Tag Archives: TIFF20

TIFF20: Underplayed

You may not be ready to hear this, but did you know men and women aren’t always treated equally? Turns out, that holds true in the music industry as well. In 2019, only 5 of the top 100 DJs list were female, and they made up only 3% of technical and production roles, which is pretty embarrassing, and I thought the days I was embarrassed by math were behind me.

Underplayed explores gender inequality through the lens of EDM. It’s basically the Hidden Figures of electronic music, only these women send concert-goers into ecstatic trances rather than rockets to the moon. Tomato, tomahto.

The EDM community likes to think of itself as rather inclusive, but it clearly falls prey to the same gender, ethnic, and sexual equality issues that virtually everything else does. Systemic bias: it’s the real deal. DJs might put out music under fake names and perform wearing face-covering helmets, but they still find a way to weed out the ladies. That’s pretty dedicated sexism, if you ask me.

Director Stacey Lee assembles the very best in female talent, including Alison Wonderland, Tygapaw, TOKiMONSTA, REZZ, NERVO, Louisahhh, and more (gosh they love their CAPS), but clearly this is an issue that transcends the music industry and affects literally every woman the world over. Lee makes a point of not just discussing the disparity, but exploring how it happens, and how it might change.

TIFF20 Wolfwalkers

In a version of 1650 Ireland probably not too different from the one our history reports, Robyn (voiced by Honor Kneafsey) and her widowed father Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) are sent by colonizer extraordinaire, the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney), to a remote outpost of a town that’s growing past its own humble borders into the woods beyond it. The town has suffered wolf attacks as it creeps into their territory and Bill, a wolf hunter, is tasked with their destruction. Young daughter Robyn wants nothing more than to be just like her father, and to hunt by his side, but Lord Protector has a narrower, more traditional belief about a woman’s place. To prove her worth and bravery, Robyn takes on the woods alone and almost becomes prey herself when a pack of wolves circles around her, but she is saved at the last minute by Mebh (Eva Whittaker).

The legends are true: Mebh is a wolfwalker, a girl who has an independent life as a wolf while her human self sleeps. Luckily she also has healing powers, relieving Robyn of the nasty bite on her arm, but not before it transforms Robyn into a wolfwalker too. Robyn loves to run with her new friends at night, wild and free unlike any other female in 17th century Ireland, but she has now become the very thing her father must exterminate, the very embodiment of the village’s superstitions, both the colonizer and the colonized.

The movie’s style begs you to notice it is lovingly hand-drawn; while some images are deliberately rustic, there are so many saturated colours and levels of detail the overall effect is simply gorgeous, like looking at stained glass. It has myth in its heart and magic running through its veins. The script is good but the animation itself is enough to communicate the disparate worlds of human and beast. The lush and vibrant art is alone worth the watch, but the ethereal nature of the woods’ inhabitants makes for a captivating story reminiscent of the kind of lyrical folk and fairy tales that just don’t get told much anymore. Wolfwalkers is certainly among the best animated films of the year and I’m confident that we will see its name on the Oscar ballot this year.

Wolfwalkers is in select theatres now and will be available to stream on Apple TV December 11 2020.

TIFF20: Enemies of the State

This was one of the best and most memorable films I saw at TIFF this year, an unexpected surprise that disarmed me and disoriented me, and since I want it to do the same for you, this is going to be a sparse and succinct review.

Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary is about Matt Dehart, who in 2009 was accused and charged by the FBI for possessing child pornography and soliciting minors for sex on the internet. Matt claims these accusations are fabricated to punish and distract from the truth. That Dehart, a former U.S. Air National Guard intelligence analyst, was involved with the Anonymous hacker group and WikiLeaks, and claimed to possess classified documents alleging serious misconduct by the CIA. Matt Dehart counters that his arrest was a ruse to discredit him and an easy way to seize and search his computers for the documents.

Matt’s parents, Paul and Leann, both former U.S. military themselves, come to believe their son, and the whole family becomes embroiled in this cat and mouse chase, from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada, where they sought refuge in Canada, claiming Matt had been tortured in prison upon his arrest.

