Movie Re­views

VENUS Eisha Mar­jara’s light, warm Venus is cul­ture-cross­ing fam­ily com­edy that comes with a trans­gen­der twist

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Star­ring De­bargo Sanyal. Rat­ing un­avail­able

The pieces that go into Venus have about as 2

much in com­mon as, well, samosas, size-12 heels, and skate­boards.

But di­rec­tor Eisha Mar­jara makes her cul­ture-cross­ing fam­ily com­edy with a trans­gen­der twist so light and warm that it all some­how fits to­gether. In the process, the Que­bec film­maker of­fers a fresh al­ter­na­tive to stan­dard de­pic­tions of suf­fer­ing and iso­lated trans char­ac­ters.

Sid (De­bargo Sanyal) is in the mid­dle of tran­si­tion­ing when she’s ap­proached by Ralph (Jamie May­ers), a 14-year-old who says Sid’s his fa­ther. As Sid strug­gles to come out to co­work­ers and her tra­di­tional South Asian fam­ily, the res­o­lutely non­judg­men­tal Ralph starts to hang at Sid’s apart­ment. He tries Sid’s gourmet food, en­gages in im­promptu liv­ing-room dance ses­sions, and quickly be­comes the samosa-gorg­ing, Ping-pong–play­ing son Sid’s “Ma­maji” (Van­cou­ver’s Zena Daruwalla) and “Pa­paji” (Lon­don’s Gor­don War­necke) never had. Com­pli­cat­ing this more is that Sid’s on-again clos­eted boyfriend (Pierre-yves Car­di­nal) isn’t ready to set up house with a kid.

In an artful, slo-mo pro­logue, Sid de­scribes her body as be­ing like “a cos­tume you can’t take off”, but heavy anal­y­sis of Sid’s trans­gen­der ex­is­tence sort of ends there. The ap­peal of Venus is that Sid is al­lowed to sim­ply ex­ist. And while it’s worth dis­cussing whether a cis-gen­der per­son should play some­one who’s trans, Sanyal brings a thought-pro­vok­ing range to Sid. The main char­ac­ter uses sar­casm and a sharp smile to arm her­self against judg­ment, but you can sense the waves of in­se­cu­rity and awk­ward­ness that creep up even when she tries to project con­fi­dence out in pub­lic. Thank­fully, Venus doesn’t of­fer up lec­tures or easy ex­pla­na­tions for her sit­u­a­tion: “I’m his fa­ther… mother… I’m work­ing that part out,” Sid says of her re­la­tion­ship with Ralph.

But the key to the movie’s chem­istry is Ralph, whom May­ers man­ages to make won­der­fully open and cu­ri­ous. Sid is ter­ri­fied of what he might think to see his bi­o­log­i­cal dad dressed as a woman, but the re­sponse is a gen­uine “That’s cool.”

On rare oc­ca­sions, the script feels stilted, and some­times the gloss and gen­tle com­edy feel more like TV. But the char­ac­ters here are so lik­able, the el­e­ments so upbeat, you might forget how trans­gres­sive its ideas about fam­ily and gen­der re­ally are.

> JANET SMITH

A doc­u­men­tary by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. Rated G

In the old days, only the most en­gaged 2

Amer­i­cans knew the names and faces of Supreme Court jus­tices. (And cab­i­net mem­bers, White House lawyers, and chiefs of staff.) But now, mil­lions look to iden­tify al­lies and enemies dur­ing a gi­ant na­tion’s fast race to the bot­tom. In the case of Ruth Bader Gins­burg, pro­filed in this straight­for­ward doc, there’s also a chance to find some liv­ing con­ti­nu­ity with the bet­ter parts of the past.

Now 85, she’s been on the big bench for 15 years. But Gins­burg had sev­eral lives be­fore that, all ded­i­cated to qui­etly push­ing against en­trenched bar­ri­ers. The ti­tle here, play­ing on the No­to­ri­ous B.I.G., nods to her late-life con­ver­sion to overt feisti­ness, as seen in her work­out footage (sweat­shirt: “Su­per Diva”) and low-key em­brace of rap-style fame.

Hav­ing been born at the start of the Great De­pres­sion, she has been con­sis­tently de­mure, if per­sis­tent, in her trail­blaz­ing. Only the sec­ond fe­male jus­tice ap­pointed to the Supremes, she was one of nine women in a class of 500 men at Har­vard Law School, where she be­came the first woman on the Har­vard Law Review. This con­nects her with Barack Obama, just as her most de­spised foe, red-baiter Joseph Mc­carthy, is con­nected to the cur­rent pres­i­dent through his le­gal coun­sel Roy Cohn, Trump’s moral and po­lit­i­cal men­tor.

The theme of two Amer­i­cas—one as­pi­ra­tionally demo­cratic, the other crudely au­thor­i­tar­ian—runs through the film, but it’s not ar­tic­u­lated by Gins­burg or in­ter­ro­gated by di­rec­tors Julie Cohen and Betsy West. “I tend to be more sober,” the sub­ject ad­mits, and in­deed friends and fam­ily mem­bers don’t de­scribe kidding around, or self-rev­e­la­tion, as among her qual­i­ties. But se­ri­ous­ness has cen­tred her long ca­reer, and keeps her work­ing at a time of peril. (She al­most re­tired dur­ing Obama’s ten­ure, but now would be re­placed by a Scali­atype re­ac­tionary.)

