If you’ll humour me in first-person, for a moment: when I started The Mutt back in May of this year, I had a passing wonder whether there would be enough interesting Canadian film and television to fill a full content calendar. That concern was quickly dashed – our small team of writers didn’t have time to cover everything! (PS: writers, send me your pitches!)
What’s interesting to me about the Canadian film and television market is the allowance it provides for originality. While box office is important (as the good folks at First Weekend Club will tell you) few production teams plot out their features with an adherence to investors as their primary guiding principle.
That makes writing about the Canadian film scene all the more interesting, given the fact that each production usually has a passionate voice behind it or an easy hook to guide the story.
With 2018 wrapping up, we’ve chosen 10 of these stories featured on The Mutt in the past year that we found to be emblematic of this spirit, as well as some of our favourite Canadian film and TV of the year.
Letter from Masanjia
Dir: Leon Lee
The subject of this documentary traces back to 2012, when an Oregon resident shopping in Kmart discovered a desperate letter from a political prisoner in China. Letter from Masanjia, directed by Leon Lee, follows this letter back to China, uncovering the harrowing state of labour camps in the country. The doc was one of 166 submitted for consideration at the 91st Academy Awards and would wholly deserve a nod.
Letter from Masanjia is now available on VOD.
Mr. D Season 8
CBC’s beloved workplace sitcom about an ill-equipped and bumbling high school teacher came to an end as the show’s series finale aired Dec. 20. Season 8 of the show saw Gerry Duncan (Gerry Dee) start a new life in Japan, take over as principal at Xavier and send the graduating students off with the perfect parting gifts. We’ll miss the show – no one plays bumbling idiot as riotously as Dee.
The complete series of Mr. D is now available to watch on CBC.
Dir: Cam Christiansen
From award-winning director Cam Christiansen and starring British playwright David Hare, the fascinating WALL examines both the physical and cultural barriers separating the Israeli and Palestinian residents of the Israeli West Bank. The film boasts a distinct visual style partly inspired by graphic novels and one that Christiansen said he chose to emphasize a sense of authorship.
More information on WALL is available via the National Film Board website.
Dir: Michael Peterson
Mix Home Alone with The Shining and you’re getting close to understanding the premise behind Knuckleball, a gritty and pulse-pounding thriller from director Michael Peterson. Peterson draws engaging performances from Michael Ironside and Luca Villacis perfectly suited for this lively and taut feature.
Knuckleball is now available on iTunes and VOD. For more information, click here.
Baroness von Sketch Show
Picture yourself riding your bicycle on the way to work. As you’re pedaling, you see someone you vaguely know, but not enough to stop-and-chat. Instead of stopping, you awkwardly yell to them, “Hello! …I have to keep going.” For Baroness von Sketch Show writer Aurora Browne, turning those painfully awkward moments into riotous sketches have propelled her career on what has become one of the CBC’s most reliably entertaining shows.
The third season of the Baroness von Sketch Show is available to watch on CBC.
Dir: Jeremy Lalonde
In the intro, I wrote about how one of the best parts of covering Canadian film is being able to watch films where directors take big risks and play to underground tastes. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of this than in Jeremy Lalonde’s The Go-Getters, a gloriously dark and vulgar journey starring a deadbeat drunk and a junkie hooker. Just in time for the holidays!
The Go-Getters is currently playing in select theatres and launched on VOD on Christmas Day.
VIFF’s Future//Present program
Among festival programs we always keep on our radar each year is the Vancouver International Film Festival’s Future//Present program. Our writer Brandon Wall-Fudge dove into the lineup at the 2018 festival, which showcased some of the best examples of those films redefining what Canadian film can be, including Spice It Up, M/M and Mangoshake.
The Vancouver International Film Festival returns in 2019.
Slave to the Grind
Dir: Doug Brown
Napalm Death, Carcass, Pig Destroyer… maybe not household names to the average music fan, but among the principal players in the proudly abrasive genre of “grindcore.” Doug Brown’s feature-length documentary Slave to the Grind dives headfirst into the history of the genre and of its legions of disciples, many of which look nothing like you might expect.
Slave to the Grind wrapped up a world tour in November 2018. Stay tuned to the film’s official Facebook page for updates.
Wynonna Earp Season 3
To be perfectly frank, I personally am not caught up on Wynonna Earp, but after reading the weekly coverage from our resident “Earper,” Ghezal Amiri, it’s become clear to me that the show is among the most bonkers, odd and crazy good times on television. Amiri took us on a roller-coaster ride of her own emotions as she explored Purgatory along with Wynonna, Wayhaught, and one individual she calls Angry Vamp Doc, all the way to the season’s wildly emotional conclusion. Full speed ahead to Season 4!
