Category Archives: Good

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.

Once We Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band – Director, Daniel Roher

I love The Band and have listened to their music for years. Not long before Levon Helm passed away he did a concert tour and I saw him perform at Massey Hall in one of the best concerts I have ever attended so I had to see this documentary. It is notable in that it is the first Canadian documentary to be named the opening gala at TIFF and perhaps more so because the director is a young 26-year-old Canadian. Quite an accomplishment for someone starting out on their career. All that said I must say I did not think this movie was spectacular or worthy of its place in the festival. It is a pretty ordinary documentary about a remarkable rock band. One of the weaknesses might be that it is based on Robbie Robertson’s book: Testimony so it is very much a film about his career as a member of The Band and his memories of the members and its history. It is no secret that the group broke up after 16 years together and that Helm was extremely angry with Robertson as evidenced in his book: This Wheel’s on Fire. I think I hoped for a more objective doc about The Band and its rise and fall. Instead we get a very focussed look from Robertson’s perspective.

That was my disappointment, but the film does go into depth about The Band’s origins in Canada and the role that Ronnie Hawkins played in bringing the group together. It also puts real emphasis on the initial closeness of the members – hence the title—and how that influenced the unique sound they created. I also learned more about their personal struggles than I cared to know including drug addiction, car wrecks and health issues I did not need to know. I think my favourite member of the group after Levon was Garth Hudson who was much older than the others and the quietest. I did not learn enough, and the director was asked about that in the Q and A after the film. He did interview Hudson but said that the interview was cut because of Hudson’s age, describing him as quite elderly and that the interview did not work. This I guess contributed to what I found missing from the film. Again, Roher defended this by saying that he was hired to do a film about Robertson and his career which is fair enough but if you choose to see the film be aware that you will be looking through Robertson’s eyes. On the plus side you will see some amazing classic footage from the years they all lived in Woodstock in a house that is called Big Pink, from concerts and from archival interviews with the members and others like Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen among others. All very interesting. So the bottom line is that if you are a fan of The Band you should likely try to see this movie but I suspect you will be left thirsting for more.

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles – Director, Max Lewkowicz

Okay it’s the day before TIFF actually starts but I nonetheless took in a great documentary at the Hot Docs cinema. I confess that I really enjoy books and films that describe how movies or plays were created and presented. Two of my favourite books are Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor and We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie by Noah Isenberg. This time I saw a movie that falls into the same category as these books. I confess I am not a huge musical fan although I have developed a taste for older musicals like Oklahoma and West Side Story. I should thank the Stratford Festival for drawing me in. Fiddler on the Roof is not one that I have really liked but this documentary made me pay attention. The musical is based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about the lives of the Jewish population in eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Not a good time for the Jews who suffered poverty and persecution. To make a musical about this time and these events is likely not the first thing to come to mind but the composers, lyricists, producers and directors who have undertaken this task are portrayed and interviewed particularly those who put together the first production in the 1960’s. The people include the producer Harold Prince, the director and choreographer Jerome Robbins and the composers, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Happily many of the original people involved are still with us and made for great interviews. I learned a great deal about Jerome Robbins I did not know and I learned a great deal about how a Broadway Show gets put together and staged successfully.

The show has been in continuous production for over 50 years not only on Broadway but in such disparate locations as Korea and Japan. It has been cast with all black cast members, and of course in schools and festivals like Stratford. The documentary shows us that the theme of the film – Tradition – and the suffering and struggles of these Jews are universal themes that speak to all cultures and communities.  It includes film from productions all over the world but what is really cool for Canadians is that they return again and again to a classic production in Stratford.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and recommend it anyone with an interest in film or theatre. You will learn a lot and not be disappointed whether you like musicals or not.

2019 Oscar Animated Shorts Nominations – Directors, various

Nominees: Bao, Weekends, Animal Behaviour, One Small Step, and Late Afternoon

The Short film categories are always interesting and a refreshing break from the feature film categories which this year are, for the most part not very memorable or have been sullied by the behaviour of the actors, writers or directors. This year’s nominees for Best Animated Short film are all very different from each other in style and design. Three are from Canadian directors and if you are from Toronto you will recognize the skyline in Bao and Weekends despite both being credited as from the USA.  Animal Behaviour comes from the perennially nominated National Film Board. So comments. With the exception of Animal Behaviour all the other nominees have some heart-breaking elements to them which gives them a dimension that some, who are not fans of animated films, may find difficult.

Lets start with One Small Step which was I think the weakest of the five nominated films. It’s a story about a young girl from humble origins that realizes her dream of being an astronaut and going to the moon. The story about her dreams and her relationship with her father is engaging but there is nothing very surprising or interesting in the story so while it is pleasant to watch it is not the winner.

