TIFF ’20 – Day 6: MLK/FBI, Beans, Good Joe Bell, Concrete Cowboy

MLK/FBI (USA, 2020. Dir: Sam Pollard): We all have a generic idea of the contentious relationship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the FBI. It’s common knowledge that the director of the Bureau, J. Edgar Hoover, had King under constant surveillance given his considerable influence over the black community. Turns out there’s a lot more to the story. According to recently declassified documents, the trigger was King’s acquaintance with a communist lawyer. Both Kennedy and LBJ were aware of Hoover’s illegal surveillance of MLK and didn’t do anything to stop it. In turn, reports of King’s extra-marital dalliances failed to sway his followers away from him, irritating Hoover. MLK/FBI is filled with fascinating details about this period and excellent footage. The doc does a great job putting all the pieces together. The outcome is a notch cold, but it’s definitely worth your time. 3/5 planets aware of the limits between public and private life.

Beans (Canada, 2020. Dir: Tracy Deer): A look to the Oka Crisis through the eyes of a tween, Beans is a different kind of coming-of-age story, one in which the edges are not sanded off. A 12-year-old Mohawk girl nicknamed Beans gets a crash course in adulthood when, as a result of the standoff to protect her people’s land from developers, gets to face racism, violence and police inaction first hand. Not only that, a friendship with older teens push Beans towards uncharted territory too early. The film is rough around the edges—the acting is at times amateurish and the dialogue could have used more polishing— but triggers visceral reactions other movies wish they could. 3.5/5 planets that won’t forget.

Good Joe Bell (USA, 2020. Dir: Reinaldo Marcus Green): Based on real events, Good Joe Bell is a well-intentioned effort (even though it has written “Mark Wahlberg wants an Oscar” all over) that avoids getting into difficult territory. The titular character (Wahlberg) is a grieving father whose son committed suicide after being bullied for being gay. His reaction is to walk across America to raise awareness, but his own responsibility on the tragedy slowly creeps in (reluctantly accept your kid’s homosexuality doesn’t cut it). Written by the same team behind Brokeback Mountain—Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana—Good Joe Bell doesn’t come close to break new ground: Bullying is bad, inaction is bad, platitudes are useless and people suck. We know all that. Also, why isn’t this movie about the kid and not the straight guy who wants to feel better about himself? 2.5/5 planets happy at least it’s not Entourage 2.

Concrete Cowboy (USA, 2020. Dir: Ricky Staub): You know your life has taken a turn for the worse when you’re sharing accommodations with a horse. It’s what happens with Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, Stranger Things), after his fed-up mom drops him at his father’s place in Philadelphia. Two options present themselves to Cole: Double down on his bad behavior and join a criminal enterprise or accompany his presumed deadbeat dad (Idris Elba) at the city stables and learn to tame horses. While Cole’s story is perfunctory as heck (trouble kid is redeemed by his love for horses), the setup is worth your attention: For years black cowboys have been training horses on the streets of Philly, but city development has been pushing them away. That story should have anchored this movie, not been relegated to the background. 2.5/5 planets that are all for teens developing character, but in their own time.

TIFF ‘20 – Day 5: Violation, Limbo, New Order, 76 Days

Violation (Canada, 2020. Dir: Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Dusty Mancinelli): We have been subjected to a fair share of rape-and-revenge films, most as tasteless as I Spit in Your GraveViolation doesn’t bring anything new to the table plot-wise, but there’s enormous value on the female gaze, which should have dominated the conversation in the first place. Sims-Fewer (also the lead) and Mancinelli use extremely close ups to strip the movie of any possibility of titillation and to suggest they’re going deep into the psyche of the victim. Whenever not reveling in nature-inspired semiotics, the film is disturbing. Could have been more noteworthy if it wasn’t because I May Destroy You got so much more from tackling the same subject. 2.5/5 avenging planets. 

