TIFF 2016 Review: Free Fire

TIFF 2016 Review

One of the most wonderful things about Free Fire is its simplicity. Coming from a filmmaker who has more often than not leaned on the edge of cerebral, this proves as a magnificent departure. A straight shoot-em-up action film, Free Fire delivers on its premise, without overcomplicating things.

The film takes place in the Boston of 1978. Two IRA members are meeting with a couple of American arms dealers to broker a deal. Tensions are high at the offset, and everything goes south incredibly quickly. What results is a high-octane shootout in the vein of Hard Boiled (1992) and Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).

Free Fire Original Poster

The film features Brie Larson as, presumably, the token chick, Justine. The go-between for IRA members Frank (Wheatley regular Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy), and South African and American arms dealers Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Martin (Babou Ceesay) respectively, Justine is the conductor of this soon-to-be-derailed train. But her tokenism (and, arguably, Martin’s) is quickly debunked. Both Justine and Martin are integral to the both the premise and execution of the film.

Larson’s turn as Justine is yet another reason to love her as an actress. She sheds the delicate or wounded skin of her previous characters from Short Term 12 (2013), The Spectacular Now (2013) and Room (2015). In its place is a suit of armor with matching heels. Equal parts feminine and ferocious, Larson is a refreshing joy.

With character actors like Ceesay, Smiley, and Noah Taylor alongside Copley, Murphy, Sam Riley, and a hilarious Armie Hammer, the whole ensemble works together brilliantly. Tossed in with excellent editing, wonderful sound and set design, a fantastic score, and some of the best writing we’ve seen yet from Wheatley and partner in crime and life Amy Jump, Free Fire is quite possibly the tightest, strongest film from Wheatley’s oeuvre.

Interview with Tickled Director David Farrier

Tickled

This year, Hot Docs was rocked by an unconventional star; a documentary laced with conspiracy, intrigue, and tickling. The New Zealand doc, directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, initially attempted to bring the unconventional sport of Competitive Endurance Tickling to the public’s attention. In so doing, Farrier and Reeve found themselves in a mess they weren’t prepared for. What started out as a fun exposé very quickly became a dangerous game of cat and mouse, with the directors chasing leads that lead to horrifying stories of manipulation, greed, extortion, identity theft, and harassment.

There isn’t much that can be said about the documentary. It unravels like a thriller, with each layer peeling back to reveal something new and shocking. But its impact lies in the element of surprise; the less you know going in, the better your experience with the material will be. I had the good fortune of being able to talk to Farrier about the doc, an interesting process in itself given how little can be said without spoiling ones viewing experience. The below information may seem cryptic to those who have yet to see the film. To those who have, they will be enlightening. But proceed with caution, and maybe read what follows after seeing the flick. Tickled is playing at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema until July 6th. Don’t miss out on this incredible documentary. Would you like to know more…?

Review: A Bigger Splash

We all, at one point or another, would love the luxury of escaping; from our personal problems, our physical woes, our responsibilities, our history, or our future. The wealthy elite have this ability, at least in theory. They flit off to their villas and cabins, their homes away from home, where they might recuperate at their leisure. Such is the case in A Bigger Splash. The troubled celebrities of our story find themselves in hiding, yet incapable of escaping their past woes, or those of the world. Despite their best efforts, no one, no matter their wealth, can escape reality.

Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love follow-up, A Bigger Splash, showcases this escapism while touching on complex issues such as gender performativity, sexuality, and international conflict with subtle, understated grace and simultaneous volatility. It’s a slow burn, the kind of film that improves on each viewing, and reveals new depths the longer it stews in the foreground of your mind.

Splash focuses on aging rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton). A gender-swapped David Bowie, she’s in recovery-induced hiding with her lover and companion of six years, documentary filmmaker Paul de Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts). She recently had vocal chord surgery to help regain her failing voice. The result is that she cannot speak, both out of physician-mandated recovery instructions, and an actual inability to produce sound.

Enter Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s ex and a major music producer, and his newly discovered nubile daughter, Penelope Lanier (Dakota Johnson). The two impose themselves on Paul and Marianne’s recovery away from the world, while Harry plays on Marianne’s impetuous nature, urging her to sing and live hard despite her limitations. The result is an explosive clash that thrusts all manner of normalcy into a surreal atmosphere of loss.

A Bigger Splash is an erotic drama, a thriller of sorts that uses its intricate character study to fuel its intrigue. We are pulled in by the sexual escapades of our leads, as opening scenes set the tone with nude sunbathing, and silent pool-side orgasms. As Harry and Penelope arrive, the silence is broken, predominantly by Harry, who can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. The majority of the film’s dialogue is left to the men, who speak on behalf of Marianne, the mute, domesticated rock star, and Penelope, the nubile sexpot whose power is in her eyes and her hips.

