City Hall Review TIFF 2020

The Plot

A monumentally vast documentary capturing the full tapestry of Boston city services in painstaking detail,  giving a uniquely sprawling portrait of the daily y functional reality of the life of a major city.

The Good

Frederick Wiseman is a uniquely passionate and through filmmaker who has dedicated a lifetime to capturing America on screen in over 40 non-fiction films. Returning again to his home state of Massachusetts’s for a third time he embarks on the truly ambitious project of capturing the fill scope of one of the country’s most iconic cities.

Filmed across the course of a year from 2018 to 2019 the film now serves as a time capsule of the last days of a pre-2020 normalcy. The film’s extensively massive archive of daily life in the narrow corridors of local power is a stark insight into the banal realities of local government.

The film’s principal figure Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh is a potentially interesting counterpoint to the much vilified rhetoric of Donald Trump. His frequent reflections on environmentalism, gender equality and diversity reflect upon increasingly divisive issues in American society. These topics rendered all the more urgent but by the rising tensions within a city that has witnessed seismic shifts in demographics and economic fortunes.

For an understated local politician Mayor Walsh is at least a slightly intriguing figure. Having emerged from personal traumas and blue collar roots into a prominent position of local political power. Faced with at times the myriad of complex issues that afflict all major American cites today his occasional contributions are among the film’s most seemingly meaningful.

The Bad

Wiseman’s work may be uniquely detailed and complete as a record of the subject matter he explores but with a run time of over four and a half hours this is a truly daunting commitment form an audience. Perhaps in an era of dedicated binge watching culture that won’t prove as off-putting as it would undoubtedly have been in the past, but many may still balk at the challenge of this vast sprawling piece of documentary cinema.

For many people it will be simply exhausting to be plunged into seemingly endless administrative meetings and policy debates. The constant slog of the mundane minutia of city services can be difficult to wade through. Though endlessly intercut with shots of the cityscape, there’s something a little sterile and static about this barrage of imagery. It’s just soundless flashes of a cityscape devoid of life and meaning. It doesn’t serve as nearly an effective enough break from the films main body of conversation.

The film is so slow moving and packed with rambling ordinary conversations about absurdly local political concerns that it’s difficult to discern any wider meaning from it. In truth the goal of a documentary should be perhaps to capture the spirit of a topic or make some form of constructive commentary on it. The film sometimes feels as if the filmmakers merely left the camera running for a year in local government offices and meeting halls, merely to publish the hastily assembled raw footage.

At a time when the world is more politicized and burdened with headline level problems than ever the prospect of having to endure the reality of being trapped in meetings full of political jargon and the well intentioned ramblings of administrative staff and activists. If the goal of the film is merely to give audiences the actual experience of literally being trapped in that endless cycle of largely pointless discussions and navel gazing administrative bureaucracy, then it has most definitely succeeded.

Unfortunately the film’s unfocused and painfully dull qualities leave it impossible to discern any meaningful purpose to the exercise. Turing a camera on real life without any filter for irrelevance and banality makes you wonder why you even bothered recording in the first place.

Regrettably the vast gulf in quality between this film and the astonishing pieces of documentary cinema showcased elsewhere in the festival is a little embarrassing. It’s a piece of static white noise in contrast to symphonies.  

The Ugly Truth

Frederick Wiseman continues his ambitious efforts to document America on screen with another ambitiously long but diligently assembled portrait of a city and those responsible for its most basic functions. Sadly the film’s vast unwieldy run time and slow moving mundane qualities will likely discourage all but the most hardened enthusiasts of local politics.  It’s unfortunately very difficult to discern what if any purpose Wiseman has in assembling such a sprawling unnecessary archive of some of the dullest elements of daily life.

Review by Russell Nelson

New Order Review TIFF 2020

The Plot

A cautionary tale set during a violent protest in Mexico City exploring how quickly the tenuous social fabric we rely on can collapse. A bride finds herself caught up in the military crackdown against protests and imprisoned in order to be ransomed back to her wealthy upper class family.

The Good

In 2020 as the world seemingly descends once more into widespread rioting and aggressive tensions between the wealthy elite and the perpetually impoverished there is a vivid urgency in playing out that reality to a dramatized extreme. While deeply rooted in the often savage political history of Latin America this is undoubtedly a film that will speak readily to people across both sides of those ever widening social divides. It’s a story that speaks widely and vividly to a global crisis.

