VIFF 2021 Review – Handle With Care : The Legend Of The Notic Streetball Crew

The Vancouver streetball team ‘The Notic’ are the centre of Handle With Care: The Legend Of The Notic Streetball Crew.

If you’re a fan of streetball, you should know who the Notic are. The documentary Handle With Care: The Legend Of The Notic Streetball Crew tells the story of their formation, rise, fall, afternath and reunification. There more than meets the eye in this film.

The story begins with two Canadian-born brothers from Uganda: Jonathan and David Mubanda. Growing up in a country like Canada, they feel like outsiders. Feelings also shared by Joel ‘Joey’ Haywood, son of Jamaican immigrants. They discover they have a love for basketball and they’re dazzled by watching NBA games and the tricks of the players. They succeed in making their high school’s basketball team and they recreate some of the moves. However even if they play well, it gets on the nerves of their white coaches. One of them tells one of the boys to stop playing ‘jungleball.’

Streetball and 3-on-3 tournaments was something new at the time. That caught the attention of Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux and Kirk Thomas. They were a couple of teenagers graduated from high school and undecided what to do with their lives. Their first dream was to start a punk rock band. However when they saw streetball and the play from these boys, it changed their attention and they saw a new use for their video cameras. Within time, their group of boys who gave themselves the name ‘The Notic’ would grow and include Mohammed Wenn, Jamal Parker, Dauphin Ngongo: also immigrants of first generation Canadians. In 2000, their first video of their play, entitled ‘The Notic Mix Tape’ was released.

The video was intended to just be a video strictly for them and their friends. Over time, they would sell copies of the video on the street. Little did any of them know at the time the sales would skyrocket. But while the popularity of the Notic was growing, so was the size of the group. One was discovered at a 3-by-3 tournament. His name was Andrew Liew: a Bruneian immigrant who went by the name ‘6 Fingaz’ because he had a sixth finger on his left hand! They were also joined by Rory Grace: a white boy with delayed puberty who came from a troubled family background, but delivered some mad skills on court. Rory was nicknamed ‘Disaster.’ Actually all the boys had unique nicknames: Johnny Blaze, Where U At?, David Dazzle, Delight, Kinghandles and Goosebumps.

Next tournament was a streetball tournament in Vancouver in May 2001. That’s where the Notic really got their breakthrough and wowed the crowd. All of them were strutting the stuff and sure enough, Schaulin-Rioux and Thomas had their cameras in hand. They were catching their every move. They also caught their moves as they were ‘chillin’ out by the Surrey Skytrain Station or in the gymnasiums or in their houses. Then they caught a big break as they were invited to a tournament in Seattle. There they stole the show and it was Disaster that blew everyone away with his trickery.

Soon the Notic phenomenon was born. As Schaulin-Rioux and Thomas were busy making their next video, the Notic caught the attention of ESPN and Slam magazine. They were given interviews and Slam! magazine dedicated a seven-page article that included the players and the filmmakers. A website in the UK that promoted streetball had the Notic video on and it got over 100,000 hits a month during its heydays in 2001-2002, kids were coming up to members of the Notic and getting their autographs, even EA Sports recuited them to be the models for their streetball video game where they were paid $5000 each.

Then the Notic 2 was released in 2002, but that’s when the friction was starting. Jermaine was unhappy he was not included as part of the Slam! article. Many of the players were unhappy that their videos were getting a ton of views but they weren’t seeing a single cent for themselves. On top of it, all eight boys were teenagers growing into adults. Soon they were learning that streetball was no way to make a living as an adult. They all had to find their own direction.

Only Joey Haywood took basketball into the colleges. When he didn’t make it into the NBA, he was signed to a Danish basketball league. Joey now holds coaching sessions. The other boys, they found careers or paths of their own. One found work at a mosque in Edmonton, one is a contractor for interiors, another found work in promoting a charity. Rory is the one who had the most trouble since as he felt lost after the split-up of the Notic. He first dabbled in drug dealing and became in addict himself. He spent time in jails and in rehab, but lost custody of his sons. We see as he’s being reunited with his second son. One thing that hasn’t changed with the Notic is they still dazzle and inspire young players from around the world. The spirit of the Notic lives as Schaulin-Rioux and Thomas screen for all members Notic 3 made from kept videotape of Joey.

