Saturday, September 18, 2021

TIFF 2021 SILENT NIGHT: Reflections By Robert Aaron Mitchell

 

This is how topsy-turvy the world is. My final movie at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival is a Keira Knightley Christmas movie. One of the great things about attending a film festival, is to walk into a movie theater or, as is my case this year - stream a movie - you have no idea about. This movie with a premise of a midnight madness movie was a complete surprise. I loved it.

It is Christmas afternoon. Nell (Keira Knightley) and her son Art (Roman Griffin Davis) are in the kitchen preparing dinner. Michael Bublé plays. It is a beautiful afternoon in the English countryside. Perfect. Peaceful.  Art is cutting carrots and cuts his finger. Blood spurts all over the carrots.

 

Family and friends begin to arrive. Some eat the bloody carrot bits. They either do not notice or do not mind. The kids run around the house and get in each other’s hair. This leads to a lot, a hell of a lot of children profanity. It is stupid, fucking funny.  

 

"Tonight is all about love and forgiveness." Nell proclaims to everyone who has assembled for this Christmas celebration. Tonight will indeed be about a lot of things.

 

Another common thread that I have seen with the movies I have watched this year the Toronto International Film Festival is great dinner sequences. You Are Not My Mother, Saloum, Unclenching The Fists. Silent Night also contains a dinner scene, and it is amazing and the centerpiece of the entire movie.

 

Dinner is served. There are hints that something far greater is happening outside this family Christmas dinner. The potatoes are rationed. One potato per person. A prayer is begun. It is awkward and funny. Nell contributes to the prayer, “To love we have shared.” The word, “have” hangs in the air. One of the guests Bella (Lucy Punch) looks out the window. Her look of nervousness is at odds of the beautiful blue sky out the window. The conversation turns to the Queen’s speech. "Well she is clearly in some bunker setup", says Tony (Rufus Jones). Nell quips, "If you want to live in a hole and eat dog food..." "It's fine because she's old" Kitty (Davida McKenzie) quips.


The dinner conversation gets even better when Art brings up Greta Thunberg. Roman Griffin Davis and Davida McKenzie play exceptionally well off of one another. Sofie (Lily-Rose Depp) begins to expound upon the difficult night she had last night. The adults are trying to change the conversation but the kids want to hear more. "We had dinner, sang Celine Dion, dance to Brittney, laugh, cried..." Sophie gets out before the subject is changed. 


Someone mentions, that they should be honest with the kids. Art insists that his parents have told him the truth. Kitty interjects, "The Russians want us all dead and are sending poisonous gas to kill us all. They are obsessed with world domination." Art, "Do not be ridiculous Kitty it isn't the Russians. The planet has absorbed every ones filthy rubbish, it had enough and it cannot take it anymore so it's spitting it back out as a fuck you to the world." 


It is mentioned that the government of the United Kingdom cares for it's people and has provided aid and assistance to the residents of the country that will abate pain and suffering. There is a website Exit.Gov.Co.Uk that provides information on how to Die With Dignity. The government has provided other tools to alleviate the fate that awaits million and millions of people. Art points out that all of this government assistance is not available for everyone in the country and he is adamant that he will not follow along with the government instructions. 


Christmas must go on. Games are played. Spirits are imbibed. Presents are wrapped. In another revelation of rationing and a clue to the big story, the presents are wrapped in newsprint. Art holds a present with the headline: New York Governor Declares State Of Emergency. Burrough Of Queens death toll passes two million. As we garner subtle hints of life in this catastrophic world, watching people proceed with a high degree of normalcy we wonder what the fuck is actually happening out in the world. People surly are not playing charades, sipping on champagne.   


As the tsunami of toxic gas races towards the English countryside and the moment of mortality approaches the tension and anxiety infuse the movie with such great moments. The pathos of humanity is on full display. I, the audience, sitting relatively safe in the "real world", it is all a delight. Except for the back of your brain reminding you of the ongoing pandemic and the climate change that is getting worse everyday. The entertainment of it all runs parallel to the very real - not too far from now - "real world" scenarios that could very well come to fruition.

