Away From Her


Grant: Fiona, is there any way you can let this go?
Fiona: If I let it go, it will only hit me harder when I bump into it again.

A couple washes up after dinner. He washes while she dries. They savour the memory of the delicious dinner they just shared. They are smiling and in love after forty-four years together. In a moment of silence, he casually hands her the frying pan he has just cleaned. She dries it with her towel, walks to the freezer and puts it inside. She exits the room as if nothing out of the ordinary has just happened. All he can do is watch, if his intentions are to be sensitive. This is the context in which we are introduced to Grant and Fiona (Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie) in the first feature film adapted and directed by Canadian actress Sarah Polley, “Away From Her”. Polley brings unapologetic honesty and sympathy to the lives of these two characters. After a lifetime together, they will be torn apart by Alzheimer’s. Neither can do anything to stop it. He can only watch her mind disappear while she tries to enjoy the undetermined lucid time she has left. It is Polley’s delicate and respectful hand that guides the viewer to see past the surface of misplaced kitchen apparel and see the longing for tenderness that is had between as it lingers longer than fading memories.

Memory comes in and out in “Away From Her”. With the image often filling with white and veering on blurry like a blinding snowstorm, Polley sets the tone from the start. Memory is a hazy concept. Alzheimer’s is a cruel game that has Fiona having difficulty maintaining her short-term memory, like why she left the house or common words, while some of the most painful memories in her life seem like they will never be forgotten. Her story unfolds as she decides to admit herself to a retirement facility so that her husband needn’t be responsible for her. This particular “home” enforces a policy where new residents are not allowed to have any contact with the loved ones they left behind for the first thirty days after they are admitted. When Grant is finally able to return to the residence, it isn’t clear whether Fiona even recognizes him and worse yet, she has found comfort in the company of another man (Michael Murphy). As painful as this reality is, Polley cuts away to another time and place throughout this build, allowing us a glimpse into where Grant will end up as a result of all this change. As a result, the film feels interrupted. It is one of few mistakes made by this novice filmmaker but fortunately not one that makes the film any less painful.

Polley directs three beautifully nuanced performances from her leads. As Grant, Pinsent is bewildered, stubborn and hopeful depending on the moment. Despite all of his frustration, he is constantly searching for understanding and resolve for the memories even he has difficulty letting go of. Olympia Dukakis joins the cast as Marian, the wife of Aubrey, the man Fiona befriends in the residence. She is a tough woman, brass because she has to be. For Grant, she represents what he could have become had it been decided that he would care for his wife himself. Her life is one that was surrendered to supporting her husband through his illness, forcing personal happiness to be removed as a possibility. Naturally, given the nature of the part, it is Christie that pulls the viewer deep into a mind that is falling away. In one scene, Grant brings her home for a day. She marvels at how it was kept so well after all this time. Though the home she is seeing was her own for over twenty years, she looks on it as if it belonged to someone else. The way her eyes take in the surroundings, an environment that she should know intimately, suggests a sense of attachment intrinsically linked with a saddened detachment. She should know this place, these things, and on some level she does. She does not understand why she should feel a sense of familiarity, just that it is so. It is as though memories flood back to her but they aren’t her own.

“Away From Her” is a fantastic first film from a talented Canadian actress with great promise as both a perceptive writer and skilled director. It is also a lesson in patience and learning to let go. Not for the viewer but for those onscreen. Grant must always exercise restraint while allowing the love of his life to find solace in another man. After all, what matters most is that she be at peace. As big a task as this is, Fiona must do even more. She must accept that the life she knew is behind her and that the one ahead of her is new, necessary and one that might fade away from her as quickly as it happens to her.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Waitress


“I was addicted to saying things and having them matter to someone.”

