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TIFF: A Herdade

Courtesy of TIFF

The newest film from Portuguese director Tiago Guedes, A Herdade is a sprawling family saga. João Fernandes (Albano Jeronimo) has inherited his father’s grand estate, one of the biggest in Portugal, which includes vast farm lands, a crew of workers and servants and the main house. As the patriarch he rules his family and his subordinates with a firm hand. João fares better with his right hand man Joaquim (Miguel Borges), Joaquim’s wife Rosa (Ana Vilela da Costa) and his communist mechanic Leonel (João Vicente) and than he does with his wife Leonor (Sandra Faleiro) and his kids Teresa (Beatriz Bras) and Miguel (João Pedro Mamede). He has a particularly rough time with Miguel who is already showing signs that he’s not the right fit to become the next patriarch and the tension between the two escalates as the years pass on.

The film starts in 1946 when young João is brought by his father to witness the hanging body of his dead older brother. Then it takes us to the even of the Carnation Revolution of 1974 when a military coup overthrows the current regime which puts Leonor’s parents in danger and puts into question land ownership and worker’s rights. It then fast forwards to 1991 when Teresa falls in love with Antonio (Rodrigo Tomas), Miguel suffers emotionally and mentally from being trapped at his father’s estate and João must come to terms with a great tragedy and a dark secret.

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Courtesy of TIFF

Waves of nostalgia washed over me as I watched A Herdade remembering my father’s estate (which was tiny in comparison) and 1990s era Portugal. I wanted to love this movie but I really only liked it. It’s gorgeously shot, firmly rooted in Portuguese culture and history and all the actors did a wonderful job with their various roles. However the film is overly long (nearly 3 hours) and takes too much time to solve its final dilemma. There is no real plot here. It’s close to a half century in the life of João and the drama only comes from the political strife and dysfunctional family dynamic.

Seeing a Portuguese film is such a rare treat for me. If you have any interest in Portuguese history, clear your schedule and check this one out.

A Herdade had its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

TIFF: Disco

Norwegian filmmaker Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s latest film Disco is a heady exploration of the danger of Christian cults and what it means to lose yourself. Teenage Mirjam (Josefine Frida Pettersen) is a champion dancer, a singer and one of the faces of her stepfather Per’s congregation Freedom. All is not right in her household. Per is controlling, her mother harbors a dark secret about the abuse Mirjam suffered years ago by her biological father and Mirjam is now collapsing during her competitions. There’s a lot of pressure on Mirjam to be perfect from her performances, competitions, church life and as a model young woman. After attempting suicide, she looks for answers by way of other Christian outlets. First she spends time with her uncle, a televangelist who feigns curing cancer and homosexuality through elaborate prayers. Then she seeks an even more radical alternative by attending a youth camp run by a family friend (Andrea Bræin Hovig). In searching for answers Mirjam loses her personal freedom and becomes a shell of her former self. Will she find her voice again?

Disco offers an interesting conceit but the story never quite gels. It felt aimless and without purpose. There are many tightly framed shots which at first I found off-putting but they really transport the audience into Mirjam’s world. We’re up, close and personal with her and this creates a sort of bond between viewer and protagonist. Josefine Frida Pettersen is an internet celebrity and the star of the hit TV show Skam. She’s absolutely stunning and its clear that the camera loves her. Petterson’s performance is reserved and while we don’t necessarily tap into her character’s personal pain we do feel empathy for her situation.

While I didn’t grow up in a Christian cult I was raised in a very religious and oppressive environment and much of what was shown I found highly triggering. It’s important to show Mirjam’s trauma and the lengths these groups will go to strip their followers of their identities in order to gain their obedience. Some of the final scenes are quite shocking. The ending will frustrate many viewers. It’s a risky move on the filmmakers part but realistic within the scope of the story.

Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s Disco had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.

TIFF: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I am fiercely protective about Mister Rogers. So when I heard that there was a new biopic about him I was skeptical. When I heard Tom Hanks was portraying Mister Rogers in the film I was skeptical. When I arrived for the TIFF screening at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, ticket in hand, I was still skeptical. In fact I was skeptical for the first half of the movie. Why was everyone laughing? Don’t laugh What if audiences don’t fully understand or appreciate who Mister Rogers truly was? It hit me half way through the film that to really know Mister Rogers, we need to know the affect he had on others. And that is exactly what this film delivered.

