Letter from Joy
September 5, 2018
Hard to believe that September is here already, especially with the extreme heat we’re still experiencing. What’s that old expression - be careful what you wish for? Regular readers of my monthly letters know that I’m definitely a hot-weather person, and to be honest, I’ve actually loved this summer, although I could have done with less humidity. My hair has been a total disaster. I no sooner walk out of the hairdresser’s, my hair all smooth and shiny, and by the time I get home, only a few blocks away, my hair is a frenzied mass of frizzy curls. Not a great look. It’s supposed to cool down by the weekend, just in time for the Toronto Film Festival. This is a good thing because they always keep the theatres freezing cold and it’s hard to know what to wear. You swelter waiting in line, and then you freeze once you sit down, depending on that you’re wearing. Such problems!
So, the festival starts on Thursday, Sept. 6 and goes to the 16th. This year I’m only seeing 20 films, as opposed to my usual 25 or 26. This is due to several factors: festival fatigue and the fact I’m going to Vancouver on the last day of the festival and won’t be seeing any movies that day. As usual, I’ve chosen a very eclectic list of films from all over the world, but who knows how many will be any good. I’m obviously hoping for more good ones than bad, but the catalogue makes them all sound so interesting, and this year looks more promising than last, but you never know. As I’ve said, it’s a crapshoot. I’ll post a list of the movies I’m seeing at the end of this letter, and I’ll post reviews of each film when I return from Vancouver on the 20th. As well, I’ll post daily ratings on Twitter.
I do have a few complaints about the festival. Ordering tickets has become a nightmare. I logged in at my assigned time, then had to cool my heels for fifteen minutes waiting for the right box to pop up that allowed me to purchase tickets. I then spent the next two-plus hours trying to place my order. Every time I went through the whole rigamarole of selecting the movies I wanted to see and got to the very end of the process, a box popped up and said “Sorry. Technical glitch. Try again.” This happened so many times, I was all but screaming. (Actually, I was screaming. You can ask my husband.) There were a host of other problems as well, and I finally had to call the TIFF box office to help me, and was promptly put on hold for 24 minutes! The wait is made all the more excruciating when you’re forced to listen to the music from "Django Unchained” the whole time. Truly, cruel and unusual punishment. Finally, with a volunteer’s help, I was able to secure my tickets. Apparently my order had gone through despite the technical glitch, even though I’d never checked out or gone through the final steps of the process. I went to the box office the next day and picked up all my tickets, but something really has to be done to better this ordeal. I long for the good old days when I simply purchased a day pass and lined up for whatever movie I wanted to see. That allowed me to walk out of a movie I didn’t like and try to see another. Since we end up lining up for the better part of an hour anyway, I wish they’d go back to that system. Or maybe I’m just getting too old and cranky for this. Every year, I swear it’s my last, and every year, I give it another try. We’ll have to wait and see what I do next year. Also, the ticket prices are getting ridiculous and half the films open within weeks of their screening at the festival, some even opening during the festival! I made it a point to not pick any movie that opened within a month of the festival screening, although I slipped up with one of my choices, “Old Man and the Gun."
On the 16th, it’s off to Vancouver where my husband has some meetings for 3 days, then back home, only to turn around a day later to fly west again, this time to Lethbridge, Alberta for the Word on the Street Festival on Sept. 22. (That’s two very long flights in as many days, plus the time change, so I’ll probably be a bit of a basket case by the time I get home to Toronto late that night.) Then on Sept. 23, I’ll be appearing at Word on the Street in Toronto, except we’ll be on the water, as part of a cruise. Should be fun, assuming I’m not too dopey and tired to enjoy it.
As for my writing, I’m currently reworking my latest novel, and hope I’ve finally got it right. There’s a saying that writing is rewriting, and it’s true. But it's hard because it gets to a point where you don’t know what you’ve left in and what you’ve cut out, and you have no idea what the book reads like to someone coming at it fresh. Hopefully, these last changes will be the final ones. At any rate, the cover of the book is great. And yes, I know - you can’t judge a book by its cover, but this one is definitely intriguing.
As for my golf, the less said, the better. I can’t seem to strong two good games in a row together. One day, I’m really good; the next horrible. I know the pros can have a ten-point difference in their scores from one day to the next, but at my level, it’s especially discouraging. I keep trying not to let it get to me, but while that works for a day or two, after a while, it gets to me. I’ve said it before - golf is a game that goes right to the heart of one’s self-esteem. Not for the faint-hearted.
