Anthropocene is a stunningly beautiful look at how humans are destroying the environment and the planet to the point that we have established a new geological epoch named after ourselves to follow the recent Holocene epoch that nurtured modern human evolution and civilization . Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal are a Canadian photographer and filmmaker who have worked together on other projects including a great NFB film Watermark. Burtynsky is an excellent photographer who pushes the limits of the art and Baichwal adds to the photography with equally stunning film. The message of the film is clear. We are destroying the planet and all that lives here including ourselves. However rather than pontificate and scold or guilt trip the viewer we are shown the impact we are having in many different ways with images and verbal descriptions. The hope is that once we see what we are doing we will be motivated to act. There is no particular plot to describe or argument per se. Instead I encourage you to see this film and if you are in Toronto in the next few months go see the AGO exhibit before it closes in January. The film manages to be both scary and beautiful at the same time. You will be hypnotized by the film of burning elephant tusks, the seemingly endless coal train moving off into the distance, the trip down the longest tunnel in the world and the giant machines that seem to be literally eating the planet. The images will stay with you for a long time.
I love my documentaries and this one I recommend to everyone who at one time thought you could not trust anyone over 30. Although it is somewhat self-indulgent, Michael Caine narrates a trip through the 60’s. I am a sucker for Caine’s accent and delivery, so I was hooked from the start. There are interviews with Roger Daltry, Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithful, Mary Quant and Twiggy among others. We don’t see them as they are today but there is all kinds of archival footage of them from the time. If you can’t guess from the list of names this movie focusses on London of the 60’s which in many ways was the centre of popular culture of the time and avoids for the most part the nasty sides of things like Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and student and youth unrest but it does have a totally awesome soundtrack and great scenes from the time including a very very young Mick Jagger and the Stones, scenes of the Beatles at the Cavern nightclub and the wonderful street scenes all accompanied by Caine’s cockney accent. We also get some great scenes from his movies of the time including Alfie, The Ipcress File, Zulu and such. I learned some very interesting things, like how Michael Caine chose his screen name (He was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite), and that Mary Quant invented the mini-skirt.
If you are up for a nostalgia trip this is all for you and there is some coherence. As a review in Variety puts it the film has three parts: the rise of the 60’s revolt against the mores of the previous decade, its flourishing and its decline as the 70’s close in. Still this is a movie about Michael Caine’s experience of the time in which he was a player but one very much connected to times and the people. Do not look for deep insight or critical analysis but have fun.
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.
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.
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.
My second day at TIFF ended with Michael Moore’s latest film which I think may well be his best yet (although Roger and Me remains a classic). The title if it is not obvious is a play on the title of his previous film Fahrenheit 9/11 and instead of referring to a terrorist attack it refers to the day after Trump was elected president in 2016. It is a long movie but you will not be bored. He starts with what got Trump into the presidential race mostly by accident and not to win but soon saw how he could actually become “King of the world”. The opening sequence ends with Trump’s inauguration and Moore’s narration:
“How the Fuck did we get here?”
Moore was one of the few to predict Trump could win the election in 2016 and he is also the one who called out the lie about weapons of mass destruction that got the US into unending war in the Middle East. For all of this he was dismissed as alarmist… but he was right. In this film he points out that Trump can easily win the mid-terms and win the presidency in 2020. We need to pay attention. But the film is not just about Donald Trump and his insane antics. Moore sees Trump as a symptom of a much deeper and far more dangerous trend in American politics and society. He returns to Flint, Michigan this time to address the lead poisoning crisis and the role of the Republican Governor in making the changes that resulted in poisoning thousands, mostly black and poor citizens in Flint. The decision was made to support the Governor’s business partners taking over the water supply as well as privatizing other municipal services. Moore goes on to show that the problem in Flint is still not resolved and was in fact allowed to continue even by President Obama who came to help but simply confirmed the Governor in his cover-up and lies. It was shocking, and many black voters were disappointed and abandoned the electoral system, the Democrats and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Moore does not pull any punches and points to how from Reagan to Obama the trend to Trump was clear and that Americans should not be surprised. It has been a trend to compromise, relying on old time political machines that rely on capitalist right wing funders and less and less on ordinary citizens. Democrats are just Republicans with a different name. He points to the withdrawal of nearly half of eligible voters in the US to even become engaged in elections or political discourse. (see Monrovia, Indiana).
