|Reflections from the Toronto Film Festival (Virtual Edition 2020)
|by Erik Childress
Here you will find reviews from this year's (virtual) Toronto Film Festival. My first time not attending the festival in person since 2004. Keep checking this spot for updates.
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of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival 2020
ENEMIES OF THE STATE
How many times have we been promised "a strange story...but that was only the beginning?" We have become so inundated with true-crime documentaries and series that we frequently expect them to take on the point of view that makes us comfortable. Ultimately we will reach a definitive conclusion through the grey areas to deliver a villain we can feel justified in hissing at like an outlaw in a silent film. Lord only knows how dark the shade of documentaries about the last four years will be, but anytime malfeasance by those in power cross our field of vision we don't have to be a batshit crazy stupid member of Qanon to at least raise an eyebrow at potential impropriety. Sonia Kennebeck's film about the arrest of an Anonymous hacker in 2009 is going to require more eyebrows.
Matt Dehart was a young computer hacker involved with both Wikileaks and the group known as Anonymous. Information that he claims to be privy to as part of the Dark Web (as well as be in possession of) could implicate the American government in some rather untoward behavior. Before he can expand on this further, he is accused of child pornography and soliciting sex online with underage males. Naturally, this comes as a shock to his parents who both worked within the military (as linguists). An even greater shock when it is believed Matt was tortured during questioning thus lending credence that our intelligence agencies have something to hide. Even moreso when lawyers and journalists hungry to uncover the next big story get involved.
The question that the audience may be asked throughout the course of this documentary is whether one or the other charges are true or maybe even both. Can both parties be at fault of horrific crimes and does either justify the other? That is even too simplistic and almost lets the audience off the hook into massaging one's moralistic ego. Questioning whether Kennebeck's storytelling method manipulates us into a false sense of where the truth lies is fine, but every amateur sleuth watching this is bound to form their own legal opinion of who they want to see punished. The more one hears Dehart's father (the same one who drives him to the RUSSIAN(!) embassy for fears he couldn't trust Americans) begin to put forth his own narrative it starts to sound less like an angry parent and more like Michael Caputo's brother righteously going off on the system without a shred of proof. There are plenty of weeds to get through with this story but bring along Occam's Razor to cut them down until you get to its final twist and gain an understanding of why its impossible to trust anything anymore.
GET THE HELL OUT
[big]The Midnight selections at festivals are always a scattered bunch appealing to a variety of genres and anyone who has attended one - especially at Toronto - will cite the energy, eagerness and giddy anticipation of an audience who may not always know what they are in for. To say a Get the Hell Out seems to exist at every festival would be cheating the versions of it that have clearly inspired it along the way. Namely probably all of them though one can say that this quickly annoying version also splashed in about 80% of Edgar Wright's resume, hit puree and tried to serve a stale recipe.
The early scenes show some promise as we get thrust into a situation that seems all too familiar by real-world standards - a deadly outbreak of a new virus and constant fighting from political leaders. Our heroine (Megan Lai) has been disgraced from office but uses a puppet in a security guard to regain access to the Parliamentary fight. Then a virus is unleashed on the floor, everyone goes zombie crazy and they then have to fight their way out. Yadda Yadda Yadda.
Lai makes for an appealing ass-kickin' heroine (evident from the way she handles reporters early on) but the more the film amps up its adrenalized OCD levels of action the more boring it actually gets. There are times when even the zombie extras appear to be pulling their bites so as not to eliminate the cast too quickly. Throw into that video game sound effects and Batman-esque thump cards and we're watching someone just trying to show off rather than entertain. One is better off just taking the time to binge Wright's Cornetto Trilogy and if Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is your bag, go for it as well. You will be better off than trying to endure Get the Hell Out which is what I may just have done to catch up on sleep if I was there in person.
GOOD JOE BELL
Going into a film with the barest of knowledge as to what it is about I have found over the years to be more rewarding, especially on the festival circuit where there are less opportunities to see trailers and know all the ins and outs of something that has yet to be promoted. What I knew about the presumptuous title, Good Joe Bell, is that is starred Mark Wahlberg, he has a gay son and it was a "departure" for the actor. I think the words "true story" may have worked its way into me solving Super Password. The final clue on that board would probably have to be the biggest spoiler for anyone going in cold, but once it is sprung it is impossible to think the film - from its title to its execution - is anything but a 180-degree travesty for a story (and a character) that deserved full attention.
