I’m going to level with you, Dear Reader: while the below films were indeed featured at Spring Fest, I didn’t actually see them at the festival. I did, however, see them during the same period of time, and as such, I am treating them as Spring Fest watches, at least insofar as they will be receiving capsule reviews instead of full breakdowns. Covering two festivals back to back and all alone is tough work and I’m tired. My brain is mush.
I assure you, all three of these movies are top notch!!
SISU (dir. – Jalmari Helander)
SISU IS A FINNISH WORD THAT CANNOT BE TRANSLATED. IT MEANS A WHITE-KNICKLED FORM OF COURAGE AND UNIMAGINABLE DETERMINATION.
SISU MANIFESTS ITSELF WHEN ALL HOPE IS LOST.
So reads the title card for Sisu. And short of a quick history lesson, it’s all you need to know to enjoy the parade of carnage that follows. Don’t worry, the history lesson is just as straightforward: Humanity’s finest assholes, the Nazis, are losing WWII and they know it. As part of the Moscow Accords, the Finns are tasked with driving the remaining Nazis out of Lapland. Our story follows a lone Finnish prospector who, while making his way home after swearing off the war, strikes a vein of gold. He soon crosses paths with a squadron of “scorched earth” Nazis with nothing to lose and everything to prove. They take his gold and send him packing, figuring that the barren landscape will be his doom. Well, as they say, they should’ve killed him while they had the chance.
What follows is a refreshingly straightforward story of revenge. Our hero, Aatami Korpi (played by a completely silent Jorma Tommila) just wants his gold back, while the Nazis, led by a disgraced, grasping-at-power commander (Aksel Hennie) just wants Korpi to die already.
But he doesn’t die. He refuses to die. And as the injustices he experiences and witnesses at the hands of this particularly pathetic group of Nazis pile up, his taste for vengeance grows, and we in the crowd get to bask in his bloody catharsis.
Shot at a budget of roughly 6 million Euros, Sisu puts every cent on screen. While it’s not as visually dynamic or choreographically showy as, say, John Wick, it’s still remarkable what is accomplished in terms of action. Certainly, without a heavy pre-production budget, certain beats were assembled in post, but this never results in choppy, sloppily edited action. The filmmakers clearly know their limits and maximize what is possible within them. High-concept action pieces are executed cleanly, and by embracing the inherent ridiculousness of what’s happening, they allow for a certain level of cartoonishness to manifest, which can help pave over the falsity of some of the more bombastic moments. But these big moments are few and far between — mostly what we get are brutal fisticuffs and frequent bloodletting. Sisu might hold the record for number of people killed by mines. It definitely holds the record for the number of ways that a person can be killed by a mine.
It’s not the most thematically dense movie on the planet, not even remotely close, but that’s not what we’re here for. The setting, like just about every other element of the film, is used in the name of efficiency: Nazis are bad, people who fight Nazis are good. It’s a simple way to set the stakes and get to the goods, which Sisu does within minutes of starting. Sisu is not here to educate you. It’s here to kick your ass, appeal to your lizard brain, and showcase the unending resourcefulness of a filmmaker working on a tiny budget. The wheel is not being reinvented here, but it is pushing the treads of a tank over the screaming soon-to-be-corpse of a shithead Nazi, which is all anyone really needs.
BlackBerry (dir. Matt Johnson)
Fans of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will know this as “the movie that Dennis got bald for,” while fans of indie cinema will know this as “the latest from Matt Johnson, one of the most unique and exciting filmmakers working today.” I am happy to be a member of both of these groups, and even happier to report that the hairdo thrust upon Glenn Howerton for his role in BlackBerry was more than worth whatever awkwardness it may have caused in his real life. His is not the only notable hair in the movie either. Jay Baruchel, who may be giving a career-best performance here, as well as Johnson himself sport notable hairstyles that morph over the course of this multi-year business-talk dramedy.
Those who know Johnson’s previous work are likely familiar with his guerrilla filmmaking style (the dude pulled a fast one on both a real high school as well as NASA itself for his previous two films). For BlackBerry, which chronicles the rise and fall of the first generation of smartphones, everything was shot on the up and up, but the stylistic markings of guerrilla filmmaking remain on screen, mainly in the use of handheld, documentary style camera work (it’s worth noting that both The Dirties and Operation Avalanche could technically be considered found footage movies). This style firms up as the film progresses, tightening into something more formal as the group of ragtag phone-designers grow from “shaggy underdogs” to “power players,” and their once sunny outlook toward technological progress is poisoned by greed and competition.
