The comfortably full Cinema 8 at Park Lane was the site of the gala premiere of Michael Melski’s The Child Remains, his long-gestating supernatural thriller, on Friday evening. It was clearly an emotional event for the writer-director, and he had many kind things to say about his crew and cast. Unfortunately, we also had to put up with a speech from MP Andy Fillmore, who asserted that Ottawa cares about film, followed by a representative from RBC, a sponsor, who did the same about the bank. I guess that’s why the opening gala last night had so little unnecessary bafflegab—they’re spreading it around.
I appreciate government and money lenders support the arts, but can they do it without flogging the dolphin? (ICYMI, I chose that euphemism in consideration of the film fest’s new brand. Gotta work that fin.)
Full disclosure: I’m one of the people Melski gets in touch with when he’s working on a new project and looking for feedback. When I first encountered A Child Remains in script form it was a very different beast with a larger budget and a broader, university campus locale. When the Liberals’ tax credit fiasco dropped back in spring 2015, that version of the film was one of its casualties. Full credit to Melski, he went back to the drawing board and rewrote it for a single location and a fraction of the original budget and managed to get it made. He refuses to give up.
Given my input on his work, in both the script and rough cut forms, there is a bit of a conflict of interest for me to review his film, but I’ll say this about it: I like it more in this, its final version, than I have in any of the ones before, including the script when it was going to made for a lot more money. I like that it’s as much a mystery as it is a horror picture, and how it’s a genre film that through character draws tension between the issue of women’s rights in the 1970s and where we are today. Suzanne Clément, Alan Hawco, and Shelley Thompson are solid, and dead babies haven’t been this creepy since Trainspotting. Congrats, Mike.
Something else to think about at this year’s Atlantic International Film Festival as we sit through the various speeches by politicians and bankers who gush about their affection for film in this province: The three movies shot in Nova Scotia and chosen for gala presentations this year, Black Cop, The Crescent (see below), and The Child Remains, were all made for peanuts. Black Cop and The Crescent especially are considered micro-budget filmmaking, probably shot for less than Fillmore’s annual expenses.
Movie-making is an expensive business, but there was a time when people dreamed of making a living working in the local film industry. Not sure if that’s still the case, but at least we can look at Melski as an example of how to do it. Don’t give up.
Directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, the Saudi filmmaker whose first picture was Wadjda, Mary Shelley is a feast for the eyes. It’s simply gorgeous to look at, all shafts of blue, diffuse, misty days and velvet-lined nights, with Elle Fanning looking more like a young Lillian Gish every day. She and Bel Powley, who I’ve loved since The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and that amazing light, those things make it worth seeing. Not much else does. This is the story of the author of Frankenstein imagined as YA fiction, and not the good stuff. Painfully on the nose, it rarely rises above soap, compounded by male leads right out of sharp-cheekbone-and-puffy-lips central casting, weightless pin-ups playing cliched versions of the grand, romantic poets of the 19th Century. Game of Thrones makes its presence felt with a classy turn from Stephen Dillane, and Maisie Williams is in it for about a minute. When Mary finally writes her magnum opus and struggles to get it published, we finally get a bit of spirit, but not nearly enough.
Seth A. Smith and his collaborators made their case for being cinema artists with their first feature, Lowlife. With The Crescent, they’re furthering that reputation with an extraordinarily confident second film, the story of a marbling artist, Beth (Danika Vandersteen), and her toddler, Lowen (Woodrow Graves, the filmmaker’s son) taking a quiet vacation at a seaside modernist home after a death in the family. Smith’s editing, sense of pacing and tone is impressive, allowing a lot of space into the film and letting the genre elements—a ghost story awaits as we go along—gather slowly. I liked the human drama more than the spookiness, but the addition of Beth’s psychedelic art allows for gorgeously pure visuals, suggesting, along with the ocean surf, the beauty and inscrutability of nature’s patterns.
A real achievement here is making a two-year-old the central character. I’m not entirely sure how Smith did it, but I’ve never seen a child that age at the heart of a feature film. (The Crescent screens Sunday evening at the Atlantic International Film Festival.)