We'll ignore the adjective for now and just refer to Wahlberg's real-life character as Joe Bell. As the film opens he is uncomfortably addressing an auditorium of people about his son's bullying. In the present we then see Joe walking along the side of a highway with supplies and his son, Jadin (Reid Miller). They are going coast-to-coast through America on foot to raise awareness towards bullying, particularly towards the LGBTQ community. In flashbacks we see Joe even more uncomfortable, angrily so even, at Jadin joining the cheerleading squad (he asks him to practice out of full view) and not fighting back against his tormentors; something his son gets to call out his hypocrisy on during one of their meal stops on the road. At this point I will not reveal what the film springs on us next since it is specifically meant to be a gotcha moment 40 minutes in. Things were not looking good before then, but after this unforgivable bit of deception, Joe Bell (I will not refer to him as "Good") reveals itself to be nothing more than a shameless, pandering "departure" vehicle for the wrong star.
GJB was directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green who had a solid Sundance debut in 2018 with Monsters and Men featuring John David Washington, Anthony Ramos and Kelvin Harrison Jr. This is quite the step down in-between prepping another film about a hard-ass father humbled by his children in King Richard (starring Will Smith as the father of Serena & Venus Williams.) The far more shocking truth about the entire production is that it was written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana contributing their first screenplay since winning an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain. Good Joe Bell is the film that makes Paul Haggis' Crash feel like a model of epic restraint and everlasting insight.
The delusional deception employed aside, this is a script modeled more for the Peter Berg/Wahlberg relationship where, like Patriots Day, the story is co-opted for an amalgamated hero to be played by the actor. The fact that Joe Bell is a real person far from automates any genuine empathy towards his situation since he is written as a guy who only has two speeds - angry blue collar homophobe and "changed man." The biggest question though is why this guy is the story to begin with? Because he walked a lot? The film shows no interest in the context of that walk or what he actually accomplished other than painful irony. Jadin is the real story and the scenes with him are the ones we feel, thanks to Reid Miller's sensitive performance rather than the unfortunate cliche he is often presented as. This is an infuriating experience even before Gary Sinise finally shows up with the same cameo performance he gave in The Green Mile (complete with porch, speech and a glass of lemonade.) Its actually far more genuine than Wahlberg's work which ranges from false outrage to reaching for the kind of moment where he earnestly wishes he could tell his son that he's a peacock and he's gotta let him fly. If the film could not be made about Jadin, maybe it could have been about Sinise and called Good Cameo Cop. There is more to be said about either of them than Joe Bell.
I CARE A LOT
[big]The title of this film almost feels like a dare to its audience. It is meant to represent the falsified mantra of its protagonist but leaves open to question just precisely what a viewer will get out of this exercise in immorality. We have all witnessed and even basked in the glorification of morally-flawed characters but J. Blakeson's latest film is a real stress test into how far we are willing to go in rooting on the resolve of its repugnant anti-heroine. It's desperation in trying to make her the lesser of all the evils on display in this film only furthers our consideration into wearing Melania Trump's infamous coat as a rebuttal.
Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, the head of a retirement community who hunts for residents that she can manipulate through the system and snatch up everything they are worth. Think John Mahoney in Say Anything only with no daughter to send to college. Her latest mark, Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) appears to be a gravy boat. Despite showing no signs of decline, Marla manages to get her relinquished into her care against her will with plans to bleed her dry. One snag in her plan though. Jennifer does appear to have some family off the books, that of organized crime boss, Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), and he wants his mama back. Who are you rooting for?
No, seriously, who? Dinklage's Roman may be a criminal and a killer but at least Dinklage makes him an interesting and amusing one who likely only kills similarly bad people as opposed to kidnapping your grandparents, turning their last vestiges of quality life into shit and then robbing them blind. Marla Grayson makes Amy Dunne look like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and as icy as Pike is capable of making both of them, the coldness here is littered with the supposition of strength and therefore instantly forgivable in a world of unrelenting cruelty. Gotta call bullshit on that one. Even with the twists and turns that make certain relationships more dubious, it is still impossible to cheer on Marla's plan to outmaneuver Roman. None of these are good people, but compare its hyperbolic chess game to that in the recent Bad Education. They were not worthy of our sympathy either, but their motivations stemming from human weakness is more understandable that asking an audience to cheer on (what I think anyway) is the larger of all evils on display.
