SIFF 2021: Son of Monarchs

Son of Monarchs: A Biologist Looks For Tranquillity In His Work [Review]

In Son of Monarchs, Mexican director Alexis Gambis heavily utilizes the butterfly imagery from its lead character’s childhood and profession for its metamorphosis symbolism. While the thematic imagery may be on the nose, the accompanying film is filled with the appropriate complexity and nuance to play off the obvious imagery.

Mendel (Tenoch Huerta) is a Mexican man living in New York where he is working on mapping the genome of the monarch butterfly. This passion of his came from his childhood living in the butterfly forests of Michoacán. Son of Monarchs focuses on Mendel as he travels back and forth between his two homes and attempts to process trauma from his childhood while coming into his own. Every piece of information he discovers from altering the genes of his butterflies, corresponds to a new repressed moment from his childhood making itself aware.

Son of Monarchs greatest strength is how it blends the surface level metaphors with haunting imagery and complex themes. The butterfly is one of the most recognizable symbols for a period of change or transition. While such heavy reliance on obvious symbolism could lead to a movie feeling like something straight out of film school, Gambis avoids this pitfall in two ways. First is to give butterflies a narrative purpose in the story beyond that of pure symbolism. Mendel’s home is known for the presence of monarch butterflies that turn the forest orange, so his memories of and adult interest in them gives the symbol more credence. The other technique implemented in film is to use the symbol for a more complex situation than a surface level transition. Mendel’s transition is not from childhood to adulthood as would be the simple metaphor, but instead is a transition from repression to acceptance. The juxtaposition between simplistic symbolism and complex themes creates an accessible intelligent whole.

Son of Monarchs tells a complex story rich with beautiful imagery and mature themes. The imagery of the butterflies both in the wild and under a microscope create a haunting dichotomy, and perfectly fit into the film’s themes and message.

SIFF 2021: God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya

God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya review – asks big questions, doesn't  answer them | Berlin film festival 2019 | The Guardian

In her newest film God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya, Macedonian filmmaker Teona Strugar Mitevska sets lofty topic goals on which to comment. As the title hints at, the film explores the relationship between religious orthodoxy and women, but Mitevska also comments on the ever-decreasing job market and how it exacerbates the generational gap.

Zorica Nusheva plays Petrunya, an unemployed woman in her mid-thirties who finds her college degree in History to be more of a hindrance than a boon when job seeking. After a humiliating job interview set up by her aunt goes nowhere, she walks home past an ongoing religious ceremony where a priest throws a cross into a river and men jump of a bridge in competition to retrieve it. Despondent from another failure, Petrunya becomes impulsive and jumps into the water with the men and comes away with the cross and the scorn/ legal ire of the crowd.

For a film that attempted to touch on as many topics as God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya did, it ran out of things to say shockingly quick. The second half of the film takes place in a police station where Petrunya is being held despite not being under arrest. The purpose of the set is for the police to act as a narrative catalyst between Petrunya and the people who think she wronged them as well as the people who let her down. While reasonable in theory, the film becomes repetitive to the point of monotony as the same scene happens over and over again with a different secondary character and slightly different topic being the only variation. While the argument may be that each topic Petrunya is addressing stems from the same hole, that does not justify the staleness in direction. The argument can be made in a more engaging manner. Instead, the film just felt lazy.

God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya is a film that wanted to say a lot, but in attempting to it ended up saying little. Parallelisms can be drawn in cinema through a multitude of editing and plotting techniques, but the film utilizes an extremely flat repetition which stops the film in its tracks at the halfway mark and ceases to produce anything of interest. The film’s goals weren’t flawed, but its execution was.

SIFF 2021: The Perfect Candidate

The Perfect Candidate” to Launch on VOD in UK, in Lieu of Theatrical  Release | Women and Hollywood

In 2012, Haifaa Al-Mansour made history as the first female filmmaker in Saudi Arabia. Her film Wadjda blended the personal with the cultural by telling a girl’s story in the extremely patriarchal country. Almost a decade later, Al-Mansour continues to tell stories focusing on this blend, but rather than the school age Wadjda, her new film The Perfect Candidate focuses on a young professional woman’s struggle in a country slowly progressing with women’s rights.

Dr. Maryam Alsafan (Mila Al Zahrani) is the attending physician at her local clinic. She receives some resistance to her care from the more religiously orthodox members of her community, but she is largely appreciated as a local medical alternative to the hospital in the city miles away. When an issue with her travel permit prevents her from attending a medical conference, she is inadvertently thrust into a city council political campaign that tests how much her community truly respects her rather than simply placates her.

