First Man, the Neil Armstrong story starring Ryan Gosling, is an enormous, painstaking and beautiful film that captures the excitement of the space race in the 60’s. It was important for the US government to get a man on the moon to establish US dominate of space and to beat the Russians who had achieved an impressive space record. The work was set in motion when Armstrong was newcomer to the space program and grew with the programme and finally in 1969, Armstrong, and then Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the lunar surface. It was the result of years of work and lost lives, and personal struggles unlike anyone else would ever know – the pressure to be the first man on the moon. Armstrong’s family life is explored, including the devastating death of his baby daughter from cancer and the intelligent, unblinking and loving support of his wife played by Claire Foy. The vastness of ambition and of space itself highlight the intimacy between the characters in all their glory. The camerawork is predominately hand held with plenty of dizzyingly tight shots, but it rests wide on the incredible vistas of space and earth. Also starring are Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Ciarán Hinds, Ethan Embry, Shea Whigham, Corey Stoll, and Pablo Schreiber as the ambitious mission team. It’s from the Oscar winning and multi-nominated director of La La Land and Whiplash Damien Chazelle, so count on the importance of music and movement in First Man.
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Drew Goddard’s single setting thriller Bad Times at the El Royale is a madhouse meltdown of Biblical proportions adventure with a suitably oddball cast – from Jeff Bridges as the preacher/conman with failing memory, Dakota Johnson who relives her childhood again and again, Chris Hemsworth a charismatic but violent cult leader reminiscent of Charles Manson and Jon Hamm a vacuum salesman/FBI agent. Then there’s Broadway star Cynthia Erivo as the lounge-singing moral centre of the story, Xavier Dolan, a sinister British pop manager and Nick Offerman a wordess character who buries a stash of cash under a room in the Lake Tahoe hotel, and expires on the spot. The titular Bad Times begin when seven strangers descend on The El Royale for their share. The hotel itself is a character with a claustrophobic sixties vibe, a dark history and secret passages. Oh and there’s the baby faced serial killer on the desk. Tough to describe things – far better to see this incredibly vexing and rewarding chunk of Gothic Americana because there is plenty to chew on.
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If ever there was a nerve shredding film experience, it is Free Solo, a documentary portrait of Alex Honnold and his passion for death defying climbs. Directors Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin follow the 31 year old elite athlete – and loner – as he prepares to free climb – no rope, no harnesses, and no help – up the 3200 foot face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. He states that nothing is as important to him as making the next climb, not his girlfriend or his family. His film crew is put through emotionally devastating experiences shooting him tiptoeing from one tiny crevice to the next in a seemingly flat rock face. His stationary cameramen can no longer watch while others put themselves in extremely dangerous situations to shoot all the angles. The El Capitan climb is the dangerous in the extreme and you have to wonder about his psychological state, removed from all but climbing and willing to give his life for it. The cinematography brings the danger to vivid life, as the sun blazes down on Honnold inching his way towards the goal. Seriously not for the faint of heart.
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Filmmaker and Democrat James D. Stern whose brother helped draft President Obama’s Paris Climate Accord, spent the months leading up to the US Presidential election were Hillary Clinton should have been, in the American heartland. He was on a quest to discover what the Silent Majority was thinking, when it was take for granted that Clinton would win. The resulting doc American Chaos reveals what he suspected, that Donald Trump had won them over, thanks to countless rallies in the heartland and his promises to support the “forgotten man” (ha), to speak plainly and say what the people are really thinking. There’s an amusing clip from Trackdown, a 50’s TV show about a snake oil salesman in a wizard costume called Mr. Trump who warns of grave dangers in the world outside and pledges to build a wall, a rallying cry that now resonates as one of the worst of the Trump presidency. Another interesting moment occurs when he watches election results with a Hatfield and McCoy! Stern goes from rally to rally and you can actually see him overcome with fear and disgust as Trump scores and scores. He believes Clinton lost when she called Trump supporters “baskets of deplorables” and laments that “all that climate change work is gone like that, more bullying, more guns, xenophobia” but believes the next candidate will be Trump’s opposite. If you can take it, it’s the real deal.
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It’s hard to sympathise with a woman intent on sabotaging herself in these times of burgeoning female awakening and action, the new feminism. Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as the titular character in Eva Vives’ All About Nina. She’s wounded and suffering and bombs everything around her in apparent efforts to reboot herself. She’s an aspiring comedian in New York who moves to Los Angeles for better opportunities, but in reality. She’s running from New York, a negligible career that literally makes her sick and abusive married boyfriend. Miracle of miracles, she lands an audition for a late night comedy show and meets a man (Common) she can’t shake or use, all the while suffering from intensifying self-destructive tendencies and crippling rage. There is great unease being around this character and at a dramatic key moment reveals why and suddenly the film makes sense. She’s in terrible pain that surfaced with the birth of the #MeToo movement; our hearts go out to her. Nina is a tough woman to like but easy to love.
