Monday, September 21, 2015

TIFF 2015: Sherpa

Sherpa is an excellent documentary about the avalanche on Everest that killed 16 Sherpas and threw the year's climbing season into question. And the film is mainly about which of those two consequences matters more.

With gorgeous cinematography, the film introduces us to the Sherpa community that serves the expedition companies bringing Western climbers to conquer the mountain. The locals revere the mountain and question whether the foreign visitors respect either it or them. For many years the Sherpas have done the vast majority of the back-breaking and life-threatening labour needed to support an expedition: carrying loads of equipment and supplies to Base Camp and the successive camps up the mountain that support a summit attempt, fixing the ropes and ladders that climbers depend on to reduce the risk to their lives, and providing more creature comforts to those in Base Camp than one might expect. Reaching the summit of Everest is certainly very difficult, and carries substantial risk, but what the Sherpas do is an order of magnitude more difficult and dangerous. Despite this, the Sherpas have been taken for granted and poorly paid, while the foreign expedition companies and the Nepalese government collect the lion's share of the huge fees paid to climb. Over time the Sherpas have become more and more uncomfortable about this.

In 2013 there was a violent disagreement between Sherpas and western climbers that brought some of this long-term resentment to the surface.

The most dangerous part of an Everest climb is the traversal of the Khumbu Icefall. This section of unstable ice is really an ice waterfall that slowly flows down the mountain, and can give way at any time. The path across it is made up of ladders set up by the Sherpas. It is so unstable that crossing is normally done at night, when the cooler temperatures make the ice less dodgy.

On April 18, 2014 an avalanche near Base Camp killed 16 Sherpas. In the aftermath there was some disagreement between the locals and the foreigners about how best to rescue survivors and recover bodies, and whether or not to continue with the climbing season. In the end all expeditions were cancelled, allowing the Sherpas to respect their fallen friends and relatives, and allowing the mountain to rest and recover. Some of the Western climbers were not very understanding of this decision, and were misled by the expedition leader into thinking a small group of Sherpas were militant trouble-makers, threatening others into not working. The reality was that the Sherpas as a group did not want to climb any more that year, out of both respect for the dead and the mountain, and fear for their own safety.

Climbing on Everest has become a complete shit show, with too many climbers trying to summit each year, some of them less than properly qualified. This results in traffic jams going up to the summit, and bad decisions to continue on beyond the point where it becomes dangerous to do so leading to more deaths. The foreign expedition companies and the Nepalese government seem to care more about the money they collect than the well-being of the Sherpas. While the conflict in 2014 has led to some improvements (better pay and benefits for the Sherpas and the families of those who die on the mountain), the basic equation has not changed enough. The Nepalese government needs to tighten the rules around climbing, to greatly reduce the number of attempts allowed, require some reasonable qualifications from those who attempt to summit, and do more to reduce the risks for those who do the lion's share of the work.

OK, I went off on a bit of a rant there. This is a very good and important film about an issue I care about. I hope it promotes better understanding of the harm that an out of control climbing industry on Everest is doing to the mountain and the people who live there.

TIFF Overview

TIFF 2015: Mr. Right

One of the most fun films I saw at this year's festival, Mr. Right is a fairly typical hit man comedy featuring Sam Rockwell as Francis, a hit man who has decided that murder is wrong, so of course he starts killing his clients instead of their requested targets. Martha (Anna Kendrick) is struggling with her life after yet another terrible man lets her down. She tries to console herself with a cat at her roommate's pet grooming business, but antagonizes it into mauling both of them. She's pretty messed up.

The two bump into each other in a convenience store and he immediately asks her out in a disarmingly (sorry...) endearing way. They seem to have an immediate connection, and while he is quite open with her about what he does, she thinks he is kidding. After the initial shock of realizing he really is a hit man, she decides that works for her and goes with it.

The film is fun, silly, wacky and a good ride that doesn't let you down at the end.

TIFF Overview

Sunday, September 20, 2015

TIFF 2015: 11 Minutes

My cousins Barry and Debbie were flying in from Fredericton, and then meeting me for this film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre at 8:30. Their landing was delayed, and we frantically messaged each other as they made their way out of the airport, into their car, and towards a parking lot near the theatre. I had their tickets. They made it to the theatre 4 minutes before the film began. A lot of action came together with perfect timing so we could see the film together.

