Category Archives: Festivals

TIFF 2015: Mustang


Each year, it seems like the first film I see at TIFF ends up becoming one of my favourites of the whole festival. (In case you’re curious, my picks from past years that fall under this category are Lore, Tom at the Farm, and Eden.) And after seeing Mustang yesterday on the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s opening night, I feel pretty confident that tradition will continue. From first-time director Deniz Gamze Erguven, it’s a beautiful, assured debut that marks the arrival of another name to watch for in Turkish cinema.

Mustang tells the story of five girls living under the oppressive and careful watch of their relatives in the Turkish countryside. Having lost their parents years ago, they’re now at the mercy of an old-fashioned grandmother and tyrannical uncle who both expect them to get married ASAP. However, being modern pre-teen and teenage girls, the sisters have rather different and comparatively rebellious interests that their family fears could compromise the girls’ ever-important chastity.

Mustang is a lot of things at once. From the film’s purposely chaotic, fervent opening to its ultimately poignant conclusion, Erguven reflects the jumble of emotions that come along with growing up. There were moments that had the crowd roaring with laughter and others that respectfully deal with some truly dark and difficult themes. However, despite its emotional highs and lows, I didn’t find Mustang‘s tone inconsistent.

Helping to ground the proceedings in believability is the film’s five stunning lead actresses. If The Virgin Suicides (a film that’s nearly impossible not to compare Mustang to in more ways than one) treated Kirsten Dunst as its centrepiece and the rest of the sisters as beautiful, sad props, Mustang differs wildly on that front. The sisters begin as a sort of wild, indistinguishable unit that are nearly always together. But as fissures in that bond start to form, each actress gets an opportunity to shine as their characters meet various fates. It was highly refreshing to see five distinct and realistic female characters share the screen, and I give a lot of credit to Erguven for writing such rich roles.

As much as I’m raving, I also wouldn’t describe Mustang as a perfect film. Erguven’s inexperience as a director does come across occasionally with a few scenes that feel a tad mishandled, including the film’s climax, which took perhaps too dramatic of a departure from the rest of this fairly low-key film.

Mustang offers a little bit of everything, including the kind of robust and engaging narrative that arty world cinema isn’t always known for. It’s also an all-too-rare film that tells its story from a perspective that is both spunky and unmistakably feminine. Take all of that and combine it with absolutely breathtaking cinematography and a great Warren Ellis and Nick Cave (!) score and you’ve got one of the most exciting directorial debuts of recent memory.


Hot Docs 2015: Peace Officer

Peace Officer 2
Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber’s new movie, Peace Officer, is nothing if not timely. The documentary takes a harrowing look at the increasing militarization of the police and the devastating effects of excessive police force. The story is predominantly related to the United States (and, indeed, seems painfully relevant in light of the recent examples of police brutality and the Ferguson and Baltimore riots) but even as someone who is not American, I found Peace Officer completely gripping and eye-opening.

The central figure of Peace Officer is William “Dub” Lawrence, an impossibly all-American former sheriff from Utah. Dub, as we learn, actually implemented Utah’s first SWAT team during his time as sheriff, and in an all-too-cinematic twist of fate, that same unit was responsible for killing Dub’s son-in-law some 30 years later. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Dub began a borderline-obsessive search for what happened on the day of his son-in-law’s death. (And as Dub and the directors gleefully point out, he’s far more thorough in his crime scene sleuthing than the police department was.) He also extends his services to other families in the area who have experienced similar violence. And there, we have our movie.

One thing Peace Officer is not is subtle. The bias of the directors is clear and they make no real effort to hide it. That said, they give the “other side” (read: the law enforcement officials) their chance to speak up. (However, the film’s “this-person-declined-to-comment” title cards may be more damning than any actual interview would have been.) And though filmmakers’ stance is clear, I appreciated the fact that for the most part they didn’t demonize the individual police officers; the film’s general perspective seems to be that it is more of a systemic problem, which is a far more interesting and complex issue to explore than the alternative, reductionist “cops are mean” style of argument.

And indeed, some of the information the movie presents is jaw-dropping. The type of equipment these SWAT teams are armed with is insane, as are the figures about the rising use of SWAT teams in general. And as we follow along with Dub’s journey and watch him piece together what likely happened in these deadly incidents of police force, it’s hard not to be moved.

