Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Our reviews and thoughts on the latest releases, classics, and nostalgic favourites. Things we loved, things we hated, and worst of all, things we were ambivalent about.

TIFF20: Beans

The Oka Crisis. It’s an ugly piece of Canadian history that those of you outside our borders will not have heard of and those of us inside find shameful and painful to own. But own we must.

In brief: white people set sail to find a route to Asia and landed in and around Canada instead. White people are lousy sailors but they’re awfully good at taking what isn’t theirs. We even gave it a fancy word: colonization, a polite term for stealing land and dispossessing current inhabitants. By 1956, the Mohawk First Nation had just six remaining square kilometers from their original 165 around the Oka area and in 1959 the town (of white people) approved the development of a private nine-hole golf course on a portion of that land. The project bordered a sacred Mohawk burial ground in use for nearly a century but the Mohawk were not consulted and soon a parking lot bordered their cemetery. In 1990, it was announced that the golf course would be expanding by an additional nine holes and even more land would be bulldozed to make room for condos. In protest, the Mohawk people erected a barrier blocking access to the area. This land dispute lasted 78 days, with 2000 provincial police and 100 special operatives, as well as 4500 members of the Canadian Forces deployed to “keep the peace.” Tactical units used tear gas and concussion grenades on the barricade, prompting gunfire exchanged from both sides, killing one. At the time, there were only about 30 armed Mohawks behind the barricade. That number doubled after the raid, but obviously the sides were still incredibly uneven. The Mohawks had support from other First Nation communities across Canada but their white neighbours lined the streets to throw rocks at cars of evacuating women and children.

The Oka Crisis wasn’t so much resolved as ended with both sides feeling used and bruised. It was a dramatic stand-off for sure, but only a symptom of a much larger problem in Canada and in many countries where indigenous populations were pushed aside and marginalized in their own territories. The relationship between Canada and its Aboriginal people is still uneasy, with systemic racism practically baked right into the foundation of our country.

There have been many documentaries about this turbulent time in Canadian history, but Beans is the first narrative film, one that captures the time and the tension rather eloquently. The film is told from the perspective of an 11 year old girl behind the barrier called Beans (Kiawenti:io Tarbell) and largely divorced from politics. It is a humane and personal account of the crisis, which writer-director Tracey Deer experienced herself as a child.

Beans has no agenda. She’s just a kid who loves riding her bike and is excited to meet the new baby her mom Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) is carrying. Beans is a bright kid but she’s young, and susceptible to peer pressure. She doesn’t realize she’s living through a historical event, she’s just trying to make it through the summer without embarrassing herself in front of the older kids she’s been hanging out with. But as the tension becomes undeniable and the violence ever closer to her home, Beans is about to face things no kid her age ever should.

Because Deere (along with co-writer Meredith Vuchnich) is recounting events from the perspective of a child, the conflict itself is simplified and we experience it on a visceral rather than diplomatic level. We feel her fear, her shame, her confusion. There may be two sides to every dispute, but there’s no excuse for terrorizing a pregnant woman and her children. There are certainly challenges for Beans and her peers growing up on the reserve, but outside of Mohawk territory, the racism alone poses a real danger and threat.

Deere isn’t condemning anyone with her film, but she is exorcising some ghosts she’s clearly carried with her into adulthood. Her images are beautiful, her story is balanced, and she’s made an important contribution to our cultural legacy – for better or for worse.

TIFF20: Pieces of a Woman

Martha (Vanessa Kirby) and Sean (Shia LaBeouf) are excited to welcome their first child. Well, excited/terrified in proportions that vary wildly from moment to moment, and depending on what kind of shade Martha’s judgy and manipulative mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn) is throwing. Usually it’s quite a lot, but what can they say when she’s co-signing the loan on their new minivan?

Martha is opting for a home birth but of course when she goes into labour, some other thoughtless pregnant lady is monopolizing her midwife and she has to settle for her back-up, Eva (Molly Parker). It’s not exactly the birth plan Martha had naively hoped for, but none of it matters once those contractions get serious. Her labour is long and difficult, and we get a front row seat. It is raw and captivating, told in a good 30 minute chunk of some of the most intimate film making I’ve ever seen.

