The Birth Of A Nation (USA)
One of the biggest movies at the festival this year, The Birth Of A Nation, is the feature directorial debut of writer and star Nate Parker. The film follows a slave named Nat Turner from Southhampton County, Virgina who is book smart and invested in the Bible, becoming a preacher through his upbringing. His owner (Armie Hammer) falls on harsh times and starts to bring him on a tour through the county to speak with all the other slaves at their slavemaster’s request. Through this, Nat begins to see the scale of the slavery in the country and starts to form a plan of revenge against those imprisoning their people.
For those that were astounded a couple years back by Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, this film will feel largely anemic, misguided and made with a palpable rage in mind. Parker decided to go the route of personal glory for himself in this film and makes Nat Turner an almost religious fanatic who attributes all his violence to “orders from God”. The film also features a lot of imagery that comes off as completely contrived and ultimately distracts from the film. A two-hour runtime, The Birth Of A Nation goes through an almost bullet point plotting for the first hour before completely running out of steam in the last hour, which is where the rebellion takes place. The word from Sundance was that this would be an Oscar contender, but I think upon releases that buzz will start to disappear. 2.5/5
Saint Amour (France/Belgium)
Although I didn’t enjoy the first Gerard Depardieu film I saw at the festival, I decided to take in another one of his movies here: the comedy Saint Amour. Reminiscent of the Alexander Payne film Sideways, Depardieu plays Jean, a cattle farmer visiting Paris for the annual livestock competition. While there, he and his son Bruno look to take a bit of a wine tour through the countryside to have a bit of a relaxing vacation and to bond a bit. Along with their arrogant city cab driver Mike, the three men find themselves in one odd situation after another, eventually bonding them together for life.
Saint Amour really had a lot of potential, if you can only get past the absolute buffoonery of Bruno, played by Benoit Poelvoorde from Man Bites Dog. His character just felt so pathetic simply for comedic reasons and, at times, really grated on my nerves. Depardieu was the real standout of the film and made it worth checking out. Unfortunately, I feel that Vincent Lacoste is really getting pigeonholed with douchebag roles, which makes me dislike him on screen almost immediately. Saint Amour has some good things going for it, with some snappy lines and funny moments but it has just as much, if not more, working against it. 2.5/5
Versus: The Life And Films Of Ken Loach (UK)
With so many documentaries about film at this year’s festival, I feel like I’m getting an early Christmas. The new film Versus: The Life And Films Of Ken Loach is another sweet gift, although it may be a little inaccessible to a North American audience who isn’t as well-versed in Loach’s work. The doc is an interesting look at a filmmaker who strived to ask questions of his government, society and anything else that the world considered provocative. This led to massive controversies and, many times, made it almost impossible for him to secure funding for his next film. At the same time, this also put him on the level of the greatest filmmakers in Europe, earning multiple Palm d’Or nominations at Cannes and winning twice.
As I said, this may be a little dry for other viewers but I found it quite interesting. The film depicts a very soft-spoken and private man who has a penchant for making films that rub people the wrong way and speak volumes more than any interview he could give. It’s also fascinating to see the other side of the coin when these statements backfire on him, causing him to doubt the progression of his career, even landing him jobs to make a living he now regrets. I have to commend director Louise Ormond, who make the documentary Dark Horse earlier this year, a film that I wasn’t too keen on. This time, she makes a compelling retrospective that includes moments of reflection from the subjects, giving a bit more insight in the emotion of remembering these times. Again, VIFF, you’re killing it in the docs section. 4/5
BANG! The Bert Berns Story (USA)
Some documentaries are so crammed with information that they can feel overwhelming at times or a little bit dry. In the case of BANG!: The Bert Berns Story, the latter is true. If you stick it out, it is very rewarding as the tale of Berns life is really intriguing. A record producer and songwriter, he is responsible a massive catalog of hit singles through the 1960s until his death in 1967: he has some of the most iconic songs of that era, including “Twist And Shout,” “Under The Boardwalk” and “Piece Of My Heart.” He was also an intimidating figure, known to muscle people into his way of thinking, with the help of his “mobbed-up” friends.
As I said, sometimes a lot of information coming at you can come across a bit dry with a lower energy delivery, which may be the issue I had with this documentary. Narrated by the E Street Band and, with a sense of irony, The Sopranos star Steven Van Zandt, the film is approached with a low jazz style voice over that can lull a tired person like myself into a light slumber. It’s saving grace is in how deeply fascinating Berns’ career was, responsible for song after song that are so ingrained in music that you have no idea was from this one man. Under the surface, BANG! is a film about a ruthless individual who would let nothing get in his way to succeed, even if he had to resort to darker actions, a stress that may have ended his life before he was fully out of ideas. 3.5/5
What I thought would be a simple biopic portrait of one of the greatest poets of all time ended up definitely not what I was expecting. Although there are many areas of Pablo Neruda’s life that could be focused on, being a creator of surrealist poems, historical epics, overtly political manifestos (the latter of which made him an enemy in his home country of Chile), the film Neruda takes a different route. Instead, the surreal narrative is more of a cat and mouse tale, with Neruda fleeing his home with an overachieving and naive policeman, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, hot on his trail. It’s unclear if the officer is pursuing him out of an act of duty, to climb the police ladder or an admiration for Neruda himself. Either way, it all heads to an odd finish that is a bit puzzling.
This movie lost me pretty early on. The narrative is oddly skewed to a place that was hard for me to follow and director Pablo Larraín’s blocking of each scene only served to frustrate me more. This was a let down for me, given how much I enjoyed his previous film, The Club, and also how much I appreciate Bernal in his many roles. I can only attribute this to my misunderstanding of Neruda’s surrealism being the focal point of this storytelling but I believe that having this film be so geared to the arthouse ends up taking most of the coherence out of the final product. In the end, this movie washed over me and left me with nothing to hold on to. 1.5/5