11 Minutes is a lot like that. All of the action in the film takes place in an 11-minute window one afternoon, and we see those 11 minutes play out over and over from several different overlapping points of view (including a doggy-cam I especially enjoyed!). A jealous husband and his beautiful actress wife, a slimy film director angling to get her on his casting couch, a drug dealer, a hot dog vendor, a group of nuns, and other characters are introduced and woven together in a way that does not at first make much sense, but in the end they all participate in an unexpected and explosive finale. Director Jerzy Skolimowski assembles the pieces to this puzzle masterfully and keeps the audience on the edge of their seat wondering what is going on. (Mostly Polish with English subtitles with some English dialogue.)

TIFF Overview

TIFF 2015: Equals

Equals stars Kristen Stewart (Nia) and Silas (Nicholas Hoult) as two drones in a world where emotion is completely repressed and people live healthy and beautiful, but sterile and meaningless lives. That world is disrupted by the spread of an illness: Switched On Syndrome (SOS) in which affected individuals' emotions are awakened, leading to anxiety and ultimately institutionalization and death. Nia and Silas both get the bug and then discover each other, and we watch them struggle with the implications of that. I'm not sure why I chose this film, as the story arc seemed pretty predictable, though I didn't see the whole Romeo and Juliet thing coming towards the end. Blah blah, humans are inherently emotional beings, blah blah, love conquers all, blah blah. This winds up down near the bottom of my list for the festival, just above Evolution.

TIFF Overview

Saturday, September 19, 2015

TIFF 2015: No Men Beyond This Point and Where To Invade Next

On Friday I saw a mockumentary and a documentary, and so I'm reviewing the two together to explore the common theme.

No Men Beyond This Point is the mockumentary, chronicling the evolution of the human species that began with thousands of claims of fatherless births in the 1950s, followed by the decline in births of male children after that. By present day, women have taken over all of society, with most of the remaining men being restricted to sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives. With women in charge there is no war, all the countries of the world have united, religion has been supplanted by a reverence for Nature, most diseases have been conquered and there is no internet (which started as a defense project). The film focuses on 37-year old Andrew (Patrick Gilmore), the youngest man in the world, who works as a nanny and housekeeper for Iris and Terra, a couple raising their several daughters. Iris and Andrew develop feelings for each other, which is a scandal in a world without sex or intimacy of any kind.

The film provides an entertaining view of gender politics, poking fun at both men and women (mostly men though), and also shows us the struggle for marriage equality through a very different lens. It's a lot of fun. I especially enjoyed the role of the leader of the Men's Liberation Organization (MLO).

Where To Invade Next is Michael Moore's latest documentary, in which he travels to several countries to "invade" them and capture ideas they have put into practice that could, in the words of Donald Trump, make America great again. We see how working less and taking more vacations can make workers productive and business owners happy, the impact of free university and gourmet food in school cafeterias. Much of it is just played for laughs, but there are some profound and touching moments throughout. Moore's point is that there are some simple things - often counter-intuitive, that could make life better in the USA, and many of the ideas are of American origin.

No Men Beyond This Point shows us what an alternate world could be like if one big thing beyond our control was changed. Where To Invade Next shows us what the real world is like when we change a few small things that are entirely ours to determine. Both are entertaining films that provoke some deeper thoughts.

TIFF Overview

TIFF 2015: Jafar Panahi's Taxi

Jafar Panahi's Taxi is the latest offering from the eponymous Iranian filmaker who, since 2010 has been under house arrest and banned from making films for his crimes of "propaganda against the Islamic republic". However he keeps making films, including This is Not a Film (shot entirely in his apartment) and this one, shot from within a taxi roaming the streets of Tehran. We meet a variety of characters who come into the cab, and we quickly come to understand that, even in a society that tries very hard to control what its citizens say and do (and perhaps think), people are the same everywhere. I was particularly struck by the strong female characters in a country where I expect women to be discouraged from expressing themselves openly. Panahi's young niece, herself an aspiring filmmaker, is an especially endearing character. As he listens to his passengers while weaving through the city (without the expected cartographic knowledge of a real taxi driver), Panahi wears a sly smile that seems to be breaking the fourth wall to say "See, I don't even need a script; this shit writes itself!". I assume it was scripted, but it all comes off so naturally that you can believe he is just capturing a slice of life that endears you to the people of Iran while showing up the authorities. (In Farsi with English subtitles.)