Director Kornél Mundruczó shows the birth of a beautiful baby girl in excruciating, glorious detail. Her death is much more swift. It is easy enough to show a baby’s arrival, and I suppose also her loss, but it is another thing entirely to show a mother learning to live without her.

Vanessa Kirby is astonishing in this – numb with grief, achingly lonely, and finally, explosive with anger. The film’s second half can’t quite compete with its dizzying first (very little can), but even if it occasionally slips, Kirby does not, she soldiers on, the portrait of a woman fractured by her loss, still wearing badges of motherhood without the defining, essential thing. Her life, her home, her relationship have all become haunted by the ghost of such brief life. Martha stumbles along the path toward some kind of acceptance, but Kirby’s Oscar track is sure-footed and just.

Secret Society of Second-Born Royals

A bunch of teenagers get sent to summer school and find they have something in common: they’re all second-born royals. Their older siblings are destined to inherit thrones while they are the spares, side-lined and over-looked. Not this time. This time, teacher James (Skylar Astin) tells them they’ve all been sent here under false premises; this isn’t summer school, it’s a training academy designed to awaken their super powers.

Super powers? You heard right. They’re just as surprised as anyone, but the story checks out: Sam (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) has super senses, Tuma (Niles Fitch) can get anyone to obey him, Roxana (Olivia Deeble) can turn invisible, Matteo (Faly Rakotohavana) can command insects, and January (Isabella Blake-Thomas) can borrow anyone else’s super power by touching them.

This movie is not meant for adults but tween girls 8-12 should be in heaven. It basically borrows from the Netflix blueprint for princess-themed romantic movies that usually air around Christmas with a dash of Artemis Fowl with a light Hamlet twist. Rebellious teenagers, royal jewels, family secrets, cute boys, and what passes for rock and roll these days: what more could a girl possibly want?

It’s definitely wholesome enough for family viewing and while parents probably won’t enjoy it, it’s also not the worst thing to get stuck watching. There’s a training montage that rivals popular game show The Floor Is Lava, sparkling tiaras and the plump little pillows they sit on, some truly terrible CGI, a few surprisingly bottom-of-the-barrel super powers, royalty-free jamming, a dead dad, an extremely brief cameo from Prince Harry, a diverse cast of talented kids, and a dog named Charlie.

Secret Society of Second-Born Royals is deeply inoffensive and perfect for family viewing. Find it on Disney+.

A Good Man

Ben and Aude have been together six years. They’ve been through a lot, a LOT, and come out stronger together. But when Aude learns she can’t have kids, it’s a devastating blow. She tells Ben to leave her. He deserves to have a family, to be happy, to be with someone who can give him what he wants. Ben doesn’t even consider that an option. In fact, he’s’ willing to try something quite drastic in order to make their dreams of a family come true. He’s willing to carry the baby himself.

It’s not an option that most men have but Ben is trans, pre-op. It is technically possible but it’s going to be emotionally and psychologically punishing. First, he’ll have to delay the surgery that’s going to make him feel whole and right in his skin. Then he’ll have to stop the testosterone, risking the masculine characteristics he’s gained and inviting the return of some feminine ones. He’s battled depression before, and Aude is so worry that his mental health won’t stand up to this test. Not to mention the fact that they’ve just moved to this small town where they hope they are blending in more anonymously. Still, they live in fear. Something as simple as having to show ID could out Ben to the entire town. Having a pregnant belly is going to be a pretty big tell. So you can imagine how committed he is to his relationship and their parenthood that he still goes through with it.

Will Ben’s mind transform at the same rate that his body does? Will his secret be safe? Will he receive adequate and appropriate medical care? This movie bites off an awful lot and really spends its time chewing. These are very complicated and sensitive issues and as carefully as they’ve considered everything, they haven’t possibly considered everything. And as most parents will tell you, pregnancies don’t just transform bodies and spare bedrooms, they change the couple as well.

