Sunday 24 September 2023

Cinéfest 2023 Highlights

The Sudbury International Film Festival (Cinéfest) is one of the largest in Canada. I was able to watch 14 films this year with my close friend, Terri, who lives in Sudbury. An amazing nine of the films we chose to watch were written and directed by women and half of the films had a woman protagonist. Here are brief comments on my six favourite films at the festival.

1. The Teachers’ Lounge, a German film directed and co-written by Ilker Çatak, concerns a grade-six teacher (Carla Nowak, played perfectly by Leonie Benesch) who discovers the identity of the person responsible for a series of thefts. When she confronts the person, Carla’s life takes a dramatic turn as the school she loves becomes a nightmare. I found The Teachers’ Lounge gripping and believable from the first minute to the last, with excellent performances from both children and adults and a brilliant, haunting and thought-provoking screenplay. ****

2. Anatomy of a Fall, a french film written and directed by Justine Triet, is a courtroom drama about a German writer (Sandra, played brilliantly by Sandra Hüller) accused of murdering her French husband in their house in the French Alps. The long courtroom scenes are riveting. A classic. ****

3. One Summer, a French-Canadian comedy-drama from Louise Archambault, who made my favourite film of the year in 2019 (And the Birds Rained Down). A parish priest in Montreal (played by Patrice Robitaille), who has been serving the homeless for years, takes a group of homeless people on a summer retreat in eastern Quebec. Trouble ensues. A beautiful humanizing film about community and relationships. ***+ - ****

4. Femme, an incredibly intense and gripping drama about what happens when a gay man who was viciously attacked meets one of his attackers in a gay sauna three months later. Set in London, this British film was written and directed by Sam H. freeman and Ng Choon Ping and features stunning performances by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and George Mackay. ***+ - ****

5. The Old Oak, the latest and possibly final film from the writer/director team of Paul Laverty and Ken Loach, who made my favourite films of the year in 2016 (I, Daniel Blake) and 2020 (Sorry We Missed You). This film about a pub owner (played by Dave Turner) in northern England who befriends Syrian refugees, to the consternation of many of his regulars, is not as good as their last two films (too many loose ends) but is another humanizing and empathetic attempt to make the world a better place. ***+ - ****

6. Hey, Victor! is an absolutely hilarious Canadian Indigenous mockumentary directed by Cody Lightning, who plays himself. Having played the young Victor in the wonderful Indigenous film Smoke Signals (back in 1998), and since fallen on hard times, Cody wants to make a sequel, bringing in all the actors of the first film. A little over-the-top at times, but I haven't laughed this much in a long time. ***+

Monday 21 August 2023

The Trans Mountain Pipeline: A Crime Against Humanity

As wildfires force thousands out of their homes just a short distance away, one of the most heinous crimes imaginable (namely contributing to the destruction of all life on our planet) is being committed by our Canadian government (both the PCs and the Liberals are responsible) - expanding the deadly Trans Mountain Pipeline. A 24-year-old Indigenous woman who was arrested and sentenced to three weeks in jail for peacefully protesting this dreadful crime has written an excellent article, for which I am not permitted to provide a link on Facebook.

How is it possible that the government of a country like Canada is still actively promoting our reliance on fossil fuels at a time when the world desperately needs to end such reliance? I don’t know the answer but we need to make our voices heard. Maya Laframboise is doing her part. Here’s the link to her article:

And here’s the link to the excellent 2018 documentary Directly Affected: Pipeline Under Pressure. The film is a bit dated now but still relevant.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Barbenheimer Part 2 (Oppenheimer) - Additional Thoughts from Vic

I agree with most of Walter’s review and will try not to repeat very much.

Let me say at the outset that despite the negative comments that follow, and the flaws that Walter identified, I consider Oppenheimer to be a four-star classic, probably the best film Christopher Nolan has made and destined to win a fair number of Academy Awards. It will surely be in my top ten list.