Limbo (UK, 2020. Dir: Ben Sharrock): The drama of refugees trying to get into Europe has so many angles, there’s no limit to what a filmmaker with imagination can do. In the case of Ben Sharrock, that’s mining the absurdity of the situation. Omar (Amir El-Masry, Jack Ryan), a young Syrian man escaping the civil war, lands in a Scottish island in the middle of nowhere. As he waits for a response to his refugee status claim, Omar kills time by attending tone-deaf cultural awareness classes, debating with fellow asylum-seekers the plausibility of Friends and avoiding the many traps that could render his application void. While often riotous, the tragic undertones of the situation often come to the surface. Sharrock is able to maintain the balance between tragedy and comedy, but Limbo is perhaps too low-key for its own good. 3.5/5 planets waiting for Godot.

New Order (Mexico, 2020. Dir: Michel Franco): Mexican cinema can get very dark really fast and New Orderis a good example of this approach to moviemaking. Writer/director Michel Franco takes the social unrest phenomenon sweeping the world and pushes it to the next level, while stripping it of any idealistic pretensions. A wedding at a posh neighborhood in Mexico City is interrupted by impoverished rioters with no qualms about shooting the rich folk point blank. The bride ends up in military custody, but the soldiers are also in it for the money. New Order moves fast and no social group survives unscathed. The nihilism is a notch hard to take, but it’s not like the movie is wrong. The plot doesn’t hold much water, but you won’t feel like poking holes at it while watching it. 3.5/5 planets hitting the streets, demanding their share.

76 Days (USA, 2020. Dir: Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous): The title refers to the 76 days the Chinese province of Wuhan was under lockdown following the COVID-19 outbreak. Using footage from inside a Wuhan hospital, the documentary chronicles the early days of the pandemic, when there was little clarity about the virus modus operandi, let alone how to deal with it. The film is made mostly of vignettes of patients dealing with their hospitalization: The septuagenarian man failing to understand the concept of asymptomatic carrier, the new mother unable to see her newborn baby, the infected elderly couple kept apart within the same hospital. It’s all horrible and too relatable. For all the access and unvaluable testimonies, 76 Days is unwieldy and repetitive, and can be taxing for the casual viewer. Still, for all its shortcomings as a feature, the raw material is devastating. 3/5 planets wearing a mask and judging those who don’t.

TIFF ’20 – Day 4: The New Corporation, Falling, Summer of 85, Pieces of a Woman

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel (Canada, 2020. Dir: Joel Bakan, Jennifer Abbott): 17 years ago, The Corporation proved a once controversial thesis: If corporations were people, they would be psychopaths. Now that they pretend to be model citizens—environmentally mindful, woke even—it’s time to look under the hood again. Sure enough, making money for shareholders remains the main goal (by law), but now they must seduce the public in order to profit. Bakan and Abbott put together the corporations’ playbook to increase their earnings while manipulating governments, the financial system and the public opinion. The New Corporation does a great job making its case and does it with panache. For at least one hour, it’s scarier than a horror movie. 4/5 planets in it for the money.

Falling (Canada/UK/Denmark, 2020. Dir: Viggo Mortensen): In his directorial debut, Viggo Mortensen explores love at its most difficult. At the center of Falling is Willis Peterson (career crowning performance by Lance Henriksen), an octogenarian battling failing health and dementia. Willis wasn’t an easy man to deal with at the best of times and now is truly impossible: His racist, homophobic and misogynistic ways are a challenge for his utterly patient and gay son (Mortensen). Henriksen’s work aside, the film is too broad to leave a mark and after one-too-many obscene tirades by Willis, it starts feeling repetitive. There’s also a moment in which the movie goes too far and destroys any empathy we may still have for the elderly hellion. Having said that, Mortensen has a way with actors and likely a future behind the camera. 2.5/5 planets aging disgracefully. Distributor: Mongrel.

Summer of 85 (France, 2020. Dir: François Ozon): After tackling some heavy themes for the last five years, prolific French filmmaker François Ozon returns to the subject that made him famous: The dark side of growing up. Summer of 85 can be described as a lighter The Talented Mr. Ripley: Alex, a closeted teen, becomes infatuated with David after he rescues him from a capsized boat. As with every relationship, everything is puppies and rainbows until David shows a darker side and Alex fails to manage his expectations (think Call Me by Your Name with a body count and better music). Never mind the captivating plot, there’s something delightful about spending time at the gorgeously shot Normandy coast. 3/5 planets enduring a cruel summer.

