Personal, powerful, palatable: Mick Robertson rediscovers our fondness for food

U of T student premieres her short film Eating is a Very Tender Thing at TIFF Next Wave

Personal, powerful, palatable: Mick Robertson rediscovers our fondness for food

Michaela Robertson’s favourite time to eat is in the middle of the night. She likes to stand with the fridge open and about four different containers of leftovers strewn around her. She told me, with a chuckle in her voice, that she gets this from her father.

Eating is a very tender thing. It’s how we stay connected to our bodies, and, often, how we tell other people that we love them. That’s exactly what Robertson set out to document, with cinematographer Isaac Roberts and a set of DV camcorders.

As a part of the Battle of the Scores competition, an event that opened the TIFF Next Wave Festival, three filmmakers each created a silent film. Following this, six musicians performed original scores inspired by these films live at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on February 14.

Robertson’s three-minute silent film depicts her close family and friends eating their favourite foods, how and where they like to eat them. “The idea was to make it a love letter to eating,” she told me in a Skype interview — a fittingly grainy form of communication for talking about Robertson’s film, which she designed to look like a wedding video. Robertson was sitting in front of her childhood bunk beds with a smile on her face as she told me about all of the sparkling ideas that had shaped her project. 

The Varsity: Can you tell me a little bit about your film?

Micaela Robertson: My project is called Eating is a Very Tender Thing, and it was inspired by this passage from a play called Concord Floral by Jordan Tannahill, in which there’s this girl who talks about how she’s always felt like an outsider. And so she’s talking about how, at the cafeteria, she always felt comfortable, because in her mind, what she says is, “eating is a very tender thing. When we were apes we would all stand around and guard each other as we ate, because it’s the time when we’re most vulnerable,” and so I always really liked that. 

And so, when the opportunity came around, when I saw the posting for [the festival], I got excited at the prospect of being able to buy all of these people I cared about a meal, and then was hoping that I would be able to capture them eating the way that they love to eat, on camera, capturing them eating as comfortably as possible. And so, basically what my film ended up being is three minutes of over a dozen people eating some of their favourite meals the way that they love to eat them the most.

TV: If the film as a whole was a type of food, what would it be? 

MR: There’s one shot in it of a friend of mine eating a full brunch, but in bed. He’s eating takeout brunch, so it’s way too much to be eating while you’re sitting in bed, but he’s in bed in his pajamas. That’s the tone of the film. Or, honestly, noodles because [that’s] the image that I was really keen on trying to get at some point in the film. When I pitched it to TIFF Next Wave and Insomniac [Film Festival], I was like, “I want to have a film that has a shot of a big noodle going into someone’s mouth and slapping their mouth. I need some messy noodle eating.” I feel like messy noodle eating maybe encapsulates the film. 

TV: It sounds like there’s a lot of warmth in it, but there’s also a sort of a carefree aspect to it. Is that what you mean by the messy noodles? 

MR: The cinematographer for the film — his name is Isaac Roberts — used these old DV camcorders to shoot the entirety of the film, which gives it this feeling of [looking] almost like a wedding video. It looks sort of romantic in the way that it looks like it maybe wasn’t necessarily meant to be produced and shown at TIFF. It looks like it was meant to be shown on a TV screen to other loved ones. So, I think that that’s where the messiness comes in, because it’s shot in standard definition, which is so messy compared to the glory of HD. But it’s just the right tone for this film. It wouldn’t have worked, I think, if it was shot on a DSLR or anything like that.

TV: Would you describe your relationship with food as something that’s a bit romantic?

MR: This year, the Battle of the Scores falls on Valentine’s Day. So, the pitch had to be about romance. And so I think that my relationship with food is probably one of the most intimate relationships I’ve ever experienced. When I engage in that relationship it is just for me; it’s for nobody else. It makes me feel all sorts of ways, and I think that because the way that I love to eat is alone in the middle of the night, the only thing that surpasses the intimacy of those moments has been finding a romantic partner who also loves to eat like I do — in the middle of the night. All of a sudden, I’m comfortable doing this super personal thing with another person. And in that regard, I think it’s a highly romantic thing. 

TV: Were there ever any discussions, undertones, or thoughts about body image involved in the film? 

MR: I was conscious of how eating is related to body image as I was dealing with the participants. And so, before the participants were officially signed onto the project, they all filled out a survey outlining very necessary things that I said I explicitly needed to know about, like food allergies. But there were also areas in the survey in which I encouraged them, that if they wanted, they could share with me things that I might need to know in order to make this more comfortable with them.

