The 43rd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) returns Sept. 6 to 16, 2018, with 19 Canadian features and 24 short films on deck. Heavy-hitters this year include the latest from Xavier Dolan (I Killed My Mother, It’s Only the End of the World), titled The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, and the final film from Canadian conservationist and filmmaker Rob Stewart (Sharkwater, Revolution).
Steve Gravestock, senior programmer with TIFF, weighed in on 10 Canadian films you’ll want to mark on your calendar this September.
The Grizzlies (World Premiere)
Dir: Miranda de Pencier
“The Grizzlies looks at teens up north. It’s set in Nunavut, in a community plagued by teen suicides,” Gravestock said. “A teacher tries to get the teens to focus on starting a lacrosse team to sort of do a reset of what they’re focusing on and the discipline that you have to do when you’re playing sport. It’s quite an affecting movie, really very emotional.
“(Director Miranda de Pencier) has been working on it for a number of years. She’s working with two great producers, one of them the events took place in her hometown. It’s really driven by this amazing young cast. This film might be one of the emotional high points of the festival.”
Freaks (World Premiere)
Dir: Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein
“The film stars Bruce Dern and Emile Hirsch and a really great young actress (Amanda Crew). There’s a little more fantasy in the film,” Gravestock said. “It’s about this father and daughter, and they live in this dilapidated ramshackle house and they’re afraid to go outside. The daughter is bored and desperate to go outside, and the father finally nods off and she sort of slips out and finds this really strange world. It’s kind of an allegory about refugees, although it was started well before the crisis on the American border.”
Kingsway (World Premiere)
Dir: Bruce Sweeney
“Kingsway is a really fun film about more mature desire. It’s about the collapse of this marriage and everybody around them starts questioning what’s going on in their life. The main character is wondering why there is no romance in her life,” Gravestock said. “It has that kind of sly sense of humour that percolates through Bruce’s stuff.”
Falls Around Her (World Premiere)
Dir: Darlene Naponse
“The film stars Tantoo Cardinal as a pop star who wants to escape it all,” Gravestock said. “She’s an amazing actress. I think this is one of the first films where she’s in virtually every shot.”
The Great Darkened Days (World Premiere)
Dir: Maxime Giroux
“The film is also kind of about refugees (and stars) Québécois actors who are chased by these hostile forces across the southwestern United States,” Gravestock said. “It’s really quite visually striking. It’s set in a vague, not very specific time period. It feels like the 1930s but other times it feels much closer to our time.”
The Fireflies Are Gone (North American Premiere)
Dir: Sébastien Pilote
“(The film is about) a girl who sort of lives in a small town that is fading. Industry has left town and she’s desperate to leave and is wrestling with that,” Gravestock said. “Her father left under a cloud of scandal. It’s really a smart movie, I wouldn’t say it’s unexpected, but it’s a very gentle film. It doesn’t come to easy solutions. (Director Sébastien Pilote) has had films play in a variety of festivals, a lot of key European festivals. He’s a very interesting filmmaker.”
Firecrackers (World Premiere)
Dir: Jasmin Mozaffari
“Firecrackers is about this friendship between these two girls. They are graduating from high school and they live in this sort of bleak, very rural place. There’s very little opportunity afforded them,” Gravestock said. “One of them might be able to leave early and it kind of impacts the friendship. It’s really about female friendship. It’s shot in a really distinct way based on a short that (director Jasmin Mozaffari) did a couple years ago.”
Splinters (World Premiere)
Dir: Thom Fitzgerald
“A young adult comes back to deal with her father’s death. It’s set in rural Nova Scotia where they have a farm. She’s dealing with issues of sexuality and she comes back and the town has changed,” Gravestock said. “It’s quite different, and it’s done in a very smart way.”
Carmine Street Guitars (North American Premiere)
Dir: Ron Mann
“The film deals with this guitar shop in Greenwich Village. They make guitars out of buildings that have been torn down in New York,” Gravestock said. “The music is exceptional, but it’s also really about the constant threat of the shop being closed, because people want to sell the real estate. It’s a very gentle protest against gentrification.”
The Stone Speakers (World Premiere)
Dir: Igor Drljaca
“It’s about attempts to reinvigorate the economies of the former Yugoslavia, particularly Bosnia. The landscape is quite stunning, so it’s a really beautiful movie to look at,” Gravestock said. “There’s also a sly sense of humour that percolates through it. Some of these tourist sites are crazy and they tend to get crazier the more you get through the film. So there’s a subtle sense of humour running through it.”
For a full list of Canadian films scheduled at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), click here.
