Monthly Archives: September 2016

I Am Not Your Negro, Director – Raoul Peck

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I saw this film on the same day that I saw Denial so I had a day of films about racism and how it is dealt with in our society. Both received well deserved long standing ovations from large audiences. I Am Not Your Negro however was a documentary based on the work of James Baldwin his contribution to the civil rights movement in the 60’s and his relationship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. It documents his reaction to their murders, and describes how he perceived his own role in the battles of the time. The director also explores the themes of the 60’s struggles with the current struggles and looks in depth at the ongoing racial struggles in the US. It is a complex film that deserves much reflection. I am not as familiar as I should be with James Baldwin’s writing and thinking and need to correct that deficit. I also want and need to see this film several more times to be sure I get a full understanding of the complexities. We had a chance for a Q and A with the director who is Haitian born. He took ten years to put this film together as he delved into archival footage and Baldwin’s own rich writing. Baldwin had proposed writing a book about the three leaders of the civil rights movement, their conflicts and friendships and their sacrifices. He never was able to complete this project himself but Peck decided his film could be the book Baldwin never wrote. I think he has succeeded and we should all see this film and come to grips with the racism of our society.

Denial, Director – Mick Jackson

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In 1993 Deborah Lipstadt, a Jewish Holocaust historian published a book Denying the Holocaust and in that book took aim at one particularly obnoxious and vociferous UK based denier named David Irving. To gain some attention Irving sued her and her publisher, Penguin Books. This film is a dramatization of that trial which dragged out over several weeks and about which the judgement was in doubt. Under UK law it was incumbent on Lipstadt to prove she had not libelled Irving and not on Irving to prove he was libelled. It made a challenging situation. Lipstadt could have settled out of court but she wanted to confront this challenge head on. If she lost, then Holocaust denial would be lent legitimacy it did not deserve and her own historical work put in doubt. Although the story was true and the outcome was known (I will keep that to myself for now) the drama is tense and the themes of dealing with holocaust deniers are emotionally packed and explored. The cast is great including Tom Wilkinson (the barrister), Timothy Spall (David Irving), Rachel Weisz (Lipstadt) and Andrew Scott(the solicitor). Andrew Scott may be known to more of you for his very scary and creepy portrayal of Moriarty in the Sherlock series. I had trouble separating him from that role which actually made his role in this film even more effective. You are never sure where he stands or what he is up to. Spall puts in another incredible acting performance as the evil Irving and you really want to reach into the screen and throttle him. Wilkinson is the supreme brilliant understated performance. I did not look at my watch once in the two hours.

So bottom line: this is a very very good movie and deserves large audiences and awards. The theme is important and presented powerfully. I saw this at the Winter Garden and the director got a standing ovation from the whole crowd. It was very much deserved.

nirvanna the band the show, Directors — Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol

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There are some things that you can only experience at TIFF and this was one of them. Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol made their names if we can call it that with a web tv show called “nirvanna the band the show” that you can all find on YouTube if you like. The views for the web tv show are in the 1K to 4K level so it was not an international hit by any means. The guys are high school buddies who may have been the class clowns and the episodes on YouTube are funny in the high school humour kind of way but the fans are super fans. They were lucky however and managed to get the attention of more polished producers and have managed to snag a series on CTV this fall called: nirvanna the band the show. (By the way nirvanna is spelled with 2 “n’s”) Then to promote the show they managed to get three episodes strung together at TIFF. I saw this at Hot Docs and from what I can tell all the fans of the web tv show were there. Enthusiastic would not be sufficient to describe their love. They cheered the introduction, the pre-screening commercials and then laughed continuously all through the show. And… to be fair it was pretty funny. The guys have upped their game and are in the Kids in the Hall category now. The premise of the show is two guys with a band who want to get a gig at The Rivoli in Toronto. To get attention they try several different strategies not connected to music at all. The three episodes that were screened were very funny but production quality is not the greatest. The guys are funny and may well improve with experience. There is some real talent here although polishing will be needed. Nonetheless the fans are clearly there.. or at least the few hundred at Hot Docs. I will watch the series this fall although the real fun today was the audience. Oh right – I should mention, I felt very old since the average age of the audience had to be under 30.

