Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a queer college freshman looking to make a name for herself. She overdoes it on her studies — frequently writing tests twice or three times in the time it takes everyone to do it once — and is obsessed with being the top of the pack. She joins the university’s rowing team in order to prove how much better she is than the rest of her teammates, and begins to push herself to physical and mental extremes in order to succeed. And she does not care who gets in her way of doing it.
In her debut feature, Writer/Director Lauren Hadaway has created a singular and hypnotic vision of the lengths one young woman takes to succeed. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and was just nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Hadaway. I watched the film a few weeks ago on a whim, and found myself unable to look away from the intensely wild ride Hadaway has created. While it would be incredibly easy to compare it to Damien Chazelle’s unforgettable Oscar-winner Whiplash (and believe me when I say people have already started to), The Novice feel like it is so much more than that.
179 minutes. That’s how long Co-Writer/Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film Drive My Car is. I heard unanimous praise coming out of Cannes for the film — where it won Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, not to mention being In Contention for the Palme d’Or — but all I could fixate on was the length. It was daunting and trying to schedule watching it during TIFF in September alongside 40+ other films was a logistical nightmare and a battle that I lost all too quickly. Instead, I just continued hearing the unanimous praise and continued seeing the film’s poster taunting me on Letterboxd as one of the “Highly rated films you’ve yet to see”.
So when the time came to finally watch Drive My Car a few weeks back, after it being chosen as Japan’s Best International Feature entry for the Academy Awards, I was filled with trepidation and anxiety. Adding to the pressure, multiple critics’ groups had started calling it the Best Foreign Language Film of the year and last week, the NYFCC straight up awarded it as the Best Film of the Year period. Could the film match what I had been picturing for months? Would I be able to watch it all in one sitting (quick answer: no)? How the hell did Hamaguchi and Co-Writer Takamasa Oe manage to turn Haruki Murakami’s short story into a 3 hour film?! All of these thoughts were swirling in my head, and continue to as I finally settle down to write this. It seemed patently wrong to dismiss it entirely because of its gargantuan running time. A film like this was too important not to watch.
While the pandemic is far from over, one of the few wonderful things that has happened is the ease of access some film festivals have created for online audiences watching from home. We no longer need to physically be in certain cities in order to see great films — we just simply need to point and click. While some festivals demand the sacred in-person experience not be destroyed under any circumstance, others have pivoted to a welcome hybrid model of in-person screenings and online on-demand screenings. The Whistler Film Festival, running December 1-31, 2021, is one such festival and is available to online audiences across Canada (an in-person portion of the festival concluded this past Sunday in Whistler). Films are available daily and can be viewed at any time before December 31, which will certain make festival planning alongside family holiday events a whole lot easier.
I was given the opportunity to sample three films prior to their online screening date, and have included a few of my thoughts on these films that could not be any more different below:
Today is the last day of the 25th Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival. You are likely SOL by the time you read this if you wanted to see the encore theatrical screening of the award winning Opening Night film Islands, but it is still available to view on the Digital portal.
That film centres on Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas). He is about to turn 50, still lives with his parents and works as a janitor in Toronto despite being a dentist in the Philippines. He has never really taken care of himself, and prays nightly for God to bless him with a wife and children. When his mother dies suddenly, Joshua must start taking care of his ailing father alongside his visiting cousin Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco), and begin to learn how to survive on his own. While that certainly does not sound like a wonderfully uplifting romp, Writer/Director Martin Edralin influses Islands with a raw emotional core that feels deeply personal and authentic. The film is paced slowly yet methodically, which allows for Edralin to hone in on the wonderful, naturalistic performances from Balagtas and Lotuaco — who you would never guess are both first-time actors! There are laughs, there is tragedy, and there is a whole lot of humanity coursing through Islands veins. It is moving and beautiful, and while you may not be on board initially, you will definitely come around to it all as the film progresses. Just watch out for Esteban Comilang as Joshua’s father Reynaldo. His very physical, very lived-in work is utterly devastating.
If that does not sound your speed, here are two more recommendations to watch before the festival ends:
The 25th annual Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival kicks off today and runs until November 19. This year’s festival offers a diverse slate of 19 feature films, short films, conferences, panels and more. All are available digitally, alongside an in-person screening of tonight’s Opening Night Film Islands at the Hot Docs Cinema. This is my first year being accredited for the festival, and what a banner year to be a part of. There are so many great titles from other festivals appearing here, many available to Toronto audiences for the first time. Here are just a few of the films you should be keeping on your radar.
A hot shot young Hollywood agent named Jordan (Jim Cummings) is in the middle of planning his wedding to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) when he receives an anonymous letter in the mail. He opens the letter and discovers an invitation to a hotel for a sexual encounter. He disregards it immediately, but comes back to it and ends up going through with it. Racked with guilt and curiosity, Jordan begins looking into the why and how he was targeted — and quickly becomes ensnared in something so much bigger than he ever could have imagined.
Years after a school shooting incident, two sets of parents — Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), and Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) — agree to sit down privately to converse, grieve and find a way to move forward.
Mass was one of the hottest films I missed during this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I finally had my chance to watch the film at last month’s Cinéfest Sudbury Film Festival and was left in a state of shock and awe by the time it ended. It may just be a film mainly comprised of four people talking in one location (very much in line with a play), but it is a riveting and necessary work that may prove to be too intense for some viewers. I had to literally pause the film and take a 10-minute break before diving back in. It really was that visceral and aggravating to watch. That is not to say that the film is bad or disappointing. Rather, it is just so deep and moving, that it bends the line between fiction and reality in ways that will affect you no matter what stage of life you are at.
As Defining Moments opens, it defines itself as “a point in your life when you’re urged to make a pivotal decision, or when you experience something that fundamentally changes you.” It is not particularly deep, but it sets the stage for what is to come in Writer/Director Stephen Wallis’ tale of love and sadness amongst a group of interconnected individuals experiencing those profound Defining Moments in their own lives.
Akemi (musician MASUMI) is a Japanese orphan living in São Paulo, Brazil. She has had extensive fight training since she was a little girl, but has very little idea about her past. When her grandfather is murdered and mysterious stranger Shirô (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) saves her life with an ancient sword, Akemi quickly discovers she is the heiress to half of the Yakuza crime syndicate in Okinawa. And the other half happens to want her dead.
For a film called Yakuza Princess, you might expect a non-stop action thriller with that kind of synopsis. And while there is certainly some action and thrills scattered throughout the film, it is actually more of a slow moving drama about a young woman discovering her past and coming to terms with the destiny in front of her. There is a lot of exposition, even more backstory and a whole lot going on between characters in Okinawa and São Paulo (which houses the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan). It gets a bit overwhelming at times, and some moments have a languished pacing that can be trying even at the most exciting of times.
Casi (John Boyega) is an idealistic public defender in New York City. He wants to believe in the system, even though he knows it will keep failing him and his clients. On the verge of being disbarred, he takes on the case of Lea (Olivia Cooke), a former client and someone Casi happens to have a crush on. She has gotten mixed up in a scheme to steal an impounded car that is stashed with heroin and has her own motivations for wanting to be involved. As Casi begins seeing signs of impending universal destruction, he decides to get involved too.