Letter from Joy
September 16, 2019
Mid-September already, and you know what that means: Christmas is right around the corner. It will be here before we know what hits us. Meanwhile, the temperatures continue to be relatively warm in Toronto, despite a brief cooling off period. And weather reports call for an increase in temperature throughout the week, getting positively summery by the weekend. Probably a last hurrah, but I’m grateful. Not in a big hurry for the cold weather, especially since they’re predicting a brutal winter.
The past month has been fairly busy. At the end of August, I took part in the third annual Women Who Kill Festival in Picton, Ontario, and that turned out to be a terrific event. The women writers I met were wonderful and interesting, and I really enjoyed the various events and presentations. Not so much the three-plus hour drive there and back, especially with the Labor Day traffic. And I wish the organizers had had more funding to promote the event, in order to attract the much larger audience it deserved. Still, everyone who did attend seemed to have a great time.
I had also started seeing a personal trainer, something I hadn’t done in at least a year, and thought I should get back into. Unfortunately, after six quite gruelling sessions, I injured my foot. I think it was on one of those stationary bicycles that my trainer had me riding at a pretty fast clip. At any rate, my foot swelled up and the bottom half of it was quite bruised. It also reactivated my Planter’s Fasciitis which, for those of you who have experienced it know, is a real pain, both literally and physically. I could barely walk for over a week, which made navigating the Toronto Film Festival very tricky, and it’s only now starting to improve. So, no more personal training for me. It seems that, as you get older, the harder you exercise, the more likely you are to injure yourself. So, I think I’ll stick to walking and golf, and maybe a few stretches and weights when the urge hits.
And speaking of the Film Festival, things went quite smoothly this year, as far as ordering tickets. No computer glitches, easy phone access, and I got tickets for pretty much everything I wanted to see. I chose 25 films and, as usual, some were great, some were awful, and most were somewhere in between. For a complete list and reviews of these movies , please see the end of this letter, or go to Facebook. I do have one major gripe with the festival organizers, however. While I love having reserved seats because it means I don’t have to spend hours in line trying to get a good seat - and can’t see why this can’t be extended to include all the theatres and not just a few - I found that many of the seats I was assigned were way too close to the screen and too far off to the side. I’m one of those people who likes to sit farther back, and there were a few times that I was so close and at such a terrible angle, I refused to sit there, and the volunteers were always able to find me somewhere else to sit. Which brings up another point: why do they save some of the best seats for the RUSH line? Ticket holders should be their first priority. When ordering your tickets, I think you should be asked whether you prefer front or back seating. And I deeply resent having to pay another five or ten(!) dollars a ticket to secure the best possible seat. We are already paying a small fortune to go to the festival and this nickel-and-diming is very aggravating. And at the risk of being very politically incorrect, I hate the festival’s habit of giving thanks to the various Indigenous tribes for the use of their land, a speech that is now recited as if it’s the Lord’s Prayer. The fact is that we stole this land, and I’m sure the various tribes would much rather see some cold hard cash and action with regard to getting clean water and better living conditions than this fatuous, if well-intentioned, lip-service that accomplishes nothing other than allowing the organizers to give themselves a congratulatory pat on the back.
One last gripe re the festival: They should not allow films that are opening for wide release during the festival to be included in the festival line-up. It’s bad enough when you’re paying more than double to see a film that opens to wide release within weeks of the festival, but to have a movie actually open DURING the festival, as did Hustlers and The Goldfinch, just isn’t fair. I tried to pick movies that wouldn’t open for at least a month, but it wasn’t always possible to find out the release dates, and I’d already purchased my tickets for Hustlers before I found out it was scheduled to open only a few days later!
So, now it’s back to working on my new book. I’m about a quarter of the way through, and so far, it’s going pretty well. Of course, it’s always hard getting back into a routine, especially now that I have a cold and feel pretty crappyl. It’s at that really uncomfortable stage at the moment - a horrendous sore throat and post-nasal drip, achy all over, etc. Not fun. Hope I’m feeling better tomorrow, as we’re headed to Stratford to see Billy Elliott, a musical we saw in London a few years back, but am anxious to see again. I hear this production is terrific. We also have tickets later this month for Margaret Trudeau’s one-woman comedy show. (Yes, THAT Margaret Trudeau, mother of our Prime Minister.) Should be lots of fun. She interviewed me once a long time ago and I found her both charming and beautiful.
And that’s about it for now. Have a great month. Stay healthy, and be kind to each other.
And now, the movies. I’ll start with my favourites.
