Sunday, September 18, 2016

TIFF 2016: The Girl With All The Gifts

I thought that The Girl With All The Gifts was based on the novel of the same name by M. R. Carey, but at the screening today I learned that the movie sort of came first. Carey wrote the movie but was unable to get it made, so he turned it into a book. When the book became very successful, he was able to revive the movie project. So it's not surprising that the film is very true to the book (or vice-versa?).

This is a very different take on the zombie genre. As the film begins we see Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a sweet, calm, very bright girl, who is kept in a prison cell, and brought out strapped in a wheelchair under armed guard. We learn that she and a few dozen other kids are infected with the fungus that has caused the usual zombie outbreak, but for some reason they have retained their personalities and intelligence. Well, except when they get a whiff of a nearby uninfected human, so make sure you keep applying that blocker gel!

Glen Close plays Dr Caldwell, who is researching how the fungus infiltrates the brains of its subjects, and she is nearly as eager for brains (for her research, of course!) as "the hungries" are. Gemma Arterton plays the children's teacher, Ms. Justineau, and she and Melanie have a warm relationship that transcends their different assigned teams. When the shit hits the fan (it's a zombie movie, remember?), the healthy humans need to trust Melanie to help them find their way through a world they no longer recognize.

Oh, and in this one, it's the fast zombies.

I really enjoyed this film, as I did the book. Melanie is a lovable little girl, even as she feeds on someone;'s erstwhile pet, and we care about her and at least one of the healthy humans as they try to find their way through a messy new world.

TIFF 2016 Overview

TIFF 2016: The Journey

The Journey stars Timothy Spall as Rev Ian Paisley and Colm Meany as Sinn Féin MP Martin McGuinness during talks that led to the historic St Andrews Agreement that brought decades of violence in Northern Ireland to an end. From that historical starting point, the film imagines the two establishing a dialogue as they are driven to Edinburgh airport to catch a plane to Belfast. We see them progress from barely exchanging a word to finding they have things in common, from which a little respect starts to sprout. There is humour sprinkled throughout the film, and it gave me some hope that if enemies such as these two could find a way to cooperate to bring peace to their people, maybe some of the world's other long-standing conflicts can also be settled.

TIFF 2016 Overview

Friday, September 16, 2016

TIFF 2016: (re)Assignment

(re)Assignment is a mediocre film in which a plastic surgeon (played by Sigourney Weaver) exacts revenge on a hit man (played by Michelle Rodriguez) by performing gender reassignment surgery on him. Neither Rodriquez' portrayal of a man in the opening scenes, nor the perfect result of the surgery is very believable, and Weaver must have been embarrassed to have to perform from the script she was given. This is better than the 17% Fresh rating it gets on Rotten Tomatoes, but may still be the worst film I've seen this year at TIFF (not sure yet between this and Safari).

TIFF 2016 Overview

TIFF 2016: LBJ

LBJ is Rob Reiner's biopic of US President Lyndon Johnson, featuring a very convincing Woody Harrelson in the leading role. Harrelson's Johnson is crude, blunt, smart, ambitious but insecure, jealous of John F Kennedy, and ultimately a very savvy politician.The timeline moves back and forth from the familiar events of Kennedy's assassination to the months leading up to Kennedy;s election and choice of Johnson as his Vice President, to Johnson's assumption of power in the wake of the tragedy. It's a fascinating look at a man who is usually relegated to the shadows of the Kennedy story, but who himself had a profound impact on American society, both for the better through the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and for the worse through his escalation of the war in Vietnam.

TIFF 2016 Overview

TIFF 2016: Before The Flood

Before The Flood is a powerful documentary about the current and coming impact of climate change, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as the United Nations Ambassador of Peace, travelling to several parts of the world to understand what is going on. None of this was especially new information, but it is presented coherently and convincingly, and will hopefully help influence people who haven't already accepted that this is one of the biggest problems facing mankind today. I don't have a lot more to say about it; it's quite a good film and worth seeing.

