Tag Archives: TIFF19

TIFF19: The Cave

Director Feras Fayyad has proven himself a bold and brave film maker with the multi-award winning Last Men In Aleppo. Although the Syrian crisis is so far the absolute worst atrocity of the 21st century, very little gets out besides shaky cellphone footage since so much is under constant siege. The Cave instantly sets itself apart.

Shot between 2016-2018 in Ghouta, a Syrian city near Damascus which faces near-constant bombing, the film takes us underground, to a secret network of tunnels filled with hungry, dusty-faced survivors. Underground we also find The Cave, which is what the people call their underground hospital. The Cave is low on supplies, some days lacking power, but it is brimming with resilience. The doctors there, mostly women, rely on each other to provide the camaraderie and the fortitude necessary to keep going in the face of such unimaginable, unabating conditions.

Dr. Amani is the hospital chief, a doctor of pediatrics who agonizes over her young patients. A little girl dying of cancer cannot be evacuated by Red Cross because of paperwork. Babies born in this subterranean unit fail to thrive and children arrive scrawny, malnourished – the medicine they need is food, but both medicine and food are scarce in a city so war-torn that neither can get in or out. Still, she takes a moment to connect with each child, and makes an effort to tell each little girl that they are born so they can live to be “something important” (a doctor, perhaps?), even though Dr. Amani still somehow faces constant sexism in her own work. Because no matter how grateful patients should be that there are any doctors left, any doctors willing to risk heartbreak, risk their lives to keep treating people every time a bomb falls or chemicals are released in the air, some of those patients will still use some of their last breaths on earth to berate her, telling her women should stay in the home. And still she saves them.

It’s a much more beautiful documentary than it has any right to be, both visually and thematically. Filmed in the rubble, in the darkness and debris and constant, choking dust, Fayyad manages some artful cinematography. But most remarkable is the dedication of these doctors who encourage each other and boost each other’s spirits in the face of harrowing hardship every single day.

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TIFF19: Harriet

Harriet Tubman was born a slave named Araminta “Minty” Ross in Maryland. She suffered all the usual indignities and violence inflicted upon slaves, but one injury in particular left her with permanent brain damage, which gave her, as she described “premonitions from God.”

According to a legal will, she was supposed to have been freed long ago, but when she eventually went to plead with her owner, it wasn’t for her own freedom but that of her unborn child. She had married a freeman who visited her frequently, but he didn’t want to have a baby who would be born a slave, and I suppose you can guess how her masters answered her.

So that’s when Harriet got it in her head to run away. I mean, it must have been in every slave’s head every day of their lives, but finding the courage and the opportunity to do it was prohibitive. Runaways were brought back and tortured before being put to death, to set an example for others. It would have been a powerful motivator for staying put, to say nothing of having to leave behind your loved ones. Of course, when your loved ones can be sold away without notice, it is perhaps not such a big risk after all.

At any rate, Harriet did leave one night, alone. She traveled to Philadelphia on foot, 145km, evading slave catchers and bounty hunters, hiding by day, guided by the north star at night. Eventually she made it to freedom: she survived.

In the film, Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives in Philadelphia and meets William Still (Leslie Odom Jr.), a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and conductor on the Underground Railroad. He is a meticulous record-keeper and Harriet’s is but one of many, many entries in his logbook. She then meets Marie (Janelle Monae), a black woman born free, who owns the rooming house where Harriet lives. Marie teaches Harriet a different kind of life. Of course, posing as a free woman is an improvement, but not exactly without risks or complications. People are still looking for her. Harriet could spend her whole life looking over her shoulder. But she doesn’t.

Instead, Harriet chooses not only to look back, but to go back. To rescue family, friends, and in fact dozens if not hundreds of strangers. To go back for others, and free them as well. If it’s hard enough to understand how someone could endure so much pain and torment, and then find the courage to escape, it’s darn near impossible to picture the kind of person who would risk it all to go back. But she does.

In fact, she went back 13 times over a period of 11 years, though each trip only put her more at risk. She became an esteemed conductor on the Underground Railroad, never having lost a soul on her midnight runs. Every successful conductor had a network of friends and allies, and though some were white abolitionists whose participation was a great risk, there were also many black people along her route who risked much more but did it anyway.