As Aude, Soko navigates the highs and the lows very well. She allows the character’s arc to inform her performance and manages a delicate balance including longing and fear, hope and rejection, awe and anger. As Ben, Noémie Merlant  has an even taller order and few sources to draw on for inspiration. But you can tell she discovers the character at his core. She has respect for his unique experience, his fervour and his courage. But as good as she is, it still feels a little wrong that this part didn’t go to a trans actor. This is a very specific experience and not only would it be better explored by someone who can authentically relate, it feels especially important to get more trans men in front of the camera and in the media generally. Like every industry, the movie industry commodifies women – the younger and the more beautiful the better – Laverne Cox, Trace Lysette, Jen Richards. Trans men are much less visible and their stories less often told.

A Good Man is both a beautiful movie and a missed opportunity.

TIFF20: Another Round (Druk)

Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) has been burned out and running on autopilot for some time. There’s little time or reason for joy. His job has become dull and burdensome for both himself and his students. I’m not excusing the behaviour that’s to follow, but I am giving you the context in which Martin and friends/colleagues Peter (Lars Ranthe), Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) agree to conduct a social experiment.

Under the guise of “research,” they agree to test the theory that people operate better with a constant 0.05 blood alcohol level. Drinking at work: what could go wrong? Certainly four professionals should know better than to fall for such pseudoscience and likely they do, but caught up in some major midlife malaise, any excuse to numb the drowning desperation sounds like a good one. Drinking all the time to maintain that certain level needs not only commitment but opportunity which does involve some risk. But soon their classrooms are enlivened, their home lives invigorated. Martin and his friends are relaxed, they’re enjoying life again, people notice they’re less inhibited.

You and I can spot the problems coming a mile away, but feeling cocky, and perhaps with slightly impaired judgment, they all agree that since 0.05 is good, more must be better. This is the inevitable folly of man. Soon Martin and his gang are dosing themselves at ever-increasing levels. It’s fun, at first. They’re completely stress-free at work and they’re spending loads of their free time in each other’s company, where everyone is similarly inebriated and having a good time. Everyone else seems so uptight in comparison, but together they mix drinks and dance. They dance! Four white middle aged men just dance around their living rooms unselfconsciously. And since more is so much more fun, even more must be even better right? So now they’re alienating their families and risking their jobs but they don’t care or notice because they’re so intoxicated.

No matter how low they go, director Thomas Vinterberg, who wrote the script with Tobias Lindholm, manages to keep the film quite dignified even when its characters are not. We are witnesses to a social experiment, it’s just not quite the one that Martin and friends set out to prove. It feels dangerously easy for such a film to veer off course into raunchy comedy mode but Vinterberg maintains a steady hand and a thoughtful introspection

Mads Mikkelsen is at his very best in the film, teetering on one ledge or another, giving a thrilling performance that is being constantly and expertly recalibrated. But at its heart, Another Round is an ensemble, and Mikkelsen is very ably supported by Ranthe, Larsen, and Millang. The script gives them each something to chew on, ensuring that the audience gets an impressive menu which ultimately ends in a very satisfying meal.

Enola Holmes

Enola (Millie Bobby Brown) has had a strange but delightful childhood, raised and educated by her mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) in a manner perhaps inappropriate for a fine young lady of her time, but according to Eudoria’s own standards. Eudoria valued intellect and wit of course, but also independence (hence Enola’s name, alone spelled backwards) and a free spirit. They were happy together, not even lonely though Enola’s father had passed and her brothers left home years ago. But waking on her 16th birthday Enola finds that her mother has disappeared and left her no choice but to summon her older brothers.

Brother Sherlock (Henry Cavill) is a bit of a famous detective – maybe you’ve heard of him? And Mycroft (Sam Claflin) is the persnickety one who finds his sister’s lack of social graces to be untenable. He lines up a finishing school to send her away to, so of course she absconds, not unlike her mother has. Enola has gone to London of course, not just to find out where her mother is, but who her mother is, or was. To do it, she’ll have to stay one step ahead of brother Sherl, who is a a bit of a sleuth himself, and not easy to outwit.