Police brutality is a large, complex matter and even at nearly two hours long, the movie doesn’t feel like a definitive look at everything at play. Then again, it also doesn’t really need to be. It barely gets into the matter of race (though the “talking head” interview subjects do thankfully mention it). This is probably partly because the film only examined specific Utah-based incidents and partly because racial profiling is an issue in desperate need of its own thorough documentary.

Dub’s crime scene examinations often play out like a Hollywood thriller. Because of this and because of the harrowing nature of the stories it tells, Peace Office is actually one of the most intense movie-watching experiences I’ve had recently. It’s a straight-ahead style of documentary, yes, but Peace Officer proves that sometimes all you need is the meat-and-potato facts to tell an effective, affecting story.


Hot Docs 2015: Breaking a Monster

Breaking a Monster 2

We’ve all seen the familiar arc of a rising musician in so many film biopics that you can probably recite it along with me: The musician toils in their humble beginnings, uses their talent and determination to get noticed, finds success (usually compromising their artistry at the demand of The Man along the way), gets caught up in a world of excess, watches their professional and personal world crumble as a result, and –if they’re lucky – makes it out alive on the other side. The only difference in music doc Breaking a Monster’s narrative arc is that it isn’t all happening to Johnny Cash – it’s happening to a bunch of 13-year-olds.

Unlocking the Truth became something of a viral phenomenon last year when they inked a $1.8 million record deal with Sony. After blowing up online, the trio of African American Brooklyn pre-teens were thrust into a world of press, festival gigs, and TV appearances; and, as Luke Meyer’s new documentary shows, even the most articulate and mature kids probably aren’t ready to handle that level of exposure. Breaking a Monster charts the band’s rise from busking on the streets to navigating the red-tape wasteland of today’s music industry. Cue the exhilarating live performances, screaming fans, arguments with the label bigwigs, and confiscated Coke (note that’s Coke, not coke).

One great thing about Breaking a Monster is that it doesn’t lionize or demonize any of its subjects. We root for the lads of Unlocking the Truth, but they also frequently come across as bratty and annoying (as, you know, almost all 13-year-old boys would). And while band’s resident “momager” seems to have the best intentions for the boys, but her decision to effectively sell them off to Sony is not a clear-cut one. To that end, while the suits at the record label may be out-of-touch at best and shady money-grubbers at worst, they’re also not presented as inhuman; one of the film’s strengths is that the music biz is presented in a refreshing un-glamorous way.

In a way, though, Meyer almost goes a little too easy on everyone involved, just skirting around some of the darker, more interesting undercurrents of the story. For example, the issue of the band’s race is only touched upon in one scene, where frontman Malcolm shows that he’s a little less naïve than we thought and understands the possible “novelty” appeal of an all-black metal band. Meyer also doesn’t get into the current state of the music industry much, even though it’s clearly heavily dictating the band’s stunted success. He instead focuses much more on the boys, which, while it makes for an entertaining watch, it feels like a slightly incomplete telling of the band’s nascent career.

It’s sad to watch the increasing corporatization of Unlocking the Truth. (As the boys continuously complain about, they just want to put out an album already!). But Breaking a Monster is also a fun and accessible documentary, able to please even those with no interest in heavy metal music. All three boys obviously love playing music, and they’re all engaging, fun, and varied subjects. Meyer clearly built a high level of trust with them and while there are moments of obvious self-consciousness around the camera, his behind-the-scenes look at the band feels refreshingly honest. Unlocking the Truth follow a familiar rise-and-fall musician trajectory, but Breaking a Monster works because it gets to the heart of the band members involved.


Hot Docs 2015: Stand By For Tape Back-up

Stand By For Tape Back Up 2

Ross Sutherland’s Stand By for Tape Back-up could semi-loosely be called a “documentary” (hence its inclusion in the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival), but it’s hardly what most think of when you hear the term.

Sutherland splices together footage from an old VHS tape that he compiled with his grandfather as a child. Anyone who ever recorded from television to VHS knows what this would entail: taped-over fragments of Ghostbusters , snippets of sports games, and laughably dated TV advertisements, mostly. However, Sutherland edits this seemingly random footage into something with a distinctive, evocative rhythm. He also shares his own memories (which often swell into spoken-word-style poetry) over top of the footage.

