Notes from the Screener Pile: 2016.1

Running a bit behind this year, but thank goodness for screener season to help Cinemablographer catch up on award season hopefuls and some quality titles.

The Birth of a Nation
(USA, 120 min.)
Dir. Nate Parker, Writ. Nate Parker, Jean McGianni Celestin
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aunjanue Ellis, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King
Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation.
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Nate Parker certainly has potential as a director, but The Birth of a Nation doesn’t quite merit the thunderous hype from Sundance. As first features go, its ambition outsizes its finesse as Parker’s story of Nat Turner, a Virginian slave who led a rebellion against the ruthless plantation owners and slave drivers of Southampton County, as the filmmaker’s inexperience in writing and direction tells Turner’s saga with a mix of powerful, underdeveloped, and stilted scenes. Parker’s film borrows heavily from other dramas that cover similar terrain, for lines of dialogue, like an auctioneer’s sales pitch for slaves, seem to be ripped verbatim from 12 Years a Slave, while the haunting fantasy images of Parker and co. caked in white dust are straight from War Witch. As Parker leads the Gangs of New York bloodbath and the film climaxes with an exaltation for Turner, Parker’s admiration for this historical figure is strongest in his performance as the rebellious preacher.


Contest! Win Tickets to the Toronto Premiere of 'Miss Sloane' with Jessica Chastain and John Madden in Attendance! (Contest Closed)

Bust out your Sharpies and selfie sticks! Jessica Chastain is coming to town! Chastain joins director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) for the timely new Toronto-shot political thriller Miss Sloane. Miss Sloane opens in theatres December 9 from VVS Films, but lucky readers may join Chastain and Madden as they walk the red carpet in style for the Toronto premiere. Answer the trivia below for your chance to win tickets!



(Canada, 78 min.)
Dir. Vincent Biron, Writ. Alexandre Augre, Marc-Antoine Rioux, Erik K. Boulianne, Vincent Biron
Starring: Étienne Galloy, Alexandre Lavigne, Constance Massicotte, Simon Pigeon
Teens these days grow up in a strange environment. The quartet of adolescents in Vincent Biron’s Prank are born and bred in the Petri dish of selfie culture. These kids have short attention spans, big egos, and huge concerns for viral impact. They know nothing about life, though, living in the bubbles of their tightly defined social circle and equally myopic social media sphere. As they pass the time doing numbskull tricks and posting videos on the Internet, getting their jollies off on likes and viral teasing, Prank punks a generation by letting them play a lark, but revealing that the joke is ultimately on them.


Ang Lee's High Frame Rate Flop

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
(USA, 110 min.)
Dir. Ang Lee, Writ. Jean-Christophe Castelli
Starring: Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, the fakest Beyoncé you’ll ever see, Kristen Stewart
Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), dancers, and Alabama State Marching Hornets in TriStar Pictures' Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.
Photo by Mary Cybulski, courtesy Sony Pictures Entertainment

“Ang, this looks terrible,” says a producer during a conversation that surely must have happened at some point while screening the rushes for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

“This is fine,” replies Lee, not unlike the dog who, in a popular meme, finishes his coffee while the room around him engulfs in flames.


'Window Horses' is Visual Poetry

Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming)
(Canada, 88 min.)
Written and directed by Ann Marie Fleming
Starring; Sandra Oh, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Nancy Kwan, Don McKellar, Ellen Page
Rosie and Mehrnaz in Window Horses.
Photo courtesy of the NFB.

“The more you learn about others, the deeper your understanding of yourself. This is the journey we are all on,” says wise Iranian poet Mehrnaz (Shohreh Aghdashloo) to budding Canadian poet Rosie Ming (Sandra Oh). As they tour the colourful flowers of Iran, Rosie’s host illuminates her on the rich history that makes the country the land of poets.


At Seventeen...

Being 17 (Quand on a 17 ans)
(France, 116 min.)
Dir. André Techiné, Writ. André Techiné, Céline Sciamma
Starring: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila
Corentin Fila and Kacey Mottet Klein in Being 17, a film by André Techiné
Courtesy Pacific Northwest Pictures

Legendary French director André Techiné (La belle saison) returns to the screen with Being 17. This invigorating love story yields a strong May-December romance behind the camera as the 73-year-old director pairs up with up-and-coming filmmaker Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, My Life as a Courgette). Together, the pair writes a film of fresh vision with a master’s hand. The leisurely-paced and richly characterised drama is a sharp, provocative, and revitalising coming-of-age and coming-out-of-the-closet romance.