TIFF 2016 Overview

TIFF 2016: Burn Your Maps and Lion

I don't choose my films for TIFF with any themes in mind, but often I see common threads among them. On Thursday, for the second time this week I saw two films back to back that had a theme in common: boys who felt out of place and were drawn to search another continent to figure out where they were from. Both were fabulous films.

In Burn Your Maps, Canada's Jacob Tremblay plays Wes, a loner who becomes obsessed with the idea that he is really a nomad goat herder from Mongolia. He starts wearing Mongolian/style clothing that he makes himself, and carrying crude goat dolls made from toilet paper. This is not well-received by the nuns at his school, and his behaviour becomes another point of disagreement for his bickering parents (Marton Csokas as Connor and Vera Farmiga as Alise) who are struggling to keep their relationship intact after a crisis tore them apart.

Wes meets aspiring film maker Ishmael (Suraj Sharma), a student in the ESL class that Alise teaches, and after Ishmael launches a crowdfunding campaign using video of Wes longing to find his Mongolian roots, we're off to the mountains of Mongolia. There is beautiful scenery, encounters with the locals who help the family sort out some issues, and of course goats. It's a delightful and heart-warming story about being lost and getting found, and Tremblay is excellent in the lead role.

I had not realized that our screening was the world premiere for the film, but figured it out after seeing some red carpet action out front, and much larger than usual area of reserved seating, and a cameraman in the audience. There was a Q&A after the film with the director and several of the cast members, including Jacob Tremblay. When the director was asked if the scenes set in Mongolia were really shot there, he declined to answer, at which point Jacob piped up with "It was Calgary!". Later, when asked about his greatest challenge in preparing for this role, in which he had to ride a horse and learn to speak some Mongolian, Jacob paused to think. Someone said "hard question, eh?", and he immediately responded with "I've had harder". He switched back & forth between being a cute little kid and being wise beyond his years.

Following the Q & A I dashed from the Ryerson Theatre to the Princess of Wales to join my cousins for Lion, the story of a young Indian boy who gets separated from his family, winds up in a Calcutta orphanage and gets adopted by an Australian couple. Years later as an adult he starts to wonder where he is really from, and using Google Earth, searches for familiar sights from his home town. Dev Patel plays the grown up Saroo in Australia, and Sunny Pawar is adorable and impressive as the young street smart Saroo in India. The opening act in India is the more gripping and emotionally engaging, but the ending got the waterworks going pretty effectively.

These were two of the best films of the week, and it was neat to see them back to back.

TIFF 2016 Overview

Thursday, September 15, 2016

TIFF 2016: What Can't They Make Nice Tickets?

Here is one of my tickets for a TIFF screening. It's in colour, and mostly covered in ads. The ads have been designed to attract attention, with colour and fonts and other elements chosen carefully. The ticket itself at the top is as bare and stark as possible. Why couldn't they put a little effort into making the ticket itself look nice? Put the TIFF logo on it, use one of the beautiful images they created for this year's theme of Infinite Vision, and add a little colour. Does Ticketmaster forbid that? 

TIFF 2016: We Can't Make The Same Mistake Twice

We Can't Make The Same Mistake Twice is a documentary by Alanis Obomsawin, who has been making documentaries about the human rights struggles of Canad'a First Nations for many years. It's a shocking film that shows that the misery that First Nations children endured under the notorious residential schools program has continued in very substantial ways under government policies controlling how First Nations children living on reserves are treated when they need special health care. The policies of the federal government effectively discriminated against those children, denying them adequate care, and in far too many cases removing them unnecessarily from their homes. This created another generation of displaced children deprived of the love and care of their parents, as well as the culture of their people.

The film focuses on a case brought before the Human Rights Commission, and follows years of legal wrangling that shows our federal government put bickering over the most arcane semantics ahead of the well-being of sick children. Even when the government adopted Jordan's Principle, a policy that is supposed to mean that governments will first take care of a child in need, and settle any inter-governmental disputes over funding afterwards, they found ways to completely avoid acting on it in the way intended.