Given that Nolan is considered one of the finest directors of our time, it is high praise indeed to suggest that Oppenheimer may be his best film. However, this achievement must be tempered with the fact that, for me, Nolan’s filmmaking quirks have caused considerable difficulty in evaluating his previous films. Years ago, I devoted a long blog post to this. Walter mentioned the issue with sound, something that ruined any chance of me enjoying Nolans’s last film, Tenet. In the post I mentioned, I focus on the incredibly contrived nature of some of Nolan’s plots, a flaw that undermines some of his previous and best films, including The Dark Knight, Inception and Interstellar. One could argue that Oppenheimer also suffers from this flaw, but in a film based on actual events it didn’t bother me at all. On the contrary, the fact that Oppenheimer is meticulously structured from beginning to end is one of its highlights.

One of Nolan’s greatest flaws (IMO) is ironically highlighted by the Barbenheimer phenomenon, namely the role of women in his films. Women rarely play significant roles in Nolan films. When women do have a role, they almost always suffer from a lack of sufficient character development. Oppenheimer is an example of this. The roles of Kitty Oppenheimer and Jean Tatlock (played wonderfully by Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh) are presented as key contributors to Robert Oppenheimer’s character development and to understanding who Oppenheimer is. But there is precious little character development when it comes to understanding who these women are. I am grateful that these two women figure as prominently as they do in a Nolan film - for me they are a highlight of the film - but it would have been a better film if we had gotten to know who Kitty and Jean were, not just how they impacted Oppenheimer’s life. 

Another feature of Nolan films that may be a specific problem for me alone is the difficulty I have emotionally connecting to the characters and to the films overall. Oppenheimer is another an example of this. I can sense that Nolan is trying hard to make that connection and the pieces seem to be there (we are often given a clear sense of what is going on in Oppenheimer’s tortured mind), but something is always missing for me (something that can be found in most of my favourite films of any given year).

Some critics have complained that while the events in Oppenheimer are accurately portrayed, Oppenheimer as a person is treated more sympathetically than he deserves (i.e. a number of his character flaws are minimized or omitted entirely). I don’t argue that it wouldn’t be nice to know everything about the man, but I certainly don’t expect it from a film like this. 

Another complaint I have read is the way Nolan avoided showing the Japanese victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When Nolan was asked about this, he seemed genuinely surprised, replying that he thought what he did instead (namely Oppenheimer’s graphic haunted visions) was more effective in conveying the horror Oppenheimer was experiencing as he faced the consequences of his successful work. I’m not saying I am entirely satisfied with how Nolan presented the moral questions and ethical dilemmas in the film, but I was watching for this and felt this was handled better than I might have expected. In no way (IMO) was Oppenheimer (the film) supporting the myth of redemptive violence. If anything, it presented a number of challenges to this myth, though, as Walter writes, the film doesn’t offer easy answers.

The plot structure, the writing, the cinematography, the music, the direction: all of these are close to flawless - a magnificent achievement overall. But the highlight for me was none of these; it was the acting (which Walter also highlighted). Oppenheimer has one of the best collections of flawless acting I have ever seen. Critics talk a lot about Robert Downey Jr.’s masterful performance as Strauss, and have already suggested he is a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor. Downey Jr. is indeed amazing, and at this point in the year he would get my vote as well, but Oppenheimer would not be the masterpiece that it is without, first and foremost, the flawless performance of Cillian Murphy, who was forced to lose considerable weight to play this role. Time and again I would look into Murphy’s expressive face and read exactly what he was thinking. He also deserves an Oscar. 

But there are many other wonderful performances to highlight: I have already mentioned Blunt and Pugh. Matt Damon is terrific as the general who gets Oppenheimer involved. Jason Clarke is perfect as Roger Robb, as is Benny Safdie as Edward Teller and Alden Ehrenreich as Strauss’s aide. In smaller roles, Tom Conti is fun to watch as Albert Einstein, Rami Malek effective as David Hill, Kenneth Branagh an amusing Niels Bohr, and the always-amazing Gary Oldman is perfect as Harry Truman. I could go on - such a joy to watch so many actors contributing to Nolan’s masterpiece. Oppenheimer gets an easy ****.

And now a comment about the Barbenheimer phenomenon. I will just add to what Walter wrote by noting that Barbie and Oppenheimer continue to do insanely well at the box office weeks after their release, breaking all kinds of records. As someone who, despite being a cinephile, has grown cynical of Hollywood, I can only be thrilled by the Barbenheimer phenomenon, whatever the cause, because these two films are thoughtful, discussion-worthy films with virtually no action. This is definitely NOT typical of summer blockbusters and I can only hope that Hollywood writers and filmmakers are taking note of this.