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New York’s storied Studio 54 left its mark culturally, socially and historically, one of THE celeb mecca of the disco mad seventies. It was only in business for 33 months – 1977 – 1980- but had a lasting influence, set new trends in urban sex drugs and rock and roll era revelry, introduced an infamously unfair admittance policy and made stars of founders Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. The guest list was impossibly A list – Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, everyone who was hot passed through its doors into extravagant hedonism, saw Bianca Jagger enter on horseback for her birthday party, danced in tornados created by wind and snow machines and rubbed elbows with royalty, movie stars, the cultural elite and folks from around the world lured by its glitzy reputation. Matt Tyrnauer looks at the place from a different perspective, via those who were there. The club operated without permits and reveled in living on the edge. Schrager tells the behind the scenes story for the first time, how Studio 54 came to a sudden stop. And it’s a doozy. Tyrnauer’s revelations from people who were part of the scene are nothing short of astonishing.
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Put an ageing racist roué (Jeremy Irons) in a wheelchair, a lovestruck teen, the girl of his dreams and a happy-go-lucky traveler in a car fleeing the FBI after the murder of a rapist and you have Better Start Running, a light hearted, open eyed and surprisingly poetic portrait of a created family. They hit the road to escape the law, but turn the trip into an adventure, a celebration of Middle America. Along the way they visit famous roadside attractions including the Paul Bunyan in Illinois, a life size dinosaur display and eccentric real life characters. The boy and girl experience their first love; the old man learns to toss out all the anger that’s eating him up and the fugitives find what they wanted all along, a new way of living. Plenty of compassion fills this sweet story, as the unbalanced FBI agent bears down and freedom seems unlikely.
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The Romanoffs is the first-ever original anthology series for Amazon Prime Video to roll out on a weekly basis and it is magnificent! I haven’t seen anything on TV or streaming as good since Fargo, but it is night and day in tone and style, akin to the best of European films. Each episode is the story of a person that believes he or she is a direct descendant of the Russian Imperial Romanov royal family, half of whom were murdered in 1917 by Bolsheviks. The rest were sent into exile.
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Imagine for instance, in the episode The Violet Hour, a wealthy, isolated woman (Marte Keller) living in Paris who in 2018 still expects to be treated like a royal. Her nephew played by Aaron Eckhart does the best he can but his girlfriend is plotting to steal the woman’s lavish apartments. A Muslim social worker enters the scene and challenges Madame’s prejudices. The series of eight stories from the producer of Mad Men was shot on location in Europe, the Americas, and the Far East, each with a new cast.
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Future episodes will star Corey Stoll, Noah Wyle, Isabelle Huppert, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Amanda Peet, Jack Huston, Kathryn Hahn, Mary Kay Place, Griffin Dunne, Jon Tenney and Clea DuVall. Executive Producer/Writer Semi Chellas is from Toronto!
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Netflix’ The Haunting of Hill House is a limited series based on Shirley Jackson’s influential ghost story, is available now and it’s worth the binge. Siblings who grew up in a rambling Victorian home are still scarred as adults, by the things they witnessed in Hill House, the family home known as the most haunted place in America. Their father’s death brings them back to the family seat and unwanted memories are stirred up; they imagine they can deal now, but it’s not the case. Kittens found beside their dead mother turn a wee bit demonic, hooded figures dot the foggy property and generational fear sparks personality changes. Plus the sleepless terrors that arise at night. It stars Michiel Huisman, Carla Gugino, Timothy Hutton, Henry Thomas and McKenna Grace.
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Are you ready for the Welsh invasion? It’s true, films and television shows are emerging from the south west corner of the UK bringing fresh perspectives and new faces. Acorn TV presents Bang, a taut seaside village policier starring Catrin Stewart (Dr. Who) as Gina, a highly ambitious and finely tuned instinctive police officer with a knack for unearthing information by sheer force of will, and alienating her icy female boss. The story begins twenty years earlier as a dad and his son surf one cloudy day on the beach at Heddlu. A man approaches and kills the father, leaving his son alone and traumatised. He (Jacob Ifan) grows up being less than he could be, crippled by anxieties. He is the police woman’s brother and he doesn’t want to burden her with the bullies living next door. Or the care of their failing Nanny or his depression while she’s busy out there discovering dead bodies. Every person in the community is connected in some way, everyone knows everyone’s business, and they all have things they want to keep hidden. English and Welsh with subtitles.
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The 19th Annual imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival runs Oct 17 – 21, featuring 153 individual media artworks and 10 dramatic feature films, the most in imagineNATIVE history. 156 indigenous artists representing 109 indigenous nations from around the world are combining forces to bring the most ambitious imagineNATIVE festival ever. There will be works by 156 Indigenous artists representing 109 Indigenous nations from Canada and around the world. The festival opens with Darlene Naponse’s Falls Around Her starring the wonderful Tantoo Cardinal, at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.
The closing night gala on Oct. 21 is Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) directed by Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown, the first Haida language feature film. ImagineNATIVE unveils iNdigital Space on the main floor of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a showcase for VR, games, online platforms and digital web series, plus audio series featuring artists including Janet Rogers and Rosanna Deerchild. Alanis Obomsawin will present a clip from her upcoming documentary, Zacharias Kunuk’s latest work Kivitoo, the first Relaxed Screening for those with special accessibility needs, a Spotlight on Two-Spirit elder, filmmaker and activist Marjorie Beaucage, and much more from Canada, Australia and Greenland. More info at
by @annebrodie, BFCA BTJA AWFJ TFCA FIPRESCI