Tag Archives: TIFF21

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.

The Humans

There were bigger films at TIFF this year, buzzier films, films with hype and hope and high expectations. The Humans, though? That one was for me. An intense, talky film, character-driven, with an interesting cast: sign me up and sit me down! Stephen Karam adapts his one-act play (finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony winner for Best Play) for the big screen, a risky DIY move that pays off in surprising ways.

The Humans takes place in Brigid and Richard’s new apartment, “new” being a misleading word in this case as it’s a crumbling pre-war duplex in downtown Manhattan, but it’s new to Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and Richard (Steven Yeun), who are moving in together for the first time, and playing host to her family for Thanksgiving. Just one problem: the furniture hasn’t even arrived yet. Haha, just kidding. In-laws for Thanksgiving? There’s gonna be drama, folks.

But not the loud, yelly kind. Sister Aimee (Amy Schumer) arrives first, from Philadelphia, mourning her recent breakup and dealing with an intestinal rebellion. Mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) and dad Erik (Richard Jenkins) arrive next, in from Scranton, toting grandma ‘Momo’ (June Squibb), physically confined to a wheelchair and mentally confined by Alzheimer’s. With an apartment full of people instead of furniture, the holiday celebrations begin, but I’m afraid you won’t find them very jolly.

The passive-aggression starts almost immediately. There’s no one quite like family for such precision the button-pushing, and nary a scene goes by without adding to the tensions of the night. Everyone’s got a secret, and as if the house knows, it starts to bump and burble around them. As darkness falls, the apartment closes in, feeling all the more claustrophobic as director Karam finds nooks and crannies to hide his camera and catch his subject in awkward positions. Aimee hides a trembling lip, and makes unadvised calls from the bathroom. Dad Erik eyes the apartment’s many flaws, distress flashing across his features, tongue firmly bitten. He sees every loose doorknob, every bubble in the paint, every single water damage stain dotting the ceilings. Is he evaluating the apartment’s worthiness, or lamenting that he can’t provide better for his daughter? With a panic attack always encroaching, he’s a tough character to crack, but Richard Jenkins is second to none, and he’s rarely, if ever, been better than this.

Intimate and meticulously observed, Karam has an ear for dialogue and a knack for finding the authenticity in human interaction. Completely free of artifice, this feels like an absurdly typical American family fumbling their way through another holiday dinner. They love each other and they drive each crazy.

Houdyshell, having originated the role of Deirdre on Broadway, plays her like a second skin, so comfortable in the role she wins our empathy with the very smallest of hints, her anguish just barely visible yet undeniable, her every flinch present and accounted for. Feldstein and Yeun are each as good as we’d expect them to be, flawless parts of a flawless whole. Schumer’s the real surprise, holding her own alongside them, Aimee’s role within the family instantly identifiable and relatable.

The Humans gets to the truth in this family dynamic, eschewing melodrama for raw honesty, leaving the members of this family open and exposed. They are laid so bare it feels almost embarrassing to be eavesdropping, yet it’s so compelling it hurts to look away. Karam is confident enough in his material not to muck it up with cinematic tricks. He relies on strong writing and excellent acting, and both here are beyond reproach. He holds a mirror up to us, and like all humans before and after us, we are fascinated by our reflections. Our very natures, the best and worst of us, revealed in one turkey dinner around a rickety folding table with mismatched chairs, Momo snoring softly from the corner. A compelling story is more than enough.

I loved every bit of this movie, how it moved me, how I felt I knew and understood these characters instinctively, winced when they winced, held my breath when they held theirs. The Humans is among the best of the many excellently curated titles at TIFF this year, and how I wished I was watching it with others, able to debate the merits of its title, the meaning of those blackened lightbulbs, Karam’s creepy, haunted atmosphere, treating this family drama as if it were a horror – and whether, just maybe, it is.

The film will simultaneously be released in theaters and aired on Showtime on November 24, 2021.

