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 IMDB.com, 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.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Part 1

Each year for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), my husband Rich and I try to pick mostly smaller movies, often foreign language ones, that would not come to our local theatres.   This year, we are watching 43-45 movies including the 8-10 that we watched in advanced screenings prior to the start of the festival.  During the actual festival, we will average 4 movies per day for the first 8 days of the 11 day event before slowing down in the final 3 days.  My selected movies include 13 from USA, 6 from Canada (almost considered a foreign movie in our US-centric film industry) and 26 from various other countries including China, South Korea, Japan, Indonesia/Malaysia/Thailand, UK, France, Spain, Russia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Nigeria, Egypt, Serbia and Iraq, with 24 being subtitled foreign language films.  I was surprised how many Nordic countries were represented in my selections this year, with Denmark being the only country missing from my picks.  I tried to choose more “happy” or “whimsical” movies than my husband, since I can only be tense or depressed for so many sittings and still find it enjoyable.  Rich chose more war and horror movies, which I wanted no part of.  So we will watch 31 movies together and 12-14 separately.  It should be another good festival if we can make it through without collapsing from exhaustion.

The Day After was touted as a South Korean comedy of errors involving Bongwan, a manager of a small publishing company, whose scorned and vengeful wife mistakenly assumes that his new employee Areum is the former employee Changsook with whom he was having an affair.  This results in the wife beating up and berating the wrong woman.  The problem is that this movie was not funny and the main error was mine in forgetting that about South Korean “comedies”.  More a melodrama in my  mind, this slow moving, pensive film is beautifully shot in black and white and indiscriminately time jumps from past to present, making it confusing to follow what is going on.  There were drawn-out restaurant dining scenes (apparently a signature feature of director Hong Sangsoo), with philosophical discussions about the meaning of life and about religion.  Typical of Korean comedies, the man cries (actually bawls) repeatedly and there is no kissing allowed on film, so that romantic trysts are reduced to amorous hugs.

Borg/McEnroe is the opening movie for TIFF 2017, with Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason and American enfant terrible Shia La Beouf playing the titular roles.  TIFF has not had good luck picking a prestige movie for its festival opener in the past few years.  Possibly the need for this movie to be a “World Premiere” has hampered this selection, since many of the high profile movies get snapped up by the Venice and Telluride festivals which precede the one in Toronto.  This year’s pick is underwhelming to say the least, getting almost no buzz for the film, as opposed to the other tennis movie playing at TIFF, Battle of the Sexes with Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone as Billy Jean King.  The main reaction regarding Borg/McEnroe prior to its screening has been directed at La Beouf, whose outrageous and disruptive antics in his personal life seem to typecast him perfectly for the role of fellow bad boy McEnroe.  The roles were also visually well cast, as each actor physically resembled the player that he portrayed.

The 5-set Wimbledon final played in 1980 and won by Borg, is regarded to be one of the greatest tennis matches ever played, including a 20 minute long fourth set tie-breaker that went 18-16 in McEnroe’s favour.  The movie contrasted the icy calm composure of the experienced four-time Wimbledon champion Borg as opposed to the fiery demeanour of the up-and-coming superstar of the future, McEnroe.  But what was most illuminating was learning about the back stories of each player, with the film concentrating more on Borg since he had the most interesting childhood.  We were surprised to learn that as a young tennis protégé from a poor family, Borg’s temper and antics rivaled if not surpassed McEnroe’s behaviour.   Borg’s tantrums and histrionics, including loud rants and smashing racquets, caused him to be suspended from his local tennis club and declared “not right in the head” (as per the English subtitled translation of the movie).  It was not until his long-suffering coach convinced him that he needed the reign in his emotions and channel that fury into his game that Borg started to have success.

The actual match itself was exciting to watch, with the swelling score pumping up the drama, even for those who already knew the end result.  The crowd initially favoured Borg, giving him huge cheers while booing McEnroe, who had loudly berated the chair umpire during his previous semi-final match against fellow countryman Jimmy Connors. But McEnroe showed surprising restraint during the long final battle and even though he eventually lost, his mastery on the court won over the spectators, who gave him a standing ovation when he accepted his second place prize.  This was an exciting movie to watch, especially for tennis fans, but I wish that they had used more real footage from the actual match in order to show the winning points, as opposed to focusing so much on close-ups of the actors, as they feigned making the shots.  It will be interesting to compare this movie to the other tennis movie that we will watch, Battle of the Sexes.

