Monday, September 21, 2020

My Mini TIFF Recap

This was to be my 16th attending TIFF. Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a damper on the proceedings. Yes, there were in-person screenings at the Lightbox, and Drive-In showings – no I didn’t attend those. If I haven’t gone to my Toronto office since March, I wasn’t going to Toronto to see a movie. The good news is I was able to attend a total of 9 digital screenings. It isn’t the same of course – even if the commercials that I see every year played before them brought a comfortable familiarity to the proceedings. But ultimately, it’s watching films from home – which I’ve done a lot since COVID. Still, I was happy to support TIFF – and overall I had a pretty good festival. As always, my recap doesn’t really go in any real order – just a loose collection of thoughts on the films I saw – I always start with the weakest, and end with the strongest, but other than that, it’s just kind of go-with-the-flow.

With that in mind, the weakest film I did see was still not horrible. Shadow in the Clouds (Roseanne Liang) was part of Midnight Madness, and it is a kind of bonkers horror/action/WWII film, and it may well have played differently for me at Ryerson at Midnight. It stars Chloe Grace Mortez, as a flight officer in WWII, boarding a plane at the last minute, with a mysterious package, and orders from on high. That certainly doesn’t stop the all-male crew from making misogynistic remarks throughout her flight – and like women everywhere, she just kind of has to grin and bear it. They place her in the under plane turret for take-off – and she’s stuck there for roughly the first half of the very short (83 minutes – with credits) film. They don’t believe her when she says she sees Japanese fighter planes – and they certainly don’t believe when they see something else – something tearing at the wing of the plane. But, of course, she’s right. The direction by Liang is actually pretty good – the film moves at a breakneck pace, so you don’t really have time to think of how absurd it all it, or how really every character in the film is an insufferable prick (Mortez less so then the others). No, I didn’t know that the movie started with a screenplay Max Landis – which they have apparently reworked as everyone involved has distanced themselves from Landis (with good reason). But you can see those roots here still. Basically, the film is silly and goofy, and gets violent, but also rings a little hollow.

The only other Midnight Madness I saw (there were only three) was significantly better. Violation (Madeline Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli) does have some hallmarks of being a debut film – the symbolism with the animals and bugs is a little thick, the mixed up timeline structure is probably too complicated for its own good. Yet, the heart of the story - a different take on the rape/revenge film, this time told from the female gaze, is quite disturbing, and the emotions quite raw. Sims-Fewer herself plays a woman, who is spending the weekend away with her husband – who she’s on the brink of divorce with – and her sister and her husband, who was childhood friends with them. Since you know this is a rape/revenge film – you know where it’s going. What I will say is that the rape is in no way eroticized – it’s seen in extreme closeups, so you don’t really see what’s going on, while the revenge gets brutal and graphic – and there is far more male nudity here then female nudity. It’s a challenging, promising debut feature for Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli – a disturbing film that will haunt you. I don’t think it’s quite as good a subversion of the genre as Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, which I saw at TIFF 2017 (coincidentally, on the digital Q&A, they bring in Fargeat to ask a couple of questions – and it just made me angrier we have yet to see a follow-up from her yet) – but it’s another interesting, female led version of the controversial sub-genre.

I saw more docs than usual this TIFF – they were more on offer on the digital screenings. Undeniably the most visually stunning of these was Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi) – which admirers of his last film, the Oscar nominated Fire at Sea will likely admire as well. That film was about the Italian island of Lampedusa, the first place in Europe that migrants coming via boat land – the tragedy that unfolds there, and how the residents are basically just going about their lives. Notturno is visually similar – this time, it takes place on the border cities on the war torn Middle East. It isnt really about living during wartime, but rather the long tail of living through war – the trauma suffered, etc. The film is gorgeous – but you really do feel Rosi is staging these shots for maximum impact. You also feel uncomfortable at times – sometimes Rosi intends you to, and sometimes it’s just because you feel you shouldn’t be watching this, and Rosi shouldn’t be there (in particular, the scenes involving children reliving their trauma, that perhaps shouldn’t be fodder for a movie). Still, it’s undeniably beautiful, and stirring emotionally – but it’s not quite Fire at Sea.

The most traditional of the doc offerings I saw was MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard) is a fascinating documentary that basically tracks all the work the FBI did to track Martin Luther King during his years as a Civil Rights Activist. The film lets you know up front that more documents and especially recordings related to this surveillance will be released in 2027 – and although you kind of think that perhaps this film should have waited until then, rather than to have as much speculation as it does, the film is still a valuable historical document. In 2020, we have pretty much granted King sainthood, and his adversary here – J. Edgar Hoover – is looked upon far less charitably, so it’s important to remember that King was far from beloved during his lifetime – and not just among racist Southerners, but by nervous white Americans everywhere – in one appearance they literally ask King if he worries that by pushing for “too much, too soon” he will alienate white Americans. He does not. The film is made up of valuable historical footage – and features voiceovers by historians who have studied the record. The film doesn’t shy away from the most explosive aspects of what was apparently on those tapes – King’s extra-martial affairs – but does ask us to remember King, like us all, was human.