Late Afternoon is more touching as it shows a young woman helping her mother pack up her belongings. It is clear that the mother has early dementia and the packing up is the packing up of her life. At first she doesn’t seem to recognize her daughter but at the end the connection is made making the film bittersweet. Still I would say more sweet than bitter.

Weekends is about a young boy whose parents are divorced and he has to deal with visiting his father on the weekends and coping with his mother as she enters a new relationship. I am not sure the writers and directors knew what they really wanted to do with the story but the animation was very interesting to watch. It speaks somewhat to the issue I have with animated films. This is not the sort of animation you are used to with Pixar or Disney films but it is still excellent and interesting and evocative of the theme of the film.

Animal Behaviour is the NFB entry and was a bit of a relief from the heavier themes of the other films. It is set in a group therapy session with a dog as the therapist and slug, a pig, a small bird, a cat, and a female praying mantis. All goes relatively normally until a huge gorilla with anger issues joins the group. Hilarity follows. I liked it a lot but must admit that this may have had something to do with having something to laugh at.

Bao is likely the best of the lot although I confess, I found the story a bit difficult to follow and I am not sure I like the fact that it is a Pixar production. The animation is exquisite as one would expect from Pixar and it has a sense of humour but some sort of shocking elements as well. It focusses on a Chinese family making bao (a steamed bun with a vegetable or meat filling). One of the bao comes alive and becomes a child that grows up into its difficult teens. I will not spoil the rest but while it sounds humourous I would warn you that it has some heavier elements to it.  I suspect it will win the Oscar but I think maybe I would prefer Weekends or Animal Behaviour.

Vice – Director, Adam McKay

I was intrigued by this film from the day it was released. The Bush/Cheney rule in the US rivals that of Donald Trump for its outrageous power grabs and one-man rule. Unfortunately, that one-man rule was not the president but the vice-president operating in the background. Cheney built a cabinet of warmongers and ultra right-wing economists. That government built the ground on which Trump was elected and a host of right-wing senators and congress persons. Even the Democrats lean right, and Obama was constrained and influenced by the right. That rant out of the way I turn now to the film itself. Right at the start the film offers a proviso. The filmmakers point out in text that for anyone to know everything that really happened in the years leading up to Cheney’s rule is impossible, but nonetheless they “tried their fucking best”. The film is interesting particularly for politics junkies. We see connections to Donald Rumsfeld, Anthony Scalia and others that might not be immediately obvious to everyone. It also shows how more moderate people like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell were manipulated. The problem with the film is that the director and writers seem not to be sure if they were making a dramatic film or a documentary and it is at least 40 minutes longer than it needs to be as dramatic elements of no real relevance are inserted including a bizarre scene of fake Shakespearean dialogue between Cheney and his wife. All that aside the movie is interesting and involving and offers insight into those years.

Of course, in the current tradition of political correctness the film, like Green Book and others has come under criticism for not being an accurate historical portrait. I hate using the “political correctness” thing because I support being politically correct in many circumstances but I am not sure I am okay with it being used in these cases. The unfortunate personal actions of people like Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey, and the political antics of Clint Eastwood, Jon Voight, and Dennis Hopper doesn’t mean I will stop watching Mission Impossible, The Usual Suspects, Dirty Harry, Midnight Cowboy, or Easy Rider. Likewise Vice and Green Book may not accurately reflect the real events they portray but the films themselves are good and should be judged on their merits as works of art. Many will disagree but I needed to get that off my chest. Meanwhile if you are a political junkie you will definitely like this movie and there is no question that the performances of the ensemble cast of Cristian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Amy Adams and Steve Carrell are superb and worthy of the nominations they have received. If you aren’t as intrigued with politics as many others you will find it too long and somewhat boring. I stand on the border – I was interested but wanted to fast forward through some of the film. Rotten Tomatoes gives it 6.7/10 for critical response and a 3.1/5 audience rating. Hmmm… an excellent mediocre film?

Roma – Director, Alphonso Cuarón

Cuarón’s career to date would not have led me to predict a film like Roma. He is known for directing Gravity, a sci-fi space drama, Children of Men, a sci-fi story of a dystopic future and one of the Harry Potter films. This autobiographical story of growing up in Mexico City is definitely a step in a new direction for him, simple, straightforward, and no special effects. Like much of his work in the past this film has won critical praise and now 10 Academy Award nominations including best foreign language film and best picture. While I liked the movie, I confess I fail to see the enthusiasm. We are taken into the day to day life of a family in transition and have insight into the relationship between the kids, mother, and the servants who are part of the family in important ways. The film is a tribute to the women who raised him and a beautiful portrait of a family’s life in the 1970’s. The cinematography is very good, and I confess I enjoyed it being in black and white, but ten nominations is, I think, over the top. While I am sceptical of all the nominations I do think this is a film worth seeing and to be fair I have liked many of his earlier but very different films. Cuarón is a talented director with a varied and top flight works so have a look but despite all the nominations I suspect it will not clean up.

