Tag Archives: Todd

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.

Movie Review: Carol (2015)

carol-01-800

Rooney Mara (left) and Cate Blanchett (right) are lovers in a forbidden time in Todd Haynes’ Carol.

NOTE: I may have ‘published’ a previous version of this review. It was accidental as I meant to save instead of publish. Here’s the complete review.

There have been a lot of LGBTQ-themed films done in the past twenty years. Carol is the latest big film to be shown on the big screen. However it’s not your typical gay-themed film.

The film begins in a scene set in the future. Then flashes back to Therese, a young 20-something woman working the toy section of a Manhattan department store. A glamorous older woman, Carol Aird, consults her for what to buy her daughter for Christmas. Therese recommends the train set and she buys one. However Carol left her gloves behind in which Therese mails to her from the address on the sales slip.

Both women have difficult lives. Therese is in a relationship with a man and longs to be a photographer. Carol is in a marriage near divorce and in the midst of a tight custody battle with her daughter. However Carol is able to get Therese to meet up for lunch. The friendship starts to grow and Therese is able to take pictures of Carol for her photography habit. On Thanksgiving, Carol invites Therese over to her house but it does not go well with her husband Harge as he knows Carol had a relationship with a woman named Abby last year.

Carol visits Therese on Christmas and gives her a state-of-the art Canon camera. Carol also reveals to Therese the details of her divorce and how Harge plans on having a ‘morality clause’ against her in an attempt to win their daughter Rindy in a custody battle. Carol plans an escape for the two of them around New Year’s Day in a remote Iowa town to get away from the difficulties of their lives and to finally have time for the two of them together. It works on cultivating their relationship but it’s interrupted as it is learned an investigator was hired by her husband to track her lesbian relation. Therese is driven by Abby back to New York.

In the meantime Carol is in a difficult situation as she is to decide whether to love Therese or give it all up for the sake of winning custody of her daughter. Months pass and Therese is now working as a photographer with the New York Times and Carol is seeking psychotherapy for the sake of winning custody of Rindy. Carol attempts to reconnect with Therese at a lunch at The Ritz but is interrupted by a former co-worker of Therese’s. The film ends with the moment many believe was meant to be.

The thing about Carol is that it’s not only about love but about the times too. Cate Blanchett even describes the story as ‘like Romeo and Juliet, only Juliet and Juliet.’ Todd Haynes is a gay director himself and he has delivered films with gay-themed subjects. Here he presents a love story situated back in 1953. The story reminds us of the times of how GLBTQ people were limited in terms of rights if they even had any at all. We shouldn’t forget that homosexual acts were criminalized until the 1970’s and the homosexual attraction was considered a form of mental illness up to 1973. Knowing that would make one understand the situation Carol would have to face: to choose between custody of her daughter or pursue who she loves. Nowadays the courts would be more favoring towards the GLBTQ person but back then homosexuals always lost such a custody battle.

The film isn’t completely about presenting a gay scenario from back in the past. The film is as much about the two main characters Carol and Therese. Carol is of the more upper class but is longing to break free of her loveless marriage to pursue her heart’s desires and live the life she was meant to. Therese is a young 20-something looking for something better but finds it with Carol. It’s as the two find love through each other that they know there are better lives for them. However it’s not to be without obstacles like a boyfriend questioning, a suspicious husband and a judgmental society.

The film is actually based on a novel from Patricia Highsmith entitled The Price of Salt. I’ve never read the novel but I get a good understanding of it from seeing the film. Interestingly is that after reading over Highsmith’s biography, one could sense the film is about some of Highsmith’s own experiences. She herself was a lesbian who had relations with women during that very time set in the film. She even went under psychoanalysis while in her 20’s to marry a man but it didn’t work. Those were the times back then.

The film is excellently written out by Phyllis Nagy and directed very well by Todd Haynes. The only other two films from Haynes I ever saw was 2002’s Far From Heaven which also dealt with homosexuality in the 1950’s and I’m Not There which is something else. Remembering Far From Heaven has me convinced Haynes was the right choice to direct. Phyllis Nagy may only have one other script to her credit–HBO’s Mrs. Harris— but she does an excellent job in writing the story. The slow pace of the story succeeds in getting you to feel the characters and the situation. There have even been a few times I’ve thought that with this movie being released in 2015, the year the US Supreme Court legitimizes same-sex marriages in all 50 states, this film is a reminder of what they had to go through in order to achieve it.

The film also excels because of the acting. Cate Blanchett shines as Carol who possesses a shining confidence but struggles in a world that won’t accept people like her. Rooney Mara is also excellent as the young naive Therese who’s confused about herself but finds herself over time. Despite the two owning the film, there were other good supporting performances from the like of Kyle Chandler as the suspicious Harge and Sarah Paulson as Abby. The set design and costuming did an excellent job of taking the film back to the past. The cinematography added to it as well as the score from Carter Burwell which captures the intensity of the situation.

Carol is a story about a woman of her time who dared to be different and love even if it meant losing it all. It not only does a good job of telling the story but also the time of the story too.