Struc­tured around the brief au­to­bi­og­ra­phy she read at her own con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, the well­paced movie touches on all that, if only lightly. But it’s also a sur­pris­ingly touch­ing love story, start­ing at Har­vard, where she met and mar­ried Marty Gins­burg. They pushed and car­ried each other through school, sick­ness, par­ent­hood, and le­gal em­i­nence from 1956 until his death in 2010. When­ever his name comes up, you see a no­to­ri­ous twin­kle that’s oth­er­wise ab­sent.

> KEN EISNER

Star­ring Rachel Weisz. Rated 14A

A fine cast is hum­bled by a too-terse script, 2

plod­ding direc­tion, and dull cin­e­matog­ra­phy. In fact, all the in­ten­tions on dis­play in Dis­obe­di­ence would seem to be part of a much bet­ter movie than the fin­ished prod­uct turned out to be.

Rachel Weisz helped pro­duce the two-hour ef­fort, in which she plays Ronit Krushka, a freespir­ited New York City pho­tog­ra­pher called back to Lon­don when her es­tranged fa­ther, a fa­mous rabbi, dies while giv­ing an im­pas­sioned ser­mon about—what else?—loy­alty and free will. The set­tings are vaguely pre­sented, prob­a­bly to heighten the sym­bolic na­ture of the char­ac­ters, and per­haps to un­der­line the uni­ver­sal­ity of Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ties in dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

Ronit has been writ­ten out of the rabbi’s will, and his life. The late Rav Krushka seem­ingly switched his parental guid­ance to Dovid (cast stand­out Alessan­dro Nivola), a gen­tle, schol­arly fel­low taken into their house­hold when Ron­nie was still at home. For a while, you think they must have had a thing, but she was ac­tu­ally more at­tached to Dovid’s new wife, Esti (Rachel Mcadams). This may have been the rea­son the daugh­ter left in the first place. For this visit, she stays at their place, which sets off some fu­ri­ous tut-tut­ting from the black-clad, wig-wear­ing com­mu­nity. And not with­out rea­son, since Esti is pretty sure she doesn’t want Ronit to leave again.

Most of the con­flict here is self-im­posed, as it tends to be in re­pres­sively fun­da­men­tal­ist so­ci­eties. With men and women so scrupu­lously seg­re­gated in most as­pects of life, and so many rules to re­mem­ber, it’s hard for an out­sider to see what the at­trac­tion of stay­ing might be—at least in the hands of Chilean di­rec­tor Se­bastián Le­lio, work­ing in English for the first time. Adapt­ing Naomi Al­der­man’s semi­au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel, he fash­ioned the script with Re­becca Lenkiewicz, who also cowrote the Pol­ish-lan­guage, con­vent-set Ida, which had a more con­vinc­ing feel for the tug of war be­tween spirit and pol­i­tics.

Le­lio pre­vi­ously had in­ter­na­tional suc­cesses with Glo­ria and A Fan­tas­tic Woman, which won last year’s Os­car for best foreign-lan­guage film. Both fea­ture very thinly drawn leads who rebel against cir­cum­stances by smok­ing a lot and hook­ing up with strange men in awk­ward cir­cum­stances (ah, cursed free­dom!), as Ronit does here, briefly. This short­hand leaves the ac­tors hang­ing, and does few favours for Weisz, whose char­ac­ter here is, un­usu­ally for her, quite colour­less. Some scenes with Mcadams crackle a bit, and then the movie settles back into a grey, static pal­lor.

Cur­rently, Le­lio is di­rect­ing a re­make of Glo­ria with Ju­lianne Moore in the ti­tle role. What brand of cig­a­rettes do you think she prefers?

> KEN EISNER

Fea­tur­ing the voice of Michael Sin­terniklaas. Rat­ing un­avail­able

Ja­pan has tra­di­tion­ally drawn its life from 2

the sea, but is­land liv­ing is also fraught with fears, as the last decade of tsunami, ra­di­a­tion, gov­ern­ment fail­ure, and neigh­bour­ing dis­putes has driven home. And that’s not count­ing the dev­as­ta­tion to our en­vi­ron­ment, the sub­tex­tual story be­hind Lu Over the Wall, an oth­er­wise mostly cheer­ful ex­er­cise in aquatic anime.

Un­like most Pg–rated ex­port anime, this one re­ally is, you know, for kids. It needs to be seen by un­jaded eyes, and even then the al­most two-hour length and un­der­whelm­ing plot may be chal­leng­ing for some adults. Per­son­ally, I en­joyed the big fields of flat colour, giv­ing the movie a more ab­stract look than most Ja­panese car­toons, which lean al­ter­nately to­ward the nos­tal­gic or the highly tech­ni­cal.