 

Writer and Director Camille Griffin said in her introduction, "I believe as the world becomes more fragile, society becomes more divided between those that do and those that don't give a damn about one another. With Silent Night I wanted to investigate the world of privilege to see what might happen when catastrophe knocks at their door. No amount of money, education, good manners can save anyone from the inevitable. She wrote the script pre-Covid without any knowledge of the pandemic. Covid didn't enter the world until after shooting on the movie began. What has become clear to everyone is it is incredibly hard to protect societies in the world. We need to step up and take care of one another. How far are we prepared to go to protect the ones we love and how far are we prepared to protect the rest of the world."  

 

I love a movie that changes tones like a whiplash. I loved the many tones contained in this movie. There are so many great performances in this movie, to single one out feels as though to take away from the work this ensemble cast created. That being said, Roman Griffin Davis is absolutely amazing in this film. Camille Griffin's feature film debut will go up with White Christmas and It's A Wonderful Life for ever how many Christmas nights I and the rest of humanity on the planet have left.

TIFF 2021 SALOUM: Reflections By Carol Borden


 By: Carol Borden 

 Jean Luc Herbulot Saloum (Senegal, 2021)

Saloum was one of my favorite movies at this year’s festival and if you know you like action movies with mercenaries in them, I’d suggest just seeing it without reading or watching anything more about it. I’m not including any serious plot details in this piece, but I also think that Saloum can’t really be spoiled.

During a coup in Guinea-Bissau, three mercenaries extract their target, a Mexican cartel member, Felix (Renaud Farrah), and escape with him, his drugs and his gold. They are Baguin’s Hyenas: Chaka (Yann Gael), the red-gloved brains of the operation; Rafa (Roger Sallah), the more hot-headed and straightforward “brawn”; and the white-dreadlocked Minuit (Mentor Ba), who knows the spirit world and uses gris-gris on their missions. Or, you know, head, heart and spirit. En route to Dakar, they discover their plane is leaking fuel and land in the Sine-Saloum delta in Senegal. Burying Felix’s gold and narcotics, Chaka tells Rafa the plan: They’ll go to a nearby holiday camp and hide out until they can get fuel and resin to repair the plane so they continue on to Dakar. At Camp Baobob, they present themselves as vacationing gold mine workers and meet the genial Omar (Bruno Henry), who runs the camp, and his guests Sephora (Marielle Salmier) an artist; Youce (Cannabasse), Sephora’s ex-partner and current artistic collaborator; Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen), a deaf woman who knows a lot about the Hyenas; and Cap. Souleymane Fall (Ndiaga Mbow) of the Dakar police. Omar doesn’t require payment from his guests, but he does ask that they do chores to contribute to the camp’s upkeep. 


They have a lovely, delightfully cinematic dinner as everyone except Awa and the artists pretend they are there for some other reason than they are. They trade erudite observations. It has that charming feel of dinners in James Bond movies. Very little is as it seems and antagonists and protagonists spar, but politely and expansively. This is probably the only action movie I’ve seen where Léopold Senghor, poet, founder of the Négritude movement, and president of Senegal was referenced. Then again, Saloum is the only Senegalese action movie I have seen. After dinner, Minuit tells the men that there is an eye on them while Rafa believes something needs to be done because Souleymane is obviously preparing to capture them and Awa signed to them that she plans to reveal the Hyenas’ real identities if they won’t take her with them when they go.

The next day the guests all perform their assigned tasks, and then meet again that evening. And then, as they so often do, things go to hell over dinner. This is also where Saloum takes a turn. And I absolutely did not expect it.

  

Saloum is one of the best movies I saw at the festival this year. I can’t single out a performance, as much as I’d like to. I could write about any of the leads in depth. I could probably also write about Bruno Henry’s suave Omar or Ndiaga Mbow as his Souleymane goes from feeling cheerfully confident in his plan to capture Baguin’s Hyenas to his horrified realization that what he thought was going to happen is absolutely not what is happening. Saloum is a deft mix of genres--crime, action, horror, even maybe fantasy--and influences. It’s well-written and well-crafted. I appreciate how well Saloum integrates the particular history of the region, both in the story and in exposition. The breathtaking shots of the landscape use the whole screen and I love them for that. The pointed presence of the landscape in the film reminds me of Westerns and I wish more action movies used landscapes this way.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be watching Herbulot’s Sakho & Mangane on Netflix now that TIFF is over (for me at least).