Pieces of a Woman  (USA/Canada, 2020. Dir: Kornél Mundruczó): One of the reasons I attend TIFF is for the dramas with teeth, sorely lacking this year. Thankfully, here comes one that will haunt my dreams. After the birth of her first child goes horribly wrong, Martha (Vanessa Kirby) reacts by shutting down and sabotaging every relationship in her life. In turn, Shawn (Shia LaBeauf), the father of the baby, falls into old patterns (addiction, violence) and fails to provide a support system for Martha. Pieces of a Woman goes after those who think mourning is a collective experience and assume platitudes make a difference. The film is sharp as a tack and reminds us that at 88, Ellen Burstyn is a force to be reckoned with. The birth-at-home procedure that kickstarts the movie is an extended single shot that amplifies the tension to unbearable levels. Pieces of a Woman flies high until the end, when it morphs into a procedural and takes an unearned, inspirational turn (yeesh). But for everything that preceded it, it’s worth watching. 4/5 planets that don’t want your stinking casserole. Distributor: Netflix.

TIFF ’20 – Day 3: Inconvenient Indian, Wolfwalkers, Nomadland, Penguin Bloom

Inconvenient Indian (Canada, 2020. Dir: Michelle Latimer): Inspired by Thomas King’s widely popular essay, this documentary aims to support King’s notion that the colonization of aboriginal peoples has continued through the suppression of indigenous culture and traditions. Director Michelle Latimer also shows First Nations peoples countering this phenomenon by using every available venue so they can be seen and heard. The ideas supporting this doc are sound and the visuals, inventive. Unfortunately, given the number of topics it tries to cover, the result is scattershot and a notch slight. 2/5 respectful planets.

Wolfwalkers (Ireland, Luxembourg, France, 2020. Dir: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart): Irish animation has it going on. Following the excellent The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea, here comes the superb Wolfwalkers, which may be even better. Set during the English colonization of Ireland, Robyn, a settler girl hungry for adventure, befriends Mebh, a wild child who turns into a wolf when she sleeps. The unlikely friendship is threatened by the Lord Protector, the king’s envoy who—to win over the locals— has promised to burn the surrounding forest to get rid of the wolves, perceived as a threat. The film is an achievement from every point of view: Gorgeous 2D animation, compelling and entertaining plot and doubles as a warning against populism. What’s not to love. 4.5/5 planets-slash-wolves. Distribution: Apple TV.

Nomadland (USA, 2020. Dir: Chloé Zhao): Expected to be one of the strongest titles this year at TIFF, Nomadland lives up to the hype and more. Widowed and jobless, Fern (Frances McDormand) takes the road, working part-time jobs and living in her van. Her lifestyle is more common than she imagines and soon she’s part of a community of rudderless loners who have rediscovered their humanity while living precariously. Chloé Zhao allows the story to breath and the dialogue to linger. There’s not much of a plot here, but doesn’t matter because McDormand is magnetic. She fully inhabits her character and it’s fascinating to see her interacts with others in the same boat (mostly non actors, except for David Strathairn). America’s open spaces rarely have been shot so lovingly. A must see. 4.5/5 planets. Distribution: Searchlight.

Penguin Bloom (Australia, 2020. Dir: Glendyn Ivin): Bad things happen when Naomi Watts goes to Thailand (see The Impossible). This time around she falls from the hotel roof and breaks her back. Paralyzed from the waist down, Sam (Watts) has pretty much given up on living, despite her three boys and loving husband (Andrew Lincoln sans zombies) trying to lift her spirit. At her lowest point, the family adopts an orphan magpie they call Penguin. Despite having wings, Penguin can’t fly (get it?), just like Sam and her legs (METAPHOR ALERT!). Based on real events, this movie is Hallmark-worthy at best and has the subtlety of a jackhammer. The only interesting aspect of the film is that the family pays more attention to the bird than the youngest kid and is unintendedly funny. If you like your human interest stories with a lot of cheese you could do worse. 2/5 planets that are doing just fine without help.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time (Hungary, 2020. Dir: Lili Horvát):Remember Felicity? The girl with curly hair who followed the boy she liked to college even though she could have done much better? This movie is like that, only older-skewed and far duller. An Hungarian neurosurgeon (Natasa Stork) moves back to her country after meeting a man at a conference. Here’s the catch: He doesn’t recall meeting her. Is she having a mental breakdown? Is the man ghosting her? Instead of going for a thriller or a comedy vibe, writer/director Lili Horvát choses to tell the story in the most dour way possible. By the time the movie provides an explanation, I had stopped caring about half hour earlier. 1.5/5 planets who can’t take a hint.