But this representation of gender is conscious, depicting an exhilaratingly problematic depiction of contemporary gender roles and performativity. We are given two women left to portray the entire spectrum of female presence in society; Marianne, the ageing rock star with no voice or conceivable role in society other than to be adored, and Penelope, the youthful beauty who must use her body to get ahead, and has no concept of consequence. Her millennial approach to life seeps into the lives of her father, and his friends, poisoning things from the outside with a subtle glance and a grin. Would you like to know more…?

Critical Mess: Spoilers and Censure

Spoilers

The first rule of Tickled is you don’t talk about Tickled.

The second rule of Tickled …. YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT Tickled.

Such was my experience, and that of conceivably every other media outlet, in regards to this years Sundance and Hot Docs sensation. An outstanding documentary about the seedy underbelly of competitive endurance tickling, David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s documentary is a superb investigative thriller.

But I can’t tell you why.

Let me start off by saying that this film truly is, without reproach, outstanding. It will leave you incredulous, baffled, and have you on the edge of your seat. It is insightful, intelligently constructed, and eye opening. The questions it answers seem to leave more questions bubbling below the surface – the sign of a successful documentary.

While some publications, such as The Hollywood Reporter, have opted to break down the film, plot point by plot point, publicists involved in its distribution have been diligently trying to put perhaps excessive boundaries on what gets written. I have been asked to write carefully, and to explicitly avoid talking about certain reveals. Meanwhile, suggestions were made that I reconsider my interview questions, the answers of which may reveal too much.

What this all comes down to is a major issue now plaguing media critics, columnists and other surveyors of cultural documents – **THE SPOILER**.

These publicists are doing incredible work trying to protect their product. If a review gets out revealing too much about the film, people may be less interested in seeing it. As with films like The Sixth Sense, for example, people were angry if the final plot twist was spoiled for them. Oft times, they then saw no point in even going to the theatre to see the film.

While something like this won’t do too much damage to a major Hollywood film, it could be a crippling blow for a small documentary out of New Zealand.

An article was published on May 5th by Matt Zoller Seitz on Vulture titled, Spoiler Alert: This Post Is About Spoiler Etiquette. Seitz raises several astute questions about the nature of spoiler culture: Why television shows and movies are somehow more delicate than, say, a sporting event, where the responsibility to avoid news of the game’s outcome, or a spectacular play, falls solely on the shoulders of the person consuming the media. In film and television, however, the responsibility falls on those who produce the criticism, the interviews, and the think-pieces. In other words: It is our fault, as critics, for doing our jobs.

Are there bits of information we should leave out of a piece in order to avoid spoiling rather large bits of the story? Absolutely. There always are. And, often times, that is very easy to do. However, it is becoming progressively more and more difficult to filter out what information is going to piss someone off. Our hands are tied, and it makes it incredibly difficult to do our jobs.

In the case of Tickled, there is so little I can talk about that I felt it more important to use the film as an opportunity to open a dialogue about spoiler culture.

Would you like to know more…?

Hot Docs 2016 Review: The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh

When I was 15 years old, I worked at the local movie theatre. One of my coworkers, who wasn’t Jewish, decided he wanted to tell me a joke about Jews. Against my better judgment, I told him to go ahead. “What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza?” he asked. I cringed, worried about the answer. “What?” I asked. “The pizza doesn’t scream when you put it in the oven!” He laughed to himself for a solid minute, eventually stopping when I didn’t join in. He didn’t realize I was Jewish, for starters. Nor was he aware that my maternal grandfather had survived a Siberian work camp, having escaped the Nazis that killed his parents and sister: my great grandparents and great aunt. I snapped at him, declaring not only how unfunny the joke was, but also how stupid and insensitive it was to make a joke about the Holocaust. He felt immediate remorse, but still didn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to make the joke.

In some ways, this dichotomy, the issue of censorship and a complicated right to jest, is at the heart of The Last Laugh, a documentary that explores humour and the Holocaust. Interviewing entertainers like Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Rob and Carl Reiner, Judy Gold, Susie Essman and Harry Shearer, director Ferne Pearlstein explores the nature of humour and propriety.