This is quite a story. It’s the story of a group of boys who were able to dazzle the world with their play of ball. It’s commonly called ‘streetball’ but I’ve often called it ‘freestyle basketball.’ You can look at this story many ways. You could even see the Notic as a group of ‘Next Generation Globetrotters’ straight out of Vancouver. This is a story of young boys who were either immigrants or first generation Canadians trying to find themselves where they felt like a misfit elsewhere. They either felt like they were substandard in school or they were dealt with racism around them. Basketball was their escape. Basketball made them feel like they belonged. Streetball was where they stood out. Their experience as part of the Notic proved to most that yes, they do have what it takes to make it. Eventually they would have to learn they were able to succeed without streetball as adults. However it was being part of the Notic that gave self-confidence to most when they needed it.

The story reminds you that not everything is grand. Schaulin-Rioux and Thomas did acknowledge they were young filmmakers who did not know how far their grainy videos would go. They didn’t know bootleg copies would find themselves around town. They didn’t know uploaded versions of their video would make itself worldwide on the internet. They were young filmmakers who didn’t know about the obstacles and pitfalls of the business. And the eight boys that made up the Notic, you can understand why they would become angered and feel like they were done wrong. Jeremy and Kirk do acknowledge the wrongs they did and that they weren’t as transparent. I guess that exlains why the main title of the documentary is Handle With Care. Also it shows that as Rory saw the Notic as a way out of his troubling family life, it was his everything. When the Notic split up, he was lost and that’s what led to his downward spiral. It’s a story you hear over again of young starts who hit the big time, see it as their everything, and then are lost when the big time disowns them. That was Rory’s case.

This is an excellent documentary from directors Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux and Kirk Thomas. In a lot of ways, it’s a case of a documentary as they are preparing to make the Notic 3. It stars as a case where the two meet with Haywood and come across old videotapes not shown in any previous Notic videos. We shouldn’t forget Notic 3 was never made; the Notic split up before it could be made. At the same time, making Notic 3 was not easy. They had to confront former members who felt they were ripped off in their fame. Jermaine is especially angry. However he makes peace with the two as they acknowledge their past mistakes. In the end, all eight of the former Notic players meet on a basketball court in 2019 to see the screening of Notic 3 and they celebrate reminisce of the old times. When you watch the documentary, you can see it as one of three things. You can see it as the Notic members telling their stories, you can see it as the documenting of the making of Notic 3, or you can see it as Jeremy and Kirk trying to make amends for past business mistakes and trying to make it up to the boys. Either which way, it’s inciteful to watch.

Handle With Care: The Legend Of The Notic Streetball Crew is a documentary worth watching. It will remind you of the heydays of basketball in the 1990’s and early-noughts. However it’s much more. It’s about a group of lost boys who opened doors for themselves by doing something they loved to do. Also it’s two filmmakers set up to make right past wrongs.

VIFF 2020 Review: Monkey Beach

Monkey Beach is about a young Indigenous woman, played by Grace Dove (left), who possesses a supernatural gift that’s as much of a curse as it is a blessing.

DISCLAIMER: I know you’re all getting my first VIFF review just after it ended on October 7th. Thing is I’ve been bogged down with work and taking online courses which left me with little energy to do reviews. Now imagine me adding film-watching to the mix. Yes, that would take all my energy away! Now that VIFF is over, I can finally post reviews over time. Most of the films I believe would still be accessible via streaming services.

Lots of people who are into VIFF have a lot of reasons to want to see Monkey Beach. I wanted to see it because it’s a novel I studied in an online University course fifteen years ago. Those that see it will be happy with what they saw.

The film begins in East Vancouver. Lisamarie Hill thought she could get somewhere after leaving her town in the reserve, but she’s ended up rock bottom. Her friend tells her she needs to return to get her life back together…and then disappears.

