Film review: Xavier Dolan’s Mommy

Xavier Dolan Mommy

Quebec cinema wunderkind Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature Mommy is his best by far.

In hindsight, Mommy is also Dolan’s first masterpiece. This isn’t a knock to his debut, J’ai tué ma mère, or the lush Laurence Anyways, or even the Hitchcockian Tom à la ferme, but none of his previous films are nearly as moving, captivating or artistically assured as Mommy is. Knowing what he can do now with Mommy, a passionate, beautiful and unique film about a Québécois family, with a script that is biting and emotional, it makes his previous efforts pale in comparison.

Set in 2015, when a new law is passed allowing Canadians with a problem child to give him or her up to a federal institution, Mommy follows Diane “Die” Després (the perfect Anne Dorval, in her fourth Dolan film) and her son Steve, whom Die picks up from what appears to be a boarding school that’s at wit’s end with what to do with the troublemaker (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). Steve set one of his classmates on fire and is being expelled, leaving widowed and severely underemployed Die no choice but to try to homeschool him. The pessimistic woman at the school reminds Die that “It’s not because we love someone that we can save them.” Immediately, we get a glimpse into the mother-son relationship of Die and Steve. Dolan is in his element: they have fun together and love each other, clearly, but Steve is sometimes violent and dangerous, and Die can’t help but blame herself. Their relationship is toxic but codependent. Die can never be sure what will set Steve off. After a misunderstanding leads to an argument, Steve starts destroying things around the house and Die scrambles to find a safe space to hide from her boy until he calms down. Suddenly, that new law sounds like it could literally be a lifesaver. Die and Steve get some relief when the shy and stuttering neighbour from across the street, Kyla (Suzanne Clément, in a beautiful and heartbreaking turn), begins to tutor Steve.

Mommy hits you when you least expect it with a ferocity that left me thinking about it for days after I watched it. Even almost two weeks later, I get chills thinking of certain scenes and sequences, and Dolan’s use of music is especially effective in the film. It felt odd at first, hearing Dido’s “White Flags” or Oasis’s “Wonderwall” used in the soundtrack un-ironically, but when Kyla, Steve and Die belt out Celine Dion’s “On ne change pas” after a hilariously awkward dinner scene, I was floored at how such a soapy moment could be so moving. It just works. Everything in Mommy meshes so well for the world and characters of Mommy.

The 1:1 aspect ratio in which it is shot leaves no room for distraction either. You’d think that you’d be missing out on something with the square frame, but it’s more than enough to be completely immersed in the characters’ worlds, their living rooms, kitchens, lives. Dolan also isn’t afraid of extreme closeups, leaving no room for the actors to not emote and commit fully.

To have five directorial efforts to your name at age 25 is a feat in itself, but for those five to be critically acclaimed, well… It should surprise nobody that Dolan’s reported next film is going to be his first English-language feature and will star two-time Oscar nominee Jessica ChastainMommy, like three of four Dolan films before it, screened at the Cannes film festival (Tom à la ferme premièred at Venice, but did not make it to the South of France) and was awarded the Jury Prize. It screened at TIFF and had a big red-carpet première in Montreal earlier this month. The hype is real and it’s worth it.

Mommy opens in Montreal on Sept. 19.

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Film review: Begin Again

Begin Again Keira Knightley Mark Ruffalo

Like a great song, Begin Again is all about the build-up.

It’s a long road of meh, though, until the electrifying, invigorating, chill-inducing third act, which almost makes up for a choppy beginning and sometimes dull middle bit. Keira Knightley stars as Greta, a Londoner in New York with her beau, next-big-thing-in-music Dave Kohl (a surprising Adam Levine). She writes songs with him, sometimes for him, and they’re madly in love until she hears one of his new tunes and deduces that it’s about another woman. Disgruntled, she sings about loneliness at a dingy club later that night, where Dan (Mark Ruffalo, phenomenal as usual), drunk as a skunk, imagines Greta being backed by a pianist, violinist, cellist and drummer. It’s magic, he thinks and hopes.

