Tag Archives: TIFF20

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.

TIFF20: Pieces of a Woman

Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are excited to welcome their first child. Well, excited/terrified in proportions that vary wildly from moment to moment, and depending on what kind of shade Martha’s judgy and manipulative mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) is throwing. Usually it’s quite a lot, but what can they say when she’s co-signing the loan on their new minivan?

Martha is opting for a home birth but of course when she goes into labour, some other thoughtless pregnant lady is monopolizing her midwife and she has to settle for her back-up, Eva (Molly Parker). It’s not exactly the birth plan Martha had naively hoped for, but none of it matters once those contractions get serious. Her labour is long and difficult, and we get a front row seat. It is raw and captivating, told in a good 30 minute chunk of some of the most intimate film making I’ve ever seen.

Director Kornél Mundruczó shows the birth of a beautiful baby girl in excruciating, glorious detail. Her death is much more swift. It is easy enough to show a baby’s arrival, and I suppose also her loss, but it is another thing entirely to show a mother learning to live without her.

Vanessa Kirby is astonishing in this – numb with grief, achingly lonely, and finally, explosive with anger. The film’s second half can’t quite compete with its dizzying first (very little can), but even if it occasionally slips, Kirby does not, she soldiers on, the portrait of a woman fractured by her loss, still wearing badges of motherhood without the defining, essential thing. Her life, her home, her relationship have all become haunted by the ghost of such brief life. Martha stumbles along the path toward some kind of acceptance, but Kirby’s Oscar track is sure-footed and just.

TIFF20: Another Round (Druk)

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) has been burned out and running on autopilot for some time. There’s little time or reason for joy. His job has become dull and burdensome for both himself and his students. I’m not excusing the behaviour that’s to follow, but I am giving you the context in which Martin and friends/colleagues Peter (Lars Ranthe), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) agree to conduct a social experiment.

Under the guise of “research,” they agree to test the theory that people operate better with a constant 0.05 blood alcohol level. Drinking at work: what could go wrong? Certainly four professionals should know better than to fall for such pseudoscience and likely they do, but caught up in some major midlife malaise, any excuse to numb the drowning desperation sounds like a good one. Drinking all the time to maintain that certain level needs not only commitment but opportunity which does involve some risk. But soon their classrooms are enlivened, their home lives invigorated. Martin and his friends are relaxed, they’re enjoying life again, people notice they’re less inhibited.

You and I can spot the problems coming a mile away, but feeling cocky, and perhaps with slightly impaired judgment, they all agree that since 0.05 is good, more must be better. This is the inevitable folly of man. Soon Martin and his gang are dosing themselves at ever-increasing levels. It’s fun, at first. They’re completely stress-free at work and they’re spending loads of their free time in each other’s company, where everyone is similarly inebriated and having a good time. Everyone else seems so uptight in comparison, but together they mix drinks and dance. They dance! Four white middle aged men just dance around their living rooms unselfconsciously. And since more is so much more fun, even more must be even better right? So now they’re alienating their families and risking their jobs but they don’t care or notice because they’re so intoxicated.

No matter how low they go, director Thomas Vinterberg, who wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm, manages to keep the film quite dignified even when its characters are not. We are witnesses to a social experiment, it’s just not quite the one that Martin and friends set out to prove. It feels dangerously easy for such a film to veer off course into raunchy comedy mode but Vinterberg maintains a steady hand and a thoughtful introspection

Mads Mikkelsen is at his very best in the film, teetering on one ledge or another, giving a thrilling performance that is being constantly and expertly recalibrated. But at its heart, Another Round is an ensemble, and Mikkelsen is very ably supported by Ranthe, Larsen, and Millang. The script gives them each something to chew on, ensuring that the audience gets an impressive menu which ultimately ends in a very satisfying meal.

TIFF20: 76 Days

An unidentified and unidentifiable young man is crying, begging to see his father one last time. The mourner is indistinguishable from his comforters as they all wear the same fully encapsulated protective garments. His father is already being wheeled toward a temporary morgue, his corpse zipped up in a special HAZMAT body bag, his remains a possibly infectious hazard that will be cremated unceremoniously in the nearest facility. There will be no last embrace.

We are in a hospital in Wuhan, China, the capital of Hubei Province and home to 11 million people. This is where COVID-19, first known simply as the coronavirus, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was first identified as a cluster of viral pneumonia in late December 2019. Wuhan entered lockdown on January 23 2020, with WHO declaring it a public health emergency of international concern a week later, and a pandemic by March. Wuhan’s lockdown was an unprecedented bit of grace that would allow the rest of the world to prepare; it would be followed by lockdowns in many other countries the world over.

