’intérieur or Rosemary’s Baby.

Writer-director Paul Solet is content early on in the picture to take precisely aimed satirical strikes at some of the things expecting parents (in the western middle class, but to a degree in any culture) will likely have to deal with at some point. Many ‘older couples,’ as in those getting pregnant into their thirties and beyond, have a rough go at getting pregnant. ‘Mission sex’ centered more around conception than personal intimacy becomes the order of the day. The goal of spawning takes on the guise of a masters thesis. The research around reproducing, the medical and social decisions can be daunting and veer off into obsessive and narcissistic realms. Natural birth or epidural pain killers? Midwife and Doula or Hospital? Breast feeding or baby formula? How far do you want to let the in-laws into the child raising decisions? How do you keep them at arms length if they disagree philosophically. Judgement calls become personal flags of stubborn pride that can alienate friends and family. All the while, images of handsome little infants gleam out from product advertisements in glossy parenting magazines and the overall sales machine of all manner of baby-do-dads. This level of anxiety-joy is much more heightened than say the lucre-circus of marriage due to the biology involved. Biology is one of the great avenues to really going after a horror metaphor; something that David Cronenberg or Shinya Tsukamoto knows a thing or two about, and Grace is certainly gunning to be in that league.

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Finite Focus: Monsters Vs. Aliens (ALIENS)

aliens_onesheetWhen one thinks of James Cameron‘s re-invention of the premise from 1979’s Alien, it generally is the macho bravado of the space marines that get the lion-share of quotable dialogue, and have been copied in other films to this day, ad nauseum. Yet the movie (most especially the lengthened directors cut of the film) slips in a strong maternal theme amongst the testosterone. While the film finally does turn Ellen Ripley into a ‘mech suited warrior’ (via the most well realized body-fork-lifter ever committed to celluloid), that comes later.

One of the strongest scenes in the film, perhaps showcasing some of Sigourney Weaver‘s best acting (this side of Death and The Maiden or Galaxy Quest) is a tender moment spent with the frightened little girl. Being the only survivor of the fledgling colony of a planet infested with monsters, Rebbecca, or Newt, likely witnessed many of the horrors when her parents bring home an embryo implanted in her father. Hardly a girl that needs to be lied to for protection, yet she is surely confused by the pretense of adults. Newt’s line of questions on ‘monsters’ and a tacit acceptance that they do indeed exist, ending with the connection to pregnancy is worthy of a Grimm fairy tale. Despite being a hearty mainstream blockbuster with crowd appeal, this moment stands out as one of (if not the) best moment in the film, worthy of Jan Svankmajer‘s Alice, a surreal take on Lewis Carroll that would come along two years later from eastern Europe, and feature a child actress bearing more than a little similarity to Newt’s Carrie Henn. Henn quit while she was ahead, not appearing in another film after this one.

Worthy of mention too is that the scene starts out cold, metallic and sterile (like most of Aliens) and ends on a warm orange light haloing both actresses in intimate close-up. This is one of the last breathing moments before a 45 minute long perfectly sustained action sequence. A sequence where much is on the line because of the tenderness of that moment.

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