By Anne Brodie
The televised and socially distanced TIFF Tribute Awards this week were incredibly moving, alone and together. Winners thanked TIFF for their memories of the festival over the decades and their hopes of coming again, they thanked front line workers around the world and called for compassion and understanding in hard times. Mira Nair and Terence Blanchard led the celebration followed by a beaming Chloé Zhao, Tracy Deer who wept honouring her mother, Sir Anthony Hopkins had a twinkle in his eye and the magnificent Kate Winslet delivered a bracing speech. The star of the haunting Ammonite spoke powerfully about the work, film, the pandemic and called for a fairer world. Winslet’s deep performance in Ammonite showcases her versatility and the kind of simplicity that kicks you in the gut. Her authenticity and naturalism expressed so much that her character was unable to say. Stunning performance and film. Congrats, winners.
Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland starring Frances McDormand will likely find both women highly placed come awards season, Zhao as the first Asian American woman ever to be nominated for Best Director and McDormand, certainly a strong Best Actress nominee for her work as a “houseless” wanderer in the American heartland. McDormand is a windburned loner relishing her days in nature, wandering the deserts, choosing not to be a part of society. McDormand lives a nomadic life in her “Vanguard” that she’s proudly personalized, working seasonally at an Amazon centre, willingly adrift from “society” and very much her own person. She doesn’t mind campfires with fellow nomads (real nomads playing themselves) and when a man (David Strathairn) falls for her, she momentarily loses her equilibrium. Nomadland is indescribably enveloping, you feel you are with her, putting up with her moods and enjoying her laughter, as rare as it is ad her stillness. Perfection, joy, poetry, nature. Stirred up major love at TIFF, mine included.
Another strong TIFF entry, I Care a Lot slams capitalism, and how. Rosamund Pike plays a shark, a legal guardian who strips elderly clients of their possessions, agency, and souls for money. And she’s not breaking any laws. Pike is perfection; so wicked, so sure of herself and uncaring as she destroys an old woman’s (Dianne Wiest) life. It’s an odd sensation to wish for the destruction of a lead, and a strong female lead at that. Radical. I hope it wakes people up to issues of guardianship and other elder services. We have witnessed over the past few years that a lack of empathy kills.
The uplifting documentary The Way I See It revisits the heady days of the Obama administration through the eyes of official photographer Pete Souza. It was Souza’s second season on Pennsylvania Avenue having held the position under Ronald Reagan. He notes Reagan photos were strictly posed, while Obama gave his authentic self, allowing Souza to capture his connections with people, his empathy, love, decency, and intelligence. The Obama photos are moving and joyous, sad, and exhausted, but always real. As are the family photos and shots of him visiting families who lost loved ones in war, natural and man-made disasters.
Michelle Latimer’s quasi-documentary Inconvenient Indian, adapted from Thomas King’s book, traces the ways in which indigenous peoples of North America have suffered at the hands of white settlers for hundreds of years. It reveals the soul-killing results of Colonialism, the ways white society has created its own, false mythology about Indian life, history and culture, with corrections and commentary from leading native thinkers. Uses archival footage, re-enactments, artwork, and interviews to great effect. Latimer says if watching makes viewers uncomfortable, that’s her intention.
The sad story of the Oka standoff between police and indigenous people defending their burial grounds against golf club encroachment is seared into Canadian memory. In Beans, filmmaker Tracey Deer looks at the struggle through the eyes of 12-year-old Beans (Kiawentiio). She’s a happy go lucky kid, smiling and open and about to enter a prestigious Academy. Tensions rise between natives and police; white society’s racist attacks come as a horrendous shock to her and mark the end of Bean’s innocence. She acts out. Her mother asks her to show respect but she doesn’t know why her community isn’t being respected. It’s profoundly sad but reminds us of the political, law enforcement, racist and social stain on Canadian history. Kiawentiio is a gem. On VOD now.
The family drama Concrete Cowboy, inspired by the real-life events in Philadelphia gets a bit emotional; but at its heart, a nice redemption story. A vulnerable 15-year-old boy (Caleb McLaughlin) plays Cole, whose mother has had enough of his bad behaviour. She drives him to his long-estranged father’s place in Philly and dumps him. His father (Idris Elba) is down at the stables with the horses and his cowboy friends, part of Philly’s longstanding history of urban Black cowboy culture. It’s a stirring sight, kitted out cowboys riding horses as they’ve done for a hundred years and sitting around campfires. Cole’s grappling with his father issues and having a tough go of it, but a difficult horse takes to him and he starts to soften. His drug-running cousin Smush distracts him as his father tries to keep him on the straight and narrow, Teary and as mentioned a tad too far, but in all an appealing family film. Co-written and directed by Ricky Staub and co-starring Method Man, Lorraine Toussaint, and real-life cowboys.
In the final stretch of TIFF is Another Round with the mighty Danish actor Mad Mikkelsen as Martin, a high school teacher disrespected by his students, disconnected from his family and feels sad and anxious. He and three colleagues decide to check a theory that they’ll be happy and successful if they increase their daily alcohol blood level. For a while it works. Drinking on the job makes him more relaxed and appealing to his students, and he reconnects with his wife and children. But naturally the experiment lets them in for a world of stumblebum humiliation and hurt. Interesting story, a well-made made afterschool cautionary film for grownups that drives a message home with a strange elegance. Mikkelsen, a former jazz ballet dancer, lifts it higher. From writer director Thomas Vinterberg.