Birth of a Nation, Director – Nate Parker

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This review is hard to write. The film is controversial because of issues around the director’s past which includes allegations of rape 15 years ago when he was 18 and at College. While he was originally acquitted his friend at the time was convicted. The victim of the rape renewed charges but declined to testify and the case was dropped. The actors and others involved in the film have asked critics and audiences to separate the film from Parker the man and let the rape allegations evolve separately. The film itself needs to be judged on its merits alone. I agree with this and wonder at the timing of the release of the story about the rape at this time. It is not clear how the story broke. The victim herself committed suicide in 2012 nearly four years ago but the timing of the controversy re-emerging at this time seems deliberate and at this time all just allegations.  This is not to justify Parker or see him as an innocent but the film is important on its own merits and deserves to be judged on its own. That said, I am not sure the film deserves all the praise it is receiving. Parker is the producer, director, writer and lead actor and it is clearly a work of some passion for him. It is based on a true story of a slave revolt in the US South prior to the Civil War. I was disappointed with the acting, particularly Parker’s, and the film is long and not well constructed.  Again, this is not to say it does not carry an important message. I found myself tying the oppression it portrays and the anger of the response, to our own treatment of First Nations people here. The dehumanizing actions and co-opting of the oppressed to support their own suffering is common to all such situations and the angry but tragic response of the oppressed and its ongoing effects is well illustrated in the film. That is the message and worth seeing, hearing and reflecting on not only for Americans but for any who try to justify or dismiss the dehumanizing of others. This film is worth your time and it is OSCAR material – no question but the controversy surrounding its artistic lead is troubling and may impact a film that asks many important questions.

The Journey, Director – Nick Hamm

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This is the best film I have seen so far and likely the best for the rest of the week. It is a dramatic recreation of an encounter between Ian Paisley played by Timothy Spall and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein played by Colm Meaney. The encounter happens during the 2007 meeting that brought The Troubles in Northern Ireland to the end with a dramatic peace treaty between Catholics and Protestants. The two men literally hated one another and had both been committed to the struggle for nearly two decades. The director is Irish as is Meaney and they have a great deal invested in the story. The film focusses on the two men who are compelled to travel together in a van on the way to the airport. The meeting or situation has been set up by British and Irish politicians who had a great deal invested in having a peace accord completed. The situation is entirely fictional but it is not entirely unimaginable. It was not uncommon for representatives of the two sides to travel together to discourage assassination attempts by agents of either side. No one would attack the plane or train for fear of killing their own people. Also, after the treaty was signed, these two men became close friends from being sworn enemies. They came to be called the Chuckle Brothers for their obvious friendship and good humour. How this could have happened is imagined by the director and the writers and recreated brilliantly by these two gifted actors. The film is funny, moving, and carries an important message. The Troubles are complex and deeply emotional. A violent time that many cannot forgive or forget. The film has been criticized by some for over simplifying the situation and making light of a serious period in history or trivializing it. This is unfair and I think is done from the perspective of those who will never be satisfied with any attempt to describe the time or the issues. We had the virtue of a Q and A with the Director and Colm Meaney. While focussing on the Irish situation and this significant time in history they told us that the film is really about the need for politicians and us all to find our way to compromise as these two enemies were able to do. We need to understand each other as persons and reach for solutions rather than stay rooted in our own perspectives and ideologies. They see quite rightly that the inability to do this in our current times lies at the root of the failure of our democracies. I think the film is brilliant, well written with a critical message and beautifully acted. It was two hours long but I did not notice the time nor did I want it to end. I found the characters entirely absorbing. Try to see this film when it is released.

Snowden, Director – Oliver Stone

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This was the first dramatic film I attended and even it has to be described as a docu-drama. I am incurable I suppose. At any rate, being totally intrigued with Edward Snowden and having seen and loved Citizen Four and John Oliver’s interview with Snowden I had to see how Oliver Stone would treat the topic. I have to say he did a great job. I attended the screening at Roy Thomson Hall the day after the gala opening and it was still packed. What was exciting was that Oliver Stone (much the worse for wear after the night’s parties and after parties showed up to introduce the film which was much appreciated by the audience. The film itself has received mixed reviews including a very negative one from the Guardian (which stars in the movie) and a very positive one in Variety. So take your pick. I liked Variety’s version. I found the film suspenseful, exciting, insightful and really well acted with a superb cast that included Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Snowden, Tom Wilkinson, Melissa Leo, and Spock…er, Zachary Quinto among others. There is not much point in going over the plot but suffice to say, Stone has done a great job and challenged the US in particular to reconsider its treatment of whistleblowers. Whatever you might think of Snowden’s actions, he has had an immense influence on curbing the NSA and CIA at least temporarily and done us all a great service by opening our eyes to the new surveillance world we all live in now. Good film, Oscar worthy, and highly recommended.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, Director – Matt Tyrnauer

