TIFF Review: Seagrass (Meredith Hama-Brown, 2023)

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Judith and Steve go on a couples retreat, with their two young daughters along for the ride, in an effort to work on their relationship and save their rocky marriage. It doesn’t go all that well for them.

That is more or less the premise of Seagrass in a nutshell. Following the death of Judith’s mother, her relationship with Steve has been suffering, but then again, maybe the problems were already there to begin with and recent events have just brought everything to light.

Steve, of course, has his own issues and their daughters are also going through some stuff, with the eldest entering a semi-rebellious tween phase and their younger daughter convinced that she’s seeing the ghost of her late grandmother. Complicating matters further is the presence of Pat, the sensitive, Aussie-accented hunk who seems to have captured Judith’s attention.

As the unhappy couple take part in therapy sessions, any healing they may have hoped for does not seem to be in the cards. Steve is angry, but mostly unable (or unwilling) to articulate why. Judith is similarly disconnected and feels set adrift after the recent loss of her mother. There’s also clearly some guilt on her part over the fact that she doesn’t really know enough about her parents’ history or feel enough of a connection to her Japanese heritage. When Pat asks her about her father and mother’s experiences in the internment camps, she replies that they just never really talked about it. And all the while, the ghost of Judith’s mother hangs figuratively (or maybe literally?) over the proceedings.

While a bit of a slow burn at times, the film paints a compelling portrait of dysfunctional family drama with Ally Maki and Nyha Breitkreuz in particular putting on memorable performances as Judith and her daughter Stephanie, respectively.

TIFF Review: Bloom (Kasey Lum, 2023)

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Over the course of writer/director Kasey Lum’s Bloom, we are introduced to the film’s protagonist, a woman who is not dealing well with the sudden end of her relationship and who turns to a recently purchased houseplant to try and fill the void. The part is brilliantly acted by Jodi Balfour, the only human to appear onscreen (do we count the plant as her co-star?), as she spirals into her depression, obsessing over her ex, drinking too much and then … things take an odd turn.

Is there something sinister about this plant? Or is she the problem? And where will things go from here?

Though at first glance, this appears to be a simple story about a breakup, it becomes clear as the short film progresses that this is not so much a story about the end of a romantic relationship, but an examination of the relationship between humanity and nature itself.

Hot Docs Review: Soviet Barbara, the Story of Ragnar Kjartansson in Moscow (Gaukur Ulfarsson, 2023)

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Ragnar Kjartansson is an Icelandic artist who works across multiple media, with his work often incorporating aspects of performance art. As one art critic puts it when describing his work, “Ragnar does not shy from frankly emotional works.” Another thing Ragnar apparently does not shy away from is putting on an ambitious show at a Russian art gallery at a time when maybe going to Russia is not the best plan.

Inspired by the surprising popularity of American soap opera Santa Barbara following the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Kjartansson decided that alongside an exhibit of some of his older works, he would stage a fairly ambitious conceptual piece – a recreation of Santa Barbara live in the museum, in Russian. One episode per day for 99 days. Soviet Barbara tells the story of the ultimately aborted project and all of the challenges faced and compromises made along the way.

Among those challenges are the changes that have to be made to one piece, at first omitting a sexually explicit video that was part of the larger piece and representing it with a blank screen before being told that he couldn’t do that and then replacing it with a wry video of the exhibit’s promoters sitting by a fire and reading magazines. Another challenge is seen in Kjartansson’s attempts to walk the fine line of putting on a work with some subversive political messages while also doing interviews wherein he states that the work is not explicitly political.

This tension is also represented in the film as the exhibition is visited by two diametrically opposed guests – Russian president Vladimir Putin (who does not appear onscreen, and in fact Ragnar Kjartansson wasn’t even invited to the pre-opening party which Putin attended) and Pussy Riot’s Masha Alekhina. I’ll give you one guess as to which of those two Kjartansson is more politically alligned with. Also along for the ride are Santa Barbara co-creators Bridget and Jerome Dobson, with one amusing moment coming when Jerome is introduced to Masha and then asks whether he could be arrested for talking to her.

While the invasion of Ukraine ultimately forces Kjartansson to cancel his show (“I had to stop it. I couldn’t continue while this horror is happening.”), we at least still have this film to show us a bit of what could have been. It’s a compelling, entertaining story which also acts as a powerful examination of the power of art and its role in society.

Hot Docs Review: Praying For Armageddon (Tonje Hessen Schei, 2022)

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Praying For Armageddon examines the American fundamentalist evangelical movement and its growing connections to and influence over some elements of the U.S. government, including the military and foreign policy. While this connection is not exactly news to anyone who’s been following, well, the news over the past few years, it’s still a bit of a shock to see elected representatives saying things on camera like, “I believe Jesus will come back. And I’m gonna be on his side.” Isn’t this the same country whose constitution famously features a line about the separation of church and state? Then again, it’s also a country whose money proclaims “In God We Trust,” so mixed messaging is nothing new there.

Billing itself as a political thriller, Praying For Armageddon doesn’t exactly live up to that promise. Yes, it’s certainly political, and I suppose you could say there are some thrills, but while it’s a compelling story, it’s not quite Three Days Of The Condor or The Manchurian Candidate. What Praying For Armageddon does have going for it, though, is the fact that, unlike the other films I mentioned, this is real life – it’s all really happening. Which makes it all just a bit more frightening than your standard political thriller.