For the first time in nineteen years, I did not take part in TIFF this year. I considered doing a digital screening, but being there in person is one of the real reasons for doing it at this point. I’m hoping to restart the streak next year and put an asterisk next to 2020.
I’m pretty late getting to this one, seeing as how TIFF wrapped up almost a week ago. After skipping The Obituary Of Tunde Johnson (tiffr) Saturday I took my solitary self to see There’s Something In The Water (imdb | tiffr), the new documentary from Ian Daniel and Ellen Page about how Nova Scotia — Page’s home province, and mine — isn’t doing enough to protect its water. It was inspired by the book There’s Something In The Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous & Black Communities by Dalhousie professor Ingrid Waldron. [link]
Stories about dump chemicals seeping into the water in the south end of Shelburne, where descendants of black loyalists live, were new to me, but I was more than familiar with the setting for the second story — Pictou Landing, where the local pulp mill pumps chemicals into Boat Harbour. I was there thirteen years ago, and smelled the chemicals from a few miles away when the wind shifted — I seriously can’t imagine what it’s like up close. You could see Page almost gagging in the documentary when she got near it.
The third site was another body of water I know well — the Shubenacadie river, which runs through central NS and over/along which I’ve driven countless times. More importantly, it flows into the Minas Basin where I swam as a kid, and where my family members continue to swim today. A natural gas company wants to hollow out storage caverns for its natural gas, pumping the brine into the Shubenacadie. A group of local Mi’kmaq women is working to stop them, but needs help. You can learn more here, and donate to their legal fund here.
All in all, a straightforward and effective documentary, but first and foremost an important documentary.
Cover photo from the TIFF website
Lindsay had (or was supposed to have) an all-day meeting yesterday, so I thought I’d try to catch a TIFF screening from the first weekend. I grabbed a ticket for The Friend (imdb | rotten tomatoes | tiff) at the Princess Of Wales theatre, a film based on an essay published in Esquire four years ago about cancer’s brutal toll on author Matthew Teague’s wife, and his friend who stayed to help through it all.
I’m honestly not sure yet how I feel about the movie version. It pushed every emotional button — I cried, as did pretty much the entire theatre — but I felt like the movie very much wanted us to cry. It focused on the hard parts of the story, but not the hardest parts of the story — it glossed over much of the physical trauma, and added a life-is-beautiful veneer missing from the essay. So maybe Teague wanted that version? He did, after all, option the story and consult on the screenplay, so it wasn’t ripped from his hands. And the essay was written in the raw months after the author’s wife passed — maybe he wanted to capture more of her vs. more of the cancer? I don’t know.
The director addressed the difference in tone during the post-screening Q&A, saying she had to find a balance between telling the story and traumatizing the audience. Which, fine.
But as I said, I felt emotionally drained — pushed, more like — by the end. And that seemed to me like the film’s intent. So while I had a very strong reaction, I’m having trouble sorting out whether it feels like an authentic one the day after.
Plagued, as last year, with a very busy early September, we once again selected only three screenings for TIFF this year. I miss the years of 10+, or even 5, but can’t imagine squeezing in so many these days.
We had an atypical start, going to see the first four episodes of a new Amazon series called Homecoming (imdb | tiffr) at the Ryerson. It’s based on a podcast series, so you know…just gimme ALL the mediums. It stars Julia Roberts and is directed by Sam Esmail, who won my undivided attention with Mr. Robot. They got us hooked by only showing us the first four episodes, then bringing the cast out to talk about it. Julia Roberts was there (and obviously generated a bunch of freakouts, including some dude wearing a tshirt she recognized, who then got on stage and hugged her?!), her old My Best Friend’s Wedding co-star Dermot Mulroney, hometown boy Stephan James, and to the audience’s great delight, Sissy Spacek. Not the best Q&A afterward, but a solid if unconventional start to the fest.
Saturday we had an odd hankering for Japanese, and so booked a table at Katana On Bay (formerly Blowfish). We needn’t have booked; it was dead in there. We still enjoyed our meal (see below) and a whole pile of Old Fashioneds, French 75s, and other cocktails though.
- tuna tartare w/ negi, cucumber, chilli peppers, dill, sesame oil, scallion oil
- butterfish sashimi
- yellowfin sashimi
- spicy tuna makimono w/ sesame seed & hot garlic kewpie-tossed rock shrimp tempura
- jalapeño hamachi makimono w/ avocado, tempura bits, cilantro, golden tobiko & spicy garlic aioli
- wagyu gyoza in a tonkotsu butter miso broth, garnished with crispy scallion & spicy hoisin
- sea-salted edamame
After dinner we walked over to the Elgin theatre to see the premiere of Through Black Spruce (imdb | tiffr) in the Winter Garden. First of all, we didn’t know until after we booked that they had reserved seating at certain theatres this year, so we ended up in an orchestra box, way off to the side with bad sound mixing and a glaring exit door light that made it pretty hard to enjoy. Second, somehow neither Lindsay nor I knew that this was based on a Joseph Boyden novel (though maybe we should have; it won the Giller) which made it a bit controversial. Producer Tina Keeper and others involved with the making of the film addressed the controversy somewhat, but the applause for Boyden was a bit tepid. Director Don McKellar introduced the entire cast (at length) before starting the screening, delaying things about 45 minutes. The movie itself was okay, but not compelling or terribly insightful. At this point the source material felt dated, or maybe outmatched, given the more recent attention to MMIWG. I think Norm Wilner said it best in his review for NOW:
“I don’t believe McKellar’s film is condescending to, or exploitative of, its Indigenous characters, but neither is it strong enough to survive the storm that’s coming.”
