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Monday, September 27, 2021

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: A very fine First Nations coming-of-age tale

Screen Grabs: A very fine First Nations coming-of-age tale

Plus: A Danish Nazi melodrama, beautifully cutthroat 'Truffle Hunters,' terrible 'Shoplifters of the World'

In order to have some film culture of their own and not get completely swamped by the entertainment-producing behemoth to its south, a fair amount of Canadian movie production is much-aided and abetted by the government. Among the good things that enables is a great deal more projects by and about the nation’s indigenous peoples—certainly more than we get in the US, even if few of those films get widely released, let alone exported. 

A rare exception is Kuessipan, Myriam Verreault’s first narrative feature, adapted from First Nations writer Naomi Fontaine’s 2011 novel. It’s set on an Innu reservation in northeastern Quebec, where when we first meet our protagonists as little girls night-fishing with their families, already inseparable. 

Some years later, they’re now high school-aged, and not much has changed, save that Shaniss (Yamie Gregoire) already has a baby—more responsibility than she or volatile boyfriend Greg (Douglas Gregoire) are ready for, perhaps. When he gets in trouble with the law, it is once again Mikuan’s (Sharon Ishpatao Fontaine) duty to support Shaniss through yet another crisis, biting her tongue from saying “I told you so.” The lopsidedness of their friendship is underlined after Mikuan meets a nice boy (Etienne Galloy) in a writing workshop. Rather than being happy for her, all Shaniss can do is snipe at the fact that he’s non-Native. 

There’s further later conflict as Greg’s woes keep escalating, and Mikuan considers leaving to go to college—another sign of independence Shaniss resents, branding it as betrayal. But Kuessipan has a large and generous enough scope to see that though their lives are going to go through many changes, this friendship most likely weathering them all.

Verreault’s film is confident but restrained stylistically; there are no big auteurist flourishes or melodramatic setpieces. Nonetheless, or perhaps as a result, the film has the satisfactions of a good, serious novel, in which you really settle into the characters and their world. 

A fine coming-of-age tale that doesn’t tick off too many of that genre’s standard checkboxes, Kuessipan begins playing the virtual cinemas of the Roxie, CinemaSF and Rafael Film Center this Fri/26.

Other new releases this weekend:

The Good Traitor 

As anxiety-inducing as life has been on many fronts for some time, we should still thank our lucky stars we’re not living in 1939, when the entire world seemed on the brink of war—and then, suddenly, it was over that brink. This historical drama from director Christina Rosendahl relates a little-remembered (at least on this side of the Atlantic) yet crucial interlude in relations between her nation and ours. 

Henrik Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen) was a career diplomat who’d just been appointed the new Danish ambassador in DC when Germany invaded Denmark. Rather than fleeing and establishing a “government in exile,” as expected, the authorities stayed to negotiate with their occupiers—a dismal choice. But then they didn’t really have a choice, as they were told otherwise Copenhagen would be “wiped out” by Nazi forces.

Kauffmann made a daring decision: Rather than be forced to act as the Third Reich’s puppet, he declared his embassy independent, encouraging others around the world to do the same. Then, saying “We won’t take orders from a government without free will,” he proceeded with ingenuity and hubris to represent his country—against Denmark’s official orders—in dealing with US officials including FDR himself (Henry Goodman). It was risky business, particularly as he might’ve been deported to likely execution at any point. But his efforts not only helped Danish resistance, it helped the Allies in general, and nudged the Americans towards entering a war they resisted until the Pearl Harbor attack.

It’s a fascinating footnote, though Rosendahl and her co-scenarists might have handled it more compellingly. The biggest mistake is lending so much emphasis to Kauffmann’s American wife Charlotte (Denise Gough), who correctly surmises he’s a little too fond of her own sister Zilla (Zoe Tapper), and is driven near-mad with jealousy. Actually, IS she mad? (Years later, she really did euthanize her then-terminally ill husband, then kill herself.)