TIFF Overview

TIFF 2015: I Smile Back

I Smile Back stars comic Sarah Silverman in a dramatic role as Laney, a wife and mother who battles depression and drug addiction. Silverman delivers a very strong performance as she struggles to deal with everyday life and messes up just about everything she can. See it for that performance alone. It is hard to describe or say much more about this, other than it's a very strong performance by Silverman about a woman's struggle. I found the other characters to be pretty shallow actually.

TIFF Overview

Thursday, September 17, 2015

TIFF 2015: Schneider Vs. Bax and Evolution

I saw two films on Wednesday and I decided to rev iew them together, because I found interesting constrasts between them.

Schneider Vs. Bax is a dark comedy about hit man Schneider (Tom Dewispelaere), whose birthday with his perfect family (beautiful wife and two adorable daughters) is interrupted by a call from his handler Mertens, who tells him he must kill writer Ronen Bax (played by Director and Writer Alex van Warmerdam), and the job must be done today. Bax's family is not nearly so perfect; his daughter is depressed and his father is a dirty old man. He lives in a beautiful small house on the water, where he entertains his girlfriend and partakes of a variety of intoxicants. And soon after Mertens sends Scheider to kill him, he also calls Bax to tell him Schneider is on the way. It's a trap for Schneider, which Schneider figures out along the way. Nothing goes right for either Schneider or Bax as they each try to take out the other, with a medley of minor characters getting in their way. All the action takes place in broad daylight, mostly in the reeds and swamp surrounding Bax's house. It's a fun romp despite the supposedly dark premise. The ending is surprising and quirky and I'm still working out whether I'm happy with it. (In Dutch with English subtitles.)

Evolution is a little weirder. Nicholas (Max Brebant) is a young boy living on a remote island, where all the womens are adults looking after, and experimenting on a group of young boys. The boys seem like normal kids, but nothing else about the island or its community is normal. Most of the scenes, whether interior, exterior or under water, are dark, and it's sometimes hard to see what exactly is going on. That supports the mystery. This was not one of the better films of the festival for me. It left too much unsaid, and the ending was also not really satisfying.

Schneider Vs. Bax is about death, but is presented in broad daylight with a light, quicky, funny tone. Evolution at its heart is about life and birth and change, but is presented in dark somber tones. The two films were as different as night and day.

TIFF Overview

TIFF 2015: Anomalisa

Anomalisa was originally a radio play, that has been expanded into a stop-motion feature film. Directors Charlie Kaufman (Inside John Malkovitch, Adaptation) and Duke Johnson bring us a love story between an empty man and a broken woman that is funny (the audience got a good laugh out of a puppet love scene that I did not think was supposed to be funny) and touching and a bit creepy. Like Son of Saul last week, there is a device used to show the isolation of the main character. In this case, after a few minutes you realize that every other voice apart from protagonist Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is the same. That's the creepy part. Stone isn't a very sympathetic character, but the romance still works. The story plays out around a speaking engagement at a Cincinnati hotel, where Stone has come from LA to talk about customer service and promote his book. Those who have come to hear him speak think he is a real star, but from our perspective he seems worn out and not at all worthy of admiration.

This is an interesting and original story, and the use of stop motion puppets to tell it is brilliantly chosen and executed.

TIFF Overview

TIFF 2015: Looking For Grace

Looking For Grace opens with gorgeous views along a highway in Western Australia that look as if they have been painted. It tells the story of Grace (Odessa Young, who shyly appeared before the film), a teenager who has stolen money from her parents and taken a bus trip with a friend to see a concert in a far-off town. We see the story in fragments from each of several perspectives, and for a while we're not very clear on exactly what is going on. The beautiful colour of the countryside is in contrast to the stark whiteness of the mother's home (and it's clearly the mother's choice of decorating), and the runaway has disturbed the mother only a little more than the couch that needs cleaning.

As the pieces fill in we learn about the relationships among Grace and her parents, and meet the police investigator assigned to the case. I think the vastness of the Australian landscape underscores the distances separating each of the three family members from each other. One of the audience questions pointed out that seeing Grace in different seats in the family car can be seen as representing her struggle with entering adulthood (now she's a child, now she's a woman), which director Sue Brooks thought was quite insightful.