Nobody Has To Know

Phil arrives home in a cab, a home he no longer recognizes as his own. He’s been in hospital, had a stroke, lost his memory. He doesn’t know where home is or who he is, but luckily Millie knocks on his door the next day to remind him. She’s his boss’s daughter. She brings him to work, shows him around, lists his likes and dislikes, and informs him they were (are) secret lovers. Their chemistry is undeniable, his hands seem accustomed to the work, his mattress conforms to his body, yet there’s a dog he can’t account for, and his memory remains slow to return.

Furthermore, Phil (writer-director Bouli Lanners) is a foreigner, a Belgian farmhand working on a remote Scottish island. Why is he so far from home? Why isn’t his family looking for him? His strangeness makes him seem more vulnerable, a crack in his gruff exterior. Millie (Michelle Fairley) enjoys a prominent seat in the island’s social hierarchy but is shy and reserved. They make a complementary pair as they navigate the losses due to his amnesia, and the minefield of memory as it returns. The real secret waiting to be unlocked isn’t that they were lovers, but that they never were. Millie has simply taken advantage of this unique situation to make something happen that neither had the courage to do beforehand.

Their relationship, and his footing in the community, becomes a story of identity. Who Phil is depends on who he’s with, who that person perceives him to be, wishes him to be, which side of himself he revealed to them, what they remember, what they value, what they project onto him. It’s like he’s a slightly different person to everyone he encounters, which makes assimilating his personality a difficult task. Without memory, we rely on other people’s stories to make sense of who we are. The stories Phil is told about himself vary, and some are flat-out made up. Who is he deep inside, regardless of these stories? Time would tell, if only Phil had much of it.

Nobody Has to Know is a small and gentle film that took me by surprise. It’s tender and beautiful to behold, well-acted, well-told, well-considered. Although it must be terrifying to depend on others to learn about oneself, director Lanners acknowledges that a beautiful Scottish backdrop always makes things better. The island’s remoteness gives us a sense of Phil’s isolation, his urge to hide, but also his his appreciation for beauty. You’ll find yourself wondering just how well you would fare should you wake up tomorrow in a room you don’t recognize, in a home that feels alien. How to re-assemble your ‘self’? Where to find the truth, who to trust to tell it, how to treat the things that don’t feel authentic. And let’s not forget that Phil is also in the throes of romance, either one rekindled or ignited for the first time, but either way mired in history and context that he doesn’t know. If your hands and mouth and heart say yes, is that enough, or should you wait for your brain to catch up?

Watch Phil pick up the pieces in this quiet and gentle film; Nobody Has to Know premiered at TIFF and heads to the Chicago Film Festival October 15 before its December release.

Lakewood

Some movies come out of TIFF as clear front-runners for this year’s Best Picture race at the Oscars (Belfast, The Power of the Dog), but others may stick with you for other reasons entirely. Lakewood is one of two movies I just can’t stop thinking about this year (Silent Night is the other, if you’re wondering).

Amy Carr (Naomi Watts), bereaved widow and mother of two, puts her young daughter Emily on the bus to school, tries unsuccessfully to rouse teenage son Noah, and then hits the trail for a beautiful autumnal run. It’s supposed to be self care, only Amy doesn’t dare disconnect, fielding calls from work, from mum, from the mechanic, and that’s before her whole world shifts.

Amy learns her daughter’s school is on lockdown. In fact, the whole town, small as it is, is pretty much on lockdown to do an active school shooter situation: a parent’s worst nightmare. Amy is miles from home, and as her worst fears play across her face as she struggles to catch her breath, realizing only her cellphone connects her to breaking news, both good and bad. The shooting is not at her daughter’s school. Emily is shaken, but safe. The shooting is at Noah’s school, but luckily Noah is still home in bed, or so Amy thought. The one time her teenage son listens to her and it’s to go to school on this day, the very worst day of days. Frantic calls to anyone who can help. Pleas for people step up. Pleas to the universe to keep her son safe. Frequent checks with Google Maps to try to navigate her way into town. Obsessive calls to her son, who never answers. Reaching out to friends, family, the mechanic, a 911 operator, the detective already on the case.