The Square is a hilarious Swedish satire that mercilessly mocks the contemporary art world.  It focuses on Christian, the curator of the X-Royal Gallery, as he deals with various issues and situations that arise in the museum.  The movie starts off with Christian being interviewed by American reporter Anne, played by Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men and Hand Maid’s Tale fame.  As Anne probes the meaning and purpose of a Contemporary Art Gallery, Christian spouts artsy-sounding clichés that sound ridiculous if you stop to think about what he is actually saying (or not saying).  Christian’s subsequent hookup with Anne takes a bizarre turn and drifts almost into absurdist comedy when it is revealed that her roommate is a gorilla.
The featured exhibit inside the museum consists of multiple mounds of gravel on the floor.  A running joke involves people walking up and looking perplexed at the work and then walking away.  When a Zamboni-like floor cleaner tries to navigate around the mounds, you know that this is not going to end well.  Another exhibit features a large-screened video of a grunting, menacing “ape-man”, again with no real explanation as to context or meaning.  At a charity donors dinner, this work turns into performance art when the ape-man makes an appearance, antagonizing and attacking the guests.

The titular “Square” is a newly commissioned conceptual art piece consisting of a white square demarcated on the courtyard in front of the museum.  According to the artist, the square  represents a sanctuary where all people should be treated as equals and must care and provide aid for each other.  To promote this exhibit, the museum hires an ad agency who comes up with a wacky promotional video meant to attract interest through “shock and awe” tactics but ends up offending and infuriating the public.  Several of the scenes depict the plight of the homeless, making me wonder if this is a Swedish social issue that the director wants to draw focus to, or is the message a more general plea for compassion and tolerance.  This was my first movie of the festival so far that was just pure fun.  After watching a slew of serious movies with deep or depressing topics, I needed and totally enjoyed this.

The intriguingly titled Marlina, the Murderer in Four Acts is a very unique Indonesia/Malaysia/Thai/French collaboration that is paradoxically a low-key feminist Western set in the outbacks of one of these Asian countries.  The four acts are titled “The Robbery”, “The Journey”, “The Confession” and “The Birth”.  The quietly methodical but spunky heroine Marlina lives alone on her farm with her livestock in the yard and her dead mother-in-law plopped eerily in the back of the living room.  In act one, a lone bandit arrives on motorcycle and coldly informs Marlina that six more men are coming and that she will be robbed and gang-raped by them.  He demands that she make them all dinner first.  When the men arrive, two of them are sent to take away the livestock while the remaining five wait for their feast and night of debauchery.  With an amazing display of calm and intelligence, Marlina finds a way of dispatching the five men, but not before she is raped by the gang leader.  In midst of that act, Marlina is able to turn the tables on him and severs his head.  It is admirable that this stylish movie does not amp up the blood and swelling music, keeping both to a minimum.  The music is a delightful mix of an upbeat conventional score found in the typical Western, mixed in with melancholy Asian-sounding verses.

In Act 2, Marlina tries to get to the police station to search for justice, carrying the severed head in a sling as evidence of her attack (and partly as a trophy?).  She starts off on a bus headed for town, accompanied by her very pregnant friend who is about to give birth any time, as well as a bossy woman who is trying to get her nephew to his wedding along with two horses that are part of his dowry.  Eventually Marlina ends up on a horse, still slinging the severed head by her side, providing the iconic image of the lone Western hero riding into town. All the while, she is trying to avoid the inevitable standoff with the remaining two bandits.  I usually don’t like the Western genre but I was enchanted by this very stylish take on one, that celebrated kick-ass girl power.

Friday, September 01, 2017

TIFF 2017 - Advanced Screenings

This will be our most ambitious year yet in terms of total number of Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) movies that we plan to watch during the annual festival. Because of the level of TIFF membership that we purchased this year, my husband Rich and I are entitled to attend Press and Industry screenings of movies including advanced screenings that started a couple of weeks prior to the official start of the festival.  Taking full advantage of this, we plan to watch only press screenings for the most part, rather than buy tickets for public screenings like we used to do in previous years.

