Members name the standout docs at this year’s festival.
TFCA Friday: Week of April 16
April 16, 2021
Welcome to TFCA Friday, a weekly round-up of film reviews and articles by TFCA members.
In Release this Week
*Note: some titles are repeated due to the constantly shifting nature of film releases during the pandemic and availability to Toronto audiences.
Amundsen: The Great Explorer (dir. Espen Sandberg)
“Amundsen is, like Kon-Tiki, a fun, educational adventure. I was struck while watching both films by the parallels between such late examples of ‘Heroic Age’ explorations and the earliest days of space travel not long after,” offers Chris Knight at the National Post.
On the other hand, Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto says the film is “entertaining while a bit tiring due to its length.”
Arlo the Alligator Boy (dir. Ryan Crego)
“Warning: this animation feature is extremely silly,” cautions Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
The Banishing (dir. Christopher Smith)
Gilbert Seah offers a word of caution on this one too, noting that it “gets sillier as it tries to get scarier.”
Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts (dir. Jeffrey Wolf)
“What is most intriguing is the history of the black slave captured on film and illustrated with images, many of Traylor’s,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Chinatown Rising (dir. Harry Chuck, Josh Chuck)
“The images, stark and difficult, are reminiscent of the seminal social doc Housing Problems directed by Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey and produced by John Grierson,” observes Pat Mullen at POV Magazine. “Chuck’s footage frankly shows the reality of Chinatown life and the need for the municipality to create quality affordable housing—not to mention a safe and dignified standard for living—for all its citizens regardless of their zip code.”
The Courier (dir. Dominic Cooke)
“It’s a high-stakes game that would not have succeeded without Cumberbatch’s convincing innocence and fear and diminishment as someone who meant well but was fell into a political war,” observes Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“If it had been made in the Sixties with Michael Caine as Wynne and Omar Sharif as Penkovsky, I bet we’d still be watching it now,” suggests Marc Glassman at Classical FM.
“As the marvellously named Greville Wynne, whose meetings with Oleg Penkovsky in the early 60s may well have given the U.S. a strategic edge during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast, building an entire performance out of squirming discomfort and gradually coming into his own as a man of very careful action,” says Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine.
"He is the anti-Bond." Hear @glasneronfilm's review of 'The Courier,' a new film starring Benedict Cumberbatch about a British salesman who was recruited to spy on the Soviet Union in the lead up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. @cbchh #CBCNN pic.twitter.com/pT2PVsN0Mb
— CBC Morning Live (@CBCMorningLive) April 16, 2021
“So long as you’re not expecting subversion or surprise, you can gently sink yourself into director Dominic Cooke’s intentionally, pleasantly lukewarm waters and come out the other side refreshed and squeaky-clean,” notes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
“Fans of Spielberg’s urbane thriller Bridge of Spies will no doubt enjoy this very British suspense story,” suggests Chris Knight at the National Post.
“What eventually makes The Courier so engaging and entertaining a spy fluff is its choice dialogue, impeccable acting on both sides (Soviet Union and British) and period setting,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
The Good Traitor (dir. Christina Rosendahl)
“You can’t make this stuff up,” notes Anne Brodie on this strange-but-true drama at What She Said.
“Rosendahl manages to manoeuvre her directing skills like an expert military fighter finally steering her film into a victory as what might look like entertaining spy fluff but is actually a story that is inspired by true events,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“It’s a lovely looking film with a script that reads like a textbook,” shrugs Chris Knight at the National Post, noting a dry affair that might have viewers longing for a rewatch of Flame and Citron.
“There are moments where The Good Traitor shows immense promise,” agrees Thom Ernst at Original Cin, noting that some of the film’s individual scenes are among the year’s best. “But The Good Traitor never imposes enough tension to raise the stakes higher than an exposed tryst in the woods.”
In the Earth (dir. Ben Wheatley)
“Taking place in the midst of a viral outbreak (though the word ‘COVID-19’ is not uttered once, thank god), In the Earth follows jumpy scientist Martin (Joel Fry) and park scout Alma (Ellora Torchia) as they journey into the woods to rendezvous with a fellow researcher. What follows is a gruesome adventure of in-your-face freak-outs, culminating in a strobe-lit ‘nature is healing’ climax that could only possibly make sense if you are high outta your mind,” tokes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
“You can sense Wheatley grappling with notions of nature out of balance, of forests older than humankind and not kindly disposed to our clearcutting ways, of the long march from superstition to science, and the fuzzy boundary that sometimes separates the two,” sighs Chris Knight at the National Post. “But the film that results is all jagged cuts, loud noises and discombobulation. A little less Dark Ages and a bit more Enlightenment might help us connect to its themes.”
