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TIFF18: Hotel Mumbai

On November 26, 2008, 10 members of a terrorist organization stormed Mumbai, targeting multiple busy, touristy places for maximum impact. They set off bombs and shot wildly into crowds. They entered the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and kept guests there hostage for four days. Many died. Hotel Mumbai is the story of that hotel’s siege, and of the people trapped inside, waiting to die.

MV5BMjMzMTAyMDEzMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODQ5NTQ0MTI@._V1_Arjun (Dev Patel) is part of the wait staff at the prestigious hotel restaurant. He misses out on serving one of the night’s big spending VIPs, Vasili (Jason Isaacs) when it’s discovered by his boss that he forgot his proper shoes at home. Guest is God, Arjun is reminded, but instead of going home for the night, he borrows ill-fitting shoes and will spend the next 4 days regretting it deeply.

Beautiful Zahra is also dining among the guests that evening, newly arrived in Mumbai after a shotgun wedding to David (Armie Hammer) and the subsequent birth of their child. David is awestruck by the hotel’s luxury, but as they cower behind an upturned table when the shooting starts, the thread count of the tablecloth hardly matters as the new parents panic about the status of their newborn in an upstairs suite with their nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Hotel Mumbai is tense pretty much from its second or third minute, and it never lets up. It’s difficult to sustain such a pace – difficult for actors, for film makers, and for the hearts of all who watch. 125 minutes is a long time to be hanging on the edge of your seat, jaw clenched, barely remembering to breathe. But the cast collectively does such a good job reminding us that these are real people: people tired from travel, people just trying to earn a pay cheque, people just wanting to make it home alive to their families and friends who are watching events unfold at home, helplessly.

The stakes are of course very high as Hotel Mumbai does not flinch away from the unspeakable violence. The script of course dials up tension with the addition of a baby who could cry at any moment, giving them away to killers with no conscience. But for me it was the hotel workers, people who are paid a pittance to treat their guests like actual gods, who could have escaped themselves but chose instead to stay behind to help keep their guests safe. That said, I did wonder why, out of the 164 people dead and 308 wounded, the film chooses to focus on 3 white people, possibly the only 3 white people there. Does director Anthony Maras not trust that I will be sufficiently horrified by the deaths of brown people?

I’m a little squeamish about what this means. The movie criticizes the Indian government for inadequate resources and features a throw-away white English lady who accuses her rescuers who “speak their [the terrorists’] language” and wear turbans, of being terrorists themselves. Is this enough commentary on the inherent racism of such a movie? This story should be about the many Indian men and women who died that day, and the Indian heroes who helped others to survive. But it’s hard to believe in that premise when the camera lingers longingly on action hero Armie Hammer, while brown people fall behind him, like extras in their own movie.

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Sorry To Bother You

Well.

I hardly know how to talk about a movie like this.

It’s radical.

Ostensibly it’s about “telemarketing” but that’s like saying Toy Story is about single parenting. It’s really about racism and assimilation and wage slavery and identity – by way of telemarketing, at least to start.

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is thrilled to get a shitty telemarketing job, working for commission. There’s almost no way to actually succeed doing this kind of work, but Cassius stumbles upon the secret, magic key: a white voice. A persuasive, approachable, overconfident voice, like Tobias Funke’s, perhaps. Using this voice, Cassius shoots straight to the top, rocketing past his buddies and even his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa MV5BMzNjZTZlZmYtODU0ZS00NzFkLTkyZGEtOTI5M2Q0YTZmNzg3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_SX1500_AL_Thompson) who are trying to organize a union that will help the little guys make a living wage too.

On top, Cassius is of course hypnotized by the wealth and privilege, but now that he’s rubbing elbows with “the man”, he’s finding it’s a little different than he’d imagined. “The man” is of course Armie Hammer, like you ever fucking doubted it. Hammer was literally born to be typecast as a slave owner – his great-grandfather was a legit oil tycoon and philanthropist, and the family is worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $200M. So yeah, he’s got owning slaves in his blood, and we can all read it in his cheekbones. In Sorry To Bother You, he plays a CEO who is “saving the world” by enslaving all the poor people and making them thank him for it. Signing a contract, they agree to work wage-free for him forever in exchange for housing (which looks surprisingly like prison cells minus the bars but with double the roommates) and food.