An experiment like this could have gone very wrong, but while Sutherland’s film occasionally wanders into the self-indulgent, he largely keeps things fresh. His “remixing” of the footage (which frequently involves rewinding and replaying certain segments) combined with his own words reveals new context to the seemingly benign relics he and his grandfather captured on tape. One portion of the film where Sutherland repeats the opening credits of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air until they take on multiple, entirely new meanings is especially effective.

I’m a fan of writers like Chuck Klosterman who combine universal pop culture touchstones with their own intensely personal experiences. Sutherland now joins those ranks. Stand By for Tape Back-up is partially a loving ode to the analog age, but mostly, it’s an effective meditation on loss and change. Its impact sneaks up on you.


TIFF 2014: The Face of an Angel

The Face of an Angel 2
Last night I checked out the world premiere of Michael Winterbottom’s latest film, The Face of an Angel, at TIFF. Starring Daniel Bruhl, Kate Beckinsale, and model Cara Delevingne, the movie’s description on the TIFF website quickly makes reference to the fact that it’s inspired by the infamous trial of Amanda Knox, the young woman who in 2007 was accused of brutally murdering her roommate as they both studied abroad in Italy and whose trial played out under the glare of the media. However, while a fictionalized version of that case is the backdrop for The Face of an Angel, Winterbottom clearly has greater ambitions than to tell a salacious story of murder, and The Face of an Angel is much more interesting because of it.

Daniel Bruhl plays Thomas, a film director of fading fame who decides to explore this murder in his next movie by telling a fictionalized version of it. That’s where the film becomes a little more difficult to describe, as the narrative becomes quite meta-fictional and becomes far less about the murder and far more about Thomas’ own demons and the way the story of this murder haunts him. It’s a “movie within a movie”, as the film that Thomas is attempting to write is also called The Face of an Angel and many of the concepts and structures that Thomas says he wants to explore in his movie are on full display in Winterbottom’s own film. Structurally, it reminded me a bit of Spike Jonze’s Adaptation; at one point, Thomas explicitly says that he wants his film to follow the story arc of Dante’s Divine Comedy and describes what that would entail. Sure enough – without giving too much away – the Face of an Angel movie that we the audience are watching plays out very closely to Thomas’ vision.

I give The Face of an Angel credit for going in a completely different direction than I was expecting. For the first half hour or so, it seemed like quite a rote crime procedural that didn’t really grab me. Thomas spends a lot of time talking to Simone (Kate Beckinsale), a savvy journalist who fills him in on the ins and outs of the trial and patiently explains all of the discrepancies in the evidence and witness accounts. For anyone even moderately familiar with the Amanda Knox case, all this exposition feels quite redundant; the real story is beyond the facts and the courtroom. Thankfully, Winterbottom and screenwriter Paul Viragh are well aware of this, and as the story unfolds, many new layers of uncertainty reveal themselves. As Thomas states, the “truth” behind the crime is virtually unknowable, so why jump to make your own assumptions? Why not make a movie about the fact that it’s unknowable?

Some viewers will likely be frustrated by the film’s refusal to draw neat conclusions. (Indeed, during the Q&A after the screening I was at, one audience member tried to press Winterbottom and the cast about their own opinions on the Knox trial with no avail.) It’s far more interested in exploring the various ways that the truth can be refracted – through the bias of journalism, through fictionalized retellings, or simply through one’s own worldview – and how perspective is malleable.

For me, this was by far the most interesting element of the movie, which is perhaps both a compliment an insult. Winterbottom is one smart guy, and he sneakily slips in a lot for viewers to ponder with this meta-fictional approach. (This is perhaps not surprising, considering he also made Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which tackles similar ideas in very different ways.) However, the actual story of the film never feels quite as compelling as all of these ideas that Winterbottom is offering up. The characters feel like they’re kept slightly at arm’s length from the audience (which is perhaps the point) and while the narrative is interesting enough, it never quite clicks into gear to work wholly as a piece of entertainment. If you don’t find the structure and self-referential aspects of the film interesting, I could see some viewers becoming rather bored by The Face of an Angel.

For me, this is one of those films that I’m finding myself enjoying more after the fact than when I was actually watching it. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it’s yet another movie that proves that Winterbottom – while not always entirely successful – always brings a unique and daring eye to his work.