TIFF 2021 AFTER BLUE: Reflections by Carol Borden

 

By: Carol Borden 

Bertrand Mandico After Blue (Dirty Paradise) / After Blue (Paradis Sale) (France, 2021) Humanity has moved off Earth, after wrecking it, and colonized another planet called, After Blue. Only “ovary-bearers” survived, as the planet has strange effects on the growth of hair and cis-men died when their hair grew inwards. The surviving high femme women made rules to prevent what happened on Earth from happening again. Well, at least some of it. They allowed only horses for travel and guns--bearing the brands of Gucci and Paul Smith--for hunting. They lived in small groups based on national identity, mostly. The film opens with a teenager named Roxy (Paula Luna) talking to another woman. She tells the story of finding a woman buried up to her neck in sand and releasing her in exchange for three wishes. Unfortunately for Roxy’s friends, the woman is the notorious criminal Kate Bush (Agata Buzek) and she kills all three of them.

As punishment the women of Roxy’s village order her mother, Zora (Elina Löwensohn), the village hairdresser, to hunt down Kate Bush and bring back proof of her death. Roxy comes along to help and because “she has nothing better to do.” And so they meet other women wearing broad brimmed 1970s lady hats for stetsons and glittery eye-shadow along the way and face death and sexual menace.


After Blue looks fantastic, with stylized space sound stages and dressing natural areas to they look like stylized space sound stages. I like the design of the dead. I like the sound design and the score. I like the make-up and the glowing femdroid eyes. Basically, I like almost everything about this film except the world-building and the story. They rub me wrong. I’m not comfortable with the implicit gender essentialism. And while I always enjoy rock people on alien worlds and dig these particular rock people’s geode heads, I’m not comfortable with the Indigenous people of After Blue, the “Indiams” or how they are treated or how they are represented even while knowing that Mandico probably means nothing by it. But I’m not in France. I’m in the United States. And “Indiams” especially rub me wrong after watching the TIFF Land Acknowledgment and a celebration of the work of Indigenous film maker and artist Alanis Obomsawin. And yes, I have watched Westerns with terrible people in them. And I have watched movies, like Neptune Frost, where the people are largely allegorical. But Zora aside, the women of After Blue are one note and that note is unpleasant. And the premise of a planet ruled by women who are sorta fashion-obsessed and whose civilization is catty and/or bitchy is hardly new. Please see nearly any post-World War II space lady movie from Cat-Women Of The Moon (1953) to Queen Of Outer Space (1958). (Ship Of Monsters / La Nave De Los Monstruous (1960) is lovely, though).  Sometimes stream of consciousness just washes up the easiest and shallowest thoughtless representations. I can’t help wondering what Neptune Frost (Rwanda / USA, 2021) or Night Raiders (Canada, 2021) might have been like with these resources. And I really hope we decolonize better before we colonize other worlds. The human women of After Blue have not learned enough.

After Blue reminds me of 1970s French science fiction comics and looks like a very faithful adaptation of one that is happy to stay in the 1970s. But you might not have this reaction. You might find more effective and playful satire than I did. Maybe you’re just looking for style and cool ideas for aliens and alien landscapes to wash over you. Like I said, After Blue is well within the tradition of French science fiction--especially bande dessinée science fiction and if you like that, you might like After Blue (Dirty Paradise).


Friday, September 17, 2021

TIFF 2021 ZALAVA: Reflections by Robert Aaron Mitchell


 Arsalan Amiri, Zalava (Iran, 2021)

 Zalava is a small farming village. Nearby is a military outpost. The year is 1978, before the revolution in Iran. All is not well in Zalava.

