Full disclosure: this is actually my second post on this year’s AFF—previously I offered a list of the films I was looking forward to seeing.
But this is my first collection of mini-reviews, the films I’ve been able to see in advance of their screenings at the AFF. I’ll post regularly through the fest with more reviews, so please check back to FITI.
Written and Directed by Paul Gross | 120 min.
Canada was in Afghanistan for a lot of years, and we’ve finally gone ahead and made a war movie about that—with all due respect to Mike Clattenburg’s Afghan Luke, from AFFs past, which was more of a dark comedy. One gets the feeling Gross takes very seriously the job of mythologizing our military history. There’s very little tradition of that in Canadian cinema. Maybe there’s a good reason for it—we’re not a warmongering people. But maybe it’s worth the effort, for archival reasons, if nothing else.
As an actioner, Hyena Road delivers the goods. The battle scenes are kinetic and the plot has enough detours to give a sense of place and time and what’s at stake—the efforts to build a road through Afghanistan with the help of Canucks, the soldiers (including Rossif Sutherland and Allan Hawco) offering security, while an intelligence officer (Gross) makes connections with the Afghans, a key player being a former Mujahideen known as The Ghost (Neamat Arghandabi).
The script is a little hit and miss, with too much voice-over and too often baldly expositional, with a real scatological bent. Has shit ever been discussed so frequently and with such relish? A romantic subplot is easily sussed for predictable emotional wrenching in the third act.
But the suddenly silver-fox Gross has a swagger like a Canadian John Wayne (does this make Hyena Road his Green Berets?), and there’s Clark Johnson in solid support, an actor we don’t see enough of since The Wire.
While it shares enough of a tone with American Sniper to be a companion piece, it’s also nowhere near as xenophobic, providing a couple of robust roles for Afghans imported to the Jordanian location. Hyena Road also makes time for the philosophies, idealistic and otherwise, that have been bringing the West and its weapons to the region (and then getting stuck there) since Alexander.
Into The Forest
Written and Directed by Patricia Rozema, from the novel by Jean Hegland | 101 min.
The Genre Of Apocalypse has no lack of entires. This year alone I’ve seen three or four of them. But I don’t recall the last one that was so gently told from a woman’s perspective, or, more specifically, sisters. (And I’m not counting The Hunger Games in my calculations… they share no DNA.)
Nell (Ellen Page, still convincing in teen roles at 28) is the younger, Eva (Evan Rachel Wood, who is also 28, incidentally) is the elder, living out in what looks a lot like the British Columbia with their father (Callum Keith Rennie).
Based on the shiny tech it’s the near future, and one night the power goes out, and it isn’t coming back on. What starts as a “let’s ride this out” philosophy changes to a “we’d better hunker down.” Rozema provides a few moments of genuine creepiness in her vision of the world’s end. A shot of a car driving into the tar black woods at night is one of them.
The middle section of the film is Nell and Eva on their own, learning about growing things from books, trying to make adult decisions about their resources and clinging together to hope and sanity in the eternal now. As a pair of leads very much carrying the thing—with an appearance from the sympathetic Max Minghella—Page and Wood are completely capable. You might never have imagined them as siblings before, but their cut glass cheekbones and steady gazes feel entirely sisterly. (And, in flashback, Wendy Crewson could totally be their mom. Terrific casting all around.)
Though the seasons are oddly unchanging and there’s a little head-scratching logic in the last reel, the film provides a compellingly fresh addition to a growing art house End Of Days cinematic subgroup.
Local trivia note: Page, who also serves as producer here, discovered the novel this film is based on thanks to a recommendation from someone at P’lovers.
Written and Directed by Donna Davies | 98 min.
Halifax’s own Donna Davies has made a career exploring sub-cultural crazes through documentaries and television series, including Zombiemania, Nightmare Factory, Shadow Hunter, and Pretty Bloody. This is her take on fan culture, how scrappy, copyright-ignoring creatives have earned global attention and respect with a variety of fan-fictional films and videos, and how Hollywood has clued into the power of the geek in both their green-lighting decisions and how they interact with their audience.
Fanarchy takes time covering the most prominent fan work, catching up with the kids (now grown) who did the shot-for-shot Raiders of the Lost Ark in Mississippi, and the Star Wars/Cops pastiche Troops. A crowd of true believers weigh in, from Star Trek reenactors to Harry Knowles.
It’s good fun. It should be of interest to fantasy nerds of any stripe; anyone who’s ever gone to Hal-Con.
Written and Directed by Bretten Hannam | 78 min.
A young hunter (Justin Rain) out in the woods finds an older man (Glen Gould) lying bloody in the snow with a bag full of money. They become friendly—the older man knew the younger’s father—but the woods of Nova Scotia won’t aren’t deep enough to hide in. Bad men will follow, looking to collect.
Hannam’s snowbound Nova Scotia first feature is worth a look for genre nuts. Ambitiously, he not only chose to shoot on location in the middle of nowhere in the toughest winter in years, but at the core of his story are two First Nations characters who have a same-sex romance in the midst of the gun fights, arrows-to-the-throat, and burning cabins. These elements add depth to the material beyond the entertainment in the thriller tropes.
(For my interview with the filmmaker, please visit this piece up at The Coast.)
Written and Directed by Caley MacLennan | 70 min.
The racial tension in Halifax isn’t something we talk about often enough, and as a result it’s unlikely to abate any time soon. More the reason for to address it in their work, which is what MacLennan has done with this gritty, concise drama, shot on and around Gottingen Street.
Impressively, the film has a non-linear structure, with characters overlapping and doubling back through a tense day of conflict and disagreement in the city’s north end.
If some of the conversations feel a little on the nose, this kind of material often requires a direct approach. The film raises reasonable questions about how and where we live, including this one: An elderly white woman living in the Hydrostone—is her word going to be of more value to law enforcement than a young black man’s?
Your Money Or Your Wife
Written and Directed by Iain MacLeod | 76 min.
It’s been a long time since I saw a comedy as broad as this one, a throwback of sorts to old-fashioned slapstick and farce. Aside from the French, who else pursues material like this in the day of popular discomfort comedy?
The gist of the micro-budgeted picture—a product of the Film and Creative Industries and Telefilm’s First Features program—is a conflict-averse fellow (Craig Brown) gets drawn into the home-invasion plans of a pair of not-so-bright robbers (Picnicface veteran Brian MacQuarrie and Annie Valentina). Much of the movie takes place at a single location, a large house in the woods, with Brown’s character Lionel finding personal reasons to repeatedly sequester himself with home-invadee Meredith MacNeill—double-featuring at the AFF this year with a role in North Mountain.
The film’s secret weapon is Halifax hyphenate Josh MacDonald as an entirely convincing extortionist douchebag. (Josh, that was meant as a compliment.) Also worth seeing for a terrifically meta Bechdel Test joke.