Sunday 13 August 2023

Barbenheimer - Part 2 (Oppenheimer)

 So, first of all, let me just comment on the weirdness of the whole “Barbenheimer” concept. What a fascinating study of what catches people’s interest. And probably some intuitive marketing brilliance by someone.

Because the movies are, of course, poles apart. I suppose one key element in common is that they are both far more creative film-making than the sad tiredness of ever more superhero movies or other franchises.

But let’s get to Oppenheimer. This movie is serious and intense and cerebral (and long!); it’s so hard to understand how it became so popular.

Don’t get me wrong; it is excellent. The acting, by a large cast, is amazing. It doesn’t offer easy answers – or even particularly clear questions. Is the moral question about making/dropping a bomb? Or about the scientist's responsibility for technology? Or about sharing scientific knowledge internationally – even with enemies? Are we trying to think about the conflicted psychology of Oppenheimer or of a nation at war (WW II or the Cold War) with mind-numbing new Promethean powers? I did not know that three hours of this kind of film would attract such a large audience!

But for those interested in the complexities, it holds your interest and makes you think. 

 I need also to make a comment on the fascinating, yet small, role of Einstein in this film. I am curious whether it worked for everyone, but, at least on first watching, it really worked for me. It strikes me that there’s a bit of Gandalf in it or something – a wise and sad figure on the edge of the story.

I ask myself whether I would have liked it more or less if there were a clearer sense of what it was about. Or whether I would have preferred less focus on Oppenheimer’s nemesis in the latter parts of the film. Not sure. I think I will need to watch it again to have a better idea of those questions.

But when I see it again, I’ll watch it with subtitles because: Christopher Nolan. What the heck, Nolan?! Why can’t you learn how to manage sound in your films. Tenet was virtually useless because the sound editing was so bad, and so much dialogue was lost. And many of his films (Interstellar, Dunkirk are other examples) have way too much overwhelming sound, including this one. My vow at present is never to see another Nolan film in the theatre but to wait until it streams so that I can turn the volume down and put the subtitles on. I may forget.

That rant aside, the film is still not perfect, but I think I’d give it **** (but still only recommending it to those who would like a serious, intense, cerebral three-hour film).

Friday 11 August 2023

Barbenheimer Part 1 (Barbie): Vic and Monika Weigh In

As you have seen (below), Walter and I went to see
Barbenheimer last week, taking the opportunity to watch the two films back-to-back in the largest, loudest and most comfortable theatre in the province (I think). I started writing my reviews of the two films a week ago but got distracted by other things and Walter posted his review of Barbie first. I will try not to repeat too much of what he has already said. 

An important factor in our reviewing of Barbie is something Walter already touched on, namely that Walter and I in no way represent the target demographic. Our shared frustration that Sasha’s initial challenge of the entire history of Barbie was not pursued further demonstrates this fact. Walter and I might have been hoping for the kind of critical social commentary we have come to expect from writers Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach and thus found that Barbie was too soft/gentle in its critical analysis. This also applies to Gloria’s key speech on the treatment of women in our patriarchal society, a speech we thought was great but didn’t go far enough (“so tame”, as Walter says). But the film wasn’t made for us, so the real question is what the target audience expected and thought about these scenes. 

Fortunately, one of our film-buff friends, a former student of ours at St. Stephen’s University and a regular at our weekly movie night for years, does represent a key target demographic (young women) and was willing to share her reflections on Barbie with me (with permission to share them here). Monika adored this film and has already watched it a number of times. I will begin my review with her thoughts because I consider them more relevant than my own. Where I quote Monika directly, I will use italics.