Other than the monetary savings of not buying tickets, the main advantage of this is time savings.  All the movies play at one venue (Scotiabank Theatre), the movies play without the 10+ minutes of the same ads shown at each public screening, and other than for the most popular movies, there will be no lineup to attend a press screening.  Unlike public screenings that often become delayed in start time due to waiting for special guests to arrive, or finish late due to an unusually long Q&A session, unless there is a technical issue, the press screenings always start and end precisely according to schedule.  Because of all this, we are able to pack movies more tightly into a schedule, being able to leave less than 15 minutes between movies as opposed to the 90+ minutes that we used to leave between each of our public screenings, to account for traveling between theatres and lining up early so that we were not stuck sitting in the front row.  It was a new experience trying to schedule press screenings instead of public screenings.  Where we usually would watch 2-3 movies a day, this year we will attempt to watch 4 (and once even 5) in one day!  Including 10 advanced screenings that we watched for 1.5 weeks prior to the start of the festival, our goal is to watch between 43-46 movies in 3 weeks.  Whether we actually succeed, or collapse in exhaustion and are forced to scale back, still remains to be seen.  The nice thing is that since we did not pay to watch any specific movie, we could cancel or switch to another movie at the last minute, or even walk out of movies that we do not enjoy, without feeling pressured to stay to make the cost of the ticket worthwhile.

The disadvantage of a press screening is the lack of any actors or directors appearing after the movie to hold a Q&A session.   Since this is part of the fun of watching movies at TIFF, we decided that we would buy tickets for one movie that featured big-named stars so that we could still have that celebrity experience.  Besides, it is fun to watch the new "Thank the Volunteers" ad once since it is usually very creative.  It just gets old when you have to watch it again and again through 30+ movies like we did in previous years.  I also want to see if festival sponsor RBC finally updates the ad that it has played 3 years in a row and caused derisive jeers whenever it aired last year.

For the actual dates of the festival, we picked and scheduled the movies that we wanted to watch, using our usual strategy of reading the synopsis, making a long list of potentials, then narrowing the list down depending on what fit in a schedule.  But for the advanced screenings, the movies are chosen by the festival organizers and you can decide to view them or not.  Rich watched 10 and I watched 8 advanced screenings and we have enjoyed most of them. And the nice thing is that we have been watching movies that we would not have picked ourselves based on the description, theme or subject matter.  Yet we ended up being very glad that we experienced films outside of our usual comfort zone.

The first two movies that we watched were foreign films that involved child actors who each gave stellar performances.  The French film Custody (Jusqu'à La Garde) deals with a bitter custody battle that pits an aggressive, jealous and possibly abusive father against his ex-wife over visitation rights of their son Julien.  The tension felt throughout the movie is made all the more intense due to the realistic and all-too-common occurrences that are depicted in this family drama.  The boy who plays Julien is able to convey so much emotion, including worry, dread and fear, just through the expressions on his face.

Three Peaks is an interesting German-Italian co-production that takes place mostly in the Italian Dolomites, giving the film its title.  Lea, her young son Tristan and her boyfriend Aaron take a vacation in a remote cabin up in mountains.  At the start of the movie, the boy seems to like Aaron, but as time goes by, Tristan’s progressively escalating passive-aggressive behaviour reveals a deep-seeded resentment and wish that his mother would get back together with his father.  The three central characters converse alternately in English, French and German with the latter two languages being subtitled.  But the dialogue flows so quickly between the languages that you become dependent on reading subtitles and sometimes miss listening to the un-subtitled English.  The gorgeous scenery plays a major role in what turns out to be another tense family drama.



Although it is one of the first films that we have watched this year, the Chinese film Dragonfly Eyes will undoubtedly be one of the most conceptually unique movies of the festival.  China is renowned for its extensive use of surveillance cameras and according to director Xu Bing, footage has recently been uploaded to the Cloud and is available for viewing by the general public.  Xu scoured through 10,000 hours of surveillance footage, picking out and stringing together various scenes which he incorporated into a story about a plain-looking girl named Qing Ting who leaves her peaceful existence in a remote Buddhist temple to experience life in a big city.  While there, Ting meets Ke Fan, who develops an obsessive romantic interest in her.  Ting tries her hand at various jobs including milking cows on a farm, working in a laundry mat and a restaurant.  Director Xu uses surveillance clips of various women to represent Qing Ting and different men to represent Ke Fan, using voice-over dialogues to narrate the story.  It is fascinating that a (sort-of) cohesive story can be pieced together using only surveillance footage and horrifying to realize the extent that the people of China are being monitored and recorded.  Much of the video footage is labelled with date/and running time stamps, constantly reminding you of the gimmick used to create the movie.  Amusingly, using many different Asians to represent the same character rather perpetuates the Western stereotype that “all Asians look the same”.

