Well this was my last film of the festival and sadly it was the absolute worst. Avoid this film at all costs. Alan Berliner makes very personal documentaries many of which have received awards but most of which are films I would have zero interest. I really don’t need to gain insight into the personality of the film maker or his views or prejudices. This documentary was billed as being about the end of newspapers and was to focus on the New York Times (NYT) as an example. I was intrigued but as the film starts you realize this is a documentary about Berliner’s collection of photographs he has cut out of the NYT over the last 40 years. It is sort of weird that he did this and catalogued them under multiple categories but nonetheless he really could have done something better with the movie. The 1.5 hour film is almost entirely made up of these images – hundreds of them – with Berliner talking over them about almost anything that came to mind, like how he experienced tear gas exposure personally and advice on how to cope if you are, to food choices to occasionally something about the NYT. It was boring to the max. It also contained all sorts of sound bites he has also collected which were unrelated to the photographs for the most part and mostly were really irritating. For example he had several – well many pictures of people screaming. So of course, these were accompanied by the sound of people screaming. It was loud, annoying, unannounced and in some cases prolonged. It was so loud and irritating that I had to cover my ears. I hope you are getting the message – don’t watch this movie ever.
The Laundromat – Director, Steven Soderbergh
Like Jojo Rabbit this film has been somewhat polarizing in the critic world. With a 50% rating on Rottentomatoes one would think this is not worth seeing but I would beg to differ. The reviews of the critics are either very pro or very con and not much in between. I found the same to be true of the critical response to Jojo Rabbit. The division comes down to whether or not you feel satire is an okay response to events that have caused great harm or are undeniably evil. Fair comment but I think one needs to be more nuanced about the message. While the Nazis who are mocked in Jojo Rabbit might rightly be called the epitome of evil the film was intended as a warning to us all about how easily populist movements like Nazism and leaders like Hitler can rise to power. In the case of The Laundromat Soderbergh has taken a satirical approach to the release of the Panama Papers that exposed a small part of the international financial structures that allow the very rich to hide their wealth and avoid taxes. The ease by which money laundering is done and tolerated was well known but the Panama Papers made it very transparent for a brief time and represented only a small part of the overall problem. I am not sure how else one can take on this story without being satirical. The docudrama approach is narrated by Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and played by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. Meryl Streep is a recurring character who has been impacted by the international money laundering scheme after she is denied an insurance settlement after her husband is killed in a boating accident. She continues to pursue the people behind the scam.
The reality is that this scheme has had impact on ordinary people but the real crime is tax avoidance and the impact that has on the those of us who do pay our fair share. The people who fall with the release of the Panama Papers are very wealthy or well connected politically. The film uses a series of stories about individuals to highlight the nature of the financial scams but the point at the end is that despite the revelations nothing has really been done to resolve the problem and only a handful of very wealthy people were forced to resign their jobs or suffered financial ruin. Mossack and Fonseca themselves spent only 3 months in prison for their actions and continue to do the work they always did. I thought Oldman and Banderas did a great job of putting it in our faces. The scene where they are released from prison is great satire as they mock the viewer. Personally I would take issue with the critics that say the crimes were treated lightly by this film. Satire is all we have left when nothing of substance as been done to address the issues and I was definitely left angry at the lack of reform but got to at least cheer Meryl Streep at the end. I can’t tell you why I cheered or I would spoil the end but I will put myself in the positive column and urge you to see this film. It’s a Netflix production so should show up on your app soon.
