The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain should truthfully be titled The MURDER of Kenneth Chamberlain, and I’m pretty sure everyone involved in this film hears the correct word shouted over the one that’s used every time it’s pronounced. The film does the shouting for them, of course, leaving little (no) doubt in anyone’s mind who watches it. Kenneth Chamberlain, a Black man, was murdered by the police. It is such a familiar refrain by now that it may seem redundant to make yet another film – but that’s exactly the point. These stories need to be told, heard, and shared until actual changed is effected. Kenneth Chamberlain was an old man in his bed when the police came knocking on his door. This is his story.

On a November night in 2011, Kenneth Chamberlain rolled over in his sleep and accidentally triggered his life alert button. The police showed up to his apartment in White Plains NY’s public housing do a wellness check around 5:30am. Rousing him from his bed, Kenneth was confused as he fumbled for his hearing aids. He was a retired Marine struggling with bipolar disorder; he was listed as ’emotionally disturbed’ by the police dispatch but in fact he wore the life alert for a heart condition. He refused to let the cops in but verbally assured them that he was fine and the button was pressed accidentally. The cops would not leave. Having assessed his neighbourhood as predominantly poor and Black, they were furious to not be let in, and wanting to teach him a lesson, they mused he might be hiding a meth lab, or a dead prostitute. Kenneth held his ground, growing increasingly agitated by the insistent banging and attempts to push their way in. Keeping the door firmly locked, Kenneth placed panicked calls to the life alert agency, pleading for his safety. Overhearing the police intrusion, the woman on the other end does everything in her power to call off the cops, but no matter what she or Kenneth, or Kenneth’s family do, the cops will not back down.

How do things go from a wellness check to gunning an old man down in just 90 minutes? Frankie Faison as Kenneth paints the troubling picture of yet another innocent Black man murdered by the police. The lengths the police will go to in order to murder him are astounding. While not a documentary, it almost watches like one, determined not to stray from the truth, which was recorded in its entirety by Kenneth’s staying on an open line with his life alert company. For some this will be old news, and for others eye-opening, but either way, this is must-watch viewing.

Silent Night

Is TIFF the most wonderful time of the year? For a movie reviewer, it’s pretty close. Every year when the schedule gets locked down, I peruse the titles, research each film, and work up a short list of films I’d optimistically like to watch, if time was unlimited and schedules never conflicted and sleep was optional. In my trusty notebook, I write down titles, directors, actors, and a small blurb to job my memory as to what on earth I might be watching. I had “girl with ice cubes for teeth” and “quirky martial arts romance” and “Afro-sonic sci-fi musical”; for this one, I’d merely written “Keira Knightley Christmas movie.” I don’t normally love watching Christmas movies outside of December, but the chronology of film festivals is mystifying and not to be questioned.

What did I actually get?

A lovely Christmas party, actually, in which hostess Nell (Knightley) greets her friends and family for a fantastic meal, friendly reminiscence, merry making, followed by mass suicide.

It’s the end of the world, you see. That thing we keep predicting but doing nothing about. The environment collapses, sending a cloud of poison, more or less, into the world, where it is spreading death, horrible, horrible death, wherever it goes. Blood leaking out all your orifices kind of death. Not a great death. So the UK, generous to a fault, have provided their citizens with a suicide pill. Everyone’s enjoying one last Christmas with their families, and as the cloud approaches, the pill will ensure a peaceful death in the arms of loved ones instead of painful and bloody convulsions.

The movie broke my damn heart. The adults did their best to act jolly, or stoic when jolly couldn’t be produced, but the kids were confused and vulnerable. Nell and Simon (Matthew Goode) have three kids; the oldest, Art (Roman Griffin Davis) is old enough to be angry at what’s happening to him. He’s angry the adults neglected the environment until it came to this. He’s angry that his parents plan to murder him. He’s angry that he’s so helpless. I was angry too.

But mostly I was sad. Sad that we’d failed these kids, yes, but also sad that any parents had to make this choice, no choice at all really. Sad that there’s so little comfort to be had at the end of the world.

