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2019 TIFF Round Up

September 17, 2019

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It’s the third Tuesday in September, which means the dust has settled and the red carpets rolled up on another edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). As a Toronto local I look forward to this festival both excitedly and begrudgingly. It provides opportunities to get an early look at some of the year’s most buzzed about films, to experience the magic experience that is being part of a packed house wowed by a truly great film, and to see a bunch of smaller films that would otherwise pass under my radar or may never get released. But it also makes for long lineups, difficult to acquire tickets, and Torontonians complaining about the pedestrian-only Festival Street.

This year’s fest seemed to boast more winners than losers, and while I didn’t get to many of the higher profile films, including People’s Choice top three ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ ‘Marriage Story,’ or ‘Parasite,’ I did get to a fair number of films, most of which I liked and a few that blew me away.

I’ll run down the features below, but first I’ll mention a couple of entries in the shorts programme I saw that stuck with me the most.

 

NOW IS THE TIME (Christopher Auchter) 2019/Canada

I loved this clever remix of a 1969 National Film Board documentary that blends archival footage of the raising of a Haida totem pole with modern interviews and animation. In 16 minutes it has so much joy and so much to say about generational importance in Indigenous communities.

 

 

LOCALS ONLY (Brent Harris) 2019/South Africa

‘Locals Only’ is a fantastic little film set against the hazy coastal glow of apartheid-era Cape Town. It features beautiful cinematography and great skateboarding scenes that slowly give way to an inevitable statement about white privilege and loss of innocence.

For more reviews of the shorts and full reviews of all the features I saw, head over to my Letterboxd page.

 


 


CASTLE IN THE GROUND

directed & written by: Joey Klein
2019/Canada

starring: Alex Wolff, Neve Campbell, Imogen Poots

‘Castle in the Ground’ is a roundabout examination of the opioid crisis in Canada, set in Sudbury at its advent in 2012. Joey Klein and cinematographer Bobby Shore do some great visual storytelling here, showing how one character’s history of addiction, coupled with another’s temporary access to drugs, makes for a toxic pairing between two desperate, grief-stricken young people. It depicts characters without judgment or sermonizing, in a way that focuses on the individual human toll more than the widespread social toll of the epidemic. Wolff gives a strong performance but it’s Poots, an actor who hasn’t really been on my radar before, who really dazzles here with a haunted performance.

The film may swerve too much into generic thriller territory in its latter half, and the climactic scene in particular is visually confusing in its execution and aftermath. But the film makes up for it with a final scene that ties it all together as bleakly and effectively as one could ask for. (no release date scheduled)

RATING: ***

 

 


AND THE BIRDS RAINED DOWN

directed & written by: Louise Archambault
2019/Canada

starring: Rémy Girard, Gilbert Sicotte, Eve Landry, Andrée Lachapelle

‘And the Birds Rained Down,’ Louise Archambault’s film based on Jocelyn Saucier’s popular novel, follows a small group of elderly hermits living out their remaining years free from the expectations of society, whose paths cross with a photographer working on an exhibit about the survivors of a forest fire in the area years earlier. It is deceptively dense for a film that is so gentle and slow moving. At times the film feels stuffed with concerns and intentions, betraying its novelistic origins in ways that struggle to make the transition to the screen. But where its narrative structure falters, Archambault recovers the film with a patient directorial hand that relies on a small group of strong performances conveying narrative truths about aging, agency, and responsibility.

And the film has enough to say about the inherent tension between wanting to live on one’s terms and the responsibilities of being a social creature that the film’s more surface level exploration of the connections between art and trauma and the ethics of telling other people’s stories don’t feel too lacking. (currently in limited release now in Quebec)

RATING: ***

 

 