Jay Baruchel plays Mike Lazaridis, the veritable brains behind the operation. With his buddy Doug (Matt Johnson), and a few other poindexters, they make a discovery: there’s enough unused “data” floating around in the air that the right telecom company could put the power of the internet into the hands and pockets of the public. Unfortunately for Mike, he’s not much of a salesman, which is where Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton) comes in. He’s a stereotypical CEO type, willing to hustle, yell, lie, and bully in order to gain power and money. At first, his partnership with Lazaridis is mutually beneficial, but as their personalities clash and the industry expands, it’s all they can do to maintain a foothold. Lest we forget how quickly keyboards on phones went from essential to passé.
Cinematic precursors to BlackBerry are things like Steve Jobs, The Social Network, Moneyball, and even the recently released Tetris — who doesn’t love a contemporary history lesson that mixes talky dramatics with nostalgia? Where BlackBerry differs is that it’s a distinctly Canadian story. Johnson, a proud Canadian, leans into this angle, not just illustrating the titular company’s roots and struggles to ingratiate into an American business model, but also populating the screen with Canadiana (like Americana, but Canadian), the best examples being a Shivers poster and the inclusion of Michael Ironside.
What makes BlackBerry so memorable is its overall tone. It’s an even mixture of suspense, situational comedy, and history that has all the hallmarks of a biting documentary without the constraints of a non-fiction format. Put simply, it’s an extremely fun movie to watch, and it feels nutritional to boot. And if it introduces the work of Matt Johnson to a new crowd, even better.
Polite Society (dir. – Nida Manzoor)
Despite being a movie with many very clear influences, Polite Society is a true original. A refreshing mix of rom-com, coming of age, martial arts action, and even a little sci-fi, it’s a tough film to put into a box, and the less you try, the better. Just trust that every little idiosyncrasy ultimately pays off in a big way, and every time you think you know where it’s going, you really don’t.
Ria (Priya Kansara) already has her whole life planned. She’s going to master her flying spin kick, graduate from high school, and then begin her career as a stuntwoman, hopefully under the tutelage of her hero, stunt legend Eunice Huthart. She’s not the only artistic one in her family either. Her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) is currently on hiatus from art school, living at home for a bit to figure out whether or not she wishes to pursue her craft. Together they’re a spunky duo of independent women, but they also represent a departure from tradition for their parents, both of whom, despite the unconditional love they have for their children, are products of an older generation. When Lena attracts the attention of a young doctor who is being shopped around for marriage by his equally old school (albeit much richer) parents, Ria doesn’t like it one bit. Is it a case of misplaced sibling resentment, or is something more sinister afoot? Either way, Ria is going to put a stop to this wedding, no matter what it takes.
The world of Polite Society is unique in that it’s almost identical to our world, but ever so slightly heightened. This means that Wuxia physics exist and no one bats an eye when two parties decide to throw fists. By introducing this element early in the film, Manzoor is able to purchase imaginative late-in-the-movie developments while also keeping the character dynamics grounded and relatable. It also allows for a lighthearted tone and a tremendous amount of fun. It’s an endless joy to spend time with Ria and her schoolmates, even when they repeatedly make the classic mistakes of youth. It’s equally fun to watch Lena fall in love, even when she’s making the classic mistakes of maturity.
The cast is aces across the board, but it would be a shame not to highlight Nimra Bucha, whose villainous Raheela walks the fine line between “out of touch” and “gleefully arch.” An antagonist is scary when they don’t see their actions as wrong, but they’re even scarier when they know they’re being bad and revel in it. Raheela goes big in this regard, chewing every ounce of scenery within reach.
Oh, and said scenery is exceptional. The set and costume design is some of the best you’ll see in any movie of late. As such, Polite Society is not just unique in its storytelling, but also in how it looks. The detail packed into every frame shows a level of filmmaking care that smaller movies such as this one typically dismiss. Manzoor and her team are the real deal!