The part suits Millie Bobby Brown to perfection – plucky, canny, charming and engaging, she adds a new dimension to the already beloved and fully realized Holmes universe, not only proving her worth but making room for herself and room for change. Sherlock has always lived very much inside himself, apart from and above the rest of the world, of whom he takes little notice unless they’re part of the case. Enola, however, is very much a product of and a force of change in England, which is already in flux when we meet her in 1884. Though she spent her early years in near isolation with her mother, her future is very much her own to make of it what she will.

TIFF20: 76 Days

An unidentified and unidentifiable young man is crying, begging to see his father one last time. The mourner is indistinguishable from his comforters as they all wear the same fully encapsulated protective garments. His father is already being wheeled toward a temporary morgue, his corpse zipped up in a special HAZMAT body bag, his remains a possibly infectious hazard that will be cremated unceremoniously in the nearest facility. There will be no last embrace.

We are in a hospital in Wuhan, China, the capital of Hubei Province and home to 11 million people. This is where COVID-19, first known simply as the coronavirus, or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was first identified as a cluster of viral pneumonia in late December 2019. Wuhan entered lockdown on January 23 2020, with WHO declaring it a public health emergency of international concern a week later, and a pandemic by March. Wuhan’s lockdown was an unprecedented bit of grace that would allow the rest of the world to prepare; it would be followed by lockdowns in many other countries the world over.

Wuhan stayed in lockdown for 76 days, and many hospitals, including this one, were simply overwhelmed by 50 000 cases of a disease they didn’t yet know how to treat. The need quickly outstrips the capacity. Doctors and nurses in thrown-together, inadequate PPE are shouting at panicked crowds of sick people, trying to get them to come in only a few at a time, hardly equipped to handle both the people and their ailments. A special ward for COVID patients was quickly separated from the rest, where fear bubbled, and impatience, loneliness, sorrow – not just the patients, but the doctors and nurses who are also locked down, isolated from their families, risking their lives to treat an unknown, highly infectious disease with a higher than average rate of death.

Directors Weixi Chen and Hao Wu try their best to tease out a few narratives from the chaos, but the film is actually at its best when the scenes are random, the pace urgent, its subjects on edge. Loud speakers throughout the city announce lockdown rules to empty streets; “Don’t create or spread rumours,” they say, with no one there to hear them. A bin full of cell phones belonging to the dead sits on a nurse’s desk, some of them still ringing.

It’s incredible that the film makers were able to piece something together so quickly, something that may one day serve as a primary document of this historical event, and even though we are still very much fighting this war and don’t yet know how or if it will end, I was on the edge of my seat watching it unfold at ground zero, where it all began. It is raw, emotional, desperate. It is a human and humane portrait of these troubling times.

The Postcard Killings

Jacob’s (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) daughter is newly married and on her honeymoon in Europe when he gets an awful call. She and her new husband have been murdered in London, their mutilated bodies posed with chilling exactitude and drained of blood. Jacob flies over to identify the bodies but he doesn’t stop there; he’s a brash New York detective and can’t help but step into the case. Interfering is what London authorities call it, but it turns out they’ve got a serial killer on the loose, a serial killer who’s targeting young newlyweds and posing them like famous art pieces.

The murders are sprinkled throughout Europe and heralded by a postcard sent to a journalist, which means Jacob’s got a trail of clues to follow and a new police force to pester every time. Along the way he meets a German detective (Joachim Król) and a Swedish journalist (Cush Jumbo) who are willing to bend the rules to help him out as the killer continues to evade authorities. The murders are gruesome, each fresh kill linked to the last by a dismembered body part. Jacob’s daughter’s hands still haven’t been found.

Director Danis Tanovic gives us a paint-by-numbers “thriller,” and Tanovic is no Bob Ross – there are no happy accidents here – just another uninspired entry into the serial killer mystery genre. And not much of a mystery either, since the story is told from the point of view of both the killer and the grieving father/detective. It’s based on a James Patterson novel, which just about explains it: pure pablum, an easy airport read that basically repackages the same story over and over, only changing the names of characters and swapping out, say, a knife for an ice pick, Munich for Stockholm, that kind of thing. It’s a thrill-less thriller but the crimes are extra brutal to make up for it. If you don’t expect much, you won’t be disappointed.

