The Yes Men, Mike Bonanno, left, and Mike Bichlbaum in The Yes Men Are Revolting (All photos: Toronto International Film Festival)

The Yes Men, Mike Bonanno, left, and Mike Bichlbaum in The Yes Men Are Revolting (All photos: Toronto International Film Festival)

The Fun Starts Here

Who would have thought that the funniest moments at the Toronto International Film Festival would revolve around climate change and activism? Ten years ago, the message-delivering pranksters, the Yes Men, first spread their alarming messages in their eponymous documentary. Instead of staging street protests, they pull off media stunts to the embarrassment of international conglomerates.

In their more layered and personal follow-up, The Yes Men Are Revolting, the pressure to hijack the political system, as they would say, has skyrocketed for various reasons, such as global warming, but the stunts are still spectacularly sophomoric. One is played upon the lobbying group the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which leads to the startling announcement on Fox News that the organization endorses renewable energy to replace fossil fuels—and a lawsuit.

In the decade since their last screen appearance, the message of the optimistic and pragmatic Yes Men has become sharper and more succinct than many of their protesting kindred spirits. The new film touches upon many of the environmental dilemmas that have been scrutinized in so many documentaries, such as the warming of the Arctic. Avoiding navel gazing or narcissism, activists Mike Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno make these issues urgent and engaging, using snark to raise the alarm. This will be the most fun you’ll have watching a film dealing with the polar ice melt. They and their co-conspirators work with a limited, DIY budget; some awareness-raisers succeed more than others. Regardless, you haven’t seen a PowerPoint presentation quite like the one they make (mis)representing the Shell Oil Company.

What also sets this movie apart is that Laura Nix, who directs along with Bichlbaum and Bonanno, figuratively strips the two men of their costumes and fake wigs, allowing for some personal and cringe-worthy moments behind the shenanigans. Mike, married with two daughters, spends more time with his family than planning the Yes Men’s next doddering-do. Andy, out and proud in the sequel, is in a relationship, until he’s dumped for spending more time trying to save the planet. Though the two have been collaborators since the 1990s and remain close friends, Mike keeps an important personal development a secret from Andy.

By grabbing control of the message, the Yes Men take on, through subterfuge, many of the corporate interests that are the titular subjects of another alarm ringing documentary, the point-by-point Merchants of Doubt, directed by Robert Kenner. It traces how companies shift the focus, reshape, and redirect discourse, beginning in the 1950s.

According to an internal memo, the public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, Inc., found the key to deflecting criticism and possible legislation of tobacco interests: “Doubt is our product.” This set a pattern that Kenner convincingly connects to other issues by calling scientific facts into question through special interest groups funded by the defensive industries. (It’s not quite an expose, though, since other films have covered corporate intransigence, from cigarettes to cell phones.)

The film punches holes in their arguments and credibility through pavement-beating investigative reporting, unlike a large part of the media seen here providing spurious statements a platform. It’s not, though, a left-wing screed: it features former South Carolina Republican Representative Bob Inglis, as conservative as they come, who makes a 180 degree turn, going against his own party on the issue of carbon tax emissions. After viewing these Merchants in action, one could say that the likes of the Yes Men are leveling the playing field.

Charles Bronson reprises his Death Wish vigilante, as seen in Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films

Charles Bronson reprises his Death Wish vigilante, as seen in Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films

If such an award at the festival existed, the one for the film with the goofiest moments would handily go to Mark Hartley’s tell-all, anecdote-a-minute Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. It lives up to its name and  follows the same cheeky style as Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed!, about Australia’s explosion of genre filmmaking in the 1970s and the Philippines’ brief moment of low-budget movie glory, both also made by Hartley. Besides a behind-the-scenes of the rise of independent film, this celebrates not-so-good taste as well.