This story is a delicious, irresistible true crime rabbit hole with so many twists and turns you’ll suffer whiplash from jerking your head in opposing directions so many times. Every new interview seems to contradict the last and the documentary thrives when it pits these two narratives against each other. Is Matt a pedophile or a martyr to espionage? Is this treason or whistleblowing or just a clever and convoluted defense strategy? You can try to be analytical about connecting Kennebeck’s dots, but there are red herrings all over the place, from anthrax to the mob, and that thing called ‘truth’ seems impossible to pin down.

We have a natural and insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories and Kennebeck knows what she has in this doc: an addicting, shocking, ambiguous array of breadcrumbs, and she’s very savvy about how she plants them. Enemies of the State is an excellent, absorbing reminder that we live in a time with access to so much information, but very few paths to the truth.

TIFF20: Ammonite

In 1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked (translation: female) fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) reluctantly agrees to act as a caregiver to Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), the sickly wife of a wealthy man, prescribed a convalescence by the sea.

Every morning, Mary prowls the beach by her home in Lyme Regis, a town in West Dorset, searching for and carefully unearthing fossils. She dons rough clothes and men’s boots and has permanently roughened knuckles and a rime of clay under her torn fingernails. It is unusual work for a woman; Mary is an unusual woman. She is not exactly pleased when Charlotte joins her on the beach. Charlotte’s health is as dainty as the heels on her boots, her frills and lace a liability, her bonnet as prim as the purse of her lips. No one is more aware of the difference between their class and social status as Mary is, but Charlotte’s ill health and Mary’s careful caregiving put them on more equal footing. At one moment they’re peeling vegetables side by side, the next they’re having frantic sex.

It sounds as abrupt as it felt. Touted as a period lesbian romance, there isn’t actually a whole lot of romance to the affair. The two women are chronically lonely. Charlotte’s primary ailment is probably grief, and unhappiness, while Mary is burdened by a simmering anger. There isn’t a lot of chemistry between the two, nor any passion outside quick (and quiet -mom’s down the hall) trysts in the bedroom. There isn’t a flirtation or a sweeping exchange of intimate secrets. There is toil, there is the unyielding sound of crashing waves, there is a muddy crust at the hems of their skirts.

Of course, in the 1840s, there is no happily ever after for a couple of “opposites attract” lesbians. Charlotte has her grief to get back to, not to mention a husband. Mary has her work, her resentment, her private anguish. Their brief love affair will have certainly changed them, but at what cost?

Writer-director Francis Lee sets his movie against a backdrop as bleak and as muted as the fine performances by Winslet and Ronan, both at the very top of their game. Their brief connection has no bearing on the unrelenting sea, and no comparison to the 195 million year old bones buried in the cliffs. Theirs is the briefest of blips, inconsequential in the face of the endless ocean. Lee tends to introduce the landscape as the third character in his love stories. His style is sparse but tactile, the environment more alive than even the love between Mary and Charlotte.

And of course the ubiquitous ammonite, a particular fossil of extinct cephalopods found in marine rocks. They are so abundant Mary polishes them and sells them to tourists; the shelves of her modest curio shop overflow with them, Lee finding the metaphor quite irresistible. What is a fossil but an organism that has become petrified over time? Mary was perhaps once a vibrant and content organism but life has hardened her, leaving behind only the impression of someone who once lived – really lived. She is briefly reanimated with Charlotte, but a fossil is also something resistant to change, and Mary is nothing if not set in her ways.

Ammonite has much to admire but far less to actually like. With so little to hold on to, it was hard to be invested in such a thin relationship. With no burning passion to sweep us away, I felt oppressed by the heavy skirts, the lack of privacy, the ceaseless work and the grime. It is a long, slow slog with so little reward that even Winslet’s ferocious work doesn’t seem worth it.

TIFF20: I Am Greta

In August of 2018, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old student in Sweden starts a school strike for the environment. The more she learned about climate change, the more frustrated and fixated she became. What seemed to be the biggest challenge her generation would face, not to mention the certain extinction of further generations, went ignored by those who could and should be doing something – ignored, or worse, disputed. With global warming threatening the very planet she lived on, Greta saw no point in attending school, or in imagining any future at all. Instead she took to the street, the quiet girl on the autism spectrum, uncomfortable being the centre of attention, did the one thing she could because no one else would. Within months she was a world famous activist who’d started a global youth movement.

