Movies – TIFF17
Katherine Monk goes back to the future and catches up with the past in a day that includes a haunted Jim Carrey, a brush with the Khmer Rouge, a chilling take on the Chinese stock market and a moving visit to a psychiatric ward in Bille August’s 55 Steps
By Katherine Monk
TORONTO (September 12, 2017) — Today, I was a time-traveller.
I started in the mid-1980s in San Francisco, fast-forwarded to 1990 to pay a visit to the Man in the Moon, spent some time dodging the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia circa 1975, then took a break at the modern-day New York Public Library before entering 19th century London to hang out with Mary Shelley and Lord Byron.
By nightfall, I was entering a very uncertain future as I headed to China and realized the entire global economy was a house of cards about to be undone by a game of three-card monty using Mah Jong tiles.
It can all be a little overwhelming. Fortunately, I took notes:
8:45 am: I prepare myself for 55 Steps by climbing the stairs at Scotiatheatre — knowing it’s the only exercise I’ll probably get all day. I settle into the front row and sip my triple-shot cappuccino from Milano. It’s my favourite beanery in the Big Smoke because it’s a guy from Vancouver, and the coffee isn’t bitter…. unlike so many of the faces bustling down Bay Street.
There are two Swedes discussing Darren Aranofsky’s mother! I don’t understand Swedish. But I did get “What the fuck, Darren!”
But mother! feels so yesterday, already. And honestly, the more time that passes, the less enthralled I’ve become with Aronofsky’s latest. The adrenaline of the experience is gone, leaving nothing but his loveless frames and a lingering sense of emptiness…
Fortunately, there are so many other films swimming in this cinematic sea that mother! has already become a blur of style and affectation. And the movie I’m about to see isn’t about turning madness into an academic exercise about aesthetics.
The lights go down and I’m watching the tribute to Bill Marshall, TIFF’s late founder, again. This time, I wonder why they say “With Affection…” instead of “With Love…” Then I remember, despite my delicious coffee, that I am still in Toronto.
55 Steps: The movie begins with a title card telling me I am in St. Mary’s psychiatric hospital in San Francisco. The year is 1985. Helena Bonham-Carter is being dragged by a group of male orderlies down a white corridor. She is kicking and screaming “NO!! NO!! Don’t put me in there!!” But they do. They put her in a white room with nothing but a mat, hold her face down, and stick a needle in her backside. She goes limp, then starts to seize uncontrollably after everyone has left the room, locking her in. I can’t believe this was still happening in 1985.
Yet, this is a true horror story about the way society treated the mentally ill until Eleanor Riese (Bonham-Carter) decided to challenge hospital policy. It’s a little-known chapter in American legal history, but Riese and her legal team lead by Collette Hughes (Hilary Swank) and Mort Cohen (Jeffrey Tambor) forced doctors to ask for consent before administering medication.
Films about about mental illness are not easy to make. You have to pull your audience into a space most people do not understand, and make them care about people who do not conform to social expectation. The common touchstones of empathy may be entirely absent, but Danish director Bille August (Pele the Conqueror, The House of the Spirits) handles it without artifice or sticky schmaltz. I cry anyway, because the film quietly shows the power of love and compassion, and reminds me that all healing begins with the restoration of human dignity. I think every performance is Oscar-worthy, that Hilary Swank is back and Bonham-Carter is brilliant. Then I talk to the publicist who tells me the trades trashed it.
I sigh quietly and shuffle through the cavernous imitation Disneyland teeming with testosterone and entitlement. I need to be more like my coffee, I say to myself, and take a peek at Ex Libris, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary about the New York Public Library. I catch a scene of books on a large conveyor, where they’re being sorted at a processing station to be returned to their respective shelves at one of the Library’s 209 branches across all five boroughs.
But it’s not just books. Wiseman’s camera captures a talk from a sign language interpreter about her work, a seniors’ dance class, archivists preserving old maps and digitizing old photos, a development session about creating learning tools for math in the inner-city, and an introductory session for people hoping to borrow a portable hotspot to access the internet. I also learn the most popular learning set is about baby animals. And that was just the 20 minutes I saw. I could have easily watched more: There’s something magical about a library. I feel smarter just walking into one, maybe because I now have to wear glasses in order to read.