TAMMY’S ALWAYS DYING

directed by: Amy Jo Johnson
written by: Joanne Sarazen
2019, Canada

starring: Felicity Huffman, Anastasia Phillips, Clark Johnson

Amy Jo Johnson’s second feature follows Kathy (Anastasia Phillips), a woman whose life revolves around managing her toxic, alcoholic mother (Felicity Huffman) through repeated attempts at suicide and then through the process of having cancer. Johnson’s work as a director is skillful in capturing the messiness inherent in toxic relationships, and the one depicted here works in no small part thanks to Phillips’ and Huffman’s performances, which give more humanity to the characters than the script allows for. The writing leaves Tammy (Huffman) too inscrutable and while Huffman is good her character ends up feeling one-note. A subplot that exists involving a Jerry Springer-esque talk show is both preposterous and distracting from the central narrative. And at 85 minutes the film can’t afford to take that kind of diversion. (no release date scheduled)

RATING: **

 


THE PLATFORM

directed by: Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia
written by: David Desola, Pedro Rivero
2019/Spain

starring: Iván Massagué, Antonia San Juan, Zorion Eguileor, Emilio Buale, Alexandra Masangkay

It would be a shame to spoil any of where ‘The Platform’ goes. Suffice it to say this new Spanish speculative fiction thriller—and People’s Choice Midnight Madness winner—that blends the politics of ‘Snowpiercer’ with the aesthetic of ‘Cube’ is one of the most provocative and enjoyable genre films I’ve seen in a while. The film, aside from being gleefully violent and playfully satirical in a way that is thoroughly satisfying albeit frequently cynical, is a provocative exploration of class warfare and the ways those on the lower strata of society are given to fighting amongst each other because the system is designed to facilitate such an outcome. (screens October 7 – 9, 2019 in Sitges, Spain at Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya/no theatrical release date scheduled)

RATING: ***1/2

 


SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY

directed by: Zeresenay Berhane Mehari
written by: Laura Phillips
2019/Ireland, Canada

starring: Dakota Fanning, Wunmi Mosaku, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

‘Sweetness in the Belly’ is a sweeping historical romance set against the backdrop of the Ethiopian civil war and the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie. Dakota Fanning plays Lilly, a white Muslim woman living in Ethiopia who is shipped off to London as a refugee at the start of the film along with many others fleeing an Ethiopia engulfed in violence. There she befriends fellow refugee Amina (Wunmi Mosaku) and the two attempt to find out what happened to those loved ones they left behind, including the doctor (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) whom Lilly loved back in Harar. Their meeting and blossoming relationship is told through flashbacks.

This is a lush film with a classical cinematic feel. The colours, art direction, and cinematography are swoon-worthy, and go a long way in drawing you into the world of the film. The relationship between the two women is compelling, more so even than the central romance. The film’s biggest flaw is that there is so much going on in the story it’s a rare case where a film feels as though it needed to be 30-40 minutes longer. I wanted more of the political reality these characters were living in and fewer intrusions from Kunal Nayaar’s comic relief character. ‘Sweetness in the Belly’ lacks the emotional and epic punch it feels like it should have. But despite that it’s easy to get caught up in. (no theatrical release date scheduled)

RATING: ***

 


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CLIFTON HILL

directed by: Albert Shin
written by: Albert Shin, James Schultz
2019/Canada

starring: Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, David Cronenberg, Eric Johnson

Canadian thriller ‘Clifton Hill”s eerie opening scene sets the stage nicely for a psychological mystery that recalls David Fincher. A young girl out with her family witnesses an apparent kidnapping. It’s an event that comes to define her into adulthood, when her relationship with her family is strained due to her pathological lying.

But subsequently the film veers more towards absurd neo-noir that uses the gaudy facade of Niagara Falls as the setting for a story about…corruption? Madness? Obsession? It’s ultimately unclear what, if anything, ‘Clifton Hill’ is trying to say about the politics of small towns, about trauma, about secrets and nepotism. It can be a confusing, if engrossing, film in the moment, and it has character, but it feels increasingly silly the further down the narrative rabbit hole it goes. (no theatrical release date scheduled)

RATING: **1/2 

 


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WAVES

directed & written by: Trey Edward Shults
2019/USA

starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown

Trey Edward Shults follows up his dystopian domestic thriller ‘It Comes at Night’ with a film that, at first glance, feels wildly different. But beneath the surface, both films deal with the claustrophobia of domestic relationships and the difficulties of facing our own fears. But where ‘Night’ is a warning, ‘Waves’ is a plea. I wouldn’t say everything about ‘Waves’ works, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the film’s sheer scope and energy. It is essentially two films that, while both focused on the same family, feel decidedly different in style and tone. That’s a jarring experience and one that may lose viewers’ interest depending on which half of the film they feel more drawn to. It’s only as the film nears its end and the visual and thematic mirroring and contrast between the film’s two stories become apparent that I began to truly appreciate what Shults was doing and the way the filmmaking reflects the experiences and psychology of the two protagonists.