To get a feel for how differently Monika viewed Barbie, I will quote her response to my concerns about the scenes featuring Sasha and Gloria (daughter and mother: terrific central characters played very well by Ariana Greenblatt and America Ferrera) and her thoughts about the target demographic: Gloria's speech was absolutely spellbinding to me. I agree that it could have gone further and pushed more, but just to have the struggles that she mentioned recognized as something impossible and heavy that is placed on every woman and which we all understand, somehow, that we're not supposed to talk about? Well. I cried. And it felt so validating and empowering. I KNOW this movie didn't push ideas of feminism very far (at all). Anyone who's read any feminist theory will be well aware that these are the absolute basics, but then again a lot of the audience for this movie will not be familiar with it. We have to start from the bottom, and there are a LOT of people who are unfamiliar with these basic ideas. And truly, seeing something like this on a big screen with a big crowd was unexpectedly emotional. It's real! These struggles that we've had for years are REAL! Other people know about them! I can't describe to you the euphoria.

I think that what Greta was exploring is the idea that Barbie's impact on the world wasn't her (Barbie’s) choice, and it also wasn't the intent of Barbie’s creator. There is a time and place for movies with a Sasha point of view, but I am SO thankful that this didn't turn out to be one of them. Barbie’s intended audience is not someone with a phd in gender studies. This is for ten-year-olds who are getting bullied at school, and the inner children of girls who were forced to grow up much more quickly than boys (and let go of their dreams, and try to fit in, and not be too much but not be too little). It has more than enough to get young girls asking questions, and also to maybe make a few men (who might not otherwise have given it any thought) think that there might be more to the female experience than they realize. I understand wanting the film to go deeper (and I share that desire) but I am SO happy with what it did. Feminism 101 is clearly needed with the state of the world today. 

I think Barbie has a LOT of punch if you've ever been in Barbie's high-heeled, slippery shoes (which a lot of us have, metaphorically speaking). The part where she's in the real world for the first time and being catcalled and she's so confused - that happened to me. That happened to my best friend. That has happened to almost every woman I know, because there comes a day (and you're not sure what changed) when all of a sudden the world, which seemed like a great place to run around  in the woods and have sleepovers and practice lipstick application, is suddenly horrifyingly unsafe. Everything Barbie did and said and saw resonated so deeply that I walked away feeling deeply seen and known and wholly, completely accepted and okay in a way that very few movies have made me feel.

After reading Monika’s reflections, I am more than ready to admit that I can’t provide a reliable review of Barbie unless I make a serious effort to view the film from the perspective of a girl or young woman, for whom the doll and film mean something so much more personal than they could possibly mean for me (for my second viewing of Barbie, I will make at least an attempt to do this). Nevertheless, I will offer a few of my own reflections on Barbie.

First, Barbie is full of magical movie moments that make it an absolute joy to watch. Those magic moments include the speeches mentioned above, the Mattel boardroom scene, an hilarious comment by the narrator and Walter’s least-favourite scene in the film (which was my favourite scene in the film, no doubt indicating a key way in which Walter and I differ in our film tastes), namely Ken’s song and dance number. I think that scene is brilliant for a number of reasons, though I can’t say why without spoilers. In general, however, the scenes featuring men are among my least-favourite in the film. This does not include the character of Allan (a perfectly-cast Michael Cera) but it does include the Kens and the board of Mattel. For me, the men represent a form of silliness I rarely appreciate. Monika suggests the Kens may be disrupting my comfort because I’m used to seeing men stuffed full of complexity and depth and greatness and PURPOSE and most of the men in this film didn't have a lot of any of those things. Perhaps there is something to that, though I often wish men were more frequently shown to be the way she describes. 

Technically, Barbie is a very well-made film, as I would expect from Gerwig, whose last two films were in my top ten lists. Margot Robbie is perfectly cast and brilliant throughout. Ryan Gosling is also excellent and Kate McKinnon is terrific as Weird Barbie. The cinematography is strong (I was not bothered by all the pink) and the music is great. 

But the most wonderful thing about Barbie is the sum of its parts. Here I am referring to the tone/atmosphere and message of the film, in which the dehumanization of both women and men is satirized throughout in a way that respects all of the characters. There’s even a unique challenge to the myth of redemptive violence. In other words, as Walter says, Barbie’s heart is in the right place (i.e. it attempts to help make the world a better place). The word “stereotypical” is mentioned frequently in the film, with the obvious aim being to challenge stereotypes. Barbie provides a joyful and inclusive alternative vision of a world in which neither men nor women are treated as objects. For this reason, I can only applaud its popularity among the young and argue against anyone who claims Gerwig has ‘sold out’ by making a film for Mattel (and Warner Bros.). As Walter says, patriarchy still thrives. I welcome any film which challenges that false vision of the world. 