What is Democracy – Director, Astra Taylor

This is a documentary that deals exactly with what the title says. It explores what we mean by democracy now and what it has meant in the past. It looks at how fragile democracy has been and continues to be and draws on Greek philosophy – Plato, Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers – Rousseau and modern political thinkers – Cornell West. The director told us at the start that the film originated four years ago before Trump or Doug Ford or other more recent troubling anti-democratic leaders, but serendipitously it was released at a time when we are all thinking about the state of our democratic institutions and how they are threatened. She also told us up front that she does not have the answers to where we are headed or how to preserve our democracy, but she does want to challenge us to think about what democracy really is and not take it all for granted. The film is not perfect, but I attended with a very politically engaged friend and afterwards we had much to talk about so, despite its flaws, I would say this is a very important film that raises many questions we need to consider as we confront our current situation. I fear I might enter into a long and tedious academic paper here, so I will wind up with a brief description of the thesis of the film. What is shown clearly is that we do not all share the same idea of democracy. Some see it as justice, others as personal freedom, some as socialist or communitarian action. We don’t all agree about who gets to participate, how we should be governed, or what needs to to be done to preserve whatever democracy we decide to implement. Plato argued, and Cornell West agreed, that democracy has within it the seeds of its own downfall. The trick is to see and understand that and find ways to preserve it. How we define it and how we preserve it is up to us, but it is clearly under threat and how we respond in the next short while will be critical to whether or not we continue to see ourselves as living in democracy. The director is writing a companion book that will delve into these themes in more depth and the film will be used by her and her colleagues to continue the conversation over the next several months. On a final note the film was funded primarily by our own National Film Board and that made me proud.

American Dharma – Director, Errol Morris

Errol Morris has made some amazing and important documentaries that have focussed on some of the most evil people in American government. Two of my favourites are The Fog of War which is an interview with Robert McNamara and The Known Unknowns, an interview with Donald Rumsfeld. In both these films Morris does not directly confront the subjects about their crimes but rather let the men hang themselves with their own words. He tries the same tactic with Bannon but perhaps to a somewhat less successful outcome. While all these men are very smart and defend their actions with smooth words and eloquence, Bannon is perhaps the most devious and satanic of the three. Some of those who saw the film with me were disappointed that Morris was not more confrontational, but I am not so sure that would have worked and Bannon would likely not have made the film. We do however get great insight to a man who sought to twist the American electorate and successfully steered Trump to victory in 2016. He manages in the film to hide the reality of his far-right agenda while arguing he is for the little guy, the traditional American middle-class worker but I think the film does expose him as the evil that he is. The two earlier films were done as straightforward interviews but his one plays with Bannon’s love of classic war films including Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High and Alec Guinness in The Bridge over the River Kwai. In fact the setting for the interview is a Quonset Hut like the ones in Twelve O’Clock High. We also learn that Bannon is very well educated and quotes Lucifer from Paradise Lost, and Falstaff from Henry V. He does however misinterpret their roles and speeches to justify his own worldview. He is clearly very intelligent and I think believes he has turned the film into a tribute to himself. It is not however and while you do want to jump up and punch him in the face, I think Morris has given us an important portrait of a man who has hurt American badly and who is now trying to do the same to Europe. His impact is not over and maybe this film was made a bit too early to sum up his career as did Morris’s earlier portraits of McNamara and Rumsfeld, but things move more quickly these days and it good to know your enemy. Worth a look this one.

22 July – Director, Paul Greengrass

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.

Strong Island – Director, Yance Ford

An very unsettling documentary about racism in the US. The documentary revolves around the murder of a young black man, a murder that is never prosecuted as Grand Jury determined no crime had been committed. It was reminiscent of the Colton Bushie trial here recently. The story is however more complex. It is narrated by the young man’s sister who is trying to figure out why there was never any prosecution but in the course of the telling we are taken deeply into the place of blacks in contemporary US society. Set in New York City we learn that segregation and hatred are still rampant and barely concealed. We also learn about the impact of the murder on the man’s family; the personal impact that would be true of any family to which a similar event occurred. It is hard not to identify with the narrator, her mother and the other family members. It is powerfully filmed putting the narrators and other members telling the story in the centre of the screen and close up. The images of the site of the killing, the home of the family are filmed in the same manner as if standing witness themselves. While this is an important film, the style is such that after a while one becomes beaten down by the story and its unrelenting tragedy. I am not sure this is a good way to address this important issue but one cannot avoid the impact and sadly what seems the hopelessness of this family’s situation and by extension the situation of many black Americans. A good chance this wins the Oscar.