- JoJo Rabbit: A-plus. A wildly original and beautifully acted story of a ten-year-old boy growing up in Nazi Germany, whose imaginary friend is none other than Adolph Hitler. While some critics have had trouble with the depiction of Nazis as a bunch of bumbling buffoons rather than the ruthlessly efficient murderers they were, I didn’t have a problem with it, as I think ridicule is a very effective weapon against hate and bigotry. White nationalists and other Nazi sympathizers are drawn to things like power and strength, but not so much when the figures they revere are portrayed as stupid and ridiculous. An absolute must-see that got a five-minute standing ovation and won The People’s Choice Award.
- It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood: A-plus. My second favourite film of this year’s festival. It stars Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, but is more about the journalist sent to interview him than the man himself. As the director explained at the screening I attended, you can’t have Mr. Rogers as the central character because he doesn’t change. What he does is to change everyone around him. It’s an interesting approach and it works beautifully. The acting is impeccable and the script fabulous. Funny, touching, and not at all what you’re expecting. A terrific movie.
- Ford v Ferrari: A-plus. A total surprise. This film wasn’t on my original list of films to see, but my sister convinced me, and it DOES star Christian Bale and Matt Damon, both of whom give Oscar-worthy performances. The movie is fantastic, a real old-fashioned, big-time Hollywood movie that is never less than entertaining and occasionally even thrilling, with car racing sequences that leave you gasping for air.
- Lyrebird: A. I keep going back and forth between and A and A-plus on this one. It’s a terrific movie, based on a true story of an art forger (Vermeer is his speciality) accused of collaborating with the Nazis, and the man who brings him to justice. It stars the magnificent Guy Pearce in another Oscar-worthy performance and the gorgeous Claes Bang (strange name), who also stars in The Burnt Orange Heresy (see review below) and this season of Showtime's The Affair. This is a smart, well-written, well-acted drama. I loved it.
- The Two Popes: A. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are both magnificent in this well-crafted, intelligent and highly entertaining story of two very different Cardinals with two distinctive views of Catholicism. It reminded me of The Journey, a film of a few years back, that imagined a meeting between the warring leaders of opposing parties in Ireland at the time of “the troubles.” The Two Popes, however, is based on fact, and is a wonderful portrait of two well-meaning, intelligent men. It manages to be thoughtful without ever being preachy, and gives one hope that people with opposing views can still find a way to communicate, compromise, and change.
- Military Wives: A. A real crowd-pleaser. This British film is based on the true story - so many of the festival’s movies were based on true stories - of army wives who form a choir to help keep them occupied when their spouses are sent off to war to Afghanistan. It stars the magnificent Kristin Scott Thomas who manages to give an initially unsympathetic character a real humanity. The movie has a real air of authenticity, and makes you want to run out and join a choir.
- Hearts and Bones: A-minus. An Australian film about a war zone photographer who is asked by a Sudanese immigrant not to include any photos he took of the atrocities in the Sudan in an upcoming exhibit. This is a surprisingly powerful and even profound film about grief and friendship, guilt and acceptance. Big themes, to be sure, but never self-important.
- A Sweetness in the Belly: B-plus. Based on Canadian author Camilla Gibbs’s novel, this is the story of a white girl abandoned by her parents in Morocco and raised as a Muslim who finds love and acceptance in Ethiopia but ultimately must flee to London, England after Ethiopians rebel against their Emperor. This is a sensitive, well-written story about love, prejudice and acceptance, and Dakota Fanning is excellent.
- Greed: B-plus. An English film starring Steve Coogan and directed by Michael Winterbottom. The title pretty much says it all in this very funny, clever, and occasionally shocking satire about a ruthless businessman not above exploiting everything and everyone with whom he come into contact in his quest of the almighty dollar. I’d read a middling review of this one, so wasn’t expecting much and ended up loving it. Great performances all around and some hilarious cameos.
- Just Mercy: B-plus. An American movie about the inequities of the prison system and the people trying to help the wrongfully convicted, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx that got great advance buzz and Oscar hype, but didn’t quite live up to expectations. While a friend of mine thought it was the best film of the festival, my response was more muted. Not that it isn’t a good film. It is. But I found it half an hour too long, a bit too earnest, a little too preachy, and it spends too much time on the predictable story of one of the prisoners facing the electric chair. And Brie Larson is totally wasted. Still, it’s an important story and well worth a look.
- The Laundromat: B-plus. Produced by Netflix and starring Meryl Streep, I enjoyed this movie, set in the world of high finance and corruption. It’s based on the Panama Papers, which revealed how businesses shield their profits and shirk their responsibilities by hiding and laundering money in non-existent, off-shore corporations. A real eye-opener in the vein of The Big Short. Also, very entertaining.
- Bad Education: B-plus. Starring a letter-perfect Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, this is the true story of how a school superintendent and his assistant in Roslyn, New York, stole millions of dollars from taxpayers on bogus expenses over a period of years. It’s billed as a comedy, but it’s really not. The people portrayed are truly awful - as were so many of the people on screen at this year’s festival - and one can only marvel at how they got away with their criminal behaviour for so long, and the tenacity of the student reporter who uncovered their criminal acts. Hugh Jackman is particularly wonderful in his fearless portrayal. The movie leaves you shaking your head in amazement.
