Tag Archives: TIFF21

Ali & Ava

Ali (Adeel Akhtar) smiles his way through a troubled marriage. With good humour and loud music, he focuses on doing for others, including his tenants, with whom he has a remarkably amicable relationship. In fact, he’s picking up one of his tenants’ kids from from school when he meets Ava, an Irish teacher at the school. Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is a single mother of 5 (most of them grown, though not necessarily gone), and Ali offers her a ride. She’s tired but she smiles easily, and before they’re much down the road the pair are already bonding over their mutual love of music (though notably not the same music).

Writer-director Clio Barnard may refer to this as a working-class love story, but I’m fairly certain its protagonists would not. They are simply drawn to each other, irrepressibly so, despite their differing backgrounds and statuses and skin colour. They’re both living through tumultuous times and though it’s safe to say neither was looking for a romance, they are both open to finding joy in unexpected places. Not everyone is so open; Ava’s grown son is less than pleased to find a British Pakistani man cuddling his mam on the couch. He brandishes a sword and runs him straight out. So while the initial attraction may have been based on the need for fun and distraction, they quickly come across some pretty serious barriers and have to wonder whether all of this is worth it.

Barnard has drawn some exceptionally authentic characters, brought to life by a very talented pair of actors. Akhtar and Rushbrook live in these skins, they feel like your neighbours, you know them somehow, and you like them even as they falter. The complexity of their relationship allows for a whole spectrum of emotion, but Barnard applies it with a light touch, her actors keeping their performances as subtle as they are precise. There’s a lot to unpack here: grief, trauma, hate, disappointment, but through it all, there’s a buoyancy that keeps lighting their path. There is hope in vulnerability, and strength in pursuing unlikely connections.

Ali & Ava is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Medusa

This movie had me thinking of Handmaid’s Tale – of the women of Gilead, in particular. Many of these women, including Serena Waterford, helped create this new world order where women are completely sublimated, supposedly in the name of god, but actually for the strengthening of the patriarchy. As a commander’s wife, Serena enjoys the highest position a woman can achieve in Gilead, which is to say, no position at all. She is to stay at home, completely voiceless, caring for or attempting to have babies. Forgetting her position means harsh punishment, even the removal of body parts, to remind her of her place. So she lashes out in the way that she can, by abusing the little power she has over the servants in her house. Cooks and cleaners, called Marthas, are fair game, but the Handmaids (young women placed in the homes of high-ranking officials to be raped repeatedly until they bear them children are called ‘Handmaids’) take the brunt of the wives’ wrath. Aunts are the women in charge of training the Handmaids to do their duty and to remain submissive at all times; Aunt Lydia seems to relish the opportunity to cruelly punish the women who have trouble complying. I always wonder: are the Serenas and Lydias evil? Are they worse than the men who force them into these positions? Have they internalized misogyny or turned traitor on their own gender, or are they merely surviving in a world that pits woman against woman for scraps at best? Are they victims, or monsters, or something in between?

Medusa takes place in “today’s” Brazil, where many mourn the loss of “good” Christian values and have taken it upon themselves to right what they perceive to be wrong. Mariana is just 21 years old, but the pressure on her and her friends is already astronomical. They have to keep up pure and saintly appearances at all times while being relegated to the bottom rung due to their sex. They act out, not against their oppressors, but against their own gender, against other young women they deem deviant. Donning truly creepy masks, they stalk the night streets in a large and frightening gang, hunting down a slut or a sinner, beating her mercilessly, and forcing her to confess her sins as they record on their phones. Beauty and youth are of course the most important currency, but also somehow treated with suspicion. You can’t win, and the punishments are severe. And when Mariana and her friends start to realize this, that there aren’t but victims on either side of their transactions, the urge to rebel is even stronger.

Writer-director Anita Rocha da Silveira saw radical Christian factions popping up in Brazil and needed to write about it, bending reality with mythology, and creating something that feels all too possible. Policing women’s bodies and minds with such strict control inevitably leads to some boiling point, but Silveira tempers the dark with some light, some levity. By leaning in to the horror, she exposes the hypocrisy and highlights the rage. Once it’s unleashed, the real fun begins.