I did make a conscious decision for this film not to be about body image, but in a way, to me, that makes it about body image in a certain regard.

My eating habits are insane — like, loving to eat until you’re really, really full right before you fall asleep is not good for someone’s body image, but nevertheless, it’s something that I love to do, and I do try to eat as healthily as possible. Therefore, I wanted to enjoy the fact that I really love to eat, and make a film that was about really loving to eat. Which, in a way, because of the way that it doesn’t give time to talk about the dark underbelly of [eating], it kind of is talking about it. It’s about trying to dismiss those dark thoughts in the form of a film. Like, it’s okay to love to eat late at night. It’s okay. So, that was the idea, to make it a love letter to eating, to highlight all the positives of it, rather than focusing on the negatives.

TV: How did you try to capture the different cultural approaches to eating communally? 

MR: It was more personal. Although, the thing that ended up happening was that there ended up being a focus on eating individually. That’s not a complete throughline in the film. There’s a couple of siblings eating together, actually. So, although that sounds like there’s a lot of people who eat communally together in the film, there’s actually way more people who eat by themselves. I think I was more interested in what people do when they’re alone and enjoying eating, just because I know that I have my own rituals that I perform when I’m eating alone.

Of course, a lot of that ended up being people watching TV, which is interesting in and of itself, but I did try to encourage some of the participants who I felt particularly comfortable with to try to engage in something that wasn’t watching TV. My friend Michael for example did a series where he photographed all these people eating brunch in his apartment. Right where his kitchen table is, there’s a skylight above, so all of this natural light floods in, and so for him, we kind of did this artificial thing where we got him to sit where his participants would have sat, and he just kind of sat and ate quietly.

With regard to cultural aspects of eating, communally or non-communally, that was the goal of the survey, to make it so that if people wanted to include culturally specific rituals around food or culturally specific food, they could, but that they also didn’t feel like they had to perform that for me. The goal was to acknowledge that food and culture go hand in hand, but the ultimate goal was for the participants to feel comfortable, and to feel seen as they appear most normally, or be seen as they would most typically be, or would want to be seen. And I really hope that everyone felt comfortable with that.

TV: There’s a growing culture of watching Netflix while you eat, or getting home late from a long day of work and eating. It’s sort of the ritual and system that we’ve built up, as opposed to some cultures in which it’s extremely important that you eat together. So, how did you diversify the film in terms of cultural expectations and individual behaviour?

MR: I tried to make sure that the age range was wide in the film. That being said, it ended up largely being people who are in their twenties. However, I think there’s something to be said about how people in their twenties are most often alone, because you’re not living necessarily with your family anymore, and you also might not have your own family set up yet. 

So, I think there’s a lot of normalcy in the people who are in their twenties eating by themselves. There’s also a lot of them eating in bed, which I feel is very typical because apartments are small. And, you know, usually, the dining space is a communal living area, so you’d rather eat in your bed. That said, the siblings we filmed eating together — both groups of siblings were substantially younger than I am, they were all under the age of 20. So, under the age of 20, people tend to still be living at home, and therefore be eating with their siblings.

Then, with my dad, he’s captured eating alone, but we faked that one a little bit because we had to tell my family to leave him alone so we could capture him as he would normally be once we’re all in bed.

Robertson’s film highlights the importance of cultivating a love of self through meditating upon what we put in our bodies, as well as using food as a vehicle to express our feelings to others. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A chat with the cast of Hart House’s Legally Blonde

Yeah we got an interview — what, like it’s hard?

A chat with the cast of Hart House’s <i>Legally Blonde</i>

You have definitely watched the 2001 Hollywood cult-classic Legally Blonde. And we’re completely and totally sure that you saw Kim Kardashian’s Halloween spoof of Elle’s admission video. And, even if you deny it, you’ve guiltily enjoyed Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (2003)…more than once. But, have you seen the musical? Join The Varsity as we ask Paige Foskett, playing Margot, and Moulan Bourke, playing Paulette, all about Hart House Theatre’s newest musical, Legally Blonde.

The Varsity: As actors, how was it bringing the world of Elle Woods to life? Is stepping into the shoes of such iconic characters a struggle?

Paige Foskett: It can sometimes be hard stepping into roles that have been done — and loved — so many times before, but ultimately you just have to find the heart of who these people are, and really bite into the text as actors. The more you do it, the more you find new and exciting ways of being this person that have maybe never been done before.

