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Previewing the 2019 Canadian Film Fest

March 19, 2019

By John Corrado

I have been covering the Canadian Film Fest for several years now. The annual festival – the 13th edition of which starts tonight – always offers an interesting and entertaining showcase of homegrown cinema, and this year is no different, screening nine features and twenty eight shorts over the next several days.

I had the privilege of screening all nine feature films in advance, and once again there is a lot of good stuff in this year’s lineup, starting with the very strong opening night film, Red Rover. As a side note, I viewed all of these movies completely fresh, only having read brief synopses for all of them beforehand, and choosing not to watch any of the available trailers or clips. I wanted to let these films surprise me, which is one of the best things about a film festival. Below are my reactions and recommendations.

The Canadian Film Fest runs from March 19th to 23rd at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto. More information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

Cara Gee and Kristian Bruun in Red Rover

Red Rover

Damon (Kristian Bruun) is a lonely geologist in Toronto, who feels like he doesn’t have much left for him on earth. He lives in the basement of a house that he still shares with his ex-girlfriend (Meghan Heffern), who has now moved in her hot new Australian boyfriend (Morgan David Jones).

So when he finds out about an international competition offering twenty participants the chance to go on a one-way research mission to Mars as part of a reality show being produced by an organization called Red Rover, Damon starts trying to qualify with the help of Phoebe (Cara Gee), an eccentric musician who is working as a promoter for the company and is also trying to find herself. But as he comes to fall in love with Phoebe, Damon experiences conflicting emotions and starts to question if he actually wants to leave this planet after all.

Directed by Shane Belcourt, crafting his first narrative feature since Tkaronto in 2007, Red Rover is a polished and ambitious high concept film that works on multiple levels.  The film is very satisfying when viewed simply as a charming romantic comedy, but it also works as a surprisingly touching look at trying to escape from the pain of your life instead of coming to terms with it. The story is laced with thoughtful, philosophical undertones about the problems with colonizing another planet, instead of trying to make the best of the one we’ve already got.

Bruun does excellent work in the leading role as a character struggling with loneliness and heartbreak, and Gee does a solid job of taking a character who could seem like your typical manic pixie dream girl and giving her more layers of depth and appeal. All in all, Red Rover is a great example of a relatively small, character-driven film that also manages to explore some pretty big ideas. It’s not only the opening night film, but also the highlight of the entire festival.

Screening: Tuesday, March 19th – 7:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

Nose to Tail

If Red Rover is the best of the fest, than Nose to Tail is a very close second. Daniel (Aaron Abrams) is a brilliant but arrogant chef who owns and operates a high-end restaurant in Toronto, and is struggling to save his business. The film unfolds over a single day and night, as he clashes with his staff, fires his sous chef (Brandon McKnight), makes inappropriate advances towards his front of house manager (Lara Jean Chorostecki), tries to pick a fight with the trendy food truck across the street, all while preparing for the dinner time arrival of an old friend (Ennis Esmer), whom he he has invited in hopes that he will invest in the restaurant.

Director Jesse Zigelstein, making his feature debut, keeps Nose to Tail moving full speed ahead at a brisk and engaging pace, and there is not an ounce of fat to be found throughout the film’s lean eighty minute running time. Abrams matches this energy beat for beat, and does an excellent job of carrying the film with an intense and extremely watchable performance as an increasingly unhinged chef getting what he has coming to him as he experiences probably the worst day of his life. This is an incredibly entertaining portrait of a raging narcissist who uses has own talents as an excuse for treating others badly, even as the walls close in around him, and it provides a great showcase for its leading actor.

Screening: Wednesday, March 20th – 7:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

Creep Nation

After studying abroad in Italy, Sophia Campbell (Liv Collins) returns to Toronto, in hopes of escaping an abusive relationship with one of her professors. Needing a place to stay, she rents a house online, and finds herself being seduced by the owner (Mark Gibson). But when she goes missing from the house and disappears without a trace, her estranged brother Aaron (Adam Seybold) becomes determined to find her. He books the house for himself to collect evidence, and quickly discovers that the place is filled with hidden cameras in every room, leading him into a dangerous underworld that involves the selling of personal information on the dark web.

Sophia does make some questionable choices early on in the film that don’t feel entirely believable, but for the most part, Creep Nation is a slickly made and consistently entertaining little thriller, that has a lot of interesting ideas behind it regarding surveillance and how privacy barely exists anymore in the age of social media. And the Royal Cinema plays into the film’s tense, revenge-driven climax, which is pretty cool to see.

Screening: Wednesday, March 20th – 9:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

Wolves Unleashed – Against All Odds

Renowned animal trainer Andrew Simpson was given one of his most difficult jobs yet when he was brought to China to help raise and train a pack of wild Mongolian wolf pups to be used in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film Wolf Totem, and this process is documented in Wolves Unleashed – Against All Odds. I actually saw Wolf Totem back when it came out in 2015, and I found this to be a worthy peak behind the scenes, that nicely expands upon some of the bonus features that were included on the Blu-ray. The film works as both an engaging nature documentary and a fascinating companion piece to Wolf Totem, shedding more light on the amount of work that went into capturing the animal performances in the film, while also raising important questions about the ethics of using animals for entertainment.

