Reviews

Film City

While updating my Bullet Journal, I realized that I had taken notes about three film screenings that I haven’t posted about!

Edmonton has had several different film festivals, but the current big one is the Edmonton International Film Festival, which takes place in late September. (EIFF recently became an Oscar-qualifying event: the winners of the short and live film categories at EIFF are now eligible to apply to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to have their films considered for an Oscar award.)

I made it to a couple of screenings at this year’s EIFF. Not only that, but the week before the festival, I had attended another film premiere. At the end of September, Festival City was looking a lot like Film City.

Necessary Evil

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Banner for Necessary Evil (2018).

I’ll start with the project that I’ve been following the longest, Necessary Evil, directed by Chris Donaldson and written by its lead actor, Randy Brososky. I first met Randy back when I was co-hosting an arts and culture show on CJSR radio. Randy was one of our guests, promoting a comedy theatre show. Fast forward a “few” years, and Randy was working in a new medium: he was making a webseries.

Randy and his team campaigned for TELUS Storyhive funding, which is determined by a public vote, so the project always had a prominent place in my Facebook timeline. The premise of  Necessary Evil resonated with anyone who has worked in an office from Hell: in Necessary Evil, the office is actually Hell. The project succeeded in securing Storyhive funding based on the quality of the work and the popularity of the premise via online voting. It also has a great tag line: “If Joss Whedon combined Supernatural with The Office“. I’m biased, but I thought the pilot was fun. Randy plays Azmodeus, a seemingly average demon working a dead-end bureaucratic job in Hell. Bullied by his co-workers, he is emboldened to stand up to his supervisor, which earns him a call to visit the head office—that is, Lucifer’s office. Prepared for the worst, he discovers that Lucifer has abandoned Hell, and left it to Azmodeus to run. There are a lot of great jokes about working in Hell, and a few fresh surprises, such as Persephone (played by Kimberly Philpott), the angelic worker who has been seconded from Heaven. She’s very helpful to Asmodeus in his new role as boss, but there is a complication: he’s sweet on her. The office is populated by various other demons, including Aaron Talbot’s comically meek Xaphan, and Mark Meer’s ingeniously efficient Mephistopheles, who barely breaks a sweat when bargaining for a human’s soul. He tells Azmodeus, “The amount of effort required to enable humans to be terrible to each other is remarkably small.”

It was wonderful to see the show on the big screen, in a real cinema, with so many of the people involved in the production and success of the show. Randy’s team wants to make more episodes, so check out the the Necessary Evil website here: http://www.necessaryevilseries.com/

 

Until First Light

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Still from Until First Light (2018).

To back up about a week before EIFF, I was at another independent film premiere, this time at the Garneau Theatre, which is programmed by the Metro Cinema film society.

The film was Until First Light, written and directed by Kyle Armstrong. The movie is about a city man who must wind down the family farm after his brother, who operated it, committed suicide. It’s an atmospheric film that’s focused on the surviving brother’s emotional response. I was reminded of the subjective lens and non-linear narrative of Terance Malik’s Tree of Life. In the question-and-answer session after the screening, Armstrong noted that there was a lot of improv and that the film evolved as they worked in it: “It revealed itself,” he said.

Armstrong likes to work with non-actors, including the film’s star, Darren Frank, who had never acted before. My friend Blair Brennan, a visual artist, was cast in a small role as a neighbouring farmer. Going to the premiere with Blair and his family, and other friends who were supporting their friends, was a blast.

Although I turned to congratulate Blair after his scene, I don’t think I was distracted from the film’s main point, which was the hardship of dealing with major losses: of a loved one, of a family home, of a legacy business, of a way of life.