And I was a little impressed, impressed that writer-director Camille Griffin could use Christmas apocalypse to talk about privilege. Nell has the perfect old house to host her closest friends, their kids, and even semi-unwelcome plus ones (that would be Sophie, played by Lily-Rose Depp). But she’s also a citizen of a prosperous nation with efficient (enough) infrastructure. They’ve delivered a peaceful way out to its citizens – but not to everyone living within its borders. If you aren’t there legally, you’re not worth the pill that will save you needless agony. Even kids understand this inherent inequity, and if you think you can look a kid in the eye and attempt to justify it, you’ve got another thing coming. Come armed with kleenex; Silent Night sounds harmless but beneath its shiny gift wrap is scathing indictment and a death sentence for all.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

I was too young to know Jim and Tammy Bakker in their heyday. They were a perky husband and wife youth pastor team who used songs and puppets to reach out to Christian children in the hopes that their parents would soon follow. They espoused some new Christian values, mainly that you need not be poor to be pious. And the best and fastest way to get Christians to part with their cash was to beam into millions of homes at once: television!

At one point, they were popular, beloved, and rich, rich, rich, using “church” donations to fund a family compound, a Jesus in Jerusalem water and theme park, and furs for everyone. Everyone! And then the scandal hit: Jim Bakker wasn’t just skimming profits, he was shoveling them right into his own pockets. Plus, he’d been having a string of homosexual affairs – and one woman with whom things did not go well, and he paid off to keep it to herself that he couldn’t get off. Or up. By the time I knew about the Bakkers, the pastoring was behind them. Jim was in jail. Tammy Faye was a punchline. You may remember her as the woman who wore an entire tube of mascara every single day.

This movie is Tammy Faye’s biopic, the chance to finally get to know the woman behind the man, trying very hard to get in front of him.

I’ve enjoyed director Michael Showalter’s work (The Lovebirds, The Big Sick, Hello My Name Is Doris) in the past so I was excited to check this one out at TIFF.

Jessica Chastain plays Tammy Faye and let me assure you: enough said. She is phenomenal. She sings, she sobs, she stands up to the sexist pigs running the ministry. She’s a total firecracker, and incredibly infectious. Jim Bakker is played by Andrew Garfield, who isn’t bad, but inevitably pales in comparison. The film is a straight biopic, starting with Tammy’s childhood obsession with religion and hitting all the major hallmarks of her life. The film paints Tammy as a pure and nearly innocent soul, just a nice girl who loves God, and all His people, and Diet Coke, in that order.

I was completely entertained by this movie, but I did find Tammy’s depiction to be suspiciously and relentlessly positive. Even more of a problem was the film’s refusal to really dig into the story – into Tammy’s true role and culpability in defrauding her ‘people’ and into what this whole fiasco means to the church generally and televangelism especially. It feels like Showalter is so dedicated to reshaping her legacy that he isn’t willing to be critical of the actual facts. Still, Showalter’s brilliant casting saves him. Chastain is so charming and charismatic that it’s easy to overlook any superficiality. I’d watching this again, 10/10.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is an official TIFF selection.

Hold Your Fire

In 1973, four young Black Muslim men went into a sporting goods store to steal some guns. It didn’t go as planned, as these things rarely do. The cops got there too soon, pinning the would-be thieves inside, with a loaded gun counter, and a bunch of hostages. This would be the longest hostage siege in NYPD history.

With the four men holding captives inside, and the police outside preparing to meet them with deadly force, the media reported round-the-block updates while crowds gathered around the police perimeter. The fear and anxiety was high. The crowd took sides, and became aggressive. The journalists reported misinformation. When the police department showed up with tanks and ultimatums, the hostage-takers grew angry, and uncooperative. Communication was very poor. Looking back at the bungles on both sides, it almost feels like a funny game of cops and robbers, but the guns were real, and so were the stakes. The young Black men knew they stood little chance against the cops, not exactly known for being kind to people of colour at the time. A Black hostage refused to be released because she was afraid of the cops; she’d rather take her chances with the men holding her captive, of whom she was also quite afraid.

Enter Harvey Schlossberg, a traffic cop with a PhD. Since Attica, he’d been struggling to be taken seriously as a psychologist who could train the police force with new negotiation tactics, potentially saving lives and making the officers more community-minded. He believed that words were more powerful than bullets, and that time should be taken to speak and to listen to the captors, to find peaceful resolution rather than force violent altercations.