Maryam’s political campaign is a captivating subject for a film. While it was never her intention to run, once thrust into it she takes to the challenge immediately. She and her sisters put together political commercials, and she immediately identifies paving over the flooded dirt road in front of her clinic as her highest priority. This priority comes in contrast to what the men assume her campaign would focus on. The men see only her gender and assume she must be running on a platform of more progressive women’s issues. In this assumption, they betray their own understandings of the treatment they offer her and all women. This interplay is the film’s strength. It creates a nuanced and complex story about the needs of women living in Saudi Arabia and how men see the women around them.

The Perfect Candidate is a narrative that appears simple upon first blush, but it has layered cultural underpinnings providing significant depth. Haifaa Al-Mansour is already a proven name in world cinema, and her newest film proves she belongs in the modern canon.

SIFF 2021: Fly So Far

Fly So Far

El Salvador has some of the most regressive abortion laws in the world. Abortion is illegal for all reasons including in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. While on paper the Salvadorian government does at least not persecute women for miscarriages, in practice those cases often have their details manipulated to arrest the mothers for supposedly killing their babies. Fly So Far documents a group of 17 such women, Las 17, fighting for their freedom.

First time filmmaker Celina Escher uses the power of numbers to build her case in the opening third of the film. As each member of Las 17 retells the story that led to her imprisonment, distinct patterns emerge. These women were all in medical duress, and after losing consciousness they awoke to find themselves in handcuffed to a hospital bed. The repetitious nature of these story solidifies the assumption that the cruelty against these women is purposeful.

With this strong basis of governmental guilt as a basis, Fly So Far narrows its focus onto Teodora Vásquez one of the 17. After ten years imprisoned for her miscarriage, she is finally able to appeal her sentence, and does so with the backing of Amnesty International’s legal support. The remaining two thirds of the film focus almost entirely on Vásquez, her personal legal trials and what she attempts to do for the other 16 once freed.

The stratification of the film into two separate viewpoints proves to be both a boon and a bane to its success. Vásquez is the only woman initially released, so focusing on her rather than the 17 makes the most logistical sense, yet Escher’s decision to tell multiple stories of imprisonment rather than just Vásquez’s brought substantial power to the opening arguments. The narrowing of perspective is a sound decision, but the implementation of the transition was slightly flawed. The first section of the film uses animation as a story telling technique, and while it was necessary for recreations in the first third and not essential once the filming began, this difference (combined with the focus change) left the film feeling like two connected parts rather than a cohesive whole.

Fly So Far is a strong first documentary from Celina Escher. While there may be some cohesion issues within the film’s focus, the story Escher attempts to tell with her film is clear and well argued. Teodora Vásquez and the rest of Las 17’s stories are important, and Escher delivers a solid film for them.

SIFF 2021: Ma Belle, My Beauty

Polyamorous Love Story 'Ma Belle, My Beauty' Sells After Sundance Bow -  Variety

Reunions with past loves are complex in the best of circumstances. In her debut feature Ma Belle, My Beauty, director Marion Hill applies this universal truth to relationship with added eccentricities initially and a breakup that was anything but the clean.

Bertie (Idella Johnson), Lane (Hannah Pepper), and Fred (Lucien Guignard) were previously in a polyamorous relationship together. Years later, Bertie and Fred are monogamously married, but when Bertie becomes emotionally distant following the death of her father, Fred calls on Lane in hopes she can help. When talking with Bertie gets nowhere, Lane begins an ill-advised fling with Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon), a friend of the couple, in hopes of getting a rise out of the unengaged Bertie.

The use of a polyamorous relationship is well implemented by Hill. It is neither played for a joke nor seen as something impossible to maintain. When Noa asks Lane how she delt with sharing Bertie, she remarks that “it is easy to get along with someone who loves the same person you do”. The shared partner provides something in common between the two, and even after Lane split from the other two, she and Fred share a friendship that is at its strongest when looking out for Bertie.

Ma Belle, My Beauty is a frustrating movie in a directorially intended way. Bertie is an excruciatingly passive character. While Lane’s presence sparks some occasional outbursts, Bertie primarily sulks regardless of Lane’s actions. Similarity, Lane is not without her own frustrating moments. After the slightest rebuff from Bertie, Lane jumps straight into attempting to provoke her ex by starting a fling with Noa. Neither character is fully sympathetic. Watching these two flawed characters stumble through the film evokes a exasperated response and that is exactly the impact Hill was seeking.

Marion Hill’s first film show a significant understanding of the complexities of human emotions and how to capture relationships on screen. The film does not offer any simple answers to questions that seldom have them and is for the better because of it.

SIFF 2021: The Teacher

The Teacher (2019) | MUBI

Set in Taiwan, the only Asian country to have legalized gay marriage, director Ming-Lang Chen paints a picture of a world where, regardless of political progress, bigotry and ignorance still largely shape the acceptance of diverse people. For his characters on the disenfranchised side of the cultural schism, additional strife is magnified by the division and results in their entire world comes tumbling down.