The only thing that separates the The Producers (1967, 2005) from History of the World: Part I (1981), argues Brooks, is time. We have enough chronological distance from the Spanish Inquisition, Brooks suggests, that no one batted an eye at his outstanding musical number. However, when The Producers was released, both its original incarnation and its later Broadway rendition, some Jews were morbidly offended at his audacity. The suggestion is made throughout The Last Laugh, by Brooks and others of his generation, that to mock the Holocaust itself is verboten, but to mock the Nazis was empowering, and still is. Portrayals like that in “Springtime for Hitler”, or Charlie Chaplin’s depiction in The Great Dictator, aim to remove their authority, and therefore their power, through humour and mockery. For this generation, and those surviving the Holocaust, to laugh was to disarm.

In speaking to Holocaust survivors, including entertainer Robert Clary (Hogan’s Heros), we come to understand the integral nature of humour in the ghettos, and the death camps. Survivor Renee Firestone recalls laughing to herself when receiving a full physical exam from Dr. Mengele himself, knowing full well that most of the Jews being examined were about to be gassed. The redundancy of the exam gave her, and others, enough of a giggle to help survive.

Pearlstein brings to the forefront the question of why laugh? How could you find humour in such horror? The answer, resoundingly from survivors, is that without laughter, they would never have survived during or after the Holocaust. The Nazis couldn’t understand finding humour in anything that was happening, so their control was usurped through Jewish laughter.

But in answering the complicated questions of how one could laugh in the face of such turmoil, more questions are unearthed. Who has the right to laugh at such things, and who has the right to joke? Do you jest about the Holocaust, or is it only allowed to make fun of the Nazis? How far is too far? And are only Jews allowed to investigate the murky waters of humour and this particular strife? Are younger generations of comedians incapable of truly grasping the weight of the Holocaust now that older generations of survivors are dying? It evokes issues of censorship that are unavoidable.

In many ways, The Last Laugh raises more questions than it answers. However, it encourages its audience to be thoughtful in their laughter, to ruminate on why they laugh, and what is appropriate to laugh at. To laugh at screaming Jews in an oven, for instance, is grossly insensitive. However, there is humour to be found in Dr. Mengele telling you that, should you survive this, you should have your tonsils removed. They’re rather large.

The Last Laugh has its International Premiere on Sunday, May 1st at 1:15pm at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, with two more screenings on Monday, May 2nd at 9:00pm, and Saturday, May 7th at 10:30am.

Hot Docs 2016 Review: League of Exotique Dancers

League of Exotique Dancers, Hot Docs 2016

“Feminism wasn’t about burning your bra and not shaving your legs. Feminism was shaving your legs and working in a bar as a sex object, but knowing that you were. […] And not selling your pussy and your soul for a wedding ring.”

  • Judith Stein

Burlesque is a profession shrouded in public scrutiny. Callously written off as little more than strippers, selling their bodies, the women who’ve performed this art of seduction have often been shamed for their less-than-conventional career choice. Arguments are made that these women mark a regression for Feminism. That they behave unladylike, crass, twisted, and vile. In actual fact, these women embody one of the fundamental rules of Feminism; it’s all about choice. Alongside equality with men, a woman’s right to control her life, and her body, is solely her own.

Even if that means showing some skin.

Would you like to know more…?

The Highs and Lows of Toronto After Dark 2014

Sixteen days ago, the Toronto After Dark Film Festival drew to a close with a resounding gasp. The Babadook ended the genre-themed film festival with outstanding strength, uniting many in the belief that this was one of the festivals strongest years to date. While that may be true, it simply isn’t quite good enough. This year, the festival had some truly standout films that blew audiences away. At the same time, the festival lows were shocking to say the least.

Toronto After Dark Film Festival - HouseboundOpening the festival with a laugh and a shriek was the New Zealand flick Housebound. This was, without a doubt, one of the most well-balanced horror comedies in years. Beautifully written, this Kiwi production takes dry wit and simple scares to new highs. Unpredictable, Housebound zigs when you think it’ll zag, taking you to places just adjacent to where you expected to go. The tension is palpable, yet beautifully broken with a well-timed and flawlessly crafted laugh. This is the redeemer of horror comedies, in line with the perfect balance of films like Shaun of the Dead. It’s a simple recipe expertly crafted, and was the perfect film to open the 9th annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival. Would you like to know more…?

Review: Blood Glacier

Blood Glacier

Back in September, Marvin Kren’s The Station made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival through Midnight Madness, a programme dedicated to the dark, the twisted, and the horrific in cinema. The atmosphere is that of a community engaged and in love with horror in all its multifaceted glory. The crowd is rowdy, and eager for fun. The louder the audience reacts, the better the film. The Station elicited cheers and jeers from the audience in equal measure: we screamed together, we laughed as a single entity, and we loved every minute of this bloody creepshow. Renamed Blood Glacier by popular demand, Kren’s wickedly fun monster flick is back for one night through Sinster Cinema’s horror series at various cinemas throughout Canada. Would you like to know more…?