Wynonna Earp returns on Space in 2019.
Dir: Philippe Lesage
Few directors are doing coming-of-age stories as effectively as Montreal-based director Philippe Lesage, whose second autobiographical feature, Genèse, is a total knockout. The film follows 2015’s The Demons, with characters from that film also appearing during Genèse. It’s a beautiful, intelligent and contemplative look at adolescence and young love, and one of the best Canadian films of the year.
Genèse is now screening at festivals worldwide.
There Are No Fakes is a shocking journey into the world of art fraud
Some of the best documentaries of the past two decades involve hard left turns – films that begin in one direction but end in another due to events that unfolded during production. There Are No Fakes, directed by Jamie Kastner, joins that select company of documentary as its comedic opening slowly morphs into something much darker.
There Are No Fakes centers on the work of Norval Morrisseau, the Indigenous Canadian artist of the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation, sometimes referred to as the “Picasso of the North”. Morrisseau, who died in 2007, sought to remove forgeries of his art from the marketplace, establishing the Norval Morrisseau Heritage Society in 2005.
After Kevin Hearn (of Barenaked Ladies fame) buys one of Morrisseau’s paintings, he starts to doubt its authenticity and discovers a bizarre feud consolidated around Morrisseau. It’s this conflict, and the dark secrets hidden beneath it, that form the backdrop of There Are No Fakes.
Kastner (The Secret Disco Revolution, Free Trade Is Killing My Mother), who was friends with Hearn in high school, learned through conversation about Hearn’s ongoing lawsuit surrounding the Morrisseau paintings. It became clear to Kastner that such a story would be perfect for his next project.
“It was almost unbelievable. There was so much crazy stuff in this story, I couldn’t quite believe it,” Kastner said. “I told him if I was going to proceed with it, though we were friends he would have no editorial control. As a journalist, I would be talking to both sides, and he agreed.
“I went off on my own doing my own kind of digging and research. Lo and behold, everything he told me and then some turned out to be the case.”
As the story unfolded and as Kastner continued to meet a succession of larger-than-life characters, he found himself shocked at what he uncovered. Bringing footage back to his editor provoked a similar reaction.
“He’d say, ‘Holy f***!’ Then I’d do another one, and he’s quite an even-keeled guy, and he’d say ‘holy f***,’” Kastner said. “So it was a series of ‘holy f***’ moments. I tried to recreate that experience for the audience.”
Documentaries can often unfold much as expected, with a known story dictating the outcome of the production. But given the fluid situation surrounding the events of There Are No Fakes, Kastner followed the story as it led him, knowing he had been handed an incredible gift.
“It’s definitely a privilege and a responsibility (to tell this story). You’re dealing with the legacy of one of our most important artists,” he said. “You wind up dealing with very serious issues of abuse of different kinds, so I felt a real responsibility.
“You have to handle it very carefully as a documentary filmmaker. It really is so unique and unusual and special and horrific and inspiring and a whole range of things that you don’t usually get in one film.”
There Are No Fakes made its world premiere at Hot Docs 2019, receiving highly positive reviews. Kastner said the film provided fascinating insight into the legacy of Morrisseau, touching on multiple problems still at play in Canada.
“It’s a very dramatic story. People can’t believe that they’re real people. They seem like characters out of some HBO series or something,” Kastner said. “I think it’s a very entertaining, edge of your seat, jaw-dropping type of story that happens to be a documentary.”
There Are No Fakes will screen at multiple locations throughout Canada in July 2019. For more information, click here.
Next to read on The Mutt: Tantoo Cardinal propels Falls Around Her in first leading role
Isabelle brings psychological terror to an idyllic neighbourhood
In a quaint New England neighbourhood, a charming young couple (Adam Brody and Amanda Crew) find the perfect home to move into. But what they find in that home complicates their dream to start a family, as darkness and paranoia emerges in director Rob Heydon’s Isabelle.
Following in the footsteps of other psychological horrors such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, Isabelle comes from a screenplay written by Donald Martin (Milton’s Secret). Having grown up watching genre films like The Omen and The Shining, Heydon approached the project looking to put his own stamp on psychological terror.
“Reading the script, I just got into it cold. Then once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down,” Heydon said. “I thought a lot about what other references it could be like and how I could help bring something to the story and the storytelling.”
Much like other films in the genre, Heydon’s intention for Isabelle was to emphasize the psychology of the terror as a priority. That meant slowly building up the characters and introducing new elements throughout the runtime of the film.