 

The film opens with a woman hauling a large pack. She walks down cramped village paths. She comes across something. She stops dead in her tracks. She stares ahead with palpable fear. Her nose starts to bleed. Villagers arrive at the military outpost screaming there is a demon in the village. “She’s possessed!” Villagers surround her. Her fear grows. The villagers fear grows. She backs away from the mob and falls down a cliff to her death.

 

After this tragic death a complaint is filed towards the Sergeant of the outpost, Sergeant Massoud. (Navid Pourfaraj) He is blamed for the death of the woman because he ordered all the guns in the village to be confiscated. A young soldier Younes reads the military order that Sergeant will be effectively relieved of duty by the next morning.

 

As the villagers line up to receive their confiscated guns one of the people is Khalaj Zalavaei the father of the woman who fell to her death. Upon receiving his rifle he points the gun at Sergeant Massoud and pulls the trigger. The rifle, empty of bullets clicks. The Sergeant’s last night in command will be a long one. A black cat ominously wanders the military post.

 

The village is once again gripped in throes of fear. Another demon is attacking the village. Massoud and Younes take a jeep and drive up the windy, mountain roads to the village. A couple of dead, mutilated sheep lay on the side of the road. As they arrive villagers are in full panic mode trying to escape and save their livestock.

 

Way back in November 2016 here in America, people, mostly white people, began to wear safety pins as an act of solidarity with visible minorities who were rightfully concerned for their well being as a populist was elected riding a wave of nationalism and xenophobia to the White House. The underlying thought was that a person who was being threatened, say on a city bus, would spot the white person wearing a safety pin and approach knowing that they were with a “safe” person. Needlessly to say, placing the burden on the person who was already in a dangerous situation. In Zalava we also see safety pins being worn by the villagers. The thought is the demons are repelled by metal. Further, to this end we also see many scythes hanging from doorways.

 

A traveling exorcist by the name of Amardan (Pouria Rahimi Sam) - a true highlight of the movie – shows up to assist the village in the removal of the current demon. Amardan removes his shoes and heads up the stone steps to the house with the possessed person armed only with an empty glass pickle jar. If he is successful he will return with the demon successfully trapped inside the jar. If he does not succeed he has given firm instructions that he is to be stabbed below the waist to effectively bleed the demon out which will still keep the village safe.

 

Another character that should be mentioned is Doctor Maliheh. (Hoda Zeinolabedin) She works in the village collecting samples of the villager’s blood and urine to send to a government lab to ensure the villagers overall health but because of the level of anxiety in the village the samples contain far too much adrenaline and are not effective as true samples. Sergeant Mossoud is also quite smitten with her. Another matter to note is although Dr. Maliheh is very much rooted in science and medicine she does still believe that there is a possibility that demons do exist.

 


 

The film is ultimately the test of two wills. Khalija the influential villager who lost his daughter to the demon who wholeheartedly believes in the supernatural influences surrounding Zalava and the will of Massoud who believes that all the demon fears are nothing more than superstition.  Interestingly, Aramand may believe or may only be riding the wave of paranoia to cash in. As was mentioned earlier Dr. Maliheh is a person of science and still retains some belief that the demons could be real.

There are some wonderful standout scenes with Dr. Maliheh and Sergeant Massoud as well as Massoud and Amaradan debating if he is actually an exorcist or just a con artist. There is also some horror troupes of a black cat, creaky doors and shadows on the wall. One of the best scenes involves the black cat and the pickle jar. 

I consider this one of the best films I have seen this the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival because as a  demonic possession, exorcist film it is playing off the genre convention that the audience will dismiss the reality of the demon until the big third act fantastical reveal of the demon. We didn’t believe, but we knew it all along. Zalava wonderfully subverts expectations. The demons of fear and superstition were visible the entire time. We are watching a community give into fear and superstition. 

For me one of the great scenes of the movie is when the mob riding on delirious fear begin arguing amongst themselves on how they should proceed, contradicting the many long held steps to demon exorcism and removal. 

One other thing I want to mention, is the entry point into the story is definitely through horror conventions however the film is also very much a love story.

The film takes place in a per-revolutionary Iran but parallels a lot of what I am seeing in the world right now with an invisible virus. People are eschewing science and medical fact to chase disbelief and unproven medical cures. Of which the end result is many times, very scary, tragic and deadly results. 