Euthanizer is a Finnish psychological thriller/drama with humorous undertones about a grumpy mechanic and animal lover named Veijo, who provides affordable and humane euthanasia services for unwanted pets, but not before first providing stern lectures about possible mistreatment of those animals.  He even stops and buries any roadkill that he finds while he is driving around.  Veijo is an interesting anti-hero with a staunch yet questionable moral code and a warped sense of justice, which he doles out in vigilante style against anyone who he perceives to be an animal abuser.  He has an ambiguous relationship with his elderly father who lives in a nursing home, which becomes clearer towards the end of the movie and provides clarity on Veijo’s actions.  Veijo also develops a romantic relationship with his father’s nurse, which leads to one of the few humorous moments that break the tension of this slow-burning movie.  It is the image of Veijo and the nurse giddily skipping through a field of wild flowers en route to their first sexual encounter.  The eccentric yet fascinating characters in this movie keep you captivated throughout.

Based on a 1971 French novel called Laissez Bronzer Les Cadavres by Jean-Patrick Machete and Jean-Pierre Bastid, Let the Corpses Tan has all the tropes of an old fashioned spaghetti western with enough over-the-top shoot-em-up carnage to match a Quentin Tarrantino movie, but with too many ultra-stylized gimmicks for its own good (or at least, for my taste).  Set in a remote, rocky, arid hamlet along the Mediterranean coast, a trio of robbers hijack a shipment of 250kg of gold bars, brutally dispatching the driver and guards.  They hide out in a cavernous island resort as guests of the eccentric Madame Luce, her former lover Bernier who is an artist, and her current lover, a shady lawyer who is actually in cahoots with the robbers.  When two police officers arrive on motorcycles looking for the bandits, a lengthy cat-and-mouse standoff and shootout of epic proportions ensues.  The team of husband and wife directors, Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet provide plenty of action, blood and gore.  They ratchet up the tension via an exciting musical score, intense sound effects including the wind blowing, chafing of leather and the cocking and spinning of a gun barrel, and extreme closeups of piercing, suspicious eyes.  Had the directors been satisfied with making a straight-forward but stylish shoot-em-up Western, this would have resulted in an extremely entertaining albeit conventional movie.  Instead the action is interspersed with perplexing scenes of a younger long-haired Luce being erotically tortured by various men including Bernier.  Is this a memory? A flashback? A fantasy?  And what does it have to do with the story?  I never figured this out and it was just distracting for me.  My other issue was with the constant use of extreme closeups in quick cuts, to the point where I could not tell whose eye or mouth or chin I was looking at and had a difficult time discerning who just shot whom?

The Journey is an extremely tense Iraqi-Dutch movie about a female suicide bomber named Sara, who enters a busy train station in Baghdad with the intent of blowing up herself and as many people as she can take with her.  As she surveys her surroundings and potential victims, the intensity in her eyes is chilling.  Sara’s mission is complicated by a smooth-talking hustler named Salem, who gets too close to her and detects her intentions, forcing her to take him hostage.  Her resolve is weakened when circumstances place a baby in their path and is further tested as she starts to interact with some of the people in the train station, including a runaway bride, an old man waiting for the coffin of his deceased son to arrive, and a pair of young orphaned siblings who sell flowers and shine shoes in order to survive.  Pulsating music accompanied with eerie Muslim/Arabic chanting adds to the non-stop pressure felt throughout this movie.   This was a very exciting film with an unexpected ending that left us discussing and debating long after it was over.

In the Norwegian/German movie What Will People Say, Nishi is a teenager from a traditional Pakistani family living in Norway.  At home, she dresses and acts conservatively as dictated by her family’s culture.  But when out with her friends, she leads the life of a typical Western teenager, wearing makeup, dressing more provocatively or grunge-like, dabbling in smoking and drinking, going to parties and flirting with boys.  These two worlds collide when a boy she likes sneaks up to her bedroom one night and Nisha’s father catches them kissing.  Horrified and humiliated, her parents will not believe that she has not had sex and brought shame to the family.  As punishment and to remove her “bad influence” from rubbing off on her young sister, the family forcibly relocates her to Pakistan to live with her aunt’s family.  There she experiences culture-shock, poverty, and corruption as she tries to adapt while still looking for opportunities to escape.  While you try to respect different traditions and cultures, it was very difficult to empathize when the parents seem more concerned about their social standing and “What people will say” than with their daughter’s happiness and welfare.  I felt quite depressed after watching this movie and actually cancelled my plans to watch Ava, another movie with a very similar theme. I could not bear to watch another movie about an oppressed child so soon after this one.