Director John Carney is no stranger to movies about musicians, having helmed the Oscar-winning Once, like Begin Again only in that it features a male and female lead making music together. Begin Again, with its bigger budget and New York setting, is much glossier, its songs much more poppy and radio-ready. I preferred the songs in Begin Again, so much so that I was missing the music when the film veered into its sometimes trite dialogue. (Conversely, I thought Once was beautifully filmed, and felt authentic because it was authentic and shot for peanuts) When Dan suggests Greta work on her stage presence and let him put her in some better outfits, she naively retorts: “Music is for the ears, not the eyes … People want authenticity.” He asks: Do you have a Facebook page? MySpace? Come on. Some of the film felt like it was written by a dinosaur pretending to know what young folk think of the music industry. (Carney wrote the film’s screenplay. In another scene, Dan’s 14-year-old daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) says her outfit is sexy because she got it from American Apparel.) “Maybe the kids are right. Maybe music should be free,” Dan says at a meeting at the record label he helped found. There, his partner’s million-dollar idea to saving the industry is having musicians record commentaries on albums.

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Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Free Montreal preview July 7

Guardians of the Galaxy

If you can’t wait until Aug. 1 for the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel is screening 17 minutes of never-before-seen footage from the film in select theatres across Canada and the United States on Monday, July 7, at 7 p.m. (that’s 7 p.m. on 7/7).

Tickets are free for the IMAX 3D screening, but you have to reserve yours (up to 2) at SeeItFirst.com. In Montreal, the screenings will take place at downtown’s Scotiabank Theatre and Guzzo’s Marché Central Megaplex 18. As of Wednesday evening, tickets were still available for both events.

Guardians of the Galaxy stars Chris Pratt, his abs, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Djimon Honsou, with the voices of Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper and Josh Brolin, among many others, and will be out on Aug. 1. It’s directed by James Gunn, who helmed indies like Slither and Super – but also directed a segment from Movie 43.

The first two trailers for Marvel’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy have about 25 million hits on YouTube.

Film review: Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm)

Tom at the Farm by Xavier Dolan

Xavier Dolan is on a roll.

His latest, the thriller Tom à la ferme, set in rural Quebec, opens in Montreal just as he is wrapping up post-production on his next film, Mommy, slated for release sometime this year.

In Tom à la ferme, Dolan portrays the eponymous character, a young advertiser from Montreal venturing into Middle of Nowhere, Que., for the funeral of his co-worker/lover, the closeted Guillaume. Tom’s a city mouse: one of the first scenes of the film involves him pulling over to break and kick his GPS navigator, which has obviously led him in the wrong direction. His phone also has no bars and as much as he tries to point it towards the sky, he cannot will his BlackBerry into service.

Tom gets to Guillaume’s mother Agathe’s (Lise Roy) house but no one’s there. He gets inside with a key he finds under the cushion of a bench on the quaint house’s front porch. Country folk are so trusting. He falls asleep – and drools – on the dinette table until he’s woken up by Agathe. She’s happy to see him because none of his other friends have shown up. Not even Sara, the woman Guillaume evidently told his mom was his girlfriend. Awkward. Doubly so when Guillaume’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) threatens Tom: don’t mess with Mom’s image of Guillaume, or else. Tom à la ferme becomes Tom’s dance, his charade. The threat from Francis is real and the instances in which it’s materialized in the film are among its strongest: a spooky shower scene and a chase through a wheat field are especially well done – and, yes, Hitchcockian, even if Dolan, who edited Tom, has said in interviews that he had only seen the master of suspense’s Vertigo before making the film. The cinematography by André Turpin (who worked on Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies) is very strong in its visualization of Tom’s isolation and the score by Oscar winner Gabriel Yared (The English Patient) keeps the tension up and bubbling throughout Tom à la ferme‘s 105 minutes.

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10 ways to fix SNL Québec

SNL Quebec

I love Saturday Night Live. Even terrible episodes have one or two redeeming sketches. At the very least, Weekend Update is a safe bet for a few laughs. When it was announced that Télé-Québec would be producing SNL Québec, I was thrilled and cautiously optimistic. There is no denying what a cultural institution the show is. The U.S. version of SNL – created by Canadian Lorne Michaels, who is still executive producing after 39 years – carries a soft power during U.S. election years and is undoubtedly a breeding ground for comedians: Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tracy Morgan, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Ana Gasteyer. The list could go on and on.