Director Stefan Forbes interviews surviving hostages, cops, and robbers, and everyone’s got a conflicting story about what went down in the sporting goods store. When emotions and tensions are high, it’s way too easy for violence to be a first response, but Schlossberg’s methods focused on finding common ground and understand motives.

All these years later, this hostage siege is not well-remembered, but you can see how Schlossberg’s work basically founded crisis negotiation and influenced the concept of restorative justice as we know it today. His name may not be known, but his work has saved untold lives. This documentary is his origin story.

Hold Your Fire is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash

Every year, every film festival, there’s a certain number of films that we preface with the reminder: film festivals are a time to take chances. I do truly believe that. Of course everyone wants to see the blockbuster (Dune), and the Oscar front-runner (The Power of the Dog), and whatever Olivia Colman’s up to (Mothering Sunday), but you can’t – or at least you shouldn’t – attend a film festival and not see something that’s a little different, a little experimental, a little out of your comfort zone.

For the title alone, I was willing to take a risk; for a movie described as an offbeat martial-arts romance, I couldn’t resist.

There are two things you’ll need to know about Ajo Kawir (Marthino Lio). The first is that he’s impotent. You may as well hear it from me. Everybody knows. The whole village knows! They’ve also got their theories as to how it happened, and what rituals and superstitions might cure it. So far, no luck. Secondly, Ajo is a brawler, a fighter for hire. One day while on a job, he encounters the bodyguard of his current target. Iteung (Ladya Cheryl) is more beautiful and more female than his usual opponents – and more formidable. Their no-frills but nevertheless robust fight ends, inevitably, in love.

Most love stories between a street fighter and a mafia bodyguard would go straight to happily ever after, but not this one. There’s the problem of Ajo’s impotence, naturally. Ajo is well-versed in alternative routes to satisfaction, but apparently that only goes so far, and pretty soon both Iteung’s lust and Ajo’s shame are going to suffer a terrible collision. If that’s not enough, Ajo unadvisedly drags his feet in assassinating a gangster, and you better believe that’s going to come back to bite him in the ass. Then there’s some other stuff about someone stalking Iteung, and a ghost keeps popping up – well, that’s where I lost the plot, to be honest. But even completely stymied by the story, I was committed to its ridiculousness, to its weirdly sweet romance, to its retro vibe and ode to exploitation. It’s a grab bag of genres that don’t make much sense together, nor do they try very hard to. Director Edwin is comfortable making his audience uncomfortable, but what he makes is so ballsy and weird and entertaining, you can’t help but give the guy a pass.

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas) is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

Aloners

Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) is a solitary 20-something creature. She’s the top employee at a call centre where everyone is insulated by a cubicle and a set of headphones, but even when the headphones are off, Jina eats alone. Earbuds in, she walks home in her little bubble, never glancing up from her phone. She doesn’t notice or respond to anyone – not the next door neighbour, nor her father, nor the thump from a nearby apartment.

One day, Jina’s treasured solitude is pierced thoughtlessly by her boss, demanding that she train a new employee, a responsibility not normally in Jina’s purview. Once her impenetrable forcefield has been breached, it’s quickly followed by a second, more troubling violation. Her neighbour is found dead, alone in his apartment. Does this worry her? Scare her? Certainly it makes her meditate on her own death, whether she’ll be alone in the end, whether that’s the end she’d want. Does Jina truly enjoy her aloneness, or is it actually motivated by a fear of rejection, or perversely, a fear of being alone?

For her debut feature, director Hong Sung-eun tackles the concept of holojok, a Korean phenomenon encompassing the growing number of people who prefer to live alone (already a third of homes in Seoul!). Whether this is a true preference or if people have just succumbed to their antisocial tendencies and fear of alienation is more or less what Aloners tries to address.

The film is subtle, tender, and rather intimate. Jina is never judged, and she’s clearly not alone in experiencing this strange dissonance. Gong strikes the perfect balance as a woman forced out of the comfort of her shell, negotiating a world she normally avoids. There’s not much in the way of plot let alone drama or tension, but Hong holds our interest by building layers of mood, complexity of thought, and a changing atmosphere that make Jina’s world feel full, even when there’s an absence of people.