“In a sense, it’s trying to tell a story in three arcs and build the audience’s expectations up to the third act,” Heydon said. “We used the combination of cinematography and editing and music to bring the audience into the mind of the main character and have the audience experience what our main characters are going through.”
The strength of the cast – which includes Brody, Crew and Zoë Belkin as Isabelle – was essential given the nature of the material. Brody was the first to sign on, but other cast members took longer to materialize.
“Amanda Crew wasn’t available at the same time. So it took almost two years to put together the cast,” Heydon said. “But when their calendars lined up, we also got some amazing talent to surround them. Belkin, Sheila McCarthy, who played Isabelle’s mom… we were really lucky.”
Isabelle shot in Hamilton, Ont., with old Victorian homes posing as New England. Beyond the locale, Heydon said the cost savings attained shooting in Hamilton were significant.
“In Toronto, to rent a house for a day might be 10 or 15 thousand per day. In Hamilton, we were lucky to get three houses right next to each other for 20 days for $20,000,” he said. “You just can’t find that anywhere in Toronto.”
Having initially premiered in South Korea as part of the Busan Film Festival (along with fellow Canadian horror Lifechanger), Isabelle will now open to a larger release in Canada. Heydon said genre aficionados should find much to enjoy in Isabelle.
“I’d say read what the film’s about and check out the trailer – I think the trailer says it all. And if you’re interested, come check it out,” he said.
Isabelle begins its theatrical run in Toronto June 28 at the Carlton Cinema. For more information, click here.
Next up on The Mutt: Horror materializes in unconventional ways in Things Fall Apart
Horror materializes in unconventional ways in Things Fall Apart
Those familiar with Hussein Juma, director and writer of Things Fall Apart, know that it’s somewhat fruitless to attempt to fully summarize his work. That’s largely by design – Juma himself says he enjoys injecting ambiguity into his projects.
But more than that, what’s exciting about Juma as a director is his ability to create a sense of atmospheric dread based heavily on context and character and not cliché. So horror fans on the hunt for films that are likely to surprise should take note of what Juma says about his first feature, Things Fall Apart.
“If you like arthouse cinema, things that are going to challenge you and even scare you a little too, I think this film would be for you,” Juma says. “If you’re interested in new ways to tell stories, in indie cinema and the way it can reframe things and put them in different contexts, I think there’s a lot to think about with this film.”
That unique approach to story was evident throughout Juma’s 12-episode web series Horse Mask, a surreal horror that centres around a missing daughter, a forest and many mysterious masks. Though Things Fall Apart is Juma’s first feature, he says working on Horse Mask helped prepare him, given the fact that the runtime of that web series evens out to be around the length of a feature.
Set during a dinner party, Things Fall Apart lets audiences act as a sort of fly on the wall as tensions and emotions emerge.
“Things progressively get more tense between the characters. I think there’s a good balance — there are those moments where you’re going to feel uncomfortable, there are moments where you’re going to be scared, there are moments where you’re going to feel like, ‘What the hell is going on right now?’” Juma says.
Furthering his desire to tell a story in a fresh way, Juma says he employed improvised dialogue throughout Things Fall Apart, making up 80 per cent of the dialogue. Though actors were provided with full scripts, dialogue was written in beats that guided where conversations would go.
“When we finally selected our actors, we extensively rehearsed it multiple times. That was a really cool process,” Juma says. “I had a bare-bones, skeleton idea of where I wanted each conversation to go, but these actors got so into it and took it to interesting places. (Many times) I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s great. We have to keep that.’”
The cast, which includes Chengis Javeri (one of the leads in Horse Mask), Bobbi Goddard, Gina Lorene and more, was already familiar to Juma, giving him confidence that they would be able to pull off the improvised dialogue. Juma says surrounding himself with smart, funny people led to a number of happy accidents that made their way into the finished product.
Other times, Juma says he would play off what he knew about the actors themselves.
“If I could see even a sliver of tension between them in the real world or a sliver of something in a look that I see, I can kind of harness that in the film,” he says. “I think that worked really well in terms of when I wanted to play someone against another person. Because I worked with them before, I knew things I could whisper in their ear before a take to throw them off.”
Ultimately, Juma says he wanted to make a film that he would want to see himself. Based on his track record, it’s likely that horror fans looking for a surprising, experimental feature with strong character work will find it in Things Fall Apart.
Things Fall Apart plays June 2 at 2 p.m. at the Globe Cinema in Calgary. For more information, click here.
Next up on The Mutt: The story behind Uwe Boll, the so-called “worst filmmaker” ever