“Wheatley is quite nasty in his depiction of his graphic violence,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide (dir. Max Basch and Malia Scharf)
“On the heels of Martha: A Picture Story and Wojnarowicz: F*ck You F*ggot F*cker comes Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide,” notes Pat Mullen at POV Magazine. “The doc is cut from the cloth of poppy profile docs, although any bleary-eyed doc fan trying to keep pace with the truly insane volume of film releases these days could easily mistake it for the other two.”
“The doc represents a good portion of the history of American as experienced through the art and mind of Kenny Scharf,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
The Marijuana Conspiracy (dir. Craig Pryce; Apr. 20 🇨🇦)
Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto calls it “a history lesson that could be missed without dire consequences.”
MLK/FBI (dir. Sam Pollard)
“This disturbing doc on one of the most shameful chapters in American government history is based on newly declassified FBI files on MLK,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“Some documentaries preserve the past in amber,” reflects Norm Wilner at NOW Toronto. “Others explore the way it echoes into the present. MLK/FBI does the latter, drawing an undeniable arrow from Hoover’s tactics against King to the undermining of contemporary Black activists’ legitimacy and the attacks on Black Lives Matter movement. Half a century later, the tactics haven’t changed at all.”
“King and Hoover are long gone now. So are the Sixties,” writes Marc Glassman at POV Magazine. “But Pollard’s lucidly intelligent film shows what happened then: a fatal situation in which a Black man confronted the white establishment. It doesn’t take a stretch to point out that Pollard’s film has relevance today.”
Nobody (dir. Ilya Naishuller)
“The bad dudes in question flash their grit and moxie, but get taken down by an unimposing underdog. It’s High Noon without the countdown, Falling Down without the racial undertones (except for Russians), Death Wish without the judgment,” says Thom Ernst at Original Cin, who adds that Bob Odenkirk “makes a formidable action hero.”
“Loitering on the darkest corner of Assault and Battery, somewhere between the lone wolf who is John Wick and the loving family man Liam Neeson plays in Taken is where you’ll find this brooding, violent, occasionally funny punch-’em-up,” writes Chris Knight at the National Post.
“If the future of action cinema requires that every middle-aged actor receive their own John Wick-ian franchise in which they get to play unassuming joes who are revealed to be ballistic killers, then, yes, please do take my money,” declares Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
“Whether one wants to classify Nobody as a mindless guilty pleasure or not, it does take a lot of insight, thought and clever execution to deliver a solid action packed film like Nobody,” notes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“What keeps it grounded — and undeniably entertaining — is Bob Odenkirk’s deadpan portrayal of Hutch Mansell, a regular suburban dad whose killer instincts are reawakened by a humiliating home invasion,” writes Peter Howell at Night Vision.
“Great story, pacing and soundtrack and Odenkirk is phenomenal,” agrees Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“Yes, this is basically a rewrite of the first John Wick, but Odenkirk finds an entirely different way into it – expanding on Hutch’s shadowy backstory with a nuanced performance that sets him completely apart from Keanu Reeves’s clenched assassin,” says Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine.
The Seventh Day (dir. Justin P. Lang)
“Fails not for lack of trying, so-so entertaining, but for taking too much that it can handle and not too convincingly,” argues Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
The Violent Heart (dir. Karen Sanga)
“But by the time The Violent Heart reveals itself to be nothing more than a film-noir-in-training, it’s already too late to pull away,” yawns Thom Ernst at Original Cin. “The film has a hook. And as much as you might struggle to break free, you’re likely there until the end.”
“Director Sanga takes the film’s inspiration from Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause and Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, but (the film) never reaches those heights,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Willy’s Wonderland (dir. Kevin Lewis)
“If I wanted to watch Nicolas Cage play pinball for 90 minutes, I’d – well, I guess I’d settle in with Willy’s Wonderland,” admits Chris Knight at the National Post. “This is a bizarre horror film that practically counts as experimental cinema since – wait for it – Cage plays the main character but doesn’t speak a line of dialogue.”
“[I]t feels like no one put any effort into this thing at any point in its development or production, assuming that the very idea of Nicolas Cage battling children’s characters would be enough,” groans Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine. “And you know something? It should have been.”
At Afro Toronto, Gilbert Seah says it is “occasionally fun but does not have enough bite to make it rise above the average horror spoofs.”
Canada’s Rising Stars
The team at NOW Toronto offers its annual list of Canada’s Rising Stars. The class of 2021 features six homegrown talents: Kiawentiio (Beans), Kelly Fyffe-Marshall (Black Bodies), Caroline Monnet (Creatura Dada), Valerie Tian (Juno), and Madeline Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli (Violation). Of Monnet, Radheyan Simonpillai writes, “Her short films often feature Indigenous people going on a journey of some kind, reaching back into their heritage in modern times or connecting their history with their future.” Norm Wilner spotlights the Violation duo, noting, “The pair work in concert as writers, producers and directors, though that can be complicated by the fact that Sims-Fewer is also acting in most of their projects – and frequently doing something very, very intense.” Glenn Sumi writes why Kiawentiio is one to watch, saying, “Tracey Deer’s debut [dramatic] feature Beans begins and ends with the film’s 12-year-old Mohawk protagonist introducing herself to white people…But none of this would register without the committed, authentic performance by its young actor, Kiawentiio.”