Director Nathan Grossman and his team have been there from almost the very start, capturing a small, shy girl answering questions, gaze averted, from passerby on the street. And then following her as she makes impassioned speeches to world leaders, her anger damning and shaming them.

I confess, I originally dismissed Greta Thunberg, assuming her cause was just a means to an end – and the end was probably Instagram fame or going viral or some such thing. I assumed she didn’t like the environment half as much as she liked the spotlight, or its money, and that her (stage) parents probably wrote the scripts. Now I am sad for my cynicism; by tolerating politicians who repeatedly break their promises, I am just as complicit. Perhaps I am, to Greta, the more unbelievable of the two.

Many news outlets, and some politicians, have zeroed in on Greta’s autism, and suggested that her “mental illness” causes her to obsess over topics. They’d like to dismiss her, and climate change, in the same breath. But if Greta’s focus is narrower than most, it doesn’t make climate change any less real, or any less of a threat. It makes her a brave whistleblower, the kind that makes people in power nervous because the truth tends to be inconvenient. Greta is the real deal.

By allowing us to observe truthfully, I Am Greta lets us get to know the girl and not just the crusader. This is not a documentary about climate change. It is a documentary about a young woman who becomes the reluctant voice of her generation. Grossman’s profile shows a young woman from an ordinary family, her parents struggling daily with doing the right thing, finding the right way to support her, balancing her needs with the rest of the family’s, and what’s good for her with what’s good for the world as a whole. Greta’s only motivation is the environment. The director’s motivation, however, is a little more complicated. Greta leads by example, and has inspired lots of young people to come forward and hold the adults in charge accountable. By showing us such ordinary domesticity, Grossman is reminding us that if Greta can do it, why not us?

I Am Greta debuts on Hulu November 13th.


Ruth (Jessica Barden) is a smart young woman who, in different circumstances, might have had a bright future ahead of her. As it stands, the future is besides the point because the present is already so tenuous. She’s barely attending her last year of high school because she and older brother Blaze (Gus Halper) are working at a frozen food plant trying to keep their family home from sliding back into the hands of the bank while their junkie mother (a very unglam Pamela Adlon) gets sober in jail. The siblings strip scrap metal for spare change but when Ruth’s acceptance to college could mean real change for her, the pair get serious about making money and agree to a dangerous (not to mention illegal) scheme with shady dealer Hark (Austin Amelio).

It’s easy to mistake Ruth for a woman twice her age; she’s certainly got enough burdens to add some real curvature to the spine. She’s a minor but talks as though she’s already seen it all, and with only the vague sense of a surrogate mother in boss/neighbour Linda (Becky Ann Baker), who can only turn so many blind eyes, she doesn’t exactly have a lot of positive influences or role models in her life. She’s smart but not optimistic enough to be ambitious. Her small, forgotten town in southern Ohio has no opportunity yet acts as a vacuum to the people born there. This is no place for the young, but it’s hard going on impossible to leave. Meanwhile, everyone’s TV or radio has Trump making empty promises about the return of the manufacturing economy, which everyone but him seems to know is already dead.

Writer-director Nicole Riegel, a former U.S. Army soldier, expands her 2016 short of the same name, reflecting on the people and places she grew up with, returning to her own struggling Ohio hometown and shooting on gritty 16mm film to give the film an authentic feel. In fact, she casts non-professional actors in supporting roles to lend a blue collar credibility to the film, but the entire cast comports itself very well, and there isn’t a complain to be made about the acting.

The story, perhaps, is a little worn. There are decades worth of blue collar movies about working class struggles. There is little dignity in the tough choices to be made – there are no working class heroes here, only people who are tired, poor, and desperate. It’s a bleak outlook for a young woman, one that Barden wears well, and the movie reflects her competence, its strongest moments are in her hands. Though it may be a little well-tread, it is a strong first feature for Riegel, who surely has more stories to tell.