THE KID DETECTIVE
Often when someone attempts to subjugate nostalgia with pathetic irony the results tend to come up too soft or too impressed with itself. Adults left to the grasping of their youth comes off pathetic enough but if it misses the reality of the predicament or fails to garner enough empathy, an audience can be put off into shouting for the slacker hippie to get a real job. That is part of what makes Evan Morgan's The Kid Detective quite the neat trick as we fear we may be getting pulled into another half-hearted tale of arrested development but quickly turns into a funny and surprisingly good mystery that is looking out for its characters as much as its idea.
Adam Brody (in the best big screen role he's had since his stint on Gilmore Girls) stars as Abe Applebaum who made headlines in his small town as the go to case solver for his fellow grade schoolers and even the occasional adult. But the one mystery he could never solve involving the disappearance of his friend and assistant, Gracie, has haunted him into adulthood. Now in-between occasional dalliances into drugs and alcohol he is still a detective, but cases are thin and hardly anything challenges him until high schooler, Caroline (Sophie Nelisse) asks him to help solve the murder of her boyfriend.
Sure it may all sound like some condensed season of Veronica Mars, but The Kid Detective lies somewhere between the modern noir of Brick and the goofy schtick of Mystery Team. Morgan maintains a pretty even tone, laying in enough meta references about the cliches of independent detection while never dismissing those affected by the nature of the crime. Those who saw Morgan's screenplay for The Dirties know he is not afraid to let things get dark down the stretch and he manages to pull it off with a solid assist by Brody who never resorts to playing the character as dumb or uninvested. Disillusionment comes with most good detective yarns, but that was never a feeling on the other side of the screen watching Abe get ensnared in such an entertaining tale.
[big]Our nation's Federal Bureau of Investigators working to discredit the work of Martin Luther King Jr. may be "the darkest part of the Bureau's history." Those aren't my words, but those of James Comey as heard in the new film by Sam Pollard which documents this period in history with the help of some newly declassified files. No matter how many times one hears of the lengths that J. Edgar Hoover and some of his men went through to undermine King's movement for peace, change and equality it will always be infuriating. Though this is a well put together documentary it is more for those who haven't heard this tale before.
The film begins with portions of FBI memos and buzzwords splashed across the screen and then begins to recite - through the help of scholars and those that knew Dr. King - the passage of time when the Bureau began their surveillance. This early section is fascinating partly because a narrative is laid out where a reasonable observer could understand why there might be an interest in King's association with a known Communist sympathizer. Of course this was all basted in clear racism and Hoover's own words that he "feared the rise of a black messiah." Pollard keeping the focus on footage of and interviews with the key players like King, Hoover and Lyndon Johnson provides a unique visual overview that prevents this from becoming just another talking head retrospective.
Maybe I've seen or read enough to know about this portion of history in both narrative and non-fiction, but very little surprised me with what was being presented. Could be we shouldn't be surprised anymore given the stories we may have heard just even in passing over the years and the film reminds us that crazies who will believe anything existed well before Donald Trump. Ultimately the film concludes as if it were a teaser for the 2027 release of these tapes that will further expose the agency's desperate bias against this man. The film hangs on long enough to get the talking heads on camera at the very end as if they were just released from federal protection. Overall this is still a fine retrospective of this unfortunate chapter in American history and the hope is that if there are Americans that can still be surprised by what's within that it will do so with an eye that it should never happen again.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
People can talk all they want about the visual trappings of filmed theatrical productions all they want. Because when the talk within those walls is as captivating as the performances delivering it, I can watch it all day and be as enthralled as the crafting of a visual poem. This is in no way meant to downplay the work by recent Oscar-winner Regina King making her directorial debut with quite the powerhouse material. John Carpenter once said the hardest shot to do is twelve men sitting around a table doing dialogue. If those characters happened to be Cassius Clay, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X though, the shot could almost compose itself. Almost.