- Lucy in the Sky: B. I remember this true story when it was first reported more than a decade ago. Natalie Portman is excellent as an astronaut who has difficulty coping when she returns from a mission in space to find the real world just not that interesting anymore. Although married to a very supportive man, she begins an affair with another astronaut, the always terrific Jon Hamm, and becomes quite unhinged when she learns that he’s carrying on with someone else. To reveal more would be unfair to those of you not familiar with the actual chain of events, but some people are very upset - I’m NOT one of them - that there is no mention of diapers in the movie.
- Dolemite Is My Name: B. Another true story, although I had no idea until the end of the movie that this character is an actual person, and that this is his story.Eddie Murphy does a terrific job as Dolemite, a comic persona he adapts in his quest for stardom. The movie is very clear in its depiction of the cultural differences between blacks and whites, and specifically in what each finds funny. Now recognized as the founder of rap music, Dolemite was one of the first comedians to specifically target a black audience in both his comedy and his movies. The movie’s main problem is that, surprisingly, there’s no real conflict. Dolemite decides to adopt a foul-mouthes persona to become successful and he becomes successful; he decides to produce a movie even though he has no idea how, and he succeeds, and the movie is a huge hit, and so on. Even the white people are nice to him. (Which was a pleasant change from most of the movies, where very few people were nice to anyone.)
- The Burnt Orange Heresy: B. Starring the gorgeous Claes Bang and the equally gorgeous Elizabeth Debicki, this is a thriller set in the art world, where no one is quite who they claim to be, and nothing is quite what it seems. Gorgeously photographed in the gorgeous Lake Como district of Italy, this movie is full of unexpected (and occasionally unexplained) twists and turns. With great performances by Donald Sutherland and a fabulously arch Mick Jagger.
- Hustlers: C. Although it’s received pretty good press, I was disappointed in this one. It’s beautiful to look at, and JLo gives a terrific performance - she’s definitely the best thing about the movie - but the characters are all unlikeable and the story, although based in fact, just doesn’t add up. The plot concerns a bunch of strippers who decide to steal from their clients (the decidedly creepy men of Wall Street) after the market goes belly-up and business at the club where they work goes way down. The film purports to be about female empowerment, but that’s just nonsense. These women are nothing but a bunch of crooks who steal from a bunch of unsuspecting, not terribly bright, men for their own personal gain. There’s nothing empowering about that, especially since the men they steal from never did anything to deserve what happens to them. It’s not like the women are seeking revenge, just easy money they don’t deserve. Although my daughter liked it, I was unimpressed.
- Cunningham: C. The only documentary I saw. About the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, it was in 3D, which made it, ahem, stand out from the rest. It’s an interesting documentary and I learned a lot about the man and his craft, but it suffers from a lot of sameness in both style and execution.
- The Personal History of David Copperfield: C. This is Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, not the magician my daughter (and most people I talked to) thought it was about! I found it entertaining, although very episodic and lacking any kind of narrative thrust. My sister, on the other hand, hated it. But while it’s too long and just drifts from one episode to the next without really going anywhere, I still found it interesting, and the performances - especially Hugh Laurie and Tilda Swinton - were a pleasure to watch. However, I found the “colour-blind casting”, while admirable, to be confusing and distracting. While it’s nice to think that it doesn’t matter what colour anyone is - and it shouldn’t - the fact is that in this case, you’re not being true to the times in which the characters lived or to the novel Dickens wrote. It was confusing to see Dev Patel in the title role, especially when the actress playing his mother is so white, just as it was distracting to see a family consisting of an Asian father and his black daughter, and a very white young man with a very black mother, supposedly a pilar of British society at a time when this simply would not have been permitted. I’m all for casting whoever is best for a role, regardless of colour or place of origin, but such casting should always make sense and serve the story.
- Jungleland and Dirt Music: C. Somewhat entertaining and instantly forgettable. I’m hard-pressed to remember much about either.
- The Audition and Pelican Blood: D. Two German movies starring the normally terrific Nina Hoss. She certainly pours her heart into both performances but the movies are both terrible, which is a shame because both start with a good idea and then go nowhere with it. Pelican Blood, in particular, has a promising first hour, then goes steadily downhill until it crashes and burns.
- The Climb, Human Capital, and True History of the Kelly Gang: D. Horrible. While the plots are totally different, the characters in each of these three movies are just awful people, none of whom is even vaguely likeable. And if a character isn’t likeable, then he or she better be awfully interesting, which unfortunately, these are not. I should have walked out long before the final credits rolled. Can’t imagine these films will do well, or even see the light of day.