TIFF20: The Way I See It

As the chief White House photographer for all 8 years of Obama’s presidency, taking intimate candid portraits of the president at work (and very, very occasionally at rest), Pete Souza has developed (photography pun!) some very solid ideas for how a president should behave.

Having also taken pictures of Reagan back in the day, Souza felt himself to be largely apolitical. He didn’t always agree with the decisions his subjects were making, but his job was to document their days, not comment on what he saw. And he never did. Top secret clearance and all that jazz.

As you can imagine, over the course of 8 years, with unprecedented access to the First Family, Souza has a bank of memories from his time with Barrack Obama, and he’s also got thousands upon thousands of photos. The two formed a friendship as close colleagues often will. Souza respected him as a man and admired him as a president.

But it wasn’t until Obama left office and you-know-who moved in that he truly started to consider how a president should behave. What a president should be seen doing. How the president’s image was a reflection of the country as a whole, and what damage it did not just to citizen morale but on the world stage as well, when a president continually insulted the very office they were elected to represent.

Pete Souza is not a politician. He’s not a public speaker or a talking head. He makes pictures, and those pictures quietly became his method of protest. Every time Trump would tweet something inane, and you know he’s spent nearly 4 years outdoing himself in the verbal diarrhea department, Souza would reply with a photograph of Obama looking dignified, personable, intelligent, presidential. He didn’t need to be any more pointed than that. The comparison was disheartening. And so over time, he has found a voice through his pictures, and a platform through Instagram. His followers call him the King of Shade, and after someone explained to him what throwing shade meant, he embraced the title and took the work even more seriously.

Dawn Porter’s documentary is a fun watch because of all the touching behind the scenes moments Souza shares with us. Obama’s absence has left a vacuum where gravitas and grace once belonged. Souza is filling that hole just a little bit. But more than that, his photos are a constant reminder of how a president can and should act.

Tove

It’s been quite fashionable lately to make a movie about someone who was a secret lesbian. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one at every single TIFF I’ve ever attended, and I’m happy to say that despite the enormous hurdles of 2020, this year was no exception. But not all closet lesbians are created equal. Stories can be shared, truth can be told, but not all of them are worth of the screen, nor are they necessarily compelling once they’re there.

You know what I’m about to say. It’s 1944 in Helsinki. The end of the war means an injection of creative and perhaps even personal freedom for painter Tove Jansson (Alma Pöysti), who at this time still introduces herself as the pale shadow of her famous father’s talent. She’s painting a lot but paintings don’t pay the rent (and believe me, she’s tried).

At the same lunch where she confesses to her lover Atos (Shanti Roney) that she’s just slept with a woman, he convinces her to illustrate a comic strip for his unprofitable socialist newspaper. It would be worth a bit of coin, and as a bonus, would annoy her father. She doesn’t need much more convincing than that. Atos is surprisingly complacent about the other bit of news, and he’s not about to chuck out their friendship over it, even as the relationship between Tove and Vivica (Krista Kosonen) deepens. Vivica is a bit of a wondering soul though, and perhaps not courageous enough to return Tove’s love, so she leaves for Paris, and she leaves Tove to her art.

You may or may not know that Tove Jonsson’s little cartoons, based on some intimate moments between herself and Vivica, as well as the stories she told to soothe scared children in the bomb shelters, were turned into the beloved Moomin books. What was meant as a bit of side work to support her serious art eventually meant financial freedom and acclaim. Which are hardly consolation prizes for unrequited love.

Despite what may sound like a life worth commemorating, I found Tove to be painfully dull. The story did not compel me, and amounted to little more than plucky little lesbians dancing. The only reason I kept watching at all was Alma Pöysti’s beguiling screen presence. Unfortunately, though Tove may have led a remarkable life, director Zaida Bergroth seems to have drained it of its vital life force. Long before Instagram, Tove struggled with the discrepancy between reality and expectation. She made compromises personally and professionally; she had regrets and broken hearts. She disappointed some, and delighted others. Sometimes the ordinary feels extraordinary in the right director’s hands. Tove is still looking for hers.