Moulan Bourke: As an actor I love bringing what people know as a movie to life. Many individuals who are not normally patrons of the theatre will come to this show. I believe it is important to respect our predecessors in these iconic roles, but to also infuse your own portrayal of the character. Every creative team and actor will have a different interpretation of this show and I’m proud to share this version of Legally Blonde with audiences!

TV: The movie has become a seriously iconic part of contemporary North American culture. Entire dissertations have been written about its place as a piece of feminist media. Has this cultural legacy and feminist lens affected your characterization or acting?

PF: I think if anything it just makes you really lean into the honesty of the story. It’s been really important for us to not make it a joke because the writing already lends to the comedy. We have found the power in who Elle is, and what she is fighting for. I think it’s so powerful to get to embody all the people in her life who rallied behind her or pushed against her and made her stronger. She is a total badass.

MB: Even though 20 years have passed, this story is still so incredibly relevant today. Elle Woods inspires everyone in this show by the power or her love. Absolutely, my characterization of Paulette was influenced by the heart of this story. This show is iconic and its lessons are prominent. Elle reminds Paulette to never give up and the importance of self-love. These women display strength, power, love, and sisterhood which I strive to have as a performer and as a person.

TV:  Even though it’s only been a little more than a decade since the debut of Ms. Woods’ foray into litigation, a lot has changed in contemporary culture. Did you feel the need to, or have you had to contemporize any aspect or the play?

PF: Saccha Dennis made the really smart choice of setting our production in the ’90s where a lot of these references and the writing makes more sense. I think it’s more truthful to the text to set it in a time where all of these references and the circumstances we see play out are actually really accurate. I think to set it in modern day there has to be a lot of changes made, and you have to go about it from a different lens.

TV: Many theatrical productions feature localizations, especially for comedic and dramatic productions. Is Hart House doing anything to localize Elle to a ‘foreign’ Canadian context, well aware of its setting in Harvard and are the actors doing anything to assert their Canadian identity through these iconic Americans?

PF: For Saccha it was actually quite the opposite. We put a lot of importance on figuring out who these American people are, and really leaning into that. There’s nothing Canadian about this version of the show. And Saccha made sure to catch us every time we said “Sowww-ry!”

TV: If you could distill your production to a few remarks about its significance, plot, or really whatever you’d like, what would you say? What is your production, in essence?

PF: I would say that this show really is spectacular because it is so fast paced, funny, and honest. Every character we meet in this story totally reels you in, from the lead roles like Elle or Paulette, to the store manager, to Elle’s dad. Everything is so cohesive and honest. And in our production especially the costumes, set design, lighting design, and choreography are so out of this world.

MB: I think this production’s essence is the power of love. Elle literally gets into Harvard to follow who she believes to be the love of her life. She finds the love and power of law through helping her sisters. She reminds us of the importance of self-love. This show is women empowerment.

Catch Legally Blonde at Hart House Theatre until February 1, with discounted student tickets on select nights.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TIFF 2019: Corpus Christi

Dark, tragic, pessimistic — Komasa’s film encapsulates the power of second chances

TIFF 2019: <em>Corpus Christi</em>

Though the title, synopsis, and main poster — which features a still of the protagonist in a rich green chasuble, face contorted in emotion as he calls out — suggest that Jan Komasa’s newest film Corpus Christi is about an individual’s battle with faith and religion, it is actually much more grand.

Premiering in North America at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Corpus Christi follows Daniel, a 20 year-old youth with convictions who can’t return to seminary school after being released from a youth correctional facility. He goes instead to a small Polish town to work at a carpenter’s workshop. But after spontaneously asserting that he is a priest, Daniel eventually takes over the town’s parish. It’s a premise that could have easily been a slapstick comedy, however Corpus Christi is anything but: it’s dark, tragic, and, most of all, pessimistic.

Daniel’s faith in Corpus Christi is unwavering; he never questions his beliefs. Quite the contrary, he remains a believer even after many injustices are committed against him and those around him.

Corpus Christi is about the systemic barriers that are built to stand in Daniel’s way of becoming what he truly wants to be. For instance, Daniel is told by the correctional facility’s priest — who he looks up to — that it is impossible for him to go to theology school.

It becomes apparent that Daniel is not simply a devout Christian. He is able to have profound effects, both positive and negative, on people through his sermons, yet he isn’t able to nurture them further in a scholarly and official environment because of the mistakes he made as a teenager. Komasa isn’t asking us how this is fair — he’s plainly showing us that it isn’t.