Wuhan stayed in lockdown for 76 days, and many hospitals, including this one, were simply overwhelmed by 50 000 cases of a disease they didn’t yet know how to treat. The need quickly outstrips the capacity. Doctors and nurses in thrown-together, inadequate PPE are shouting at panicked crowds of sick people, trying to get them to come in only a few at a time, hardly equipped to handle both the people and their ailments. A special ward for COVID patients was quickly separated from the rest, where fear bubbled, and impatience, loneliness, sorrow – not just the patients, but the doctors and nurses who are also locked down, isolated from their families, risking their lives to treat an unknown, highly infectious disease with a higher than average rate of death.

Directors Weixi Chen and Hao Wu try their best to tease out a few narratives from the chaos, but the film is actually at its best when the scenes are random, the pace urgent, its subjects on edge. Loud speakers throughout the city announce lockdown rules to empty streets; “Don’t create or spread rumours,” they say, with no one there to hear them. A bin full of cell phones belonging to the dead sits on a nurse’s desk, some of them still ringing.

It’s incredible that the film makers were able to piece something together so quickly, something that may one day serve as a primary document of this historical event, and even though we are still very much fighting this war and don’t yet know how or if it will end, I was on the edge of my seat watching it unfold at ground zero, where it all began. It is raw, emotional, desperate. It is a human and humane portrait of these troubling times.

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.

Tove

It’s been quite fashionable lately to make a movie about someone who was a secret lesbian. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one at every single TIFF I’ve ever attended, and I’m happy to say that despite the enormous hurdles of 2020, this year was no exception. But not all closet lesbians are created equal. Stories can be shared, truth can be told, but not all of them are worth of the screen, nor are they necessarily compelling once they’re there.

You know what I’m about to say. It’s 1944 in Helsinki. The end of the war means an injection of creative and perhaps even personal freedom for painter Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti), who at this time still introduces herself as the pale shadow of her famous father’s talent. She’s painting a lot but paintings don’t pay the rent (and believe me, she’s tried).

At the same lunch where she confesses to her lover Atos (Shanti Roney) that she’s just slept with a woman, he convinces her to illustrate a comic strip for his unprofitable socialist newspaper. It would be worth a bit of coin, and as a bonus, would annoy her father. She doesn’t need much more convincing than that. Atos is surprisingly complacent about the other bit of news, and he’s not about to chuck out their friendship over it, even as the relationship between Tove and Vivica (Krista Kosonen) deepens. Vivica is a bit of a wondering soul though, and perhaps not courageous enough to return Tove’s love, so she leaves for Paris, and she leaves Tove to her art.

You may or may not know that Tove Jonsson’s little cartoons, based on some intimate moments between herself and Vivica, as well as the stories she told to soothe scared children in the bomb shelters, were turned into the beloved Moomin books. What was meant as a bit of side work to support her serious art eventually meant financial freedom and acclaim. Which are hardly consolation prizes for unrequited love.

Despite what may sound like a life worth commemorating, I found Tove to be painfully dull. The story did not compel me, and amounted to little more than plucky little lesbians dancing. The only reason I kept watching at all was Alma Pöysti’s beguiling screen presence. Unfortunately, though Tove may have led a remarkable life, director Zaida Bergroth seems to have drained it of its vital life force. Long before Instagram, Tove struggled with the discrepancy between reality and expectation. She made compromises personally and professionally; she had regrets and broken hearts. She disappointed some, and delighted others. Sometimes the ordinary feels extraordinary in the right director’s hands. Tove is still looking for hers.

TIFF20: The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel

In the first 5 minutes of the film, I’ve already heard at least 3 words that made me seethe: marketized, economization, financialized. Directors Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan are clearly frantic to establish themselves as a credible source, editing in ten dollar words and professor speak to blunt us into submission. Considering you sufficiently dazed, they move on to the second step of their totally necessary sequel: patting themselves on the back.

In their first doc, The Corporation, they compared corporations to psychopaths and they cannot wait a second longer to tell you about it or to line up people desperate for screen time to testify in their favour – “watershed moment,” they might say, “cultural touchstone,” and all the bullshitty words that don’t mean much. Did they hurt corporations’ feelings? Not bloody likely.

Today many if not most corporations appeal to our social consciousness by claiming to do (some) good. Dove is pretending that it loves your body just as it is while selling you products to change and improve it. Hotels claim they’re saving the environment by not washing your sheets but what they’re actually saving is time and money. Apple is encouraging people to vote but they have more money than the US treasury and only pays 2% tax on its profits so to them, it doesn’t really matter who you vote for because they already own Washington either way.

“Corporate responsibility” is a marketing ploy to trick you into thinking it cares, and that your consumerism is somehow for a higher good, but the “cult of shareholder value” is only getting more real, and nothing else besides lining their pockets ever matters.

The New Corporation wants to hold your hand, look deep into your eyes, and tell you the following newflash: corporations secretly want to make money. They like tax cuts. They hide money in tax havens. Was the first film this smug? I don’t even think Michael Moore himself sounds this self-righteous. It’s actually giving me a sour stomach.

Many of my favourite films this TIFF have been documentaries, but not this one. I can spot companies acting out of self-interest just as easily as I can spot a cash-grab sequel that offers very little in the way of new information.