 


 

TIFF 2021 ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT?: Reflections by Carol Borden


 By Carol Borden

Wen Shipei’s Are You Lonesome Tonight? / Re Dai Wang Shi (or, “Tropical Memories”) (China, 2021) is a remarkably assured first feature film that’s more like a traditional noir than many of the new wave of neo-noirs coming out of China right now--Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake (2019) or Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018), for example.

Late one night, HVAC repairman Wang Xueming (Eddie Peng) encounters a recalcitrant ox in the road. Unable to pass, he takes another road and hits a pedestrian. And then, as happens in noir, Wang makes a decision that leads to a chain reaction of events. He disposes of the pedestrian’s body. It’s 1997 Guangzhou and there are no surveillance cameras. Wang doesn’t have a cellphone. No one will know and it’s easy to move on late at night when there’s no way to call an ambulance without waking people up and confessing.

Later, Wang recognizes Mr. Liang, the man he hit, from a missing persons poster and then encounters Mrs. Liang (the legendary actor and director Sylvia Chang) as she is distributing the posters. He decides he will confess to her. Meanwhile, Wang learns more and more about Mr. Liang. And it leads him somewhere dangerous even as he can’t help getting more involved in Mr. Liang’s secrets and Mrs. Liang’s life. 


Eddie Peng embodies Wang’s guilt and fear well. He’s tense, silent and curled in on himself. There’s something in him he wants to say, but he just can’t bring himself to. It comes out in sweat, anxiety and cigarette smoke. There’s a great scene where Wang reveals his antihero ambivalence by berating a kid for smoking while stealing the kid’s cigarettes and lighter. Sylvia Chang is perfect as Mrs. Liang, a woman who is not a femme fatale but not exactly a model widow. She’s poised but she cannot cry. She doesn’t miss her husband, but she’s haunted by her past as a wife and mother. And the film occasionally shows us glimpses of her ghosts as she attempts to adjust to life on her own.

Are You Lonesome Tonight? has the lovely use of color I associate with Chinese neo-noir--influenced by the Taiwanese New Wave, Hong Kong films and, I assume, Jia Zhangke, who has his own neo-noir-ish film now, Ash Is Purest White (2018). Are You Lonesome Tonight? also plays with flashbacks, as when Mrs. Liang is haunted by memories of her husband and son or when the film alternates between Wang in 2005 and Wang in 1997. It has a very neat use of a flashlight for spotlighting actors engaged in specific actions during a confrontation on the street. And it has a dance studio sequence, which is another thing I’m starting to associate with mainland Chinese neo-noir.



But there’s also some explicit Freud, who always likes to show up in classic noir.. And composer Hank Lee dissonant strings simultaneously reminiscent of something like Kronos Quartet, classic noir and Bernard Herrmann. And there’s classic noir in the revelation of Mr. Liang’s other life, Wang’s efforts to make good for Mrs. Liang, and especially the arrival of sympathetic police lieutenant Chen (Wang Yanhui) midway through the film. Chen is there to get to the truth, solve Mr. Liang’s murder and catch the killer or killers. Chen is there to try to make sure that crime doesn’t pay. He’s not corrupt. He’s not cruel. He is a cinematic cop reminiscent of Hayes Code era straightforward police. And so it’s clear, in calling Are You Lonesome Tonight a more conventional noir, I am not saying it’s bad. Sometimes you want a more straightforward noir shot in shadows and neon color. Sometimes it’s nice when a police lieutenant solving a murder isn’t corrupt, the “femme fatale” makes out okay and someone sings a torch song.

Just in your own life never take the bag of money. Leave that alone.

TIFF 2021 YUNI: Reflections by Robert Aaron Mitchell

Yuni is the third feature film by director Kamila Andini and marks her return to the Toronto International Film Festival. Kamila has the distinction of the first filmmaker to be presented twice in tiff’s Platform competition programme.

