Tag Archives: female directors

TIFF20: Beginning

This is the movie that derailed me this year, and not in a good way. Most of the time reviews come easily to me. I’ve always been opinionated and I don’t have trouble putting thoughts to paper screen. The hardest ones to write are usually my favourite ones, movies that have moved me and made me think and engaged me in a way that I can’t wait to share. And yet words fail – mostly because I feel so much pressure to accurately describe something I admire so much, but none of my words are adding up to quite enough. This movie is the other kind I struggle with – movies I feel I should like but don’t.

Beginning is about a Jehovah Witness community in a small provincial town that isn’t very welcoming. In fact, during an extended opening scene in a church, an extremist group firebombs the congregation, locking them in their church. Luckily they survive, but that’s quite a length worse than unwelcoming, isn’t it? Community leader David (Rati Oneli) leaves to meet with the higher-ups to decide how to resolve the rising tension, despite the fact that his shaken wife Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) begs him not to go, and above all, not to leave her. Yana isn’t comfortable there, never has been; the people have been vocal (not to mention firebomby) about not liking them, but David insists on rebuilding, and leaves.

When Yana is alone and vulnerable, a detective (Kakha Kintsurashvili) pays her a visit, but the exchange is sinister, and fraught.

Yana is coming apart, but as David’s wife, she’s isolated. within her community. Her discontent seems to grow daily; she suffers micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions and has no one to turn to. She struggles to make sense of her own conflicting needs and desires. Her every move feels ominous, but there’s nothing to be done except watch.

Director Dea Kulumbegashvili employs extremely long takes, forcing us to really sit with thoughts, urges, even disturbing images. It’s meant to alienate us, to push us away, but does so a little too well. It’s hard to engage with the film, it’s hard to empathize with Yana despite a terrific performance by Sukhitashvili and an enormous portion of suffering heaped upon her character. Beginning is an exquisite composition of despair, Sukhitashvili a convincing woman unraveled, but as a film, it simply failed to move me.

Mr. Jones

Gareth Jones, Foreign Affairs Adviser to the British MP (and former prime minister, I take it), David Lloyd George, makes a room full of stuffy MPs laugh when he tells them they’re already at war. They roll their eyes at him, but he’s not wrong. Mr. Jones (James Norton) has a knack for allowing very little to escape his observation. Out of his government position, Jones returns to freelance journalism and he knows just where to go: the Soviet Union.

It’s the early 1930s and Mr. Jones is very suspicious of the Soviet Union’s boasting over the radio about its spending spree. What is funding all these new improvements? Gareth Jones wants to know. But upon arrival he finds journalists very thoroughly and very strictly quarantined to Moscow. Things are plentiful, the people seem well, but none of the other journalists seem bothered by the carefully curated perspective, and none are digging deeper. Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), the Pulitzer-prize winning  Moscow bureau chief of The New York Times, is pointedly unperturbed. Mr. Jones isn’t buying it, and with a little help from Duranty’s assistant, Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), he’s able to sneak out of the city. Everywhere he went, he found famine, vast and severe. Man-made famine; in fact, man-made genocide.

Now called the Holodomor, a term which emphasizes the famine’s intentional aspects such as rejection of outside aid, confiscation of household food, and restriction of population movement. Several million Ukrainians died. At the time, Jones was threatened by Soviet authorities to smother his reports. The world, still sympathetic to Bolshevism, wasn’t ready to hear the truth. He broke the news in the western media, and they largely rejected it. The Kremlin denied it, as did their puppet Duranty. And yet Jones pursued that truth at great risk to himself.

Early on in the film, there was a shot of sunlight filtered through a sow’s ear, and I thought “God, this is going to be unbearably beautiful, isn’t it?” Credit to cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk, of course, but in the end it wasn’t so much unbearable as welcome and necessary. It’s not just the unyielding parade of suffering and starvation, it’s the somewhat disjointed way the story is told. Director Agnieszka Holland preserves human horror better than most, perhaps better than any, but she’s less adept at telling Gareth Jones’s story in a cohesive manner. There may be room for improvement, or at least a tightening of the reins, but like Jones himself, Holland’s work reminds us of how important it is to witness, and to remember.

Simple Passion

Hélène (Laetitia Dosch) is a French woman, a mother, a professor. The movie’s IMDB synopsis describes her lover’s career as “Russian diplomat” but diplomat must be a French euphemism for thug. Alexandre (Sergei Polunin) is, at best, a Russian diplomat’s shady head of security, maybe. And it wasn’t the prison tattoos that gave it away, it was that damn wispy mustache.