TIFF20: New Order (Nuevo orden)

Marianne (Naian González Norvind) is resplendent in a crimson suit, about to marry her sweetheart at a swanky, high-society affair at her parents’ home, if only the judge would hurry up and get there. At the gate, an old family employee is begging for money. The timing is bad, but his wife will die without surgery, and he needs cash now. Marianne’s parents have offered some but he needs more and need makes him persistent. Marianne takes pity, and since the judge isn’t there yet anyway, she has another employee, Cristian (Fernando Cuautle), drive her to the sick woman so she can get her to a hospital.

Outside the gates of her lavish family home, there is unrest. Wedding guests and their cars have been showing up bearing traces of green paint – the protester’s signature colour. The rumble of rebellion grows louder, the streets chaotic. Back home, the estate walls have been breached, the wedding overwhelmed with “uninvited guests.”* Guests are stripped of their valuables, the house is trashed, the safe cracked. The Have Nots have risen up against the Haves, forcing guests to wire vast sums of money, shooting the ones who won’t. Wealth is being redistributed. For Marianne, things are even worse. The army has “intervened,” meaning they’ve identified high-resource targets like her and including her to be held captive with dozens, hundreds, thousands more who are tortured and held for ransom, all while blaming it on the protesters.

Unapologetically and brutally violent, not to mention unrelentingly bleak, Michel Franco explores what it means when the bottom 99% decide they’ve had enough. It’s a very literal interpretation of class warfare. There are no heroes here, just multiple levels of corruption.

Franco’s film is tough to watch. It starts out boisterous. demanding, pulsating with life and its many needs. His civil uprising is sudden, visceral, vicious. But with little context and no attachment to its characters, the second half loses its way amid the chaos. Franco is more focused on making shocking statements than stories, but even the ability to shock is blunted when it’s overused.

This is the kind of movie that you hope is dystopian rather than prophetic. Although, with the kind of 2020 we’ve been having, this is not a possibility we can afford to rule out entirely. New Order has a heightened capacity to disturb because it feels possible. By keeping the details vague, you could almost imagine any industrialized nation in its place; Franco is issuing a warning for anyone brave enough to see it through. It’s Parasite meets The Purge, weighted a little more toward horror than satire, where the civil war doesn’t so much bring new order as no order, and everyone is vulnerable.

The film, which took home the Silver Lion Grand Jury Prize from the Venice Film Festival, is more about awe than answers. Like an electrified cattle prod to the privates, it won’t be for everyone, but at the very least, it should serve as a wake-up call.

*Recently nominated for euphemism of the year.

TIFF20 Penguin Bloom

The Blooms are a happy Australian family on vacation in Thailand when life changes forever. A broken rail on a rooftop lookout is nearly deadly, leaving Mom Sam (Naomi Watts) paralyzed and when eventually back home, terribly depressed. Both ailments keeping her confined to bed, husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) is basically a single father, barely handling life with 3 rambunctious boys, at least one of whom blames himself for his mother’s life-altering injury. Sam’s mother Jan’s (Jacki Weaver) support is of questionable value and Sam sinks deeper and deeper into an identity crisis told deftly between flashbacks to her active part in life and motherhood, and disturbing dream sequences that illustrate the yawning gulf between Sam Now and Sam Then.

Would you believe me if I told you that a magpie named Penguin is what healed her? Well, a wounded bird named Penguin AND a human woman named Gaye (Rachel House) who got Sam out of her chair and into a kayak. The kayak gave her freedom of movement and some independence; Penguin gave her hope.

It sounds like Oscar bait because it IS Oscar bait. Do I say that like it’s a bad thing? Maybe just a little. I hope Penguin won’t take this the wrong way, but you know that old saying, birds of a feather flock together? Well, so do movies about people overcoming catastrophic injury. There are a LOT of them.

This isn’t a bad one, and surprisingly, not an overly sappy one (note: I said overly). Sam is privately bitter and sometimes selfish. Son Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) is harbouring secret guilt and putting way too many eggs into one penguin’s basket. But the emotional trajectory is trending upward since that little magpie first chirps with only a few unconvincing, by-the-book pauses along the way. Watts is terrific. The magpie is terrific, if just a little too cute to be entirely believed. Director Glendyn Ivin isn’t doing a darn thing wrong, he’s just another guy telling an inspiring, heart-warming story about churning anger into triumph through the redeeming values, of hope, faith, and family.

Maybe you’re in the market for an uplifting movie with lots of heart and some solid performances. Maybe you’ve got a surplus of tissues and are looking for any excuse to cry. Maybe you just always thought it would be cool to see a bird wear underwear on its head. For me this was too pat and predictable. I always hope for something a little meatier from a world-renown film festival (no offense, Penguin, poultry is fine too), but a bird with a broken wing is just about as ham-fisted (or should I saw chicken-winged) a metaphor as you can get.