Lisa returns back home. It’s like a prodigal daughter welcome. The parents are happy to see her back, her brother Jimmy is happy to see her back, relatives are happy to see her back, old friends are mostly happy to see her back. Her grandmother ‘MaMa-oo’ is happy to see her back. However she’s uncomfortable with returning. She knows of problems going around the reserve plus it doesn’t offer too much of a promising future. Even her younger brother Jimmy, who showed huge potential to be an Olympic swimmer, missed the Olympic trials because a work accident broke his collarbone.

One night while she is sleeping, she notices the trickster come to send her a message. She is haunted by the trickster. She knows because she inherited a gift where she can sense future events to others, including dreadful events. It’s a gift she first learned of as a child. She learned of it during a family vacation during her childhood at Monkey Beach. She remembers the vacation well. It was her family, Ma-ma-oo, and Uncle Mick. It was a vacation full of many warm memories of family togetherness, but also of a memory that haunts her. She remembers that of a mythical creature in the woods. Something mysterious and she can’t remember what he looks like, but she knows he’s haunting.

Returning to the reserve reminds her of a lot of uncomfortable things. First, Uncle Mick is long gone. He had a big influence on her life where she was taught to be proud of her Indigenous heritage. It’s a pride Mick taught out of anger as he was taught in a residential school and suffered the abuse at the hands of the priests and the system. Mick taught Lisa and Jimmy how to be defiantly proud to be Indigenous, but Lisa shouting “**** the oppressors,” at school didn’t go well with her parents. Also missing is Ma-ma-oo. Ma-ma-oo was key in teaching Lisamarie many Haisla skills and traditions.

It’s not just of those deceased. It’s also in the reserve. She’s noticed how many of her friends had lives that fell apart. She noticed the hostility of Josh, one of the older young adults, towards others. On top of it, Jimmy is dating Karaoke: Josh’s ex-girlfriend, and Karaoke is pregnant. Jimmy has been playing it cool, but she senses something’s not right.

Over time, the visions become a lot more frightening. Lisa has every reason to be concerned. She had frightening images of the deaths of Mick and Ma-Ma-oo before they died. She has visions of something terrible about to happen to Jimmy. Her parents however don’t want to hear about her visions. Soon she learns of bad things waiting to happen. It becomes evident as Josh disrupts a rap performance at a party with his angry rant. Plus Karaoke reveals the shocking secret that the baby is not Jimmy’s but Josh’s, out of a rape. On top of that, the images of the trickster become more and more frequent.

Lis then decides to take the boat out to the ocean. Her parents are nervous, but she is insistent as she senses something bad will happen to Jimmy out on a fishing boat. She has every reason too because Josh is on the boat too. She’s able to sense that Josh is about to fight Jimmy and is out of control. She makes her rush trying to find Jimmy, but has to return to Monkey Beach to face the demon who’s been haunting her. She comes prepared with a mask made by Uncle Mick and a drum. She is ready to meet the being head-on and face whatever comes to her. Part of her battle includes making a trip to the underworld. The film ends in surprising, but positive, fashion.

This is a unique story. It’s a story of a young woman dealing with the harsh realities of the world she’s living in as well as dealing with a supernatural gift that risks being a curse. It’s a story of a young Indigenous woman struggling to exist when the two most influential people in her life have passed. Ultimately it becomes a story of triumph when she learns that she ultimately learns she is a person of strength and she has the support of her deceased ancestors behind her.

Indigenous culture is very present in the story. Culture is most present during scenes of Lisamarie being taught the ways of her peoples from Ma-Ma-oo. It’s like a rite of passage to pass on the traditional ways to the granddaughter. Culture is also present in the appearance of the mythical ‘trickster.’ However the harsh realities of Indigenous communities and Indigenous peoples are also very present. We see it in Uncle Mick when he talks of his time at residential schools. One can often assume it’s this racist abuse that fuels his defiance and Indigenous pride. We see it in the reserve as there appears to be so little future available for the young and they’re left confused which direction to pursue. We see that in the angry attitudes, especially in Josh. It’s a story that does not stray away from realities. In fact the realities shown at the reserve in the film are common realities sees in many reserves.