The film’s deeply operatic and graphically visual opening sets a visceral tone for proceedings. The screen burst with flashes of colour, chaos and blood drenched violence set against a grandly ominous soundtrack. It’s a fierce statement of intent before the film regresses to a more comfortably normal opening at a high class family gathering.

Nain Gonzallez Norvind is a very effective lead as Marianne, the young elite frustrated by her families refusal to help pay for surgery for the wife of a former employee. That initial act of compassion catalyses a journey outside of the apparent gated security of her family’s wealthy fortress home, ironically just before the world erupts into an apocalyptic nightmare.

The film brutally juxtaposes lurid beauty and violence, the extremes of luxury and deprivation. Peeling away the veneer of civilisation and exposing how quickly it can be subsumed within the ugly horrors of devastating social unrest and furious anarchy. It moves towards an unforgiving and savage finale that lays bare the true horrors mankind if collectively and politically capable of.

The Bad

New Order is such a compelling authentic depiction of total societal collapse that it may be uncomfortable viewing. There is a sincere brutality to the violence and anger depicted on screen which will likely sit uneasily with those increasingly concerned by the ruinous social unrest playing out on the streets of major cities across the globe. The film serves as a legitimately horrifying glimpse into our own all too possible future.

Corruption and extreme acts of brutality are always difficult to confront on screen and the most savage scenes in this movie will be deeply unsettling. In particular many global audiences will likely seek to comfort themselves by dismissing the film’s nightmarish vision as a uniquely Latin American horror. The notion that the threat of anarchy and absolute corruption might extend to the first world as well as the third will not be a welcome thought to be confronted with and it may cause many audiences to pull away for absorbing the full weight of the film’s warning.

The Ugly Truth

New Order is an unflinchingly violent and traumatic plunge into the nightmarish horrors of a world collapsing in a fiery furious rage. It is a powerful reminder of how fragile our world is and how the growing gulf between social classes can explode if left unchecked for too long. It is brutal but compelling apocalyptic viewing, made even more

Review by Russell Nelson

40 Years A Prisoner Review TIFF 2020

The Plot

This HBO documentary provides an explosive and detailed account of the bitter 1978 stand-off between an activist commune in the heart of Philadelphia and the city’s police. The lengthy siege ended with the death of a police office and nine MOVE activists receiving maximum sentences of between 30 and 100 years in prison. This film explores that controversial history through the eyes of Mike Africa Jr, whose parent both have spent 40 years in prison while he fights for the release and to bring attention to their story.

The Good

This ruthlessly detailed and unflinching documentary does an effective job at documenting both sides of the raging conflict and a forensic examination of its infamously violent collusion. The battle between the anarchic MOVE compound and the allegedly vicious police force is wildly relevant to the current war raging across the United States between BLM and ANTIFA activists and increasingly embattled law enforcement agencies. Explosive racial tensions and how mainstream society deals with irreconcilable aggressive political activism are still deeply urgent questions in 2020.

While this film obviously shine’s a fierce light on the apparent violence of police tactics of that era and the grim reality of subsequently incarcerating people almost indefinitely, it is also commendable that the film is even handed in presenting the balanced perspective of those who identify ways in which the MOVE commune pushed authorities into unavoidable conflict through their own actions which were fuelled by largely incoherent rhetoric and legitimately dangerous criminal behaviour.

Frequently in the film the opinion is voiced that MOVE’s fate was largely self-inflicted and could have been easily avoided had they chosen to simply deescalate the conflict and abandon their literal fortress stronghold. Even those who support a more balanced punishment for terminally imprisoned members will likely be forced at times to concede that there is some truth to that shared blame.

The film does an excellent job at putting an intimate human face onto a seemingly endless war between activists, law enforcement and the justice system. This documentary is not just an act of lopsided political propaganda, it is a true examination of all facets of this violent incident and the decades long struggle for freedom that followed it for one family.

The Bad

This documentary will likely not succeed in shifting people’s deep rooted and firmly entrenched views on which side bears the moral weight for the brutal conclusion of this conflict. At the time of these events American society remained fiercely divided between those who saw MOVE as violent cult that pushed the city’s police into regrettable but unavoidable action and those who saw the actions of the police as being unjustifiably brutal and oppressive.

In 2020 against a backdrop of seemingly endless riots across America in response to perceived police brutality it’s hard to ignore the parallels. But this particular piece of history will not do much to change people’s hysterically passionate views on why so many American cities are being set aflame both literally and metaphorically. It’s a sad truth that many the aggressively polarized views showcased in this documentary are just as alive in the present day.