There is another movie that challenges the church in a similar way: First Reformed, a movie by Paul Schrader which screened at TIFF 2017. First Reformed centers on Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), who, after failing to console an environmental activist with depression, begins to question the politics within his own parish.

Similar to Daniel, Toller sees how the systemic infrastructure of the church actually stands in the way of pure preaching. For Daniel, his record prohibits him from going to seminary school. For Reverend Toller, his church having a close relationship with an industrialist puts limits on his ability to move his congregation toward stewardship, a religious ideal that suggests that humans are responsible for taking care of the earth.

Films like Corpus Christi and First Reformed are important because they detail the extensive politics that exist within what is supposed to be the most sacred of organizations. They outline the way in which greed, power, and money get in the way of the upkeep of justice and environmental sustainability.

These films remind us that social issues, such as the environment and the criminal justice system, can be viewed in more ways than one. By framing them through religion, Schrader and Komasa effectively assert that there is no excuse to plead ignorance or turn a blind eye. We must familiarize ourselves with our surroundings — be it politics, religion, education, or even entertainment — and then decide what kind of narrative is being presented, and by whom.

Corpus Christi and First Reformed ask us about personal responsibility and accountability, both to the institutions that we choose, and those that we do not. They prod the idea of responsibility to our surroundings, the environment, and the people that we interact with every day.

These philosophical questions are not answered in either of the films. Instead, Komasa and Schrader sow the seeds for us to examine our place in the web of society, and to subsequently decide to whom or what we owe our loyalty, and where owe rebellion.

TIFF 2019: Knives Out

Witty murder mystery combined with a stellar cast, Knives Out is a must-see

TIFF 2019: <em>Knives Out</em>

Knives Out is a quick-witted, revamped mystery that is, at its core, about the good in people, not their murderous instincts. Director Rian Johnson employs his miraculous cast in a story most closely comparable to a game of Mafia, as a detective and a private investigator try to determine the cause of death of a mystery novel magnate. With a backdrop of the stately Thrombey mansion and a rich family of money grabbers, the main character, Marta, is impressively played by the up-and-coming Ava de Armas.

In 2017 de Armas played a key role in Blade Runner 2049, but her performance in Knives Out is much more authoritative, nuanced, and magnetic. Marta is the close confidant and private nurse to our victim, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), and she is very trusting but certainly not naïve. There’s an argument to be made here that Marta is the most complex and substantive role written of its kind, one which avoids annoying tropes and fits perfectly with de Armas’ lived-in performance.

The cast includes a wealth of other celebrities, including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, and Jamie Lee Curtis. A cast of stars that size can cause serious issues for a film, with actors trying to outdo each other or sacrificing too much character development.

Johnson sidesteps these issues deftly, by carefully choosing peppery moments of characterization and maintaining a deep commitment to character-based comedy. Each performance has its own sensibility, and picking a favourite is definitely some sort of Rorschach test — mine is Toni Collette. Do with that what you will.

If you were to read the script, devoid of character names, you would still be able to tell who’s saying each line. It’s that tight.

When Johnson came out to introduce the film at its premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, he pumped up the audience by calling Knives Out a “classic whodunnit.” The film snaps between genre tropes and modern touches frequently, and evokes a similar edge-of-your-seat, Agatha Christie-esque feeling to its mystery. The movie is set to a snare-drum-heavy jazz score and has a self-reflexive structure, which is far more effective and intriguing than a simple final reveal.

Knives Out gives you the same feeling as driving down a dark road at night while listening to a funny podcast. You can barely see what’s six feet in front of you, and certainly not any further than that, but you’re having a great time. It’s not a ‘twist movie’ per se, it’s just a really good movie with spectacular planning and an attention to detail that rivals most actual police investigations.

The movie’s road is a spiral. Much of this has to do with Marta, who’s caught up in the death in a couple different ways, not least of which in her enlistment into solving the case by Detective Benoit Blanc (Craig). Marta is the daughter of an undocumented migrant, a fact not parachuted in, but woven into her character trajectory, the overall story progression, and Johnson’s main moral aims.

The divide between kind-hearted Marta and the Thrombeys is never more apparent than after Harlan’s death. The family squabbles over who is actually ‘self-made’ and who just coasts by on their parents’ money — hint: all of them coast.

