Letter from Masanjia

It all started in 2012 when a woman, Julie Keith from Oregon, unwrapped the Halloween decorations she had purchased from Kmart (the styrofoam black tombstone), and found a letter hidden inside. The letter writer was describing the human rights abuse and torture he had endured at the Chinese Masanjia labor camp. After some calls to officials that heeded nothing, Julie turned to a Oregon newspaper. Cable news picked it up and it became a big news around the world. In China, as a direct result of Julie’s actions, the prisoners are released from Masanjia and there are calls to reform the forced labor system. The author of the letter, Sun Yi, is finally free after years at Masanjia. Yi is a Falun Gong follower and activist who was persecuted, like many other Falun Gong followers, by the Chinese government for years. Upon his released, Yi reconnects with his wife, Fu Ning. Because of the dangers involved, their relationship is tenuous and it’s heartbreaking. But Sun Yi goes back to his activism, planning to do a documentary denouncing the Falun Gong persecution. Director Leon Lee shows us part of what Yi has filmed. When Lee interviews Yi about his ordeal at the camp, Lee has chosen animation to illustrate it. It’s a great choice. I would have hated to see some corny reconstitution with actor. But Sun Yi’s problems are not over. He has to go underground, and may have to escape the country leaving his wife in China. Letter from Masanjia is such a moving and compelling documentary. People like Julie Keith, Sun Yi and his wife Fu Ning make this one of the year’s best tear-jerker.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Letter from Masanjia

 

Directed by:
Leon Lee

Screenplay by:
Caylan Ford
Leon Lee

75 min.

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Boundaries

It doesn’t take a very long time before you realize that road-movie Boundaries is one mother of a messy film. It’s a shame because I really like Vera Farmiga, Lewis MacDougall and Christopher Plummer, the film’s three main actors. Farmiga plays Laura Jaconi, a woman who finds comfort in picking up stray dogs and cats. There’s too many in the house, but every time she sees one, she can’t resist. Laura lives with her 13-year-old son, Henry (Scottish teen actor Lewis McDougall), who got kicked out of school for drawing his female teacher in a sexy pose…  naked. He does that to everyone including his mom lovers. And then there is Jack, Laura’s estranged father. She’s trying to avoid answering his insistent phone calls because she knows he’s trouble. And because she knows he never really loved her. But when she does answer he tells her that he’s been kicked of the retirement home because he was caught selling marijuana. He needs her help. She needs money to send Henry to private school. As played by Christopher Plummer, Jack has the air of a person you cannot help but love even though you damn well know you shouldn’t trust him. And of course he’s got perfect timing. The plan is to drive from Portland to Los Angeles (but it was filmed in Vancouver, BC), where Jack is supposed to stay with his other daughter JoJo (Kristen Schaal), who seems to occupy herself walking dogs. But Laura doesn’t know that in Jack’s luggage there is $200,000 worth of pot. To help him sell it he strikes a deal with Henry, his grandson. The pot is to be carried in adult diapers (Got it? As geriatric humour it’s not very subtle.). Along the way they visit some old friends (Christopher Lloyd and Peter Fonda) and Laura’s ex and Henry’s father (Bobby Cannavale). During the trip Laura starts to reconnect with her dad again. But the whole time he’s taking advantage of her, and enlisting her son to do the same. I found the film mean-spirited, and frankly not funny enough. Yes, I like Farmiga and Lewis MacDougall. and Christopher Plummer is great, as always. The characters are supposed to be quirky, but they are just messy people in a messy movie.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Boundaries

 

Directed by:
Shana Feste

Screenplay by:
Shana Feste

Starring:
Vera Farmiga
Christopher Plummer
Lewis MacDougall
Peter Fonda
Kristen Schaal
Christopher Lloyd
Bobby Cannavale

104 min.