Heads up, Fargo fans! Noah Hawley’s superior crime mystery season four is right around the corner. Hawley takes us back in time to discover the sprawling new world roots of the Black, Irish and Italian gangs that ruled Kansas City, and the American east, roots that had already set in Fargo and Winnipeg. Chris Rock, Glynn Turman, Jessie Buckley, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Whishaw, Jason Schwartzman who we saw in a prior season, Amber Midthunder and Jack Huston star. On FX Sept. 27th
Noomi Rapace stars as a Hungarian World War II bride of an American southerner in The Secrets We Keep. She’s sitting in a New Orleans park with her little girl when to her horror, she notices a man (Joel Kinnaman) she recognises as the Nazi captain who raped her and killed her sister. She reacts by instinct, kidnaps and tortures him in her basement. Her husband disapproves but goes along, even though she’d lied to him about her background and manufactured a new identity. The soldier begs for his life and won’t say a word because he is in an illegal marriage and he could be deported. Memories come flooding back as she and her husband mete out punishment in her primal thirst for vegeance she believes will heal her broken soul, but we all know how that goes. In select Theatres Sept. 15 and on VOD Oct 16.
Sean Durkin’s The Nest stars Jude Law as an 80’s entrepreneur who burns through jobs and now he’s telling his wife played by Fargo’s Carrie Coon that they’re moving from to the UK for a business opportunity he thinks will click. She’s heard it all before, and reluctantly goes with, along with their children and her beloved horse. Rory can talk his way into deals but rarely follows through. They’re living large, well beyond their means; she discovers they’re in a precarious position, broke and living in a stately home with stables they cannot afford, and things begin to collapse. The children pick up on the strife and no one feels safe. It’s a tough, honest film that never backs away from the harsh realities of a crumbling marriage and family. Law nicely manages his character’s slow reveal and denial, and Coon surprises with her hate-fueled response. Chilly, effective and well-made. In select theatres and VOD.
Janelle Monáe stars in Antebellum now on PVOD and it’s a wild one. She’s Eden a slave working cotton fields during the Civil War somewhere in Louisiana. She’s an easy target for the plantation owner’s sadistic wife (Jena Malone but she’ waitng for the moment to gather the others and run. She covers every detail, like figuring out which boards on her floor creak. She;s beiung raped by an officer while the master (Jack Huston) takes pleasure in hurting her. A twist arrives about 40 minutes in, I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it’s an insane ride as Eden finds herself in an extremely dangerous position whichever way she looks.
Ryan Murphy’s giddy, glossy new series Ratched on Netflix predates Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Milos Forman’s 1975 film adaptation, concerning the character of Nurse Mildred Ratched. Louise Fletcher played her with an unwavering, steely cruelty rarely shown in women in film then, a tormenter of the mental patients in her charge. Ratched is the origins story and it’s a corker; raunchy, colourful, horrific, its drips with bile and trauma as she poisons everything she touches. Sarah Paulson gnaws down hard on the role, as dirty dark secrets are violently exposed, and evil plans are hatched between people with an assortment of mental, sexual, moral, and pragmatic energies. And what a cast! Paulson, a Murphy favourite is supported by Sharon Stone and her monkey, Finn Wittrock, Sophie Okonedo, Cynthia Nixon, and Jon Jon Briones. And as expected – Murphy’s signature visuals and art direction flair at peak Murphy. Glorious fifties /sixties Technorama, nutty, brilliant and FYI gory.
Netflix’ The Devil All the Time is a backwoods epic of madness and murder set in the isolated rural communities of Knockemstiff, Ohio and Meade, Ohio, a four-hour car ride apart. The residents are linked through generational evil, as we follow young Arvin (Tom Holland) in his traumatic journey to adulthood. He witnessed atrocities, violence, murder, destruction, and rampant cruelty as a way of life, as folks struggled to survive without money and education. Robert Pattinson is a dangerous preacher new to town, Jason Clarke, and Riley Keough a murderous, sex-crazed couple on the road trip from hell, Sebastian Sam is the definition of a corrupt cop. Bill Skarsgård, Mia Wasikowska, Harry Melling, Haley Bennett and Pokey LaFarge also star in this adaptation of Donald Ray Pollock’s award-winning novel. Pollock narrates in his slow, vaguely unsettling southern drawl (that Pattinson masters) with the screenplay and direction of Antonio Campos. Strange to hear southern old-time spirituals and gospel songs set against pure evil. It’s fast-paced, and if you can stomach the violence, a wild, trippy journey.
Kenny Ortega’s the music and dance force behind Netflix’ charming new Young Adult series Julie and the Phantoms. It sounds morbid but it is anything but. A boy band that died in the 80s from hot dog poisoning comes back to life to become the Phantoms, the backup band for an aspiring high school singer (played by the talented Madison Reyes in her first acting role). The boys (Charlie Gillespie, Owen Joyner, and Jeremy Shada) help her and together the band reaches new heights. A ghostly American Dream. The script is smart, and it’s appealing for all ages and touches on important issues. Julie’s Mom recently passed, Joyner’s gay character finds someone he likes (Booboo Stewart) but he’s a ghost, and Julie’s dad’s dealing with raising her alone. The music’s terrific (thanks, Ortega). A 15-song soundtrack accompanies the first season, sung and performed entirely by Reyes, Gillespie, and castmates.