Thursday, September 14, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Dramas / Action

Of the remaining dramas and action movies described in this final blog entry of my Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2017 experience, I watched two amazing movies, two movies that I thought were OK, one that had potential but could not quite follow through on its premise, and one that should have been great based on the reputation and past work of the director, but turned out to be truly awful.

Eye on Juliet was the first movie that I watched in the IMAX screening room within the Scotiabank Theatre complex.  Set mostly in Morocco, this was the perfect film to view in this theatre, even though the movie was not filmed in IMAX format, since the much larger screen showed off the expansive arid landscape of the Sahara desert with the Atlas Mountains in the background.  If only there were a few more rows in the theatre, as even from the back row, it felt too close for my far-sighted vision relative to the giant screen. 
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but Eye On Juliet turned out to be beautiful but unconventional love story.  Stationed in Detroit, drone operator Gordon monitors oil pipelines in Morocco, guarding them against vandalism and bandits who want to steal the oil.  These crab-like drones have cameras that provide video feeds including infrared images, and have translation capabilities that allow the operator to understand foreign languages as well as to translate his spoken English into other languages, using a range of tones from smoothing to menacing.  A morose Gordon, who had just been dumped by his girlfriend, becomes intrigued by pretty Moroccan girl who is wandering around in the hillside near the pipes.  Using his drone to spy on her, Gordon learns that she is planning to escape Morocco with her lover to avoid an arranged marriage with an older man.  Dubbing her "Juliet" after Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, Gordon is determined to help her.  This was a wonderful movie that I was surprised to learn was a co-production by Canada, France and Morocco, directed by Canadian Kim Nguyen.
Angels Wear White is a fabulous movie by Chinese director Vivian Qu, whose film was the only one by a female director to be invited to the Venice film festival.  Although not quite the classic definition of a film-noir movie as described in the synopsis, it certainly has a noir feel in terms of mood, tone, pace, lighting and dark subject matter filled with pessimism, fatalism and menace.  Mia, a teenaged runaway without papers, is illegally working as cleaning staff at a small hotel in a sleepy beach-side resort.  One night, the receptionist Lily asks Mia to cover the front desk for her while she goes on a date.  While Mia is watching the security monitors, she witnesses the prelude to the sexual abuse of two 12-year-old school girls by a senior government official, but does not want to get involved due to her own precarious status.  The rest of the movie revolves around the investigation and cover-up of this event, focusing mainly on one of the girls named Wen, who has been neglected by her divorced parents and left to run wild.  This movie provides a view into the rampant corruption in China, where justice is only for the rich and powerful and everyone only cares about looking out for themselves.  The one altruistic character in the movie is a female lawyer who works relentlessly to find proof of the girls’ assault and to bring the perpetrator to justice.  In a Hollywood movie, justice would prevail in the end, but this is China where anyone can and will be bribed.  The young females in Angels Wear White, including Wen, Mia and even Lily, are all victims of their social standing, environment and circumstances.  Each of these characters show great resilience in face of the hardships that they face.  There is a repeating motif of a giant sculpture of Marilyn Monroe in her flapping white dress from The Seven Year Itch, a symbol of innocence, vulnerability and sexuality.  Like Wen and Mia at the end of the movie, was Marilyn yet another angel who wore white.

Number One is a French movie about women fighting for equal rights and trying to crash through the corporate glass ceiling by having one of their own be named CEO of a major corporation.  Facing misogyny and dirty office politics, the women resort to unethical campaigns of their own in order to win the day.  It seems sad, especially after also watching the movie Battle of the Sexes which took place in the 1970s, that this movie is still so relevant today.  Although there have definitely been advances in opportunities for women since Billy Jean King fought for equal pay for female tennis players, there is still so far to go before we can claim there is true equality between the genders.

The movie Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle is a co-production between Netherlands, Italy and Canada, as the tale spans all three countries.  It starts off in Montreal where Anna is promising to fulfill her dying mother’s last wish, to have her ashes returned to be scattered in her home town of Puglia, Italy.  Arriving in Puglia with the ashes stored in a large Tupperware container that her mother left as a “parting gift”, Anna is met by two locals, Immacolata and her son Vito, who claim to know her and her mother from years ago.  What follows is a lengthy flashback as Immacolata recalls the story of how Anna’s parents met and came to Italy, and how she ended up with her adopted mother in Canada.  Anna’s parents Gauke and Ria were both Dutch refugees who met on a ship while escaping the great flood of 1953.  Wanting to avoid the constant rain in their home country, they immigrated to the little Italian village where they made friends, planted tulips that they brought with them, and started a business selling them.  The tale of what happened to her parents is told in an almost fairy tale-like manner that is full of romance, adventure and mystery, as Anna learns about her heritage and her identity.

Black Cop has a very interesting premise in its attempt to bring attention to the issue of racial profiling and discrimination against blacks.  Surprisingly this is not an American movie but rather a Canadian one.  A political satire written and directed by Corey Bowles from the Trailer Park Boys and based on his personal experiences, the movie deals with a black police officer, known only as “Black Cop”, who is considered a traitor to his race by other blacks.   When he is racially profiled and stopped for no reason while jogging off duty, Black Cop snaps and takes matters into his hands.  He turns the tables on white people, treating them as white cops have treated blacks.  He stops a white doctor jogging in an affluent neighbourhood after hearing a bulletin about a suspicious figure in the area wearing a hoodie, pulls over a vehicle with a young white couple and forces them out of the car and cuffs them when they question why they were stopped, and harasses a white student with a backpack.  When the student becomes scared and runs away, he pretends to shoot him with his finger and the student falls to the ground before getting up and continuing to run away.  It all seems so outrageous until you realize that these things actually happen to blacks except that they get shot with real guns.  The concept and social commentary of this movie was great, but there wasn’t enough content or expansion on the theme to sustain the entire movie.  One of the most poignant speeches that Black Cop makes is when he explains how he patrols the airwaves for incidents involving blacks and rushes over so that he is the one to make the arrest.  This is his way of protecting them since he knows that at least he would use restraint.