We can assume they have nothing in common because they almost never speak. We know little about her, actually, and even less about him. She’s single, he’s married (to a wife back home in Russia, presumably). He’s not young, but a little younger than Hélène. And he’s got all the control in this relationship, because he calls her, when he’s horny and available, and she drops everything, even her son, to be with him for a few hours in bed. Granted, they’re passionate hours, and the camera spends as much as 90% of the movie roaming up and down the contours of their bodies as they fuck in nearly all the positions there are for fucking, and a few I’m pretty sure they threw in just see if I was paying attention. These two make the jerks in 50 Shades of Whatever look like prudes.

So I may not know much about Hélène, but I do know she loves that sweet D. She’s gotta have it. She gets nothing out of this relationship but frustration, heartache, and on the lucky days, a good dicking. But on the other days, she starts coming apart. She starts making more demands on his time, which only makes him pull away further, but she can’t help it, she’s obsessed. She’s addicted. She even tries to quit him, and finds she can’t. She has no resolve when he’s around. It’s rather undignified. Rather pathetic, really, to watch a smart and polished woman lose her shit over a guy with a wispy mustache.

Writer-director Danielle Arbid adapts Annie Ernaux’s novel for the screen, and there’s no doubt she is a fan of the material, and eager to put real flesh on those bones. However, her keen eye and high tolerance for erotica aren’t enough alone to explain Hélène’s intoxication for this man. The pounding of their bodies is enthusiastic but hardly tender. Without sustained conversation, or an emotional connection, this relationship feels cold and transactional. The only way this movie moved me was when I realized these colleagues had been humping each other raw for weeks if not months. It didn’t shock me, it didn’t turn me on, but most egregiously, it didn’t convince me.

TIFF20: Shadow In The Cloud

When Maude Garrett (Chloe Grace Moretz) boards a B-17 Flying Fortress with top secret documents, the rest of the crew is surprised, and suspicious. Captain Reeves (Callan Mulvey) doesn’t know of any female pilots (it’s WW2, though I’m not sure they’re calling it that yet), and the other guys – Beckell (Nick Robinson), Williams (Beulah Koale), Tommy (Benedict Wall), Finch (Joe Witkowski), Taggart (Byron Coll) – are more interested in cat-calling her and making lewd remarks. None of them had anticipated an extra passenger and they’re suspicious of her documents, but she threatens court-marshals all around and they’re pretty anxious to get their wheels up, so off they go.

The movie takes almost entirely place inside of that plane. Maude is relegated to a tiny gun turret on the bottom of the plane that’s barely still attached, separated from her precious top-secret cargo. Of all the crew, only Quaid (Taylor John Smith) ever comes to her defense, but even he goes pretty silent when she starts babbling about some sort of…creature on the wing. They’re getting more resentful and increasingly skeptical, but they have bigger things to worry about, like bad weather, enemy planes, and their own flying fortress falling apart. And that’s before they discover what’s inside Maude’s top secret briefcase.

Roseanne Liang’s film is the Russian nesting doll of cinema: a monster movie within a horror movie within an action movie within a war movie, a daring and absurd mashup that works more than it doesn’t, surprisingly. It boldly confronts sexism and the super natural all in one go. It is, frankly speaking, sometimes altogether ridiculous. Unapologetically so, I believe. The film goes for broke while Moretz acts her ass off in a jumpsuit that doesn’t even showcase it. Director Liang isn’t afraid to crash and burn the whole thing if that’s what it takes. And as this film’s audience, you should be prepared to suspend your disbelief far above the Flying Fortress’ cruising altitude of 25 000 feet. It’s crazy. It’s completely bonkers. It is thrilling and terrifying and often flat-out bananas. You have to be willing to have fun with it, and willing to go along with a movie that refuses to stay within the bounds of any genre’s strict definition. If you’re in the mood for a quirky horror set piece, allow this one to surprise and delight and terrify you.

American Murder: The Family Next Door

If you have an appetite for true crime, this documentary newly released on Netflix will certainly serve as a hearty appetizer.

It’s a story you may already be familiar with: in 2018, 38-year-old Shanann Watts and her two young daughters disappeared in Colorado and since they were a typical suburban (and need I say, white) family, it made nation-wide headlines. You and I are no dummies when it comes to this kind of disappearance; we all know in which direction to look, and neither the cops nor this documentary waste time on any other perpetrator theories. Director Jenny Popplewell pulls together an impressive amount of footage taken at the time of the investigation (and of the investigation itself), and synthesizes it down to a watchable, digestible narrative. The one thing Popplewell can’t do is make sense of it. Technically, we do know the “reason” by the film’s end, but we can never be satisfied by it. It defies logic that anyone would think this was a good idea and it is immensely painful to know how incredibly unnecessary it was.