The story ‘Waves’ tells feels sprawling for one that maintains a focus on a single family of four. The dynamics of the family are compelling and complicated in ways that continue to be revealed over the course of the film, rendering your understanding of the characters increasingly more complex. And this is part of what makes ‘Waves’ such a deeply rewarding experience despite its overtly showy style. It allows you to live with this family through their joys and their great pain and to understand the ways that relationships ebb and flow in response to the ways people treat one another. The swirling mass of ideas and emotions Shults is exploring are always present and don’t always cohere, but in that respect they capture the messiness of the human experience. What becomes clear through the film’s emotionally-exhausting 135 minutes is Shults’ understanding of social and familial isolation as a tragedy that underlies our cultural brokenness. (“Waves” will play in October as part of Chicago International Film Festival & will be released theatrically on November 1st)

RATING: ***1/2

 



JORDAN RIVER ANDERSON: THE MESSENGER

directed & written by: Alanis Obomsawin
2019/Canada

Jordan River Anderson was a boy from Norway House Cree Nation north of Winnipeg, who lived the entire five years of his life (1999 – 2005) in a hospital while the federal and provincial governments argued over who should be responsible to pay for the care required for his rare muscular disorder. Alanis Obomsowin’s 53rd(!) feature film, documents the struggle of parents and advocates across Canada to see full implementation of Jordan’s Principle, a legislative principle that takes a child-first approach to the funding of public services for Indigenous children living on-reserve.

Obomsawin’s no-frills filmmaking isn’t the kind of thing you go to to be entertained. Her stories are straightforward and to the point, though always told through a lens of advocacy for the issues facing Indigenous peoples. Here she does a fine job outlining the issues and the timeline over barely an hour, balancing Jordan’s story and legacy with the human cost of ongoing colonial practices. She narrates the film but also interviews Jordan’s family and others who have faced similar treatment in accessing services, as well as those in and out of government like rockstar social work advocate Cindy Blackstock who have worked tirelessly to hold the governments’ feet to the fire on these issues.

Undoubtedly Canada’s most important documentarian, Obomsawin is making films at 87 years old that aren’t flashy, but are vital to our understanding of Canada’s ongoing legacy of colonialism. (no release date scheduled, but the film will have National Film Board distribution in Canada)

RATING: ***

 


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LUCY IN THE SKY

directed by: Noah Hawley
written by: Brian C Brown, Elliott DiGuiseppi, Noah Hawley
2019/USA

starring: Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Zazie Beetz, Dan Stevens, Ellen Burstyn, Pearl Amanda Dickson

Director Noah Hawley’s feature debut is a pretty mixed bag. ‘Lucy in the Sky’ (loosely based on the true story of astronaut Lisa Nowak) follows the return to earth of astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman), whose experience in space changes her in unexpected ways. There’s certainly something interesting in the idea that experiencing the transcendent makes one ruined for the banality of the terrestrial. Or in the unique systemic barriers faced by women in high-pressure careers like aeronautics. But Hawley and his co-writers never really know what to do with these themes beyond the most obvious, resulting in a kind of storytelling that feels both disjointed and predictable. The mix of tones fail to cohere and the script spells out the themes way too explicitly and obviously.