True Things

Kate

Kate (Ruth Wilson) is having another dreary day at the office, one in a string of many, making up the bulk of her dreary little life. But today is different. Sitting behind her desk as a benefit claims worker, Kate catches the eye of a claimant who looks like the kind of sexy bad news that could shake up her life. With dyed-blond hair and perpetual 5-o’clock shadow, this guy is easily identifiable as newly released from prison, and Ruth doesn’t need much more than that to fuel her fantasies. But before you know it, they’re going at it FOR REAL right there in the parking lot. It’s hot and frantic and leaves her breathless. Consider Kate obsessed.

Blond guy (Tom Burke) is cheeky and charming (when he wants to be), and handsome in that dangerous way, making for some pretty sexy fantasizing. But it’s not just the sex that invades her fantasies; soon she’s picturing marriage and children and mortgages, the whole kit and caboodle. Which, to be fair to Blond, is not at all what he’s promising. In fact, if you weren’t dick-matized by him, you’d probably clock him for Trouble with a capital T. Unfortunately for Kate, her life was had a bad boy-sized hole in her life. Blond fills it imperfectly, but it’s better than nothing, and Kate’s serious infatuation is more than capable of filling in seams. She’s so intoxicated that her everyday life starts to fall apart because she just can’t get her mind off him. And Blond guy plays her like a banjo, doling out his affection in smaller and smaller portions. Toxic men seem to understand intermittent reinforcement intuitively; rewarding someone all the time is good, but rewarding someone irregularly actually keeps them on the hook much longer, perpetuates that false hope for longer, keeps a woman sniffing after the wrong guy for far longer than she should.

Ruth Wilson’s been doing some noteworthy and varied work lately, and I would definitely rate this role among it. We likely all have a friend, and perhaps even a personal experience, of falling head over heels for someone we shouldn’t have. Kate is consumed, almost erased, by the strength of her desire. Director Harry Wootliff feels intimately familiar with the scenario as well, the sensual exploration, the hunger to not be alone, the dizzying highs, the unfathomable lows. Together they compose something that feels desperate and authentic, a classic story of self-destructive compulsion. Blond embodies the bad boy trope, oozing so much exaggerated sexuality that even a smart woman like Kate can’t resist, despite red flags like callousness, narcotism, and unavailability. Wilson’s meticulously-observed performance resonates, speaking to our unconscious, evolutionary desires.

The Falls

COVID quarantine has been tough on a lot of us. Isolation is difficult, but being stuck with people you dislike can be just as destructive.

Mother-daughter Pin-wen (Alyssa Chia) and Xiao Jing (Gingle Wang) are already not in a great place. Xiao Jing is a surly teenager, Pin-wen works hard to support their two-person household. They don’t get along, there’s resentment flowing both ways; Xiao Jing tends to lock herself in her room a lot, and maybe that’s for the best.

But then: COVID. Xiao Jing is exposed at school and forced the quarantine. Finally, a legit excuse to hide in her bedroom, no questions asked. But when Pin-wen loses her job and is also at home full-time, things start to deteriorate. Like too many others, Pin-wen’s mental health suffers during the pandemic’s forced isolation. Xiao Jing notices small signs that things aren’t going well, but what can she do?

Movies tell stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. In 2020, all 7+ billion of us on the planet started living in extraordinary circumstances. These were unprecedented times. Every single one of us built pathways through dark times, improvising along the way. Pin-wen’s illness means Xiao Jing has to grow up and find solutions to problems that never should have been hers to deal with. This pandemic has affected us in so many ways, many of which we won’t begin to understand for years down the line. Watching this mother-daughter duo navigate tough times reminds us of how much we ourselves have had to adapt. This is an act of compassion, both for these two women, stronger than they know, and for ourselves, who’ve been through the ringer too.

Writer-director Mong-Hong Chung lensed the film himself, did so much of this himself, poured himself into a project during a time that begged for stories to be told, so he did. Chung knows that he can afford to be subtle here, it helps us to relate, and perhaps for the first time, this is a film where we can all relate. Not everyone will want to be reminded of the hardships they faced during the pandemic, but for those who don’t mind, this is a quiet but moving little film.

The Falls is an official selection of TIFF 2021

Out of Sync

This humble little film from Spain may seem like an odd choice among TIFF’s more prominent titles, but after reading its synopsis, I knew I had to see it, knew I’d never seen anything like it.

C. (Marta Nieto) is a workaholic, hiding from life’s disappointments inside her dark studio where she works as a sound designer.

