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Set in the outskirts of São Paulo, Brazil, Charcoal/Carvão tells the story of an impoverished family who make an almost Faustian bargain to lift themselves up out of their situation. Irene (Maeve Jinkings) cares for her ailing father but between that, raising her son Jean (Jean Costa) and dealing with her husband Jairo’s (Romulo Braga) reckless behavior, she is overwhelmed. When a nurse, Juracy (Aline Marta), offers Irene a shady deal to help the family, after much consideration Irene agrees. The plan involves getting rid of Irene’s father and secretly replacing him with  Miguel (César Bordón), an Argentine drug lord who faked his own death and is now in hiding. Irene and her family keep up appearances. Jean goes to school, Jairo continues to work harvesting charcoal and Irene sells her chicken dinners. But the influx of cash and the looming danger that hangs over this volatile stranger, threatens to push the family over the edge.

“Charcoal is my attempt to understand how violence, religion and hypocrisy have taken over our lives and bodies in a way that we don’t’ even notice any more.”

Carolina Markowicz

Written and directed by Carolina Markowicz, Charcoal/Carvão is an unrelentingly brutal film about the lengths people will go to escape their situation. The film is deceptively quiet which makes certain scenes all that more shocking. Bookended with religious scenes and music, the story aptly explores how desperation takes away our morals and basic humanity. The performances came across so natural that it’s easy to forget we’re watching actors playing roles and not real people living their lives. Markowicz does a brilliant job enveloping the audience in the world of her characters that it feels like we are right there with them. 

Charcoal/Carvão is emotionally devastating and draining. It’s a film to watch. But only once.

Note to add: both Portuguese and Spanish are spoken in the film.

Charcoal/Carvão premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF: Sundown

Neil (Tim Roth) tags along with his sister Allison (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two teenage children for a luxury vacation in Mexico. Their idyll is interrupted by terrible news. Neil and Allison’s mother has taken ill and is dying. The family rushes to the airport but Neil has to double back because he forgot his passport. Or did he? Neil makes no effort to recover his old passport or get a new one. Instead he checks into a sketchy motel in a dangerous neighborhood, makes friends with the locals and starts a romantic relationship with a gorgeous shopgirl Bernice (Iazua Larios). Even when he learns that his mother has passed away and his sister, with whom he runs a successful pig slaughtering business, needs him back home in England to arrange the funeral, Neil cuts off communication. Neil knows what he should do but either refuses to or can’t compel himself to follow through. Will Neil’s complacency, willful or not, come at a cost?

Directed by Michel Franco, Sundown is a modern day Bartleby, the Scrivener demonstrating, in this case, the severe consequences of inaction. Roth is superb  as Neil. The character holds the audience and the other people in his world at arm’s length making him equal parts frustrating and fascinating. The movie took a dark turn I didn’t quite expect.

A deeply disturbing meditation on the consequences of inaction; Sundown is a must-see.

Sundown was part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival Special Presentations slate.

TIFF: Belfast

Buddy (Jude Hill) has been through a lot for a young boy. He’s witnessed violence on the streets of Belfast, he’s seen his parents struggle for money, and no matter what he does he can’t get the super smart Catholic girl at school to notice him. Ma (Caitríona Balfe) holds down the fort, raising her two young sons while her husband, Pa (Jamie Dornan) engages in one shady business or another, trying to get some money together to pay the family’s overdue taxes. This couple is young and vibrant but the wear and tear of adult life is starting to get to them. Buddy spends a lot of time with his grandparents Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench), kind hearted elders of the community who are determined to see things through no matter how bad they get. Then some questions arise: What happens when chaos is erupting around you? Do you escape and chose a new life somewhere else? Even if it means facing a whole new set of problems? Or do you fight to hold on that feeling of home?

You don’t have to be an expert on the history of Northern Ireland to appreciate the gravity of the situation happening in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. With the film’s explosive beginning and the lingering threat of violence in the background, Branagh’s film perfectly captures the angst of living in Belfast during those tumultuous years. 

This movie is essentially a tender saga about a family, with a particular focus on Buddy, remarkably played by the young Jude Hill. It’s filled with warmth, love, anxiety and a bit of melancholy. Dornan and Balfe bring a vibrancy cut with a bit of sadness to their roles. Dench and Hinds are brilliant, as per usual, as the loving grandparents who are resigned to see any normalcy in their lives slip away. I would be lying if I said Judi Dench wasn’t the reason I was interested in Belfast in the first place. I’ll watch her in anything. 