Somewhere, someone is making a pie that is all their own. They have been to the grocery store; they have chosen the best ingredients. They have a recipe in their head that might have once been their mother’s or might have come to them while they waited for the bus. And though there may be situations or circumstances in their lives that may be keeping them from the happiness they deserve, for the time it will take to prepare their warm treat, they will be focused on the act of creation itself. That same kind of care is baked into writer/director Adrienne Shelley’s Sundance darling, “Waitress”. Like the film’s heroine, Jenna (Keri Russell) who bakes to escape from her dreary, hopeless life, Shelley ensures that “Waitress” is the result of blending all the right ingredients, not over baking and gently sifting in just the right amount of love whenever necessary.

If “Waitress” were itself a pie, it would taste like the perfect combination of different flavours coming to life on your tongue one after the other instead of all at once. It would be rich, not overly sweet. Realism gives this romantic comedy its affluence. Jenna plays a waitress who works thankless hours at a pie shop outside of town. She is married to a controlling, abusive husband (played by a humanely needy Jeremy Sisto) and has just discovered that she is pregnant. She thought her life was going nowhere before but the baby news shut the oven door for good on whatever dreams she still held on to. Russell plays Jenna like a woman resigned to her fate. She is not necessarily unhappy in her day-to-day interactions; she merely does not believe that any good will come to her in her life. None has come thus far so why should she expect anything different from the future? She is not a pessimist but a pragmatist. While the dead-end career/deadbeat husband angle has been played out before, Shelley makes sure to avoid cliché with a sensitive script that allows for her characters to make sensible choices rather than typical ones that define the genre.

The relationship that is perhaps treated most delicately and also becomes the central relationship in the film is the one that forms between Jenna and her new gynecologist, Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). After an initially uncomfortable meeting, the two start an affair that finds Jenna following her pregnancy very closely with what seems like weekly visits to her doctor. Affairs are very tricky to sell on film as the romance has the extra challenge of overshadowing the innocent partners that are left at home and the undue hurt that is caused to them. In Jenna’s case, the woman has got it so rough; you want her to have this happiness. What value do the vows she made to her husband have when he essentially manipulated her into marrying him in the first place so that he would never be alone? Russell makes it boisterously enjoyable to watch Jenna realize that she can actually make choices that control her own destiny. They may not be ideal but they can bring smiles to her face again. And as for Dr. Pomatter and his involvement, Shelley wisely chooses not to show his wife until much later on or explain away why he is cheating. In the end, it isn’t his story and all that matters is that he’s there and he sees Jenna for the wondrous woman she is.

“Waitress” is easy to fall in love with. After all, isn’t there a little waitress in all of us? To varying degrees, we all wish that something about our lives had turned out differently. If we’re lucky there are elements that we are happy with but there is always going to be something we don’t feel we’ve explored to its fullest or opportunities we feel we’ve been cheated out of. Let this movie and its creation be a lesson to us all to enjoy the moments where we feel happy just making a pie, as those are the moments that matter and you never know what life has in mind for you next.

Before she could witness the critical success and audience reaction to her film, a construction worker killed writer/director Adrienne Shelley over a noise dispute in her building.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Sharkwater


I had an awfully difficult time getting anyone to see this movie with me. Apparently, a lot of people have issues with sharks. This apprehension was part of the original inspiration for filmmaker, Rob Stewart, to make “Sharkwater”. He had been taught his entire life to fear sharks, as have we. The media vilifies sharks every so often to remind us that they are not our friends. It isn’t safe to get in the water after all. Haven’t you all seen that movie with sharks where they eat all the innocent people? It’s as if we have never fully recovered from “Jaws”. In his career as an underwater photographer, Stewart discovered that these fears are almost entirely unfounded. He could swim with the sharks and get close enough to touch them if he showed them that he did not fear them and that they had no reason to fear him. And so he set out to make a documentary that would demystify our notions that sharks are perversely obsessed with the killing of human beings. What he would discover is that we as humans have already launched a full-scale retaliation against our sworn enemy.