My husband Rich loves Hong Kong shoot-em-up action movies, so he was most excited about watching Manhunt, by director John Woo, whose credentials include the Hollywood gem Faceoff, and highly rated Chinese movies including Hardboiled and The Killers.  Unfortunately we found Manhunt is definitely not Woo’s best work.  The plot is convoluted, over-the-top and totally unimaginative, as it reuses elements from previous iconic movies of this genre and mashes them all together to make an incoherent mess.  Manhunt is a combination of “The Fugitive” meets “Lethal Weapon” meets “Limitless” or “Captain America : Winter Soldier” meets any “James Bond” movie, trotting out the tropes of the innocent man on the run, the suicidal cop who takes outrageous chances to catch the “bad guy” before realizing it is not who he initially thought it was, the evil pharmaceutical company manufacturing drugs for nefarious purposes with frightening side effects, and chase/action/fight scenes involving so many different groups of villains and protagonists that it is difficult to keep track of who is attacking whom.  The action scenes were actually fun and exciting, but nothing new.  They involve chases on foot, cars, motorcycles, subway cars and seadoos, as well as fight sequences using guns, machine guns, samourai swords, kung fu, and acrobatic battles while the cop and the man on the run are handcuffed together.  Although nothing we have not seen before, Woo at least knows how to film great action scenes, so had these sequences been couched with an interesting, intelligent story line, all would have been well.  But what really tanked this movie was the extremely cheesy, dialogue delivered in a stilted manner in three languages —Japanese, Mandarin and English.  The problem is that none of the actors can speak English properly, and their stiff, unnatural pronunciation undercuts any tension or emotional scenes, resulting in unintentional laugh-out-loud moments.  This was a very disappointing movie, especially considering that it is clear John Woo can do better.

After 1.5 weeks of watching “advanced screenings” of movies prior to the start of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), followed by 9 intensive days of watching films from day to night during the festival, averaging 4 movies a day, Rich and I are exhausted but thrilled.  Thank goodness for the Bell Lightbox Blue Room Members' Lounge, which allowed us to rest and even take a quick nap between screenings.  We watched so many great movies this year, and due to our Patron’s Circle TIFF membership, the experience of watching Press and Industry (P&I) screenings and not requiring to line up most of the time was fabulous.  Not paying for specific movies also made the opportunity cost of inevitably selecting a bad one much less painful.  I chose to watch Sheikh Jackson, supposedly a comedy about an Egyptian Muslim imam (prayer leader) who is thrown for a loop by the unexpected death of his idol Michael Jackson.  I sat through about 40 minutes of slow-paced scenes of people praying and chanting and not much else happening, without a single humorous moment before I finally gave up on the movie.  As I walked out of the theatre, I quickly checked the P&I schedule and realized that I could walk into another movie that had been on my short list with 5 minutes to spare.  I ended up watching the documentary Supersize Me 2 – Holy Chicken which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Now that we have experienced TIFF in this manner, I’m not sure we can ever go back to the time-intensive process of watching public screenings.

Monday, September 11, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Comedies

I have a preference for happy or funny movies, which I find much more entertaining, albeit perhaps not as thought-provoking as dark or depressing dramas about serious issues. When making my movie selections for the film festival, I tend to gravitate towards the ones that sound cheerful, at least based on the synopsis. Unfortunately experience has thought me that the 1-3 paragraph writeup for a movie might not always reflect the actual movie, especially for foreign films where sometimes the humour just does not translate. (Note to self .. must remember that I don’t find Korean “comedies” to be funny). The movies of this genre that I picked this year elicited a wide range of responses, from a light chuckle to roaring laughter to uneasy laughter at some dark comedies.

Of the 42 movies that I watched at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, my favourite by far is C’est La Vie.  This hilarious French comedy about a high-end wedding planner named Max had the audience howling with laughter from the first frame through to the last.  The movie opens with a scene where Max is negotiating with a young couple about the cost of their impending wedding, which is to be held at a location with a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower.  When they pressure him repeatedly to reduce expenses by being “more inventive”, the exasperated Max finally snaps and goes on an extended rant where he suggests that the guests contribute to the meal by bringing coleslaw in Tupperware, beer and lemonade to make shandies and fruit purée in plastic cups for dessert.

The rest of the movie involves the preparation for and execution of an elaborate all-inclusive wedding, held on the estate of a gorgeous 18th Century castle. Max needs to deal with an obnoxiously pompous groom, a head waiter who corrects everyone’s grammar and is infatuated with the bride, a troublesome wedding photographer who is rude to the guests, eats all the appetizers and sleeps with the groom’s mother, a temperamental wedding singer who is feuding with Max’s second-in-command, as well as other blunders and issues caused by his huge staff.  To top it off, Max’s mistress Joisette is tired of waiting for him to get a divorce and makes him jealous by flirting with a young waiter.

Everything that could possibly go wrong does, including meat being spoiled, food poisoning, power outages, awkward auto-corrected text messages and mishaps with the entertainment that includes a run-away helium balloon and over-exploding fireworks.  The movie is even more funny because the jokes arise from situational humour as opposed to slapstick comedy.  Despite the large cast, there is enough character development that you get to know and care about the goofy and beleaguered wedding crew.  After watching so many serious, depressing movies, it was such a joy to watch and enjoy a movie whose only goal is to make you laugh.