And everything is just gently pushing you. Pushing your boundaries, almost imperceptibly. In the beginning, things are near normal but they escalate, asking us to accept just one more inch of absurdity. It is THE best kind of satire, uncompromising but plenty challenging.

First-time writer-director Boots Riley has made a film that is gutsy and experimental. It feels like this is a guy who isn’t sure he’ll ever get to do this again, so he’s not leaving a single idea on the table. He takes huge risks and when they pay off, hot damn. Sorry To Bother you zigs and zags in unexpected places but the super talented cast helps this thing stay grounded. Riley is full of piss and vinegar and a comic outrage that’s infection. This is bold stuff, exciting to watch, fearless, outrageous, and I want more. Not for the feint of heart.

Call Me By Your Name

Seventeen year old Elio is facing another season at his parents’ summer home somewhere in boring, idyllic Northern Italy when the clouds part, the angels sing, and a yellow ray of sunshine pools on the golden head of a god, arriving by taxi. Actually it’s Oliver, a grad student about to spend the next 6 weeks helping out Elio’s father, a professor. Elio is immediately smitten.

It’s complicated, though, and it’ll take those full 6 weeks for the two young men to reach the peak of their affair. It’s the summer of 1983 and neither one is ‘out’; what we see is their friendship, the confidences they share, the fumbling flirtation. It’s a quiet movie, as 913a movie must be between two characters who are still learning about themselves, and in some cases, learning to repress. The pace is languid, but after 132 minutes, I’m thinking more about what’s left out than what is covered. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) share a mostly silent passion. Have they ever been attracted to men before? Are they afraid of being seen? Their affair exists within a bubble – isolated in a small village, surrounded by intellectuals, sheltered. But there’s always a sense that the affair cannot last.

We feel the blush of their first love. But director Luca Guadagnino does not want us to see much more than that, does not want the reality of gay sex to change the tone of the movie. Why doesn’t he trust us? In an otherwise beautiful film about desire, theirs is the only physical intimacy that we don’t see. When one of them hooks up with a woman, we eavesdrop on their thrusting and grunting. We even get fairly graphic with some person-on-peach sex. But when Elio and Oliver come together the camera looks away. The only real nudity is female.

And that has left me feeling off-balance. I can only praise the performances by Hammer and especially by Chalamet – his energy, his wit. Although Elio is the younger of the two, and voices more self-doubt, we actually see them negotiate a balance in their relationship that feels very healthy and mature. And though Oliver is adamant that he wants neither of them to get hurt, we see how woundable Elio really is, how vulnerable. This isn’t just love but self-discovery, mutual discovery, only some of which will be lasting.  Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) counsels him to stay this way, thin-skinned, to not close himself off to pain, even in heartbreak. And Oliver wonders if that’s the real difference between the two: not their age or experience, but their parents. And we’re left to think on that as the credits roll. Who might they have been had they both had supportive families? It is in these final minutes of the film when we finally feel emotionally connected to the material, and to the characters. This is the beating heart of the film. It’s just too bad it’s saved for last.

Cars 3

Pixar doesn’t have many missteps in its catalogue, but for me, the Cars franchise just never had any traction. I was only just recently able to watch the films straight through, and it made me want to put the Pixar crew on suicide watch. Thanks to films like Toy Story, I already knew Pixar had a real nostalgia fixation, but Cars crystallizes that notion. MV5BZDRiYmQ1MjgtNmNiOS00YTNhLTkwNWMtMjliNWFkYmFkMDc2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjk2MjI2NTY@._V1_The Pixar animators are living for the past. But for the first time, I could also watch the film through the eyes of my  5 year old nephew. He and his younger brother adore the franchise. They have every iteration of every car that got even a fraction of a second’s worth of screen time. Last year for his birthday, I made him a Cars racetrack cake. So even before I’d truly seen the film, I had a kinship with it.

