Wednesday, August 28, 2019

TIFF 2019 - Advanced Screenings


For the past three years, my husband Rich and I have purchased a TIFF Patron's Circle Gold membership that allows us to watch Press and Industry (P&I) screenings of movies being shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.  Although it costs quite a bit of money, we have prioritized this into our annual entertainment budget since we really enjoy having the opportunity to watch such  eclectic films of varying genres from around the world.  Watching the press screeners allows us to pack more movies into a day since we save the time usually spent traveling between theatres, waiting in line to get into the theatre, the 10+ minutes of watching the same commercials before every film and the Q&A after the movie (although I do miss this last part).  Comparing the projected length of a press screening versus a public screening, the difference is up to 30 minutes per movie.  This allows us to potentially fit in an extra movie per day, schedule permitting.

Adding to our ability to maximize movie watching is the offering of "Advanced Screenings" which are held for 5-6 days at then end of August, in advance of the festival.  There are around 3 movies per day that are selected by the festival organizers.  These are usually not the "prestige" movies with big stars or directors, since many members of the press have not arrived in Toronto yet.  Not having any say in which movies are shown, we merely make the decision of whether we want to watch each advanced screener or not.  This actually allows us to expand our viewing experiences a bit outside of our comfort zone, since often we are watching movies that we might not have picked for ourselves.  This year there were many more interesting movies available for advanced screening than usual and we picked 12 out of 15 to watch.  We would cinematically take a whirlwind worldwide tour of movies from Australia, Germany, South Africa, Korea, USA, Uruguay, Japan, Israel, Brazil, France and Canada, all in 5 days.  We enjoyed most of them and four of the movies were even on our shortlists to watch during the regular festival.  Being able to watch them in advance allowed us to substitute in other movies during the festival.  In all, Rich and I will each watch over 40 movies at this year’s TIFF.


Our first advanced screener was the bio-pic of 1970's Australian pop singer Helen Reddy, titled after her iconic feminist anthem "I Am Woman".   The movie depicts Reddy's journey towards international superstardom and all the sexism she faced along the way, making her role in inspiring the 70s women's movement all the more poignant.  The film starts with Helen's arrival in America with her young daughter Tracy in tow, hoping to score a recording contract.  It explores Reddy's friendship with journalist and fellow Australian ex-pat Lilian Roxon and her turbulent relationship with husband and manager Jeff Wald, as they struggled to launch her singing career.  Along the way, most of Helen Reddy's big hits are performed including my favourites "Angie Baby" and "You and Me Against the World".  I Am Woman hits all the standard tropes of a bio-pic that follows the rise and fall of a performer.  But the tie-in to the social issues with the women's lib movement and their fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment give this film a bit of extra gravitas and even relevance, especially in light of recent events in the USA, where women's rights seem to be taking a step backwards.  I came out of the movie feeling "strong", "invincible" and ready to "roar".

The Audition is a German/French co-production about an overly strict and demanding violin teacher Anna, who becomes fixated on the success of a pupil that she championed despite misgivings from her fellow instructors. This pupil becomes a vicarious substitute for her own failed career as a concert violinist, caused first by illness and then by the psychological fear of failure.  Added to this is her disappointment at being unable to motivate her own son to devote himself solely to the violin, since he has other interests such as hockey.  Anna’s demand for perfection ends up alienating her pupil, son and husband, leading to a shocking outcome after a long slow build-up. This movie is beautifully shot with depth-of-focus images that linger on closeups of the characters, where all their thoughts and emotions are revealed through their expressions.

Knuckle City is a South African film about an aging, womanizing boxer named Dudu and his career criminal younger half-brother Duke, who grew up in the rough and tumble setting of Mdantsane, South Africa where the two main industries are boxing and crime. The common wisdom of the town states that there are only three ways to escape Mdantsane—as a boxing champ, in the back of a squad car or in a pine box. The movie depicts the repetitive cycle of poverty, corruption and male toxicity, as the brothers pick up their vices from their violent, gun-toting boxer father who seduces young high-school girls, using Dudu to lure them out of the house. The standard trope of the washed-up boxer’s last shot at success is given a South African spin, heightened by the unusually huge personal stakes associated with the final bout. Familial loyalties and the measure of a man by his ability to protect his family are also main themes throughout the film.

Parasite is an fascinating Korean film about a family of impoverished ne'er-do-wells named Kim, who insidiously weasel their way into the employ of a wealthy family.  This is a scathingly satirical commentary on class wars, poverty, and homelessness. Using fake identities and credentials, the Kim son and daughter get themselves hired as tutor and art therapist for the spoiled children of the wealthy Park family, then use deception and sabotage to allow their parents to replace the current chauffeur and live-in housekeeper. The movie highlights the marked disparity in the attitudes of and issues faced by the rich versus the poor.  For example, the day after a torrential downpour devastatingly floods that destroys the Kim's basement hovel, the self-centred Park matriarch obliviously plans an extravagant party and marvels at how fabulous it was that the rain had cleansed the air.  The tone continually changes in the movie as it morphs from dark comedy to socio-political satire to almost campy horror and finally to melodrama.  Although we watched it early in the TIFF schedule, Parasite may well end up being one of our favourite movies of this year’s festival.