Directed by Marielle Heller, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes an unconventional route to tell the story of an extraordinary man. It’s loosely based on Tom Junod’s Esquire article from the late 1990s.

Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is an angry and bitter man. Like Junod, he writes for Esquire and is known for his particularly callous approach to writing profiles. No one wants to be interviewed by him except for Mister Rogers who takes a particular interest in Lloyd and sees an opportunity to help him. Lloyd has a difficult relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who abandoned the family when Lloyd’s mother was dying. Lloyd is unable to forgive and the two have a volatile relationship. When assigned to write a 400 word piece on Rogers, Lloyd gets more than he bargained for. As he enters Mister Rogers world he struggles to comprehend what makes Rogers tick. The two continue to meet under the guise of the article, which Lloyd eventually writes a much longer profile which becomes the cover piece for the magazine. But it’s through this project that Lloyd learns to reconcile with his dad, to let go of the anger and to find some happiness within himself.

Mister Rogers gets a supporting role in his own biopic and that’s just the way he would have wanted it. Heller and the team of writers craft a unique structure which is part dark comedy and built within the confines of a faux episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. We get (what I believe is) a recreation of the set, the famous intro (cardigan, shoes, song and all) and the closing theme song. There’s the photo board, a picture picture sequence (all about how magazines are made), a visit from Mr. McFeely, a trip to the neighborhood of Make-Believe complete with King Friday and Daniel the Tiger and interstitials show the neighborhood set miniatures and when Lloyd is traveling those sequences are told in similar miniatures. There are dream sequences including a nightmare one that happens on the set. We see the production team, Rogers’ trusted assistant Bill (Enrico Colantoni), Rogers’ wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) spends time with Lloyd.

My favorite scene in the film is when Rogers and Lloyd meet at a restaurant and Rogers asks him for one minute of silence and to imagine the people he loves most surrounding him. The real Mister Rogers did this often and believed in the power of silence. We get that one whole minute of silence and as the camera pans we see cameos from Joanne Rogers herself and several other people from his life. I would give anything to watch that one scene again right now.

Courtesy of TIFF

I worry about viewers who didn’t grow up with or appreciate Mister Rogers. I grew up in the ’80s and Rogers was a sort of father figure to me. My own father lacked Rogers’ gentle demeanor, kindness, and understanding nature. I sought that through Rogers. He had a profound affect on how I view myself (to like myself just the way I am), to not be afraid to deal with my emotions and to be kind to others. 

One scene worried me in particular. As Lloyd is grilling Rogers about his “burden” and how he deals with it, Rogers takes out Daniel the Tiger. Lloyd is obviously frustrated that Rogers is not answering his question. But those who KNOW a thing or two about Rogers knows that Daniel the Tiger WAS his way of dealing with that burden. If you don’t know anything about Rogers, doing a bit of research ahead of time will be essential.  A viewing of Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  before watching Heller’s film is all you’ll really need.

Courtesy of TIFF

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a touching tribute and will be a major contribution in keeping the memory of Mister Rogers, and his particular brand of kindness, alive. I started getting emotional from the very first scene and cried throughout. This film really got to me even if it took me more than an hour to appreciate what it was trying to do.

Tom Hanks delivers a solid performance as Mister Rogers and I wouldn’t be surprised if some award nominations come his way. He nails the nuances, the gestures, the slower pace of moving, Rogers’ somewhat awkward body language and even the voice is simply spot on. Chris Cooper’s performance as Jerry shouldn’t be overlooked either. 

Watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood but don’t forget to bring tissues.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as a gala presentation.

TIFF: Pelican Blood

Set in the bucolic countryside of Germany, Pelican Blood tells the story of Wiebke, an adoptive mother and talented horse trainer. It’s at her horse camp there that she trains horses and riders for the German mounted police. Wiebke isn’t afraid of a challenge and is determined that Top Gun, her most problematic horse, graduates to the academy even when others doubt her. 