And yet, to me, the most intriguing part of the entire documentary is its title.

***SPOILERS***

American Murder

This has become such a frequent M.O. that we have now dubbed this the typical American crime.

Chinese checkers

Dutch oven

French kiss

Canadian bacon

Panama hat

American murder

More than half the time an American woman is murdered, it’s by her former or current romantic partner. In a third of those cases, it was right after a big fight. 15% of these women were pregnant.

Shanann’s partner was by all accounts a devoted husband and father. He provided for his family and said all of the right things. But around 2am on August 13 2018, Shanann is dropped off at home by friend Nickole, returning from a business trip they’d taken together. Footage from Shanann’s own doorbell camera is the last time she’s seen alive. Husband Chris claims they fought about his infidelity and the end of their marriage so he strangled her to death in anger. Her family maintains if that were the case, she would have fought back. They suspect he did it in her sleep. In any case, he wrapped her body in a sheet and loaded daughters Bella, aged 4, and Cece, 3, into the back seat of his truck along with their mother’s body and drove off before the sun was up, just a few short hours later. He buried his wife’s body near his job site, and then quickly killed his daughters as well, dumping their little bodies in an oil well. He had recently met a woman and wanted to be unencumbered to start a new life with her. Shanann was a little over 4 months pregnant at the time of her death.

Considering divorce is also very much an American way of life, it’s impossible to understand why Chris went with any other option, let alone one so gruesome.

He will spend his life in prison for the murder of his wife, their 2 daughters, and their unborn child.

Also spending his life in prison: a homeless man who procured two dime bags ($10 each) of marijuana for an undercover police officer who promised him a $5 commission. Five bucks: the price of a cheap meal. Marijuana: a substance that is legal or decriminalized in many states, and is actually sold by the government in Canada and elsewhere.

Two life sentences, one white perp, the other black.

American justice.

Buffaloed

I have an innate (and probably unfair) dislike for celebrity kids who slide into the business. Dakota Johnson (daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) may never win me over. Scott Eastwood (son of Clint) seems like he isn’t even trying. There are definitely exceptions to the rule (loving John David Washington, son of Denzel) but Zoey Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson) wasn’t one of them. However, even my black heart and mega-level skepticism can occasionally be warmed by excessive and persistent charm.

In Buffaloed, she plays Peg Dahl, a low-level Hustler on the mean streets of Buffalo, New York. She’s not so much criminal-minded as highly motivated by money and not particularly phased by laws. Which is inconvenient when she starts dating the lawyer who once sent her away for a 40 month stint (Jermaine Fowler). However, her biggest entanglement is with her former boss and current rival, Wizz (Jai Courtney). Their business is debt collection, a dirty business even when you do it legally, which no one does, because money. Money money money.

The movie’s uneven, or going through an identity crisis. It’s got the heart of Wolf of Wall Street, a breath of The Big Short, the soul of Hustlers, and a light freckling of The Departed. But since those are pretty good references, it’s not much of a problem. Director Tanya Wexler pulls the best out of the chaos, and if you’re not sure what to expect one scene from the next, rest assured Deutch is will be your bewitching, effervescent guide through the bedlam. She’s so dazzling I wish the script had thrown a few more layers her way. Peg is clearly amoral and dare I say it – ruthless – but the script is so sympathetic toward her we don’t dwell on the darker side of her character. Deutch hints at it with a maniacal smile and her balls-to-the-wall performance.

TIFF20: Shiva Baby

Danielle is a good-ish Jewish daughter, so when her parents ask her to attend a funeral, she takes time out of her busy life as a college senior to do it. Is she on time? She is not. Does she know who died? Does it matter? She’s there, she’s putting in face time, fielding questions about job prospects and marriage prospects, putting up with frank evaluations of her body, her choices, her independence, her future, her past. It’s a lot, and she hasn’t even had a bagel yet. Has she been eating, by the way? The ones who aren’t grilling her are gossiping about her. Has she been a good daughter? A good student? A good girl?

It sounds painful, and it is, but I haven’t even told you the worst part. The worst part is that Danielle (Rachel Sennott) has an ex in the room, a sort of ex anyway, a secret ex. It’s family friend Maya (Molly Gordon), the girl next door that Danielle grew up with, went to prom with, went all the way with. And while their status is never mentioned directly by anyone in the room, not even by the young women themselves, there are enough furtive glances and averted gazes to indicate that their history isn’t as secret as they think. BUT, there’s an even bigger secret in the room. Danielle’s current beau is also there. With his wife and baby. Well, beau might be a bit of a strong word for Max (Danny Deferrari). I believe the website they use calls his position “sugar daddy,” though if he is surprised to find out that Danielle is a) not in law school and b) supported generously by her parents, she’s equally surprised that the cash he gives her after their encounters is apparently drawn from his wife’s account, and the bracelet he gave her this morning matches the one on his wife’s wrist.