This is Naomi Watts’ show. Her hope, her anguish, her desperation. She is every emotion, a spectrum of feelings, cycling rapidly, overlapping constantly, reacting to the changing circumstances like an emotion chameleon. Fear. FEAR. Gripping, panicky fear. Fear that maxes out, subsumes everything, yet still finds room to grow when Amy learns consideration for her son have shifted from potential victim to potential perpetrator. Devastated, her urgency doesn’t relent. Still determined to reach him at any cost, Amy’s beleaguered journey forward is further complicated by flashbacks: her son being bullied, her son’s growing detachment, her son mourning for his father.

The gun in their home.

This role is every actress’s dream, requiring every tool in the toolbox, a chance to showcase talent and skill. It takes confidence to pull off; reaching such a vulnerable place also highlights flaws. Only the very best could properly execute it, and fortunately for us, Watts is among the very best. She doesn’t just pull it off, she plays it with considered subtlety. Melodrama is easier, hard to resist, even harder to avoid, but Watts finds the truth of her character: a mother gets shit done. She’ll fall apart later. Right now, for these 90 minutes, her son needs her, and nothing is going to stop her getting to him.

Sundown

Neil (Tim Roth) is just another millionaire on vacation in Mexico with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her children when his (well, their) mother dies. Alice of course returns home immediately to start making arrangements, but Neil fakes a passport emergency to stay behind. Why would Neil do that? Well, Neil’s not much of a talker, and believe me, his sister asks, REPEATEDLY. But all Neil wants to do is sit on the beach and drink Coronas out of a never-ending, tourist-priced bucket.

Well, drink beer, and fuck the locals, if we’re being perfectly frank. Bernice (Iazua Larios) in particular. She’s pretty happy to sit and drink beers with him, but the life he left back home is a little more exigent. If he was rich before, he’s now much richer; his wealth comes from some big company back home that’s now officially passed down to the next generation, to his, to him and his sister. Only Neil seems to have opted out. He hasn’t said it out loud, he just won’t engage and he won’t go home. He’s on perma-vacation.

Writer-director Michel Franco knows that life has a habit of catching up with us all. Even money can’t insulate us forever. Maybe money makes us particularly vulnerable.

Sundown features a very cool Tim Roth, maybe not at his Rothiest, but relaxed into a character stripped down to essentials, editing out the bullshit, but whose background is complex and whose life waiting at home is brimming. Unfortunately, I don’t count this among my favourites at TIFF this year. The writing wasn’t as clear as it needed to be; I spent the first bit of the film sorting out its basic elements, and then reassessing the film once I’d made some rather large adjustments. Crucially, it also lacked proper motivation. Man walks away from life. Okay, sure, that happens, in film as in life. But why? Neil is up to his eyeballs in privilege and wealth; has a very cushy life .He’s trading it in for a simpler one. There must be some reason for this, but Franco doesn’t want us to know it, doesn’t even want us to ask. Neil’s life is further wrinkled by the Mexican justice system. You can be sure he’ll call on all his resources to iron this out for him, but while this does introduce some conflict, it fails to culminate in any sort of reckoning.

Sundown is a movie without a message. Tim Roth can’t find meaning where it doesn’t exist. There are ingredients there, and while I admire a film maker who refuses to follow a recipe, I’d still like those ingredients to be mixed and baked. Franco leaves them raw. Sundown is watchable but ultimately pointless.

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over

When Dionne Warwick says “Don’t make me over,” what she really means is don’t fuck her over. Don’t you dare underestimate her.

The music industry wasn’t so friendly to people like her when Dionne Warwick came along with that big, undeniable voice of hers. But she wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and with talent like hers, she wouldn’t have to. With tenacity to match her talent, and a savvy way with people, Warwick went from singing in her church choir to international superstardom.

Directors David Heilbroner and Dave Wooley assemble a who’s-who of talking heads: Quincy Jones, Elton John, Gloria Esteban, and of course cousin Whitney Houston, who appears through archival footage. Oh, and don’t forget Bill Clinton, who seems to have dedicated his retirement to appearing in a truly vast array of documentaries. I think he pops up in at least 1 in 3.

