First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon, has been touted as one of the best films at the festival this year and worthy of the People’s Choice Award. It was the last film of the week for me and to be honest one of the most disappointing. In what could have been a celebration of one of the great engineering and scientific achievements of the 20th Century was instead one of the most pedantic overly long tedious films of the year. Ryan Gosling was the draw having been a big star of Chazelle’s big hit La La Land. (another film I thought was overrated). The film is two and half hours long and I would guess that at least 30 minutes of the film was spent with a closeup of Gosling’s face in a helmet shaking as he entered or left the atmosphere in a high-altitude jet, Gemini flight, training flight or ultimately the Apollo mission. Boring and not necessary. The film attempts to help us understand not only the challenges of the Apollo mission but also the human side of Armstrong and his family as he applies for the astronaut program, through the Gemini series of flights, to his ultimate recruitment to captain Apollo 11. Gosling is wooden in the role. Although this may be true of Armstrong himself, it does not make for drama or tension. I did not find the family tension real, or the relationship among the astronauts themselves which is another focus. My guess is that Chazelle just tried to do too much and should have been more focussed. I was bored throughout and was greatly relieved when the moon landing proved to be the end of the film. I feared we would be submitted to several more scenes of Gosling’s shaking face as the lander took off from the moon, docked with the Apollo capsule, re-entered the earth’s atmosphere and landed in the ocean. Thank God we were spared all that.
I will confess that my reaction may be due in part to the fact that I watched these events happen in real time in the 60’s and many in the audience were too young or not born when all this happened. The other aspect of the film is that it is supposedly about a great event in human history. While I must agree that it was a major scientific achievement it was really all about politics. The US was humiliated that the USSR was way ahead in the space race and so they decided to fund the effort. I would remind everyone that since the moon landings 50 years ago there has been no further human outreach into space except for the international space station. Going to Mars is still decades off. So much for the human desire for exploration. If you want to watch films about the US Space program that have something more to offer I would suggest you avoid First Man and instead watch Hidden Figures or Apollo 13 both of which are far far superior to this one.
Mike Leigh’s last film – Mr. Turner – about English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, played by Timothy Spall was a spectacular visual experience without the use of animation or CGI and Peterloo continues and I think goes one better than Mr. Turner. Peterloo is a dramatic look at one of the most important events in the establishment of labour rights, women’s suffrage and democratic reform in English history. In 1819 a gathering of workers, women and commoners met in Manchester at St. Peter’s Field. Nearly 100,000 people came to hear a speech from a parliamentary reformer and start a movement to address the repression of the time. The landowners and factory owners were terrified and called in the army. The result was a horrendous massacre. The press of the time named the event Peterloo after the recent battle of Waterloo. Although the immediate outcome was greater repression, ultimately major reforms came forward to address the demands of the people. Apparently, the Manchester Guardian, still a left-wing newspaper was founded as a result of the massacre.
The movie is a stunning portrayal of the repression of the time and the attitudes of those who were the oppressors. The tension of the film evolves slowly as we await the inevitable outcome. Some of the scenes reminded me of Dutch Master paintings with exquisite lighting and staging. Throughout the film Leigh’s brilliant visual sense is exhibited. The script and acting is also excellent. If I had a complaint it was length at 2.5 hours but to determine which scenes might be cut would be hard to be honest. While watching the film I felt that this was not just an historical record but a statement about today. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is a textile factory where workers attend to automated weaving machines. As we learn more about how Amazon warehouse workers are treated or how underpaid Walmart workers are, or how Uber drivers are treated as contract workers to save having to provide health benefits or job security it was hard not see the similarities. The violent repression is not so far away should these workers decide to revolt. Definitely one of the best films of my week with a message for our modern times.
Red Joan is a film based on a book about a woman, Melita Norwood who, during and shortly after World War II was involved as a spy for the USSR. Norwood was a physicist who became involved in research to develop the atom bomb. The US was not the only country involved. Research was being done by the Nazis, the Russians and even Canadians. Stanley was also a communist sympathizer and acted as one of the longest serving spies for the USSR ultimately giving the Russians critical information that allowed them to be the second country to develop the bomb after the US. She was only uncovered some 50 years later when she was in her 80’s. Although she was arrested, she was never prosecuted largely because of her age and the time that had passed since the time of her actions.