For me, Barbie is an important, thoroughly-entertaining film that gets a solid ***+. A second viewing (coming soon) may send it into top-ten country. 

Thursday 10 August 2023

Barbenheimer - Part 1 (Barbie)

I caved. I went to see Barbenheimer (a double-header of Barbie followed by Oppenheimer). I had always planned to see Oppenheimer, but the insane (and insanely early) amount of marketing for the Barbie movie, fitting as that might be, had made me intend to avoid giving any of my dollars to Mattel (and others). But I caved, knowing that I would undoubtedly have mixed feelings about the film. 

And I did. The aesthetics of the movie, as expected, were so personally distasteful that they made me look forward to the grimmer realities of Oppenheimer coming up. But this was what I expected. 

The ranting of some about the movie's "woke agenda" is, of course, correct. The movie clearly intends to subvert some themes associated with Barbie. But that agenda is, for the most part, so tame, it's disappointing that some still find it threatening. It's main target seems to be a stale and obsolete patriarchy, which still thrives, and its subversion still needs to make its contribution. I wish it success. 

One of the highlights of the movie is a speech by Sasha, a cynical teen, relatively early in the movie. Sadly the film's failure - to my knowledge - to integrate that in a more satisfying way just underlines that they weren't making the movie for me. (I suspect that it would have been impossible to make it for me and for Mattel at the same time - though Mattel was willing to be made fun of at one level.) 

Overall, the film had fun, creative moments that made it watchable, and Margot Robbie was magnificent and deserves the praise. It also had many disappointments and unfilled potentials to go deeper. But, again, it was not made for me. Ultimately, the only way for an older man like myself to assess a film like Barbie is to sit back patiently and observe it's (huge!) viewership and the possibility of an impact that it might make on cultural conversations and on individuals and families. May it be a good one. 

And don't even get me started on the men's dance number... (but I'll still give the film *** for its heart in the right place).

Monday 6 February 2023

Walter's Top Film of 2022 (and a few more)

Before I saw what would become my favourite movie for 2022 (though technically it was only released in Canada in 2023), I’d already decided that I wouldn’t do a “Top Ten” for 2022. For one thing, I’ve tired of trying to compare apples and oranges, rating vastly different films against each other. Plus, I’ve continued in my cantankerous direction of liking fewer and fewer movies, especially those that are “critically acclaimed.” Hardly any Oscar nominations, for example, are in my collection.

So, I had decided that I would just write about a collection of top recommendations from last year and not rate them against each other at all.

Then I saw Women Talking. I knew relatively early on that this film touched what I look for in a great film in a way that nothing else had come close to this past year. There are reasons why some of this enthusiasm may be unique to me,* but I begin with a few words about this powerful and important film. 

 Women Talking

In many other films that I liked but haven’t loved, it has felt like a director’s decisions have frustrated me. With Women Talking, I am overwhelmed with respect for Sarah Polley’s choices and skill. The decisions to desaturate the film and distance the setting from its (tragically true) historical context in an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia allow the film to gain a universality and surreal tone – befitting the “thought experiment” that Miriam Toews and then Polley imagine – while still grounding it in the real experience of specific women.

In spite of the horrific situation, treated with all the gravity it deserves, the film (and novel) manage to
integrate lighter moments. The very human, relational struggles of the women, with their caring and their stubbornness and their pushing through differences in spite of the time pressure were all transformative. Toews and Polley alike portrayed the women’s faith to be a source of strength instead of mockery, which was a crucial decision for the quality of the film. Oh my goodness, so much could be said about the dialogue on power, on hope, on forgiveness, on relationships, and on the difference between the cruelty of individual men versus the deadening violence of systemic patriarchy.

In the back of my mind during any good film is a constant search for a teachable clip, and I stopped counting after about a dozen. This movie is potent. By focusing the enemy as cultural and systemic, it enables any viewer to be caught up in the universal dilemma: when do we stay and when do we leave? Various leavings and stayings in my own life kept swirling in my mind.

So, without question, Women Talking was my top film.