Based on the trailers and ads, I thought Downsizing was going to be a lighthearted science fiction-based comedy about the development of the technology to shrink people to a fraction of their original sizes, as a way of physically and economically “downsizing”.  Given that the movie prominently featured comedic actress Kristen Wiig in all the promotional images, I was expecting a movie full of jokes exploring the trials and tribulations about being shrunken and miniaturized.  The first 10-15 minutes of the film fulfilled this expectation.  But then the movie took a hard turn and morphed into a serious, preachy melodrama and morality tale about climate change and saving the environment.  Had I been prepared for and chosen to watch such a movie, I would have appreciated a touching, thought-provoking narrative with beautifully shot visuals of Norwegian fjords.  But since I was led to believe that I would be watching a comedy, I felt a bit of bait-and-switch had occurred by the end of the film.

Mediation Park is a sweet, low-keyed Canadian drama/comedy (dramedy?) about an immigrant Chinese family consisting of Bing, the stern but loving patriarch, the meek and obliging mother Maria, their brassy daughter Ava who is married to her white husband Jonathan, and an estranged son Charlie that Bing forbids his family from seeing, even to attend Charlie’s upcoming wedding.  Maria, who does not speak much English, can not drive and has never worked in Canada, feels beholden to Bing since he supports her financially and emotionally, discouraging her from making friends or seeking independence.  She seems content or at least resigned to her lot, until she discovers that Bing has been cheating on her.  This spurs Maria to question her loyalty to Bing for the first time, and to tentatively expand her horizons.  She befriends a group of neighbours and joins them in illegally renting out her parking spot to make some money, learns how to ride a bicycle to get around town and secretly follows Bing in order to spy on him with his mistress.  This movie is carried by Chinese actress Pei-Pei Cheng, whose beautiful smile lights up the screen, and whose escalating acts of defiance make you want to stand up and cheer.  Ava is played by Canadian actress of Korean heritage Sandra Oh, who I guess was considered to be Chinese-looking enough for the role, even though she could not speak Cantonese like the actors who played her parents.

I watched a pair of Canadian comedies both dealing with nerdy, socially awkward high school students trying to fit in with their peers.  Refreshingly though, neither character is portrayed as a victim.  Instead, they are written as brave, confident individuals who are not afraid to stand up for themselves.  In Public Schooled, Liam has been home-schooled and kept relatively isolated through his entire childhood by his over-protective single mother Claire.  Although scholastically brilliant, Liam is socially inept through lack of exposure to other kids his own age.  Claire has arranged for him to take a high school equivalency test, after which he can go straight to university, with the goal to attend Cambridge.  Liam aces the test, finishing in half the allotted time.  But as he is about to leave, he spots a beautiful blond student with a prosthetic leg and immediately becomes smitten.   Quickly retrieving his submission, Liam purposely tanks the test so that he can attend high school for the first time.  Like Meditation Park, Public Schooled is about gaining independence, but it is also about learning to let go.  Claire is so needy, clingy and possessive of her son that it would have been more than a little bit creepy, had not the part been played by actress Judy Greer who exudes so much wacky charm that you tend to give her the benefit of the doubt.  Comedian Russell Peters has a great cameo as a weird guidance councilor.

The heroine of Don't Talk to Irene does not care that she is short, dumpy, wears glasses and does not fit the stereotypical mold of a high school cheerleader. Regardless, Irene is determined to become a cheerleader, just like her mom Lydia was before Lydia became pregnant as a teenager.  Once again, Lydia is the over-protective mother who tries to shelter Irene to prevent her from being picked on and getting hurt.  When Irene is caught up in a fake hazing ritual for becoming a cheerleader, she and her bullies are suspended from school and sent to the local retirement home as punishment.  Once there, Irene gives the sedate, depressed elders a new purpose in life, by corralling them into forming a dance troop (using Lydia’s old cheerleading moves) so that they can enter a reality dance contest.  This movie is about empowerment, breaking stereotypes and pursuing your dreams.  Both Don’t Talk to Irene and Public-Schooled are pleasant and entertaining, if not terribly realistic movies.  Unfortunately, in real schools, both these kids would probably have been harassed and bullied much more than what was depicted.  But such is the magic of movies that they give you hope for a better world.

Like Death of Stalin, Under the Tree is another dark comedy that had moments where you pause and wonder why you are laughing at such shocking events.  But where Death of Stalin was played for laughs throughout the movie, much of Under the Tree feels like a slow psychological thriller with the occasional comedic scenes.  This is an Icelandic film about neighbours feuding over a shade tree.  The tree resides on the property of an older cat-owing couple, Inga and Baldvin, who are grieving the disappearance and apparent suicide of their oldest son.  The tree casts shade on the property of their neighbours Konrad and Eyborg, who let their large German Shepherd run wild, often onto the elder couple’s yard.  The feud escalates from a war of words to increasingly serious acts of retribution and retaliation.  The last 10 minutes of the movie have you laughing and gasping in horror at the same time.

The Spanish film The Motive is also advertised as a dark comedy, but the tone and slow pacing makes it more like a drama with some wickedly funny moments.  Alvaro dreams of being an author of great literature, as opposed to his best-selling writer wife Amanda, who he considers to be a hack that churns out low-brow fiction.  Unfortunately Alvaro has no talent for writing, despite taking multiple writing courses where his disdainful instructor advises him to live and experience more, then write about it.  Alvaro is overwhelmed with jealousy towards Amanda, and when he catches her cheating on him, it is the last straw.  He decides to quit his job, move out on his own into an apartment building and write his epic.  When no ideas come to him, Alvaro starts to manipulate his new neighbours into stressful situations that he can then use as plot material for his book.  For most of the movie, Alvaro comes across as a smug, selfish and amoral character that is difficult to root for.  But a twist ending forces you to at least admire his audacity and commitment to generating ideas for his craft, even at his own expense.  The Motive won the International Federation of Film Critics award for the Special Presentations Programme of the festival.