Director Justin McConnell’s Lifechanger shapeshifts in fresh and surprising ways
In Lifechanger, writer/director Justin McConnell’s (Broken Mile, Skull World) gripping and innovative thriller, a shapeshifter seeks to make things right with those he’s wronged, all the while leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. It’s a confident and refreshing take on the genre, one that effectively plays on its surprisingly affecting premise.
McConnell spoke with The Mutt to discuss Lifechanger, the challenges of utilizing an ensemble to play the same character and his strategy when it comes to standing out in a competitive genre. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
THE MUTT: The concept behind Lifechanger is pretty novel. Where’d you come up with it?
JUSTIN MCCONNELL: Well, in 2014 I was trying to come up with an idea I could do for a really low budget because I was frustrated trying to get a couple of larger projects off the ground. So I started brainstorming what I could do with basically pocket change. During that brainstorming session I just let ideas percolate and I was on a bus one day and thought, “What if I saw myself in public?” Which, of course, is Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy. But from that point, the idea organically grew into what this became. And then tonally, at that time I had been introspective, going through a lot of self-examination and depression, and that fed into the story and the tone of the script and who the character ended up being.
TM: What else played into the script? Were you influenced at all by other films in the genre?
JM: I watched every horror movie I could get my hands on growing up, and I still do. I’ve obviously seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, The Hidden, The First Power… the list is long of things that would make up the DNA of this idea, but it’s not like I was specifically thinking about one or two of those movies and thinking, “I’ll make a movie like that.” It just sort of came out of me.
TM: You incorporating that element of having a heart and a brain behind the horror elements of this movie… why do you think that’s important in this genre?
JM: I think it’s important in this particular film and in a lot of horror because you need to make something that stands out. The more personal you can get on an emotional level, the more they’re going to remember the film and the more it will cut through the noise. There’s way too much out there now. There’s a lot that doesn’t rise to the top and it’s very difficult to get noticed. So it’s good to break through into other genres and appeal to people who aren’t just hardcore goreheads. Though there’s nothing wrong with that approach, either – I wouldn’t necessarily say a lot of the projects I’m working on now are full of heart. But for this one, it just organically kind of became that way, and I wanted to do something a little bit more grounded and personal while still being a horror film.
TM: I’ve seen the film described as part psychological thriller, part body horror… at this point in the process, how do you tend to explain the story to the unfamiliar?
JM: I like to say that it’s about a murderous shapeshifter on a mission trying to make things right with the woman he loves, and I leave it at that and let people come to their own conclusions. But there’s a lot you could say about the story. It’s less of a love story and more of an obsession story and about trying to be a better person and coming to terms with guilt. There’s a lot of other stuff going on, but I usually pitch it to people in the flattest way possible, with a hook, and let them come to their own conclusions.
TM: So, really, the shapeshifter element, that’s a tool to tell a deeper story. What was the balance there in telling that deeper story and pairing it with the shapeshifter story?
JM: It was important to me to do something fresh and new and get into the head of what a creature like this would be like at this stage in their life, having to live like a human all the time but having to life just outside of the species. So that was absolutely important, but you can pull that away and look at it on a metaphorical level. He’s changing and becoming someone else until he becomes someone else who appeals to the woman he loves. So it’s almost like a metaphor that if you’re in a bad relationship, you put on a mask and try to become who your partner wants you to be. If you do that your entire life, you end up living your entire life and never being yourself.
TM: As a director, what throughlines did you want to communicate to your cast to ensure they were playing this character using their own strengths as actors while still playing the same individual?
JM: Well, the first thing I did when I had everyone casted was that I had written up a two- or three-page summary so they knew who this person is, where they are coming from, how they’d be psychologically. I tried to get that up front. We also had a “Drew boot camp,” where everybody who had to play Drew sat at a big conference table and we just talked for a few hours. In that session, we came up with stuff like the common tics that he has, the tone of voice that he uses fairly regularly, but I didn’t really want to step on their individual performances. So it was very specific things that could tie them to the character in a visible way without them having to overthink and have to act like the other person as much as possible, because I figured that would make all the performances really stilted. I tried to control that on set as best I could without stepping on it too much. In post-production, we as a team had to be very mindful of how Drew comes across on screen. If any particular actor had a scene or a delivery that was too far outside of what Drew’s character would be, it was cut out of the film.
TM: You guys were working with a limited budget, but the makeup and effects are very strong in the film. You took home the Best Practical Effects award from the Toronto After Dark festival. What was your approach to the effects given your budget?
JM: I’m pretty decently connected with the prosthetic and makeup effects community in Toronto, and there are a lot of really high-end effects people in the city. I knew that David Scott had wanted to work with me for quite a while, with his company Form & Dynamics, so I approached him with a listing of all the effects breakdowns. It was really quickly realized that we could actually pull off what I wanted to pull off. And we were clever and cut some corners and adapted past effects that they’d done and reskinned them and found other ways to cut costs, because we had a low-budget but we still wanted to pull off a ton of effects.