Much of the film covers dry legal arguments, which helped to keep the tears at bay, but there are scenes that show us how our government has betrayed these people that made me emotional and angry. I am also angry that, like the residential schools program, this injustice could go on for so long with so little awareness by those not directly affected by it. This film should be required viewing for all MPs; I will be telling mine to see it.

TIFF 2016 Overview

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

TIFF 2016: In The Radiant City and Wakefield

I saw two films on Tuesday, and they felt a bit like a pair of bookends. Both were about a man who abandons his family, and the impact that has on them and those they left behind. Both were directed by women (like most films I've seen so far this year). And both slowly reveal their background material without any big dramatic scenes, leaving us to decide how we feel.

In The Radiant City, Rachel Lambert's directorial debut, starts off showing hard-working Andrew Yurley (Michael Abbott Jr.) returning to his home town, but avoiding contact with his family and pretty much anyone else. He left years ago after a tragedy, and as we gradually learn what happened we see the impact of the events on him and those he left behind, including his mother and sister, and her daughter. It's a slow-paced film, and no-one in it is happy.

Rachel Lambert spoke and took questions after the film, and said that instead of focusing on the events, she wanted to explore the trauma that affects a family after an event like the one in the film. In response to a question about the lack of a grandfather figure, Lambert said she deliberately constructed a family without men, because they are common in communities like that shown in the film (and the one in which she grew up), and she felt the removal of men from a family contributes to what happens to families like these. There is no dramatic climax to this film, only a lot of pain and broken relationships.

In Wakefield, Brian Cranston plays Howard Wakefield, a successful lawyer who needs a break from his life. Coming home late from work one night, and anticipating yet another conflict with his wife, he decides to hole up in the attic above the garage for a bit before heading into the house. He falls asleep, and then one night become a day, and then another.

As a fan of Breaking Bad, I could not help but draw comparisons between the characters of Howard Wakefield and Walter White. White also abandons his family by opting for a life of crime, including dealing drugs and killing many. Wakefield, who has committed no crimes, comes across as the far less sympathetic character.

Based on a short story by E. L. Doctorow, Wakefield is presented largely as silent scenes with voice-over by Cranston. His wife Diana (Jennifer Garner) and his daughters play their scenes mostly viewed remotely from the garage attic. Garner and Cranston appeared after the film for the Q&A session, and she said there was a "shadow script" for them to perform (though the audience never heard them), and she enjoyed the experience of having the camera very remote from the performance.

My friends often ask me what kinds of films I choose for TIFF, and I tell them there is no rhyme or reason to my selections; I just choose films that sound good after reading the program. But themes emerge each year, and this year the theme (apart from the women who directed 9 of the 15 films I'm seeing) might be films that proceed very slowly without a lot of action, and then end without any major resolution. That doesn't always work well, but for the two films I saw on Tuesday I think it did.

TIFF 2016 Overview

Monday, September 12, 2016

TIFF 2016: Prevenge

I saw Alice Lowe at my first TIFF in 2012 in Sightseers, a delightful romp through the British countryside by her character and her screen husband turned serial killers. Prevenge is her return in another black comedy, starring as a pregnant woman driven to kill by the voice of her inborn child. Lowe also wrote and directed the film, and was actually seven months pregnant when filming it. 

Prevenge is a darker piece than Sightseers. In the earlier film, the killings are comic, starting off accidental until the couple kind of get into it. In Prevenge, the protagonist is deadly serious about seeking justice, and while most of her victims elicit little sympathy, the killing spree isn't quite as much fun.

Lowe (and her real-life baby) were present at the screening to speak a bit before the film and answer questions after. The film grew out of her feelings about pregnancy, and wanting to express that she really did feel like her body had been taken over by the baby in many ways. There is also a Twitter account Prevenge Baby that is stalking the festival, with some amusing observations.