The film follows the title character Yuni (Arawinda Kirana), a typical teenager. She goes to school. She fixates on a cute teacher. She hangs out with friends and scrolls Instagram. The world she navigates is rooted in religious customs and tradition. People try and blackmail kids that they are engaging in sexual activities. At school Yuni wears a hijab. On her own she dresses in contemporary, vibrant clothing. At home –nearing the age of seventeen – several suitors are courting Yuni’s grandmother to arrange a marriage with the teenager. Left to her own devices Yuni goes on adventures of self-discovery.

 


 

At school it is announced that far too many teenage girls are becoming pregnant and that mandatory virginity tests will be implemented. The Islamic Club is now in charge of school activities now. Everyone must conform to Islamic teachings. There will be no more music bands.

Yuni has an obsession for the color purple, so much so, that she constantly steals purple items from other students, a water bottle, a food container. It does not matter what the item is as along as it is purple. This lands her Mrs. Lilis’ guidance councilors office. Mrs Lilis recognizes that Yuni is someone trying to forge their own path and instead of punishing the teenager, the councilor encourages Yuni to work towards going to college. In order for this to happen Yuni will have to be accepted in a special admissions program. She has to graduate third or higher in her class, have achievements in the humanities, sports or other activities and she must not be married.

As the pressure mounts for Yuni to get the highest grade possible she meets a boy Yoga (Kevin Ardillova). He is smitten with her and begins to write poetry for her assignments in Mr. Damar’s class, the teacher Yuni has a crush on.


 

Some of the great scenarios in the movie is when Yuni is dealing with the predatory practice of arranged marriages. She confronts would be suitors herself. Interestingly, the suitors meet with Yuni’s grandmother as Yuni’s parents are currently out of town. Upon meeting Yuni’s mother we can see why. Her mother is extremely supportive of Yuni telling her, “Whatever makes you happy I will support it.” As paths and avenues close around her she continues undeterred to be her own person and follow her dreams. 


 

Arawinda Kirana brings a phenomenal performance as the title character. The entire film rests on her shoulders and she carries the weight exceptionally well. The emotions and the strength necessary for Yuni to seek her own life on her terms and survive the society around her is very relatable. The cinematography by Teoh Gay Hian reinforces the traditional Indonesian society as well as the vibrant colors that inhabit the world that Yuni is trying to create for herself.

Yuni is ultimately a beautiful poem of a young woman navigating the expectations of religion and a traditional society to forge her own path. 


 

Thursday, September 16, 2021

TIFF 2021 SALOUM: Jean Luc Herbulot Director Statement & Festival Poster

 


Get ready for SALOUM

Here is what writer and director Jean Luc Herbulot has to say about the movie, "I have always admired Sergio Leone’s Westerns, Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai films, Jean Pierre Melville’s Noirs, George Miller’s post-apocalyptic action, and the Kim Jee-woon’s and the Park Chan-wook’s of the filmic world - all strong ambassadors of a genre but also acontinent or a country. I believe you can survey an entire country’s identity and mood by its best genre films and filmmakers.I want SALOUM to feel real, hard, raw and darkly poetic in its own original way. 

A film that stands as purely African and that also speaks unconditionally about universal truths, and is also respectful of the Sine Saloum area’s ancestral stories. The time has come for Katiopa (Africa in our indigenous language) to bring its heroes and myths into the modern mix. Growing up in Congo and witnessing the lack of African heroes as a child, it was my imagination of a bigger world that brought me to filmmaking. The creation of SALOUM is part of a bigger universe - a universe I based on reality and military and political history that I later tainted with a layer of adventure and horror. 

SALOUM was created in collaboration with my creative partner, Pamela Diop. We went on a creative brainstorm weekend trip to the mystical and isolated region of Saloum, where Pamela has a deep and spiritual family history. It was here that the initial seeds of the story took shape. We wanted to capture the atmosphere of the region, the mysticism that lives in the air, and were also inspired to tell a story of strong characters on a tale of revenge. And then we decided to bring some heroes in... some colorful ones may I say. That’s how the Hyenas were born. That’s how Chaka was born. SALOUM is not a hero movie, but a movie about heroes. Heroes that we have not seen before. I love movies, I breathe movies, and SALOUM is my love letter to Africa and to cinema."