I’ve been watching the U.S. Open, and Bachelor in Paradise, along with my new favourite limited series, Killing Eve. But what’s with Better Call Saul? So far, AMC has posted only the first two episodes ON DEMAND, and hasn’t bothered posting the last three. I watched the last one at its regular airtime, and discovered I hadn’t really missed anything. (It moves very slowly. Surely, the writers can pick up the pace a little.) But why hasn’t AMC posted all the episodes? It’s very irritating because you can’t always watch it during its original time slot. I also binged-watched as many episodes as I could of Sons of Anarchy, an exceptionally engrossing and violent series I’d passed on originally. I thought it was mostly great, although I didn’t especially like the last season, which took itself way too seriously and veered dangerously into pretentiousness. These are motorcycle gangsters, people, not heroes, and their professed love for one another got a little tiresome in light of all the people they slaughtered.
I read a few books: TAFT by Ann Patchett - good writing, but unsatisfying in that it never really went anywhere, and A NOISE DOWNSTAIRS by Linwood Barclay that started out great but then faltered.
And that’s about it for now. Stay well, be kind, and I'll write again next month. Happy High Holidays to all my Jewish readers. May the new year be filled with peace, health and love.
Movie Reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
As promised, here is the list of the movies I saw at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, and a short review of each. I’m listing my favourites first. Before I begin, I’m happy to say that this year’s lineup was one of the very best in years. Either that, or I just chose particularly well. But from the comments I’ve heard from others, most people seem very pleased with their selections. I have a few caveats about the festival in general: ticket prices are becoming ridiculous, especially when many of the movies - way too many - are opening within weeks of the festival, and in some cases, during the festival itself. I really think that movies opening within a month of the festival should not be screened. Why pay double, even triple and more, to see a movie you can see a week later at its regular price? I did like the prior seat assignments at some of the theatres, although not the extra cost involved, especially when some of the seats I paid more for weren’t any better - and in some cases, worse - than the ones I didn’t pay extra for. (Also, when I complained that I hadn’t actually wanted to pay extra for three of the movies I selected - there were all sorts of computer glitches - I was told there were no refunds!) And speaking of computer glitches, the voting for the People’s Choice awards was especially frustrating, as after I made my selection, there was no SUBMIT button to enter it. I’ve heard many people complain about the same thing. Some people had no trouble; other people, like me, weren’t able to submit our votes. Get it together, people!
And now, the films:
- GREEN BOOK: the story of a black classical pianist and his white limo driver traveling through the Southern U.S. in 1962. This movie was satisfying on every level. It was wise, funny, touching, beautifully written and acted, and an absolute joy to watch. Viggo Mortensen deserves the Oscar. I predict this movie will be nominated for lots of awards, and was my choice for the People’s Choice Awards.
- NEVER LOOK AWAY: a truly transformative film from Germany that should win the Oscar for Best Foreign film. (I admit I didn’t see many of the other obvious contenders, such as SHOPLIFTERS.) It was directed by the man who did win the Oscar for best foreign film a number of years back for The Lives of Others. This movie starts in 1940, Nazi Germany, and continues to 1960, and follows the life of a young boy as he survives the horrors of his childhood and grows into a gifted artist. The larger themes involve the nature of art and truth, and the story itself is never less than involving, despite its three-hour running time. I loved this movie. A true masterpiece.
- IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK: Adapted from the 70’s novel by James Baldwin and directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, this is a beautiful love story involving a young black couple whose lives are turned upside-down by a racist cop. It’s a story that rings only too true today, but what stops it from being unbearably sad is the love the characters all feel for each other, and which we feel as well. More than a film about hate, it is a film about love. It’s beautiful, sad, and wonderfully acted by the entire cast. Another movie I predict will be nominated for a lot of major awards.
- MONSTERS AND MEN: A small first-time effort by a supremely talented director, this movie was a revelation. Similar in theme to many of the movies at this years festival, it tells the story from three different points of view, woven seamlessly together, of the police killing of an unarmed black man. The characters are all extremely well-drawn, the acting couldn’t be better, and the suspense at times is almost unbearable. Definitely a director to watch.
- GIRLS OF THE SUN: From France, this is the story of a unit of female fighters who were former captives and sex slaves of Daesh now fighting their former oppressors in Iraqi Kurdistan. This movie is exciting and suspenseful and timely, and the lead actress, Golshifteh Farahani, is as terrific as she is gorgeous.
- WIDOWS: a super slick caper story with racial undertones from the director of Twelve Years a Slave, it stars Viola Davis and the luminous Elizabeth Debicki, as members of a group of women who turn to crime after their husbands are killed during a robbery. It’s clever - if more predictable than it thinks it is - and absorbing. More than a little improbable but a fun ride. And Daniel Kaluuya, last seen in GET OUT, is fabulously evil.