Blow the Man Down is an American dark comedy set in a small fishing village that features two sisters who just buried their mother, a killing in self defence and the subsequent cover-up, a murder mystery, a contentious brothel, "Fargo"-esque cops, a trio of old busybodies and a slew of secrets. The film’s atmosphere is frothily tense and interspersed with fishermen acting almost like a Greek Chorus as they belt out lusty renditions of the old sea shanty after which the movie was named.  Blow the Man Down is light and entertaining, providing much needed respite from the plethora of depressing dramas and intense action thrillers coming up in our schedule.  This was actually a movie that made my picks for the actual festival.  Seeing it in advance allowed me to substitute in another film instead.

The MoneyChanger takes place in Uruguay in the 1970s when that country became a haven for stashing money from the failing economies in Argentina and Brazil.  Told in first person monologue, the film follows the overly ambitious Humberto Brause as he marries his boss' daughter and takes over his father-in-law's modest and only slightly illegal money laundering business.  Once in charge, Brause takes on more and more risky business, dealing with dangerous political and military personnel from neighbouring countries.  This film is marketed as a comedy and Brause is supposed to come across as a sympathetic, lovable rogue.  Unfortunately I did not find the protagonist to be the least bit likeable and the only funny part of the movie was the recurring joke of Humberto not being able to order a cup of coffee after his heart attack, since his wife had warned off everyone in town from serving him.  This movie did not really resonate with me.  Often I find it difficult to relate to foreign comedies, either due to cultural differences or possibly tone or meaning lost in translation.  I felt the same way about Three Summers, described further down in this blog.

I was almost scared away from watching the epic Chinese film So Long, My Son, due to its THREE HOUR running time! This extremely ambitious movie (part of a planned trilogy) tells a very personal story of three sets of friends navigating through the changing political, social, and economic landscape of China from the 1980s, just after the cultural revolution, through to current day. By following the lives and traumas faced by these three couples, we are given a glimpse into the harsh dictatorial policies faced by the Chinese during this earlier period including forced abortions to enforce the “one-child” policy, loss of previously guaranteed employment, and incarceration for debauchery for embracing Western music, all under the auspices of supporting the greater good of the motherland.

The main trauma in the movie occurs when one couple’s only son drowns, possibly caused by actions of the son of another couple. The subsequent story of grief and guilt is told through a series of time jumps that are difficult to follow since the people do not look that different between some of the various time periods. You resort to desperately looking for clues in clothing, hair style, technology, and setting to determine when a scene takes place chronologically.  The time jumps do allow for a slow reveal of some of the plot points. The movie could have been cut by 30-60 minutes without losing too much of the plot, since much time is spent on the grieving couple sitting around looking melancholy. Despite its length, the movie is quite engrossing and very interesting in its depiction of China over this turbulent period.

37 Seconds is a tender, heartwarming Japanese film about Yuma, a wheelchair-bound young woman who suffers from cerebral palsy, caused by an incident during her birth when she could not breathe for 37 seconds. Yuma strives to break free from her over-protective mother and establish herself as a manga artist in her own right, as opposed to secretly selling her drawings to a YouTube star who takes credit for the work.  Because of her child-like voice and features, and the way her mother treats her, we do not realize that Yuma is 23 until more than half way through the film. In her quest for independence, Yuma befriends several people who live on the fringe of society and being slightly marginalized themselves, find it easier to accept her.  The movie does a wonderful job of showing the trials and tribulations as well as the prejudices and discrimination faced by the disabled. But it also highlights the strength of Yuma’s spirit and the warmth of her personality. When disabled first-time actress Mei Kayama who plays Yuma smiles, your heart grows two sizes and you want to wrap your arms around her and make sure nothing bad happens to her.

Filmed in Israel, Incitement deals with the events leading up to the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, shortly after he ratified the final act of the Oslo Peace Accord. The movie delves into the family life and background of the assassin Yigal Amir, exploring the various factions and factors that may have incited him to commit the crime, as hinted at by the title of the film.  It could have been a culmination of Amir's experience in the military which had hardened him, the inflammatory rhetoric of political figures like opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, or the rabbis whose religious interpretations of the Torah advise that it is the duty of a devout Jew to kill Rabin since he has been deemed a "Pursuer" and an "Informer" (i.e. a traitor) against the Jewish faith.  The film plays out like a taut thriller, even though the outcome is a well-known part of history.  Historic video clips of Rabin giving speeches at various rallies are used to give the film a more realistic feel. Especially powerful is the real footage of the actual assassin dressed in a blue t-shirt, waiting to do the deed, intercut with the actor playing Amir, dressed in the same way. Having watched the theatre play Oslo about the secret negotiations leading to the Oslo Accord, viewing Incitement felt like we were watching a sequel.