Based on the 2003 play (also a debut) by Kemp Powers (who penned the screenplay), King's film takes place on the night that Clay (Eli Goree) defeated Sonny Liston to become the Heavyweight champion, even if he may have been facing an even bigger challenge ahead. Brought together by his friend and mentor, Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Cassius was joined by fellow friends, Sam (Leslie Odom Jr.) and Jim (Aldis Hodge) in a Miami hotel room to make the announcement that he was joining the Nation of Islam. What transpires is a series of frank conversations about what that may mean to Cassius as not just a lifestyle choice but as the icon needed by a black community undergoing a turbulent period of change. Each of these men is a representation of that and each struggle with the balance of doing right by themselves in a world that normally doesn't embrace such success and inspiring those (and each other) to be the shining light necessary to climb the next step in their evolution.
That may be a lot for even Atlas in a single night, but King helps bring the passion of these talks directly to all of us as if we were in the front row of that theater. No moment feels too long nor any point too overemphasized. The characters may be preaching but the counter-preach rings just as true because it is delivered with a truth in these actors faces. Hodge gets many of the best laughs simply from the incredulous looks of disbelief he uses as a balance of practicality over seemingly unsolvable stalemates. Goree feels a lot more like the real man than the version Will Smith did for Michael Mann and make the doubts of a very public cocksure icon feel so human. Odom's Sam Cooke has maybe the biggest arc amongst the group and naturally this incredible talent gets to sell with his voice and ultimately the heart he has to tear open. Then if you thought (and who's not to say rightfully) think that Denzel Washington delivered the definitive screen presentation of the civil rights leader, you will be forced to reconsider that as Kingsley Ben-Adir has to do in much over the course of a single night as Spike Lee got to explore in three hours and a lifetime. One Night in Miami is one of the most exhilarating experiences I've had watching a movie all year. Not in a cinema. Not in a theater. But shaken up in the comfort of my own home. Words matter.
PIECES OF A WOMAN
Pieces of a Woman's reputation well-preceded it's showing from Toronto thanks to its premiere in Venice. The word of an excruciatingly tense birthing sequence was already starting to rank in the conversations of Gaspar Noe's more gut-churning scenes. How that would ultimately fit into the narrative is was dependent on not just its outcome but where it was actually placed. In this case the very beginning. So we're set up one way or another of how this particular event is going to effect the marriage of the couple at its center. There's no need for spoiler alerts here unless it is one to say that Kornel Mundruczo would have had a pretty powerful short film on his hands. Beyond that the cracks are apparent in more than just the relationship.
The film indeed opens with a happy couple. Martha (Vanessa Kirby) is ready to pop with their first child and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) is her working class partner who knows just how to make her laugh. They have decided on a home birth involving midwife Eva (Molly Parker), a last-minute replacement for their choice. In a single shot we are taken through a difficult process which ends in such a horrific manner that viewers would be excused if that was the end of their experience. We flash ahead to the aftermath where Martha tries to abscond her emotions through work. Sean's funk leads him to some questionable decisions in-and-out of the house. And there is a pending legal case against Eva over her handling of the birth; a subplot dangled over the domestic trouble which leaves us with too many questions before exploding in the most ridiculous conclusion possible.
Munduczo (whose White God I like very much) continues to stick with his slow burn towards into tension throughout the remaining 90 minutes. LaBeouf's performance begins with genuine empathy but soon takes his early seething resentment of his mother-in-law (Ellen Burstyn in full know-better mode) into a mask of almost brutish thuggery. When that manifests in what amounts to a one-take rape of his wife, Munduczo appears to be trying to one-up the shock threshold he's already established. When Kirby finally manifests her feelings externally it comes during insufferable dinner party conversation about the origins of the White Stripes which is enough to make anyone in the audience reveal their darkest anxieties in search of an Oscar clip. All that is nothing compared to the courtroom scene where any rational person should already be on the side of the midwife given what little evidence there is that she did anything wrong. But when one character gets to upend the entire judicial system with a speech it feels as if it belongs in one of those movie-within-a-movie parodies. Pieces of a Woman may defend itself that it doesn't know how to deal with such a tragedy anymore than those forced to live through it. So why must we suffer?