11 am: Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. Netflix recently acquired Chris Smith’s documentary crafted from behind the scenes footage from Milos Foreman’s Man on the Moon, the bizarre 1999 biopic about the even more bizarre comic supernova named Andy Kaufman. The tapes, shot by Kaufman’s girlfriend Leslie Margulies, were sitting in Jim Carrey’s office for years, unseen, until Smith (The Yes Men) cut them together with added archival and a new interview with the star.
Carrey has a full beard and looks at the camera without a single goofy grin. It’s a Carrey I’ve never seen before: a Carrey that isn’t seeking approval or tugging at his skin. He talks about the freedom he felt escaping into another man’s soul, then about disappearing altogether.
I remember liking Man on the Moon, but as one of the interviewees says: the real movie was taking place off-camera as Carrey stayed in character for the duration, forcing Foreman to address Carrey as ‘Andy.’ At one point, Foreman says he can’t handle it anymore. Carrey offers to imitate Andy instead of being him, but Foreman says no, it’s okay. “I just wanted to talk to Jim.”
Smith’s film captures the personal dislocation caused by fame in an intimate way, allowing us to watch the makeup going on, and what happens when it all comes off — leaving nothing but the bare soul. I think I like this Jim Carrey. He can be still.
12:50 pm: A gap leaves room to visit Cambodia, circa 1975, in Angelina Jolie’s latest directorial effort: First They Killed My Father, an adaptation of Loung Ung’s memoir about escaping the Khmer Rouge. Children are being trained as soldiers. People are getting blown up and shot. Jolie certainly doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter, and this story of child soldiers and refugees tells an epic story without losing a sense of intimacy.
1:15 pm: The screening for Mary Shelley is late, and crowded, but I shuffle into the front row. The film stars Elle Fanning as the author of Frankenstein and lover to Percy Bysshe Shelley. It’s classic biopic material, but in the hands of director Haifaa al-Mansour and writer Emma Jensen, it feels a lot like Twilight with poetry. Douglas Booth broods as the Romantic heartthrob and Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams makes an early appearance as Mary’s Scottish cousin, but the act of writing is the biggest star of all as Mary struggles to cope with personal tragedy through prose. It takes a while for the central character to find her voice, but al-Mansour shows us every painful event along the way with Gothic flair — making this period piece dark and stormy enough to entice teens. It may even be sexy enough to seduce them into picking up a copy of Ozymandias.
3:45 pm: I need a nap, and something real to eat. I get the latter at another Vancouver-born eatery that serves up just about everything, from Thai noodles to Tuna poke. But really, it’s the lineup-free bathroom that proves the main draw.
I climb the stairs again in a bid to work off the noodles and remind my legs they actually have a purpose.
5:15: China Hustle. Nothing like a movie about a pending global financial collapse to end the day. Jed Rothstein’s documentary is enough to make you call your broker and divest, not just from Chinese companies, but the stock market as a whole. Based on Dan David’s book, and produced by Alex Gibney, the film follows the rise of the Chinese “miracle” — and unveils it as paper dragon. David was a broker selling Chinese stocks via “reverse mergers,” allowing American investors to get a share of the surging Asian economy. Or at least, it seems to be surging. No one is asking any real questions, gathering bona fide financial data, or performing due diligence. We’re all trusting auditors, banks and brokers — entities that make money regardless of the actual worth of a given stock. Rothstein’s film interviews David, and a host of other former Chinese stock traders who decided to slaughter the bull market they created. Every one of them is now betting against the companies they helped capitalize with real US dollars, and every one of them is predicting a collapse. It’s probably the scariest movie at the festival, a financial Frankenstein set on Wall Street and Beijing.
8 pm: I sit down and start composing. Then read Jay Stone’s TIFF digest. He makes me laugh, and the world is a hopeful place once more.
THE EX-PRESS, September 12, 2017