The chasm between the Thrombey’s lifestyle and Marta’s is huge, yet the family does everything in their power to keep it that way. Even more frustrating is when they force her into a very timely discussion on the detention of asylum-seeking migrants and hand her an empty plate in the same breath, even though she is not a housekeeper.

It’s not a political film in terms of elections and debates, but it is political in the sense that this is actually what it feels like to be alive right now. Johnson somehow threads this needle, and pulls off a magic trick. He argues for goodness above all else, but recognizes the way the deck is stacked for the supremely wealthy, powerful, and white. It never feels hypocritical, and it never feels preachy. Magic.

Knives Out is going to be an absolute crowd-pleaser, and deservedly so. It’s beautiful and hilarious, and the genre-bending that Johnson pulls off is one for the books — the mystery books specifically. I’m not sure if it’s a great sign that a murder mystery is the film to nail our daily experiences, but it is a fantastic reminder that a movie can be about something as simple as goodness.

TIFF 2019: All the films I saw

If you like lists and films, then this is the article for you

TIFF 2019: All the films I saw

Over the seven total days I spent at the Toronto International Film Festival I saw 19 films, had upward of 20 cups of coffee, got less than five hours of sleep a night, and attended, optimistically, 60 per cent of my classes. It was an absolutely insane experience that I could only compare to some sort of army-ranger training, cramming so much emotion and exhaustion into such a compressed amount of time. Here is what I have to show for it: this list of films and many great memories.

1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

I wrote a full review of this film, which is good because I certainly do not have enough space here to express my admiration and reverence for this movie. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French lesbian period drama directed by Céline Sciamma. It’s a stunning, heartfelt rumination on love and art, and maybe ruined me for any other film this year.

2. Uncut Gems

The latest film by the Safdie brothers stars Adam Sandler as a New York jeweller with a crippling gambling problem, in a performance that fully cements the Sandler renaissance. Sandler’s classic anger comes out in new and desperate ways, as the film clips away with the Safdie brothers’ unique mix of gaudy and genuinely cool. 

3. Knives Out

Rian Johnson’s Clue-inspired murder mystery is as beautiful as it is intricate, and features a deep bench of sensational performances. Knives Out feels profoundly committed to fun, which is not to say that it has nothing else going on. Johnson’s grasp of genre contributes to this balancing act, and his obvious love of mystery iconography permeates this wholly original film.

4. Parasite

The Palme d’Or-winning Parasite was directed by Bong Joon-Ho and is a clawing commentary on upstairs-downstairs class relations. Pretty serious and deadly funny, Parasite corners hard. The film is anchored by amazing performances and tight cinematography, and epitomizes ‘must see to believe.’

5. Pain and Glory

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s autobiographical film is a lovingly-constructed exploration of the body and mind. Almodóvar’s expressive use of colour and a brilliant performance by Antonio Banderas are the standouts of this graceful and open-hearted feature.

6. Ema

Pablo Larraín’s follow up to 2016’s Jackie is a thumping, distraught piece that follows Ema, a dancer. Rhythmic dance sequences are interspersed with Ema’s decaying relationship with her husband and adopted son. It’s empathetic and pounding, emotional and sensual, and gorgeously photographed.

7. Hustlers

Lorene Scafaria directed this true story about a group of exotic dancers who run a very successful con on Wall Street ‘dudebros’ in the wake of the financial crisis. It’s bright, it’s loud, it features extended sequences of Jennifer Lopez absolutely killing it on the pole, and it invests in its female characters with deep understanding and interiority. What more could you want?

8. True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s Australian gangster period piece is just as insane as it sounds and very rad. George MacKay is absorbing as the notorious Ned Kelly, and, together with a host of other great performances rounds out the strobing clanging film, complete with homoerotic sexual energy and exquisite cinematography. The film does the story justice, and peppers the storyline with as many questions as it answers

9. Hope Gap

William Nicholson’s film is about a couple living in a picturesque English seaside town and the breakdown of their marriage. Annette Bening is orders of magnitude better than the film deserves; she is painfully biting and deeply tired. She is honestly the only reason Hope Gap is ranked this high, but it’s my list so we are going with it.

10. Disco

Norwegian director Jorunn Myklebust Syversen teamed up with actress Josefine Frida in this film which combined hyper-intense religious cults with super athletic dance sequences. It’s all set to a pounding house score and flooded with purple neon light, while the characters crumble under the pressures of their faith.