While Moore does point to some hopeful signs in the recent primaries leading to this year’s mid-term elections, he is not hopeful. The film ends with Moore drawing a clear connection between Trump’s rise to power and Adolf Hitler. This is a comparison that many have dismissed or called over the top, but it is a trend I completely agree with and Moore is very convincing. There is literally no difference between Trump or other populist politicians and Hitler’s own rise to power in the 1930’s. Moore’s call is for people to become engaged in political discourse and elections. He is very worried that his call to arms will be ignored or countered by the incumbents who have their hands on the levers of power. The film is major warning to us all, not only Americans, and sadly it is not a hopeful film. This is Moore’s best movie yet and very important for everyone to see. Oscar is in his future I hope.
To demonstrate that America is not the only democracy at threat I will return to one story in Moore’s film. The Flint water crisis started with a decision to declare a false emergency and fire the elected municipal governments in Michigan’s five largest cities and replace them with unelected administrators giving Governor Snyder the means to implement privatization of services. This led in turn to the decision to change Flint’s water supply and the resulting poisoning. My reaction was to look to our own Doug Ford and his interference in Toronto’s civic election. I worry that if Toronto elects the wrong mayor or too many left-wing councillors Ford will decide to do the same here. Given Ford’s recent behaviour this is not beyond thinking and is certainly within his power to do. As Moore notes let us not be distracted by Trump and impeachment but understand that Trump reflects a systematic threat to our democracies that must be addressed.
Monrovia, Indiana is a 2 ½ hour trip to small town rural middle America. You spend your time looking in on high school classes, local bars and eateries, the veterinarian, tattoo shop, hair dresser, local town council meetings and farm work listening to the people and what is top of mind for them on any given day or moment. All these scenes are interspersed with absolutely beautiful images of the countryside, the endless horizon and the clouds in the sky. There is absolutely no political talk at all despite this film being shot in 2016-17. I am not sure how many readers are fans of Frederick Wiseman documentaries. They can be challenging to watch but worth the effort as he has documented aspects of our culture and society in great detail while letting them speak for themselves. The films are long and there is no narration but only the voices and images of the people and things he is observing. Of course, how he edits and structures the films also sends a message. We were lucky to have him present for a Q and A after this showing and it added a lot to understanding the film and his glimpse into the daily lives of people living in Monrovia. While Indiana voted Trump and Monrovia is as white a community as one could find anywhere, I went expecting to hear the voices of outrage and to understand who people could vote the way they did. Instead I got a look into a community completely preoccupied with their daily lives, people discussing their health or lack thereof, local sports, getting their hair done, very local community issues like where the fire hydrants are and are they working, and… nothing more. The major political statement if there was one to be found was that no one even thinks about national politics or really about very much beyond the town borders. One of the longer and more revealing scenes was a tour of the local high school looking at pictures of football and basketball teams from decades past and graduating classes from the 1920’s and 30’s. We then listen in to a teacher giving a lecture to a class about the proud tradition of sports in the community including former Monrovians who made it to the NBA, state championships etc. During the Q and A Wiseman was asked to tell us what subject the class portrayed in the segment were studying. He responded, “Well that was a history class. Couldn’t you tell?” Enough said.