Rated 14A

Hochelaga, Land of souls (Hochelaga, Terre des âmes)

Quebec writer-director François Girard’s Hochelaga, Land of souls is a spectacular film about Montréal’s history. The story starts in modern-day during a football game at Percival Molson stadium (located at the feet of Mount Royal), where a sinkhole opens in the middle of the field. It’s up to Mohawk archaeology student Baptiste (popular Algonquin rapper Samian) to start the archaeological dig. Six years later, Baptiste’s findings are unveiled during his doctoral thesis presentation. With each new discoveries, Baptiste tells the story of how it was found, its provenance and its meaning, and Girard (Thirty two short films about Glenn Gould, The red violin) flashbacks to a related historical event. A piece of metal from a stove goes back to an outbreak of typhus fever that killed 150 people in 1687, among them French trapper Étienne Maltais (Emmanuel Schwartz). During the Lower Canada patriot revolt of 1837, two men fleeing British soldiers seek refuge with supporter Lady Sarah Walker (Siân Phillips). But she’s unable to protect them from Captain Philip Thomas (Law & order‘s Linus Roache). But Baptiste greatest discovery is a crucifix, proof of a 1535 meeting between Jacques Cartier (French actor Vincent Perez) and Chief Tennawake (Wahiakeron Gilbert) at the Hochelaga Iroquois village. The whole thing could be too much, too big and too much of a history class. (and for some, maybe it is), but I found the experience profoundly moving. There are three moments towards the end that makes it gel: as Baptiste finds the crucifix, the figures from the past are standing up from the seats in the stadium, looking at him. Then later as the names of the ancestors are called out (Maltais, Thomas, Tennawake, Lacroix, Walker), their modern-day descendants are revealed. We are all linked together. Nicolas Bolduc’s award-winning cinematography and Terry and Gyan Riley’s score, and the importance given to First nations makes Hochelaga, Land of souls a must.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Hochelaga, Land of souls (Hochelaga, Terre des âmes)

 

Directed by:
François Girard

Screenplay by:
François Girard

Starring:
Samian
Vincent Perez
Gilles Renaud
Raoul Trujillo
Wahiakeron Gilbert
Emmanuel Schwartz
Tanaya Beatty
David La Haye
Sébastien Ricard
Siân Phillips
Linus Roache
Naïade Aoun
Tony Nardi
Karelle Tremblay
Paul Doucet

100 min.

Rated 14A

In French, Mohawk, Algonquin and English with English subtitles.

Never steady, never still

Judy (Shirley Henderson) suffered from advanced Parkinson’s disease. She lives with her husband Ed (Nicholas Campbell) and their 18-year-old son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin) in a house on the edge of Stuart Lake in British Columbia. It has been twenty years since Judy was diagnose with the disease and now she can’t even button her jeans. Ed will do it. It’s clear that they love and understand each other. Ed wants Jamie to go work in the oil fields of Alberta, to earn money of course, but also to give him some responsibilities. Once there though he has to deal the violence of his co-workers. When Ed dies, Jamie goes back home for the funerals. Although Jamie would like to stay to help her mother, she insists that he goes back to Alberta. Life is hard for Judy, but she manages without much problems for now. Jamie’s orientation is unclear. In the shower he is daydreaming being kissed by his best friend. During winter life gets harder for Judy who befriends the grocery’s delivery girl (Mary Galloway). It is actually very hard to watch Scottish actress Shirley Henderson and believe she does not have Parkinson’s. Her body is terribly bent and deformed. It must have been hard on her body.And she’s so thin. She looks like a fragile little bird. Physically Henderson has been perfectly cast. Pellerin, who is a popular actor on Quebec TV and film, is compelling to watch here as a confused, lost teen. Kathleen Hepburn’s film is based on her mother’s life. It is well photographed by Norm Li, who never let’s us forget the harshness of the Canadian winters. Never steady, never still can be depressing and slow, but it may be worth it for certain moviegoers simply because of the great cast. Henderson, Pellerin, Campbell and Galloway.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Never steady, never still

 

Directed by:
Kathleen Hepburn

Screenplay by:
Kathleen Hepburn

Starring:
Shirley Henderson
Théodore Pellerin
Nicholas Campbell
Mary Galloway
Lorne Cardinal

112 min.

Rated 14A

In English.

Meditation park

One thing is certain, Meditation park will never pass as a cinematic masterpiece. But it is pleasant and heartwarming. One of the main attraction is veteran Chinese actress Cheng Pei Pei as Maria. Born in Hong Kong, Maria emigrated to Canada with her husband Bing (Tzi Ma) and raised a family. Maria’s devotion to Bing is such that she is still learning to speak English. Her interactions with the outside world has been kept to a minimum. One day she finds a pair of woman’s underwear in Bing’s pocket. At about the same time her daughter, Ava (Nepean’s Sandra Oh) brings the news that Charlie, her brother (Maria and Bing’s estranged son) is getting married. Maria knows very well that it is pointless to ask Bing to attend the wedding. But Maria has made up her mind. She tries to make money, meets new friends, learns to bike with the help of a neighbour, Gabriel (Don McKellar). And Maria even follows her husband to see if he’s having an affair. Maria is on the path to liberation. This is not a film with the greatest technical achievements, but it tells a story that is not often told about people who are not the usual movie characters. And with Cheng Pei Pei, Tzi Ma, Don McKellar and the exquisite Sandra Oh, it is worth seeing.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Meditation park

 

Directed by:
Mina Shum

Screenplay by:
Mina Shum

Starring:
Cheng Pei Pei
Tzi Ma
Sandra Oh
Don McKellar
Liane Balaban

94 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

In English.