The film’s greatest asset is of course Warwick herself, who seems ageless and resplendent, and highly entertaining. As a formative and influential player, she’s got so many great insights into the industry -as an artist, a woman, a person of colour, and the woman tells a hell of a story. She’s been everywhere, won everything, met everyone.

As far as music documentaries go, this one feels essential.

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over is an official 2021 TIFF selection.

Compartment Number 6

Laura is a Finnish grad student who bids a reluctant goodbye to her Russian lover and boards a train headed for Murmansk in the remote Arctic circle to see the petroglyphs, a fitting farewell to her time spent studying in Russia. For the duration of the long ride, she’s been assigned to share a tiny sleeping compartment with Vadim, a rough and roguish man on his way to work in the mines. He makes a bad impression immediately and though Laura pleads to be reassigned, there are no other spaces available, and it’s Vadim or nothing. She wisely chooses nothing for as long as she can, but returns to compartment no. 6 when she can no longer fight sleep.

Juho Kuosmanen’s film is shot authentically on a series of Russian trains. You feel the claustrophobia, the inability to escape, the blurry landscape rushing by impassively outside the compartment’s window. Eventually loneliness and isolation win out, and Laura (Seidi Haarla) feeds her hunger for human connection by letting Vadim (Yuriy Borisov) in, little by little. They are not well matched, separated by class, nationality, and even language, but Vadim continues to surprise Laura, who stands in for the audience as she revises her assumptions and first impressions. Still, we fear for Laura, who seems vulnerable in her naivete, in travelling by herself such a long distance, so far from home.

I’ve heard this film compared to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, but I wouldn’t put them in the same category myself. I struggled with Compartment No. 6 because the introduction does such a good job of painting Vadim as an undesirable that I was totally convinced, and not nearly as ready to forgive as Laura. This is a general problem for me lately, my reluctance to accept vindication for a man I’m not sure deserves it. I feel Kuosmanen pushing us to challenge our implicit presumptions, but I don’t believe Vadim has truly earned redemption. His character starts out too abhorrent for me to believe in his transformation in just one train journey, no matter how endless it felt.

Of course, the beauty in film is that you may feel otherwise yourself (many do). Their time together being limited, perhaps you’ll be moved by their connection, impressive considering the limitations of the ride. Their inherent expiry date will either fill you with a sense of warmth and urgency, or leave you feeling that it’s all a bunch of nothing. And you wouldn’t be wrong either way. We are merely silent observers in this, and we’ll either find compassion for these two and their choices, or we’ll be left out in the cold wind of the Arctic circle.

Compartment Number 6 is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

7 Prisoners

Mateus is one of 7 boys recruited by a familiar face in the country villages outside São Paulo. This man selects only the best, and competition is fierce; there are no jobs in the countryside, and 18 year old Mateus is keen to earn money for his family. His family celebrates his luck with a special dinner and goodbye gifts that they can scarce afford. Mateus is proud to go.

Until he and the others are thrown inside a cage, locked up, that is. 7 Prisoners isn’t the only movie at TIFF this year to tackle modern slavery, but the circumstances here are different. The junk yard boss Luca (Rodrigo Santoro) knows what he’s doing. He presents his prisoners with an invoice for every cost incurred, which will conveniently take them a lifetime of forced labour at slave wages to repay. Some of the boys talk of rebellion, of overthrowing Luca in order to escape, but others can think only of their relatives back home living in poverty. Mateus (Christian Malheiros) has an even more complicated choice to make when Luca chooses him to be his middle man, the one who will be directly in charge of the other prisoners. Mateus gets better food, a better bed, a life outside the bars. He also gets a gun to point at his friends, and the job of hunting them down should he escape. The other prisoners have now fixed their hatred on him for turning on them so quickly, for being part of the system that traffics in humans. He’s on the wrong side.

