Category Archives: TIFF 2016

Birth of the Dragon, Director — George Nolfi

The only martial arts film of the festival this year. The film a really fun, very typical martial arts film about a match between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man in the early 60’s. Lee had come to San Francisco to bring the ancient Chinese art of Kung Fu to North America much to the resistance of the traditional Chinese. The story is that Kung Fu Master Wong Jack Man was sent to shut him down. That is the legend. The movie however takes a somewhat different tack and is just based on this historic and mythic match but has a more complex story of a blossoming friendship between the two as they fight evil Chinese criminal gangs in San Francisco. It was totally fun and while martial arts purists are critical of the film they just really lack any sense of fun. If you like martial arts and like the films you will really enjoy this movie. For those of you who are purists I suggest you avoid it or be prepared to suspend disbelief and just relax. Totally fun, totally without redeeming social importance and some great fight scenes. Which is what its all about anyway. Right!? Yeah!

LBJ, Director — Rob Reiner


I was not sure what to expect from this movie and it really surprised me. Woody Harrelson plays Lyndon Johnson and its an academy award performance. He sure has come a long way from the days of Cheers. The film I am not Your Negro was critical of the white leadership of the day including JFK and Johnson and with some justification. Still it was Kennedy who conceived of the Civil Rights bill and it was Johnson (previously opposed to any civil rights legislation) who pushed it through congress and who introduced the voting rights act and medicare and other similar legislation. Reiner’s film paints a picture of a complex time and a complex person. For all his positive acts he was also the president who took the US into the Vietnam War and left it to others to resolve. The film is however very fair while sympathetic to the man. It covers his time from losing the Democratic nomination to JFK, becoming a reluctant and not very popular VP and then tragically president when Kennedy is assassinated. It focuses on the successful passing of the Civil Rights act as his first act and ends in 1964 prior to his running for president and his defeat of Barry Goldwater. Harrelson is perfect in the role, evoking the very human side of Johnson, his frailties, his strengths and his sense of humour. A very moving portrait of a very interesting leader. Reiner’s Q and A was great. He noted his age and that he opposed Johnson as a young man when he might well have been drafted and sent to fight a war he disagreed with. Still after all these years he has come to recognize both the good and bad sides of the man. The film will not be released until next year, long after the horrendous election in the US is over. This is too bad because the film might well remind American voters of some of its more intelligent and sophisticated leaders.

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary — John Scheinfeld


Loved this movie. It is a straight forward documentary about one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. The story takes us from birth to his very untimely death of cancer at the age of only 40. In the course of this brief life he took jazz in new directions and played with and inspired and was inspired by the best including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. Using old film footage and a great sound track the story is enhanced with interviews with Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, Bill Clinton and Carlos Santana among others. They gave a great perspective. Not much to be said about the movie. As one of the interviewers said when asked to describe the music “words fail me you just have to listen.” If you like jazz and like Coltrane this is a must see.

Black Code, Director — Nicholas de Pencier


Black Code is a Canadian documentary about the Internet and mass surveillance. The film makes it clear that it is not all bad but it is definitely not all good either. The Internet and access through multiple devices including phones, tablets and PC’s has changed how much we know about what is happening in the world. The film takes images from exiled Tibetans and riots and protests in Brazil. Police brutality and spreading the truth about oppression in Tibet are quickly available around the world. At the same time however, those who want to hide from their crimes: police and oppressive regimes, use the same technology to find and arrest or do much worse to the protesters. The spread of this kind of surveillance has of course spread to the whole world as revealed by Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. The film being Canadian focuses on Ron Deibert the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. This small group of hacktivists has been responsible for monitoring the use and abuse of the Internet. I liked the movie very much and learned a great deal. When I compare it to Werner Herzog’s empty and pointless Lo and Behold there is nothing to say. This film is just far far superior, far far more intelligent, far far more insightful, just far far better. There – got another dig in at one of the world’s most overrated directors. So if you want to learn about the Internet and its impact on society see this good Canadian Doc when it is released later this year.