11. Hala

Minhal Baig’s coming-of-age story about the daughter of Muslim immigrants is a welcome addition to the genre and boasts a star-making performance by Geraldine Viswanathan. The film catalogues the tension between Hala and her parents, and builds to show the consequences of repressive familial ties.

12. Synonyms

A complex story about stories, Synonyms was directed by Nadav Lapid and follows an Israeli immigrant on his first couple weeks in Paris. As Yoav — played intensely by Tom Mercier — struggles between aspects of his identity. Formal choices bring a sense of newness to the story about a man trying to find his place in a rigid societal structure.

13. Jojo Rabbit

Taika Waititi latest film is a satire about Nazi Germany, and stars newcomers Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie, as well as Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell. The first half is far more outrageous than the second, when it morphs into something genuinely heartfelt. Too much gets reconciled in time for the ending, but the film achieves its goal and sticks with you.

14. Beanpole

Kantemir Balagov’s Russian postwar drama is exhausting and gouging, and a dire portrait of a country in mourning. Anchored by two unbelievably gripping performances by Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina, Beanpole makes its warm-toned art design feel incredibly cold. Visually impressive, but it will leave you with the biggest lump in your throat.

15. Just Mercy

Just Mercy tells the true story of Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who works with prisoners on death row. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, we follow Jamie Foxx, who plays an innocent man framed by a racist police department, a role which Foxx is fantastic in. Stevenson’s story is amazing, so the film has trouble doing anything other than rephrasing how amazing he is. It’s evocative and devastating, but struggles with traditional biopic issues.

16. Endings, Beginnings

Drake Doremus’ feature, starring Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, and Sebastian Stan is basically a coming-of-age movie about white people in their 30s. It’s an inoffensive study of relationships and chemistry, but it’s a little stale. Also, someone should introduce Doremus to a wide angle.

17. Guns Akimbo

Jason Lei Howden’s video game action-comedy has something to say about our penchant for violent content and the churning antagonism online, but it gets in its own way with the same violent content and churning antagonism. Daniel Radcliffe is good as an online troll forced to take part in a deadly livestream game, but the film reads more like an energy drink commercial than a movie.

18. Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band

According to Daniel Roher’s new documentary, Robbie Robertson has never done a thing wrong in his life. Great music and fun talking-head appearances — Bruce Springsteen! Martin Scorsese! — cannot save this film from itself and its aggressive need to mythologize Robertson. Just watch The Last Waltz.

19. Synchronic

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead directed Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie in Synchronic, which, despite its great concept, is a pretty big miss. The film limps along until it finally explains what’s going on and why it’s cool, but by that point we’ve lost all interest in our one-dimensional characters to even care at all.

TIFF 2019: Student by day, tired by night

U of T undergrad on her time starring in a TIFF film

TIFF 2019: Student by day, tired by night

Dear Readers,

My name is Mick Robertson. I am a fourth-year student, a writer, and an actress. Most recently, I played the lead in Sofia Banzhaf’s short film, I am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain. Luckily for me, this sweet short just had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). And so, for my Varsity friends, I kept a little log. Here are some selections that I would like to share, from the first six days of the festival.

Day one, Thursday, September 5:

I wish I could start this series by saying, ‘I went to a party where I was the lamest person, which I was cool with, because the room was filled with STARS!’ But that would be a lie, and unfortunately my editor is holding me to ‘journalistic standards,’ despite my being a dramatist.

Day two, Friday, September 6:

I watch Black Conflux by Nicole Dorsey, which the director of my film, Sofia Banzhaf, is in. As I step onto the escalator at the Scotiabank Theatre, the woman behind me is stopped by a volunteer and asked to show her ticket. Nobody has asked me for a ticket yet. Either I’m too quick for the volunteers to catch me or this pass around my neck is working its magic. After the film, I run uptown to see a comedic magic show, but that’s a story for another time.

Day three, Saturday, September 7:

Today is the day that my film premieres. I spend my morning buying boob tape. I spend my afternoon doing overdue work on my computer as my sister curls my hair. A good sister, my Martha.

At the cinema, I swap giddy smiles with my friends and family as I am welcomed to the front of the auditorium. The show is sold out and the theatre is so much larger than I had anticipated. The lights dim and my movie is up first. I count the minutes as my dad and I are in the same room watching my character watch anime porn. When the credits roll, a loved one leans over our shared armrest and whispers to me in the dark, “Congratulations! I am so proud of you!” Ahh, warmth.