Malheiros shows us Mateus’ agony, but also his determination, and his #1 priority, the family back home. In the few phone calls he’s been allowed, his mother is astounded by the money Luca has sent back on his behalf. She can labour less, save her bad back. For Mateus, this is worth it, but he’s in an interminably awkward position of being both the bad guy and a victim but unappreciated by either side. He has to make extreme personal and ethical compromises to survive, not the prisoners see it this way.

Director Alexandre Moratto transcends simple good vs. bad and presents a more complicated and evolving sense of right and wrong, the steady compromising of values necessarily to survive systemic oppression and corruption. No matter which side of the bars they sleep on, all seven prisoners are being exploited; there is no winning in the game of human smuggling, only injustice, cruelty, and a hopelessness that seeps in quick.

7 Prisoners is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

The Wheel

Albee and Walker met as children growing up in foster care. They married at age 16 to escape a terrible situation, and now, 7 years later, they’re on the verge of divorce. Albee (Amber Midthunder) has all but checked out, but agreed to spend one last weekend away to work through a marriage workbook and see what can be salvaged. Walker (Taylor Gray) hopes their relationship can be saved, but Albee isn’t even sure they ever loved each other so much as needed each other to build more stable lives. They’re committed to brutal honesty this weekend, but neither is really prepared to hear it.

Meanwhile, the couple who run the B&B where Albee and Walker are staying are having problems by osmosis. Planning to wed in just a couple of weeks, Ben (Nelson Lee) and Carly (Bethany Anne Lind) are tip-toeing around the their unstable guests, trying to avoid the awkwardness of witnessing a marriage disintegrate in their guest house. But as Albee and Walker tackle the issues suggested in the book, it begins to reveal cracks in Ben and Carly’s relationship as well. This weekend is going to be very hard on love.

Midthunder plays cruel and bitchy exceedingly well, her only displays of affection reserved for her phone. Gray is adorable like a kitten; it’s inconceivable that anyone should abandon him. It makes for an uncomfortable balance. Lind adds an interesting extra dimension to some already complicated dynamics. Love is hard. Love is very hard. Are any of these couples willing to do the work?

The Wheel is a wonderful little indie that I found quite charming, exceeding my expectations in the best possible way.

The Wheel is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

Quickening

Sheila (Arooj Azeem) is a performing arts major at university, and is finding her dance class to be a particular challenge. She won’t admit this to her (over)protective mother, Aliya (Bushra Ashir Azeem), who thinks the North American university “lifestyle” will ruin Sheila’s chances for a reputable life, compromise her Pakistani values, and basically give her the opportunity to be negatively influenced by her peers, none of whom pass Aliya’s muster. The tension between mother and daughter is somewhat soothed by Sheila’s first love. But when her juggling act between parents, school, and boyfriend ultimately fails, Sheila’s breakdown is of a peculiar sort.

Pseudocyesis: a psychosomatic state that occurs without conception and is marked by some of the physical symptoms and changes in hormonal balance of pregnancy.

Sheila believes she is pregnant. She’s not, but she’s convinced she is, and she’s certainly going to stress out like she is. How will this affect parents, school, and boyfriend? Yeah, that’s exactly what Sheila’s worried about! Poor dear.

Azeem is quite lovely as Sheila, and this coming of age story is particularly complex. Sure you might feel lulled into a sense of security by the admirable cinematography, and the gently hypnotic score, eliciting a dream-like state much like the haze of first love. But make no mistake: inside, Sheila is roiling with conflict and self-doubt. The cultural expectation of pleasing one’s parents runs deep, but Sheila also years no break free and pursue her own ambitions, even if they’re outside the traditional life her parents have envisioned for her. Azeem is able to live in the skin of a second generation immigrant, with all the pressures and expectations bottling up inside, overwhelming her in part because she can’t really express them.

Writer-director Haya Waseem makes a bold choice assembling Azeem’s real-life family to play her on-screen one, but the risk pays off with an authentic-feeling bond that transcends culture. Quickening is a wonderful film about a universal stage in a young woman’s life, layered with cultural specificity for a cathartic journey about growing up, leaving home, and always being there for family.

Quickening is an official selection of TIFF 2021.