'Tag-Teaming It': James L. Brooks, Kelly Fremon Craig, and Co. Talk 'The Edge of Seventeen'

Kelly Fremon Craig and James L. Brooks on the shoot for The Edge of Seventeen.
Courtesy VVS Films.
“The great thing about being in Toronto,” says producer James L. Brooks, “is that every film you see is somebody who is not being stereotypical. Everybody is marching to the beat of their own drum and that is so great to see.”


Loving: A Film of Quiet Tenderness

(USA/UK, 123 min.)
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga
Loving is a film of quiet tenderness. This subdued and nuanced film from Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) offers an unfussy and uncontrived dramatization of the marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving. Richard (Joel Edgerton), a white man, and Mildred (Ruth Negga), a black woman, have an unlawful marriage under Virginia law. Their love leads to a prison sentence in 1958, which becomes a choice of forced exile when the Lovings leave the state, rather than part ways to serve a year in jail. This decision leads to a landmark human rights case and an incredibly timely film about love, equality, humanity, and compassion.


Two Lovers on the Run (Again...)

Mean Dreams
(Canada, 108 min.)
Dir. Nathan Morlando, Writ. Kevin Coughlin, Ryan Grassby
Starring: Sophie Nélisse, Josh Wiggins, Bill Paxton, Colm Feore
Josh Wiggins and Sophie Nélisse star in Mean Dreams.
Elevation Pictures.

Mean Dreams is the third entry in this year’s unofficial “two lovers on the run” trilogy of Canadian film that includes Bruce McDonald’s Weirdos and Kim Nguyen’s Two Lovers and a Bear. It’s the lesser of the three films. While the other two films have a similar note of formula in their basic premises, McDonald and Nguyen use their familiarity to turn genre convention on its heel and offer something fresh and new. Mean Dreams director Nathan Morlando knows the benefits of such an approach given his own take on gangster films in his breakout feature Edwin Boyd, which gives the genre of jolt of electricity. There’s nothing really new to Mean Dreams, though, and despite the picturesque beauty of the film, Morlando’s eagerly awaited second feature is something of a disappointment.


EUFF Review: 'Live'

(Romania, 97 min.)
Dir. Vlad Paunescu. Writ. Mihai Manescu, Vlad Paunescu
Starring: Rodica Lazar, Tudor Chirila, Crina Tofan

Despite the many opinions that good journalism is dead, Live offers a rousing look at good, solid investigative news in the contemporary media landscape. The film stars Rodica Lazar in a strong performance as Ema, a gutsy tabloid journalist and host of a popular trash TV show. Ema takes cues from 60 Minutes and The Jerry Springer Show alike by fusing shrewd investigative journalism with the sensationalism of meme-friendly confrontations and viral videos. She brings guilty parties face to face with their victims and accusers, and she uses the gotcha! reveals of hidden cameras to solicit surprised outbursts from the audience. With live viewers, Ema knows how to deliver justice in the courtroom of network TV.


EUFF Review: 'A Noble Intention'

A Noble Intention
(Netherlands, 115 min.)
Dir. Joram Lürsen, Writ. Frank Ketelaar
Starring: Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Jacob Derwig, Thomas Cammaert, Rifka Lodeizen, Zeb Troostwijk
A Noble Intention tells a timely slice of history for the age of gentrification and condofication. Canadians often like to look to Europe as a model for smart ways to build cities for people, rather than for cars, but this Dutch period piece dramatizes an episode of urban renewal that mirrors much of what is happening in cities today. History loves to repeat itself.