Aloners is an official selection of TIFF21.

Nightbooks

Nightbooks is a horror movie for kids – not young kids, mind you, but older, braver ones not prone to nightmares.

Young Alex (Winslow Fegley) is a prolific writer of scary stories, only some recent bullying has him vowing to give it up. On Halloween night he wanders into a strange apartment which turns out to be a witch’s lair, and a prison for the children she holds captured within. Yasmin (Lidya Jewett) is also being held prisoner there, by a witch named Natacha (Krysten Ritter), who collects kids. In order to survive, Natacha forces Alex to read her a different scary story every night, a new one that he writes. Natacha is very fussy about her stories; she actually knows ghosts and vampires and the demons, and the details have to be right. An even stricter rule: no happy endings. Alex will spend the rest of his life trying to write stories that please Natacha, and being threatened with death (or worse!) when he doesn’t!

The movie felt a little familiar to me, but I could definitely see kids, who have fewer references than I do, enjoy this as a gateway into horror. Horror-lite. Magic potions, toothy creatures, frozen children, a hairless cat, sleeping witches, poison candy: this movie has pretty much everything a kid’s nightmares are made of. But director David Yarovesky isn’t trying to scare the stuffing out of your kids, just sort of creep them out a bit, things looming in the shadows, light playing tricks on you, that sort of thing, horror’s oldest tricks, still classics, all of them.

NIGHTBOOKS. KRYSTEN RITTER as NATACHA in NIGHTBOOKS. Cr. CHRISTOS KALOHORIDIS/NETFLIX © 2021

Nightbooks won’t be any adult’s favourite film but it’ll likely be a popular benchmark for kids, possibly a hit among the sleepover set. Fegley and Jewett are sweet kids and perfectly able to carry this film upon small, slimy shoulders. Ritter lends a little something new to the wicked witch trope, with fabulous costumes and beautiful, unwitchy hair. Most of all it’s nice to see aspiring writers and young creative minds being lauded. What a wonderful thing.

Julia

Julia Child is part of the American holy trinity of beloved personalities, right up there with Bob Ross and Mr. Rogers.

When she and her husband moved to France for (his) work, she fell in love with the country, and especially with its food (and who could blame her?). Inspired, she resolved to learn to cook it properly, attending the famous Cordon Bleu culinary school, the only female in the class – and likely the oldest, not to mention the largest. She loved French cooking so much she wanted to make it accessible back home, to American housewives who were, at the time, swept up by food of convenience, presenting TV dinners to their families as the height of technology and efficiency. Her cookbooks, however, made delicious French food seem possible. Even more impressively, she pretty much invented the modern cooking show along the way. They didn’t have a lot of editing tools, so early shows were long single takes of her cooking a recipe all the way through. But people didn’t just watch for her recipes, they watched for her. Even non-cooks watched, enjoying her stream-of-consciousness patter, her love of butter, her appetite, her willingness to embrace mistakes and use them as teaching opportunities.

She came into this surprising and successful career late in life. Her loving husband supported her. She learned to be a businesswoman, not just a chef, learned who to trust, who to leave behind, and how to hold a grudge. Her enthusiasm for food was contagious, creating future foodies all across the country. Her legacy has influenced
American cuisine, and every cookbook author/TV chef today owes a debt to her.

You already know Julia Child is an interesting woman; let directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West remind you why she deserves to be remembered. Their documentary Julia is a tribute to her, clearly made with love and admiration. We hear from cooking greats like Ina Garten and José Andrés, but most wonderfully, we hear a lot from Julia herself, via vintage footage the directors have shrewdly crafted together to tell her story from her own point of view. As a legend and an icon, there’s no one better to tell her story, and I think she more than most would appreciate having the last word.

Julia is an official selection of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

It is scheduled to be released on November 5, 2021.

Benediction

Benediction is the story of English poet, writer and soldier Siegfried Sassoon. He was decorated for bravery on the Western Front, and went on to become one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry vividly described the horrors of the trenches while satirizing the patriotic pretensions that Sassoon believed were responsible for a fueling the war. His was a dissenting voice, protesting against the continuation of the war with his Soldier’s Declaration of 1917, which got him committed to the psychiatric ward of a military hospital. He married because he craved a child (and had one), but also had a string of same-sex affairs. He befriended a priest, converted to catholicism, and joined the Ghost Club, a paranormal investigation organization for ghosts and hauntings. I guess what I’m trying to say is: he was an interesting fellow. But you’d never know it from Benediction.