Wiseman spent 10 weeks in the town filming and he told us politics never came up. And that sums up Monrovia and maybe sadly much of US society in a nutshell. I would guess most of the people we saw know nothing about what is going on Washington and the world and could care less. Given the state of US politics today one can see that there is no way to explain what is happening without including the lives and actions of the people in towns like Monrovia all over the US. It was an revealing introduction to middle America which was then to be followed by going off to see Michael Moore’s latest film Fahrenheit 11/9 and the different message he had for his audience. My guess however is that Michael Moore documentaries do not play in Monrovia.
After seeing Fall of the American Empire this documentary was an entirely different experience. I confess that I have not see Rob Stewart’s other films of which Sharkwater, released in 2006, is the most well known. The latter film was instrumental in an international banning of hunting sharks for Shark Fin Soup – a Chinese delicacy — which was resulting in the mass slaughter of sharks worldwide. While the original film had an enormous impact, the killing of sharks continues today not only for soup but for a variety of other uses including shark meat sold as other fish products like tuna and swordfish, pet food, and even cosmetics. 150 million sharks are killed each year illegally and sharks are facing extinction. While Stewart focussed his films on shark hunting he had a much larger agenda. Driving animals to extinction, he points out, destroys the environment and sharks are not the only victims of human destructiveness. The problem is that humans also depend on a stable and balanced environment and our actions are leading to our own demise. The film is powerful statement, but the emotional impact of the film is tied also the director who died during the filming, suffocating while diving to shoot scenes. Rob Stewart is a Toronto native and his parents undertook to complete this film as a tribute to their son and his work. They were present at the premiere and gave a powerful introduction. One can only imagine how difficult this project was for them since Rob, their son, appears in nearly every scene of the documentary. I would recommend this film to everyone and Stewart’s other films which I will be seeking out shortly. The message is critical.
On a political note, the film was funded in part by an Ontario government grant through an agency called Ontario Creates. The current minister in charge was asked to address the audience even though the Ford government had nothing to do with the film or the grant or the agency. She brought greetings from the government and particularly Doug Ford. When Ford’s name was mentioned there were some groans and boos from the audience although muted in respect for Rob Stewart’s parents I suspect. I really wondered at the lack of thought that went into inviting the minister to speak. Here was a film about the damage we are doing to the environment, the need to change our ways and greetings are invited from a government that totally denies there is any problem and who are doing all they can to move in the direct opposite direction from Rob Stewart. Also given the record of this government one wonders how long Ontario Creates will have any money to support any films or other cultural activities other than labels for Buck-a-Beer cans.
This was my first film of the 2018 TIFF festival and it proved to be a great way to start. Denys Arcand is an Oscar winning Canadian director probably best known for his films Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions. I was not sure what to expect from this film but it proved bitingly satirical while being light and entertaining at the same time. There are few movies where I don’t look at my watch at some point but this time my attention was kept the whole way through the two hours. The connection to the American Empire was explained by Arcand in the Q and A when he was asked about the title. He said his working title was The Triumph of Money but he didn’t like it in the end and since his first big film was The Decline of the American Empire which he took from the classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he thought “Why not The Fall of the American Empire”. He figured that 400 years from now if anyone looked at the film they would say “Oh yeah, that was made at the time of the fall of the American Empire”. Cute. At any rate what I really liked about the film was an incredible ensemble cast, and brilliant scene after scene that were all perfectly crafted. The opening scene has our hero, who had a Ph.D. in philosophy, telling his girlfriend that what held him back in life was being so intelligent. Intelligence he argued was the greatest obstacle to success anyone can have. He was currently employed as a delivery man. It was simply brilliant, and I am now convinced very true. There were many other scenes as equally well crafted. After the opening scene our hero is witness to a robbery of several millions of dollars in cash during which all the perpetrators and those trying to stop them are killed leaving the money lying in the road. Our hero grabs the loot on an impulse and the rest of the film is about how he tries to cope, evade being killed by the original criminal owners of the cash, the police and government taxes. All very funny, poking fun at all kinds of social issues and institutions. Definitely worth your time to see this film.