Burnt Orange Heresy – Director, Giuseppe Capotondi
This looked like a fun romp particularly with Donald Sutherland and Mick Jagger as supporting actors. The director wanted to make a Hitchcockian thriller about an art forgery that goes wrong in a very creepy way. The idea was to build the story and tension slowly so that you and to some extent the characters really had no idea where things were headed. The trouble is that the result was incredibly boring up until the final 20-30 minutes. The story opens at a lecture given by the lead actor – Claes Bang — and ultimate villain of the piece. The scene is clever and points to the issues of truth and fiction that the director wants to play with. Enters the female lead Elizabeth Debicki who comes to seduce him but you really have no idea why she is there or why she chooses him or really anything. At any rate for the next hour or so we follow these two around as they plan a trip to interview a famous artist played by Donald Sutherland. It takes literally forever to get there. Boring would be too nice a word. The only thing that makes you think Hitchcock and only when you look back is that the lead occasionally hints that he may not be all he seems. Still boring. The pace picks up at the very end as Jagger and Sutherland enter the script and the screen. Jagger is a rich art collector who is hosting the artist Sutherland on his estate in hopes of acquiring a new masterpiece. Sutherland however is playing his own game and while he pretends to work on new creations is actually doing nothing. When this is revealed to Claes Bang he loses it and decides to burn the studio and steal a blank canvas labelled Brunt Orange Heresy on which he intends to paint a fake creation and sell it as the real thing. The action does pick up all in a rush as there is a murder (of Elizabeth Debicki) as the psychopathic nature of Claes Bang’s character is revealed for what it is. Still it all is very contrived and does not make up for the boredom of the first 2/3rds of the film. I will say that the few scenes with Sutherland and particularly Jagger are fun but maybe not worth the wait.
The Report – Director, Scott Z. Burns
After the terrorist strike on Sept. 11, 2001 the US reacted with an enormous effort to shut down Muslim terrorist organizations. There was definitely a belief that the actions of the terrorists had to be met with equally ruthless reaction and that this had to happen to protect the US from any further attacks. Hundreds of suspected terrorists were captured in an effort to stop attacks and hunt down Osama bin Laden. The CIA instituted black sites in other countries and established a prison in Guantanamo that would all be outside US legal jurisdiction. Questioning of the prisoners included what was euphemistically called enhanced interrogation techniques but was actually brutal torture. While the CIA moved on there were those in the US Senate who suspected what was going on and wanted to stop it. A senate investigator named Daniel Jones was the one who hunted down the evidence and brought it forward. This film documents this endeavour in dramatic form. Daniel Jones is played by Adam Driver, Senator Dianne Feinstein is played by Annette Bening and Dennis McDonough, the White House Chief Staff was played by Jon Hamm lead and excellent cast. This was one of most shameful episodes in recent US history and the film does and excellent job of following its development over more than a decade. There is some graphic film of the torture itself which I could really have done without, but the director has made a film that reminds me of All the President’s Men and similar political thrillers. Although the whole thing was about research and report writing it was a real edge of your seat thing. Worth your time although not likely Oscar stuff.
The Q and A was a treat. The director came out with Jon Hamm and although Adam Driver was not there we got the real thing – Daniel Jones. It was a good talk with good questions from the audience and Hamm was a major wit that had us all laughing. Maybe the best line was when an audience member asked Jones how the writing of the report and its ultimate release has affected his life. His response: “Well they made a movie about me.” Not many can say that.
Bad Education – Director, Cory Finley
I was attracted to this film by Hugh Jackman in a non superhero role and in part by the story. The film dramatizes an ugly event in the public education system in New York. Based on a real story it chronicles the years long embezzlement of funds by senior administrators and how easily they are able to do it and cover it up because of their senior positions and the academic success they brought to the schools over which they had authority and the communities in which those schools existed. Jackman is superb as the evil administrator who is manipulative and greedy. (I really liked him last year as Gary Hart in The Front Runner and he does even better here.) What jackman’s character does not anticipate is a young student with ambitions to become a journalist who slowly but inevitably exposes the crimes. The remarkable thing is that the exposé is first published in the student newspaper and only after that picked up by major media like the New York Times. Jackman and his accomplices in crime are arrested and convicted. End of story. The interpersonal aspects include the fact that Jackman’s character is gay and, in the closet, although he has been living with his partner for 30 years. In the course of the film and completely unrelated to his crimes he starts an affair with a young man in Las Vegas that he eventually tries to join when the embezzlement scheme starts to collapse around him. In the end we have a great acting performance that left me thinking so what? There did not seem to be any point to this film other than to dramatize a crime and the ending was literally pointless. Even the affair with the guy in Vegas was irrelevant. I think the film would have been far far better if the focus had been on the young student who brought the crimes to light and the impact her work had on her but that all seems a sidelight to the story. So unless you are a huge Jackman fan you can give this film a miss.