TIFF ’20 – Day 2: One Night in Miami…, The Way I See It, Enemies of the State, Gaza mon amour, The Boy From Medellín

One Night in Miami… (USA, 2020. Dir: Regina King): Regina King is having a moment. Following her winning turns in If Beale Street Could Talk and Watchman, King demonstrate strong directing chops in her first outing behind the camera. The film imagines the evening following Cassius Clay victory over Sonny Liston. The heavyweight champ, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown—all four at crossroads in their lives—celebrate by debating their contributions to the Civil Rights movement and getting in each other’s kitchen. One Night in Miami… can’t escape its stagey nature (it’s based on a play), but the exchanges between the four legends are often electric. Well-rounded performances across the board make the film an early awards season contender. I would have liked to see something more cinematic than a motel room, but it’s very much worth your time. 3/5 all-star planets.

The Way I See It (USA, 2020. Dir: Dawn Porter): I don’t want to get political here, but it only takes comparing pictures of Barack Obama and Donald Trump to notice who is truly presidential and who is a vat of orange toxic waste. The Way I See It is theoretically about Pete Souza, Obama (and Reagan)’s official photographer, but it’s mostly about his subjects. Souza captured such iconic images like the situation room during the operation that killed Bin Laden and the small child touching Obama’s hair (representation!). Lately, Souza has become a particularly effective Instagram troll by posting pictures that emphasize the differences between the Obama administration and whatever the heck Trump is doing. This enlightening and somewhat depressing doc is bound to face accusations of bias, but the Pete’s pics speak by themselves. 3.5/5 planets that would have voted for Obama a third time. Distribution: Focus Features.

Enemies of the State (USA, 2020. Dir: Sonia Kennebeck): Quite often reality doesn’t rise to our expectations. This documentary about hacker/former National Guard official Matthew DeHart wishes the subject was a patriot railroaded by the American government like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, but evidence indicates the more likely possibility he is a predator who can spin a good lie and stick to it. For three-quarters of the movie, director Sonia Kennebeck takes us on a wild goose chase under the belief Matt was harassed by the FBI and other dark forces and reports on a conspiracy based on happenstance and missing drives, minimizing the alternative until its unavoidable. Enemies of the State could have been shaped in an entirely different way and be compelling. Instead, the filmmaker goes for drab, dull and ultimately pointless. 2/5 skeptic planets.

Gaza mon amour (Palestine/France/Germany/Portugal/Qatar, 2020. Dir: Tarzan & Arab Nasser): A quite simple love story at heart, Gaza mon amour has the added value of showing what is it like to really live in Gaza (the film is mercifully free of westerners’ gaze). Issa (Salim Daw) is a confirmed bachelor who suddenly finds the single life less than fulfilling. The fisherman has an eye on Siham (Hiam Abbass, Succession), a seamstress perennially trying to make ends meet. Issa’s courtship is repeatedly interrupted by the upshots of finding a statue of Apollo while at sea. A gentle, low impact movie, by existing alone Gaza Mon Amour is an statement of resilience. As depicted in the film, older Palestinians seem more willing to enjoy happiness whenever available, rather than look for it elsewhere as the younger generation. A small delight. 3/5 hard-knock planets.