Kevin (Oscar Chiu) is a civics teacher who, upon discussing the country’s ongoing marriage equality debate with his students, finds his personal life of increased interest to the school administration. Kevin is not closeted about his sexuality with himself or his family, but he understands that his relationship with Gao (Chin-Hao Chang) could lead to difficulties for him going forward. This ensuing dilemma is further complicated when Gao, who Kevin has been with for some time and has been sexually intimate with, informs Kevin that he is HIV positive.

At the core of The Teacher is the relationship between Kevin and Gao. This is introduced before all else when the two first have a bathhouse encounter before eventually building to something more personal. After the point of attack, however, the relationship becomes unintentionally murky as other aspects of Kevin’s life receive equal if not more screen time. It becomes difficult to tell the gravity of the emotional connection between the pair. Kevin’s mother, who is nothing but accepting of her son’s sexuality, has never met Gao, and Gao keeps details about his HIV status and ex-wife hidden from Kevin. None of these secrecies are things that could not be useful in telling a similar story, but they do not work with the climax of this film.

Any expansion of queer representation in Asian cinema is an important step to universal acceptance. The Teacher shows no hesitations in providing such representation. While some of the entrenched systems in the film take umbrage with the leads’ relationship, the film gives the characters enough support to show endorsement of the cultural changes. Unfortunately, the central relationship to the film falls apart muddling the message. The Teacher is a welcome show of queer respect but a lacking film.

SIFF 2021: The Spy

Director Jens Jonsson’s feature The Spy is a biopic of a woman in need of more recognition. The Norwegian actress turned spy Sonja Wigert has an effectively empty English Wikepedia so Jonsson’s interest in giving her her due is understandable. Unfortunately, the biopic format feels repetitive as always irrespective of the topic.

Ingrid Bolsø Berdal plays Sonja starting with the 1940 premier of her film in recently occupied Norway. Despite her father’s participation in the resistance Sonja is ambivalent to the war and is willing to work with the Germans if they would allow her to make her dream film. When her apparent slight against a German officer ends in her father’s imprisonment, Sonja takes a Swedish government official’s offer to become an undercover spy in exchange for his help in arranging her father’s escape to Sweden.

The Spy is an extremely conventional film. While the Sonja is a figure who is worthy of having her story told, Jonsson does little to elevate the material into an interesting film. The screenplay hits traditional espionage plot points, but the tense moments lack the appropriate framing to deliver the anxiety to the audience. At one-point Jonsson apparently understood that the film never built appropriate stakes, so the cruelty of Sonja’s target is explained via voiceover letter reading with no accompanying imagery. Each decision is flat an unobjectionable creating an adequate but uninspired film.

While the uninventive storytelling and filming may have stopped The Spy from ever being a great film, technical issues completely sink the film. Specifically, the films sound is a complete mess. The loud sounds in the mix are extreme enough that they start to distort and crack at moments. Another issue present in the audio was that a few lines were completely missing. Characters mouths would open, and subtitles would pop up, but the audible lines did not make it through the editing.

Sonja Wigert lived a fascinating life that she was never able to share with others before her passing in 1980. Unfortunately, The Spy does not deliver on the potential of her story. A combination of unimaginative storytelling and technical flaws results in a feature undeserving of Wigert’s legacy.

SIFF 2021: Too Late

Too Late

Preceding Too Late as part of the festival was the 2019 short film by David Bornstein, Unholy ‘Mole. The outrageous premise of the creative short was well served as a test viewing before digging into the equally extreme feature. Unholy ‘Mole’s mixture of comedy and body horror was an inventive and fresh prelude to the feature to come.

In her debut feature, Too Late, director D.W. Thomas delivers an uproarious comedy that blends in horror elements to deliver an on the nose allegory in an always entertaining manner. Taking place in the Los Angeles comedy scene, the film feels very of the time in its critique of monstrous men who impose their power over anyone, but it also has enough physical comedy and universal jokes to give it an appropriate level of levity less the viewing experience become a slog.

Alyssa Limperis stars as Violet a part time comedy booker, with dreams of performing herself someday, and fulltime assistant to Bob Devore (Ron Lynch) a famous comedian and monster (both figuratively and literally). Bob always works her to the bone but especially so during the dark of the moon each month when he demands she bring him fresh comedic talent. When Violet and Bob both set their eyes on up-and-coming standup Jimmy (Will Weldon), Violet must do whatever she can to save Jimmy from her boss’s monstrous side.