For the purposes of the film, Melita Norwood’s name is changed to Joan Stanley, as the director was adapting the true story with a somewhat different take on the motives driving the characters. I was keen to see this film mostly because of Judy Dench who did not disappoint but the film was not the story I was expecting. While based on the book and the true events the director and writer changed it in important ways. We follow Stanley’s arrest and interrogation and as she describes her actions we are taken back to the 40’s to see how she is recruited to work on the bomb and later decides to provide information to Russian agents. The acting is competent (except for Dench, who is great as usual) and the costumes and recreation of wartime England are very well done but the story was pretty much destroyed. In the Q and A following the film we learn that Stanley/Norwood was actually a true and committed member of the communist party and supporter of Stalinist Russia. She betrayed her country out of this commitment. In the movie however they do acknowledge her connection to Russian agents, but she is portrayed as anti-communist and her actions are driven more by her desire for peace. She is convinced that the US use of the bomb to end the war with Japan unbalances the world and would lead to a nuclear holocaust. She thought it was necessary for the Russians to have the bomb as well to ensure no one ever used the bomb. Not a very convincing argument and it trivialized what might have been a interesting exploration of why people like Stanley/Norwood were convinced to support Russia and communism of the time. She was not alone in making that commitment either in the UK or the US and that seems an opportunity missed by the director. I recommend the movie to all Judy Dench fans but beyond that, wait for it to appear on Netflix.
This was the best movie of the week and I do not expect it to be surpassed in the remaining days. I was with the second audience to see the film and apparently the most enthusiastic. We were at the Elgin, so a huge crowd, and as the director and cast came on stage for a Q and A after the final credits they received a standing ovation that lasted it seemed at least 5 minutes. They were clearly stunned and did not know how to respond when we just kept clapping and cheering. So why?, I hear you ask.
The film is a classic road trip film but based on real events. A black jazz pianist (and very well to do gentleman) from New York City, Dr. Don Shirley, decides to take his trio on a tour through the southern US in 1964 at a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws and customs were still very much in place. He knew he was going into difficult places so he decides to hire a driver/protector to accompany him on the 8 week trip. Enter Viggo Mortensen in maybe his best acting performance ever. Mortensen plays a third generation Italian New Yorker, working class background, who has recently been laid off from his job as a bouncer for the Copacabana Club which is undergoing “renovations” following a “fire”. The mob is a part of Mortensen’s community shall we say. Mortensen’s character is also not exactly comfortable with those not of Italian extraction shall we say although he is clearly at heart a good guy. He takes the job a bit reluctantly because he needs the money. The two leave in a car rented by Shirley’s recording studio and we are taken through the 8 week trip during which we learn much about Don Shirley’s and Mortensen’s characters as they slowly bond into good friends. The film is funny, heart warming, does not shy away from the racism of the time and is brilliantly scripted and acted. I can’t say too much more except to tell you this movie comes out in November, is headed to the Oscars and if Viggo doesn’t get a nomination and even a Best Acting Oscar there is no justice in the world. The title is from an actual guide for black travelers in the deep south. It was called The Green Book and listed all the hotels and restaurants where blacks were allowed to eat and sleep while in the south.
Peter Farelly, the director is maybe best known as the director of Dumb and Dumber among other comic classics but this film goes far beyond his other work. The actors all praised his talents and dedication to the film. During the Q and A the actors were asked to tell stories about their time working on the film and how they all came to bond with each other as well. There were several good stories but I liked best the one told by Mahershala Ali who plays Don Shirley. One day while filming at one of the Green Book hotels that still exists, an elderly black man who was watching and lived across the street asked about the film. When he learned it was about Don Shirley he got excited and told them he had lived there for decades and remembered that not only did Don Shirley stay there but also Little Richard, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke among many others. He knew them all it seems and partied with them. Ali say it lent a reality for him as to what the film was about, how sad those times were and how accurate this film was in documenting that time.
I want Oscar nominations for the writing, the director, Viggo and Ali, and for the music. I did not know Don Shirley’s music and went home to listen to some more. It is superb jazz. The film has a great music score and features many examples including a great set in a blues bar near the end of the film. Look him up. See the film.
After a series of films with political overtones it was really relaxing to see this one that just tells a very nice story about three old guys robbing banks. That is a bit unfair. The cast is great with Robert Redford, Danny Glover and Tom Waits as the Over the Hill Gang, Sissey Spacek as the love interest and Casey Affleck as the cop who is reluctantly chasing them down. Not really a comedy and not really a romance but just a nice telling of a mostly true story of life long bank robber Forrest Tucker and his last run after escaping San Quentin prison. The story is understated, no violence, great subtle acting and really relaxing. Not sure I can say a great deal more about it. I suspect it will not show up at the Academy Awards but this is not a reason for you not to track it down when it is released at the end of the September. With all the evil news we deal with every day it seems take an hour and a half to just calm down with Redford and gang.