My husband Rich’s favourite movie of the festival was stand-up comic Louis C.K’s film I Love You Daddy about a wealthy and successful divorced TV screenwriter Glen, who has to deal with the challenges of protecting his strong-willed and spoiled 17-year-old daughter China, who he has constantly indulged and spoiled in the past.  China is able to wheedle and manipulate Glen into agreeing to outrageous requests like skipping school to take an extended spring break in Miami, and thanks him each time with the phrase “I love you, Daddy”, which starts off sounding sweet but eventually feels insidious.  Glen belatedly tries to exert some parental control when China, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, becomes infatuated with Leslie, a significantly older, even more successful movie screen writer who has a reputation of seducing young girls.  John Malkovich excels in the role of the slick, zen-like Leslie. This movie is both funny and sweet, with moments of biting social satire that may or may not be a reference to Woody Allen’s oeuvre, but may also make reference to Allen’s own reputation for dabbling with younger women/girls, something that Louis C.K. himself has also been accused of.  The most interesting part about the movie is the way it was made, in secret and privately funded with no input from studios or financiers.  Shot entirely in black and white on 35mm film with an old fashioned score that gives the main characters their own theme music, I Love You, Daddy is both a homage to the era of old-styled classic cinema, as well as an indictment against the Hollywood scene.

In Brad's Status, comedian Ben Stiller gives a surprisingly nuanced and sedate performance as happily married family man Brad, who works for a non-profit company and has a musician son Troy, who is interviewing for colleges.  Brad feels like an under-achiever when he compares himself to his university clique, who have all gone on to what Brad perceives as more successful, lucrative careers than him.  On a road trip with Troy to visit his colleges of choice, including Tuft University, where Brad went, and Harvard, which is Troy’s first choice, Brad comes to terms with his feelings of inadequacy and learns the typical clichéd lesson that success is measured by more than material wealth and that his friends' lives are not as great as he thought. There are no earthshaking revelations in this movie, which follows most of the usual tropes for its plot line.  Yet there were many touching moments and some funny ones where Brad imagines his wealthy friends jet-setting around the world or frolicking on the beach with nubile young women.

This year, I liked most of my selected comedies, which ranged from hilarious to mildly amusing, but were generally quite enjoyable.  The one exception was the Nigerian romantic comedy Royal Hibiscus Hotel, which I picked because I really liked the Nigerian romantic comedy from last year called The Wedding Party.  Unfortunately, whereas that movie was smart and funny, this one was unimaginative and derivative in plot, with boring dialogue, stiff acting and lack of chemistry between the romantic leads.  On top of this, I found the shrill, shrieky speech pattern of the mother to be extremely irritating.  I thought the same about the mothers in “The Wedding Party” but because the rest of the movie was so good, I didn’t mind as much as I did this time.  I think for next year, I might think twice about trying another Nigerian comedy.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Documentaries, Stories Based on Real Events

The documentary is not my favourite form of cinema because I find many of them to be about depressing topics and I don’t really like the interview style of information dissemination.  Surprisingly, this year there were multiple documentaries that interested me, dealing with a wide range of topics including investment fraud, celebrity sex secrets, corruption in the chicken industry and the Toronto Raptors basketball team.  We also watched a couple of movies that were neither biopics (which I previously wrote about) nor documentaries, but rather, fictional stories spun around real people and significant real-life events.

The China Hustle deals with the latest crisis to hit the US financial markets since the sub-prime mortgage fraud caused banks to fail in 2008.  The scam involves listing companies based in China on the New York Stock Exchange with falsified value, revenue, profit and growth projections in order to lure investors into purchasing overvalued stock.  To accomplish this, a Chinese company would take part in a “reverse merger”.  This involves finding a defunct American company (often a mining company) that is still listed on the stock exchange, merging with it and taking over its stock ticker.  A Chinese subsidiary of some big name auditing firm like Deloitte or Ernst and Young would then be paid (bribed?) to certify the new stock offering, giving it the air of legitimacy.  Since there are no Chinese laws governing improper financial dealings abroad, the Chinese companies can act with impunity.

Third-tier US banks and investment firms such as Roth Capital and Rodman & Renshaw jumped on what they thought was their new “golden goose”, pushing for their clients to buy these stocks, whose prices seemed to soar higher and higher.  It was not until Carson Block, an investor based in China, decided to visit Orient Paper Inc., a pulp and paper company which his family was invested in, that the truth came out.  Instead of a multi-million dollar company doing bustling business, Block found a decrepit building with 40 employees, 1 truck and a yard full of rotted wood.  Block published an analysis on his finding, but first “shorted” Orient Paper’s stock, betting that his revelations would cause the price to plummet, which it did.  Block made a bundle off this transaction, then started his company “Muddy Waters” to continue finding fraudulent Chinese companies, shorting their stock, then exposing them.