Writer-director Emma Seligman has rigged this funeral like a powder keg ready to blow, and knowing the whole thing is always just one disclosure away from implosion gives the scene an electric crackle. This is the kind of comedy that’s only funny in the car on the way home, and that’s as long as you weren’t one of the main players. At the time, it’s painful and awkward, and yet no one can quite resist poking the bear. Seligman delivers a pretty big bear and a lot of eager pokers.

The ensemble cast, including Polly Draper, Fred Melamed, and Dianna Agron, is exceptionally good at driving this thing to its inevitable tipping point. And though Danielle’s lies outnumber her truths and her antics relegate the deceased to the forgotten, Sennott makes sure she is still drawn with a certain sympathy. Burdens and expectations are piled upon her like so much potato salad on her dumpy paper plate, and well-meaning though they may be (and I’m dubious about that), the barrage of questions are prying, invasive, and unwelcome. But they must be borne. All part of the price of being a good Jewish daughter, Seligman’s script implies, but it also implies that’s an achievement all but impossible.

Shiva Baby is a cringey comedy about running into your sugar daddy at a family funeral, but there’s a universality to it that rings true for many of us. When Selgman writes about family, she writes about obligation, comfort, ritual, values, pride, disappointment, and perhaps most of all, steadfastness. Which in fact is not so universal after all. Danielle may endure quite a bit at the hands of her family, but at the end of the day, blood is thicker than coffee stains. They’ve got her back, and that’s more than many of us can say.

TIFF20: Beans

The Oka Crisis. It’s an ugly piece of Canadian history that those of you outside our borders will not have heard of and those of us inside find shameful and painful to own. But own we must.

In brief: white people set sail to find a route to Asia and landed in and around Canada instead. White people are lousy sailors but they’re awfully good at taking what isn’t theirs. We even gave it a fancy word: colonization, a polite term for stealing land and dispossessing current inhabitants. By 1956, the Mohawk First Nation had just six remaining square kilometers from their original 165 around the Oka area and in 1959 the town (of white people) approved the development of a private nine-hole golf course on a portion of that land. The project bordered a sacred Mohawk burial ground in use for nearly a century but the Mohawk were not consulted and soon a parking lot bordered their cemetery. In 1990, it was announced that the golf course would be expanding by an additional nine holes and even more land would be bulldozed to make room for condos. In protest, the Mohawk people erected a barrier blocking access to the area. This land dispute lasted 78 days, with 2000 provincial police and 100 special operatives, as well as 4500 members of the Canadian Forces deployed to “keep the peace.” Tactical units used tear gas and concussion grenades on the barricade, prompting gunfire exchanged from both sides, killing one. At the time, there were only about 30 armed Mohawks behind the barricade. That number doubled after the raid, but obviously the sides were still incredibly uneven. The Mohawks had support from other First Nation communities across Canada but their white neighbours lined the streets to throw rocks at cars of evacuating women and children.

The Oka Crisis wasn’t so much resolved as ended with both sides feeling used and bruised. It was a dramatic stand-off for sure, but only a symptom of a much larger problem in Canada and in many countries where indigenous populations were pushed aside and marginalized in their own territories. The relationship between Canada and its Aboriginal people is still uneasy, with systemic racism practically baked right into the foundation of our country.

There have been many documentaries about this turbulent time in Canadian history, but Beans is the first narrative film, one that captures the time and the tension rather eloquently. The film is told from the perspective of an 11 year old girl behind the barrier called Beans (Kiawenti:io Tarbell) and largely divorced from politics. It is a humane and personal account of the crisis, which writer-director Tracey Deer experienced herself as a child.

Beans has no agenda. She’s just a kid who loves riding her bike and is excited to meet the new baby her mom Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) is carrying. Beans is a bright kid but she’s young, and susceptible to peer pressure. She doesn’t realize she’s living through a historical event, she’s just trying to make it through the summer without embarrassing herself in front of the older kids she’s been hanging out with. But as the tension becomes undeniable and the violence ever closer to her home, Beans is about to face things no kid her age ever should.