The breadwinner

The breadwinner is an animated film about Parvana, an eleven-year-old girl living with her family in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. After her father is arrested, Parvana’s mother is having trouble feeding her children. Women are banned from going out in public without a man and at home there is only Parvana, her older sister and a little brother. So Parvana cuts off her hair and pretends she is a boy. She is then able to earn some money and buy food. One day she meets Shauzia, a girl who also dresses as a boy. Shauzia and Parvana become friends and help each other. At home, Parvana helps her family cope by telling them the story of a young boy named Sulayman who must confront his fears and fight a giant elephant. There are then two types of anination. The more realistic drawings for Parvana’s adventures, and the animation for the Sulayman fantasy tale. It looks like a paper collage, is more colourful, and can be very funny at times. Based on the popular children’s novel by Deborah Ellis, The breadwinner is really for adults and older children. It is beautifully made with a lot of careful details and respect. One more plus: the main character is a fearless girl. It has great artistic integrity and it is charming.

And the Oscar went to… The winner for Animated feature film was the more mainstream blockbuster Coco.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

The breadwinner

 

Directed by:
Nora Twomey

Screenplay by:
Anita Doran
Deborah Ellis
adapted from The breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

94 min.

Rated Parental Guidance

Rumble: The Indians who rocked the world

Here’s a story that’s never been told. Rumble: The Indians who rocked the world is a new exciting documentary about the influence of Native Americans and Canadians in pop music. The film gets his tittle from Rumble, an 1958 rock instrumental piece by Link Wray & his Ray men. Rumble is one of the only instrumentals to be banned from radios. The sound was so raw for the period, with distortions, feedback and pulsating guitar playing, that some radio stations in New York and Boston were afraid that it might incite violence. Robbie Robertson, from The band, was born and raised in Toronto on the Six Nations Reservation. Like other rock guitar players, he was greatly influenced by Link Wray. Throughout the film we hear of other musicians and singers from Native descent. Charley Patton, an early recording artist, plays the guitar by hitting on it like a drum. Historians points out that people from the Reserves were not allowed to have drums, a very important outlet of their creativity as well as an instrument of communication. So Patton, and others, learned to play guitar. Mildred Bailey, a blues/jazz singer from the 30s and 40s, has been influential for singers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, who is interviewed for this film. African-American legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix is part Cherokee. And it was wonderful to see Canadian musician-songwriter-singer Buffy Sainte-Marie again. Her voice is as powerful and vibrant today as it has always been. The history lessons are important of course. But in Rumble: The Indians who rocked the world the music is taking the front row. It is time that we pay attention, listen and learn.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

 

Rumble: The Indians who rocked the world

 

Directed by:
Catherine Bainbridge
Alfonso Maiorana

90 min.

Mermaids

Ali Weinstein’s documentary explores the unusual, almost cult appeals of mermaids for the women featured in the film. Mermaids are a myth that has been with us for at least three-thousand years, and its popularity has been renewed with the Disney animation film The little mermaid. Whatever it is that the women in the film have found in the mermaids community is helping them grow as human beings. For some, they feel accepted no matter who they are. That’s the case with Julz, a trans-woman living with her girlfriend and a young daughter. She tells us some of her hardships, when as a boy she realise there was something different about her. We meet elderly retired mermaids from Florida’s Weeki Wachee resort. They have remained friends since the 1950s, where they worked at the resort (film archives is proof). They go back again and swim together. They are mer-sisters. Still today, there are bars where professional mermaids swim for the patrons. We get to know a daughter who has brought her mother to become a mermaid. She’s a mer-mom. Then there is Cookie and her supporting husband. Cookie is able to manage her mental illness much better since she started putting on the fins. During the course of the film, Cookie marries her long time companion. The mer-wedding (?) takes place in a pool, with many of the participants, women as well as men, dressed as mermaids. But not the groom. It’s a surreal image, but there are many of them in Mermaids. As one with many passions, I can understand and appreciate passionate people. Whatever gets you through the day is fine by me.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Mermaids

 

Directed by:
Ali Weinstein

Screenplay by:
Ali Weinstein

76 min.