TIFF20 Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds

What would TIFF be without a documentary from Werner Herzog (and in this case, Clive Oppenheimer)? Luckily, the man’s output is such that I may never have to know.

Part of why his documentaries are so compelling is that he seems genuinely passionate and fascinated by his subjects. His films are an indulgence of his curiosities, he’s scratching his own itch, but he generous to take us along with him, unearthing the coolest little-known facts and seeking out experts buried deeply in their fields, often at the ends of the earth. In Fireball: Visitors From Darker Places, Herzog has become obsessed with meteors and comets. Indeed, for as long as humans have been alive, we have observed these wonders and searched for their meaning. They have influenced ancient religions and global landscapes, cultures and philosophies, even the life and death of dominant species.

Comets and meteors are natural beauties, the origin of dreams, and a mostly unseen threat that stalks our skies and could easily wipe us out, defenseless as we are.

Who but Herzog could so poetically refer to dust as the “currency of the cosmos.” If nothing else, his enthusiasm sparks our own imaginations, and space of course is a near infinite supply of awe and mystery and possibility.

While Herzog and Oppenheimer mine plenty of zest in this most recent documentary (their third collaboration, after Into the Inferno and Encounters at the End of the World), they lack in structure and narrative. Their approach is more pinball, racing from one area of interest to another, seemingly as it occurs to them, assembled rather loosely. If you’re looking for a more academic approach perhaps this is not for you, but it will slake your inquisitiveness, arm you with some impressive conversation starters, and be the flint to your fascination.

TIFF20: Good Joe Bell

I don’t know who gave Good Joe Bell his nickname, but they were about as accurate as they were inventive. According to the movie’s log lines, Joe Bell (Mark Wahlberg) is a father from Oregon who sets out on a walk across America in honour of his son, Jadin (Reid Miller). Which is bullshit. I don’t dispute the Oregon part. Or the walking part either. He definitely does some walking, pushing a cart containing whatever camping gear hasn’t been stolen yet today. It’s the whole in honour of his son part that rankles. Joe may believe, or choose to believe, or fool himself that he’s walking for his son, but he’s really walking for himself. He’s walking for absolution. He’s trying to out-walk his guilt.

When his son came out to him, Joe didn’t exactly win any father of the year awards. He thought it was enough to not kick him out. Despite his wife’s pleas (Connie Britton), he didn’t work too hard at acceptance or even tolerance. He hid his disapproval behind thin veils and assumed his son would and should do most of the work to make his father comfortable, presuming this wasn’t some sort of phase, which Joe was of course hoping it would be, right up until Jadin took his own life.

So now Joe is walking across America, neglecting his wife and remaining children, stopping at schools to preach his an anti-bullying message, and at any community even that will have him to warn parents not to reject their gay kids. None of his missives is particularly effective, but blaming bullying is easier than dealing with his own complicity in his son’s suicide. Joe “talks” to his dead son on his walk but never seems to truly understand him – neither does Mark Wahlberg, for that matter, and director Reinaldo Marcus Green seems indifferent. With such a shallow approach, this feels like a movie from 25 or even 35 years ago, so heavy-handed and so proud of itself for so little. I’m sure it’s well-intentioned, but that’s hardly enough, for a message or a movie.

The only thing this movie does well is casting Mark Wahlberg, who is a little too believable as a homophobe and a failure at fatherhood. The rest is a mess. Its broad perspective renders it obsolete, it lacks self-awareness, and I don’t believe anyone involved has truly considered what or who this is actually for and about.

TIFF20: Concrete Cowboy

Fifteen year old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) isn’t exactly happy to be suddenly living with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba) in North Philadelphia. He’s even less pleased to be sleeping on the couch. Harp isn’t much of a traditional parent or even a provider of many necessities, but he does have one card in his back pocket, and it’s a pretty good one.

