by Raquel Stecher
dir. Trevor Nunn
Starring Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes
Trevor Nunn’s latest film Red Joan is a mishmash of history and fiction. Inspired by the true story of British KGB agent Melita Norwood but mostly fictionalized, the story follows Joan Stanley, a chemist whose smarts land her a spot on the scientific team developing the technology for a nuclear bomb. On that journey she meets Sonya (Tereza Srbova) whose brother Leo (Tom Hughes) is an outspoken Communist activist. With Sonya’s alluring worldly charm and Leo’s handsome bravado, Joan gets caught up in their world. She meets scientist Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), head of the aforementioned scientific team. Joan is torn between her steamy yet dangerous romance with Leo and her blossoming feelings for the still married Max. She also faces a great dilemma. With England completely enveloped in WWII, Joan decides that only an even playing field between England and Russia can set things right. The movie darts back and forth from 1938 to the story’s present day, circa 2000 when Joan (Judi Dench) is being interrogated for her “crimes” and her lawyer son (Ben Miles) must come to terms with his mother’s legacy and the secrets she’s been harboring all these years.
Most critics agree that Red Joan lacks from having too little Judi Dench in it. I for the most part agree. However, I don’t see how this would have worked because, for the purposes of the movie, viewers needed the full backstory of Joan circa late 1930s and early 1940s for us to fully grasp what’s happening to her in 2000.
Red Joan felt like a 1990s period piece and that made me nostalgic for that decade’s historical offerings. A feminist message is inserted, almost haphazardly, to make it more up-to-date. But overall the movie felt old-fashioned in a bad way. The story dragged on and the film felt overly long.
With that said, there is a lot to enjoy in Red Joan for those who love a good period piece with a strong female lead. Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench deliver superb performances. Cookson’s Joan is bright-eyed and cautious. Judi’s Joan is world weary. For anyone who relishes period detail, this film has a lot to offer especially with the elegant 1940s era apparel.
Red Joan is a throwback to a golden era of period pieces but it lacks some modern flair needed for contemporary viewers.
I attended a press and industry screening of Red Joan at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
by Raquel Stecher
The Old Man & the Gun
dir. David Lowery
starring Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Casey Affleck, Elisabeth Moss
Say it isn’t so Robert Redford? This can’t be your last film! And if it is, what a way to go. Not with a whimper but with a bang!
With a nod to classic Hollywood filmmaking, The Old Man & the Gun is a superb final entry in Robert Redford’s legendary career and thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. Redford stars as Forrest Tucker, if that’s his real name, a gentleman bank robber who charms tellers out of their money. Tucker has modus operandi has always been to show his target the gun but to never resort to using it. Over his many decades as a bank robber, Tucker has been arrested and released and arrested again. He’s even escaped from prison several times. For the bigger jobs, he employs two friends as his sidekicks Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) whom the media refers to collectively as ‘The Over-the-Hill Gang”.
After one solo heist, Tucker meets Jewel (Sissy Spacek). She lives a quiet life on her sprawling ranch. Tucker is constantly on the move from one town to the next looking for his next target. He starts to entertain settling down but when police detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) sets his eyes on catching Tucker after being present and oblivious to one of his heists, Tucker finds himself on the run.
The Old Man & the Gun is like a tall glass of your favorite drink. Goes down easy and once you’re done you’re ready for round two. Set in the early 1980s, this film feels old school but is palatable for contemporary audiences. In an interview at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, director Lowery says he wanted the film to be of the era using the technology of its day. Robert Redford, who received a standing ovation at the international premiere, said he was drawn to the predator vs. prey element of the film.
Unlike your typical heist films, this one features little to no violence. The focus is on the characters, their relationships and the chase. It even features a homage to Redford with a look at Tucker’s storied career as a bank robber and inserts some footage from Redford’s previous movies into that retrospective. My only criticism of the film is that the Elisabeth Moss story line, she’s the daughter Tucker didn’t know he had, felt shoe-horned into the plot and didn’t seem necessary. I would recommend this film to anyone who loves Robert Redford and enjoys classic movies. Especially those viewers, like me, who are tired of excessive violence and want plain old good storytelling.
I attended the international premiere at the Elgin Theatre for The Old Man & the Gun during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
by Raquel Stecher
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz
dir. Barry Avrich
99-year-old Ben Ferencz is the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor. At the tender age of 27 and at the very beginning of his career as a lawyer, Ferencz went head-to head with some of the most notorious Nazi criminals of WWII. Born in Romania to Hungarian Jews, Ferencz and his family fled Transylvania for asylum in the United States. Raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, teachers quickly took noticed of the gifted young Ferencz. He went on to study in the City College of New York and Harvard Law School and during WWII where he served abroad in an anti-aircraft artillery unit before he was transferred to Gen. Patton’s Third Army where he investigated war crimes and visited concentration camps to collect evidence. Horrified by what he saw, he made it his lifelong mission to give back to humanity by prosecuting international crimes.
Director Barry Avrich’s newest documentary Prosecuting Evil, covers the whole scope of Ferencz’s life and career through interviews with colleagues, Ferencz’s son and Ferencz himself. It also includes archival footage from the Nuremberg trials and disturbing images from the Holocaust. Ferencz has been a tireless champion for humankind and even at the age of 98, when this doc was filmed, there were no signs of stopping. Ferencz has an important message from the past to deliver to the future. This can and is happening again. We must fight for humanity.