Screening: Thursday, March 21st – 7:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova

Sarah (Katherine Fogler) and Aaron (Douglas Nyback) are estranged siblings from Toronto who are travelling through Poland trying to track down the bones of their dying grandmother’s old dog, in order to complete her final wish to be buried with the remains of her beloved pet. Directed by Zack Bernbaum, The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova shifts between quirky comedy and more sombre drama, as Sarah and Aaron trying to find and dig up the bones, facing any number of obstacles along the way.

The film works thanks to a pair of solid performances from Fogler and Nyback, who believably portray the sibling relationship between the freewheeling, recovering alcoholic Sarah and the more anxious and uptight Aaron. Michael Whatling’s screenplay offers them plenty of moments to bicker with each other, but we also never doubt the deep bond between them as the film reaches its bittersweet end.

Screening: Thursday, March 21st – 9:45 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

Pond Life

Written and directed by Gord Rand, adapting his stage play of the same name, Pond Life follows two couples who come to blow up each other’s relationships over a single evening. Dick (Ryan Blakely) is a doctor working in the fertility field, whose wife Sandy (Jeanie Calleja) is pregnant. They have invited over her foster sister Daisy (Kerry McPherson) for a pregnancy announcement party, and she brings along her conceited partner Richard (Ryan McVittie). Dick and Richard start clashing immediately, but the two men also have some shady business dealings between them, and things are complicated by the presence of a mysterious young girl (Peyton Kennedy) lurking outside, who has surprising connections to both of them.

Most of the characters in Pond Life are insufferable, but that’s also sort of the point, as the film serves to poke fun at the disconnected social lives of the upper class. While the film doesn’t go beyond its stage origins, and the largely histrionic performances feel exaggerated for the screen, Pond Life is still a mildly entertaining chamber piece. The film unfolds with a sense of mystery as we try to figure out just what the heck is going on beneath the surface, matched by a satirical, darkly comic tone.

Screening: Friday, March 22nd – 7:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

Nowhere

Claire Porter (Kate Drummond) and her daughter Sarah (Nell Verlaque) have just moved to the small town of Mattawa, in hopes of starting over from their lives in Chicago. Claire has taken a job as the vice principal of the local high school, where Sarah joins their celebrated and highly competitive varsity basketball team. When Sarah doesn’t return home after being invited to a team party, Claire starts to realize that something is amiss, and becomes determined to find her daughter. But everyone in town, from the domineering coach (Rya Kihlstedt) on down, would rather leave things well enough alone rather than risk the reputation of the team.

Directed by Thomas Michael, and co-written by him and Paolo Mancini – the same duo responsible for the offbeat Easter Bunny comedy Hank & MikeNowhere is a decent missing persons thriller, that offers a fair amount of suspense as it goes along. The film maybe reveals its hand a bit too early, which lessens some of the story’s mystery for the audience once we find out what happened and just wait for the characters to piece it together, but it still maintains a solid level of interest throughout and is carried by a good performance from Drummond in the lead.

Screening: Friday, March 22nd – 9:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

Honey Bee

The dramatic debut of documentary filmmaker Rama Rau, Honey Bee follows a teenaged prostitute named Natalie (Julia Sarah Stone), who hangs out at truck stops to make her living and is stuck in a relationship with her abusive pimp, Ryan (Steven Love). When Natalie is brought in by police as part of a sting operation, she is placed with a foster family and sent to live on their farm in Northern Ontario, where she is faced with having to decide between trying to forge ahead on a new path, or go back to the life of prostitution that she has been trapped in for so long and keeps threatening to pull her back.

While the narrative beats are somewhat predictable, Rau brings a gritty, believable quality to Honey Bee that keeps it engaging to watch. The film is carried by a strong central performance from Stone, who really embodies the role of a catty, troubled young sex worker, and continues to impress as an actress following her breakout roles in Wet Bum and Weirdos.

Screening: Saturday, March 23rd – 5:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

This is North Preston

North Preston is the largest black community in Canada, and the subject of the Canadian Film Fest’s closing night selection, This is North Preston. The town of about 4,000 residents started as a place of refuge for escaped slaves who were travelling along the underground railroad, but has now gotten a reputation as a crime-laden hot spot of drug dealing, prostitution and human trafficking, ruled over by gangs. Directed by Jaren Hayman, this documentary aims to cut through the stereotypes and paint a more nuanced portrait of the town, through a mix of interviews with members of the community, local politicians, law enforcement officers, outside journalists, and victims of human trafficking.

The film also follows the rapper Just Chase, who has found mainstream success and gone international, but still has close ties to the town and continues to have pride in where he came from. At a tightly edited 74 minutes, This is North Preston is a short but engaging documentary that mostly succeeds at offering a fair and balanced look at the small town, both from the perspective of the citizens and those outside of the community.

Screening: Saturday, March 23rd – 8:00 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

Aaron Abrams in Nose to Tail

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