I want to like SNL Québec – love it, even. But there are too many missteps and unoriginal ideas for a show that is just starting out. There have only been two episodes so far (the first, hosted by Louis-José Houde on Feb. 6 can be streamed on Télé-Quebec’s website), with no guarantee that the show is going to get picked up for more.

There hasn’t been a shortage of items in the news for SNL Québec to parody, but it’s barely touched them. We’re in the middle of an election campaign, and all the show could manage was a cold open featuring a dinner party with the four party leaders and a knock at François Legault’s CAQ, both during the second episode, hosted by Stéphane Rousseau (link to come). I expected more election and political sketches this time around, but maybe that just isn’t the show SNL Québec wants to be. Still, it has some redeeming factors (Katherine Levac, a young cast that’s game for whatever, endless possibilities for musical guests) and potential, and I think it could and should come back, but it needs some work.

Here are my 10 suggestions for how to fix SNL Québec:

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Film review: Nymphomaniac

Nymphomaniac train scene

Lars von Trier’s two-part, four-hour Nymphomaniac is more affective than the film’s title and marketing suggest and than I was expecting.

The film starts with Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finding a woman, battered and beaten, in an alleyway by his apartment. Her name is Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and he takes her inside for some tea. She tells Seligman she can tell him what happened to her if he’s really interested, but “I’ll have to tell you the whole story, and it’ll be long.” No kidding.

For the next four hours, Joe takes us and Seligman through the highs and lows (and there are loads of lows) of her life as a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac, from her relationship with her icy mother (Connie Nielsen), briefly, to the great love she had for her father (Christian Slater), to the time she discovered her “cunt,” to losing her virginity to an older boy from the neighbourhood, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who finished in eight thrusts, she still remembers. He’ll end up being an important character in her life and Joe’s story: while most of the men we meet don’t get any names, some get a letter (K, S, F, L, H). Only Jerôme gets a full name. From then, she’s unhinged. The next story she tells Seligman, who interjects every once in a while with odd fly-fishing metaphors, is about her and her friend B’s (Sophie Kennedy Clark) train adventures: the two teens (Joe is played by newcomer Stacy Martin in her teens and 20s, and by Gainsbourg in later years) wager a bag of chocolate candies on whom can get with more men before the train reaches its final destination.

Joe compares her “cunt,” a word von Trier, who also wrote the screenplay for Nymphomaniac, uses quite liberally, to a very sensitive sliding door at a supermarket. She’s fighting a rebellion against love, and when one of her friends dares tell her that the secret ingredient to sex is love, Joe won’t have it. She’s fired up and at this point is more determined to dispel that dopey notion. She has a regular roster of men who visit her apartment, but most are one-time deals. As such, she’s had to develop methods and techniques to keep her guys in check. There are tight schedules and meticulously timed rendez-vous and she even has a system for returning the messages men leave on her machine.

Nymphomaniac posters

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Review: The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice chauve) at Théâtre Sainte Catherine

La Cantatrice Chauve The Bald Soprano

First impressions are so important.

It’s true in job interviews, meeting your in-laws or first dates, and it’s true in theatre, too. I was instantly pulled into Raise the Stakes’ bilingual production of Eugene Ionesco’s odd The Bald Soprano thanks to Paul Naiman and Michelle Langlois-Fequet, playing Mr. and Mrs. Smith, opening the play with the sort of zest and fervor that are impossible to ignore. Mrs. Smith is telling her visibly annoyed and inattentive husband about her day as he continues to read a comically large newspaper. This would be the first of many (to my surprise) physical and visual gags in this production of The Bald Soprano.

The Smiths host the Martins for dinner (a meal that never actually happens during the play’s 80-minute runtime) and the double-date quickly turns into an opportunity for the four characters to one-up each other, telling ridiculous stories and anecdotes. It’s no-holds barred when the local fire chief comes by, upping the energy tenfold. The Martins (Hugo Prévosteau and Chelsea Morgane) have a memorable entrance after being chastised by the Smiths’ maid (Lesley Leichtweis Bernardi) for being late. The Martins look like they are straight out of a Wes Anderson film, she in a pink blouse and blue floral skirt, he, a mustachioed bespectacled man wearing an orange turtle neck and light-blue pants. They forget how they know each other until deducing that they are probably married since they sleep in the same bed in the same room in the same apartment.

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