- WHERE HANDS TOUCH: An engrossing and intriguing movie about a little explored subject: what it was like to be a black person in Nazi Germany. This is the story of a young, bi-racial woman in the Third Reich. The product of an Aryan mother and a deceased black father, she is initially spared because she isn’t Jewish, and is able to obtain phone papers claiming she’s been sterilized and therefore can't reproduce. She attracts the attention of a young Nazi soldier and their relationship soon blooms into love, a love that obviously will not be tolerated.
- A MILLION LITTLE PIECES: I read the book by James Frey years ago, and this is an excellent and faithful recreation. You may remember the scandal that resulted after Oprah discovered that the so-called memoir she’d chosen for her book club was actually a work of fiction. Frey admitted that while some of the book was true, other parts had been embellished or hadn’t actually happened. It was still a good read, and it makes an excellent film.
- DESTROYER: With Nicole Kidman in a terrific performance. This is the story of a burnt-out cop (Kidman) on the hunt for a killer/bank robber, whose gang she infiltrated as an undercover officer many years earlier. The movie was always watchable, and was surprising on a number of levels. I didn’t see the resolution coming, which is something I always appreciate.
- THE MOST BEAUTIFUL COUPLE: Another movie from Germany, this one is about a married couple whose lives are upended when a trio of young men beat up and rob the couple while they are on holiday. The most repulsive of the young men also rapes the wife. But this isn’t just another story of revenge. It’s partly that, and excitingly so, but it’s much deeper than that, exploring the aftereffects of the trauma. Very well observed and acted.
- HOMECOMING: Starring the always watchable Julia Roberts, this was the first four episodes go a series made for Amazon Prime. Even though it started as an episodic podcast, not everything deserves to be strung out for hours on end. While it was engrossing and well-done, I think it would have made a great two-hour thriller instead of a prolonged series.
- THE WEDDING GUEST: Starring Dev Patel as a man who is hired to kidnap a reluctant bride and spirit her out of Pakistan before she can be married, this was an interesting failure. I enjoyed it, especially seeing India, but the plot never really hung together. It never seemed to make up its mind what it wanted to be, and the motivation - why the kidnapping when the bride was more than eager to flee? - and the ending was less than satisfying. Still, it was enjoyable.
- RED JOAN: the mostly true story of an old woman, played by Judi Dench, who is arrested for selling nuclear secrets to the Russians during the second world war. I wasn’t bored, but neither was I thrilled. A solid effort, and never boring. Just not as interesting as it should have been.
- SKIN: A difficult film to watch about a group of Neo-Nazis and the young, multi-tattooed skinhead who wants to break free of their grip. Jamie Bell is terrific, as always, and Vera Farmiga is fantastic and incredibly seductive in her role as Nazi den mother. But we’ve seen this film before, and this doesn’t say too much new.
- DRIVEN: the true story of John Delorean and his (arguably) criminal attempts to finance the making of the Delorean automobile, and in particular, his association with the con man who is his neighbour. I found Jason Sudeikas, as the con man, very irritating, but Lee Bice as Delorean was both gorgeous and terrific.
- THE FRONT RUNNER: another true story, this one about Gary Hart’s run for the presidency, which was derailed by his affair with Donna Rice. This is engrossing and earnest, but not terribly exciting, and I wondered how those too young to have been around then would find it. It feels a little dated, especially in light of the current situation in the U.S. Still, I was never bored, and it’s well-done.
- DOGMAN: From Italy. Horrible. The story of a moronic dog groomer who gets involved with gangsters, this was a total dud. When you can’t make a man who risks his life to save a small dog sympathetic, there’s something wrong. This movie even manages to make Italy looks ugly.
- THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN: Robert Redford’s last movie as an actor, and it’s a shame he picked this turkey. Supposedly based on fact, it’s just stupid, not nearly as engaging as it thinks it is. Redford is his charming self and Sissy Spacek is terrific, but the movie is a real disappointment.
- ASH IS PUREST WHITE: From China. A mess that makes no real sense and only comes alive for about twenty minutes of its more than two hour running time when we concentrate on the heroine, and leave all the men out of it. Not remotely believable.
- THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS: A Netflix film that is a bore from start to finish. Totally unlikeable and unsympathetic characters. Couldn’t stand any of them. A waste of time.
The top four:
The excellent: (in no particular order)
The good but not great: (again, in no particular order)