Now the rest. The first cluster I’ll mention includes some of the best films that I saw this year but were late viewings of films that are usually treated as 2021 films. This includes: The Mauritanian, Mass, CODA, Dune and Drive My Car. All of these are highly recommended and all are incredibly different films. But since they’re a bit old now, I won’t say too much about them. 

For pure movie watching entertainment in 2022, I would single out The Duke. Based on a true story of an art heist by a 60 year old taxi driver, this well crafted and well acted film is clever, funny and gives you some valuable things to think about. If you haven’t seen this yet, grab some friends and have a great evening together watching this (on Prime if you have it).

Another fun film is the The Glass Onion. If you’re like me and loved Knives Out, you were probably eagerly awaiting this next Benoit Blanc adventure. I felt this lacked some of the panache of Knives Out; in its exuberance, it overstepped in places and became silly or garish (just too much, intentional or not). But the skewering of the so-called “disruptors” (who are unveiled as those most embedded in all the evils of our present systems) deserved all the pot-shots, and the theme of smashing things felt awkward yet understandable at the same time. So, a notch down in the franchise but still a recommended watch.

Now, mixing the humour with something more serious, we have Vengeance. Like The Glass Onion, a key theme is waking up the pretentions of a contemporary influencer – this time a wannabe top podcaster. Alternately mocking and re-framing perceptions of Texas, this dark comedy-mystery is fascinating and filled with the energy of B. J. Novak. As details unfold, so is your thinking meant to get rearranged, even if you don’t like the way it is rearranging. Great film for discussion. 

Now, we’re into more serious territory. I didn’t see many documentaries this year, but the best of the few I saw was JFK Revisited. It would take a lot of gullibility to believe that the CIA wasn’t involved in the death of JFK, and this doc adds newly available evidence to deepen the case. (My number one rule for assessing conspiracy theories: if the conspiracy involves the CIA defending American corporations or the military-industrial complex, it’s likely to be true since there is such overwhelming evidence that Dulles and crew were involved in so many violent conspiracies.) If you’re a skeptic, you still may not be convinced, but seriously…

The final two cases are ones that were clearly proven in court. First, Argentina, 1985 tells the story of the civilian court that put the military dictators behind the “disappearances” that plagued Argentina in the 70s on trial. It’s an interesting and well made film that tells a story that few of us know well enough, and I recommend it. In a somewhat similar way, She Said tells a more familiar story – in this case that of the journalists (and the victims who felt able to go public) who broke the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults and harassments. Both of these last two films give portrayals of what true heroes actually look like in a way so-called superhero movies never can. Part of that heroism is determination and quiet courage that is not flashy on screen – but that is exactly the point. So much of what changes the world is not violent battle or even high drama, but people doing their job for the sake of justice. 

I will follow this up with a post in which I try to get my head (and my words) around why quality films like Tár, Banshees of Inisherin, and Triangle of Sadness do not make it in my collection. Stay tuned.


*I think there are some personal reasons why Women Talking, based on a novel by Miriam Toews that I read a couple of years ago, may mean more to me than some viewers. The truly tragic reality (insanely maddening because there are reports of continuing, similar assaults) took place more than ten years ago in an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia. This is a community with the same narrow ethnic roots as my own. In fact, Vic and I “did the math” and figured out that we may well have 3rd cousins among the victims or perpetrators. Fortunately, my more recent ancestors did not make the increasingly isolating and fundamentalist decisions that led that particular community to flee worldliness by travelling from Manitoba to Mexico to Bolivia over 3 generations. Anyway, the point is that these are kind of my people – but I’m surely glad I was not born among them. And my point here is – I know my connections with this film may run deeper than others.

Another personal reason for me to love this film is that I’ve always been drawn to dialogue-rich films that are set (like theatre) in very constrained contexts of time and space. The right dialogue draws me in emotionally in ways that visuals (and certainly “action”) do not.

Finally, the day before watching the film was a challenging and emotional day, and that meant I entered the theatre already vulnerable so that the film had me on the verge of tears most of the way through. That teariness was also because I kept seeing the women on screen and feeling very much aware that they represented real women’s recent experiences in Bolivia and, less directly but quite intentionally, all the so, so many women who experience unthinkable assaults and deprivations.This is an important film; I advocate much watching and discussing.