TM: Any parting words to moviegoers who haven’t seen Lifechanger yet?
JM: You don’t necessarily have to be a horror fan to enjoy this film. Anyone who is looking for a different kind of story, (Lifechanger is) something that’s violent but isn’t so gory that it’ll turn you off if you’re not into that kind of thing. And just to see a sample of what Canadian indie genre films are doing these days, because I think we’re in an independent renaissance in Canada right now. There are so many great Canadian independent films that have been funded outside of the Telefilm system in the last five years or so. It’s worth checking out and removing some of the stigma of thinking, “Oh, it’s just a Canadian movie.” That’s what I would say to Canadians. Anyone else, you’ll know pretty quickly by seeing the trailer whether you want to see it or not. Go into it with an open mind. If you like it, great, if you don’t, well, it’s not for everybody. Hopefully you enjoy it.
Lifechanger is now available on VOD across North America. For more information, click here.
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Next up on The Mutt: Trench 11 takes the horror of the First World War deep underground
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes follows life of famed zoologist
Canadian zoologist Dr. Anne Innis Dagg, the central figure of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, still finds it difficult to articulate exactly why her fascination and love for giraffes has persisted throughout her entire life. But Alison Reid, director of the 83-minute documentary, has a theory.
“She’s just captivated by the way they move. They’re such a tall and impressive creature. And (Anne) says, even if a giraffe is just walking, she always says, ‘Isn’t that stately?’” Reid said. “I think there’s something about their personalities that touches her, as well – they’re just so gentle and understated, but curious.
“I think it was because she was captivated at such a young age. There’s something about them imprinted on her. It became part of her DNA, somehow.”
Born in 1933 in Toronto, Dagg became fascinated with giraffes after visiting the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois at a young age. During the mid-1950s, she traveled alone to South Africa to study the animals, years before a similar expedition was undertaken by English primatologist Jane Goodall.
“(Studying animals in this fashion) wasn’t done at all at this time,” Reid said. “She was groundbreaking. Scientists did not study animals in the way they do now.”
After she returned to Canada, Dagg completed her PhD in animal behaviour at the University of Waterloo. Though her research and publication quickly became highly-lauded in academia, Dagg’s attempts to secure tenure at the University of Guelph were denied by administrators, who questioned her fitness for the role despite her ample qualifications.
“I think at the time she was incredibly hurt and incredibly affected by it. She says in the film that she was so depressed over it – it cut to the core of her being,” Reid said. “And quite frankly, we were ripped off. The scientific community was ripped off in not allowing her to continue her studies. She was an incredible teacher. She ended up being a resource person at the University of Waterloo.”
But though Dagg was hurt and affected by the mistreatment, she pushed back. She began to research and write on gender bias in academia, something Reid said is as fundamental to her legacy as an educator as her work on giraffes.
“They’re so intertwined. Her giraffe journey was so affected by the discrimination she faced and inspired her feminist activity. The two are co-mingled, for sure,” Reid said. “She’ll always be the pioneer of giraffe biology. She’ll always be that. But we’re hoping, she’s been nominated for the Order of Canada, so we’re really hoping that that comes to be. I think that would be a really good recognition for her.
“But we’re also hoping that the universities that prevented her from continuing her studies, perhaps they will come up with something that will be a legacy.”
It’s a fuller understanding of Dagg, and of her return to the field of giraffe research, that is documented as part of The Woman Who Loves Giraffes. Prior to beginning work on the documentary, Reid had started scripting a narrative film based on Dagg’s life. It was only upon meeting Dagg and conversing with her that Reid discovered the famed zoologist was planning to return to Africa.
“I just thought, this is historic. We have to shoot it,” Reid said.
It was in Africa that Reid discovered Dagg as she likely had been back in the 1950s – adventurous, tenacious and full of “get-up-and-go” attitude.
“I interviewed her in the Pearson Airport before we left. To see her a couple days later in Africa, in a pop-top vehicle, with the wind in her hair, just glowing and watching giraffes… she just came alive,” Reid said. “It was like she was a kid again. It was just amazing.”
Utilizing interview and both archival and present-day footage, Reid assembles an affecting and moving portrait of Dagg and of the animal that has captivated her rousing, unstoppable spirit.
“I want to be moved when I watch a film, and (The Woman Who Loves Giraffes) moves people,” Reid said. “So I made the film because it’s exactly the type of film I would want to see. So I hope others continue to be drawn to it as well.”
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes will play across Canada in January. For showtimes, click here.
2018 in Canadian film and TV: 10 of our favourite picks this year
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.