The Cannon Group, founded by cousins Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, started out as distributors of skin flicks and derivative drive-in fare. As producers, they funded their production slate through presales, thanks in part to lurid posters, and they perfected the art of self-promotion at Cannes. Occasionally, Golan would step behind the camera. In his attempt to be the next Ken Russell, he unleashed the 1980 rock musical The Apple; the number “I’m Coming” has to be seen to be believed. And sometimes they actually had a hit on their hands, like the most erotic screen adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, starring Sylvia Kristel, the go-to international actress for nudity in the early ‘80s.

The company became part of the Hollywood mainstream when MGM/UA agreed to release their output, a relationship that quickly soured, even with Bo Derek constantly shedding her clothes in Bolero, which made it on several top 10 lists in 1984—for the year’s worse film. Derek, like many of the others interview, doesn’t hold back and is still astonished by Globus’s and Golan’s behavior, and maybe the dishiest interview comes courtesy of Richard Chamberlain on working with his Cannon costar Sharon Stone.

Globus and Golan do have a notable defender, though: Franco Zeffirelli, who calls them the best producers he has ever worked for. The lists of directors who made movies for the duo is an enviable one that includes Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, and Jean-Luc Godard.

The company even had their set of stars (remember Lucinda Dickey, of the breakdancing hit Breakin’ and its less successful sequel Electric Boogaloo?). By the mid-‘80s, they had roped in Sylvester Stallone (whose salary, around $12 million, escalated the payday for stars) and Meryl Streep. She sadly is missing here in the cornucopia of talking heads.

By this point, the studio was cranking out 40 films a year, but grew too fast, too soon, like so many independent companies of that time and since, resulting in Cannon’s stock tanking. (The producers are also missing in action; they had endorsed another project on their studio, The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, which, in typical, fast-tracked Cannon style, beat Hartley’s film to the screen by three months.)

Electric Boogaloo delves too deeply into details about any number of films, such as American Ninja, or explaining the failures of Invaders from Mars, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, and Superman IV, movies that weren’t necessarily worth visiting the first time around. During its rundown of the Cannon catalogue, the film points to the critically acclaimed Runaway Train and Barfly, though failing to mention that the company scored many Academy Award nominations, including for Streep in A Cry in the Dark, now more known for the Seinfeld put-down, “Maybe the dingo ate your baby?”

And finally, TIFF can rightly boast that it has the rare documentary/essay from a disputed and little-known corner of the world. Letters to Max takes you to a country that would be the very first nation listed alphabetically, if it was recognized by the United Nations: Abkhazia, which has been popping up in the news occasionally since Russia annexed Crimea this winter.

Nestled on the Black Sea, it broke away from the Republic of Georgia in the early 1990s in a civil war that cost at least 15,000 lives and displaced more than 250,000 Georgians. Back then, the cosmopolitan region was “a very short version of New York,” according to its former Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxim Gvinjia, a friend whom French director Baudelaire met in Abkhazia a decade earlier.

Baudelaire’s 74 daily letters to Gvinjia—more like questionnaires, actually—form the correspondence, which arrive through third-party countries. Gvinjia’s voluminous tape recorded replies accompany the director’s home movie-like roaming camera, which often undercuts Gvinjia’s vision of a bright future. Onscreen, Abkhazia’s the Land that Time Forgot: of bad, outdated haircuts and funny hats; resting cows blocking a major thorough fare; corroding tanks buried in foliage; Czarist villas in ruins; and a Soviet-style military parade on a no-budget scale. Yet the region isn’t completely isolated—not with ubiquitous iPhones and reportedly two million Russian tourists.

Besides serving as guide, Gvinjia is also a pitchman as though he still represents the Caucasian state, which is acknowledged by only six nations, first by Russia. It’s not until the last 30 minutes when the letters become more pointed, raising the question of the right of return for Georgians who fled because of the war. After a spiel, Gvinjia finally comes out and says that they can’t come back, or there will be war, and he sidesteps whether Abkhazia will be absorbed by its powerful neighbor. Overall, it’s a portrait of a state in limbo and possibly of self-willed denial.