One of the topics that came up in the Q&A afterwards was funding. I didn’t fully realize how ironic this was until I began to write this post. Funding is a huge issue in both the arts and in agriculture. Family farm revenue is from selling crops and other products, but there are also subsidies and other modes of funding, which are constantly being debated, tweaked, enacted, or repealed. A couple of weeks after seeing this film, which includes footage of a dairy farm,  the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was renegotiated and re-branded, unpoetically, as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). One of the major concessions made by Canada was to allow U.S. vendors more access to the Canadian dairy market. Dairy prices are expected to drop. It was the kind of decision that might have made it easier for the protagonist of Until First Light to make a decision about the fate of the farm.

You can read more about Until First Light here: https://untilfirstlight.com/

 

ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch

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Potash mining in Russia, from ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch (2018).

Exactly one week after seeing Until First Light, I saw ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch at the Edmonton International Film Festival. This, too, was a film that revealed itself. Filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Edward Burtynsky, and Nicholas de Pencier were not in attendance, but explained in an end-credit note that they had worked without a script.  They essentially pointed a camera and let the world reveal a story to them. (Editing and narration came later.) Their philosophy is that the visual is visceral.

Before this screening, I’d only seen their first film, Manufactured Landscapes, which primarily focuses on Burtynsky’s work as a large-format photographer of the largest human endeavours: quarries, mines, dams, and factories among them. ANTHROPOCENE picks up on the terraforming theme. As explained in the voiceover by actor Alicia Vikander, the Anthropocene is the current era, in which the biggest geological changes are made by humans.

This film is beautiful and terrifying, like many of Burtynsky’s best-known images. In a segment which bookends the film, Kenyan activists against elephant poaching arrange to burn stocks of illegal tusks that were confiscated by the authorities. They wanted to publically show that there is no market for elephant ivory, so they piled 10,000 elephant tusks into structures that resembled huts and set them afire. Watching the fire burn, I cheered the anti-poaching actions, but became sombre as it dawned on me that these 10,000 husks represented 5,000 senselessly murdered elephants.

During the course of the movie, we visit several huge projects, including:

  •  Nigeria’s Olusosun landfill, the largest garbage dump in Africa, where there are 1,000 homes and at least as many people who scavenge the site for a living;
  • a massive marble quarry in Italy, where a handful of workers use machines to extract in less than a day what 1960s workers would have taken 15 or 20 days to extract (in a clever bit of wordless commentary, the film shows the fate of all that newly machine-quarried marble by cutting to a workshop where sculptors make hundreds of hand-crafted reproductions of Michaelangelo’s “David”); and
  • the world’s largest potash mine in Russia, where massive boring equipment leaves psychedelic patterns in the rock.

Baichwal, Burtynsky, and de Pencier work on the philosophy that seeing is believing. However, while some of the scenarios were given full explanations during the course of the film, others were not. For example, one of the most stunning sequences shows massive excavators on unfamiliar terrain, with mist all around. It looks like something out of one of the Alien movies. We are told that the machines are being used to turn farmland into some other industrial use. One of the locals tells us that four towns have been destroyed for this expansion. But expansion of what? Why was it allowed to happen? How did people feel about having their entire town moved? I would have liked to know more.

As stunning visual after stunning visual is presented, segments are shorter and aren’t really followed through as much as, say, the Italian marble story. By the time we got to the time-lapse scene where coral dies before our eyes in a process called coral bleaching, I felt overwhelmed and distressed. I had the impression that the filmmakers did not want audiences to leave the film feeling that way. They gave Vikander some reassuring lines to deliver in her Oscar-award winning, plummy tones. She said that we still have time to turn this all around. However, because the film had not given us enough to go on, the words sounded sincere, but untrustable.

I wrote this post a few days after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report estimating that we have 12 years to make changes to get the effects of climate change to a manageable level. The panel gave some actionable items, and I was reminded recently that humans got together managed to correct the damage to the ozone layer. This type of information is valuable as follow-up to ANTHROPOCENE.

ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch also has an accompanying book and photographic exhibit (at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada): https://theanthropocene.org/film/

 

Follow-up Festival

There are opportunities to see all of these projects, like a virtual festival.

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