Outside of the theatre, and we’re all gabbing. “I like it when you’re huge,” my boyfriend says. My mom and dad approach. Uh-oh. A shiver goes down my spine as I think about them watching me ‘try to S-E-X’ with so many men. My big, tough, vegan dad shakes his head, and then says with a sigh, “You know, you told me about the sex and the drugs but you did not tell me about the stirloin.” He laughs and so do I. “You look like Scarlett Johansson on the big screen!” says my overly-generous Mom.

Day four, Sunday, September 8:

I spend the morning workshopping a script with friends and spend the evening watching There’s Something In the Water by my lonesome. This makes me cry — not my being alone, but the documentary. Directed by Ellen Page and Ian Daniel, There’s Something In the Water examines environmental racism in Nova Scotia. After the film, the cast and crew take the stage to answer questions. The room rises to its feet. The passion is palpable.

Day five, Monday, September 9:

I miss my morning class to watch Marriage Story by Noah Bombach. And so, I cry both Sunday night and Monday morning. I have a soft spot for sad love stories. I wish I didn’t, but I do.

Day six, Tuesday, September 10:

Log written at 12:30 pm:

I’m on a mission to get free stuff today! I had to skip another morning class for a last minute photoshoot — whoops, oh well! Afterward, I took a gander around the TIFF village. I got free coffee and free hair conditioner! I realized that there’s free coffee all over TIFF, you just have to know where to find it. I take a professional air when ordering my espresso, hoping to mask the stench of a scavenging student. But alas, I realize that the stench is not metaphorical but that this morning while getting dressed up, I forgot to wear deodorant.

After a quick run to Shoppers Drug Mart, I sit and people watch in the industry centre. I watch as industry folk bump into each other. ‘I wish my friends were here,’ I think.

Additional log at 3:45 pm, typed exactly as written in my notebook:

“Drank too much free beer coffee + then I had a beer at a meeting. Now I have to go to my classics class. Hopefully we grow older as we grow wiser.”*

*I would like to note that at this point I absolutely went home and ate sweet potatoes until I felt better before heading to class. Take care of yourself, folks!

Current place, current time:

As I sit here and write in Robarts — relatable content — the festival is creeping closer and closer to its conclusion on Sunday. That said, there are still many movies to see and plenty of studying to fall behind on.

I would like to thank The Varsity for inviting me to write this piece, and in doing so providing me with a reason to sit down in this whirlwind time and reflect on all of the things I am learning and loving about being around movies. If anyone is reading this and wants to make films, well, I want to make them too! Please feel free to reach out to me. Who knows? Maybe a bunch of us could be back here with a film next fall.

If you would like to see some of Roberston’s work, she invites you to attend a reading of Lone Island Lovers at the Luella Massey Studio Theatre on September 21 at 2:00 pm.

TIFF 2019: Parasite

One of the best thrillers of the last 20 years

TIFF 2019: <em>Parasite</em>

Last week at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho premiered his newest film, Parasite, to a Canadian audience. Not a second is wasted in the film’s more-than-two-hour hour runtime as Parasite slowly builds from a sardonic black comedy to its electrifying conclusion, making its audience toggle between bursts of laughter and squirms of discomfort along the way.

Parasite focuses on the interweaving lives of two South Korean families in vastly different economic situations: the Kims, who live below the poverty line in a cramped, sub-basement apartment; and the absurdly wealthy Park family, who live in a sleek mansion far away from the Kims’ poverty-stricken neighborhood.

When Ki-Woo, a member of the Kim family played by Choi Woo-shik, ends up securing a job as a private English tutor for the Parks’ daughter, played by Jung Ji-so, Parasite’s tale of deception begins to slowly unravel itself. What begins as a Robin Hood-esque tale of mischief devolves into something far more sinister, intricate, and highly entertaining.

In one of the film’s earliest gags, the Kims’ upstairs neighbor puts a password on their router due to the Kims’ freeloading, forcing them to sneak onto a nearby café’s connection in order to get on WhatsApp and stay up-to-date with the world and job openings.

This leads into a small, comedic exchange among the family, showcasing how often this modern utility is taken for granted and just how quickly we are to notice its absence. Right out the gate, this tale of internet theft ends up setting the tone for the rest of the film, firmly cementing Parasite’s world in a contemporary reality where one’s socioeconomic status often dictates their quality of life and access to everyday luxuries.

Gone are the fantasy and sci-fi elements of Joon-ho’s most recent features — for example, 2013’s post-apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans. Instead, Joon-ho chooses a twenty-first century capitalist society as the backdrop for this thriller, where every twist and turn is entirely conceivable.