Hot Docs 2014: Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer Talk About Food Waste and Just Eat It

Hot Docs 2014: Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story

Halfway through Hot Docs 2014, I had the great pleasure to sit down with filmmakers Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustemeyer to discuss their call to arms Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. Number fourteen of the top twenty audience favourites this year, and winner of the Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award, it’s an eye-opening demonstration of just how much we’re blindly discarding.

I met them at the Park Hyatt, and we quickly ventured up a small flight of stairs adjacent to the lobby where a quiet, secluded room with a fireplace sat waiting for us. “We’re really tired,” Grant needlessly apologizes. It’s no wonder: asides from the exhaustion of the festival circuit, Grant and Jenn have a newborn baby boy in tow.

With a young child to care for, the question of food waste immediately springs to mind. This is of little concern, as Jenn deftly adds, “people always say there’s so much more waste when you have children. I think it depends on the way that you raise them. In our family, we used to serve food family style so that the food was in the middle of the table. You would take what you want, and then you had to eat everything on your plate.”

“[I]t’s interesting now, having a child,” Jenn continues, “because people [ask] ‘what about food waste? Do you think it’s safe?’ Absolutely. I would feed the food waste that we found to our son. It’s perfectly safe. [I]t’s not garbage food; it’s just surplus.” Would you like to know more…?

Hot Docs 2014: A Chat With Kris Kaczor and David Regos of Divide in Concord

Hot Docs 2014

It was a sunny afternoon, and the temperature was finally starting to inch upwards of ten degrees when I met Kris Kaczor and David Regos. Director and Producer respectively of Hot Docs 2014 feature Divide in Concord, they met me at TIFF Bell Lightbox for a quick chat before the second screening of their film. Taken with the distinct Twin Peaks vibe of the LUMA Lounge on the second floor, we sat down in a set of plush seats at the back of the empty room.

“The New York Times article is where I first heard about Jean Hill,” Kaczor tells me. “I reached out to her and I feared, when I first read it, that this interesting story would be lost to history.” Originally intending to make a short video on the subject, following up on a piece the New York Times had published the year prior by Abby Goodnough, the project slowly grew. “Jean said ‘why don’t you film a feature documentary on it instead,” Kaczor continued, “because we’re going back and trying again,’ since they’d lost the year prior. And that was about it.”

This was the perfect time to focus on Jean and her crusade. This was the third, and potentially final, time she and her colleagues were attempting to ban plastic water bottles from Concord, Massachusetts. Their goal was to pass a bill that would ban personal-sized plastic water bottles from the town. Specifically, the bill would ban polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles less than 1 liter (34 oz) in size that contained water – sparkling and flavoured water need not apply. Not to be sold in cases or vending machines, although the sale of the same sized bottles of different materials would be allowed. Baby steps. Would you like to know more…?

Hot Docs 2014: Sleepless in New York, The Case Against 8, Songs For Alexis, and The Possibilities Are Endless.

Hot Docs 2014

Sleepless in New York

Hot Docs 2014: Sleepless in New York

Director: Christian Frei

Program: Love, Factually

Run Time: 92 minutes

Love hurts. Rejection hurts more. Enter New York City, where thousands of people wander the street in abject agony: they’ve just been dumped. Christian Frei put out a call to arms, flyers on the street, asking people who have recently been rejected to contact him regarding his latest documentary. Enlisting the help of acclaimed biological anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fisher, Frei follows three lovelorn individuals as they attempt to cope with their confusion, pain, and dejection.

Frei asks some fundamental questions with Sleepless. Why do we hurt when we’re left? Where does that pain come from? How can we cope? With someone as esteemed as Dr. Helen Fisher taking your subjects into the lab, you’d expect a fair amount of interesting data. While the results of their FMRI’s (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) suggest some truly shocking and fascinating chemistry, there’s little information beyond this.

There’s a distinct comfort in hearing jilted Alley talk about her suffering after being left by her boyfriend of three years. Michael’s inability to stop thinking about the woman who unceremoniously dumped him after living together pulls at every searing heartstring. Lovelorn Rosey pining for a fling who strung her along is painfully relatable. Knowing you’re not alone in your pain can be incredibly cathartic. But these people, like us, want answers. Dr. Helen Fisher and Christian Frei combine their disciplines to provide some of the answers, while allowing us to wade through the pain of the incomprehensible. A brain scan can show us what lights up, what reacts, when we’re in a state of anguish. But it can’t relate to us. Frei has created a means for the lovelorn wanderers of the world to relate to one another, creating a dialogue we can all understand.

Screenings

Sunday, May 4th at 1:30pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 Would you like to know more…?