The film is shown in black and white with a few pops of color here and there. There is some great cinematography but it did feel a bit too much like it was shot in present day with a black and white filter. The set design, the costumes, etc were all spot but it was a little too sharp and crisp to feel like it was set in the past. There are several classic movie references and film clips from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are shown. It’s clear that movies are an escape for the family during this difficult time.

Belfast was part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival Gala Presentation slate.

TIFF: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) was a child of divorce, something that caused her very religious mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) great anguish. She’s kept out of the church that her mother, stepfather and siblings attend but Tammy Faye is inspired by the religious fervor she witnesses from window and is determined to be a part of it. Years later, she meets  Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), a fellow student at her Christian college. The two see eye-to-eye on religious matters, including the idea God’s blessings come in several forms including wealth and business opportunities. They preach the gospel first with a puppet show they take on the road and next on television with The Jim and Tammy  Show on Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) network CBN.

Seizing every new opportunity and making several of their own, the religious duo became television icons. They started their own network, PTL, and hosted their own hit show. It made them rich but soon their tight bond began to sour. Jim was terrible with money and resented Tammy Faye’s star power. Tammy Faye faced many demons including her own husband, loneliness, a fractured relationship with her mother, an addiction to benzos and opposition from one of the biggest leaders in the Christian world, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). As things unravel, Tammy Faye would need to find the strength to be true to herself.

Based on the 2001 documentary by the same name and directed by Michael Showalter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a stunning biopic that hits all the right marks, including an exceptional performance by Jessica Chastain. She got Tammy Faye’s energy, her Minnesota accent and all of her mannerisms all down to a T. The prosthetics and make-up are only mildly distracting and really you can’t help but see Tammy Faye through Jessica Chastain. The film doesn’t try to demonize Jim or Tammy Faye Bakker. They are both presented as flawed personalities, Jim more so than Tammy Faye, who had good intentions but went very badly astray. Tammy Faye is a well-rounded character. We see all aspects of her personality including her great capacity for love and her sympathy for the LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis, something that went against the evangelical mindset at the time. Tammy Faye epitomizes what we think Christianity should be and pitted against Jerry Falwell we see what it generally has become. With that said, at no point does it criticize Christian religion. Rather it criticizes individuals and their actions.

And let me for a moment talk about how well this movie uses disruptive sound. There are several moments in the film where the sound of a phone ringing cuts into a rather emotional scene. There is also Tammy Faye singing against a very silent backdrop and a tension filled scene is disrupted by a baby crying. It’s quite effective. The film also uses ’70s style fonts and mimics grainy television footage which adds to the nostalgic appeal.

At the TIFF Tribute Awards, Jessica Chastain, who also served on the film as producer, talked about the biopic as her passion project. She’s been working on it for 10 years and wanted to make sure that her portrayal of Tammy Faye really showed the love and compassion she had instead of just depicting her as a grifter. 

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I had a vague notion as a child of who Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were. I definitely remember the scandal that landed Jim Bakker in jail. Years later I watched the VH1 reality show The Surreal Life and that’s what gave me my first real introduction into who Tammy Faye Bakker was as a person. That show was like a Real World type format but with celebrities. For the second season, they purposely put Tammy Faye in the home with porn star Ron Jeremy in hopes that it would stir up drama. Other cast members included Erik Estrada and Vanilla Ice. I was really impressed with how Tammy Faye handled herself. They put her in situations where she would have to apologize or defend herself and she was ALWAYS true to herself. She showed a genuine love for others that really struck a chord with me and that I never forgot. Years later watching this biopic about her that same Tammy Faye came through.

I highly recommend this film. It’s one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen. Full stop.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF: Oscar Peterson: Black + White

Director Barry Avirch’s Oscar Peterson: Black + White is a tribute to the legendary Canadian jazz pianist. The story of Oscar Peterson is told through archival photos, performances and interview footage along with present day interviews with musicians, historians, as well as Peterson’s wife Kelly. Talking heads include Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, Jon Batiste and more.

Avrich refers to the film as a “docuconcert” because throughout jazz musicians perform Peterson’s best known work, including Hymn to Freedom and Orange Colored Sky. The musical arrangements match the trio or quartet structure Peterson played from and the piano used is Peterson’s own. The documentary chronicles Peterson’s rise to fame, his extraordinary skill, his mentorship of other musicians, his devotion to his home country of Canada and personal struggles he faced including failed marriages and racism.

While Avrich’s film is informative it’s also heavily biased. At times the film felt like an advertisement more than a well-rounded documentary. With that said, I really enjoy Avrich’s documentaries, particularly Prosecuting Evil and Blurred Lines. There is so much detail and so much research that goes into his documentaries and it truly shows. The documentary-concert hybrid style adds to the enjoyment of the film.

Oscar Peterson: Black + White had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

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