RBG – Directors, Betsy West and Judy Cohen

Ruth Bader Ginsberg is an octogenarian Supreme Court Justice and is part of the diminished left-wing vote on the Court. She was appointed to the court by Bill Clinton in 1993 and has been a force for justice in the US for a quarter century and is seemingly hanging on to prevent any further appointments of ultra right-wing judges like Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. This documentary takes us through her long career as a lawyer and advocate for gender equality. She was supported by her husband as her career took off and she is highly respected even by her opponents for her intellect and strength. She has survived three battles with cancer and the passing of her husband and when she can finally retire hopefully in 2020 when Trump goes down to humiliating defeat, she will be remembered for being one of the most important Supreme Court justices ever. This documentary of her life is moving and informative at the same time. We know very little about most of the supreme court justices in the US but they carry immense power. The loss of RBG will be devastating to the politics in the US should she not survive Trump. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. While I confess that there are few documentaries I don’t like, I still recommend this film very much to everyone with an interest in American politics and in the remarkable contribution this woman has made to her country.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Directors, Joel and Ethan Coen

Netflix is becoming one of the better producers of film and television and have worked with the Coen brothers to produce a fascinating film that is really a tribute to the American tradition of Westerns. In a series of short films it looks at the Western with humour and respect. Whether or not you are a fan of Westerns you will be hooked by the first episode in the film called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It is a brilliant take off of the singing cowboy. It hooked me and while the following episodes are up and down in quality and are all very different from one another and I have already re-watched it a few times. The other good thing about the film is that it can be watched in doses since each episode stands on its own. The film is also all about the script which is excellent and the acting is good but not the reason to see this movie. So the final word from me is that this movie is a refreshing distraction and worth seeing – especially part one. It has received critical praise (8/10 on Rotten Tomatoes)  but because of its format I think many were not sure about how to rank it. Its too bad some of the segments could not be nominated in the category of Live Action Shorts. However, it has received a nomination for Best Song, Screenplay and Costumes. You can find “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K91etXNIkaY

Have a listen but remember that this song is the conclusion of the first episode and needs context so take the time to watch Part 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Vice – Director, Adam McKay

I was intrigued by this film from the day it was released. The Bush/Cheney rule in the US rivals that of Donald Trump for its outrageous power grabs and one-man rule. Unfortunately, that one-man rule was not the president but the vice-president operating in the background. Cheney built a cabinet of warmongers and ultra right-wing economists. That government built the ground on which Trump was elected and a host of right-wing senators and congress persons. Even the Democrats lean right, and Obama was constrained and influenced by the right. That rant out of the way I turn now to the film itself. Right at the start the film offers a proviso. The filmmakers point out in text that for anyone to know everything that really happened in the years leading up to Cheney’s rule is impossible, but nonetheless they “tried their fucking best”. The film is interesting particularly for politics junkies. We see connections to Donald Rumsfeld, Anthony Scalia and others that might not be immediately obvious to everyone. It also shows how more moderate people like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell were manipulated. The problem with the film is that the director and writers seem not to be sure if they were making a dramatic film or a documentary and it is at least 40 minutes longer than it needs to be as dramatic elements of no real relevance are inserted including a bizarre scene of fake Shakespearean dialogue between Cheney and his wife. All that aside the movie is interesting and involving and offers insight into those years.

Of course, in the current tradition of political correctness the film, like Green Book and others has come under criticism for not being an accurate historical portrait. I hate using the “political correctness” thing because I support being politically correct in many circumstances but I am not sure I am okay with it being used in these cases. The unfortunate personal actions of people like Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey, and the political antics of Clint Eastwood, Jon Voight, and Dennis Hopper doesn’t mean I will stop watching Mission Impossible, The Usual Suspects, Dirty Harry, Midnight Cowboy, or Easy Rider. Likewise Vice and Green Book may not accurately reflect the real events they portray but the films themselves are good and should be judged on their merits as works of art. Many will disagree but I needed to get that off my chest. Meanwhile if you are a political junkie you will definitely like this movie and there is no question that the performances of the ensemble cast of Cristian Bale, Sam Rockwell, Amy Adams and Steve Carrell are superb and worthy of the nominations they have received. If you aren’t as intrigued with politics as many others you will find it too long and somewhat boring. I stand on the border – I was interested but wanted to fast forward through some of the film. Rotten Tomatoes gives it 6.7/10 for critical response and a 3.1/5 audience rating. Hmmm… an excellent mediocre film?

BlacKkKlansman – Director, Spike Lee

I am a big Spike Lee fan and BlacKkKlansman did not disappoint. This film joins several other movies from 2018 and 2017 that look at being black in America. Set in different eras and touching genres like horror and sci-fi, this film, Green Book, If Beale Street Could Talk, Sorry to Bother You and Get Out are all worth seeing and all deserve awards although Sorry To Bother You has yet to get the recognition it deserved. BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story of the first black detective to join a Colorado police department. Coinciding with his appointment, the Ku Klux Klan attempts to open a chapter in the town and sanitize its profile. Our hero played by John David Washington (son of Denzel), decides to take them down and using the phone (and his white voice) convinces the Klan to invite him as a member. That done he needs to find someone white to sit in for him. Enter Adam Driver a fellow detective who takes on the role. One twist is that Driver’s character is Jewish and no more welcome than Washington would be if exposed. The story combines comedy and thriller to tell a very entertaining story that at the same time does not shirk from the racism in the Klan but also in the police department. Driver and Washington are excellent although Washington failed to get an acting nomination from the Academy. He did get one from the Golden Globes however. Also six Academy Award nominations for 2018 and well deserved. An entertaining and eye-opening film.  

