Once We Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band – Director, Daniel Roher

I love The Band and have listened to their music for years. Not long before Levon Helm passed away he did a concert tour and I saw him perform at Massey Hall in one of the best concerts I have ever attended so I had to see this documentary. It is notable in that it is the first Canadian documentary to be named the opening gala at TIFF and perhaps more so because the director is a young 26-year-old Canadian. Quite an accomplishment for someone starting out on their career. All that said I must say I did not think this movie was spectacular or worthy of its place in the festival. It is a pretty ordinary documentary about a remarkable rock band. One of the weaknesses might be that it is based on Robbie Robertson’s book: Testimony so it is very much a film about his career as a member of The Band and his memories of the members and its history. It is no secret that the group broke up after 16 years together and that Helm was extremely angry with Robertson as evidenced in his book: This Wheel’s on Fire. I think I hoped for a more objective doc about The Band and its rise and fall. Instead we get a very focussed look from Robertson’s perspective.

That was my disappointment, but the film does go into depth about The Band’s origins in Canada and the role that Ronnie Hawkins played in bringing the group together. It also puts real emphasis on the initial closeness of the members – hence the title—and how that influenced the unique sound they created. I also learned more about their personal struggles than I cared to know including drug addiction, car wrecks and health issues I did not need to know. I think my favourite member of the group after Levon was Garth Hudson who was much older than the others and the quietest. I did not learn enough, and the director was asked about that in the Q and A after the film. He did interview Hudson but said that the interview was cut because of Hudson’s age, describing him as quite elderly and that the interview did not work. This I guess contributed to what I found missing from the film. Again, Roher defended this by saying that he was hired to do a film about Robertson and his career which is fair enough but if you choose to see the film be aware that you will be looking through Robertson’s eyes. On the plus side you will see some amazing classic footage from the years they all lived in Woodstock in a house that is called Big Pink, from concerts and from archival interviews with the members and others like Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen among others. All very interesting. So the bottom line is that if you are a fan of The Band you should likely try to see this movie but I suspect you will be left thirsting for more.

I am Woman – Director, Unjoo Moon

I warn all readers that I saw this movie suffering from hypoglycemia and annoyed at TIFF for not accepting my printed ticket and making me get in line to get a new one printed. TIFF organization is really really bad. That said – this is a pretty mediocre film. This is a biopic about Helen Reddy (played amazingly well by Tilda Cobham-Hervey). I admit to finding the song, I am Woman, very powerful and I understand how and why it has become an anthem for the woman’s movement. I confess to having a bit of a heart flutter when I hear Reddy sing it however, I did not find this biopic to be particularly inspiring and in many ways directionless. Reddy had 12 top 40 hits during her career, she was a good singer, she had a difficult career and many personal challenges in addition to her strong feminist activism. She was also surrounded and supported by some remarkable people who also had their own personal challenges. This film failed to figure out what part of her life or that of the ones around her to be the focus of the film. The only hit that was well presented was I am Woman which was done twice. Her other hits were not presented well if at all. Her husband and manager is a cocaine addict and was abusive until that was confronted but the relationship between them is left unresolved in the film other than hinting at the fact they broke up. Her friendship with Lillian Roxon (played by Danielle MacDonald) is equally poorly developed and left unresolved other than learning that she dies and Helen doesn’t go to the funeral. That she stopped singing and took up a quiet unpublic life is not explained – it is just presented. i saw this at the Elgin with a full crowd who were totally into Reddy and her activism. If that had been the focus it might have worked better but sadly I found the whole thing a bore. It is not horrible or anything just not very good. I suggest it might be worth watching in bed late at night if you can’t sleep but otherwise, if you like Reddy’s music, just get Spotify or Google Play to stream some songs for you. It will be more satisfying.

Okay – having had some food I need to say that Helen Reddy is a remarkable woman and her anthem is a great song. Listen here if you do not know the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6fHTyVmYp4

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles – Director, Max Lewkowicz

Okay it’s the day before TIFF actually starts but I nonetheless took in a great documentary at the Hot Docs cinema. I confess that I really enjoy books and films that describe how movies or plays were created and presented. Two of my favourite books are Jaws: Memories from Martha’s Vineyard by Matt Taylor and We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie by Noah Isenberg. This time I saw a movie that falls into the same category as these books. I confess I am not a huge musical fan although I have developed a taste for older musicals like Oklahoma and West Side Story. I should thank the Stratford Festival for drawing me in. Fiddler on the Roof is not one that I have really liked but this documentary made me pay attention. The musical is based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about the lives of the Jewish population in eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. Not a good time for the Jews who suffered poverty and persecution. To make a musical about this time and these events is likely not the first thing to come to mind but the composers, lyricists, producers and directors who have undertaken this task are portrayed and interviewed particularly those who put together the first production in the 1960’s. The people include the producer Harold Prince, the director and choreographer Jerome Robbins and the composers, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Happily many of the original people involved are still with us and made for great interviews. I learned a great deal about Jerome Robbins I did not know and I learned a great deal about how a Broadway Show gets put together and staged successfully.

