Born to Be Blue has lots of soul but lacks charm

Born to Be Blue, Robert Budreau’s chronicle of the attempted career revival of Chet Baker after imprisonment for heroin abuse, avoids many of the musical biopic pitfalls. It revels in the character flaws of its subject rather than sweeping them under the rug. It ignores the facts when they interfere with a good story. Most importantly, its a damn film. Its opening shot of a tarantula crawling out of a trumpet is the most abstract it gets, but it plays with time in interesting ways and captures more than its share of fantastic frames. It falters strongly, though, in making its central relationship believable. Ethan Hawke’s Baker is an intriguingly infuriating figure, but he never exudes charm, and because of this his romancing of Carmen Ejogo’s Jane never quite gels, especially given her devotion to him. Both Hawke and Ejogo give individually great performances, and by the end their relationship is established enough to sell the hell out of a powerhouse climax, but it takes a long time to reach that point.

B-

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Born to Be Blue (2016)
Directed by Robert Budreau
Starring Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen McHattie, and Callum Keith Rennie
Rotten Tomatoes (88%)

Born to Be Blue has lots of soul but lacks charm

Into the Forest is an intimate, feminist, and melodramatic portrayal of the collapse of society

How easy is it for modern society to go up in smoke? Fiction would have you believe that zombies would do it, nuclear war would do it, disease maybe, but do we need to go that far? If we pull the plug on modern society, and just take away electricity, can we survive? If we still think it will come back any day now, will we stay sane? Into the Forest takes place in this world, where the power suddenly goes out on two sisters living a bit off the grid with their father. Even though there’s no otherworldly threat looming, with the rumours tending towards more believable ones like terrorism than aliens, it doesn’t take long for civilization to undo itself.

But Into the Forest is only tangentially interested in that, and is much more about the relationship of two sisters in near-isolation from the rest of the world. While its basic setup could have easily made for a thrilling film, Into the Forest is much more intimate. There are moments of suspense, but this is far from The Walking Dead, and while its vision of how easily the world can turn upside down (“It’s the Wild West all over again,” one character remarks) is compelling, it doesn’t dwell on the details as much as others would. It takes place in the not-so-distant future, with some neat subtle touches (mostly in how the screens look) and some awful, not-so-subtle touches, likepeople walking around without power, saying “LIGHTS ON” in vain (I guess the Clapper came back), but could just have easily taken place in the present day. If its being sold as a sci-fi apocalypse flick, moviegoers may be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised by the methodical character drama it actually is.

The two sisters, Nell and Eva, are played by Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood respectively. The way the two play off of each other feels very natural, with the standard squabbling but also inborn protectiveness. Eva is a dancer, which lends itself to some really fantastic shot opportunities that director Rozema exploits fully; it would be excessive were they not so entrancing to watch, lending a sense of kineticism to whatever they are being cut against (Nell’s pre-apocalypse hobby of studying for the SATs is considerably less exciting to watch). The focus is entirely on the two women front and centre, with men filling the sidelines representing one-note features of masculinity: protectiveness, aggression, and hopeless naive romanticism. Notably, every speaking role outside of the two leads and faces on video screens is a man, allowing us to project the entirety of femininity onto the leads. Leaving the baggage of representing all women aside, Page and Wood deftly portray the two sisters who have to mature from reasonable-minded college-aged folks to full-fledged adults, with all the roadbumps on the way. Both characters take similar journeys in the broad strokes, but remain distinct with very believable arcs, a testament to the actors, writing, and directing.

However great the central characters are, the movie is a bit too melodramatic for its own good.  The musical cues in the movie always seem to go for big and obvious, and montages of grief and misery are used more than once. Every big moment is heavily foreshadowed in ways that are clear the second the moment occurs, which is a bit distracting but also helps to process it all. But while the movie fumbles a few big moments by going over the top, it admirably doesn’t let them fade away into nothingness. The instantaneous emotional response vanishes, but leaves its mark on the characters, changing them in obvious ways when triggering topics come up, and in how they generally interact with the world after traumatic events.

The house becomes a character into itself, sometimes acting as a metaphor for the mental state of the characters (notably when pieces of it close off), sometimes representing the decaying state of society post-event. It helps that its a beautiful, charismatic lodging, which makes its transformation into something more primal a touch eerie. What the house is supposed to represent is not-so-eloquently posed to the audience over and over, and factors into a less-than-satisfying ending (more on that in the spoilers). Despite the ending going a bit off the rails, placing metaphor above narrative, Into the Forest is a brisk 100 minute character study that held my attention throughout and acts as an exceptional star vehicle for Page and Wood. It’s sci-fi doomsday backdrop gives it bones, but its spirit belongs to sisterhood.