It’s about time someone put Harriet Tubman up on the big screen for all to admire, and director Kasi Lemmons seems to understand the weight of her responsibility. The incredible thing is, she chooses to do it without the usual trappings of the slave film. Of course, those are largely understood by now, and their threat is still heavily felt. Instead Lemmons focuses on Harriet’s repeated runs, and though their repetition does make each one feel less of a thrill, their sheer number begins to impress. Harriet is not a slavery movie. Harriet is a freedom movie. It is a showcase for resilience, and hope. It’s also a reminder of the kind of impact one single person can have.

To that end, Cynthia Erivo shines as its star. Harriet may not be a complete biopic, but it is a fascinating origin story for one of history’s greatest super heroes. If Erivo isn’t talked about at Oscar time, it would be a crime.

TIFF19: Blackbird

Lily (Susan Sarandon) and Paul (Sam Neill) have called their loved ones over for a very important occasion – Lily’s death.

Oldest daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet) arrives first, early, with salt and pepper shakers, a gift she immediately questions, and regrets, but feels compelled to give anyway, and a cake she made from scratch, because that’s what she does. Husband Michael (Rainn Wilson) and son Jonathan (Anson Boon) trail in behind her, at a slight remove from her chipper wake. Younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska) arrives late, of course, empty-handed and with meagre excuses for having missed the last several family gatherings. She’s accompanied by unexpected/uninvited Chris (Bex Taylor-Klaus), her on-again/off-again girlfriend. Also on hand: Lily’s best friend and indeed lifelong family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan). And that’s it. These are all the people Lily wants to say goodbye to before she takes her own life before an unnamed degenerative disease can do it for her, in a likely prolonged, painful, and undignified way.

Everyone knows of Lily’s intentions and everyone tries to put on a brave face despite their own personal feelings – for a while. Lily wants to revisit some old haunts, drink some good wine, host one last Christmas dinner (despite its not being Christmas), and give out some precious heirlooms while she’s still alive to see the recipient’s face. Lily is exceptionally happy to have this last time together, but she’s the only one who can truly enjoy it. Everyone else is just sort of grimly bearing it while having private breakdowns, until one wine-fueled dinner leads to all kinds of family secrets breaking open.

This movie isn’t going to win major awards or draw major box office. It’s a remake of the 2014 Danish film ‘Silent Heart’ which I have not seen. But despite it not being particularly ground-breaking or excellent film making, it is perhaps the single movie out of the 40 or so I saw at TIFF that I’ve thought about the most.

This family believes itself to be, prides itself on being, close-knit. And it might have gone on that way forever, untested, if not for this incredibly stressful time that they’re sharing. Surrounded by her family, Lily proclaims how proud she is of her daughters – a lovely sentiment that would normally be quite harmless, but in this pressure-cooker of a weekend, daughter Anna can’t help but wonder out loud if that can really be true if her mother’s really never known her. Not her true, inner self. And if you’re the introspective type of moviegoer, I suppose you can’t help but reflect on your own family situation. These people, who are supposed to know you and love you best, are often the source of the most conflict and pain. Your own mother, who made you and cooked you in her belly, who birthed you and bathed you and cared for you – does she know you? Do you hide any part of yourself from her? Are you comfortable knowing everything about her? Are any of us truly knowable by any other?

I confess, this movie sent me into a tailspin. And to be honest, that’s exactly what I love about going to the cinema. It’s the chance, albeit a pretty slim one, that I will leave the theatre thinking. Feeling. Questioning. Considering. I did not need a movie to remind me that my mother doesn’t truly know me, but it did leave me wondering what, if anything, I would reveal of myself if I knew her time was limited.

Lily is someone to each person at her table: wife, mother, best friend, grandma, in-law, trusted confidante, role model, judge. Everyone has something different to lose, and it’s figuring out exactly what that is that makes this process so difficult. Life is an equation. Lily feels her good days are up and craves the control to prevent too many bad ones. Anna feels she isn’t ready to lose her mother. Is anyone, ever? I think both sides of this equation are reasonable, but only one can prevail. These are the seminal relationships of our lives and we are born knowing that they will end. Are we ever really ready?

Susan Sarandon is self-assured and brave. Sam Neill is a stoic, steady silver fox. Kate Winslet is anxious and authoritative. Mia Wasikowska is wounded and fragile. They are not a perfect family, which is to say: they are a family. And they’re about to break.