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Another documentary so I started out with three. I guess I am still mourning the end of the Hot Docs festival. This film was about Jane Jacobs the recently deceased urban activist who killed several expressway plans in Manhattan and the Bronx and then moved to Toronto in time to help stop the Spadina expressway. The director is a lapsed architectural journalist who was once in love with the whole 60’s move toward building expressways and high rises particularly those developed by Le Corbusier. Jacobs was a Manhattan journalist mother and housewife who lacked formal education but who saw urban settings in a completely different way. She was horrified at the plans of NYC’s Robert Moses who led the process of knocking down old slum areas and replacing them with monstrous high rise buildings to house the poor and lower classes. While the slums were not okay in themselves they did function on a human scale and were living spaces people had turned to their own purposes. The new buildings killed that and took away the opportunity for people to share their lives and enterprises. She wrote her first book “The Life and Death of Great American Cities” to make her argument and it came out at a critical time. Moses the chief city planner for NYC was planning to build a freeway through Washington Square and Greenwich Village and right through Jacob’s neighborhood. Moses had gone far beyond knocking down slums and was now knocking down neighborhoods. Too much!! She raised the alarm and stopped him. The film follows these early days of her campaigns to the point where she ultimately caused Moses’s resignation. This film will teach you a great deal about city planning and how to look at our cities and the place of neighborhoods in preserving their life and vitality. It is bit disappointing if you are interested in learning about Jacobs and her Canadian contributions but it will give you a sense of how lucky Toronto was to inherit her and her family when we did. An excellent Q and A with the director and producer afterwards and David Crombie – our tiny perfect mayor – was present for the screening and given a big hand for his role in preserving our neighborhoods. As one looks at the condo development in Toronto recently the same questions Jacobs raised in the 60’s and 70’s might well be asked again.

The Sixth Beatle, Director – Tony Guma and John Rose

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I was uncertain about this film but it turned out to be hugely entertaining. The directors are two Americans who had a band in the 80’s that never really amounted to much but in the course of trying to make it they encountered Steve Leach, a Liverpool based band promoter who told them he was the one to discover and originally promote the Beatles. While they took all this with a grain of salt at the time, they decided to revisit the story many years later. As they started to track down Leach and do some research they realized they were on to a real story. The title of the film comes from the often used “fifth beatle” that has been applied to Pete Best – the first drummer for the group, Brian Epstein – the first major promoter, or George Martin – their record producer. Steve Leach turns out to be a major Liverpool promoter who was behind many of the Mersey Beat bands like the Searchers, the Swinging Blue Jeans etc. He and another promoter Allan Williams booked the band into local clubs but did not have the connections to take them to London and beyond. Brian Epstein took the band away from Leach in the early 60’s and had the money to give them the opportunities they needed to become the huge success they became. Nonetheless it all might have fallen apart without the support and work that Leach and Williams and Pete Best’s mother gave them at the very start. The charm of the film is the interviews with all these ageing Liverpool characters and Liverpool itself. Leach and Williams were funny and not at all bitter about losing out on the huge success. Another surprise is Pete Best who contributed so much to the film and the early success of the band but who was unceremoniously dumped by Epstein in favour of Ringo, another local drummer who was not nearly as talented. Best is also over the bitterness so the film is not angry at all but rather an interesting and charming story of the early days of the Beatles and the Mersey Beat.

Karl Marx City, Directors – Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

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Opening day at TIFF16. Instead of attending a Gala some of us attended some smaller openings like the world premiere of Karl Marx City. This is a documentary about communist rule in East Germany and the STASI, the East German security organization that spied primarily on its own citizens, literally all of them. It was also about the impact of the sudden dropping of the Berlin Wall and how that dramatic change affected lives in the East and not always in positive ways. I think that was one of the most revealing messages of the film.  Not that the communists were okay by any means but that ordinary people get used to life if it is not too interruptive of their lives and the disruption of sudden change can be devastating. The film explores these themes through a very personal story. The director was born and raised in East Germany and left to live in the US. One Christmas not long after the fall of the Wall, she learns that her father has committed suicide. No one can really understand his reasons and he left no note or explanation except one. Shortly after hearing the news of the suicide, the director received a letter from her father sent just days before he killed himself. It is very short and cryptic but might represent a clue. She returns to Germany and decides to document her search for the reasons for his decision. The ensuing search reveals much about life in East Germany before and after the unification with the West and a great deal about the STASI and the impact it had on the lives of East German citizens. She learns a great deal about her father but nothing to really explain his suicide. That might be frustrating for some but the truths revealed about an oppressive regime and how its people dealt with it during and after its demise is enlightening. A very good documentary that will leave you thinking about our current very observed daily lives. I will be off to see Oliver Stone’s film about Edward Snowden in a day or so and will see some of these same themes I suspect from an American perspective.