It is harder to re­late to the char­ac­ters, who re­main less than two-di­men­sional. Events nom­i­nally cen­tre on moody high-schooler Kai, voiced in the dubbed ver­sion by French-born Michael Sin­terniklaas, who has been both a Teenage Mu­tant Ninja Tur­tle and a Speed Racer in his time, off-screen and on-. (A subti­tled ver­sion is also play­ing here.) Kai is more a balled-up fist than an ac­tual per­son­al­ity, pre­sum­ably be­cause his mother moved to Tokyo long ago, leav­ing him with a grouchy grand­fa­ther and a dad who’s more like a nag­ging older brother than a nur­tur­ing par­ent.

The mop-haired teen is highly ex­pres­sive with his lap­top Garage Band, how­ever, lead­ing to con­stant en­treaties from school­mates who want to join mu­si­cal forces with him. The racially mixed Ku­nio (Bran­don Eng­man) is into Yuho (Stephanie Sheh), but she likes Kai—not that it mat­ters much to him, or to the movie. It’s more con­cerned with the mer­folk who, legend has it, set­tled in the har­bour of se­cluded Hi­nashi Town be­cause of the tow­er­ing “shadow stone” that pro­tects their wa­ters from the sun’s harm­ful rays.

Any­way, these crea­tures (spoiler alert!) are real, and highly at­tracted to mu­sic. And one wee mer­maid in par­tic­u­lar, nick­named Lu (Chris­tine Marie Ca­banos), leaps out and grows legs, the bet­ter to at­tach her­self to Kai. She’s a kind of pre­sex­ual blob, and it’s un­clear what all this means, ex­cept that the re-emer­gence of mer­peo­ple—in­clud­ing Lu’s fa­ther, a gi­ant, To­toro-like shark—trig­gers the prej­u­dices of Hi­nashi’s more back­ward types, in­clud­ing Yuho’s fa­ther, a craven politi­cian. In this as­pect, the film re­sem­bles Wes An­der­son’s Ja­pan-set Isle of Dogs. There are mis­treated mutts here, too, although they es­cape and turn into dog­fish. I think that’s what hap­pened.

> KEN EISNER A doc­u­men­tary by Heather Lenz. Rated PG

No doubt: this por­trait of Ja­pan’s Yayoi Kusama 2 is ex­haus­tive, in some ways as metic­u­lously de­tailed as her art­works’ dizzy­ing galax­ies of polka dots. Yet the ec­cen­tric sub­ject re­mains an enigma to the end—and whether this both­ers you may have a lot to do with how eas­ily you can ac­cept the mys­ter­ies of her art.

If you’ve trav­elled to Seat­tle or Toronto in the past year, you’ve likely caught wind of the hype sur­round­ing Kusama’s im­mer­sive Infinity Mir­rors ex­hibit. And di­rec­tor Heather Lenz’s com­plex por­trait of the art star fills in the much-needed con­text be­hind the masses’ end­less In­sta self­ies with Kusama’s mind-bend­ing works.

The most strik­ing rev­e­la­tion is that the Toky­obased oc­to­ge­nar­ian hasn’t al­ways been fa­mous— not even close. And Lenz, armed with a wealth

of archival pho­to­graphs, film, and type­writ­ten let­ters, de­tails all the sex­ist, racist forces that stood in her way. Some of the most fas­ci­nat­ing ma­te­rial comes at the be­gin­ning of Kusama’s life, grow­ing up in a tra­di­tion-bound house­hold with a mother who rips up her draw­ings and holds her paints and pa­pers hostage, all re­counted mat­terof-factly by the artist.

From here, Lenz traces the wild artis­tic jour­ney of Kusama in the heady 1960s and ’70s scene of New York City. To her credit, the di­rec­tor pro­vides space to take in Kusama’s strik­ing work, from room-fill­ing fab­ric phal­luses to daz­zling ab­stract paint­ings. Lean­ing heav­ily to the art-his­tor­i­cal, she’s gath­ered a wealth of art ex­perts to pro­vide con­text. The main ar­gu­ment here is that Kusama’s rad­i­cal ideas were of­ten bor­rowed by male col­leagues (in­clud­ing Andy Warhol) who went on to fame and for­tune while she lan­guished in poverty. It was quite lit­er­ally enough to drive her mad.

Lenz finds Kusama to­day en­sconced in a Tokyo stu­dio just down the street from the psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal where she lives, work­ing fever­ishly at her draw­ing ta­ble and sport­ing wild polka-dot dresses to match her scar­let and fuch­sia wigs. What we un­der­stand is she’s a se­verely driven woman with bound­less stores of cre­ativ­ity; she some­times leaves this plane of re­al­ity as she works; and the in­fi­nite has spe­cial mean­ing to a woman who’s at­tempted sui­cide twice. We know all this, all the facts of her life, but she feels un­reach­able—as un­know­able as the uni­verses she de­picts.

> JANET SMITH

Venus.

De­bargo Sanyal (left) is the tran­si­tion­ing Sid, and Jamie May­ers is Ralph, the son she didn’t know she had, in Que­bec film­maker Eisha Mar­jara’s

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