The Boy from Medellín (USA, 2020): For a brief, frightening moment, I thought this entire film was a reggaeton concert. It was a little better than that: The doc follows Colombian singer J Balvin as he gets ready for a massive concert in his hometown. The time could have been better: Social unrest has taken over Medellín and Balvin is perceived as “lukewarm” on the streets for not opposing the right-wing government. The reggaeton star can’t understand the animosity against him, believing that positioning himself above politics should have sufficed (he sends “light” to everybody, whatever that means). Given that the film is produced by J Balvin himself and his inner circle, it’s no surprise the singer is presented in the best light possible and the resolution of his inner conflict is a total copout. Only for hardcore fans willing to suspend their critical thinking. 2/5 planets that wouldn’t be caught dead listening to reggaeton. Distribution: Amazon.

TIFF ’20 – Day 1: Fireball, American Utopia, Shiva Baby, Get the Hell Out, Night of the Kings

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (UK/Austria/USA, 2020. Dir: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer): Here are some fighting words to get started: Werner Herzog documentaries are a mixed bag. At times, his interests are not aligned with anyone else’s and his research is surface-level (Lo and BeholdInto the Abyss). Luckily, Fireball has a compelling subject (the meteorites that have shaped civilization) and features Herzog at his most dynamic and easygoing (he can be a notch portentous). The filmmaker makes his case without a hitch, but more importantly, the interviewees from around the world obsessing over rocks falling from the sky are a very compelling group. Along the way, Herzog finds tasty information nuggets that help making this doc a pleasing experience. 3/5 falling planets. Distribution: Apple TV.

David Byrne’s American Utopia (USA, 2020. Dir: Spike Lee): Concert movies are a tough sell. Not only you’re not ‘there’, there’s a very limited number of visual choices available to the director. These films can be monotonous, particularly when the artist in question doesn’t play the hits. David Byrne does stage his better known songs, but even then the movie goes too long. Byrne’s brand of world music is pleasant enough, but hardly triggers the passion other artists stir. Between tunes, the multi-hyphened musician makes some well-meaning political commentary. It hits home only once, when at the tune of “Hell You Talmbout”, Byrne and co. list some of the many black victims of racism in recent years. Only then you can feel the hand of Spike Lee steering the boat. Plus and minuses, it’s not Stop Making Sense2.5/5 planets in the road to nowhere.

Shiva Baby (USA/Canada, 2020. Dir: Emma Seligman): A strong bottle comedy out of nowhere, Shiva Babymines social awkwardness and personal turmoil to great effect. Danielle (Rachel Sennott) is an aimless twentysomething who dabbles into light prostitution. Forced by his Jewish parents, the girl must attend a shiva in which all her unsavory behavior and numerous lies come crashing down, a situation made worse by the presence of an ex-girlfriend and her sugar daddy. A character piece at heart, it’s hard not to sympathize with Danielle given the relatable horrors of family gatherings. Shiva Baby doesn’t stick the landing (the lead is mortified throughout, but doesn’t really grow), but the journey is a fun one. 3.5/5 planets who needed the money.

Get the Hell Out (Taiwan, 2020. Dir: I-Fan Wang): The zombie comedy is a subgenre seldom done well. Most times it’s grating as heck. Get the Hell Out is incredibly kinetic, but doesn’t bring anything new to the table: A rabies outbreak takes place in parliament and pits honest lawmakers against bloodsucking freaks (and zombies). It’s never a good sign when a government has an Agriculture Disease Bureau. The film gives the impression that anything goes, but in reality it uses every trope in the book and hopes to trick the audience by the sheer volume of clichés. Sion Sono has used this formula before and much better. 2/5 immunocompromised planets.

Night of the Kings (Côte d’Ivoire/France/Canada/Senegal, 2020. Dir: Philippe Lacote): This is one of those movies in which the concept behind is far superior to the execution. An overcrowded prison is on the verge of a gang war. As a ploy to gain time, the local kingpin selects a new inmate to tell a story in a ritual that’s normally ends with the death of said prisoner. Taking a page from “One Thousand and One Nights”, the young man spins a story that incorporates tradition and Côte d’Ivoire’s recent history. Night of the Kings fails to live up to the gimmick and unfolds chaotically for very long 90 minutes. More inexcusably: The film wastes Denis Lavant (Holy Motors) in a nothing role. 2/5 sleepy planets.