TIFF 2016 Overview

TIFF 2016: Loving

Loving is the true story of a mixed-race couple (Joel Edgerton As Richard Loving and Ruth Negga as Mildred) who marry in 1958, when mixed-race marriage was against the law in their home state of Virginia. They travel to Washington DC to wed, and get arrested shortly after their return hone, when the local police sneak into their home and drag them off to jail.

The story is firmly from the perspective of their life together, as they move to DC as part of a deal to keep them out of jail, raise their three children and become the basis of an ACLU challenge to the law that goes to the Supreme Court. You can guess how that went. Interestingly, Director Jeff Nicholas chose to leave the court scenes almost completely out of the film. At the Q&A after the film he said there is a documentary that covers that side, and since the Lovings did not themselves attend at court, he decided to focus on them.  

In keeping with their actual personalities, the screenplay offers very spare dialog. We know that Richard Loving loves his wife (he does say so once) but he says very little throughout the film. He comes across as a decent hard working family man, but has no interest in being political or becoming a cause célebre. The film is very slow-paced and quiet, and while we do care about the couple at the centre of the story, not a lot really happens. But the impact of thinking about an injustice that was still going on in my lifetime (their marriage was a few days before I was born) is powerful enough on its own.

TIFF 2016 Overview

Sunday, September 11, 2016

TIFF 2016: Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe is based on the true story of Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl from the slums of Kampala, Uganda, who discovers she is very good at chess, and uses her talent to help her rise up from the difficult circumstances of her life. Lupita N'yongo plays her widowed mother, straining to maintain her dignity as her hard life turns more desperate, and David Olewoyo plays her coach, who teaches her that chess is a metaphor for life, and that you must never tip your king too soon  (i.e. give up it all when things look dark). In many ways this is a very familiar story of an underdog winning out, but it all worked for me, and I had tears in my eyes by the end. The action moves along well, the acting is excellent, and the harsh, dusty setting of the slums of Kampala are dressed with the vivid colours of the costumes.

I loved the end credits, in which each of the main actors is presented together with the real-life character they portrayed in the film. I was disappointed that there was no Q&A after the film, as it would have been nice to be able to salute some of the actors.

TIFF 2016 Overview

TIFF 2016: Safari

Safari is Ulrich Seidl's documentary about European trophy hunters. He presents the material very starkly, with long scenes following the hunters and their guides as they track the animals, portrait-like shots of each participant, conversations among the hunters and the owners of the hunting lodge as they explain and justify what they do, and brutal but matter-of-fact observations of the animals being skinned and butchered. It is often boring (as the hunt can be), occasionally humourous, as some of the tourist hunters are portrayed in unflattering ways, and near the end deeply disturbing as we see magnificent animals cut up in scenes that are longer than they need to be to merely show us what happens. By extending scenes beyond a normal dramatic length, Seidl makes us feel we are present in the hunt, and by merely showing us everything from the hunter's perspective, he lets us make up our own minds about what we think of trophy hunting.

The cast of characters includes the European hunters, their white guides, and a number of black Namibian and South African members of the hunting lodge staff, but apart from one or two brief moments, only the white characters have speaking parts. I'm struggling to decide whether I'm upset that their voices were left out, or if that was an effective device to emphasize that the white foreigners continue to control much of what goes on in Africa.

Several people got up and left partway through the film (more than I have ever seen at a TIFF screening). The film was disturbing in both its monotony and its brutality. I can't say I enjoyed it, but in some ways I think I appreciated what Seidl was trying to get across.

TIFF 2016 Overview

TIFF 2016: The Rehearsal

The Rehearsal was my first film of TIFF 2016, and it was a so-so start to the festival for me. The setting is a drama school in Aukland, New Zealand where Stanley (James Rolleston) is getting his bearings. A suburban sex scandal has unfolded involving a tennis coach and his young protege, and as Stanley becomes involved with the sister of the young player, he learns a little more about it than the public knows. Back at school, the students are broken into groups to create their end-of-year plays, and after thrashing about for a topic Stanley's group decides theirs will be about the the girl and her coach. The film is based on Eleanor Catton's book of the same title.