[A brief note about sound design because I’m a movie nerd and I can’t help myself. A sound designer is in charge of creating all the little (and big!) noises you hear in a movie. Clicking a pen, shuffling papers, ramming an armored truck into a brick wall at high speed – even out of this world stuff like a duplicitous jellied orb beaming down from the night sky – the sound designer has to place those sounds in a movie (or a show, a play, a video game, a slot machine, a children’s game, or an electric car). They comb through a database of previously recorded sounds looking for the perfect one(s), or they record it themselves. A particularly crisp stalk of celery may stand in for the snap of a human bone, and then that recording will be manipulated until it sounds both realistic and totally gross. That’s sound design!]

So C. is a sound designer, and a good one, sought after and respected, but lately her projects are getting returned, her clients unsatisfied. C. is suffering from auditory neuropathy, a totally real condition in which her hearing is simply out of sync. Her ear detects noise but doesn’t immediately report it to her brain. She’ll clap her hands, but won’t hear that clap right away. At first her hearing’s just a little off, just a fraction of a second, but as anyone who’s ever watched a movie where the dialogue and the lips don’t line up, that’s a very crucial fraction, and our brains itch and revolt when things don’t look right. But C.’s condition worsens, the delay increases to several seconds, then minutes. She’ll make herself a cup of tea and then be startled 7 minutes later when she finally hears the kettle whistling aggressively. Or she’ll answer the door to find no one there – whoever rang 18 minutes ago is long since gone. When what you see and what you hear don’t sync up, it’s not just a hearing problem, it feels like your whole brain is on fire. It must be exhausting to experience the world in this way, and it’s crippling to a person like C. who has built her whole career around the excellence of her ears.

Nieto is incredible here. C. is a loner by nature, and not prone to melodrama, so director Juanjo Giménez Peña virtually puts us into her shoes so we can experience her confusion, frustration, and loss along with her. C.’s path toward healing has her exploring her past, her childhood, her family roots. She unravels past mysteries and uncovers new skills, both of which prey on her sense of identity. It’s a fascinating movie with great character work and a premise that keeps unfolding in new and surprising ways. And did I mention the sound design (Marc Bech, Oriol Tarragó) is spectacular, as of course it must be in a movie like this, where all ears are perked up and playing extra close attention.

Out Of Sync is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Three Floors

One building in Rome, 3 apartments, 3 families each with their own stories. Yet their stories are about to collide, quite literally in the beginning, and then figuratively though no less forcefully after that.

The entitled son of two upright judges swerves the car he’s driving drunkenly in order to avoid hitting his pregnant neighbour Monica (Alba Rohrwacher), who is in labour and taken to the street to flag down her own cab since her husband is routinely away from home. Instead he hits and kills another pedestrian before ploughing into one of the units. Owner Lucio (Riccardo Scamarcio) is relieved to find his family unharmed but he and his wife jump into action to help, leaving their young daughter under the care of their elderly neighbour. Sometime during that hectic night, the elderly neighbour and the little girl go missing, and Lucio can’t help but imagine the very worst, the neighbour morphing in his head from doting grandfatherly type to pervert in the bush. And that’s just how the movie starts. Their entangled narratives keep on chugging along, unfurling in surprising ways.

Director Nanni Moretti excels at shady morals and knotted ethics. Each character has been implicated in a sort of test, an exchange that pushes over some blurry line that pushes them to live at the extremes of human experience. Three Floors doesn’t necessarily judge the character as play witness to their hypocrisy as they attempt to tread through very murky waters. Yet for each act of reckless irresponsibility, we also see compassion and generosity, or at least the possibility for it.

There’s a common vein that runs through these stories, uniting them by more than just geography. Unfortunately I found the film to be too uneven to be enjoyable. For every juicy bite of steak, there’s a whole lot of boiled potato and flavorless frozen peas that must be swallowed as part of the package. And it’s not just the tedious valleys that are objectionable, it’s the absence of a single character to root for. To err is human, but these folks are a little too human, if you catch my drift, and I’m a little too less than divine to forgive. Three Floors was an official selection of TIFF 2021 but it was one of the more forgettable films in its lineup.

Charlotte

Charlotte Salomon knew how lucky she was to escape Germany during the war, fleeing to the south of France between 1941 and 1943 where she sought refuge at a friend’s estate. She may have left Germany, but she knew she couldn’t outrun everything. Some things follow you no matter where you go.