Parental Guidance

The gardener (Le jardinier)

The last thing you want to see is another documentary about trees or flowers, or gardening, with people going gaga and hugging trees. Well, I did not want to see it. It’s not my thing. And then you see the images that Sébastien Chabot shot at Les jardins des Quatres-Vents in La Malbaie, Quebec. Jaw droppingly beautiful. The 20-acre garden is the work of Frank Cabot. Inherited in 1965, the property was given to Cabot’s grandmother as a wedding gift. And what a gift! Frank Cabot is an American whose ancestors arrived in Salem in 1700. Chabot interviewed Cabot before his death in 2011. British floral expert Penelope Hobhouse, writer Tim Richardson and former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson are among those who are also being interviewed. But the star is the marvellous Jardins des Quatres-Vents. One part of the garden has a Chinese bridge. In the Japanese section, Cabot built two Japanese houses. Some oddities include a sculpture of a frog orchestra and two rope bridges suspended over a ravine. In the attic of a beautiful tower-like pavilion there is a small love alcove with a small bed and a window overlooking the garden. Somewhere else a stone is coming out the grass, water is streaming out of the stone. Throughout there are arches and windows opening the views to the surrounding fields outside the estate where you can see cows or other animals. And, of course, flowers, lots of flowers. An orgy of color. The garden remained private until a visit was arranged as a fundraiser. It was so popular that it was decided to do more. It is now opened for guided visits only four days in the summertime. The visits are already booked for this summer. But after you see this film, I think you’ll want to visit Les jardins des Quatres-Vents. In December you will be able buy tickets for the 2018 visits. Here is the site http://cepas.qc.ca/jardins-de-quatre-vents

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The gardener (Le jardinier)

 

Directed by:
Sébastien Chabot

Screenplay by:
Sébastien Chabot

88 min.

Rated General.

In English and French with English subtitles

Maudie

Maud Lewis painted on anything she could find. The walls, the steps, the breadbox and the windows. The tiny house she shared with her husband Everett was covered with her drawings. The small house (10 ft × 12 ft) is now at the Art gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. Maud suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. She walked with a slight limp and the arthritis in her hands worsened as she got older. In Maudie she is played by British actress Sally Hawkins. When we first meet her, Maud Dowley is in her thirties and still living with her strict Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose). This is the repressive 1930s Wanting to be free from Aunt Ida, she seizes the opportunity to leave when she finds an advertisement at the local store looking for a “live-in or keep house”. Everett Lewis (American actor Ethan Hawke) is a grumbling, grumpy man. Not a very nice person. He hires her even if she does not seem to know much about keeping house. He only has one bed, so they have to sleep in the same bed. But Maud is not about to let Everett walk all over her. She demands to be respected. And mutual respect leads to affection and love. According to Everett, it only took several weeks before they married. By that time the house is already covered with her Naïve art painting. She would paint about animals (birds, dogs, horses, cats), flowers, trees, children and outdoors scenes. She set up to sell Christmas cards and her painting in front of the house. Sandra (Kari Matchett), an American neighbor buys some of her paintings, and pretty soon the CBC comes to interview her. Even President Nixon wants to buy her artwork. This is a beautiful love story, simply told but with a grandiose outlook on life and love. My only problem is that they did not cast Canadian actors as the two leads. But this a minute thing. As it is, Hawkins and Hawke are so good. Together they play the most perfectly non-assorted couple. Hawkins has always been a likable actress, but from the early moments until her last scenes, she has us in the palm of her hands and wins us over. Hawke is the surprise here. Playing against his usual typecast of know-it-all, cynical good guy, Hawke now plays a taciturn, gruff man who eventually opens his heart to love. By the end of Maudie, it is clear that Ethan Hawke has never been as good as he is here. Very touching film.

You should know… Everett Lewis died in 1979, nine years after his wife passed away. He was murdered during an attempted robbery at the house.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Maudie

Directed by:
Aisling Walsh

Screenplay by:
Sherry White

Starring:
Sally Hawkins
Ethan Hawke
Kari Matchett
Gabrielle Rose
Zachary Bennett

115 min.

Rated Parental Guidance