I found the film plodded along, with little motivation for most of the main events. The acting was excellent, but I found the direction lacking. I did not see what drew Stanley and Isolde together (other than perhaps Isolde being jealous of her more talented, more popular sister, and simply gravitating to someone who showed interest in her). It was not clear why Stanley would betray his girlfriend by exploiting her family's crisis. Another tragic subplot was similarly poorly motivated.

There was a brief Q&A after the film with director Alison McLean (a Canadian), the producers, and the actress who played the hard-driving drama teacher, but I did not find it especially insightful.

Hopefully things will pick up from here...

TIFF 2016 Overview

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

TIFF 2016 Overview

It's that time again! TIFF 2016 will be here soon! Today was my 1-hour window to select my films, and it was a little more stressful than usual! This year I bought a package of 30 tickets, and I'm sharing them with my friend Nina (3), my cousins Barry & Debby (5 pairs) and my mom (2), leaving me with 15 movies to see myself. I had spent about 4 hours perusing the program to come up with a list of 31 candidate films, roughly ranked in the order I cared to see them. Really I had 3 sets of films: a few I really really want to see, a whole bunch that look great, and another bunch that look pretty good. Combining the preferences of the others for their selections adjusted my rankings a bit, and I was ready to start picking films at 11am this morning.

The ticketing system has changed this year, in some ways for the better, and in other ways definitely not. I have a new TIFF account with Ticketmaster. It's actually my 7th distinct Ticketmaster account, as they seem to tie me into a different account for every event/sport I book tickets for, including the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, the World Junior Championship that will be partly played here in Toronto at the end of the year, and my season tickets for the new rugby team, the Toronto Wolfpack.

What's better with the ticketing experience this year:
  • The list of available screenings is all presented at once, so I can scroll through the hundreds of films sorted by day/time. This made it pretty easy to find each screening I wanted to book tickets for, without reloading the web page each time, though the list was quite long.
  • I was able to print off my own tickets, and transfer groups of tickets to my friends very easily. This saved me a trip downtown to stand in line to pick up all my tickets (which I had to do each previous year), and also simplified getting tickets to others. Last year I remember waiting at a theatre for someone to just barely arrive in time, which was stress I don't need.
What was worse this year:
  • In previous years, as I chose each film I knew right away whether or not it was available. Knowing that affects my later picks. For example, when I confirm one film, that blocks off that time on my calendar, which can prevent me from choosing another film showing only at the same time. This year I had to choose all my films, and then at the end submit them to see which were available. It turned out that they all were, which was great, but if a few had come back as sold out, I would have had to make other selections in a way that would have been constrained differently (i.e. worse) than if I knew each film's availability as I made each choice.
  • After spending 39 minutes of my 60 minute window making my selections, I then clicked on the shopping cart icon to check out. Unfortunately that was a "mistake"; I should have clicked on the "Find Films" button at the bottom of the screen to determine which films were available and put them in my shopping cart. Instead, when I clicked on the cart icon, all my selections were cleared! All the hard work I had spent 39 minutes figuring out was discarded. I kind of freaked out a bit, and then frantically re-entered all my selection (much quicker the second time, as my calendar was already filled in). I submitted my choices with 4 minutes left, and as I mentioned earlier, all 15 films I wanted were available. So the tense story had a happy ending. I have given Ticketmaster my feedback on this workflow...
So after all that, I'm seeing the following 15 films (in the order I'll see them), 9 of them with some combination of my friend/family and 6 on my own:

and a non-film post:

A link to each film's review appears as I see and review them; those in bold are highly recommended!. As was the case last year with Room and The Martian, there were two films very high on my list this year that I ended up not choosing at all, because they will be in theatres soon after the festival. Those 2 are Arrival and Denial, both of which I will be sure to see later this fall. Arrival is based on a short story I recently read (in fact I bought the book containing the short story because the trailer for the film looked so good). The Girl with All the Gifts is the another film in this year's festival that is based on a book I have read.