Family haunted Charlotte from either side of the border, a long string of suicided ghosts making her question her own fate, as well as from the camps of the Holocaust where relatives have disappeared steadily. In hiding from the Nazis, Charlotte meets and marries her love, but she still can’t shake her own sense of mortality. She spends her days painting frantically, motivated to leave a record. Though young, she’s determined to paint her own autobiography, nearly 1000 images, memorializing those she’d lost and paying tribute to her own strife.

Charlotte Salomon was murdered in a gas chamber shortly after her arrival at Auschwitz in October 1943. She was 26 and pregnant. Like so many, Charlotte was supposed to be forgotten, wiped from history, but after her death, her family unearthed the paintings she’d carefully packed away.

This animated film is a tribute to her life and to her work. It honours her memory but remembers her as a real person, a young woman and talented artist who should have had a long future in front of her. Not unlike her own graphic style, the film uses bold, colourful images to recount Charlotte’s short life.

A certain film once posited that every time a bell rang, an angel got some wings. I’m of the belief that every time you watch this movie, a Nazi ghost gets a pineapple shoved up his rear. Do your part. Don’t let her memory fade. Marion Cotillard, Keira Knightley, Mark Strong, Sam Claflin, and Jim Broadbent lend their voices to make this film come alive, and if you need further enticement, I hear the pineapple crop’s particularly robust this year.

Charlotte is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

The Rescue

I, like many of you, was riveted by the news of a Thai soccer team trapped in flooded (and flooding) cave. The rescue was harrowing, and uncertain. The whole world watched. Now we get to reexperience this miraculous mission from all angles, not just what the media reported or the Thai government allowed. Or in my case, what my limited memory could recall.

Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi stick to the unvarnished truth, and need little embellishment to make this a gripping, edge of your seat documentary. In June 2018, twelve members of soccer team The Wild Boars, aged 11-16, and their 25-year old assistant coach were playing in the Tham Luang cave when it flooded extremely quickly and over a month earlier than usual, trapping them inside. The water rose so quickly and the current was so strong that no contact was made for 11 long days. Imagine the mothers, fathers, friends, siblings, and grandparents assembled outside, praying for their safety, unsure of whether they were even still alive, knowing that if they were, they were cold, wet, hungry, sitting in darkness waiting to drown, waiting to die.

 The Thai Navy SEALs had no cave diving experience so they called in experienced recreational divers from around the world, like British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, who were the first to actually find the boys alive. It would be six more days before a rescue attempt was even made, a time during which approaches and methods were hotly debated, and both time and water were their enemy. The rescue operation involved more than 10,000 people, including more than 100 divers, thousands of rescue workers, representatives from about 100 governmental agencies, 900 police officers, and 2,000 soldiers.

At the time I was deeply invested in seeing those kids come out safely, and I perhaps didn’t appreciate the how much went into their rescue. Thanks to this doc, I have a better understanding of how everything went down: how excrutiatingly crucial each small detail was to the mission’s success, how easily it could all go wrong, how to drag children underwater for over three hours without them panicking, putting their own lives at risk as well as their rescuers. Ten police helicopters, 7 ambulances, more than 700 diving cylinders, and the pumping of more than a billion litres of water from the caves were all coordinated for this rescue effort’s success, and the truth is, the plan was improvised on the spot. No protocol existed for a mission that had never been attempted, never even thought possible. These volunteer divers put their lives on the line to save the children of strangers, and only their own bravery and faith got them through it.

I knew how this mission ended, but I was still riveted by its execution. In fact, the ending is made all the more extraordinary once you discover the true breadth of its ambition, the true depth of its risk.

The Rescue screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival where it won the People’s Choice Award for Documentaries. Look for it in theatres October 8.

Inexorable

Marcel Bellmer (Benoît Poelvoorde) is an author some might consider past his prime if it weren’t for his wife Jeanne (Mélanie Doutey), a powerful publisher, who makes sure his name is still relevant. Once celebrated for his best-selling novel Inexorable, he’s never been able to replicate its success, and lately he’s been knotted up with writer’s block. He’s hoping that moving in to his wife’s family’s sprawling country manor might be just the change of scenery to jolt his creativity. Jeanne and young daughter Lucie (Janaina Halloy) accompany him, but since Jeanne is very busy with work, she engages a new nanny, Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi), who bonds immediately with Lucie.