The show has been in continuous production for over 50 years not only on Broadway but in such disparate locations as Korea and Japan. It has been cast with all black cast members, and of course in schools and festivals like Stratford. The documentary shows us that the theme of the film – Tradition – and the suffering and struggles of these Jews are universal themes that speak to all cultures and communities.  It includes film from productions all over the world but what is really cool for Canadians is that they return again and again to a classic production in Stratford.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and recommend it anyone with an interest in film or theatre. You will learn a lot and not be disappointed whether you like musicals or not.

The Favourite – Director, Yorgos Lanthimos

I was very interested to see this movie given all the praise and awards it has won. In addition it has managed ten Oscar nominations including all the big ones. So I settled in to be entertained by what was a rare comedy nominated for Best Picture. Disappointed. This is a terrible movie and I had to fast forward through the final interminable last half hour. Promoted as a comedy, the film is a tedious two hour trip as two women compete for the attention and control of  Queen Anne who is a troubled and unwell monarch not really qualified for her role in life. In the end…. Well there really isn’t an end just the sense that what you have been through for two hours will just continue. A comedy it is not. It is a cruel, pointless take on the British monarchy and is boring to boot. The performances of the three leads are good but not great and do not merit nominations or awards. The script is wordy and desperately needed editing. I found I cared nothing for the characters who were immensely unlikeable. This is the second film by Lanthimos I have seen, the first being Lobster. I hated that one and should have been forewarned before paying money to see this film. I truly hope it wins nothing but might garner Best Costumes which I would crudgingly give it. A sad waste of talent. Avoid it at all cost.

A Star is Born – Director, Bradley Cooper

This is the third remake of the original 1937 A Star is Born and like the others really didn’t need to be made. The original and two of the three remakes including this one are highly rated but I am not sure why. I should confess that I really don’t like movies about romances between successful musicians or the troubles they have. In this case Bradley Cooper a burned out rock musician wanders randomly into a gay nightclub/bar and hears the only female performer sing and “instantly” sees her as a major talent and falls deeply in love with her right away. She has given up on her career (stop me if you heard this plot before) but he encourages her to persist and of course she becomes hugely successful while he crashes and burns. Yawn. I really like Lady Gaga but as a singer not an actor and Cooper, who has been nominated for Oscars in the past, really does nothing for me in this film. Still somehow A Star is Born has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director etc not only by the Academy but also by the Golden Globes and BAFTA’s. So far it has only won for Best Song and Best Music which may be justified. After all I like Lady Gaga and if her song wins I will not complain but I will beg Hollywood to stop making and remaking this stupid movie.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse – Directors, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

I was not sure I wanted to see this movie. I like Marvel movies for the most part but they are normally live action while this was not only animated but not a very traditional story – for example Peter Parker dies right at the start. The premise of the film is the creation of a new Spider-man, Miles Morales, the son of a black New York cop and a Latino mother. The villains are the traditional Marvel baddies like The Kingpin and some variations like a female Dr. Octopus. The Kingpin has built a device to create a bridge to other dimensions which draws several spider-men/women into our universe and who team up to train Miles to use his new powers and save our universe from destruction. I was prepared not to like this movie but ended up loving it. The animation was great, the script had humour and paid great homage to the original comics and to the Marvel live action films that preceded it. Some have suggested it is one of the best ever super hero movies and I would not disagree. There is even an animated cameo of Stan Lee. Just perfect. You do have to be a bit of a Marvel comics fan to get into this one but even if you are not I recommend having a look. If it is not obvious from this review, I suspect this is a cinch to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It has already won the Golden Globe and BAFTA so… not likely it can lose.

2019 Oscar Animated Shorts Nominations – Directors, various

Nominees: Bao, Weekends, Animal Behaviour, One Small Step, and Late Afternoon

The Short film categories are always interesting and a refreshing break from the feature film categories which this year are, for the most part not very memorable or have been sullied by the behaviour of the actors, writers or directors. This year’s nominees for Best Animated Short film are all very different from each other in style and design. Three are from Canadian directors and if you are from Toronto you will recognize the skyline in Bao and Weekends despite both being credited as from the USA.  Animal Behaviour comes from the perennially nominated National Film Board. So comments. With the exception of Animal Behaviour all the other nominees have some heart-breaking elements to them which gives them a dimension that some, who are not fans of animated films, may find difficult.

Lets start with One Small Step which was I think the weakest of the five nominated films. It’s a story about a young girl from humble origins that realizes her dream of being an astronaut and going to the moon. The story about her dreams and her relationship with her father is engaging but there is nothing very surprising or interesting in the story so while it is pleasant to watch it is not the winner.

Late Afternoon is more touching as it shows a young woman helping her mother pack up her belongings. It is clear that the mother has early dementia and the packing up is the packing up of her life. At first she doesn’t seem to recognize her daughter but at the end the connection is made making the film bittersweet. Still I would say more sweet than bitter.

Weekends is about a young boy whose parents are divorced and he has to deal with visiting his father on the weekends and coping with his mother as she enters a new relationship. I am not sure the writers and directors knew what they really wanted to do with the story but the animation was very interesting to watch. It speaks somewhat to the issue I have with animated films. This is not the sort of animation you are used to with Pixar or Disney films but it is still excellent and interesting and evocative of the theme of the film.