One of the best parts of Too Late is how cutting the satire is while never dipping into melodrama. The film maintains its comedic disposition throughout with horrific but cartoony visuals to build in narrative depth. Bob Devore may not represent any single person, but he does represent the archetypical powerful man in the entertainment industry. Violet is unable to further her own career because of his oppressive nature; all the while she is expected to cover for and enable his abusive tendencies. The promising comedians he takes for his own needs further cement the industry as a system designed to keep the people on top there ad infinitum regardless of the people they spit out along the way.

With a witty premise and a loveable cast, D. W. Thomas succeeds at everything she tried in her first feature. The horror elements were used just sparingly enough to create the necessary jolt at times and solidify the satirical message. Limperis’s lead performance offers the perfect audience surrogate for the unique film and portents great future things for both her and Thomas.

SIFF 2021: Topside

Topside (2020) - IMDb

At a greyhound station in the middle of Texas, directors Chris Filippone and Jamie Meltzer capture the first moments of freedom that former convicts experience in their documentary short Huntsville Station. Rather than pass any judgement on why the men were incarcerated, the film focuses on the overwhelming and often silent joy of the people on the outside of society. In this way it makes a perfect companion for the feature it was attached to.

Husband and wife filmmaking pair Logan George and Celine Held have made a handful of short films over the last few years, but with Topside they make their feature debut. In their Safdie Brothers influenced film, they shine a spotlight on the lives of unhoused people living in the underground tunnels in New York City.

Five-year-old Little (Zhaila Farmer) has lived her entire life in a makeshift community in the abandoned subway tunnels with her mother Nikki (played by one of the directors Celine Held). When an upcoming renovation to the tunnel requires the pair to vacate abruptly, Little is greeted with the harsh florescent lighting and sensory overload that she had never been forced to endure previously. With no concrete plan or next steps, the pair traverse a uniquely terrifying version of the city.

Topside asks a lot emotionally of its audience. Nikki is an addict whose supplier arranges for her to sleep with men in exchange for her fix. In her current state, it is understandable to believe that she should not be in charge of Little. Little herself show signs of being stunted. She has never had any education and living so long underground has left her with little to no understanding of the world. Though, for all the reasons why their relationship is unhealthy, they share an undeniable love, and a daughter and mother’s bond is precious.

The emotional turmoil of the film comes to a head in the film’s elongated climax. These minutes star Nikki exclusively, and Held’s acting becomes a major selling point of the film. The camera holds tight on the staring actress while her appearance becomes increasingly disheveled and her performance distraught.

Topside is an excellent first feature from the directorial pair. Celine Held proves to be a triple threat as her performance stands out in addition to co-writing and co-directing the film. While some moments may briefly dip into manipulative melodrama, they are few and far between. Instead, the emotional extremes explored in the film are largely warranted, and the climax is a devastating piece of cinema.

SIFF 2021: Rebel Objects

Rebel Objects

Anthropologist Carolina Arias Ortiz’s first foray into documentary film making is a deeply personal memoir complete with family slides and naval gazing hyperbole. Rebel Objects, which is primarily about Ortiz’s return to her childhood home of Costa Rica to mend relations with her dying father, aggrandizes the experience through various film making techniques and a heavy reliance on cultural lore.

Despite clocking in at under 70 minutes, Rebel Objects attempts to be two separate documentaries blended thematically. The first film inside Rebel Objects is a History Channel-esque conspiracy theory laden history of the spherical stones that have existed in Costa Rica for centuries. The film even makes constant allusions to their potential extraterrestrial nature. While Ortiz herself does eventually acknowledge the racist undertones in attributing great works of non-white people to aliens, this is included as an afterthought in the last five minutes of a film that has given the conspiracy plenty of credence already.

The second, and better, film within the film is Ortiz’s return home to repair the relationship she has with her father. The anthropology aspect of the film pairs well with these moments. Shots of Ortiz piecing together broken pottery parallels with her reassessing memories from her past. It is just unfortunate that these moments are broken up with the spherical conspiracy theories.

Another misfiring of the film is the black and white cinematography. Ortiz likely made this choice to add a level of mystery when discussing the spheres (she even includes a horror movie score at times) and to invoke nostalgia in the personal exploration moments. While these decisions make sense in paper, they failed in execution. Pictures of the spheres were primarily captured in medium shots or the occasional closeup, but neither of these options provided the contrast needed to accentuate the stones. Instead, the stones became the same color of the surrounding foliage camouflaging them. The black and white photography works slightly better from a nostalgic perspective, but her family pictures being in color made the present-day video footage feel like creating a memory that was never there to begin with.

For a first time creating a movie, Carolina Arias Ortiz attempted to bring a personal and expansive story to the screen. While Rebel Objects ended up being more of a mess than anything, her decision-making process is theoretically sound even if they failed. Rebel Objects is a film that can be skipped, but Ortiz likely has something better in her waiting for a sophomore attempt.