'Denial' in the Age of 'Nasty Women'

(UK/USA, 110 min.)
Dir. Mick Jackson, Writ. David Hare
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson
Rachel Weisz stars as Deborah Lipstadt in Denial.
Elevation Pictures
Deborah Lipstadt’s story remains another ominous tale that’s all too relevant in the age of Donald Trump. The case recalls a lawsuit that began in 1996 and ran until 2000 in which British writer/hack academic David Irving sued Lipstadt and Penguin Books for the author’s 1993 publication Denying the Holocaust. Lipstadt’s book shares some rather unflattering words about Mr. Irving’s insistence on repudiating the crimes committed by the Nazis against Jews and other “undesirables” in the events of World War II. Nowadays, he might call her a “nasty woman,” or something to that effect, for being so brash as to take a stand or speak her mind. In an age of racist presidential campaigns and unfiltered opinions, the fight that Lipstadt brings to her defense makes for a rousing and essential courtroom drama.


Animal Farm

Dawn (Ausma)
(Latvia/Estonia/Poland, 90 min.)
Written and directed by Laila Pakalniņa
Starring: Antons Georgs Grauds, Vilis Daudzins, Wiktor Zborowski, Andris Keiss, Liena Smukste, Girts Krumins, Rudolfs Plepis, Ivars Brakovskis
Dawn, Latvia’s submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Academy Awards, ends with a horse taking a casual shit as a team of farmhands walks towards the rising sun. The camera holds on the offending—nay, poetic—turd for a generously lingering moment as chickens flock to it. Bathed in the glowing morning light, which looks heavenly in the wonderful black and white cinematography by Wojciech Staron, the horse patty offers a warm meal for the chickens. They nibble on the steaming turd as the workers march into the distance and their hymn to Soviet Latvia provides mealtime entertainment before the credits roll. Tsai Ming-liang, eat your heart out.


'Lavender' Dillydallies - With a Chill

(Canada/USA, 92 min.)
Dir. Ed Gass-Donnelly, Writ. Ed Gass-Donnelly, Colin Frizzell
Starring: Abbie Cornish, Diego Klattenhoff, Dermot Mulroney, Lola Flanery, Justin Long
Abbie Cornish and Diego Klattenhoff star in Lavender.
Courtesy Pacific Northwest Pictures
Let the birds sing, dilly, dilly, And the lambs play
We shall be safe, dilly, dilly, out of harm's way

Writer/director Ed Gass-Donnelly returns with another tale of small town murder songs in Lavender. The lullaby that haunts this film is the nursery rhyme “Lavender’s Blue.” It might be a childhood staple, but these rhyming lines of “dilly dilly” have long roots in horror that help add an extra chill to Lavender. Whether they appear in operatic adaptations of The Turn of the Screw, repeat themselves in Brad Fraser’s play Unidentified Human Remains and the Nature of True Love, or are sung consolingly in the latest take on Cinderella, this kiddy ballad isn’t exactly soothing. It’s downright eerie, especially when used as a haunting refrain.


Win Tickets to See 'The Edge of Seventeen' in Canada!

Hailee Steinfeld is all grown up. The True Grit and Pitch Perfect 2 star gets her first true starring role in the warmly funny coming of age film The Edge of Seventeen. (Read the Cinemablographer review of The Edge of Seventeen here.) Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a totally award teen in a tiff with her bestie Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) in this winning comedy written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig and produced by three-time Academy Award winner James L. Brooks. The Edge of Seventeen opens in Canadian theatres November 18 from VVS Films and readers in select Canadian cities have a chance to attend a sneak peek. Answer the trivia below for your chance to win tickets!


Contest! Win 'Milton's Secret' on DVD!

Canadian icon Donald Sutherland comes home for the inspiring family drama Milton’s Secret. The film is based on the popular children’s book by Eckhart Tolle. Milton’s Secret is now available on DVD from eOne Films and Cinemablographer has a copy of the film to give away to one lucky reader. Answer the trivia below for your chance to win Milton’s Secret!

Blu-Ray Review: 'Imperium'

(USA, 109 min.)
Dir. Daniel Ragussis, Writ. Daniel Ragussis, Michael German
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell
VVS Films
Imperium dramatizes a slice of the world that’s all too relevant in the era of Herr Trump. This chilling look at white supremacy and domestic terrorism through the eyes of an undercover FBI agent is like an observant video shot covertly at one of the Donald’s political rallies. When the White House hinges on such violent and hateful rhetoric, Imperium disconcertingly shows the power and influence of words when radicals and extremists avidly seek an outlet for their rage.