Our final film was the second screening of Girl (imdb | tiffr), which came into TIFF with a ton of buzz. Deservedly so, too — for a first-time actor and a first-time feature director, this was remarkable work. It was beautiful and tragic and sweet and gut-wrenching and important, as film should be. Luckily the director and two stars were still in Toronto and joined us for the Q&A, which was actually quite good, despite some translation challenges. We talked about it all the way home, as well as laying in bed. I woke up thinking about it. Clearly the class of our TIFF18 field.
Cover image from tiff.net
This past weekend was a très Toronto weekend. First there was a Jays game on Friday (a loss, boo) with Joe, bookended by drinks at the Boxcar Social on Harbourfront and the Boxcar Social on Temperance.
Lindsay got home from a work trip in the wee hours of Saturday, so we slooooowly got up and about and had brunch at Lil’ Baci, followed by our first TIFF screening of the year. It was Louis CK’s stealth movie (he made it outside of the studio system, so no one but the cast and crew knew what it was about) I Love You, Daddy (tiff). It was written like a modern film but shot like a classic (35mm black & white), which made it pretty fun. I don’t want to give away much, but like all LCK work it was funny and insightful and difficult. Outstanding cast, though, and fun Q&A. [UPDATE 10 Nov 2017: this movie takes on a pretty gross veneer in light of recent allegations against Louis C.K.] Afterward we had a slightly disappointing dinner at my old local Mercatto.
Sunday we doubled up, getting in a very long (two movie) line at the Elgin to see The Square (tiff) which had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was funny, sharp, contained not one but two bizarre primate-related scenes, and — best of all — completely took the piss out of marketing pitches. A little too long, but well worth watching. Afterward we rushed (our film started very late) over to the Lightbox and had a deliriously marked-up glass of mediocre wine at O&B Canteen.
Our final film of TIFF — seven short films, really, part of the Wavelengths program — was Figures In A Landscape (tiff). I’d never ventured into Wavelengths before, but hey…when dating an art curator, right? It was a mixed bag, some really interesting (Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt, (100ft), Rose Gold), some meh (Yeti, Heart Of A Mountain), one beautiful (Flores) and one just fucking weird one involving giant cartoon fruit gamboling through the Vietnam war (Division Movement to Vungtau), but I guess that’s always going to be the case with the festival’s showcase for the avant-garde.
After we tried going to King Taps but it was rammed, as was Carisma. We ended up trying Ardo for the first time (in this incarnation; I visited Toba several times) and sheeeeiiiiit was it a good call. We shared a damn fine burrata and had a salsiccia pasta (me) and funghi pasta (her) and cannoli and a lovely bottle of 2013 Nebbiolo Passeggiando from Langhe. Top meal all around, and actually cheaper than the subpar dinner at Marcatto the night before. I can’t wait to go back.
Cover image from the TIFF website
This year’s TIFF wrap-up was City Of Tiny Lights (imdb | rotten tomatoes | tiff), a rather disappointing closer. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t very good either. In fact, without Riz Ahmed, this would have been entirely unremarkable — except that he succeeded in making London look unlike London ever looks in films.
It didn’t help that some…off dude sitting next to us made it impossible to concentrate during the screening. Yo guy, just…just sit still.
There are times, reading through the TIFF program book, when you don’t even have to finish reading the description for a film before adding it to your shortlist. This was the first paragraph in the description of Prevenge (imdb | rotten tomatoes | tiff):
Alice Lowe (Sightseers) is a triple threat as the writer, director and star of this pitch-black comedy about a pregnant woman whose unborn child psychically spurs her on to murder.
Sold, to the man with the dark sense of humour. Sightseers was a perfectly weird black comedy, so I was excited about this one too. It didn’t disappoint: it was so funny and weird, with these bursts of horrific violence set in tacky British locales (a la Sightseers), and Alice Lowe was just so good. That she acted in and directed this nearly eight months pregnant was remarkable, and (this sounds weird to say) put to such good use. She was hilarious and sweet and weird in her Q&A after, so it’s safe to say she’s a sure bet for any of my future TIFF shortlists.
Our Midnight Madness selection for this year was The Belko Experiment (imdb | tiff), a near note-perfect MM experience from James Gunn, who wrote Guardians Of The Galaxy. It might have even redeemed last year’s Baskin fiasco. Black humour, insane violence, and mockery of office culture. I want ten sequels.
8.5/10 (for Midnight Madness; 7/10 in the real world)
Screening number two was at the Bloor Hot Docs theatre yesterday, and my vantage point was way the hell up in the balcony. From there I watched I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (imdb | tiff), a slightly weird and fairly chilling little ghost story. Ruth Wilson plays the main role quirky, which helps offset the creep factor and overall made it more interesting. Not great, but entertaining. Solid add to your Netflix scary movie queue when it comes out.
Last night was our kickoff to this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. After a hurried bite at Hawthorne we got ourselves in line for Birth Of A Nation (imdb | rotten tomatoes | tiff) at the Winter Garden theatre.
It won all the buzz at Sundance (and has gathered a fair amount of bad attention since, aimed at its director) and got a big ovation last night, but I admit I didn’t love it. It was deeply important subject matter, obviously incredibly relevant to American social issues of the day, and an interesting story. But there were some technical flaws, and the story dragged where it should have sped and sped where it should have lingered.
Certainly not a bad film, but I expect some of the strong reviews it’s getting have less to do with it being a great, skillfully-made movie than with the important message it carries. That may be enough to win it best picture at Oscar time; if that means thousands or millions more eyes and minds learn the story of Nat Turner, then the Academy may still have gotten it right, flawed or not.