Social commentary aside, Parasite never reduces its two families into a mere set of archetypes or symbols. Instead, it carefully crafts its moments of humor and tenderness to paint a realistic portrait of the film’s main cast. The Kims are not portrayed as characters we should pity, but rather they manage to garner the viewer’s respect and admiration through their shared charm, charisma, and resilience in the face of adversity.

The self-centered and vapid Park family often display their humanity, garnering the audience’s sympathy and attention, even as they are rooting for the conniving Kims. Joon-ho himself has described the film as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains.” This sentiment rings true throughout every moment of Parasite.

Joon-ho’s gentle balance between extremes is proof that the director is working at the peak of his abilities. Especially in the film’s latter half, long portions of it would often go on without a breath heard in the theatre, as everyone anxiously anticipates the main characters’ next daring move. The silence would then be broken by a lewd remark, absurd bit of slapstick, or sudden violence without warning.

Attachments to characters are built, destroyed, and restored several times over the course of the film, building toward a climax that switches the gaze away from the misfit families and instead toward the capitalist countries that allow the vast wealth disparities it showcases to occur in the first place.

Parasite goes on sale as part of the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s regular-season screenings starting October 2.

TIFF 2019: Honey Boy

On the circularity of trauma

TIFF 2019: <em>Honey Boy</em>

Content warning: mentions of physical and emotional abuse and alcohol use disorder.

Described by director Alma Har’el as a film made by and for children of people with alcohol use disorder, 2019’s Honey Boy was is set up to be an emotional ordeal from its get-go. Having had its international premiere last week at the 44th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Honey Boy is a story told through two interconnecting timelines.

The film details the life of a child actor named Otis, played by Noah Jupe, and his experience growing up in the presence of his physically and emotionally abusive father, James, played by Shia LaBeouf. With a screenplay written by and based on Shia LaBaouf’s own upbringing, Honey Boy is an intimate tale of Otis’s trauma and exorcising of personal demons that ends up coalescing into a work of art that will surely resonate with its audience.

The film follows Otis through two stages of his life: 1995, when Otis is just a twelve-year-old actor on an unnamed sitcom — but one that is definitely based on Disney Channel’s Even Stevens. The second period takes place in 2005, where a 22-year-old Otis, now played by Lucas Hedges from the critically acclaimed A24 films LadyBird and Mid90s, now spends his days in  rehabilitation as a Hollywood star with an alcohol use disorder.

Har’el switches between the two timelines through a series of clever transitionary sequences where Otis ends up interacting with some object or physical space that parallels an experience his other self has, or will, experience.

In one such instance, an older Otis is in rehabilitation and cleaning a chicken coop when he is reminded of his father who, in his own youth, was a less-than-successful rodeo clown who often used chickens in his showcases. These aimless chickens return throughout the film as a hilarious and surreal motif that often leads Otis into some of his most heart-wrenching revelations. Never has a chicken aimlessly prancing around been so emotionally impactful.

At times self-referential and fourth-wall-breaking, Honey Boy is also a film about film itself. Har’el is very invested in exploring the cathartic process of filmmaking itself through the kitschy, mainstream comedies and action flicks that Otis — and Labeouf — once starred in. At certain points in the film, it becomes difficult to distinguish between Otis’ memories, his reality, and his acting on a film set.

Otis’ timelines interweave not only with one another, but with the sitcoms and action movies sets he’s working on. Whether it be through slapstick, prop humor or high-octane stunt sequences, the shoots often have Otis undergoing some form of a physical or emotional challenge as the scripts begin to parallel his real life. This blending of timelines and realities helps elevate the movie from straight-forward, narrative biopic into an experimental, reality-bending film.

In the post-screening Q&A session with the cast and director, LaBeouf was quick to point out that he wrote this movie for himself and, more importantly, for his own father. Labeouf’s portrayal of his father is revelatory in its ability to make one feel so angry at his failures as a father yet also be the focus of so much of our sympathies.

To see a person so openly face their own demons on screen was one of the festival’s most emotionally-impactful moments. Honey Boy’s greatest strength is in its ability to combine dream-like vignettes with wonderful dialogue to create moments of beauty in the most unexpected of places. Whether that place is a chicken coop, a Hollywood film set or a highway interstate, Har’el’s cast of misfits manages to bring a smile — and a tear — to everyone’s face.

Honey Boy hits theatres on November 8, 2019.