Wiebke is also getting ready to become a mother again. With her adopted daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo), they travel to Belgium to adopt a second child, an orphan named Raya (Katerina Lipovska). Everything seems to be fine until Raya start exhibiting some increasingly strange and frightening behaviors. Wiebke learns that Raya has reactive attachment disorder and feels very little to no fear or empathy. As Raya’s behaviors start to spiral out of control, putting the family in grave danger, Wiebke tries everything she possibly can to rehabilitate Raya. This puts a strain on her relationship with her daughter Nicolina and her love interest Benedikt (Murathan Muslu) one of Wiebke’s trainees. As Wiebke looks for a solution, will she have to sacrifice her work and a chance at happiness to save Raya?

“When you take a journey you can come back changed.”

Directed by Katrin Gebbe, Pelican Blood is an understated and terrifying movie. It’s frightening to not only see the effects of Raya’s psychosis but the lengths that Wiebke will go to help Raya. The term “pelican blood” refers to the sacrifice of motherhood which for Wiebke comes at a greater cost having chosen to be Raya’s mother. At the beginning of the film we learn of the legend where a pelican mother pierces her breast and feeds her dead chicks her own blood to bring them back to life.

The third act takes a strange turn which brings the conflict to its resolution. It’s not something I expected but I don’t know how else the story could have been resolved. I was particularly intrigued by how Wiebke’s scar becomes its own character in the movie. It’s very prominent on her face, changes in appearance and then disappears. We never learn exactly where she got it from but it’s assumed that it was from an encounter with an unruly horse. There are plenty of tender moments between Wiebke and Nicolina and also her sweet romance with Benedikt. These help balance out the tension with Raya.

I really hope Pelican Blood gets distributed in the US. It’s a fine film, very inventive in its storytelling and its solutions, offers fine performances and is enjoyable as both a dark family drama and a pseudo-horror flick.

Pelican Blood had its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

TIFF: The Moneychanger

“We money brokers are the root of all evil. We’re to blame for everything that’s rotten in this world.”

Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler)

Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler) makes money off of money. He gets his start in the currency racket by way of his new boss Swostaiger (Luis Machin). He even marries the boss’ daughter Gudrun (Dolores Fonzi), an emotionally reserved woman who is no nonsense and all business. Brause’s success catches up with him and he gets greedy, taking advantage of the Uruguay’s fragile economy and his boss’ good nature. After going to jail for three years for his involvement in a corruption scandal, he’s back at it. Narrated by Brause himself, we follow his journey over two decades spanning from early 1960s to the late 1970s. The story is mostly set in Montevideo, Uruguay but Brause’s adventures also take him deep into the Amazon of Brazil, to Buenos Aires and to Switzerland. Brause gets deeper and deeper into trouble. His biggest nemesis Bompland (Luis Machin) threatens to take him for all he’s worth. When he isn’t facing financial problems he’s dealing with his failing health and a wife who doesn’t love him but is determined to keep the business of their marriage going. To get out of his bind with Bompland, Brause will have to go to great lengths to protect his future and that of his family.

Directed by Federico Veiroj, The Moneychanger (Así habló el cambista) paints the portrait of a man who is simply up to no good. It has a terrific sense of place and time and offers wonderful performances from its stars Hendler, Fonzi, Machin and in particular Benjamin Vicuna who is brilliant as the evil Bombland. The film suffers from a lack of consistent tension and overall clarity. The actual currency fraud is confusing and the viewer is left in the dark of what exactly Brause is doing to get himself in all of this trouble. This isn’t a thriller and I found it effective as a saga focusing on its one main character. The story incorporates references to Jesus and the Cleansing of the Temple. As a trilingual viewer (English, Spanish and Portuguese), I was curious to see the two Brazilian characters, including Moacyr (German de Silva) who becomes Brause’s business partner and confidante, speak Portuguese to Brause while he responds in Spanish. Fascinating!

Last year I watched Veiroj’s Belmonte at TIFF which worked similarly to The Moneychanger as the portrait of one man whose life starts to spiral out of control. You can read my review of that film here. It’s also currently available on Netflix. I quite enjoy Veiroj’s approach and look forward to more of his work in the future.

Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Platform competition series.

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