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