Deepwater Horizon – Peter Berg


I had some trepidation when I ordered tickets to this one but it had Mark Wahlberg and it was about one of the worst oil spill disasters in history and maybe, just maybe they would do a good job. I was sadly disappointed. Although they do try in a minor way to pin this on British Petroleum there is absolutely no message here about environmental issues or the irresponsibility of the oil industry to prevent these kinds of situations. Instead it is literally all about the night of the blow out and the desperate acts of the men and women on the rig to escape. The film is very confusing. Dialogue is hard to make out over the simulated din of the machines, you have no idea who the characters are, what their roles are, what the relationships are between the workers or why the disaster happened at all.  No attempt is made  to explain how all the systems on board would fail simultaneously. And the film is loud, wear ear plugs if you go. The attempts at escape are also very confusing and we have two hours of screaming, shouting, explosions, fire and gross injuries. I left the film feeling angry and stressed and I usually can handle an action film like Jason Bourne but this was literally just stupid. If you get the impression I was not impressed you are picking up the right vibes. Stay away or if you must watch it – wait for it to show up on Netflix or iTunes.

Goldstone, Director — Ivan Sen


Yes I know the picture looks like a traditional American Western but this is really anything but. Instead it’s an Australian police drama set today in the desert of the Australian outback. It is the second film from Aussie director Ivan Sen about a indigenous federal detective who arrives in the desert and woe begotten town of Goldstone. He is there to track down a missing Chinese girl that he suspects of being a victim of human trafficking. Goldstone harbours a very private and protective mining operation that is causing pollution and local violence by its miners. The company also imports indebted Chinese girls to serve as prostitutes and has bought off the town’s mayor and many of the local indigenous population. Besides our hero (who is himself a deeply flawed individual) there is a local cop who has been keeping his eyes closed but who is essentially a good cop. A murder and finding of the missing girl’s body gets the story rolling ending in a bloody gun fight between the good and bad guys. The indigenous detective appears in an earlier film – Mystery Road – which I fully intend to watch next week. The story is exciting and while not really Oscar worthy is definitely worth seeing. I have become a big fan of Australia cinema and this film did not let me down. If there is an award worthy aspect to this film that puts it in a class by itself, it’s the cinematography which is absolutely stunning. The shots of the desert taken with drone mounted cameras take your breath away. Seriously.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, Director – Joseph Cedar


I am not yet sure how to review this film. It tells the story of Norman Oppenheimer, a Jewish middle man or fixer in NYC. The character also called a macher in Yiddish is not an uncommon character in the city. He is a person who connects people with money and sets up deals of which he will take a cut. In this film Norman gets out of his comfort zone when he tries to set up deals with visiting Israeli politicians and local businessmen. The problem with the film is that pretty much everyone sees Norman as a bit of a con man and clearly have little or no respect for him. His lawyer nephew and his rabbi give him a bit of a break but otherwise he appears pretty pathetic. The film and the plot are in my opinion completely unbelievable. The moderate rise is about him making friends with a deputy minister from the Israeli government who later manages to become prime minister. Norman has a real connection with the man but the difference between their worlds means that nothing Norman tries to set up will ever work and in fact he becomes a threat to the PM by his machinations. Again all this seems totally unbelievable for a penny ante operator like Norman. Richard Gere is very good in the role and in introducing the film the director warned us the character of Norman will stay with us long after the film is over. Sadly, Norman is already fading from my memory and I am grateful. A film that I thought had great potential when I got my ticket but is now the weakest film of the week and really a very disappointing experience.

La La Land, Director – Damien Chazelle


So I will start this review with a confession. I really am not a fan of musicals. Some, like An American in Paris or West Side Story get past my prejudices but most do not. I chose this film because there is lots of buzz about it and to be fair it is very well done. The other reason I chose this one is that the director also did Whiplash last year which is a very powerful film and not a musical. It was tough and polished and so I thought I would give this a chance. My verdict is that this is a very good movie, if you like musicals and romantic stories. If either or both of these are not your game stay very far away. Still, again to be fair, the two leads, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone turn in great performances. But… the somewhat twist ending really made me gag which, if you like romantic twists, will endear the film to you and have you leaving with a smile and wee tear in your eye. Yes its like that. I will say one thing. The film has some very good jazz in it and is built around the lead’s love of jazz to some extent just not nearly enough for me. Attend at your own risk unless, like I say, you love that sort of thing. Okay one more kick at the can. The film has great cinematography and set design. Use of colour is great as well and it is a real homage to the Hollywood musical of the past but moved into the 21st century film technology. The music and dancing (and it’s a musical after all) I found to be forgettable but its all about the story right?

I Am Not Your Negro, Director – Raoul Peck


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


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.