Stewart’s experience as an underwater photographer does not go to waste in this breathtaking film. Stewart’s ocean is one of tranquility and warmth. Over time, it has become his sanctuary and he presents the environment to his audience with the same feeling of security that he claims to get from it. Though he was once very much like a fish out of water, Stewart has found a new home in the ocean and his neighbors don’t seem to mind him at all. The imagery of “Sharkwater” was what originally drew me to the film and it does not disappoint. Schools of fish of so many different varieties swim past and mingle with each other that the screen becomes a mélange of colour and movement that is at times dizzying and hypnotic. And though those same fish scatter when the sharks enter the frame, Stewart does not. Instead, he swims towards them and in one instant you see how two species can forget their supposed feud between them by letting their fear of the unknown fall away. For a moment, two worlds collide to create an unexpected harmony.

This only makes what follows all the more painful. Stewart’s shoot took an unforeseen turn when he joined the crew of a militant oceanic watchdog ship that makes it their mission to ensure international treaties protecting the rights of ocean dwellers are upheld. Before long, Stewart and the crew are involved in an international scandal over shark finning. In some countries, like Japan, shark fin soup is considered a delicacy that when served affirms one’s social status. It is popular at massive weddings and can cost upwards of a hundred dollars in a restaurant. According to Stewart, shark fin trading on the black market is only second to drug trafficking. Although the statistic seems a bit skewed, there are still billions of dollars involved in the trade. For the first time in the 450 billion years that sharks have been on this planet, there are certain species of sharks that are facing serious threats of extinction. Once again, human beings plow through other life in pursuit of the almighty dollar without acknowledging the long-term ramifications. See, the planet consists of two-thirds water and this water contains a lot of plankton that produces 70% of the planet’s oxygen. The ocean is filled with fish that survive on plankton. The shark is the ocean’s leading predator of these plankton eaters. If we kill off all the sharks, then the other fish will have free reign over the plankton, which means a diminished production of oxygen for us to breathe. Why do we always assume that our actions have no consequence? And why do we always put money ahead of preservation? You can’t spend money if you can’t breathe.

All of this ecological unrest for soup. Shark fishers remove the fins of the shark, which make up 5% of the shark’s body, and throw the shark back into the ocean to die. Stewart and his crew go undercover into the illegal industry to give weight to their accusations and, as you stare out at rooftops covered with shark fins drying in the sun, you cannot help but be horrified at the sheer size of the operation. “Sharkwater” invites you to make friends with the enemy and to see how we as humans are so much worse to sharks than they are to us. The mirror is turned to expose who is the more evil predator and its mouth is not home to sharp jagged teeth but rather to a smiling face sipping down its soup. Sadly, “Sharkwater” will not be seen by as many as it should, as people prefer their sharks as foe instead of friend. Bring on “Jaws 5”! Quite frankly, I consider “Sharkwater” to be a hell of a lot scarier.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Year of the Dog


“Animals are like us; they live for love. And if you have too many of them,then there isn’t enough love to go around.”

Dog people. When I think of dog people, I think of my friend, Lloyd. He’s got this puppy, Andy. Andy’s got his own personal walker, play dates on weekends and some pieces of his wardrobe are more stylish than mine. Despite being the dog that has everything, the most important thing he has is Lloyd. If you spend any time with this twosome, it’s hard to tell who loves who more. Some people say that owning a dog is selfish, that having another living being depend on you and give you nothing but love in return only serves the owner’s ego. I guess these people forgot about the natural human need to nurture. I suppose these people also have not had the chance to see Mike White’s “Year of the Dog”. White, writer of indie faves “Chuck and Buck” and “The Good Girl”, makes his directorial debut with the simple tale of one woman, whose tightly wound life of disappointment unravels after the death of her dog, a beautiful beagle named Pencil.