TIFF19: How To Build a Girl

I first came to know Caitlin Moran when her publisher sent me a copy of her book, How To Be A Woman, to review (Jay trivia: I did in fact review books before movies – scandalous!). That’s all it takes to be a Moran convert. She’s so…I mean, likable is both the right and wrong word. She does not asked to be liked. She does not write to be liked. But her don’t-give-a-fuck-edness is extremely likable. She is the role model we deserve: bold, brash, body-positive, full of piss and vinegar. She isn’t someone else’s shitty idea of a woman, she is a REAL woman, no apologies given and none necessary. She may have been new to me then but she was already a well-respected journalist and popular TV personality in England. But over here we’ve mostly had to make due with her books.

Lately she has embarked on a semi-autobiographical trilogy, the first of which is How To Build A Girl. It follows Johanna Morrigan, an educationally-uninspired, council-estate-abiding, overlooked teenage daughter in Wolverhampton who one day just decides that the best ticket out of there is one she writes herself. So she reinvents herself as the fast-talking, confident Dolly Wilde, music journalist extraordinaire. With a top hat and some swagger, Dolly trips through life, interviewing Britpop’s biggest bands at the beginning of their journey to fame, and swashbuckling through bedrooms as a Lady Sex Pirate (Moran’s words, but god I wish they were mine). Is it easy? Fuck no. The music industry is notoriously sexist, and Johanna/Dolly is, after all, still a teenage girl.

The movie has a lot going for it, but I’m going to start with its star, Beanie Feldstein, whom you might already love from Booksmart or Lady Bird, and with whom you will fall certainly and mightily and madly head over heels in this. Johanna Morrigan is the kind of character every actor wants and few will ever find; the personal grown charted on screen is nearly immeasurable. Johanna is every kind of dichotomy you could hope for in a character study of a young woman: brave and nervous, self-conscious and audacious. We see every attempt to ‘build’ her up by the men in her life – father, boss, boyfriend, brother. But then we get to see her break away from all that bullshit and start to build herself. And the ingredients for building a self-possessed girl are all here. It is glorious.

Caitlin Moran’s signature style is all over this film, which she helped adapt to screen. The humour is self-effacing, witty, rude, clever. It is amazing and liberating and just such a relief to see a young woman’s actual sexual awakening be told (though I think it may be slightly watered down from the book, if you can imagine). And that’s what will punch you right in the face: director Coky Giedroyc has given Johanna permission to be a real person, whose inner life and outer trappings are just as full and fully-realized as any man’s. Yes, she’s ambitious. Her peers find her intimidating and confusing. Her life isn’t perfect. She swears like a sailor. She likes her body. She likes sex. She wants more. Have we ever seen a better representation of a female character, ever? EVER??? Everything I like about this movie makes me dislike every other movie just a little bit. How To Build a Girls is vital and necessary – easy to fall in love with, because it’ll make you fall in love with yourself.

 

TIFF19: Bad Education

Superintendent Frank Tassone was a beloved teacher before becoming a dedicated administrator. He has done so much to improve his school district that the area realtors rain gift baskets down upon him because better schools mean heftier housing prices. Everyone is happy. Frank (Hugh Jackman) feels appreciated by his school board president Bob (Ray Romano), and understood by his second in command, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney). She gets him: she gets his passion for the work, and his single-minded devotion, turning down dates from many parent committee moms while still mourning the death of his cherished wife.

But this is not the story of well-run school board. It’s based on a real event, the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in history. Pam Gluckin drives flashy cars and owns multiple homes, but the only thing she’s gossiped about is her growing collection of husbands. It’s actually surprising she got away with it for as long as she did because she wasn’t overly discreet. Still, it took an intrepid high school reporter (Geraldine Viswanathan) to uncover some inconsistencies. And that’s how Pam’s pretty house with wall-to-wall carpeting came crashing down. A kid reporter. Boy did they regret encouraging the kids to do their best then.

Of course, superintendent Tassone was a little more worried about his job, and more importantly, his reputation than about the school’s missing money. He gathered up his school board and convinced them not to go to the cops. Instead they’d quietly dismiss Ms. Gluckin, establish a pay-back scheme, but basically keep the whole thing under wraps so that nobody’s confidence would be lost, and the upcoming election wouldn’t be compromised.

Thus begins Tassone’s own downward spiral. His meticulous lifestyle unravels. Hugh Jackman does this well. Very well. It doesn’t hurt to be playing opposite Allison Janney who has only ever blessed any project she’s been on with her talent, with her very presence. Bad Education is no exception; it’s two top-tier actors at their best. But their best doesn’t quite save this film, by director Cory Finley based on Mike Mawkowsky’s script, who apparently attended the very high school in question. It’s not bad, but the performances really carry it. It has all these moving pieces involving greed, corruption, and privilege, but it never quite puts them all together.