In this third installment, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) hits the racing circuit once again, but it’s been 11 years since the first film made its debut. McQueen isn’t the hot shot rookie anymore, he’s a veteran being challenged by faster, sleeker next generation race cars. Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) is the fiercest of these new competitors, but McQueen isn’t ready to be counted out. Unfortunately, McQueen’s best efforts result in a terrible crash that many believe spells his retirement. You may remember from the first film that his old friend Doc (Paul Newman) suffered a similar fate: by the time he’d healed up\gotten road-worthy again, the racing world had moved on without him, ultimately forcing him into retirement before he was ready.

Two things about what I’ve just written: One, that crash was spectacularly animated. Disney-Pixar’s animation technology has clearly improved by leaps and bounds over the past decade. They work hard to keep the cars we know and love looking like themselves MV5BZGYxZDVjM2EtMWRiMi00MWNlLWE3YWItZTYyNDcwMjQ4NjY3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjc3Mzk1NTk@._V1_while still improving the overall quality of the animation. The crash scene is a show-stopper. But, second, so too are flash-back scenes of McQueen and his friend Doc, in a different, more emotional way. Paul Newman, who voiced him, passed away in 2008, and so did the character by the time the sequel came out. But Doc was a formative figure in McQueen’s career, and Cars 3 pays tribute to both the character and the actor in a very satisfying way.

Cars 3 focuses on McQueen’s relationship with a new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who is well-versed in all the newest techniques. Old school clashes with new school. In fact, watching it, I wondered if McQueen’s mid-life crisis would resonate with the kids watching it. My nephew certainly enjoyed it, though I don’t think he picked up on McQueen’s fear of being aged out\replaced. What he did like were the repetitive race track scenes, many of which I could have done without. I guess what it boils down to is: Cars 3 panders to its audience. It does not reach the heights we adults have come to expect from Pixar’s best work, but it’s exceptionally talented at marketing toys to children. There are dozens of new characters (65 to be exact) to be bought for Christmas. Is that cynical of me? Sure. Here’s the thing: I admit I was charmed by the ending, glad old McQueen had it in him. If this is the end of the franchise, it’s a pretty noble note to go out on. But as a cynical, toy-buying aunt, I can’t help but feel that this Cruz character has the whiff of spin-off to her, and I’m not convinced that Cars 3 bought into its own message of retiring with dignity.

Free Fire

Free Fire is basically a movie about an HR issue. Justine and Ord are two “point guys” in an arms deal. She’s bringing Chris (Cillian Murphy), an IRA guy who needs some M-16s to the table, along with his rag-tag crew, and he’s bringing Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the money-obsessed guy with a van full of guns (although, notably, NOT M-16s) and his own motley crew. From the minute these two rival gangs meet, the two sides are twitchy. All they have free-fire1to do is exchange the briefcase full of cash for the crates full of guns, and the deal is done. But they just rub each other the wrong way. Everyone’s got an unchecked ego, everyone wants to be the boss, and nobody’s going to make this easy. If arms dealers had HR ladies stashed away in some ficus-strewn office, all of this could have been resolved with a stress ball and some trust exercises. But arms dealers tend to offer very few benefits as employers, so instead it goes to hell.

It goes gloriously to hell. It turns out that the driver of the first gang had an issue with the driver of the other gang the night before, and seeing each other turns a bad situation worse. Suddenly everyone’s whipping out their little pistols and bullets are flying. How many bullets? About 7000 rounds, said director Ben Wheatley. That’s a LOT of bullets. So the whole of the movie takes place in this abandoned warehouse where this arms deal has been all but forgotten, everyone shooting at each other, everyone forgetting which side they’re supposed to be on, the sides in fact disintegrating as it quickly becomes every man for himself.