Peter Capaldi and Jack Lowden portray Sassoon at different stages of his life, both with skill. But director Terence Davies’ fondness for too-long shots of wind rustling leaves as opera plays is trying, and tiring, and no substitution for actual mood or atmosphere. It feels like filler.

Interspersed with real vintage war footage for context, Sassoon’s poems are narrated and layered on top of representative images. It’s cheesy, and reads more like a teenage girl’s diary. Terrible effects and amateurish green screen work add to the unprofessional feel of the film, which is hard to forgive, and harder still to sit through. The story isn’t particularly complex, but it’s still hard to keep everyone straight when all these underfed pasty types all look the same.

It’s a sad film, somber almost to a fault, but I could live with that. Davies seems to have something interesting to say about about time, using with parallels narratives, but some of his artistic choices were like taking a hose’s spray to the face. Thrown unceremoniously more than once from the bubble of the film, I found it difficult to get back in, not because it was impenetrable, but because I wasn’t sufficiently motivated. Failure is the theme to which the film often returned, but for me it wasn’t just part of the story, it was inherent in the execution as well.

Benediction is, nevertheless, an official selection of the 2021 TIFF.

Earwig

What a strange and unusual film.

Somewhere vaguely in Europe, mid-20th century, Albert is employed to look after Mia. Mia, just a ten year old girl, us forcibly shut-in, even the apartment’s shutters stay closed, casting a gloomy, and often creepy, atmosphere over the apartment’s two solitary dwellers. Despite the isolation, the two are not close, and no affection passes between them. Mia’s teeth are made of ice cubes, and Albert’s main responsibility is to care for them, changing them several times a day, and tending to the metal appliance fixed to her face, presumably to keep her teeth from melting (?). Don’t ask me any follow-up questions because the film isn’t prepared to answer them. This just is what it is, and isn’t it weird? The phone rings, and an unseen master enquires after Mia’s wellbeing. Every day repeats in this way until one day the master tells Albert this will be his last payment; Mia is to be prepared to go outside for the first time, and ultimately to leave. This is big news, and a convenient excuse for the movie to get even stranger.

Earwig is unsettling. It sends creepers up your spine. Even when nothing major is happening, the atmosphere is so dark and foreboding, it always carries the possibility of trouble. Director Lucile Hadžihalilović is a master of suspense; she bathes us in it whether there’s reason or not, which means we’re spending the entire film trying to puzzle out the movie’s mysteries, and trying to anticipate the horrible thing that surely must be coming. She uses all of horror’s familiar visual language, but she never gives the relief that comes immediately after a jump scare. It’s never-ending dread with no catharsis.

Hadžihalilović is clearly unafraid of slow cinema. Her films, and perhaps this one in particular, are so somber and bleak and deliberate that I start to wonder if perhaps I’m having a nightmare. I understand very little of the plot but I’m haunted by her specific imagery, sometimes held so long that I have to break eye contact just in case there’s a spell being cast, or some sort of hypnotism. It really is that disturbing, discomfiting.

Hadžihalilović builds such a complete world, almost acetic except for a fixation on glass, and establishes an almost ritualized routine that it’s of course jarring when she then disturbs it.

Paul Hilton, as Albert, is full of melancholy, anguish, and anxiety. His dentistry looks like medieval torture, but if it feels half as bad as it looks, little Mia (Romane Hemelaers) doesn’t show it. She may be stoic, but I am not. This film was bad for my skin. I spend a lot of money on creams and serums and peels to keep it relatively unlined, and then a movie like this has me making my perturbed face for nearly two hours straight, sure to leave an ugly furrow between my brows. I never understood the movie, not once, not even a little, and I’m not entirely convinced I was meant to. ‘Story’ seems besides the point when it comes to a movie like Earwig, which wants to provoke, disrupt, disturb, yes, but not exactly entertain. Hadžihalilović holds power over us, and enjoys it. We are helpless in her hands.