TIFF19: The Two Popes

When Pope John Paul II died, a conclave of the world’s cardinals assembled in the Vatican in order to elect their new leader. A cardinal needs 77 votes to win; votes that fail to achieve that number are burned and black smoke signals to the throngs of believers outside that another round of voting will be necessary. After two such failures, the guy who wants it the most, Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) makes the rounds, glad-handing and kissing babies. Just kidding. The process IS crazy political and Ratzinger is the consummate candidate, but priests are still celibate last I checked and besides, babies would wreak havoc on those all those white robes. Ratzinger wins in the third round, becoming Pope Benedict XVI, sending up a puff of white smoke to cheers outside.

But Ratzinger’s papacy is mired by conflict from the start. You may have heard some of catholicism’s myriad scandals – the whole priests molesting altar boys and all that. Plus his own personal secretary is arrested, and his correspondence leaked. But most of all, he’s haunted by the runner-up for pope, an Argentinian named Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who seems to be effortlessly popular. Bergoglio didn’t even want the job and didn’t campaign for it, yet he still almost won, which drives the ambitious but unlikable Ratzinger crazy.

The bulk of the film is about a secret meeting between the two when Ratzinger begins to realize that though Bergoglio is much too progressive for his taste, he is perhaps what the church needs right now. They’re not enemies, because brothers in god can’t be, but they are opposites. They discuss theology, dogma, belief, but they’re also just a couple of grumpy old men, struggling to fit in in a world that seems to want them less and less. Ratzinger is a Fanta-Formula 1-Fitbit kind of pope, touches that humanize a man who seems otherwise apart from, and perhaps above, humanity. Bergoglio is a football and tango kind of cardinal. If two of the highest-ranking catholic priests can’t find common ground, what hope have we for the rest of us?

The film opens closed doors in Vatican City and offers brilliant behind the scenes insight. It makes you wonder about things you’ve never stopped to think about before. But it’s put together in a fun and very watchable way. If you never thought about the natural pairing of a somber religious occasion and Abba, then please allow director Fernando Meirelles to expand your horizons.

Hopkins and Pryce play off each other with such dynamism even their silly pope clothes fall away, leaving just two men, more fallible and more human than we’re usually allowed to consider them, telling each other their sins, secrets and regrets. The audience is their confessor, without being asked to judge, or forgive.

The Two Popes is thought-provoking but more importantly, and somewhat surprisingly, delightfully funny and entertaining.

TIFF19: The Sleepwalkers

The Sleepwalkers is about 3 generations of a family spending a holiday at their summer home. The matriarch is contemplating the house, which angers at least one son and pits the siblings against each other. But it is a daughter-in-law, Luisa (Érica Rivas) who has it worst.

Luisa doesn’t want to be there. Unhappy in her marriage, she vents her frustrations to a brother-in-law rather than her husband. There is not enough space in the house for a relationship that’s falling apart. But most of all she’s worried about her daughter, Ana (Ornella D’elía), who is young enough to be getting her first blood, but looks considerably older. She’s already caught the attention of an estranged cousin, Alejo (Rafael Federman), recently resurfaced and apparently without boundaries. Even more concerning, Ana is a sleepwalker like her father. She has recently been discovered sleepwalking nude in her own home, and her mother is understandably concerned about what this may mean in a strange house full of people. But Ana doesn’t take kindly to restrictions, and her moody temperament causes her to lash out at her protective mother, and question just which one of them is truly sleepwalking through her life.

Director Paula Hernández has something to say about the pressure and position of women in the family, but for me it was obscured by camera work that literally made me sick. Almost always, only one main character would be in focus, while everyone else had constant blur. At first it was merely frustrating but after 107 minutes it made me physically uncomfortable – sick. And that’s unfortunate because there were some good bits, some very interesting stuff to be examined, but I felt unable to truly concentrate on it. Perhaps, by taking away my choice in what to look at or concentrate on, Hernández wants to put me in the shoes of a young, stymied woman. But that just makes me feel like she doesn’t trust enough in her script. It left me feeling angry and frustrated and ready to bolt. The two lead female characters keep looking for safe space to unleash, to vent, but I felt denied that myself. I never had the space to orient myself or digest what was happening. I felt like a horse with blinders on.

Luisa and Ana are going through some tense and important times. Their performances are good, restrained, even. Hernández makes their inner turmoil obvious without being obvious. I just wish she could do it without creating so much in me.