I knew going in that Free Fire is a 70s shoot-em-up genre film, but I had failed to fathom how funny it is. Sharlto Copley is an absolute scene-stealer, his over-the-top character MV5BZjk1NjRiNzctZWFiOS00MGJkLWE0YWEtYTI5ODBmYzQwNjg4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_really embodies the pure fun and wackiness of this film. It’s madcap madness and I totally loved every minute of it. I didn’t know I could have so much fun at a Ben Wheatley film. A terrific script by Wheatley and Amy Jump is quotable, the cheeky dialogue rolling off the tongues of a delightful ensemble cast. The frenetic, non-stop energy sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of who is shooting who, and where, but once you realize that even the principal players are confused, it really takes the pressure off. The anarchy is entertaining and you can tell it was as gleefully acted and directed as it is consumed. No true hero ever distinguishes him or herself , which doesn’t mean you won’t find your own favourite to root for, only that’ it’s an even playing field where anything is possible.

Free Fire was meticulously choreographed by Wheatley but still required logistic heroics of cinematographer Laurie Rose and precision editing by Wheatley and Jump. The movie charmed me with its audacious humour but it also pulls off an hour-long assault that sounds one-note on paper but honestly, I could have had more. I love the recklessness, the wickedness, the irreverence; I was greedy for it the whole way through and Ben Wheatley served it up as only he could.

Check out the comments section for a Q&A with Wheatley and some of the cast!

Nocturnal Animals

As the film opens, Susan (Amy Adams) feels guilty for not being happy, despite having ‘everything’ – Armie Hammer plays her current husband, but apparently they were maybe never truly supposed to be together.

A successful art gallery owner, Susan’s home is perfectly styled, filled with lacquered objets, 18nocturnal1-master768-v2beautiful things, much like herself, impeccably dressed, heavily made up. Her “bare” (movie bare, of course) face comes as a shock when she curls into bed to read a manuscript that has arrived that earlier that day, a surprise from the ex-husband she hasn’t heard from in 20 years.

She’s immediately engrossed in the story, which we see recreated as a movie within a movie. Jake Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher play two halves of a couple travelling down a remote road at night. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a sinister man threatening them. It’s immediately tense. Disturbing. Distraught, Susan slams the book shut.

But that’s not the end, is it? No, she keeps going. And things get darker, and trickier. Director Tom Ford pulls a nasty trick on us: in casting Isla Fisher, he is intentionally making her a very easy substitute for Amy Adams (Isla Fisher once sent Christmas cards to friends and family with Amy Adams photo-shopped in her place, and no one noticed). But we’re not the only ones to notice the similarities: Susan starts to feel a little unsettled too.

This is only Tom Ford’s second film; I was blown away by his first effort, A Single Man. He has a distinctive style, he’s incredibly visual, but the story in A Single Man held up. More than that: it crawled right into my soul and crushed it, just a tiny bit. Colin Firth was robbed when he didn’t maxresdefault-6win an Oscar for it (well, he lost to Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart, and that was certainly deserved as well; luckily Firth one the very next year for The King’s Speech). You may know that Tom Ford is a fashion designer, but that’s clearly not the only trick up his sleeve. His direction is not a gimmick (it likely helps that he leaves the costuming to someone else, and that no Tom Ford suits appear in the film). Maybe it’s little more style than substance, but it’s not without substance, or merit, or worth. Nocturnal Animals is dark and moody and horrible. It is sometimes graphic, and psychologically tortured, and stunning.

It’s the kind of movie that will haunt you for days. There are lots of performances worth talking about: Amy Adams, and the sadness she can convey in her downturned eyes; Jake Gyllenhaal’s fire, and his anguish. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was nominated for a Golden Globe for his supporting skeevy work here, but I think it’s Michael Shannon who maybe deserved the nomination, mustache and all. Can this man do any wrong? Oh wait

Most people bill Nocturnal Animals as a work of revenge, but I feel it’s more about regret. I suppose your interpretation may rest on the ending, which is intentionally vague, but I believe an indictment on Susan’s character. What did you think?

 

 

TIFF: Birth of a Nation

It is sometimes difficult to separate the message from the movie. I’ve already braved backlash by confessing that I didn’t care for 12 Years a Slave. This is not the same as saying I love slavery or I hate black people, but some people will choose to hear it that way. I can see with my own eyes that 12 Years A Slave does have artistic merit. Steve McQueen has a stylistic sensibility I can’t ignore, and Chiwetel Ejiofor gave a riveting performance amongst a strong cast. But the movie felt derivative to me. In a crowd of slavery movies, this one didn’t have a distinctive voice and I was bored. How does Birth of a Nation compare?