Before Pencil’s unexpected passing, Peggy (Molly Shannon) spent her days with a permanent smile on her face. Whether she was at the office comforting her boss (Josh Pais) while his neuroses got stuck in spin over office politics, or at the mall listening to her colleague (Regina King) yammer on about her boyfriend’s commitment issues or even walking on eggshells while visiting her brother and his overprotective wife (Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern), Peggy never frowned. Sure, she never found her dream job or got married or had any kids of her own. But why should she let that bother her? She has her health, a home and Pencil. Finding herself without Pencil though finds Peggy feeling lost. The beauty of White’s script is that Peggy is not suddenly lost but only suddenly realizing that she has been for years. Anchoring this decent into the depth of an internal fear that has been avoided for years is Shannon. As Peggy, she never fully abandons her comedic luminescence but shows new sides of her range, including fragility, determination and sparks of buried hope. She sits one night in a passenger seat at the end of a date. Her suitor (John C. Reilly) asks without tact if she has ever been married. The woman who answers no longer has the strength or the desire to pretend anymore. She simply stutters through an evasive response and stumbles as she exits the car.

Pencil’s death leads to her meeting Newt (Peter Saarsgard), a dog trainer that coaches her how to tame her newly adopted dog, Valentine, while unknowingly waking a part of her heart thought long to be dead. Meeting people is easy. Getting to know people is tricky. Navigating a relationship through the hope and apprehension that comes after years of potentially difficult experiences can be more than enough to make you run home to your dog. For Newt and Peggy, neither has had much success with other human beings. Other human beings are complicated and come with their own set of expectations. Animals on the other hand, want very clear things from you, like food and attention, and, in return, give you unqualified love and admiration. You don’t have to think about what to say to a dog when there is an awkward silence. There is no experience to be had with a dog that mirrors the dance between two people who are trying to figure out whether this is or isn’t the right time to kiss the other person. And while all of this can be infuriating, it should not be forgotten that this is an excitement that cannot be had with a dog.

White’s script works because he does not categorize the characters but rather allows them to grow into themselves, no matter whether that self fits into society’s mold or not. As a film however, “Year of the Dog”, is occasionally just as awkward as its characters. White’s direction and cinematic approach are often static and flat, ultimately taking away from the warmth of the whole. Thankfully, Peggy’s late life journey towards embracing her true self is so winningly portrayed by Shannon that the film’s cinematic limitations never go from flaw to fault. By the time she realizes that her own compartmentalized cubicle life bares its own resemblance to the life of a dog in a pound, she sees that it is also just as wrong for her as for the dogs. After all, dog people are people too and if there’s anyone out there who should give you unconditional love, it’s yourself.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

The Namesake


“My grandfather always said that’s what books are for… To travel without moving an inch.”

“The Namesake” is a true treasure. It is a film that honours long-established convention and meaning by maintaining its own traditional approach. All too often, filmmakers take sides when telling a story about a culture taken out of context. Either the old is just plain too old for its own good or the new is entirely empty. Director Mira Nair begins this story of one family’s history by drawing her own conclusions but allows the film to learn the error of its ways at the same pace as its characters. The Ganguli family must learn to meet each other in the middle of its own extremes. Once there, they must learn to breathe soft and slow to allow both sides to hear each other and learn from what they are hearing. By finding a similar breathing pattern to establish its pacing, “The Namesake” is able to criticize and question the Americanization of other cultures while never losing focus on what matters, the experience and heart of the Ganguli family.

Giving history its due, “The Namesake” opens in Calcutta. A young girl by the name of Ashima (played by Tabu) returns home from singing lessons to find a male suitor waiting to ask for her hand in marriage. She does not run from what is expected of her nor does she go towards it blindly and obediently. Instead, she approaches with caution and an open mind. Before she even meets Ashoke (Irfan Khan), she is drawn to the exotic possibilities he can offer her when she finds his American shoes by the door. She slips the shoes on, seemingly trying to feel what kind of man wears these shoes and what kind of weight wears them down. It is a simple moment, one of many to follow, that both gives the film its charm and connects Ashima and Ashoke to each other. Theirs is a marriage arranged in the most traditional sense yet a great love grows from this beginning. The newlyweds travel to New York to start their life together while getting to know both each other and their new surroundings. The tenderness of their relationship is a moving testament to the importance of listening and comprehension.

