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Film Reviews: Percy and The Forty-Year-Old-Version

Arts Review2020-10-9By: Marc Glassman

Victory for Elders—whether you’re 40 or 60.

Clark Johnson, dir.
Garfield Lindsay Miller and Hilary Pryor
Starring: Christopher Walken (Percy Schmeiser), Christina Ricci (Rebecca Salcau), Roberta Maxell (Louise Schmeiser), Zach Braff (Jackson Weaver), Luke Kirby (Peter Schmeiser), Adam Beach (Alton Kelly)

Available at multiple Cineplex theatres

The story of Percy Schmeiser versus Monsanto is one made for the big screen. A life-long farmer, small businessman, and local politician, Schmeiser was sued by the immense agrochemical corporation Monsanto for unlawful use of their patented genetically modified (seed) organism (GMO) Roundup Ready, which could be used in the growing of canola. Rather than agreeing to pay Monsanto privately and using their seeds in the future, Schmeiser decided to fight. In court, he was able to establish that he had not knowingly stolen their seeds: they had blown onto his farmland. While he used them to grow his canola, he operated on the assumption that any seed that appeared on his land was his property. Monsanto’s position was that any use of their patents was in violation of the law in Canada and that it didn’t matter how he obtained them, the seeds were still theirs. The case took years to reach the Supreme Court, where Schmeiser was found to be innocent of charges of thievery, thus avoiding a million dollars that Monsanto claimed he owed them for patent violation and court costs, but in a narrow decision, he was ordered to surrender his seeds as he had violated the corporation’s patent.

This David vs. Goliath tale has been the subject, in whole or in part, of a host of documentaries including GMO Monsanto vs. Percy Schmeiser, Seeds of Death and The Future of Food. At last, it has become a feature narrative film, starring Christopher Walken in the title role of Percy. Accompanying Walken are two other well known American actors, Christina Ricci as Rebecca Salcau, a Green activist and Zach Braff as Jackson Weaver, Schmeiser’s lawyer. A trio of accomplished Canadians also have major roles: Roberta Maxwell is fine as Percy’s supportive wife, Louise while Adam Beach and Luke Kirby are solid in the respective roles of Indigenous best friend and farming helper Alton Kelly and Schmeiser’s non-farming son, Peter. Helming the film is the charismatic actor and director Clark Johnson, a dual citizen whose sister Molly is an iconic singer in Toronto.

So with a great story and a very strong cast, what happened? Not much. Quite frankly, the script lacks dramatic flair and emotional interplay. You don’t feel that the Schmeiser family is strongly connected to each other. Their arguments and softer scenes feel like rote presentations; there’s nothing real there. The only interesting part is Christina Ricci’s Rebecca playing a complex character who genuinely likes the Schmeisers but deliberately manipulates them to become cause celebrés for the environmental movement. The film takes time to denigrate the green activist for being unreliable but never gets into the terrifying story of Monsanto, the corporation that created Agent Orange, a defoliant which killed or maimed millions of Vietnamese and Americans during the Vietnam War. Since the Eighties, Monsanto has taken on farmers around the world with their GMO seeds, defoliant sprays and corporate dominance. But we don’t hear anything about them.

Is Percy worth seeing? It is a great story and some people won’t watch docs. So it’s worthwhile and I hope people see it. But, I must admit, the documentaries about Percy Schmeiser do a better job with this important Canadian story.

The Forty-Year-Old-Version
Radha Blank, director, writer and co-producer
Starring: Radha Blank (Radha), Peter Kim (Archie), Oswin Benjamin (D), Reed Birney (Josh Whitman), Imani Lewis (Elaine), TJ Atoms (Kamal)l, Welker White (Julie)

Available on Netflix

The Forty-Year-Old-Version is an audacious film debut for director/actor/writer/producer Radha Blank who won the best director prize in the U.S. drama competition at this year’s Sundance Festival. Funny and engaging, the film recounts the comeback of Radha, aka Ms. B, who at the age of 39 years and 11 months, finally begins to fulfill the promise of her youth, when she was chosen as one of American theatre’s rising 30 under 30.

Working with her gay Korean best friend Archie, she finally finishes a play called Harlem Ave, which she’s been working on for years. Unfortunately the white liberal producer Josh Whitman won’t produce her piece if she doesn’t turn a winsome tale of a Black couple making it as corner grocers into a drama about gentrification. While she’s wrestling with this fundamental shift in the play, Radha discovers that she has a hidden talent as a rapper. Meeting up and collaborating with D, a talented young composer/producer, Radha suddenly finds her métier, which immediately causes a problem: Who is going to like a large middle aged Black woman taking the stage as a rapper? Complicating things further is the class of high school drama students she’s teaching: they love Ms. B but are having incipient romantic problems in the group. Plus she’s mourning her mother, a painter who died a year ago.

None of this sounds like comedy material but Radha Blank has an uncanny skill at crafting a scene so that truths can be told but in a quirky funny style. In one scene, she brings a sandwich over to the homeless man across the street who is always yelling something awfully truthful at her. While he’s eating the sandwich, Radha tells him her woes to which he replies “Is this when I reveal that I used to be a famous artist and impart wisdom on you? All I want to know is, why didn’t you put mayonnaise on the bread?” (Ok—the dialogue is a paraphrase but you get the point.)

Is it possible for a 40-year-old—yes, it’s her birthday and the opening of her play during the last day of the film—to gain wisdom, success and a new romance? I can’t tell you that—you’ll have to see the movie. Which I recommend but with a proviso: Radha plays a rapper and there’s a fair bit of swearing in the film. If you’re ready for strong language, please see a BIPOC film, which is an absolute treat. It’s on Netflix so it won’t be a problem for most of us to access it.

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean


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