While the storytelling is fairly unsatisfying, the film does allow Hawley to explore some pretty cool formal choices, like the timelapse montages and the way the aspect ratio is constantly shifting, sometimes even within the same shot. Portman lives in the title role, and she’s just one part of a strong cast that might be the best reason to see the movie—just don’t rush out to do so. (release date: October 4, 2019)

RATING: **1/2 

 



ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF NOAH PIUGATTUK

directed by: Zacharias Kunuk
written by: Zacharias Kunuk, Norman Cohn
2019/Canada

starring: Apayata Kotierk, Kim Bodnia, Benjamin Kunuk

It may seem counterintuitive to call the latest film from celebrated Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk one of his most thrilling, considering it is absent of any of the action that characterized his previous films. ‘One Day in the Life of Noah Puigattuk’ is largely comprised of one extended conversation between the title character, Noah (Apayata Kotierk), a member of an isolated Inuit community in the Arctic of Canada, Boss (Kim Bodnia), a government agent tasked with convincing Noah’s community to move to a government-approved settlement, and Evaluarjuk (Benjamin Kunuk), the Inuk who translates between the two. The lengthy, frustrating, and often comical conversation that transpires is a brilliant slow build that expertly highlights the failures of communication in government-Indigenous relations with a foreboding sense of tragedy that nods to the film’s historical context. It’s a conversation that becomes increasingly desperate on Boss’s part as he seems unable to convince Noah of the value of his proposition.

The central performances, especially Kotierk and Kunuk, are so good, and Zacharias Kunuk’s direction so grounded that the film feels intimate, even like a documentary at times. The lack of a score makes every sound—the crunch of footsteps on snow, characters’ breath and swallowing—stand, drawing your attention into the film’s world. And the contrast of close up shots against a vast Arctic backdrop underline the sense of paradox in the film’s central conflict: what’s so special about any one piece of this vast land? The film’s unexpected epilogue is a kick to the gut, capturing decades of displacement and their impact in a single unbroken take. This film is a quiet masterpiece. (plays October 7 & 9, 2019, in Vancouver, B.C. as part of Vancouver International Film Festival. available to rent and download on iTunes now)

RATING: **** 

 


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A HIDDEN LIFE

directed & written by: Terrence Malick
2019/ USA, Germany

Starring: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner

(‘A Hidden Life’ will play in October as part of Chicago International Film Festival.)

One might expect that Terrence Malick’s new film, a three hour meditation on faith and morality set against the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power, would follow in the pattern of his more recent output: abstract, nonlinear, more concerned with visual and philosophical storytelling over narrative. Indeed, A Hidden Life does contain its fair share of voiceover against shots of the Austrian countryside. But it also feels like Malick’s most focused and purposeful film in years.

From the opening voiceover that proclaims, “I thought that we could build our nest high up in the trees. Fly away like birds,” Malick establishes the building sense of tragedy that will plague the central characters, a real-life married farming couple, Franz (August Diehl) and Franziska (Valerie Pachner) Jägerstätter. They both know he will be called up for military duty following the German annexation of Austria, but also that he cannot in good conscience swear loyalty to Hitler, as is required for anyone serving in the military. It isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and how bad his fate will be when labeled treasonous.

Malick is clearly reflecting contemporary politics through this historical lens, asking viewers to consider the ways evil empires rise through the willingness of everyday people to participate. Fransz is asked what he hopes to accomplish, and whom he hopes to help by taking such a stand, and the film wrestles with the possibility that these small actions of conscience don’t serve anyone. But Malick feels assured in his moral stance, suggesting that there is not a heroism but a moral obligation in the ability to remain steadfast in the face of evil, even if it means giving up everything. This is a remarkable achievement. (next month at the Chicago International Film Festival, theatrical release: December 13, 2019) 

RATING: ***1/2 

 


 

And that’s it for another year, folks! If you’re in the Chicago area, you can catch TIFF films at the festival on October 16 – 27, 2019, including ‘Knives Out,’ ‘Harriet,’ ‘Just Mercy,’ ‘The Aeronauts,’ ‘A Hidden Life,’ ‘Honey Boy,’ ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ ‘Marriage Story,’ ‘Ordinary Love,’ ‘The Report,’ ‘Seberg,’ ‘The Song of Names,’ ‘The Traitor,’ ‘The Truth,’ ‘The Two Popes’ and ‘Waves.’ The full schedule of films will be out Wednesday, September 18.

 

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