The wide spectrum of colour that runs rampant through Calcutta is reduced to nothing in New York. The city is covered in snow and only the drab concrete manages to poke through. Before long, Ashoke and Ashima have their first of two children, Gogol (Kal Penn). With his birth, the central conflict is also born. As Gogol grows older, he grows further away from his heritage but more importantly, he grows further away from his parents. All families face these kinds of challenges. In the case of the Ganguli family, it is easy for the children to rebel against their cultural backgrounds as it is the most obvious target that will certainly hurt their parents. The parents had to adjust to the American way of life while the children were born and raised within it. It is difficult to reconcile the differences, which leads to the feeling that they are barely a family at times.

“The Namesake” is about healing and understanding. It does not focus on any one family member more than any other but rather on their shared similar experiences of happiness and loss. And though its visual basis is specific, its messages are much more universal. Never letting go of the past will never allow you to see your future. Still, refusing to acknowledge the past will leave your future just as hollow. If you’re not too stubborn though and you realize that everything that comes before you makes you who you are today and who you can be tomorrow, then you will learn to resolve both past and future to enjoy your present and the family you are fortunate to have surround you.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Reign Over Me


“I don’t like this.
I don’t like remembering.”

Sometimes it takes a catastrophe to shut a man down and sometimes it happens little by little over time and no one knows until its already happened. “Reign Over Me” is the story of two such men who find themselves in similar positions despite the drastically different paths that got them there. Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle) is a successful New York dentist, who has his own practice, a gorgeous apartment and a family that loves him. He is coasting comfortably on his success until he happens to cross his college roommate on the street one day. Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler) doesn’t do any coasting, except on his motorized scooter. Charlie lost his wife, three daughters and family dog on September 11th, 2001. They were on one of the planes that crashed into the towers and he was on his way to meet them at the airport when it happened. Charlie had his life taken from him in one moment while Alan has let his slip through his fingers over the course of his entire life.

Writer/Director, Mike Binder (“The Upside of Anger”), has placed all the elements carefully to allow for these two men to heal each other only he has forgotten to connect them or give them any personality of their own. The film itself does its own coasting as it presumes that its supposed bravery to deal with post-traumatic stress experienced by those touched directly by the events of September 11th is original enough to sustain itself. The presumption is that anyone with a soul will allow their heart to go out to this man because they can still feel the pain from that day. I have a soul and I still feel the pain but my heart doesn’t automatically go out to a man just because you tell me he’s ruined. Even Sandler, who showed great dramatic promise in “Punch-Drunk Love”, relies too heavily on audience expectation, allowing his Dylan-esque mess of a haircut and inability to sit still to show his hurt. The alternative is to show what Charlie went through that led him to this place in his life but no one needs to be bombarded with that imagery again. Only, the planes crashing into the towers was just the beginning of Charlie’s experience. The emptiness that followed is what specifically hollowed Charlie Fineman and there is no trace of that pain in the film until it is too late.

Binder also had a difficult time balancing out the two separate experiences of his characters. As Charlie has the showier, more intense trauma to deal with, Alan’s lessons to learn become an afterthought. The divide is uneven but I almost wish Alan’s plight had been given little to no thought. It is both tired and tedious to tell of a man who achieved all of his goals but somehow eluded happiness. It is then also all too simple and increasingly irritating to blame these problems on the wife. Alan’s wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) makes him dinner, wants to speak openly with him and spend time together learning new things. She is making an effort and doing her part and all he can do is resent her for it because it’s a lot easier than facing the fact that he is responsible for his own happiness. Helping Charlie becomes a convenient way to avoid both his own problems and his wife. Of course, he learns that his wife is not to blame for his dissatisfaction but you know that he will from the moment you see there is a problem. There is no other solution that could lead both the film and the character to resolution. In fact, ultimate resolution is what removes all urgency from the film. Charlie and Alan meet and there is no question that they will learn from each other. So obvious is the point of this film that it becomes entirely predictable.