The film will have people interested in the storyline coming to see it. The film will also have some people in the audience who have already read the novel. For those that don’t know, the novel Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson was released in 2000. It won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize of 2001 and was shortlisted for a Governor General’s award in fiction. Way back, I took an online University course in Canadian literature and Monkey Beach was one of the novels we studied. I liked the story because it was set as Lisa was a teenager in the 1980’s. I’m not Indigenous but some memories of that period of my time reminded me of some moments of my own teenagehood. There were even times while reading I had the feeling Ma-ma-oo was my own grandmother.

For someone that’s read the novel, I came in with my own expectations of what I was most expecting to see included in the story. I know it’s a challenge to adapt a 300-page novel to film. I know it’\s a matter of including some things, but also leaving other things out. I was figuring since most of the novel is about Lisa in her teen years, I was anticipating most of the film story would also be about Lisa’s teen years. Instead they went for a bigger focus on her time as a young adult returning to the reserve. The film did focus on her years as a young girl and as a teenager, but less than I hoped. Also the novel did more focus on Jimmy and his swimming pursuits, but was only seen briefly in the film. The film was also too brief on the focusing of Ma-ma-oo’s death.

I think in retrospect I’ve still been doing a lot of questioning whether they put in the right parts for the story or if they left out a lot of parts I feel were crucial. I think a lot of people who have read the novel would also be left questioning if the film adapted the novel well, if not properly.

I admire the work done by director Loretta Todd. She did a very good job in directing and co-writing with Johnny Darrell and Andrew Duncan the story for the film. The film’s imperfections are noticeable, but it doesn’t take away from the better parts of the film. There are more positive qualities of the film than flaws. Grace Dove did an excellent job as Lisamarie. Grace has had professional experience before as the host of a television show and acting in The Revenant. She does very well as the young protagonist struggling to make sense and to find herself. Adam Beach was also excellent as Uncle Mick. He delivers a role excellent of a man divided between pride and hurt. Tina Lameman was also good as Ma-ma-oo, but I feel her role could have been more developed and had more presence in the film. On the negative, I felt the role of child Lisa was underplayed by the young actress. That could have been directed better.

In short, Monkey Beach is an imperfect depiction of the novel. It leaves wondering if certain scenes can be done better. Nevertheless it does have a lot of positive qualities and makes for a film, and a story, worth seeing.

VIFF 2017 Review: Suck It Up

Suck It Up
Erin Carter (left) and Grace Glowicki play two old friends trying to rekindle their friendship after a tragedy in Suck It Up.

The VIFF is my best chance to see a Canadian feature film each year. I got my chance with Suck It Up. I’m glad I saw it.

The film begins with Ronnie collapsing by a lawnmower drunk. Ronnie has just lost her older brother Garrett. Faye is in Vancouver having a job interview for a school board job she really wants when she learns the news about Ronnie. Ronnie was her best friend until Faye broke up with Garrett last year. She is encouraged by Ronnie’s guardian aunt and uncle to come over to Calgary. Faye meets with them all and they feel the best way to help Ronnie recuperate is for her and Faye to go someplace for a getaway. Faye decides to go to their old cabin in Invermere.

At first, you think things won’t work. Faye is the cool one under control while Ronnie is outrageous enough to flash her breasts to any car full of guys passing by. Once in Invermere, they try to make themselves comfortable in the cabin. However it seems Ronnie is making herself all too comfortable with every guy she meets up with. Especially this creepy guy names Dale who rubs Faye the wrong way. As Ronnie is getting closer to a guy names Shamus and his freewheeling friends from the bowling alley, Faye meets a guy of her own. His name is Granville. Granville may come across as geeky at first because of his asthma and diabetes, but the two connect as Faye is charmed by his artistic dreaminess.

Things prove too much for Faye as Ronnie’s craziness is cramping her style and her life. Faye tries to have a good time, but can’t deny that she has things to take care of in her life, like a potential job in Vancouver. One day, Ronnie and her friends come after a day of fun and give Faye some lemonade. It’s after Faye drinks it that she finds out it’s laced with MDMA, and just 1/2 an hour before her job interview on Skype! Faye humiliates herself during the interview.