As a father-son drama, it leans pretty heavily on some overly familiar tropes. There is nothing about this relationship or its journey that will surprise you. It’s a tolerable watch because the acting is strong but it’s corny in all the expected places, with some sentimental stuff thrown in for good measure. But I’m still going to tell you to watch it; there’s that ace in the back pocket, and in this case, it’s called setting. The father-son stuff is just an excuse for writers Ricky Staub and Dan Walser to tell us about Philadelphia’s strange but true subculture: Black urban cowboys.

Inspired by the real-life Fletcher Street Stables, Harp is part of a century-long tradition of Black horsemanship. Poverty and violence may surround their neighbourhoods, but the stables are a safe haven for the community youth, where kids can learn to care for and ride horses, and no one has to leave the city to do it.

Cinema has the power to show you places and lifestyles and choices that are different from your own, but these Black-owned stables aren’t halfway around the world, they’re in a city much like my own, not too far from my own, a city I’ve actually visited, and yet I’ve never heard of or even dreamed of such a thing. In 2016, Antoine Fuqua showed me my first Black cowboy: Denzel Washington in The Magnificent Seven. It was the opening night film at TIFF that year and there was lots of talk about the casual color blind casting. Four years later, I’m back at TIFF and learning that Black cowboys really do exist, not just some starry-eyed invention of Fuqua’s, but a real, lived experience that proves the breadth of Black stories is as diverse as it is vast.

Concrete Cowboy is at its best when it’s saddled up and ready to ride, not because audiences love horses almost as much as they love puppies, though they do, but because this was always the real story here – the craft, the pride, the honour, the sense of community, the skills and wisdom passed down through generations. There is a deep vein of authenticity here, and a story that deserves to shine bright like a diamond.

TIFF: The Truffle Hunters

Truffles are a delicacy, one we are happy to indulge in when they’re being offered at a nice restaurant, and they’re only offered at a nice restaurant. At home they’re wildly out of our price range, or at least any responsible grocery budget, and we made do with truffle oil, for special occasions.

White truffles, trifola d’Alba Madonna (“Truffle of the White Madonna” in Italian) is found mainly in the Langhe and Montferrat areas of the Piedmont region in northern Italy, and most famously, in the countryside around the cities of Alba and Asti. They can go for $4000USD per pound in a good season; in one where truffles are more scarce, like they were a couple of years ago, a set weighing just under 2lbs went for $85,000. Why so expensive? Well, they’re nearly impossible to cultivate. You basically have to find them growing wild in nature, but they grow underground with no above ground marker, nearly impossible to find. Plus, once they’re out of the ground, they start losing mass, so they need to go from underground to on the table in less than 36 hours. Truffle hunters are a rare, and possibly a dying breed. It’s mostly a group of aging men, their particular skill set nearly as elusive as the truffles themselves. They comb the countryside woods with their trusty dogs, looking to find their pot of gold.

This documentary focuses on the eccentric octogenarians who have made this treasure hunt their trade. Directors Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw saturate us with romantic notions of nature while the old men charm us as they play for the camera. The camera is an impartial audience who listens to stories attentively and doesn’t roll its eyes like grandkids do.

These old men guard the secrets to their success like precious gems. Tradition is of the utmost importance, but modern challenges like climate change and deforestation are whittling away at the time-honoured art and science of truffle hunting. And as the truffles grow more scarce, and therefore more valuable, the competition stiffens. Competitors are even leaving poison out for the dogs.

And let’s face it: the dogs are the real stars here. Aurelio and his pal Birba steal the show; they are each other’s faithful companions, their relationship touching and sweet.
Carlo is a passionate and feisty forager but his wife doesn’t like him hunting at night any more. Titina is always by his side, ever loyal, even in church they both receive a blessing for a bountiful season ahead. Gabby Sergio is lucky enough to have two gifted canine friends, Pepe and Fiona, and crafty enough to go to great lengths to keep adversaries off his scent.

This unique and sometimes curiously comical documentary slyly draws a picture of a wildly diverging socioeconomic class between those who hunt the truffles and those who consume them. But despite the high demand and the vast business machinery driving the market, the real elites are the dwindling number of people who can actually supply those tasty little treasures. Some resources just aren’t renewable.

We saw this at TIFF, but it will also be the closing night film at the Devour! Food Film Fest.