The pace of the film matches that of a cross-country bus trip: some stretches of little action, with some poignant beauty throughout, and the occasional scene that grabs you suddenly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

TIFF 2015: High Rise

High Rise is a dark and twisted film that also has some laughs, based on a novel by J G Ballard, in which a modern high rise apartment building set in an alternate 1975, and the people who inhabit it devolve together into a Lord of The Flies-like anarchy. The protagonist is Dr R Laing, played by Tom Hiddleston, and he sanguinely accepts all the chaos that erupts around him, partaking equally in the sex and violence without seeming to notice that anything is at all amiss. He lives in an apartment with almost no furniture, with his belongings mostly still in the boxes he moved in with. So in a strange way he settles in without ever really settling in. Jeremy Irons plays Mr Royal, the architect and owner of the building, but that doesn't mean he in in control. In one telling scene, his main go-to lackey tells him "I don't work for you; I work for the building". The parking lot starts out as an endless sea of paved desolation, but it turns out that is the high point, before it winds up looking like a battlefield. I kind of liked this film, but I'm not sure how well I understood it.

TIFF Overview

TIFF 2015: Colonia

Colonia Dignidad was a religious cult in a secluded village in the south of Chile, where Pinochet's secret police held and tortured hundreds of prisoners after the military coup that brought him to power in the 1970s. Those true facts are the setting for Colonia, an excellent film in which Emma Watson (Lena) and Daniel Brühl (Daniel) play a couple who suddenly become separated when Daniel is arrested for helping the Allende supporters. He is taken to Colonia Dignidad and tortured to try to get names of collaborators out of him. She finds out where he has gone, and offers herself to the cult as a willing member, to try to find him. Both the torture that Daniel endures and the hard life the Lena is subjected to are brutal and merciless, with the lusciously evil Paul Schäfer (played convincingly by Michael Nyqvist) overseeing both regimes. Their efforts to survive their situations, and to find a way out together are moving and exciting, and the crowd cheered at all the right moments when things started to go badly for the bad guys. This is one of the best films I've seen at the festival.

TIFF Overview

Sunday, September 13, 2015

TIFF 2015: About Ray

About Ray stars Elle Fanning as Ray, a 15 year old trans boy struggling with his transition and looking for more support from his family as he prepares to start taking testosterone to get his body to better match who he feels he is. Naomi Watts plays his mother, and Susan Sarandon his lesbian grandmother, both of whom are struggling to fully accept what is going on and support Ray as much as he needs. Both parents' signatures are needed on the consent form to start the hormone treatments, so Ray's mom Maggie (Watts) tracks down the long-absent father, which opens some old wounds.

Director Gaby Dellal spoke and took questions after the film, and said she was primarily making a film about relationships, focusing mainly on the mother and how she dealt with both her child and her mother. The characters are real and they make you care about them. The story is both sad and funny, and has a few surprises along the way. And while the family may be a little unconventional, it is perfectly normal in its flaws and conflicts, and totally believable. I loved this film, and I wish all those protesting the new sex education curriculum in Ontario and pulling their kids out of school would go see this film to understand a little more about how gender isn't as simple as they wish it were.

TIFF Overview

TIFF 2015: Winter On Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom

Winter On Fire is a documentary about the peaceful uprising in Kyiv's Maidan (Independence Square) throughout the winter of 2014/14, culminating in the fleeing of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. I was familiar with the general story of what happened, but this film shows in plain terms the dedication of the people who stood up to their government, and how they were mistreated by the security forces throughout the period of the demonstrations. The crowd included many from the Ukrainian community, some of whom quickly corrected the host introducing the film when he mistakenly referred to "The Ukraine". The director spoke before the film about Toronto (or Canada?) being home to the largest Ukrainian community outside of Ukraine.

This was a decent film, and I was moved by the details of what the anti-government demonstrators went through. (Mostly in Ukrainian with English subtitles.)

TIFF Overview

TIFF 2015: Green Room (Preceded by The Chickening)

This was the first of two films I saw Saturday, with as much of the Blue Jays/Yankees double header squeezed in before, in between and after (on my phone, and at the pub across the road from the Bloor Hot Docs theatre where both my Saturday films were screened). It was a long day!

Green Room was itself part of a double feature from the Midnight Madness track of the festival. The opener was The Chickening, a weird, kind of funny, sort of animated parody of The Shining. It's hard to explain beyond that.

Green Room is a fairly gory film about a nice enough punk rock bank that is desperate for a gig, and winds up playing at a gathering of white power skinhead types. The band sees something they shouldn't, and things go downhill from there. Interesting premise for a film, and not badly executed, but not one of the best films of the week so far.