SHADOW IN THE CLOUD
The Midnight Madness selection from Toronto was unfortunately shrunk from 10 films to just three this year. Even with wavering enthusiasm from the usual crowd, I've always been a fan of the eclectic programming over the years. Though many who frequent will say the crazier the better, Roseanne Liang's Shadow in the Cloud may boast the simplest premise amongst the three selections this year - and yet may also be the craziest. You can always commend a filmmaker for simply going for it and powering through the most ridiculous of concepts by sheer means of commitment. Add to that a game and memorable heroine and you definitely have my choice for a crazy fun Midnighter.
It's WWII. A pilot played by Chloe Grace Moretz has orders to board a B-17 bomber with a top secret package for delivery. Almost the entire crew is unwelcoming, barraging her with mysognistic taunts and forcing her to stay in the gun turret below. Much of the film is confined to that turret while she continues to listen to her fellow travelers over the radio. And then she sees something on the wing of the plane. The cartoon prologue may have been inspired directly by Dick Miller's Murray Futterman, but the premise certainly rings Joe Dante-adjacent to the classic Nightmare at 20,000 Feet episode of The Twilight Zone. Hey, it's only a ripoff if you don't put a nice spin into it and Shadow in the Cloud does just enough before going for broke in a way that would have leveled the roof off the Ryerson in Toronto.
Moretz is very good here and has to carry half the film with tight close-ups alone. It may seem a little gimmicky but it works by throwing in a little direct monster action along the way. And then it gets really nuts. If you have made it this far and begin smacking your head out of disbelief this movie never had a chance with you anyway. Especially when there is a sequence (at least in concept more than flawless execution) that would make The Walk and The Aeronauts blush. The payoff of which admittedly made me laugh out loud just at the gusto of the filmmakers going for it. The climax of the film delivers precisely what the film and the audience deserve by then and it's one of just two moments of the virtual fest I've seen that I wish I could have witnessed in person. (The other being the "Boston" scene in One Night in Miami.) A big screen experience could only have enhanced its pleasures, but when a film works on you it'll work in any format.
THE WAY I SEE IT
Remember normalcy in this country? It wasn't so long ago even if it feels like a lifetime. We learned about B.C. and A.D. in school but our kids should be forced to learn B.T., A.T. and D.T.; the Before, After and During of the Trump administration that comes with its own perfect acronym. We are certain to be inundated with documentaries over the next few years laying out the turmoil, lies and corruption of the Orange Bastard and his Sycophants (for anyone looking for a band name) but thankfully Dawn Porter's film isn't one. The work of White House photographer Pete Souza does come with its fair share of newfound "shade" but it is the calm sereneness of the still images that make this a soothing and surprisingly emotional experience.
After serving for years as the photog for the Reagan administration, Souza was brought back by Barack Obama for another eight years and we become witness to a pair of legacies being born. Framed in part with Souza's live talks with audiences after his second stint following around our President, he discusses not just the moments which help frame Obama's time but the essence of a photograph itself. What does it mean to capture the right angle or how to choose the best image in a cascade of film? Souza's role is not there to be a propagandist but to document both the public and private interactions of our nation's leader. That is made abundantly clear when he shows the difference between a genuine moment and one that was clearly staged for the camera. Guess who the latter involved?
Souza breaking rank with the code of a silent observer shows you how far things have digressed since Jan. 20, 2017. Sure it brought him a little additional fame and his clever tweets directed at contradicting the nonsense out of the Orange House are shown here to humorous and, in its own way, patriotic effect. His photos are going to outlive all of his through history and with Obama as his subject it is going to reflect as both a lasting document and a necessary counterbalance. So often we're able to find one of Trump's contradictory statements and comment that "there's always a tweet." The Way I See It shows us to no surprise that there is always a photo to remind us of a President who naturally reflected leadership and humanity. Maybe that memory alone is enough to get us through November 2020. If The Way I See It accomplishes anything for those who only want to view it through the murky lens of partisanship it's that it paints a series of portraits of an America we hope is real, hope is ours and hope we can someday see in motion.
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originally posted: 09/18/20 19:51:23
last updated: 10/09/20 19:53:02