Roma – Director, Alphonso Cuarón

Cuarón’s career to date would not have led me to predict a film like Roma. He is known for directing Gravity, a sci-fi space drama, Children of Men, a sci-fi story of a dystopic future and one of the Harry Potter films. This autobiographical story of growing up in Mexico City is definitely a step in a new direction for him, simple, straightforward, and no special effects. Like much of his work in the past this film has won critical praise and now 10 Academy Award nominations including best foreign language film and best picture. While I liked the movie, I confess I fail to see the enthusiasm. We are taken into the day to day life of a family in transition and have insight into the relationship between the kids, mother, and the servants who are part of the family in important ways. The film is a tribute to the women who raised him and a beautiful portrait of a family’s life in the 1970’s. The cinematography is very good, and I confess I enjoyed it being in black and white, but ten nominations is, I think, over the top. While I am sceptical of all the nominations I do think this is a film worth seeing and to be fair I have liked many of his earlier but very different films. Cuarón is a talented director with a varied and top flight works so have a look but despite all the nominations I suspect it will not clean up.

If Beale Street Could Talk – Director, Barry Jenkins

It’s a unique thing that James Baldwin was able to do and that Barry Jenkins was able to pull off in terms of having you feel broken yet so full at the same time by the end of the film. — Stephan James.

This quote from the male lead of If Beale Street Could Talk helped me understand my own feelings after leaving this film. Beale Street is based on a novel by James Baldwin and is a love story that happens in the context of racism in New York City. The protagonists are a young couple who grow up together, fall in love and have a child together. The pregnancy occurs while the young man is falsely accused of rape and awaits trial in prison. During the film we see flashbacks to their childhood, their growing relationship, the struggles within their families, and their own struggles to find work and a place to live while planning a life together. The man’s arrest and imprisonment and the efforts to free him are, however, the major narrative. As I watched I wondered how it would all end. Would there be a Hollywood ending with him being freed and justice achieved? Would he die in prison from suicide or murder? Would he become hardened by his experience and become something his lover could no longer love? In the end none of these happen but somehow I did not leave the film depressed but certainly angry at what happened to them and at the same time hopeful and relieved at the ability of some people at least to overcome or rather, live with injustice because of what they share with one another. Not sure if that will explain the film or not but James’ quote was very helpful to me in resolving how I felt.

The film is worthy of the praise it has received. The acting is OSCAR worthy and the cinematography and writing of equal quality. I read some of James Baldwin in university but was, I think, too young to appreciate its importance. My first recent re-introduction was to Baldwin was the excellent documentary about his life and contributions – I Am Not Your Negro, which I will re-watch soon and I encourage everyone to see. If you go to see this film, and I recommend you do, it will help you come to understand how victims of racism survive the context within which they are living. The experience of living within a racist society is something that can be hard to understand particularly for those of us who have grown up as part of the white middle class. Baldwin and Jenkins have told a story that reaches across that divide and educates without pulling punches but also without anger or hate and with great power. An excellent film.

Anthropocene – Directors, Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas De Pencier, Edward Burtynsky



Anthropocene is a stunningly beautiful look at how humans are destroying the environment and the planet to the point that we have established a new geological epoch  named after ourselves to follow the recent Holocene epoch that nurtured modern human evolution and civilization . Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal are a Canadian photographer and filmmaker who have worked together on other projects including a great NFB film Watermark. Burtynsky is an excellent photographer who pushes the limits of the art and Baichwal adds to the photography with equally stunning film. The message of the film is clear. We are destroying the planet and all that lives here including ourselves. However rather than pontificate and scold or guilt trip the viewer we are shown the impact we are having in many different ways with images and verbal descriptions. The hope is that once we see what we are doing we will be motivated to act. There is no particular plot to describe or argument per se. Instead I encourage you to see this film and if you are in Toronto in the next few months go see the AGO exhibit before it closes in January. The film manages to be both scary and beautiful at the same time. You will be hypnotized by the film of burning elephant tusks, the seemingly endless coal train moving off into the distance, the trip down the longest tunnel in the world and the giant machines that seem to be literally eating the planet. The images will stay with you for a long time.

My Generation – Director, David Batty

I love my documentaries and this one I recommend to everyone who at one time thought you could not trust anyone over 30. Although it is somewhat self-indulgent, Michael Caine narrates a trip through the 60’s. I am a sucker for Caine’s accent and delivery, so I was hooked from the start. There are interviews with Roger Daltry, Paul McCartney, Marianne Faithful, Mary Quant and Twiggy among others. We don’t see them as they are today but there is all kinds of archival footage of them from the time. If you can’t guess from the list of names this movie focusses on London of the 60’s which in many ways was the centre of popular culture of the time and avoids for the most part the nasty sides of things like Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and student and youth unrest but it does have a totally awesome soundtrack and great scenes from the time including a very very young Mick Jagger and the Stones, scenes of the Beatles at the Cavern nightclub and the wonderful street scenes all accompanied by Caine’s cockney accent. We also get some great scenes from his movies of the time including Alfie, The Ipcress File, Zulu and such. I learned some very interesting things, like how Michael Caine chose his screen name (He was born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite), and that Mary Quant invented the mini-skirt.
If you are up for a nostalgia trip this is all for you and there is some coherence. As a review in Variety puts it the film has three parts: the rise of the 60’s revolt against the mores of the previous decade, its flourishing and its decline as the 70’s close in. Still this is a movie about Michael Caine’s experience of the time in which he was a player but one very much connected to times and the people. Do not look for deep insight or critical analysis but have fun.

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.