Because Deere (along with co-writer Meredith Vuchnich) is recounting events from the perspective of a child, the conflict itself is simplified and we experience it on a visceral rather than diplomatic level. We feel her fear, her shame, her confusion. There may be two sides to every dispute, but there’s no excuse for terrorizing a pregnant woman and her children. There are certainly challenges for Beans and her peers growing up on the reserve, but outside of Mohawk territory, the racism alone poses a real danger and threat.

Deere isn’t condemning anyone with her film, but she is exorcising some ghosts she’s clearly carried with her into adulthood. Her images are beautiful, her story is balanced, and she’s made an important contribution to our cultural legacy – for better or for worse.

A Good Man

Ben and Aude have been together six years. They’ve been through a lot, a LOT, and come out stronger together. But when Aude learns she can’t have kids, it’s a devastating blow. She tells Ben to leave her. He deserves to have a family, to be happy, to be with someone who can give him what he wants. Ben doesn’t even consider that an option. In fact, he’s’ willing to try something quite drastic in order to make their dreams of a family come true. He’s willing to carry the baby himself.

It’s not an option that most men have but Ben is trans, pre-op. It is technically possible but it’s going to be emotionally and psychologically punishing. First, he’ll have to delay the surgery that’s going to make him feel whole and right in his skin. Then he’ll have to stop the testosterone, risking the masculine characteristics he’s gained and inviting the return of some feminine ones. He’s battled depression before, and Aude is so worry that his mental health won’t stand up to this test. Not to mention the fact that they’ve just moved to this small town where they hope they are blending in more anonymously. Still, they live in fear. Something as simple as having to show ID could out Ben to the entire town. Having a pregnant belly is going to be a pretty big tell. So you can imagine how committed he is to his relationship and their parenthood that he still goes through with it.

Will Ben’s mind transform at the same rate that his body does? Will his secret be safe? Will he receive adequate and appropriate medical care? This movie bites off an awful lot and really spends its time chewing. These are very complicated and sensitive issues and as carefully as they’ve considered everything, they haven’t possibly considered everything. And as most parents will tell you, pregnancies don’t just transform bodies and spare bedrooms, they change the couple as well.

As Aude, Soko navigates the highs and the lows very well. She allows the character’s arc to inform her performance and manages a delicate balance including longing and fear, hope and rejection, awe and anger. As Ben, Noémie Merlant  has an even taller order and few sources to draw on for inspiration. But you can tell she discovers the character at his core. She has respect for his unique experience, his fervour and his courage. But as good as she is, it still feels a little wrong that this part didn’t go to a trans actor. This is a very specific experience and not only would it be better explored by someone who can authentically relate, it feels especially important to get more trans men in front of the camera and in the media generally. Like every industry, the movie industry commodifies women – the younger and the more beautiful the better – Laverne Cox, Trace Lysette, Jen Richards. Trans men are much less visible and their stories less often told.

A Good Man is both a beautiful movie and a missed opportunity.

TIFF20: The Way I See It

As the chief White House photographer for all 8 years of Obama’s presidency, taking intimate candid portraits of the president at work (and very, very occasionally at rest), Pete Souza has developed (photography pun!) some very solid ideas for how a president should behave.

Having also taken pictures of Reagan back in the day, Souza felt himself to be largely apolitical. He didn’t always agree with the decisions his subjects were making, but his job was to document their days, not comment on what he saw. And he never did. Top secret clearance and all that jazz.

As you can imagine, over the course of 8 years, with unprecedented access to the First Family, Souza has a bank of memories from his time with Barrack Obama, and he’s also got thousands upon thousands of photos. The two formed a friendship as close colleagues often will. Souza respected him as a man and admired him as a president.

But it wasn’t until Obama left office and you-know-who moved in that he truly started to consider how a president should behave. What a president should be seen doing. How the president’s image was a reflection of the country as a whole, and what damage it did not just to citizen morale but on the world stage as well, when a president continually insulted the very office they were elected to represent.

Pete Souza is not a politician. He’s not a public speaker or a talking head. He makes pictures, and those pictures quietly became his method of protest. Every time Trump would tweet something inane, and you know he’s spent nearly 4 years outdoing himself in the verbal diarrhea department, Souza would reply with a photograph of Obama looking dignified, personable, intelligent, presidential. He didn’t need to be any more pointed than that. The comparison was disheartening. And so over time, he has found a voice through his pictures, and a platform through Instagram. His followers call him the King of Shade, and after someone explained to him what throwing shade meant, he embraced the title and took the work even more seriously.

Dawn Porter’s documentary is a fun watch because of all the touching behind the scenes moments Souza shares with us. Obama’s absence has left a vacuum where gravitas and grace once belonged. Souza is filling that hole just a little bit. But more than that, his photos are a constant reminder of how a president can and should act.