Animal Behaviour is the NFB entry and was a bit of a relief from the heavier themes of the other films. It is set in a group therapy session with a dog as the therapist and slug, a pig, a small bird, a cat, and a female praying mantis. All goes relatively normally until a huge gorilla with anger issues joins the group. Hilarity follows. I liked it a lot but must admit that this may have had something to do with having something to laugh at.

Bao is likely the best of the lot although I confess, I found the story a bit difficult to follow and I am not sure I like the fact that it is a Pixar production. The animation is exquisite as one would expect from Pixar and it has a sense of humour but some sort of shocking elements as well. It focusses on a Chinese family making bao (a steamed bun with a vegetable or meat filling). One of the bao comes alive and becomes a child that grows up into its difficult teens. I will not spoil the rest but while it sounds humourous I would warn you that it has some heavier elements to it.  I suspect it will win the Oscar but I think maybe I would prefer Weekends or Animal Behaviour.

Isle of Dogs – Director, Wes Anderson

I will start this review with full disclosure. In my opinion Wes Anderson has not made any bad movies and has made many great movies. This one is one of his best. The hard bit is assessing his animated features and comparing them to his live action films but one constant is that none of the films are conventional.  

If you are dog lover this movie will be good reinforcement. It is set in Japan and a city where the mayor is a dog hater. An epidemic spreads among the dogs in the city and the mayor uses this as an excuse to exile all the dogs to an island off the coast that is used as a garbage dump. The dogs are left to fend for themselves but a young boy – the adopted son of the mayor – has lost his pet dog to the island and he goes in search of him gaining the support of a pack of exiled dogs. They explore an immense wilderness of waste, garbage and processing Meanwhile scientists are working on a cure for the epidemic and there is a resistance among the young people in the town who support repatriation. The story is very complex and the film is a wee bit too long but the animation is superb and the story is ultimately charming and engaging. I particularly like the personalities of the dogs we meet as performed by the likes of Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

This film is up for a 2019 animation award as Best Animated feature film. I find it hard to evaluate animated films. They are all so different in style and design and of course there is the script and acting to evaluate. I feel like they are not adequately respected by the industry or at least by the academy. They get their own category but it’s a bit of a nod to a group not to be taken to seriously. Few are ever nominated for Best Picture and never win. I think they should be considered for Screenplay, Directing, most of the technical awards and of course, Best Picture. This ends my short rant.

Solo: A Star Wars Story – Director, Ron Howard

Disney now owns Star Wars for better or for worse and they have done better and worse. The first spin off from the original 6 movies was Rogue One which many argue is the second best Star Wars movie ever after The Empire Strikes Back and I would have to agree. If I could list the second best Disney spin off it would be Solo. The writers had a ball working on this film. They have played with Harrison Ford’s lines from the original films and had fun with explaining lots of things. Like we find out how Solo hooked up with Chewy, how he got involved with Lando, Jabba the Hutt and how he acquired the Millennium Falcon. If you are not sure what all that is about you do need to see the first three films. Also we learn what on earth he meant when he tells Obi Wan and Luke that he made the Kessel (not bloody Phil Kessell) run in under 12 parsecs which makes no sense until you see this film since he is apparently talking how fast the Falcon is but parsecs are a measure of distance not speed. No worries. Once you see this film you will understand all. What I loved about this movie was its respect for the story and its decision not to take itself too seriously. Despite my praise all this movie get is a nod for visual effects. It certainly deserves this but I think so much more. Oh, a final note. Han’s love interest in the movie is played by Emilia Clarke….that’s right, Daenerys Targaryen!

Why doesn’t the academy have a category for Great Trash?

Christopher Robin – Director, Marc Forster

I really liked this film which managed only a visual effects nomination despite its charming storyline and writing. The story is about Christopher Robin all grown up with a wife and daughter and who is totally lost in his work and increasingly isolated. He is still a good man who, charged with coming up with a way find efficiencies at his firm, sends his family away for the weekend while he works. Luckily he is found by an old friend. Winnie-the-Pooh crawls into his isolation and calls him back to the 100-acre wood to save his old friends from a rampaging Heffalump. The encounter results in Christopher’s redemption as he returns to the real world and reengages with his daughter and wife. He also finds a way to save his firm from downsizing and instead grow and find new direction to the dismay of some of his superiors. If you are entranced by A. A. Milne’s old stories I think you will find this movie captures the language and the characters very well. That said I am disappointed that this film did not get nominations for animation, writing, or even Best Picture. I note that on most film websites it is highly rated and much more highly rated than other films like Bohemian Rhapsody for example. I suspect that the film awards need to rethink some of the categories. There may need to be one for films aimed at children for example. I think this may require me to write a blog post about this issue and it will be forthcoming. The other point to be made here relates to my review of Incredibles 2. There I was critical of Disney studios for milking old franchises with mediocre sequels. While this is true of the Incredibles and some Star Wars sequels, this time they scored with a quality product.