B

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Into the Forest (2016)
Dir. Patricia Rozema
Starring Ellen Page, Evan Rachel Wood, Max Minghella, and Callum Keith Rennie
Rotten Tomatoes (80%)

  • SPOILERS: Eva’s child being male may seem arbitrary, but a big deal is made of the gender, and it does continue the trend of only having men in the film outside of Eva and Nell. What is there to read into that? I suppose it can be read as a comment that, not only can women survive on their own, but that men are incapable of even existing without them (Eli’s implied death fits here too, although that’s a stretch).
  • MORE SPOILERS: In the final sequence, Nell and Eva burn down the house to go into the forest (hey, that’s the title!). While Eva justifies it briefly as covering their tracks, there really is no good reason to leave behind a pile of ash rather than a shelter that they can either use for storage even with the black mold, or a home for the next poor sap to walk by. It’s clearly meant to represent something rather than as an actual plot device; if the house represents the decay of society, is burning it down an act of finally leaving the concept of modern society behind altogether? If it represents how they have closed themselves off from the environment, does burning it show them opening up to a whole new world, finally free of the pain and loss of the past? Does it read as them finally fully reaching independence, able to get by without any support from their parents who thoroughly haunt those grounds? A bit of everything? Regardless, the fact that it really only works metaphorically rather than literally took me out of the movie at the very end, and burning it really didn’t add anything that letting it collapse wouldn’t aside from a small bit of catharsis.
Into the Forest is an intimate, feminist, and melodramatic portrayal of the collapse of society

Teenage summers in Ontario get lit in Sleeping Giant

Anyone looking to survive Canadian content restrictions could do a lot worse than Sleeping Giant, a film set by the cottages of Thunder Bay during a summer that could have been anytime from 1980 to 2010 were it not for a lone telling cell phone. However, judging Sleeping Giant on that curve would be wholly unfair, as director Andrew Civindo has created a film with a clear vision, extracted excellent performances from a young cast, and presents numerous beautiful shots. The film understands better than most how teenage boys work, crafting three unique and interesting lead characters. It’s faults are not in being dinky or cliche, but rather in steeping in a bit too much unjustified misery.

The film takes it title from a rock formation in Lake Superior, an uninhabited peninsula surrounded by cottage country. It focuses on three fifteen-ish boys. Firstly, there’s wallflower Adam, who arrives with his middle-class parents. His father wants to connect with him through rote, vaguely bro-ish life lessons, but teaches him the biggest lesson through a secret he harbours. Adam joins up with cousins Riley and Nate, visiting their grandma and both clearly from poorer households (as told in shortcut via smoking and talk of failing math). Riley is an earnest kid, and Adam’s father quickly takes a liking to him; Nate is the type to act out and egg on others in vulgar ways. Each of the kids starts out as a stereotype (particularly Nate), but is shaded in well. By the midpoint, these kids feel developed, and more than that, feel very real and true to the teenage-boy experience. The class struggle between Adam and the cousins nicely bubbles under the surface, and the cousins’ involvement in a potential romance between Adam and long-time friend Taylor throws some chaos into the mix.

But maybe too much chaos. Between the class issues, hormonal complications, and secrets of the father, Sleeping Giant comes dangerously close to melodrama in its final act, unleashed in what is probably the most dramatic game of Settlers of Catan ever played. It survives based on the goodwill it generates leading up to its finale, but never fully recovers in the end. However, all the way through, this is a very memorably visual movie, with upside-down voyeurism and an odd number of long takes of bugs (all of which are great). Civindo relishes in the hijinks, the cliff-jumping and fireworks and play-fighting, all kinetically shot with a great sense of joy and fear. The movie also has perhaps the most realistically stylized first-time-on-pot scene I’ve seen, with slight blurs and lots of cheese puffs. Youth eventually ends, and all can’t be fireworks and cheese puffs, but Sleeping Giant’s sudden disregard for youthful joy in its end is a more bitter pill than it needs to be.

B

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Sleeping Giant (2016)
Dir. Andrew Civindo
Starring Jackson Martin, Reece Moffat, Nick Serino, and David Disher
Rotten Tomatoes (88%)

Spoilery thoughts below

  • Looking at many of the other reviews for this film, the love triangle is often presented about being about Taylor. Forgive me if this is a misread, but Adam was gay, right? From his longing looks at Riley, this seemed like only interpretation. That twist in the story, which never played for high-drama, really affects how the final act of the film is viewed, with Adam trying to break up Taylor and Riley but not take the blame, or his confrontation near the seagull with Nate. The movie ends with Adam and Riley on the beach, seemingly making peace, which makes more sense as an ending if Adam’s crush was on Taylor and not Riley, so maybe I’m off-base here.
  • So what is there to read out of the death of Nate? He was the only one who wasn’t part of the love triangle, instead used as a pawn by Adam. Yet he is the one punished. Adam’s self-blame is not entirely accurate (Nate made the choice at the end of the day), but if we take him as the intended guilty party, is Nate punished for his sins, a token of what happens when you use people? Riley mentions midway through to Adam that straight-up honesty is the best policy; Nate’s death is the indirect consequence of Adam’s lie.
  • How fantastic is the shot of the two bugs having sex, then being splattered, with the left-out bug standing triumphant? A bit on the nose after Adam finds out about Taylor and Riley, but so so very good.
Teenage summers in Ontario get lit in Sleeping Giant