The themes of class and wealth disparity seem to be a common thread in many movies this year.  In the Korean film Parasite (described above), the rich are portrayed as arrogant, insensitive and pretentious while the poor are depicted as conniving and deceitful.  The Brazilian film Three Summers has a similar view of the rich family that owns a group of luxury beach-side condos, but portrays their working class servants as clever and resourceful.  In particular, the head caretaker Madá maintains a level head and cheerful demeanor through adversity, especially after her boss is arrested for money-laundering and stealing from schools and hospitals.  Striving to keep the luxury condo complex afloat and maintain paying jobs for herself and her co-workers, Madá comes up with ingenious ways to make money including a yard sale, giving tourists boat tours to view the homes of corrupt and currently jailed business men or officials, running a B&B, and renting out the space for TV commercials.  The movie takes place over three Christmases, which corresponds to the summer season since Brazil is located south of the equator.  Even knowing this, it was strange seeing a huge Christmas tree and decorations amid the sand, surf and palm trees.

The Canadian documentary Coppers is a  comprised of a series of interviews with retired police officers who worked in cities throughout Ontario including various parts of Toronto, Mississauga, Bramalea, Niagara Falls, and Barrie, as well as one from Halifax.  The ex-cops share poignant, heart-felt anecdotes about why they got into policing, harrowing experiences on the job, their coping mechanisms and what ultimately made them leave the police force including the long-term toll that it had on some of them.  In addition to a desire to help people, many called themselves adrenaline junkies.  They described horrific car and motorcycle crashes where bodies were mangled, decapitated, or thrown into trees.  One ex-cop coped through the use of dark humour, calling the final death throes (involuntary spasms of a dying victim) as "doing the chicken".   Several spoke of the lack of support received for their suffering of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), resorting to drugs and alcohol (and suicide by some of their co-workers) to deal with it.  One retired cop cannot bear having anyone sit in a seat behind him and therefore always goes for the very last row in an airplane where the seat is backed by a wall.  Female and non-white ex-cops spoke of the discrimination and bullying that they faced from their fellow officers, calling the stress from that worse than anything they saw while on their beats.  This was a fascinating and enlightening documentary to watch.

In the Canadian drama White Lie, Katie is a university student from Hamilton, Ontario who fakes having melanoma (malignant skin cancer) in order to raise funds for cancer research, which she keeps for her own personal gain.  Attempting to qualify for a special bursary designed to help ailing students, Katie pays to have fake medical records created to support her cancer claims.  When her story starts to unravel, instead of confessing, Katie doubles down on her lies.  The movie starts with a scene of Katie shaving her head to simulate hair-loss resulting from chemo treatments.  As someone who has gone through chemo myself, I immediately whispered to my husband that her well-defined eyebrows might give her away (since my eyebrows thinned out quite a bit).   The performance by Kacey Rohl who plays Katie is mesmerizing.  Although it is not specified in the TIFF write-up about the movie, it is probable that the inspiration for this plot was based on the real-life scam of Ashley Kirilow from Ontario, who faked cancer and used Facebook to raise large sums in support of cancer research in 2008. Because she claimed her motivation was to make her family pay for her unhappy childhood, one psychiatrist labelled Ashley's behaviour as "Münchausen Syndrome by internet".

We actually watched one extra movie prior to the start of the film festival.  This was the annual "CEO Choice" bonus movie that Patron Circle members are invited to screen around the second week of August.  In the past years, the TIFF CEO was Piers Handling and he had a preference for French movies.  Handling retired and was replaced by Cameron Bailey, so we wondered what he would pick.  Surprise, it was once again a French movie!  Bailey chose Proxima, another French/German co-production set in a world where space travel to Mars is possible and would take 1 year for the round-trip.  The team assembled for the mission include an American played with macho bluster by Matt Dillon, a male Russian cosmonaut, and a female French astronaut Sarah, who also happens to be separated from her husband and the mother to a young daughter named Stella.  The director and writer of the screenplay was Alice Winocour.  While I had heard the term "female gaze" vs "male gaze" used in describing movies, I did not really understand until I saw Proxima.  The film focused mostly on Sarah and how she dealt with the conflicting priorities of her job as opposed to being there for Stella, who is struggling with the idea that her mother would be gone for so long.  The movie also shows how Sarah has to work extra hard to prove that she is as strong and capable as the other male astronauts.  There is even a scene where she is asked whether she wants to continue menstruating while in space.  This would never have been a conversation in the male-centric astronaut movies like The Right Stuff or First Man.