Even though Faye is given a second interview days from now, Faye appears to be the one falling apart now. It’s not just about the interview and dealing with Ronnie. It’s because Faye is having trouble dealing with Garrett’s death. She can’t handle that she didn’t answer the call from Garrett’s phone just hours before he died. She came to Invermere with Garrett’s ashes and two envelopes from Garrett: one for her and one for Ronnie. She open’s Ronnie’s envelope instead. Even hearing info about Garrett from a woman names Alex who works at the town ice cream parlor makes things all that more frustrating for Faye.

Then the two decide to hold a party at the cabin. All of their Invermere friends are invited and they all show up, including shady Dale and his mud-filled inflatable pool for mud wrestling. Ronnie’s in a partying mood but Faye is having issues. It’s still all about Garrett. Spending time with Granville doesn’t make things easier and talking with Alex makes things worse. Then Ronnie films out what Faye did with her letter. She confronts Faye with harsh words about the phone call from Garrett’s phone. This leads to a fist fight where they both end up in the pool of mud. But after that, the two suddenly make peace and resolve all that happened. Even the opened letter. It turns out Garrett was a controlling person in his life and tried to control both of them. Faye and Ronnie pack up with Ronnie being in great spirits and not looking as troubled as she was at the beginning. They promise to get together again soon.

At first, I found this comedy entertaining. Then I did a bit of thinking. This is a kind of comedy that I can see the script working in Hollywood. Have you seen a lot of the Hollywood comedies in theatres now? They’re pretty dreadful, eh? They’re relying too much on jokes with shock value and even lewd or crude one-liners to get a laugh. They make you think they’re that desperate for laughs. This comedy doesn’t need to rely on one-liners or crude jokes. All it has to rely on are the characters and the scenarios to make this work. That’s what made this comedy work. We have a bizarre situation of two friends who are two opposites going away to a resort town to help one recover from her brother’s death. The other friend has unresolved issues over his death too. The mix of the two causes havoc, but it all ends when they get into a fight where they accidentally end up in the mud wrestling pool. Then the friendship is rekindled and they’re both able to make peace with his death. To think Hollywood couldn’t think this up, but Canadians did!

The film is also about ironies. The two girls are complete opposites. You first wonder how on earth they became friends in the first place. You first think Granville is a nerdy guy, but he becomes the perfect one for Faye. There are even times later on when you wonder which of the two are having a harder time dealing with Garrett’s death.  It’s the fistfight that becomes the turning point where Faye and Ronnie are finally able to resolve things and go back to being the good friends they were. In the end, both get over his death when they come to terms with what a control freak he was in his lifetime. Even seeing Ronnie toss Garrett’s ashes off a cliff with them still in the jar is a bit of comedic irony too.

One thing about the film is that it doesn’t try to mess with the crowd too much. The subject of death and how Ronnie’s family is full of cancer-related deaths even makes you wonder if this would become a tragedy soon, but it doesn’t. It’s able to take a dark troubling matter and turn it into a good comedy. It also won’t get too manipulative. One thing you’ll notice is that there are no flashbacks to when Garrett was alive, nor are there scenes of Garrett coming from nowhere to talk to either of the two. Another thing about this film is that the story lines are placed out very well. I’ll admit the film starts on a scene that makes you think it could have been given another take, but the film gets better over time and the whole story is kept consistent from start to finish.

This film directed by Jordan Canning and written by Julia Hoff was very well-done and well put-together, even more than most Hollywood comedies nowadays. This is kudos for Julia because this is her first screenplay for a feature-length film. Erin Carter did a great job as Faye and Grace Glowicki was great as Ronnie. The film needed them to be in their characters to make it work, but they were able to keep their roles from being one-dimensional. I addition, they had the right chemistry together to make this story work on screen. Dan Beirne was also very good portraying the misfit Granville who wins Faye’s love. Toby Marks was also great as Alex: the one caught in the middle between Faye and Garrett.

Suck It Up is a Canadian-made comedy that is way better-done than most of today’s Hollywood comedies. It starts out sluggish and even may appear to tread into ‘drama territory’ at times, but it ends on the right note.