In the so strange it has to be seen to be believes category is Enemies of the State (Sonia Kennebeck) – who tells the story Matt Dehart – who was targeted by the FBI and local law enforcement, spent 21 months in prison awaiting trial, where he claimed he was tortured, and then tried to claim asylum in Canada – all because he says he was running servers for Anonymous, and had ties to WikiLeaks. Yet, Dehart’s case that he’s another Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning or Reality Winner isn’t quite so clear cut – he never actually released any information – he claims when he shut down the server, he made a copy of yet, and sent it to someone in the U.K. – but we don’t actually have physical proof of that. Still, he became a cause célèbre for many – but he was never actually charged with anything related to Wikileaks – he was charged with luring online, and then sexually abusing, minors – and by the end, you’d be hard pressed to claim he’s innocent of those charges – despite the pleas from his parents, who we see throughout the film, and give lots of interviews (Dehart himself was supposed to sit for an interview after his release from prison – but he didn’t show). Kennebeck is obviously inspired by Errol Morris – a producer of this film – and perhaps wears that influence a little too much on her sleeve. Still, it’s a fascinating film, that takes turns you won’t see coming – and generally, looks great.

By far the longest film I watched was City Hall (Frederick Wiseman) – at four hours and thirty-five minutes. The documentary giant – now 91 – has returned with one of his longest films ever – documenting what happens at Boston City Hall – concentrating on Mayor Marty Walsh. Basically, for the entire runtime, we sit through meeting after meeting after meeting – budget meetings, school board meetings, housing meetings, zoning meetings, etc. Does that sound dull? Perhaps, and honestly, the film probably could have been a little shorter. Yet, Wiseman’s point does undeniably become clear here – that government can, and should, work – and it requires a lot of people to make get involved and make it work. Perhaps if we weren’t living in the Trump era, the film could be more easily dismissed as dull. But we don’t have that luxury – and Wiseman’s point is invaluable right now. I don’t know if the film will go down as one of Wiseman’s best – but it is as fascinating as any four and a half hour movie about a major City Hall could possibly be.

It’s easy to see why Venice’s Best Actress prize went to Vanessa Kirby in Pieces of a Woman (Kornel Mundruczo). It’s an impressive performance by Kirby, as a woman whose baby dies just moments after birth, and then struggles to deal with it for the rest of the movie – as her marriage (to Shia LaBeouf – another impressive performance) falls apart, her relationship with her mother (Ellen Burstyn) becomes strained because she doesn’t act the way her mother thinks is right. All the performances in the movie are actually quite good – and the birth sequence, which runs about 20 minutes in an unbroken shot, is formally impressive. I do wish that director Kornel Mundruczo would calm down a little bit behind the camera – this is a movie requiring subtlety and sensitivity – and if there’s one thing the director of White God is not, it’s subtle. This one has proven to be divisive – and I’m right in the middle on it.

I was originally going to skip New Order (Michel Franco) – because I saw, and hated, April’s Daughter at TIFF 2017. But this won one of the top prizes at Venice, so I figured I would give it a shot. It’s far better than April’s Daughter – the first half of the movie is actually quite excellent. An upper class wedding in Mexico is interrupted by protests that have been sweeping the city. At the same time, an old family employee shows up unannounced asking for 200,000 pesos so his wife – also an old employee – can have lifesaving surgery. Only the young bride seems to care about this – something will cost her dearly. The setup of the movie is better than the payoff though – the second half sees everything descend into chaos, and will has numerous scenes that are tough to take – and while it’s all impressively staged, and shocking, but it comes at the expense of the characters. Its politics are also a little hard to parse – especially since Franco makes a young, rich woman the most sympathetic character – but I think it’s more about showing how the privileged will also suffer if wealth disparity isn’t solved, and protests turn violent – and totalitarianism takes over – but you got to work to get there.

The best film I saw at TIFF was undoubtedly Nomadland (Chloe Zhao) – which not only confirms the immense talent we saw in The Rider, but sours past it. In the film, Frances McDormand plays a 60-year woman, who basically sees her entire small town decimated when the local factory closes down. A widow, with no kids, now no home, or real job, she lives out of her van – which she has tricked out nicely. She drifts from place to place – working at a Amazon warehouse over Christmas, meeting up with other Nomads in the desert, working at a RV park for a while, or in a restaurant, or picking vegetables, etc. – and then starting the repeat the process over again. Other than McDormand – and fellow nomad, who drops back in as it were played by David Straithairn – the rest of the cast are essentially playing themselves. Zhao picked perfectly when casting McDormand, the type of actress capable of great depths of humanity – this is another one of her very best performances – but also someone who blends right in with the swath of humanity she is in (ditto Straithairn). It is also the TIFF film I most regretted not being able to see on the big screen – the beautiful vistas captured by Zhao and cinematographer Joshua James Richards, makes this one of the beautiful portraits of the American West I have ever seen. It’s also a painfully relevant movie – a portrait of older Americans with few choices in life but to live this way. What it isn’t, in anyway, is poverty porn though. In a COVID-19 world, you cannot help but wonder about them now. It is a subtle, stirring film – clearly one of the year’s best.

And so, that closes the door on another TIFF for me. It wasn’t the same – wasn’t close to the same – to what the experience normally is. But it was probably the best we could expect under the circumstances. I hope to be back to normal screenings in 2021 – but who knows?

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