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.
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.
I chose this film late in the process as I was free on the morning in question. I decided to take a chance as I have, in the past, stayed away from the Wavelengths program at TIFF. This category of films is described as: Daring, visionary and autonomous voices. Works that expand our notion of the moving image. I think I will continue to avoid these films. I am always cautious of film descriptions that suggest the film will be “challenging” or “daring” etc. and I should continue to follow my own advice. This film is a trip into a black community in the US that has been traumatized by a recent killing of a local by suspected KKK members but suffers from many aspects of racism and poverty. We are treated to endless talk by citizens in meetings, door to door talks and other events with absolutely no focus or perspective. I finally had to leave because the film was going no where with dealing with the issues or themes and had literally no structure. No question it was depressing and troubling, but I did not find it challenging or daring just confused. Sorry Wavelengths I will not be back.
Unfortunately, this was likely the poorest film of the week so far. While I love documentaries, I have to admit this one seemed to get lost in its topic. There is no question that robotics poses many problems for us. Not only are militaries looking at actual killer robots to use in combat, we are faced with robots killing jobs and even killing human to human contact. Even the robots that are designed to help may kill us through poor design or malfunction. The movie tries to address all these themes but really offers no coherent approach or offer any kind of solution. Going in I was aware of the military threat, the end of jobs for taxi drivers, truck drivers, and many service and manufacturing jobs. I was hoping to see some direction forward. None is really offered, and the film also does a mediocre job of describing the problem. If you have concerns in regard to the whole area of robots and robotics I would suggest you turn to some recent alternatives. I can recommend the following as a start: Terminator, Alien, Aliens, Minority Report, Ex Machina, and of course 2001 – “I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave….”
Of all the movies I seen this week this is by far the worst. I chose it because I am a big fan of Idris Elba and figured that despite the description it might be very good. Wrong! This is a romance/adventure film but no rom/com this. Two people are stranded on a mountain to in Colorado after a small plane crash. How they get into the situation is somewhat contrived… well totally contrived actually. But all that aside they then have to figure out how to survive and get down along with their faithful dog (another contrivance). They are very different people in background and personality with back stories that are revealed as we go along. Of course, as they struggle with each other and the elements, they fall in love – of course they do. The story of their survival is literally unbelievable and the dog – OMG – survives for 4 weeks with no food and yet maintains his full fledged strength and enthusiasm throughout the ordeal. I kept looking at my watch and wishing it would end. Thank God the audience did not need to suffer through a Q and A. I did see an interview with Idris Elba on the Daily Show prior to going to the movie and that set off alarm bells because he clearly did not take the movie seriously and seemed not to like it very much. Now to be fair people behind my row exclaimed how much they loved the movie at the end and there were others equally enthralled. So I guess if you love romance stories, no matter how absurd, this is a movie for you but if not stay very far away. There are much better ones coming this fall.
I was really looking forward to this movie and seeing Eric Clapton live although without a guitar. Well… I did see Eric but sadly I left the movie early totally bored and a little pissed off. The film is not very much about his music and much more about his messed-up life which I really did not need to know about. It went on and on as he bounced from one failed relationship to another including a really messed up on with the wife of his good buddy George Harrison. Also we delved into his drug and alcohol abuse until I thought it would never end. While he had a surprise in learning that his real mother abandoned him, he was actually raised very lovingly by his grandparents, was reasonably well off and after Cream dissolved, very very rich. So all this “suffering” happened at his mansion in Surrey or his friend’s homes in South Kensington, two of the wealthiest places on earth. He never suffered for lack of money and we heard lots about just hanging around the mansion with his friends and various girl friends doing cocaine and dope and ultimately heroin and then alcohol. The movie really started to drag and I left near the end thinking this guy really had no excuse for all this. Sadly this movie has spoiled Eric for me. I will take a break from listening to his music for a bit and hope it will not last because his latest stuff is very good but this demented wallowing in his so-called sorry life was just too much. If you are a big fan and love his music and his suffering for sure enjoy. However if you would rather not be bothered by that just put on Layla (don’t worry what inspired it) and don’t let this movie spoil it for you.