On July 22nd, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a lone right-wing gunman, killed 77 people in Norway as a protest for what he saw as a threat to white supremacy and European purity. While he argued in his later defence that he was part of a world-wide movement he clearly acted alone but his attack was well planned and one of the most devastating terrorist actions of our time. This film is a powerful dramatization of the event itself but much of its power comes from following the aftermath including the trial, the impact on the survivors including one family in particular and on the country as a whole. It is a long torturous run. The recreation of the two attacks is graphic and had the audience gasping with shock. Breivik started by planting a massive bomb near the offices of the Norwegian prime minister to kill as many members of the Labour government as he could. Due to some poor timing he managed to kill only 8 people but his real target was a summer camp 40 km north of Oslo where many of the children of Labour Party members were spending a weekend. He arrived dressed as a police officer and then methodically killed 69 children, teenagers and staff before he was stopped. Once we were through with this as an audience we were then shown the emotional impact of these attacks on family, lawyers, police and government members. The major focus in on the family of a Labour party mayor from a small far northern town. Her younger son manages to escape being shot but the older boy is badly wounded and suffers physical and mental anguish that is portrayed powerfully and really hits the audience in the gut. I confess I found the film almost too much and might well have left but this is not because the film was bad but because it was almost too real. The acting by an all Norwegian cast is superb and the portrayal of the far-right agenda and the suffering caused by Breivik’s actions is brilliantly presented. The TIFF programmer who introduced the film apologized that the film makers were not able to be there for a Q and A after this showing and then said “Please enjoy the movie” “Enjoy” was hardly the word to use. 22 July will be released on Netflix in October. I cannot promise you will enjoy it but you will be educated and be treated to some great film making.
Many will remember the dramatic rise and fall of Gary Hart when he sought the Democratic presidential nomination to run against George H. W. Bush. Seen as the front runner he ultimately resigned when evidence of an extra-marital affair surfaced. Many thought he would easily beat Bush should he win the nomination, but the fallout of the affair ruined his chances and Michael Dukakis was nominated only to lose by a huge margin to the Republican Bush. The fall from grace happened over three weeks and Reitman’s dramatization follows the events almost as a documentary. He focusses on Hart but also includes an ensemble cast representing political operatives working on the campaign, journalists, Hart’s family and the woman Donna Rice who became the focus of the story. The cast is excellent including Hugh Jackman as Gary Hart, Vera Farmiga as his wife, J.K. Simmons as Hart’s campaign manager and many others in supporting roles. The film moves from intimate scenes between the leads to scenes of the chaos of media scrums, bar scenes and campaign offices. Jackman is superb in the role and portraying acting ability that was not always demanded of him as Wolverine, the role I know him best for. I did comment to friends that I wondered as the press closed in on him why he didn’t pop his adamantium claws and rip them all apart as Gary Hart clearly wishes he could. That aside, the film cannot help but contrast Hart’s fate with that of Donald Trump. Reitman was present for the Q and A and was asked whether he felt that now only someone with no morals could win political office. He responded that it wasn’t morals but that it was only someone with no shame. He asked the audience if we believed the political system was broken and he clearly believed it was. In the film Hart argues that the chasing after every aspect of a politician’s history and personal life has driven most people of quality from entering politics. It is simply not worth the risk or suffering to do it so that now only those with no shame are willing to try. It means we are only left with candidates with little or no values or principles. The other aspect of this film that is important is that the focus is not entirely on Hart and whether he is a tragic hero or not. Reitman makes a point of showing how the fallout of the affair affected Donna Rice, the woman with whom Hart had the affair. She is as much a victim of the media as Hart’s own demise as a candidate and the film does not shy away from that.
Reitman does not pass judgement one way or the other on Hart as a person or as a politician but very much leaves that up to the audience and lets us go away to talk and debate the story and the situation especially in the context of today’s political reality. An excellent film and highly recommended not only for political junkies but for anyone who enjoys thrilling drama.