Canadian Film Day, Earth Day, Oscar Day
With the advent of National Canadian Film Day again reminding audiences to tune into CanCon (hopefully more than only once a year), Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail offers some signs of hope for the national cinema despite another year of virtual everything. In the “pro” column? Productions are back in business. Pushes for balanced representation are making headway. Telefilm is getting with the times. Online festivals are keeping us busy, although the sheer volume of them is exhausting, and, most importantly, the Canadian content that is reaching audiences during the pandemic is really good.
For Earth Day, Anne Brodie at What She Said recommends a flood of new nature docs, including Secrets of the Whales and Earth Moods. The David Attenborough-narrated The Year Earth Changed sees nature spring back as human activity changes during the pandemic, while Paul Rudd lends his voice to Tiny World, which Brodie notes is packed with “adorability and wonder.” Earth at Night in Colour, on the other hand, uses snazzy technology to capture nature like one hasn’t seen it before. But if nature isn’t your thing, Brodie says that one can always serve Meatballs for Canadian Film Day.
Looking ahead to the biggest day in Hollywood, Marc Glassman makes some early Oscar predictions at Classical FM. He places his bets on Chloé Zhao in director and Emerald Fennell in the screenplay category, and has a soft spot for Olivia Colman, but doesn’t expect her to win a second Oscar just yet.
TV Talk – Queerly Canadian, Wonderful Winslet, and Deep Impact
After some reporting by Radheyan Simonpillai at NOW Magazine last week, the Canadian TV sector has been rocked by revelations of discriminatory practices at BYUtv, which is partially owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on a show with public funding. The news that a series run entirely by BIPOC creators could not include queer characters or content sparked conversations about inclusion and exclusion, and a swift response from the sector to remedy the situation. Johanna Schneller at The Globe and Mail reports on how the industry’s response went down and speaks to a number of queer creators, who share that one is more likely to see two German shepherds rolling in the park on than two characters of the same sex holding hands on Canadian television. “There’s another layer to this story, too,” writes Schneller. “As upsetting and enraging as BYUtv’s exclusion policy was, the fact that it was overt may be, ironically, a positive. Queer creators of television in Canada have long been marginalized and discriminated against – by fellow Canadians. It’s simply been subtler.”
At What She Said, Anne Brodie points out Kate Winslet’s performance as a grieving mother and overworked cop on the mini-series Mare of Easttown as one to watch. “Very cool character. Interesting, and further proof of Winslet’s extraordinary versatility,” notes Brodie. She says that Winslet’s mini-series stint is better use of one’s time than Mark Wahlberg’s punnily titled doc series Wahl Street, which follows the actor throughout his hectic days in an attempt to renew audience interest in his fizzling career. “His is a busy life, and he’s a sweet guy,” writes Brodie, “but I’m not sure six eppies of his business problems and wealth is for me.” If Mare of Easttown fuels a hankering for crime stories, there’s always the doc series Secrets of a Psychopath. “The subject matter is extremely unpleasant in this cautionary piece,” warns Brodie. Meanwhile, yet another streamer service launches in Canada, as Brodie reports on the new binge-watching bounty at Freeform with a report on its teen series Cruel Summer, which she calls, “a tightly woven psychological mystery about illusion and reality.” Audiences looking to lighten the mood during quarantine might find a safer bet in Frank of Ireland, which Brodie calls “good cheeky fun, way off-kilter in the most appealing way.”
At NOW Magazine, Glenn Sumi agrees with Brodie on Mare of Easttown, especially regarding Winslet’s performance. “Winslet, sporting an authentic-sounding accent, is utterly believable as a broken, blunt-talking cop interacting with her family, friends, the case’s suspects,” writes Sumi. “Mare and her mom have a bitchy rapport that suggests decades of complicated history. And the way her relationship with [Evan] Peters’s up-and-coming detective evolves provides some of the series’ biggest surprises; there’s a scene of the two cops in a bar that is simultaneously comic and tragic.”
Audiences bored with this week’s film releases, or looking beyond the few options, can tune into The Impact Series on Hollywood Suite, which spotlights a pressing issue with 3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets. At Original Cin, Liam Lacey says the doc is worth reconsidering in the shadow of the Derek Chauvin trial playing out today. “3½ Minutes, 10 Bullets, as well as being a compelling real-life courtroom drama, offers some clarity about race and injustice in the pre-Trump era,” writes Lacey. At Afro Toronto, meanwhile, Gilbert Seah calls it, “a well-crafted and executed documentary that unfolds with more emotional drama than most fiction films.”