While the film may convince audiences that many people within the US prison system are being cruelly denied even the possibility of release in ways that are wildly disproportionate to their actual crimes, it’s perhaps unfortunate that the MOVE group will still be considered deeply unsympathetic by many even after 4 decades. It’s a point often acknowledged even by those who support the long struggle to release the convicted MOVE members that their fiery rhetoric and confrontational behaviour confuses the issue of their ‘innocence’ and distracts from any guilt assigned to law enforcement.

The Ugly Truth

40 Years A prisoner is a well-made examination of a conflict that is eerily echoed in the present day. It is an even handed presentation of facts that will likely continue to divide opinions fiercely. It is a timely examination of the often viciously violent conflict between Black activism and authorities

Review by Russell Nelson

Pieces of A Woman Review TIFF 2020

The Plot

An unblinking account of a young couple from different backgrounds navigating the most painful loss imaginable when the planned home birth of their first child spirals into unspeakable tragedy.

The Good

At a time when the cinematic landscape is so often dominated by fantastical special effect fuelled escapism, this film immediately feels like a more raw form of powerfully simple human drama.

Traumatic childbirth and the loss of a child is something so taboo and deeply unsettling that there isn’t actually a word in the English language to describe this kind of loss. Giving that nameless and all too often unspoken pain a voice in this unflinching intimate dramatization is perhaps an important step in destigmatizing the ocean of grief and confusion it creates.

While for many it will be utterly daunting to confront this horror on screen, it may offer audience at least some hope of comprehending the experience of families who survive this ordeal and for those who have it may serve as a chance for catharsis.

Shia LaBeouf is a young actor who has emerged from the shadow of his highly publicised personal demons and professional missteps to become a truly compelling and uniquely visceral adult performer. His output in recent years as a director and performer alike have moved miles towards redeeming himself for admitted past failings. Few actors have the capacity for raw blistering anguish that he has so frequently demonstrated in recent performances. It’s difficult at times to believe there was once a time when he was trading poorly scripted quips with dancing CGI robots.

His performance as Sean a working class man evidently haunted by past demons and faced with a furious search for blame and explanations is utterly heart-breaking. It is a truly raw and accurate portrait of the flailing effort to survive. His desperate efforts to maintain some shred of normalcy and protect their relationship from being completely annihilated by grief is utterly agonising viewing. Particularly as it disintegrates into more self-destructive behaviour.

Vanessa Kirby as the other half of this devastated couple has already collected top acting honours in Venice for this performance. As her star continues to rise ceaselessly this is a physically and emotionally demanding performance that showcases the full intensity of her talents. Her performance is devastating and riveting in equal measure. Kirby carries the full crushing weight of her character’s journey in every scene. Her performance is wracked with a more introverted agony than LaBeouf’s performance. While she may at first appear to be irretrievably muted her gradual momentum carries her towards a bravely articulate and cathartic climax.

Veteran acting icon Ellen Burstyn is another vitally important piece of this complex drama, playing Kirby’s strong voiced mother that carries her own weight of desperate expectations and lived experiences into the already nightmarish situation.

The contrast between how these different people process the mountain of grief and unanswerable questions they are inescapably faced with shows the complete spectrum of the human experience of loss. It is a heart-breaking anguished cry torn constantly between fits of rage and totally numb detachment. The fact that it leads eventually towards some form of healing and recovery is an uplifting statement about the power of the human spirit.

The Bad

The subject matter of this unflinching and traumatic piece of filmmaking will likely be simply too difficult to bear for those whose own lives have actually been touched by the most devastating experience of losing a child. While it is perhaps important to have that most extreme form of human suffering explored on screen, it is a daunting prospect for anyone but especially those most vulnerable.

Inevitably some people will seek to use the film as a tool for explicitly highlighting the dangers of ‘home birthing’. Such is the intensely emotive nature of this medical debate that the film will likely also draw fire from those concerned about stigmatizing home birth. They will point to the film being fiction. Either way it’s inescapably inflammatory.

Given the wildly different ways in which people process unimaginable grief in their own lives it’s also inescapable that some people will find it immensely difficult to relate to the different stages of the specific journey these broken characters go through. There is perhaps nothing more alienating and corrosive to our understanding of each other than the way in which we respond to the most extreme trauma.

