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.

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.

The Front Runner – Director, Jason Reitman

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.

Fahrenheit 11/9 – Director, Michael Moore

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 – Director, Frederick Wiseman


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.

Sharkwater Extinction – Director, Rob Stewart

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Fall of the American Empire – Director, Denys Arcand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

I, Tonya – Director, Craig Gillespie

There are no bad nominees for Best Picture this year. All the films are worthy and while some (Bladerunner 2049) were snubbed I can’t find fault with anything that made the list. However, all the buzz is about The Shape of Water and Three Billboards with an occasional pitch for Get Out but I am pretty sure that the most deserving film is I, Tonya, and it also got snubbed. The story of Tonya Harding is ugly and brutal and no one who remembers “the incident”, the breaking of Nancy Kerrigan’s knee ostensibly to guarantee that Tonya made the US Olympic team, has much sympathy for Harding. However the real story (and I am not sure how much of this movie is true) is much more complex as this film suggests. The story is brutal, funny, and in your face with some absolutely stunning performances from Margot Robbie as Tonya and Alison Janney as her mother as well as a great supporting cast. The film is a dramatic recreation of Tonya’s career that is interspersed with pseudo documentary style interviews with the main characters and brilliant little soliloquys to the audience. What is one of the most infamous episodes in US Olympic history is brought to life with great writing (what no nomination?) acting and direction. I had a very emotional response to the movie that had me going in many directions. Trying to figure out how to convey that was hard until I found this quote from Colin Covert the reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Scene by scene, it made me laugh, cringe, get angry, upset, confused, enlightened, entertained, almost tearful and awed”. Spot on Colin. Other reviewers have noted the clever editing that gives the film an incredible energy. You will not look at your watch I promise. It is nominated for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film Editing. I think it deserves all three but will likely win for Best Supporting Actress (Best Actress is going to Frances McDormand I suppose) and maybe just maybe it will win Film Editing. Damn it, it deserves something for being one of the best movies I have seen in a long long time.

Best Documentary and Best Animated Feature at the Oscars

Time to complain a bit about the Oscars and I do this with just a modicum of background on the history of the Academy Awards but with a big interest in documentary film and animation. Trying to pick out the Best Documentary or Best Animated Film in 2018 is a total fools game. What on earth are the criteria? When it comes to the traditional Hollywood dramatic films we get to recognize directors, actors, editors, cinematographers, writers and on and on but do the directors, writers or cinematographers of the documentaries or animated films ever get nominated for these awards. That’s a rhetorical question and the answer is: No.

All the nominees in the Feature Documentary and Animation categories have qualities that deserve recognition but only one can win and the others (particularly the docs) will fade away. As I look at the documentary category I can only guess at the winner despite seeing all of them. Some feature excellent writing, cinematography, theme and direction. The choice however will be likely on the theme that resonates most with the viewers at this point in the year rather than on overall quality. All deserve more. In the animation category the Academy seems to be driven by Walt Disney’s foray into the feature length animated film with Snow White back in the 1930’s. So the films are seen as for children, have cute stories and are a nod to kids. In fact animation is way beyond that now with powerful stories told with artistic quality and aimed at general audiences. They deserve consideration for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing and so forth but are apparently excluded out of a blindness for their quality. The same can be said for documentary films as well. Wake up Academy and other award groups and recognize quality beyond live action drama.