As Marcel settles into his late father-in-law’s office, the old mansion groaning and moaning around him, the words still don’t come, but Gloria proves a welcome distraction. She cuts a sympathetic figure, a shy and lonely orphan grateful to be part of a family setting. She’s particularly drawn to Marcel, confessing her admiration for him and his work, insisting that Inexorable saved her life when things were particularly dark. But as she becomes increasingly entangled in the family, her presence becomes more threatening, and she becomes a lot less meek.

Director Fabrice Du Welz creates a creeping atmosphere as the setting for his drama. The estate is large enough to feel intimidating in itself, but there are always menacing corners, ominous shadows, places to hide, places to spy. Gloria is the snake lying in wait, full of secrets and shady intentions. Still, it’s Marcel’s own past that will haunt him the most. Du Welz and co-writers Joséphine Darcy Hopkins and Aurélien Molas use the framework to poke at the myth of the literary genius, but it goes much deeper than that. Every confrontation builds toward something (forgive me) inevitable. Even anticipating the worst, I couldn’t shake the dread, but needed the release of a long-promised boiling point. I wanted it and I feared it, and by golly I got it. But thanks to Du Welz’s vision and style, it was somehow expected but also a whole lot more.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

People will tell you that The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a manic mess of quirks and cameos, and I won’t deny it. In fact, I embrace it. I liked it that way.

Every year, Hollywood greenlights a certain number of biopics, biopics being fairly reliable around Oscar time. But they’ve been making moving pictures for more than a century; at some point, we’re going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel for suitable subjects. I know some critics have argued that Louis Wain isn’t exactly first-rate material, and I’ll confess to not knowing his name or his art before watching this film. Now, however, I’d consider myself a fan. I can see why director Will Sharpe would choose him: Louis Wain was a complete weirdo. Today we’d have a much more sophisticated label for him, but the Victoria set just thought him strange and unusual, and he was happily oblivious to exist outside of society’s expectations.

When we meet Louis in 1881, he’s the head of the family to aging and ailing mother and 5 unmarried sisters. He’s not exactly up for the task, or even aware of it, more concerned with creative pursuits, which of course pay diddly squat, which doesn’t exactly address the family’s growing financial concerns. Wain’s peculiarities keep him so far outside of the natural order of things, everyone’s shocked to discover he’s actually a romantic. And in fact, he’s fallen in love with his sisters’ governess, Emily (Claire Foy). While it’s shocking that Louis is suddenly going to marry, it’s even more shocking that he’s chosen such an inappropriate bride. She’s not only the help, she’s also a spinster at her advanced age. The scandal! Louis’s mother is mortified. But he marries her anyway, and insists that the family treats her well.

Such a beautiful, whirlwind romance can only end one way: she dies. She dies young, leaving Louis a weird, bereft loner who only has the heart to do one thing. Draw cat pictures. He would draw his wife pictures of their beloved cat to cheer her up as the cancer took her, and now he keeps doing it, illustrating obsessively, becoming famous for his cat cartoons, but never rich. Louis never did have a head for business.

He did, however, have a head full of wild and fantastical thoughts, and the film treats him like an avant-garde genius. This is the stuff that creams Cumberbatch’s knickers. He’s the King of Quirk, and he lays it on thick, but I never felt it was over the top or distracting; it was wonderful. It was Cumber at his Batchiest, all ticks, and odd mannerisms, and social ineptitude. He’s not serving up mere ice cream, he’s the whole damn sundae bar, and who doesn’t live for ‘more is more’ at a sundae bar? Cumberbatch does, and I’m here for it.

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Yes, this makes for some wild shifts in film, tonalities that spasm all over the screen, but it feels like an extension of the character, never quite managing to follow the rules, never caring to either. Wain had plenty of darkness in him too, a true artist even in his soul, which a droll voiceover by Olivia Colman drives home, literally giving voice to his damaged inner life, his unbearable grief, his tattered mental state.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is flawed, but it’s also spectacular, especially as a fan of the inimitable Benedict Cumberbatch. Louis Wain didn’t live inside the box he was meant to. He felt life sizzle all around him. He wasn’t typical, or perhaps even neurotypical, but he dreamed big, loved big, lost big, grieved big, and left a legacy that includes a great many cat pictures, but more besides, something intangible that couldn’t possibly be captured on film but between Cumberbatch and Sharpe, is made somehow real.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is an official selection of TIFF 2021. Look for it on Amazon Prime November 5.