Even if the film’s ultimate message of the possibility of eventual recovery is of universal appeal, the path the film and these excellent performances maps to reaching it may provoke difficult emotions and dissent among audiences.

The Ugly Truth

Pieces of A Woman is a traumatically powerful examination of one of the most devastating personal traumas human beings can experience. While it will be unbearable for many to watch, those that choose to will at least find some solace in knowing that this kind of pain has been authentically and respectfully dramatized. Perhaps this is most important given how often unspoken this experience is in the lives of real families affected touched by such heartbreak.

Review by Russell Nelson 

76 Days Review TIFF 2020

The Plot

Director Hao Wu’s & Weixi Chen’s detailed documentary account of life inside the 76 day lockdown in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The original epicentre of the COVID 19 global pandemic. Following a small team of hospital workers as they struggle to deal with the unprecedented medical crisis and a relentless stream of patients.

The Good

It’s hard to understate the global appetite for some degree of understanding about the reality of the frontline in what has become a global war against a virus. As the original source of the outbreak Wuhan a city of 11 million people has long been the focus of much of that global scrutiny and deep desire for answers.  Given the fiercely secretive nature of the Chinese government, the reality of the 76 day long lockdown in this particular city has long been a natural focal point for that intensive international interest.

Given the previous absence of any evidence of the unique experience of this city, this documentary instantly becomes deeply significant as the first globally accessible first had account. In many ways what the documentary does or indeed doesn’t show is equally important. Even if it has potentially been filtered to appease the Chinese government by ensure the most positive presentation of the heroically humane medical efforts. It is at least any kind of footage that has allowed to escape the social media blackouts and deeply private Chinese state.

Accepting the footage as authentic documentation of life with a Wuhan medical team it showcases an astonishing degree of dedicated kindness and compassion by medical professionals doing their best to care for COVID 19 patients in the most complete sense of that word. It’s a place where every nurse or doctor wrapped in layers of PPE, hazmat suits and safety goggles seemingly still makes time to hold the hand of frightened ‘gradma’ or forge astonishing conversational connections with young mothers, grandpas and anyone else under their care.

The intimately shot footage appears to have been made with completely unrestricted and continuous access. From an astonishing opening sequence where one woman surrounded by a crowd of PPE clad professionals reacts hysterically to the death of her ‘Papa’, it’ startling to see such raw human anguish actually being shared on screen.

The film is packed with an endless array of small moments of human kindness and despair that gives an emotive impression of what life inside a COVID 19 ward could truly be like. For many who have sought to understand this reality better this will be compelling and deeply impactful viewing.

The Bad

With increasing global cynicism about both the reality of the disease and the way international government particularly the Chinese government have handled this crisis, there will undoubtedly be many who question the validity of a documentary like this which claims to offer such a complete record of life inside the previously deeply secretive epicentre of what ultimately became a global pandemic.

There are those that will immediately seeks to dismiss footage of Chinese medical staff bravely battling to save patients with relentless kindness and surprising calm as most likely merely an act of state censored propaganda. Some will accuse the filmmakers of selective presentation of footage to show the Chinese virus response in the most rose tinted light, others will go further and accuse the filmmakers of outright fabrication.

The film’s astonishing production values and camera work will no doubt be held out as evidence that the film is more artificial that it would admit. The constant presence of the camera in what would even under normal circumstances be a fraught and deeply private environment is truly surprising. As is the fact that the footage has a perfectly framed seamlessly edited quality that would put the most expensive multi-camera medical drama series to shame.

The filmmakers would defend this as merely an act of skilled camerawork and effective editing. But it is a little odd to comprehend how a small or even singular team of filmmakers could possibly have organically captured so many conveniently powerful moments in a claustrophobic environment populated by hazmat suit clad medical workers frantically battling to save a tsunami of the sick and dying.

Likewise while many people will no doubt hope to find wider answers about the origin of the virus or the true scale of its human impact in this footage. In reality those fundamental questions about this disease remain unanswered. At best this is a small scale portrait of the lives of specific medical workers, not some sweeping revelatory analysis of a global event of historic proportions.

The Ugly Truth

76 Days is a slickly produced documentary which if taken as truly authentic, shines light on reality inside the epicentre of the pandemic which has swept the world in 2020 with truly devastating consequences. Though some may question what the documentary doesn’t show, it does display an astonishing array of deeply human moments. It feels like a real portrait of desperately sick people and the kindness of those seeking to save and comfort them.

Review by Russell Nelson