Prosecuting Evil is a beautiful and poignant documentary about one of the most important living figures from WWII. My heart swelled with emotion and I left the theater very moved. Ferencz is fierce and fearless. He’s a sweet man but not someone you want to mess with. If you have any interest in the history of WWII or humanitarian efforts of if you’ve heard of Ferencz and want to learn more about him, this documentary is essential viewing.
I attended a press and industry screening of Prosecuting Evil at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
by Raquel Stecher
dir. Federico Veiroj
Starring Gonzalo Delgado
Belmonte is a man in crisis. A celebrated artist, he paints surreal images of naked men on oversize canvases. Belmonte sells his paintings to wealthy patrons but bemoans the commercialization of his work. When he’s not dealing with the art world he’s a single dad making an effort to have a meaningful relationship with his daughter Celeste (Olivia Molinaro Eijo). But his ex-wife is about to have a new child and when Belmonte asks her for more time with Celeste, she pushes back because she wants their daughter to be fully immersed in her own family life. The story follows Belmonte as he grapples with single parenthood and the art world. It also explores his relationship with women and the touch of madness that many great artists deal with.
Veiroj’ film is both a tender portrait of a single father trying to connect with his young daughter and a quirky portrait of a borderline tormented artist. I say borderline because he hasn’t gone off the depend but he begins his slow descent. I found the scenes with Belmonte and Celeste quite touching. I wish the film had spent more time exploring his artistic process but I did get a sense of how Belmonte functions in his given career and how artists must strike a balance between the creation which is key to their passion and the more commercial aspects of the business side of things (patrons, exhibits, catalogs, shmoozing, etc.). While the film makes sure to explore Belmonte’s sex life I felt that this really didn’t add anything to the story, except for some titillation, and could have been removed without affecting the overall movie.
This is the first Uruguayan film I’ve seen and I’d love to see more. I’d recommend Belmonte to anyone who has an appreciation for Latin American cinema, which inherently defies conformity. It’s an unconventional film that requires some patience and acceptance from the viewer. I particularly loved the sweet father-daughter story which is truly the heart of this film.
I attended a press and industry screening of Belmonte at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
by Raquel Stecher
Tell It to the Bees
dir. Annabel Jankel
starring Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger
“You should tell the bees your secrets. Then they won’t fly away.”
Set in 1950s Scotland, Tell It to the Bees is the story of two women who must face a society that isn’t ready or willing to accept them. Dr. Jean Markham (Anna Paquin) has returned home to her small town to take over her father’s practice. A secret about her past still lingers among the tight knit community. Jean meets Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), a curious young boy who is fascinated by the bee hives Jean keeps on her estate. Back at home, Charlie’s mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger) is going through a rough patch. Charlie’s father Robert (Emun Elliott) has abandoned the family, her sister-in-law Pam (Kate Dickie) is suspicious of Lydia’s every move and Lydia isn’t making enough money at the local mill and is facing eviction. When Charlie comes home with a bee-keeping journal and a novel Jean has gifted him, Lydia confronts Jean to discover the doctor is a kind woman and not a meddling man. The two quickly bond and when Lydia and Charlie are eventually evicted, Jean hires Lydia as her housekeeper. Behind the closed doors of the estate, Jean’s attraction for Lydia grows stronger and her desire to pull back weakens. As the two become intimate, whispers and rumors begin to circulate in the village. In an era where their relationship is not only frowned upon but illegal, can Lydia and Jean stay together? And what will happen to Charlie if they do?
“This town is too small for secrets.”
Based on the novel by Fiona Shaw, Tell It to the Bees was adapted to the screen by sisters Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth. In an interview with director Annabel Jankel, she remarked that she was drawn by “the power of generosity to fulfill another person’s potential.” Lydia and Jean are two female characters who are lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down. Resiliency and compassion is what drives Jean to pursue medicine in a town that won’t have her. Lydia’s the extrovert to Jean’s introvert and she shows Jean how to be free with her emotions. And for what it’s worth I appreciated that the Lydia and Jean were working women and not bored housewives.
The general theme of secrets and lies runs strong in this story. It’s the main conflict for the story’s narrator Charlie who is grappling with major changes and doesn’t know how to process the actions of the adults around him. It’s refreshing to see a child character who is curious and receptive and an integral part of the main story and not just a sideliner.
A secondary story follows Lydia’s sister-in-law Annie (Lauren Lyle) who is in an interracial relationship with a young man. When she becomes pregnant, her disapproving brother Robert and sister Pam try to “fix” the situation. It’s a reminder that while that era had many beautiful aesthetics the cultural mores could be quite ugly.
The bees are another character in the story and add an almost fantastical element. The close up shots of the bees are stunning. They pulsate with energy and you can feel that coming off the screen. In the film they react to the goings on in the human world around them and at one point even intervene on behalf of some of the characters. About the bees director Jankel says, “I felt an added kinship with the supernatural cinematic quality that the extraordinary world of the bees could provide, for an audience, both visually, and sonically.”
Tell It to the Bees is a sweet indie film with a tender heart. Paquin and Grainger deliver beautiful performances as their polar opposite characters. My only small criticism of what is otherwise a beautiful film is that I felt there was a lack of sexual chemistry between the two leads. However, I appreciated the fact that their sexual relationship wasn’t the focus of the story. And thanks to the women writers and the woman director we don’t see a lesbian love story as a male fantasy. Rather it’s a deep and meaningful relationship that transforms the characters and allows them to grow as persons. If you get a chance to watch Tell It to the Bees, take it! I hope this film finds its audience.
I attended a press and industry screening of Tell It to the Bees at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.