The documentary mainly focuses on Dan David, a Pennsylvania money manager who was initially also pushing these Chinese stocks.  Once he realized what was happening, he joined in shorting the stocks.  But unlike Block who was satisfied with just profiting from the situation, David has tried to raise awareness and get Congress to step in to protect the investors through legislation.  So far, David has been unsuccessful and none of the perpetrators of this fraud has been prosecuted or held responsible.  It was frustrating watching several of them be interviewed and smugly deny any wrong-doing.  It was also heartbreaking to watch the interviews of several small-time investors who have lost everything in these scams.  Mutual funds and pension funds were also fooled into investing, thus affecting even more people.  It seems incredible that after what the US went through in 2008, they would not have learned by now that there is no such thing as a “fast buck” and if something seems “too good to be true”, it usually is.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood follows around the now 90-year-old George Scotty Bowers, who acted as a “purveyor of sexual partners” for Hollywood celebrities from the 1940s-1980s.  In 2012, after decades of remaining silent about the secrets that he knew, Bower wrote a tell-all book called “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars“, which revealed the sexual preferences and shenanigans of a bunch of high-profile stars and celebrities.  Scotty was a former marine who worked at a gas station after the World War II, where he met and had a sexual encounter with actor Walter Pidgeon.  This led to a new “party service” business for Bowers, who fulfilled any request for sexual encounters by the Hollywood jet-set, be it gay, lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, threesomes or orgies.  The sexual preferences of some of his clientele, such as Cary Grant or Rock Hudson, are common knowledge today.  But some revelations were a surprise to me, such as the true nature of the relationship between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who were never lovers and never lived together, since he was gay and she was a lesbian.  I was also surprised to learn of the bisexuality of Edward, the Duke of Windsor, and his paramour Wallace Simpson.  Scotty himself boasted of quite the bisexual sex life, including an infamous threesome with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner and many gay affairs.  His business ended in the mid 80s with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic and in 1984, Scotty settled down and married Lois, a former lounge singer who is with him to this day.
Supersize Me 2 – Holy Chicken is Morgan Spurlock’s follow-up to his 2004 exposé on the nutritional value (or lack-thereof) of MacDonalds menu items.  This time, he turned his attention to the chicken industry and chicken sandwiches in particular.  The gimmick this time would be Spurlock’s attempt to open a healthy chicken sandwich restaurant.  The problem is that no one really wants to eat a healthy (grilled) chicken sandwich, preferring the much tastier but less healthy deep-fried chicken sandwich.  So with tongue in cheek, the rest of the documentary is spent investigating ways to make his “crispy, never say fried” chicken burger joint appear to be healthier.  This included painting charcoal grill marks on the chicken and heaping vegetables on top of it, using green paint and wood décor in the restaurant to give a natural feel, and only using the "best" chickens.  To be able to say his chickens were “farm to fork”, he started his own chicken farm, which he called Morganic (play on Organic and Morgan) Fresh Farms.   Next came an indictment on the meaningless labels placed on poultry, including “organic”, “natural”, “no hormones”, and “free-range”, with no real standards being enforced for any of these terms.  Then he examined the modern chicken breeding practices which result in chickens so big that their legs cannot support their weight and cause heart attacks. This is followed by a segment that compared the “Big Chicken” industry to mob bosses who used immoral tactics to keep chicken farmers indentured to them.  The finale features the grand opening of the Holy Chicken restaurant, which Spurlock uses as a means of trying to educate the public on truths about the chicken industry.

When basketball first expanded into Canada in 1995, Toronto was still primarily a hockey city.  Attendees to the early Toronto Raptors games did not really understand the ins and outs of basketball and the rest of the American teams in the NBA all thought of Toronto not just as a foreign country, but almost as if it were some alien planet.  Much of this changed when the Raptors acquired Vince Carter in 1998, and his impact in creating interest in basketball within Toronto, and interest in Toronto from the rest of the league is explored in the documentary The Carter Effect, produced by Toronto superstar rapper Drake and NBA superstar Lebron James.  Vince Carter was a superstar in the making, with powerful and innovative dunk shots that excited fans, teammates and opponents alike.  Carter’s addition to the team helped the Raptors reach the playoffs for the first time in the 1999-2000 season, and to repeat the trip in 2001 and 2002.  During this period, the Raptors set league-wide attendance records and the term “Vinsanity” was coined to describe the hype surrounding Vince Carter.  Suddenly Toronto seemed like a basketball town and other NBA teams started to take notice.

Carter’s tour with the Raptors ended on a sour note when several years of poor performances by the team, resulting in missing the playoffs, and Vince’s chronic injuries led to his being traded to the New Jersey Nets in 2004.  Fans did not take this well, with rumours abound that Carter had demanded a trade and abandoned the city that loved him.  For years, the fans booed Carter mercilessly every time he returned to play in Toronto.  In the documentary, Vince claimed that he never wanted to be traded but was forced out by a change in management.  Eventually the fans forgave Carter and gave him credit for all that he had done for the city.  In 2014 while celebrating the Raptors 20th anniversary, a tribute reel featured Vince’s accomplishments and the fans responded with a standing ovation.  I watched the game that day, and like Vince Carter, I had tears in my eyes when this happened.  The Carter Effect allowed Raptors fans to relive all these memories.