Jojo Rabbit – Director, Taika Waititi
Jojo is the name of a young German boy growing up in Nazi Germany near the end of World War II. In order not to cause any trouble his mother has allowed him to join the Hitler Youth and he in on the surface a proud Nazi and keen to get better. He has an invisible friend in a caricature Adolf Hitler (played by the director Waititi) who visits him in times of crisis to encourage his devotion to the fatherland. However, Jojo is not really into the whole Nazi thing. He is asked to prove his devotion by killing a rabbit during a Hitler Youth training day and he can’t bring himself to do it earning him the name Jojo Rabbit. While home alone one day he learns that his mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, is actually part of the resistance and is hiding a young Jewish woman in their house. Jojo is conflicted as he grows to be friends with the young woman and realizes that Jews are not the monsters he has been led to believe. All this sounds very dramatic and serious but Waititi is a great satirist and the film manages to be very funny while wrestling with very serious issues. It successfully makes mockery of Hitler, Nazis and anti-Semitism while not minimizing the destructiveness of the kind of populist politics that led to the rise of the Nazis. The audience at the Elgin gave the film a huge standing ovation and the Q and A was excellent. When asked about the theme and his satirical approach, Waititi said that the he felt it was important that the issues of populism and anti-Semitism needed to be brought forward again and again because as a society we very quickly and easily forget the horrors that come with this kind of politics. He noted a recent survey that found over 60% of millennials in the US could not say what Auschwitz was or what happened there. That in itself is frightening. I thought the film was a huge success and it is interesting how it is being received. While the audience was clearly loving it and making it a challenger for the People’s Choice Award, many reviewers have panned it. A quick look at rottentomatoes.com gives it a 55% rating based on 11 reviews: 6 loving it and 5 not so much. Clearly it is a controversial way to take on the issues but my bottom line is that it does it very well.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – Director, Marielle Heller
As many of you know I am big fan of Fred Rogers and I loved the documentary that came out last year. I am also a fan of Tom Hanks, but I was not sure a dramatic film about Fred Rogers would work or that anyone could capture his unique character. My fears were unfounded. The film is excellent, and Hanks does a remarkable job of capturing him on and off camera. The story is not focussed on Rogers himself but rather on a journalist who is struggling with many personal problems and is assigned to write a short 400-word piece on Rogers for Esquire magazine as part of a series on American heroes. He resists because he sees himself as a serious investigative journalist and has zero respect for some guy who entertains kids. As the film progresses, we learn more about the journalist’s family and his deep anger and hatred for his father. He reluctantly heads off to interview Rogers and slowly is drawn into his character and authenticity. I will not go into the details of the relationship that grows over time but needless to say it is worth your time and is a very honest and challenging film. One spoiler, the journalist ends up not writing a 400 word profile but rather a 10,000 word article that headlined Esquire in 2017. I highly recommend you see this and try to see the documentary Won’t You Be my Neighbor. Director Heller recommended we all see both films even in conjunction if possible. I totally agree and also read the Esquire article you will find here:
Knives Out – Director, Rian Johnson
I was not expecting the turn this film took but I thoroughly enjoyed my time. In what I took to be a police procedural is in fact a tribute film to classic whodunits from Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot to Columbo. The cast is amazing including Christopher Plummer as the victim, Daniel Craig as the detective and suspects including Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Jamie Lee Curtis and Chris Evans among others. A crime novelist is found dead in his study. Police arrive with private detective Craig to investigate if it was suicide or….. murder. Craig is convinced he was murdered and knows someone in the family is guilty but as the investigation proceeds the twists and possible motives spin out. The script is hilarious, and nothing is taken too seriously by the writers so we are all laughing along as we try to piece together the clues. We get flashbacks to the night of the murder with Christopher Plummer playing the victim as he gives all family members a reason to kill him. I confess the dialogue was rapid fire and I really need to see it again to fully appreciate the whole story. We had a great Q and A with insightful questions that led to some great insight into how the film was made, what was scripted and what was ad lib and directorial decisions. Finally it included a great story from Jamie Lee Curtis about one of her very first on screen appearances with Peter Falk in Columbo. If you see me I will tell you the story. Its hilarious. In conclusion I think this movie has a good chance to make the People’s Choice Award but if not you should still try to see it. Rian Johnson was asked if Craig would be back in a sequel and his answer was to shrug and recommend we tell all our friends and acquaintances to go see the movie when it is released and … we will see. So since Craig needs a new job after 007 lets support this new direction.