A political film – what else? I was intrigued by this film and its description which suggested it was a look at how super PACs are used to win votes and drive the US political elections. One of the interesting things about verité documentaries is the risk. Directors pick a time, person or institution and get invitations to follow and observe. This is very much the technique for Brother’s Keeper which was one of the first documentaries to use this kind of approach. Many of the other films at this year’s festival used this technique to great success. This film also sought and got access to Ben Carson’s run for office in the last US Election and to the super PAC’s that supported him. In this case we are looking at Christian evangelists who tried to put together the resources to get their man nominated. Carson of course self destructed and instead of gaining insight into how super PACs have had a powerful impact on elections we see incompetence at both the level of the super PAC and the candidate. A sad but sympathetic look at Carson himself but for providing insight into the US political situation the film fails totally. Not so great unless you are a Carson fan.
Step is a dance/exercise program that is the focus of this documentary. The title and the description were a bit misleading but basically this is about a program in Baltimore to give a group of primarily female black kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods a shot at College and escape. The step program is part of the curriculum at The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. The girls are preparing for a state step championship as well as preparing to be the first graduating class from the school. Of course, the film is inspiring and all the girls make it. Not only winning the state championship but also all making it to College. The Director was present for a Q and A where I lost some respect for the film and its subject. The Director is rich, very rich and comes from a very rich family. She is a producer of Broadway shows and her mother, in an act of charity funded the Baltimore school in which this film is based. The school is a charter school and admission is limited although handled by lottery. So the girls who get in are lucky, very lucky and there is no other option of similar quality for the rest of the population in similar poverty in Baltimore. The director was confronted about this by one member of the audience but declined to respond saying: “I don’t want to get into that controversy”. Sadly this is the real point. The US is increasingly relying on charity or profit motive to provide quality education to kids rather than a robust public education system. This will be enhanced under the Trump presidency and Betsy DeVos the new Secretary of Education. The contrast to my perception was a group of girls from Jane/Finch who were also part of a step program who cheered the movie big time. I think sadly they did not understand the larger issue. I should also note that while some of the docs at the festival do have support from major funders like Netflix and Amazon, this film has been picked up for distribution by 20th Century Fox. Of course. For more of my leftist attitude on this issue please see the review of For Ahkeem.
I was somewhat disappointed by this film. Being a leftie of the best sort I read the description of this film and was attracted to the description of a film that would look at the insane world of art auctions and collecting that carried on despite the horrendous impact of the economic crisis of 2008. So at the start they mention the crash but then just carry on describing the world of art auctions, the buyers, the artists who feed off the insane amounts of money and agents who promote both. Rather than being particularly critical of it, the film makes no judgement other than to describe it and in some sense to be envious of the various players in the business. Some interviews with artists suggest they are not entirely happy with the situation and its unfairness to many but that is about as far as it goes. The rest of the film is simply a glimpse into the activities of some of the one percenters and how little they care about the rest of us.
This movie has been very well received and is nominated for eight Oscars, five of which are technical for design, sound, editing etc. The three big ones are Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Okay… all that said I am very nervous to write this review. I did not like this movie. It I like Close Encounters of the Third Kind in terms of the message but is not nearly close to being as good. I think some critics like it because it is not Alien or other thriller type Sci-Fi. It has pretensions of being cerebral but it was boring, contrived, and the ending was just stupid and really disappointing. Amy Adams is the lead and her performance has been praised but thank God the Academy had enough sense not to nominate her for Best Actress because while good, she is not amazing and the role is dumb like the movie. Villeneuve is Canadian and I have liked and disliked his films. Sicario is very good but Prisoners was really disappointing. Incendies which made his career was okay. He is working on a sequel of Blade Runner, not a remake but a story set 30 or 40 years in the future from the original. It will star Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford. I am worried because Blade Runner was awesome but this?… I am not sure this is wise.