The two movies we watched that spun fictional stories around real life events were coincidentally both related to historic situations that occurred in the former Soviet Union or USSR.  Sergio and Sergei is a sweet tale of friendship that blossoms in spite of different ethnicities, cultures and religions and in the face of oppression, political and economic strife.  Sergio is a Cuban university professor and amateur ham radio operator, trying to support his young daughter and his elderly mother.  It is 1992 and the Soviet Union had just collapsed, leaving Russia and its major ally Cuba in financial straits.  Sergio receives a new ham radio from his American friend Peter, who has ties to NASA.  This causes the Cuban secret police to regard Sergio with suspicion and to monitor his transmissions.  One day, Sergio makes contact with Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev who is on a tour of duty on the space shuttle Mir, awaiting approval to return home.  As time passes, it becomes clear that Russia is stalling regarding sending Sergei home because they don’t have the funds to do so.  Sergio tries to enlist Peter to get aid from NASA to help Sergei.  This is a delightful and touching movie that does not totally shy away from the hardships faced by Cuba and Russia during this period, but in general keeps the tone light and comical.  While the fall of USSR and the plight of Krikalev are based on real events, as is the astronaut’s contact from space with ham radio operators around the world, the interactions with Sergio and Peter are fictional.  The movie lost me a bit at the end when it injected minor elements of fantasy to make the story more fairy-tale-like, which I thought was unnecessary.  Otherwise I really enjoyed this movie.

The Death of Stalin is a hilarious satire and black comedy that describes the days leading up to and the aftermath following the demise of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953.  The cruel and sadistic General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was feared by his people and his Council of Ministers alike.  Stalin ordered the arrest, incarceration or execution of perceived enemies at a whim.  These orders were carried out by his secret police, the NKVD.  Somehow this movie made you laugh, despite depicting what should be horrific acts including torture and executions, although I must admit that I felt a twinge of guilt for being amused.  Most of the humour comes from the frantic and inane interactions and infighting between Stalin’s inner circle including Malenkov, Molotov, Beria and Khrushev, as they “kissed ass” while he was alive and then turned on him and each other after his death.  The movie is all the more funny because all the Russian roles are played by American and British actors including Steve Buscemi, Jeffery Tambor and Michael Palin, speaking English in their native accents.  What made this movie so amazing was how historically accurate the depicted events were, despite the buffoonery and exaggerated situations that were played for laughs.  As an example, according to Wikipedia, Stalin was found unconscious in his bedroom, having urinated in his collapse and was subsequently moved to a couch.  All these points were faithfully depicted in the movie, but the hilarity that ensued when the bumbling ministers tried to lift Stalin while not stepping on his urine brought roars of laughter from the audience.  This was such a fun movie to watch, while also being educational.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

TIFF 2017 - BioPics

This year, we seem to be watching a disproportionate number of bio-pics or docu-dramas which depict (with artistic license) the lives of real people and events.  This includes the movie about tennis superstar rivals Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which we watched on the first day of the festival.  There are even a few more such films that didn't make our short list, including Stronger about a couple dealing with the aftermaths of the Boston Marathon bombing, and The Current War about the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse in their battle to see whose electric current protocol would become the accepted standard.  I feel that I have learned so much history from all these biographical movies that I watched.

Battle of the Sexes delves into the lives of 29-year-old reigning #1 ranked women's tennis champion Billie Jean King and 55-year-old former men’s tennis champion Bobby Riggs.  It is 1973 and King is advocating for women’s rights and equal prize money in the women’s draw of the Lawn and Tennis Association, arguing that the women bring in as much in ticket sales as the men and therefore should be compensated equally.  Unable to get the chauvinistic heads of the tournament tour to agree, King forms the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) with its own tour circuit sponsored by Virginia Slim cigarettes and convinces her fellow female players to join her.  At the same time, while married to Larry King, Billie Jean is starting to explore her sexuality, developing a relationship with female hairdresser Marilyn Barnett.  In  the meantime, Riggs is a compulsive gambler which causes friction with his long-suffering wife Priscilla who eventually kicks him out of the house.  Riggs comes up with the scheme to stage a tennis match with King, to be dubbed “Battle of the Sexes” in order to prove once and for all that men are superior.  King initially refuses to take part in such a side-show but after Riggs instead plays and handily defeats Margaret Court, Billie Jean feels obligated to take up the challenge in defense of Women’s Tennis and feminism in general.  The casting was stellar as Emma Stone and Steve Carrell each seemed to channel their characters, both in appearance and in mannerisms.

In addition to Borg/McEnroe, this is the second tennis bio-pic that we watched at TIFF 2017.  Based on pre-festival buzz, we expected Battle of the Sexes to be the better movie, but surprisingly, we found first film to be more compelling.  This seems to be the general opinion since on the movie trivia and ranking website, Borg/McEnroe currently has a 7.2 rating while Battle of the Sexes is currently trending with a dismal 4.6 rating.  These ratings should be taken with a grain of salt since it is early days yet and each movie has less than 400 votes.  While both movies focused on the back-stories and personal challenges of the characters both on and off the tennis court, Borg/McEnroe resonated more, especially in the portrayal of Bjorn Borg.

Battle of the Sexes did a better job of showing the actual tennis rallies and winning points of its iconic match, accomplishing this by using professional tennis-playing body doubles for the long shots.  It is to be noted how weak and gentle the strokes from both Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs felt compared to what is on display by both the mens’ and womens’ players of today.  Not only have the racquets become bigger and more powerful but so have the athletes.  Miss King (in the teal jacket) showed up for the Premiere screening and Q&A of Battle of the Sexes and it was noted how small she appeared next to the cast of the movie.   When the cast first came on stage for the Q&A, we were all wondering what happened to Sarah Silverman, who had been there earlier in the evening.  Part way through, she tried to sneak onto the stage, and when asked what happened, she explained that she had to rush off to "take a sh**!", drawing huge laughs from the crowd.  There is no sugar-coating things with Sarah Silverman.