There are no bad nominees for Best Picture this year. All the films are worthy and while some (Bladerunner 2049) were snubbed I can’t find fault with anything that made the list. However, all the buzz is about The Shape of Water and Three Billboards with an occasional pitch for Get Out but I am pretty sure that the most deserving film is I, Tonya, and it also got snubbed. The story of Tonya Harding is ugly and brutal and no one who remembers “the incident”, the breaking of Nancy Kerrigan’s knee ostensibly to guarantee that Tonya made the US Olympic team, has much sympathy for Harding. However the real story (and I am not sure how much of this movie is true) is much more complex as this film suggests. The story is brutal, funny, and in your face with some absolutely stunning performances from Margot Robbie as Tonya and Alison Janney as her mother as well as a great supporting cast. The film is a dramatic recreation of Tonya’s career that is interspersed with pseudo documentary style interviews with the main characters and brilliant little soliloquys to the audience. What is one of the most infamous episodes in US Olympic history is brought to life with great writing (what no nomination?) acting and direction. I had a very emotional response to the movie that had me going in many directions. Trying to figure out how to convey that was hard until I found this quote from Colin Covert the reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Scene by scene, it made me laugh, cringe, get angry, upset, confused, enlightened, entertained, almost tearful and awed”. Spot on Colin. Other reviewers have noted the clever editing that gives the film an incredible energy. You will not look at your watch I promise. It is nominated for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film Editing. I think it deserves all three but will likely win for Best Supporting Actress (Best Actress is going to Frances McDormand I suppose) and maybe just maybe it will win Film Editing. Damn it, it deserves something for being one of the best movies I have seen in a long long time.
The Post is a movie I was not that keen to see despite being about the release of the Pentagon Papers and the start of the end of Richard Nixon. It stars Meryl Streep who I have not liked in most if not all her films and lately I have not been overly impressed with the ability of the Post and the NYT etc to hold the US government to account. Not like the good old days so I was not sure I could stomach a film that was going to point to the journalistic integrity of this newspaper now owned by Jeff Bezos who cares only for money and not for truth. As many may be aware the Washington Post was a family owned paper until 2013 when it was sold to Jeff Bezos at which point I decided it could no longer be trusted to be a bastion of integrity. Besides two of my favourite movies are All the President’s Men and Spotlight both of which illustrated investigative journalism at its best and I didn’t want that good taste to be spoiled.
However, I girded myself and headed off to see it. I will confess I was pleasantly surprised. Meryl Streep is very very good as Kay Graham the owner of the paper and Tom Hanks was also excellent as the editor Ben Bradlee. There is a superb supporting cast that all lead to a great movie experience. Unlike the President’s Men and Spotlight, the film does not focus so much on the crime as on the process of acquiring the Pentagon Papers and deciding to publish them. The NYT actually beat them to the punch, but Nixon closed the story done with an injunction against the Times. Daniel Ellsberg turned next to the Post and gave them the same documentation. The Post had to decide if they could publish the story and avoid prosecution for violating the injunction against the Times. The issue was freedom of the press but at the same time the Post had just gone public and a bad legal situation could seriously hurt their chances of attracting investment. So…. They decided to go with the story to defend the first amendment and the freedom of the press. Nixon erupts and takes them to court. In fact all the way to the Supreme Court and…he loses. The story breaks and while there is much more to the Daniel Ellsberg story than the fate of the Washington Post this still made a great movie and… damn it… Meryl Streep deserves her nomination for Best Actress too.
Oh by the way Mathew Rhys played Daniel Ellsberg who has a small role in the movie. Still it is important and recently I heard a couple of interviews with him about his new book, The Doomsday Machine. Ellsberg actually stole documents related to two secret studies undertaken by the US government. He delivered the Vietnam War Pentagon Papers first and hid the other document which was all about the impact of a thermonuclear war which the US clearly was looking at conducting. The title relates to the movie Dr. Strangelove very deliberately. The papers were hidden but then lost (a long story) but Ellsberg now thinks it is worth revisiting given the current president. So I left the theatre and bought the book. I am guessing the movie (Strangelove) and the book by Terry Southern has already been done but this book will be interesting and feed my paranoia.
If you liked the original Blade Runner you will love this sequel. Set decades after the first film you will find the dystopic future has not improved much. This time however our hero is Canadian actor Ryan Gosling and his director is also Canadian which in itself makes this a must see for all us north of Trumpland. Villeneuve clearly was a fan of the first film and his recreation of the world first dreamed of by Philip Dick in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, is perfect in every way. What is really special is that that the story extends the themes and takes us in some new directions. To tell more would be to spoil what is a great story. This movie I think should have had a Best Picture nomination but instead we get 5 nominations for technical awards such as cinematography and editing. While this film definitely deserves these nods I think the nominators missed out on what is a very special film with a great story to tell. Nonetheless for quality production values and a really fun ride (and as a huge fan of the original) I cannot recommend this movie more highly. May it be blessed with some well deserved wins unlike its predecessor.
A comment – while some movies win awards and are celebrated over others, it is often the case that those winning films are long forgotten while movies that won nothing at the time are the enduring ones. Blade Runner is such a movie. Nominate for only two technical awards in 1983 and losing both to E.T. and Gandhi, I suspect Blade Runner will endure as a classic. While E.T. might also endure I would ask those reading this blog to put up their hands if they have even seen Gandhi or will ever see it again. See? No one. LOL.