TIFF 2015 Overview

Friday, September 11, 2015

TIFF 2015: Demolition

Demolition stars Jake Gyllenhall as Davis, a man who is trying to find himself and be able to feel something after his wife is killed in a car accident (not much of a spoiler as the accident occurs very very early in the film). While everyone around him is overcome with grief, Davis is numb, and finds himself drawn to taking things apart to fix what is wrong with them and to understand how they work. His behaviour becomes more and more inappropriate, and as this is going on he develops a correspondence and friendship with a woman (Naomi Watts as Karen) who has received his complaint about the vending machine that stole his money at the hospital the day his wife died. It turns out he is not the only one acting inappropriately, as Karen and her son Chris have issues of their own. His urge to disassemble escalates to the point where he just wants to destroy things, and together with Karen and Chris, this produces the catharsis he needs to start putting his life back together. It's a little more complex and crazy and funny and weird than that, but that's the basic story line.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), writer Bryan Sipe and actors Heather Lind (the dead wife Julia) and Judah Lewis (who plays Karen's 15-year old son Chris) were on hand at the screening to answer questions. Bryan Sipe drew inspiration from his background as a construction/demolition worker. Judah Lewis gave some very deep and mature answers to questions about how he prepared for the role, and how it has affected his life after making the film.

This is a fabulous film that is a little hard to describe in a way that gets across how it makes you feel.

TIFF 2015 Overview

TIFF 2015: Son Of Saul

Son of Saul is a very intense view of the Holocaust from the point of view of a member of a concentration camp's Sonderkommando unit - the Jews who were put to work disposing of the bodies of prisoners killed in the gas chambers. The film begins with an out of focus shot that resolves after a bit on the face of Saul. Most of the film is shot over his shoulder and close-in, with much of the background action out of focus but recognizable. The dialogue is often choppy, with English subtitles for the Hungarian and German voices, often omitting subtitles for some of the background dialogue (perhaps an attempt to extend the out-of-focus technique?). Director László Nemes spoke at the screening, and said he was aiming to portray the horror of the Holocaust from an individual perspective. I found this cinematographic technique really powerful and it did support that goal; I think it made the point that the only way Saul could survive was to avoid recognizing what was happening around him, and just focus on his immediate task and surroundings. I've seen many films about the Holocaust and was prepared for this one to be grim and horrifying, but it was still shocking to see the brutality of mass murder shown in such detail, even out of focus in the background.

The plot revolves around the discovery of a young boy who somehow survives the gas chamber. While the Nazis take care of that mistake quickly enough, something about the boy makes Saul decide that it is his mission to make sure he is properly buried, including the appropriate prayers by a rabbi. He hides the body and searches among the camp inmates for a rabbi, taking many risks that could get him quickly killed It seems crazy that he is doing all this for a kid he doesn't even know (though at times in the film he claims the boy is his son). In fact it is crazy, but how could he not be crazy in that insane environment?

Son of Saul is a disturbing, intense and uncomfortable journey, with no happy ending. The director also said that he was a little tired of Holocaust films showing the perspective of a survivor when the truth is that the vast majority of those in the concentration camps did not survive. The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes festival, and I can understand why. (In Hungarian and German with English subtitles.)

TIFF 2015 Overview

TIFF 2015 Overview

After missing the Toronto International Film Festival last year, due to my trip Down Under, I am throwing myself in deep again, with tickets to 19 films, one or two each day of the festival from September 10th to 20th. This post is an overview of what am seeing/have seen, with links to my review of each film. I'll update it throughout the festival. Warning: my reviews will contain spoilers, as I want to really talk about each film and not just tease about them.

As usual I bought my My Choice package of tickets (20 tickets) in August, and after spending many hours with the program to decide which films I was interested in, on September 1st I got my 1-hour window to make my selections. I was surprised that I got every film I wanted to see, picking 17 films (3 to see with a friend). When public sale of individual tickets opened up the following Sunday, I dived in again to pick up one more film. The rescheduling of one of my screenings led to a couple of exchanges, leaving me with tickets to 19 films overall:

11 Minutes
About Ray
Green Room
High Rise
I Smile Back
Jafar Panahi's Taxi
Looking For Grace
Mr Right
No Men Beyond This Point
Schneider vs Bax
Son of Saul
Where To Invade Next
Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight For Freedom

Films in bold italics are highly recommended. Most of the others were pretty good too. Only Equals and Evolution are worth passing on.