I only knew about Watergate at a high level, as the 1972 scandal that led to the resignation of American Republican President Richard Nixon.  Watching Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House gave me much more insight into the details, and the role played by Felt, who was the associate director of the FBI at the time.  The issue initially arose when the FBI arrested 5 “burglars” trying to break into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters.  Further investigations revealed that the burglars were all connected to the FBI, CIA or other government agencies.  What followed was massive pressure from the White House to hamper or stop the investigations, forcing Felt to make the unprecedented move of leaking information to press agencies including the Washington Post and Time Magazine, in order to ramp up the pressure of public opinion to keep the investigations alive.

Through incandescent phone calls and meetings in deserted parking garages, Felt was given the nickname of “Deep Throat”.  Felt never publicly acknowledged his involvement until 2005, just a few years prior to his death.  Liam Nielsen was great in the role of Mark Felt, displaying stoic gravitas and determination.  I had trouble keeping the huge cast of characters apart, from White House staff to FBI G-men to CIA to reporters.  I’m not sure how accurate the conversations were, but I liked how the various parties tried to intimidate each other with implied threats rather than explicit ones.  I did wonder why Felt, who was one of the prime suspects for the media leaks, was not “tailed” or followed to his various meetings and calls from the same phone booth.  This would have happened had it been a fictional spy movie.  I guess there was no one to assign to this task that normally would have fallen to the FBI.  A subplot involving Felt’s missing, runaway daughter served to humanize him, making him seem more vulnerable and relatable.

The tense and action-packed opening few minutes of Molly's Game set the tone for the rest of the movie, which features a pulsing beat underscoring first person voice-over narration by actress Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom.  Describing her high-pressured, over-achieving family, Bloom poses the question “What is the worse thing that can happen in professional sport?” She lists some possibilities including losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, losing 4 games straight in the playoffs (unfortunately using the Blue Jays as the example), or coming 4th in the Olympics?  Then she describes what happened to her during her Olympics qualifying mogul ski run where a spectacular crash ended her skiing career.   Trying to escape her dysfunctional relationship with her overbearing father, Molly moves to New York where she ends up running high-stakes poker games for celebrities and other high rollers and becomes known as the “Poker Princess”.  When circumstances force her to move and create an even more prestigious and higher-stakes game in Los Angeles, Molly’s life starts to spiral out of control.  This included addiction to drugs and alcohol, sleep-deprivation, exposure to Italian and Russian mob syndicates, and finally, taking an illegal cut from each pot (a rake) to limit her personal exposure to clients who could not pay up money lost at the tables.  Because members of the Russian mob frequented her games, Molly gets caught up in a RICO bust and hires a lawyer (played by hunky Idris Elba) to defend her.  The movie flips back and forth between Molly’s childhood, her days running the poker games, and her arrest and legal issues of the present.  This is a terrific story about a fascinating woman, but it is interesting to note that when you Google Molly Bloom on Wikipedia, she is merely a one line entry in the full biography of her younger brother, Olympic and World Champion skiing star Jeremy Bloom.

My first thought prior to watching Chappaquiddick was to wish that the 1969 scandal surrounding Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy had happened in a location that was easier to spell.  The movie opens hauntingly with a black and white photo of the Kennedy brothers as children.  A voice-over by Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy laments that each of his older, relatively more brilliant and successful brothers were dead—Joseph Jr killed in WWII, President John F Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy both assassinated.  Ted, considered the least intelligent brother with the least potential for greatness, was the last one standing and the last hope to fulfill what was considered to be the destiny of the Kennedy clan.  There was great pressure for Ted to run for the 1972 Democratic nomination for President, a role that he did not really want and was not sure that he could successfully fulfill.  It was with this turmoil and sense of self-doubt that a drunk Kennedy drove away from a party and accidentally crashed his car off an unlit pier on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts while accompanied by Robert Kennedy’s secretary Mary Jo Kopechne.  Although he claimed otherwise, the movie seems to imply that Ted’s only thought was to save himself and that he left Kopechne in the car to drown.  All this happens within the first minutes of the film, and what follows is the bumbling attempts by Kennedy to cover up his actions, much to the chagrin of his cousin and lawyer Joseph (Joey) Gargan, who wants him to do the right and moral thing of admitting to his actions, and the massive team of slimy lawyers and senior government officials who help strategize the cover up, which Kennedy inadvertently thwarts at every turn.

To start with, Ted walked away from the scene of the accident, did not call for emergency assistance to help rescue Mary Jo, and did not report the accident to authorities for ten hours, despite pleas from Joey to do so.  Kennedy did try to phone his father Joseph Sr. for help, but was met with scorn and lack of sympathy.  When Ted finally reported the incident the next morning, after police had already discovered his vehicle in the water, he wrote out a multi-page confession/statement that white-washed events but was filled with inconsistencies.  He used his influence to prevent an autopsy of Mary Jo’s body.  To explain his actions, he claimed his doctor had diagnosed him with a major concussion and prescribed sedatives for him, which it turns out could actually kill a concussion victim.  To drum up sympathy for himself at Kopechne’s funeral, Ted wore a ridiculously fake-looking neck brace, again against the advice of his army of lawyers who looked upon him with frustrated disdain.

Through much spin and manipulation, Edward Kennedy ended up pleading guilt to leaving the scene of a crime and was given a 2 month jail term, which was immediately suspended.  To give time for the scandal to die down, he did not campaign for the presidential nomination until 1980, but lost in this only attempt.  He did end up as the longest serving Senator for the remainder of his career.   Jason Clarke did an amazing job of portraying all the faults and vulnerabilities of the black sheep of the Kennedy dynasty.  Despite all of Ted’s selfish, stupid and immoral actions, you can’t help but feel sorry for the little boy inside him who only wanted his father’s love and approval, but was never going to get it.