“Reign Over Me” opens and closes with shots of the streets of New York City. As the people scurry through the maze, it is obvious that there are stories of pain and loss from September 11th still waiting to be told. This one however never quite feels real. Instead, it feels calculated and constructed which is made even sadder as it misses the emotional pay off it seems so bent on getting. Charlie doesn’t want to remember that day. He doesn’t want to remember everything he once had, that he was once happy without having to try to be. He is hardly alone though. Many have tried to forget that day and the wounds that were suffered. I seriously doubt that “Reign Over Me” is the way they will want to remember again.

Review by Joseph Bélanger

Cashback


“What is love anyway?
And is it really that fleeting?

It would be real easy for me to say that “Cashback” is so offensive, it will make you want to demand your precious cash back. Only that isn’t fair. Writer/Director Sean Ellis’s expansion of his 2004 Oscar nominated short film of the same name can be juvenile, unconvincing and entirely misogynistic, but it somehow manages to retain some level of tenderness and endearment that makes for a more often soothing than not experience. Having just broken up with his first serious girlfriend, Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff) loses the ability to sleep. He quickly grows tired of flicking the lights on and off repeatedly and reading all of the novels he always meant to, sometimes twice, to pass the time, and decides to get an overnight job at a grocery store a week into his new sleepless existence. (He is a speed-reader, apparently.) Here, he meets a group of quirky coworkers who provide a safe place for him to heal his wounds and let his imagination run wild in the cereal aisle. Somewhere between frozen foods and canned goods lies the secret to understanding love – how it begins, how it grows and how it spoils. If only there weren’t so many breasts to distract us.

Despite its earnest approach, “Cashback”’s quest to understand love needs a serious cleanup in aisle four. From the opening shot, the film’s slanted view of the male/female love experience is clear to all. In close-up and slow motion, a woman stares directly into the camera and goes into a psychotic rage. Her hair is flailing; her eyes beam with uncontrollable hatred. Not before long, she is throwing things. The shot introduces her as an irrational lunatic while the director frames this scenario as typical, supposedly relatable for any man. The film then cuts to Ben. He is docile, put upon and glassy-eyed. How could this be happening, he asks himself. He has such an innocent face. There could not possibly be any justification for this crazy woman’s fit. In this situation, she is the devil and he is the innocent. Ben’s narration is all we hear throughout this exchange, which leads me to wonder if maybe Ben is not more responsible for the love lost than Ellis appears to be suggesting. Yelling though she may be, Ben isn’t listening to a word she is saying. All progression begins with listening.

Ben does spend a lot of time listening to the sound of his own voice mind you. It keeps him isolated from his peers and keeps him from having any genuine human interactions. In fact, to pass the time while he works, Ben imagines that time has stopped and that he is the only one who can walk freely through it. What does this young artist do with this remarkable ability? Why, he exposes the private parts of the female grocery store patrons by pulling up shirts and pulling down skirts of course. He proceeds to whip out his sketchpad and draw these half-naked beauties while reminiscing about his life’s experience with the opposite sex and the discovery of the female form. An encounter with a Swedish boarder when he was pre-adolescent exposed him to the wonders of the female anatomy and it seems he has not been able to see anything else since. But if he is capable of seeing artistic beauty in an open bag of peas on a grocery store floor, then how is it that everything that is beautiful about a woman is found only in her nakedness and never in her soul?

Somehow, Ben deriving art from his time-stopping, breast-exposing experience justifies what would ordinarily be seen as sexual assault. By telling this story, Ellis positions himself in a similar position on the fine line between art and objectification. While “Cashback” did get me to see love as life slowing down with someone else so that you can see all the beauty it has to offer together, it also made me feel uncomfortable. I was not at odds with myself and the physical act of watching so many nude bodies fill the screen. I was not even scandalized by the demeaning imagery. By now, I am accustomed to the male gaze. I was more so embarrassed to be watching a new filmmaker with such a romantic longing and vivid eye offer an art piece that does nothing more than expose an ego that thinks with the wrong head.

Review by Joseph Bélanger