We can’t tell—but in any case, this domestic triangle should have been relegated to its own movie. In this one, it just gets in the way of far more interesting international politics, which the film too often relegates to overheard radio broadcasts. The Good Traitor is worthwhile for illuminating an unfamiliar true story, and Thomsen is always an interesting performer (if a little too dry here). But this movie should have been better than just OK. Already getting a limited theatrical release, it hits VOD outlets Fri/26.

The Truffle Hunters 

Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary may be classic “Italy travelogue porn” on one level, with its beautiful photography of gorgeous scenery, and fond regard for eccentric village types. Yet it’s also about a high-ticket business sufficiently cutthroat that competitors might actually set out traps to poison each another’s keen-nosed dogs. This is the world of white truffle hunting in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmonte, where a handful of aging locals remain infuriatingly expert at locating the buried fungi prized by gourmands—something agricultural science has so far failed to enable the standardized cultivation of. 

Thus these crusty old men hold the keys to a kingdom, and they aren’t giving them away—in fact, they seem quite content to die with the secrets of their favorite spots unshared. They’re charming geezers with trigger tempers, well aware they’ve got the upper hand in a viciously competitive trade. The Truffle Hunters is very pretty and entertaining, but by the end you may be surprised none of its octogenarian protagonists have gotten killed (or killed one another) yet. It opens today at the Embarcadero and Rafael Film Center, while also streaming via the Rialto chain’s virtual cinemas. 

Shoplifters of the World

I admit to being a Smiths fanatic in the mid-’80s, enough to be crushed when a move back to the Bay Area in 1985 meant I just missed their first/last US tour dates everywhere. But by the time they broke up two years later, that ardor had already begun to cool. Morrissey’s solo career was less inspiring, and his public persona (always borderline) grew steadily more obnoxious, soon rendering even enjoyment of the “classic” stuff difficult—it was no longer easy to ignore the whiny-misanthrope aspect of his lyrics, amplified by his sometimes painfully casual vocalist’s relationship towards pitch. Still, The Smiths were a great band for the five short years they lasted.

Unfortunately, horror rather than nostalgia is more likely to be stirred by Shoplifters of the World, which has the fairly promising hook of being about some fictive ”alternative” Denver, CO youths who freak out the day (in July 1987) that Die Schimdt officially called it kaput. No one is more crushed than superfan Cleo (Helena Howard), though she seems perpetually petulant already. She gathers bestie Sheila (Elena Kampouris), a Madonna wannabe, plus their respective ersatz boyfriends (James Bloor, Nick Krause)—who, not unlike the Mozz himself back then, need to face reality and exit that shared closet—to spend a night partying their despair away.

Meanwhile record store misfit Dean (Ellar Coltrane of Boyhood) goes further by holding a local radio station DJ Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello) hostage, so The Smiths are played all night as a sort of public funeral.

Yes, this is basically 1994 radio-station-held-hostage comedy Airheads redux, without acknowledgement, or Adam Sandler, or any sense of humor, really. Instead we’ve got a bunch of vapid posers running around saying how lame everything is but The Smiths, and themselves. They feel very much like 28-year-old actors playing 21-year-old characters who act like sulky 14-year-olds, awash in ill-informed disdain and overinflated self-pity. Shoplifters has plenty of Smiths tracks, yet otherwise doesn’t feel period-authentic for a millisecond, despite the script’s constant name-dropping of ’80s pop culture totems. 

Writer-director Stephen Kijak hasn’t made a narrative film in the quarter-century since Never Met Picasso, another posefest horribly mistaken about its coolness factor. He has made a lot of music documentaries, some good, but their bizarre miscellany of subjects (Backstreet Boys, Scott Walker, Japanese glam-metal band X, Lynryd Skynryd, Jaco Pastorius, Judy Garland, Rolling Stones) does not suggest discriminating taste. 

With barely a tweak, Shoplifters might pass as satire of the most cluelessly self-absorbed fans of the most solipsistic pop-star narcissist in the universe—but there’s no indication whatsoever Kijak would get that joke. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’d solemnly drop the needle on “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” Which is one more thing this insipid, wildly annoying movie will make it very hard to every take seriously again. It launches on Roxie Virtual Cinema plus general On Demand and Digital platforms Fri/26.

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