With the modern day obsession regarding all things to do with the British monarchy (past and present), it seems incredible that the story told in the movie Victoria and Abdul has not been more widely known before now.  The movie deals with the last 15 years in the life of Queen Victoria in the late 19th Century, during which she takes a fancy to an Indian servant named Mohammed Abdul Karim, who was assigned to wait on her during her visit to India.  She decides to take him on as her full time personal assistant and brings him back to England with her.  There might have been some dramatic license taken here, since Wikipedia indicates that Abdul had already traveled to London for a Colonial and Indian Exhibition when he was assigned to serve the queen, but this gave the director the opportunity to showcase lush scenes of India as well as images of the massive sailing ship crossing the Ocean.  Once ensconced in the palace, Abdul continued to delight Victoria and eventually became designated her “Munshi” or teacher, much to the dismay of her household and children.  Abdul taught Victoria how to speak and write a few phrases from the Indian language of Urdu as well as instructing her on Indian affairs.  Once Victoria passed away in 1901, her son and successor King Edward VII sent Abdul back to India and had all memorabilia of that time destroyed.  Abdul died 8 years later at age 46.  For the most part, the movie is quite a faithful adaptation of a book by the same name, which in turn was based on Abdul’s memoirs, that had been hidden by his family and only uncovered in 2010.  This was a touching story about a legendary figure made all the more incredible for being true.

Also taking place in the 19th Century is the biography of Mary Shelley, author of the classic masterpiece Frankenstein.  Born Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin and named after her mother who died shortly after childbirth, Mary lived with her bookseller father, stepmother and various half siblings including her half-sister Claire Claremont. Even as a child, Mary loved Gothic and horror novels and scribbled little short stories to amuse her younger siblings.  At 16, she met and began a romance with poet and philosopher Percy Shelley, falling in love with him before finding out that he was already married with an estranged wife and a young daughter.  Spurred on by her own parents’ free-spirited and bohemian lifestyles in their youth, Mary runs off with Shelley, accompanied by sister Claire, who longs for adventure.  The scandal of Mary and Percy’s relationship out of wedlock causes Mary’s father to disown her.   While traveling through Europe, they meet celebrity poet Lord Bryan and end up visiting him at his estate in Geneva, Switzerland.  Byron’s proposal of a Gothic novel writing contest between his house guests, which also included Dr. William Polidori, gave Mary the inspiration to eventually write Frankenstein.  Interestingly, Polidori ended up writing a book called “Le Vampyre” which was an inspiration for the more famous “Dracula” by Brams Stoker.  Unfortunately, the book was attributed to Byron even though both Byron and Polidori disputed this claim.

The movie depicts Percy Shelley as a drunk and serial womanizer whose conquests included Mary’s sister Claire.  Percy’s behaviour plus the death of their baby daughter filled Mary with a sense of despair, loneliness and craving for affection, which she poured into her description of “the creature” in her story.  Although it was clear that Frankenstein was a great literary feat and so much deeper than just a mere Gothic thriller, the publishers of the day would not accept such a dark and terrifying story from a female writer.  Mary could not get anyone to publish her book unless she agreed to do it anonymously, with Percy Shelley writing the forward (implying that he was actually the author).  Mary and Percy eventually married after Percy’s first wife committed suicide, and with the success of the first printing, Frankenstein was republished, this time naming Mary Shelley as the author.  It was interesting to learn that the movie was directed by Saudi Arabian female director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who like Mary Shelley, had to fight to be allowed to practice and be recognized for her craft.  As per typical Hollywood fashion, very attractive actors Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth were selected to portray Mary and Percy.  But renderings of the actual author and poet show that they were quite attractive in their own rights.  The movie was filmed in Dublin, Ireland and in Luxembourg, featuring lush scenery and sets.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells the story of William Moulton Marston who created the DC female superhero Wonder Woman, using the pen name Charles Moulton.  The character Wonder Woman is certainly seeing a resurgence of interest of late, with the new movie starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot receiving rave reviews. Having no prior knowledge about this story, it was fascinating to watch this movie to find out how it all came about.

William Marston was a professor of psychology, who along with his wife and fellow psychologist Elizabeth Holloway Marston, developed the systolic blood-pressure test which was the basis for the lie detector.  In his psychology classes, Marston lectured about his DISC theory which posits that human behaviour falls into four behavioural traits—Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance. Olive Byrne, a student in Marston’s class, is hired to be a research assistant to his and Elizabeth’s research, but soon ends up in a long-term poly-amorous relationship with the couple.  The movie starts with a scene of people burning copies of Wonder Woman before moving to a tribunal before which William needs to defend his comics creation against charges of immorality and perversion in the stories and images that he depicted, which included bondage, spanking and lesbianism.  As he answers questions about the genesis of Wonder Woman and her various features and super powers, we are shown flashbacks to Marston’s life with Elizabeth and Olive, which demonstrate how they were the real "Wonder Women" who were the inspirations for the character.  The movie also cleverly relates each section of the flashbacks to the four traits in the DISC theory.

This movie is relevant on so many levels, touching on science, psychology, feminism, culture and the social mores of the times regarding homosexuality and alternative poly-amorous life styles.  William Marston had two children with each of the women in his life, and this unusual blended family unit withstood social and professional ostracization in order to stay together.  After his early death from cancer at age 54 in 1947, Olive and Elizabeth continued in a loving relationship together until Olive’s death in 1985.  It is interesting to note that after William’s death, the Wonder Woman was stripped of not only any sexual or other “immoral” references, but she was also stripped of her superpowers, reflecting a corresponding decline in women’s rights in the 50s.  When feminism was resurrected in the 70s, Wonder Woman's super powers were restored.  Accordingly, the character of Wonder Woman really has been a reflection of the times.