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TIFF 2018 – Summing up the week.

The week is over and another excellent week of films. The best film of the week was Green Book which happily won the People’s Choice Award. I suspect this means some major Oscar nominations and wins are in the book for Viggo and Farelly. The big disappointment of the week was First Man, a look at Neil Armstrong and the moon landing. Could have been good but fell way short. I really liked most of the films I managed to see and of course like every year disappointed that I missed out on some good films that will be out in the coming months. Besides the ones I have reviewed positively I would urge you to see If Beale Street Could Talk, Widows, Sisters. Brothers and well… many others. One of the best aspects of TIFF is the chance to hear the film makers and actors in the Q and A’s. This year I was lucky to get several great ones including Green Book’s cast and director Farelly, Michael Moore, Denys Arcand and the directors of some smaller films like What is Democracy. You gain insight into the decisions around the creation of the film, the motivations of the actors and the relationship between the director and cast.

The most exciting moment of the week was the extended standing ovation we gave to Viggo Mortensen and his supporting cast and director at the Elgin. The most disappointing was having to leave early from one the Wavelength films, What are you Going to Do when the World’s on Fire. I guess a film festival needs to be open to experimental filmmakers, but I would urge my followers to avoid these films at all costs. As always it is great to be downtown while the crowds are out on the street and the general buzz of the city. Of course one of the downsides is that one’s diet is totally destroyed including what you eat and when you eat and if you eat. I guess one of the sacrifices for getting to see some great movies. Next year will be my 25th anniversary at the festival. Kind of hard to believe.

First Man – Director, Damien Chazelle

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.

Peterloo – Director, Mike Leigh

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 – Director, Trevor Nunn

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.

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.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? – Director, Roberto Minervini

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.

Green Book – Director, Peter Farrelly

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Truth about Killer Robots – Director, Maxim Pozdorovkin

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….”

The Old Man& The Gun – Director, David Lowery

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.

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.