Greed – Director, Michael Winterbottom
I confess this movie was not exactly what I expected from Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan. My favourite film collaboration these two have done is The Trip which is a very funny road trip movie that all should see if you haven’t. Greed, although full of absurdity and humour has a very serious message. Basically the message is that its time to cut capitalism and capitalists off at the knees. The sooner the better. Steve Coogan plays a hugely successful High Street billionaire who has made his fortune in the fashion industry but also by taking advantage of all the lack of rules and regulations that favour the rich. The main plot line is about his plans to celebrate his 60th birthday with a huge Roman Empire themed party on a beach in Greece including building a fake amphitheatre to host a gladiator fight with a real lion. Everyone is to dress up as Roman aristocrats or slaves and party all day and night. As preparations proceed over the days leading up to the party flashbacks take us back to his origins as a student in private school, his initial start financing of various fashion start ups and his realization that the way to make money in fashion is to take advantage of the poverty level wages and horrendous working conditions in countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar. We have scenes of Coogan facing down a parliamentary enquiry showing the impotence of our politicians to stop the abuse and we watch as Coogan abuses everyone around him as he marches relentlessly forward. David Mitchell of the Mitchell and Webb Look plays a writer who has been hired to write a sympathetic biography of Coogan’s character but who becomes increasingly horrified at what he learns about this ruthless capitalist ripping off everyone around him for his personal gain. Nonetheless like many others around Coogan he proceeds to do his job and paint a sympathetic picture of the man.
I know all this sounds extremely serious and scary but in fact Winterbottom manages to do all this with a brilliantly satirical script that keeps you laughing as you watch in horror at what is unfolding and it may be needless to say, but the lion who we visit several times in his cage during the film plays a key and cathartic role in the climactic scene. The closing credits include a series of statistics about the incredible inequality between the greedy rich and the very poor that the system we live in maintains and encourages. It helps give perspective to what you just watched. We were lucky to have Winterbottom and Coogan at the showing for a brief Q and A during which they emphasized the message of the film. Coogan and Michell were my two favourite actors in the film. I was particularly impressed by Mitchell who I have only seen in sketch comedy before but who showed some really acting depth. The rest of the cast are also great including a group of actual Syrian refugees who now settled in Greece were playing the role of recently arrived refugees occupying the beach where the party was to be held and really annoying Coogan by their presence.
This is movie I will watch again because the dialogue is rapid and full of wit. I missed some of it that I dearly want to catch on a second viewing. Great fun and a great message. I highly recommend this one to all.
The Art of Museums – Musée d’Orsay & Uffizi Gallery – Directors, Julie Kirchhoff, Sylvie Kürsten, Ralf Pleger, Kurt Mayer
Took a break from TIFF to go the Hot Docs cinema and see part of a remarkable German TV documentary series. We saw two episodes from the series which highlights some of the world’s great art museums with a focus on some selected works they exhibit. Each episode is an hour and is hosted by a really bright and funny British art historian and academic. He hosts from a darkened production room with multiple video screens that reminds you of something like the Tardis from Dr. Who. Meanwhile you are entertained with great video of the museums and the artwork they contain described by a host who is present and takes you to their favourite paintings or sculptures and give their reasons for liking them. The hosts are not artists or art experts but rather from other artistic fields. In the case of these two episodes a modern dance choreographer for the Musee d’Orsay and at The Uffizi a fashion designer. The descriptions are therefore more about how the art impacts the viewer rather than a boring art lesson. The series looks at the museums themselves and their history and design and rather than looking at all the amazing art contained within we look in detail at a handful of great works. I really enjoyed the two episodes and look forward to the whole series being more generally available on one streaming service or another. If you enjoy museums and art keep you eyes open at the Hot Docs schedule for further episodes.