Well, it’s both better and worse. The first two-third to three-quarters of Nate Parker’s movie is a lot of the same old. We get it: slavery is bad. I actually don’t require 90 minutes of convincing on that subject. But the last chapter of the story is when it finally comes alive: the slaves rise up. birth-of-a-nation-nate-parkerNat Turner, a docile preacher, reaches his breaking point and leads a rebellion. A bloody rebellion. White slave owners will be slain in their beds. These scenes are so jarring that I can understand why one might think that 90 minutes worth of context are important. Those minutes establish that yes, slavery is bad. There were indeed lots of vicious slave owners who were just despicable human beings. But slavery movies often have a benevolent slave owner as well, one who is “not so bad,” I suppose so that white people don’t shout “They’re not all like that!”

As Samuel, Armie Hammer is this year’s Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s not too terrible. But his character’s arc is perhaps the most compelling of the film. As children, he and Nat are playmates. They aren’t equals, but maybe they’re friends. It is only as Samuel inherits the plantation and all of its chattel – which of course includes the human beings who work the land – that this relationship transforms. It is clear that Nat is not just his employee – there is a subservience to their interactions that is immediately repulsive. Times are tough in the south. Plantation owners are under a lot of pressure, and the slaves are of course the first ones to suffer, to work longer hours with less food. Samuel, being “one of the good ones” begins to drink, ostensibly to deal with the increasingly degrading things he must demand of his slaves. He slides from benevolent to aggressive, and it’s a great performance from the man you’re probably not watching as closely as you should. But that’s the problem with owning slaves. Once you accept that owning another human being is okay, of course it’s a slippery slope that leads directly to the rapes and whippings and deprivations we’re so used to seeing. There is no good way to own a slave.

As Samuel slides further down into the muck, Nat is rising from it, with increasingly radical ideas about his oppressors. So Nat Turner rises up. Samuel Turner gets cut down. Are we prepared toenter_slavery_2_la see this? Prepared to watch people be chopped up as they sleep in their homes? It’s brutal and shocking. And justified: the film has made sure of that. Of course this is a true story so you know there is no happy ending here. Nat Turner’s is a necessary voice in the story of slavery, and Nate Parker’s choice to make religion both a weapon, and salvation, are a fresh take on a crowded genre.

Nate Parker co-wrote and directed himself in The Birth of a Nation, and his passion is evident. I only wish he trusted his audience more. In the hands of a more competent director, we might have a Best Picture contender here, but instead he allows his slow build to be overplayed, turning his third act into a bit of a cocky circus act. It’s uneven. It neglects secondary characters – and with Aja Naomi King so damned good, it seems a crime not to give her more screen time.

Speaking of which. I would feel irresponsible if I didn’t bring up the skeletons in Nate Parker’s closet. The Birth of a Nation was a Big Deal at Sundance. Fox Searchlight eagerly bought it up and set an October release date, certain it would be on the path toward Oscar. But rape allegations in Parker’s past resurfaced. When he was a student at Penn State, he was accused and charged with sexually assaulting a woman along with his roommate and The Birth of a Nation co-writer, Jean Celestin. They stood trial; Parker was eventually acquitted but Celestin was found guilty before having the verdict overturned on appeal. The story gained traction when it was reported that the victim had committed suicide. Even with an acquittal to his name, an a newfound belief in god, Parker’s mea culpa press tour has been lacking. His remorse has been sparse. Gabrielle Union, the actress who plays a rape victim in The Birth of a Nation, herself a real-life survivor of sexual assault, has struggled to reconcile his past and her part in his present. Can we and should we separate the art from the artist? What kind of shadow does this cast over his film? As Union puts it, “As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly.”

The Birth of A Nation is an important story and deserves to be seen and heard. I said before that I thought it was both a better and a worse film than 12 Years A Slave. What I meant was: it’s not as good a movie. It’s more formulaic, more conventional, less sophisticated, a little too obvious. But as a piece of art, it inspires conversation and controversy. I can’t discount it.