Members name the standout docs at this year’s festival.
TFCA Friday: Week of April 9
April 9, 2021
Welcome to TFCA Friday, a weekly round-up of film reviews and articles by TFCA members.
This week’s issue features the long-anticipated Canadian release of Nomadland, which opens in select theatres and on Disney+. The film won three TFCA Awards—Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress—after winning the People’s Choice Award at TIFF last year. Only the second time that “the people” and critics of Toronto agreed! (The last time was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.)
Here’s Chloé Zhao accepting the Best Picture prize during the TFCA Awards virtual gala, which you can watch in full here.
In Release this Week
Awaken (dir. Tom Lowe)
At Afro Toronto, Gilbert Seah calls the film a “slow but steady display of beauty around the world.”
Brewmance (dir. Christo Brock)
“Strictly for beer drinkers!” cheers Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Embryo (dir. Patricio Valladares)
“As it is, Embryo is a routine alien abduction story repackaged as an experimental film,” admits Thom Ernst at Original Cin. “Director Patricio Valladares’ distressed-styled filmmaking, with its fluctuating time-structure and recurring frames, likely intends to mimic the fragmented memories frequently associated with the retelling of alien abduction, like a fevered night intermittent with short, coherent waking periods.
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.
Held (dir. Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing)
“Held wants to position itself as ‘the Get Out of the #MeToo movement,’” notes Chris Knight at the National Post. “But that might be aiming a little high for a film that is essentially a straight-up home-invasion horror with a cheeky feminist overlay.”
“This is an interesting take on sexual and social politics, on change, manipulation and integrity,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“Awbrey’s script is uninterested in the couples’ thoughts, feelings, or lives, much less why they got married or why it’s no longer working,” groans Kevin Ritchie at NOW Magazine. “It puts the audience through the same old routine without offering any insight beyond patriarchy = bad.”
“Beyond the premise though, Held is pretty much stale ginger ale, not fresh, no fizz, thinly acted and tepidly paced,” admits Liam Lacey at Original Cin. “While it’s passably interesting, watching co-directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing (The Gallows) explore the antiseptic house as if watching a real estate video, the accompanying thin drama drifts into episodic genre violence and doubtful logic.”
“Held just rises above the average thriller,” sighs Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
The Man Who Sold His Skin (dir. Kaouther Ben Hania; April 13)
“[T]here are few cinematic canvasses as grand as the human body,” writes Pat Mullen at That Shelf.
“Ben Hania knows how to frame Mahyni’s physique. Without fetishizing his skin or rendering sensuous the muscles that the camera caresses, she shows the artistic field of a subject’s body.”
Moffie (dir. Oliver Hermanus)
“[A]s Moffie makes clear, the more rigidly a society stratifies itself into those it deems worthy and those who are expendable, the more innocent outsiders will find themselves relegated to the wrong side of the equation by a ruling group on the wrong side of history,” argues Chris Knight at the National Post.
“Moffie is a visceral portrait of internalised homophobia,” says Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “Hermanus displays an exquisite eye for Moffie’s twofold interrogation of the body politic.”
“A carefully crafted film, filled with sexy gay eroticism without the need to show any nudity or sex,” sweats Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Nomadland (dir. Chloé Zhao)
***Winner: 3 TFCA Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress***
“There’s a kind of magic to [Zhao’s] storytelling,” applauds Karen Gordon at Original Cin. “She has a compassion for her characters and their lives and struggles. She doesn’t invade their space, or lard their storylines down with sentimentality. There’s a gentle honesty to the film.”
“Nomadland requires the actor to share the frame with literally dozens of non-professionals over the course of the film – some of whom appear in Bruder’s book, others who just seem to have wandered in from the parking lot next door – and in every single moment, McDormand is utterly, achingly present: listening to them, encouraging them, matching their specific rhythms, all without ever breaking character,” raves Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine. “It’s a stunning technical performance hidden in plain sight.”
“Nomadland is indescribably enveloping, you feel you are with [Fern], enduring her moods, feeling her isolation and necessary self-sufficiency and enjoying her laughter, as rare as it is,” praises Anne Brodie at What She Said. “Her stillness and face show every nuance of her thoughts and feelings, moments big but mostly small are so familiar to us, that it’s hard to look away. Perfection, joy, poetry, nature, human nature.
“[McDormand] has a history of seizing such glamour-free opportunities, of immersing herself into a film as deeply and quietly as she can,” observes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “But here, she cements her reputation as one of contemporary cinema’s greatest, most generous artists. It is work that grips and lingers.” Hertz also has a sort-of profile of director Chloé Zhao, which is really a profile of the perils of “banking,” especially…this year of all years.
“Some of author [Jessica] Bruder’s interviewees, including real-life nomads Linda May, Swankie and Bob Wells, play themselves in the film, giving Nomadland the weight of documentary truth within a narrative framework. Zhao uses many non-professional actors in her films; to her, authenticity is more valuable than acting,” observes Peter Howell at the Toronto Star.
“The other face from Bruder’s book that figures prominently in Zhao’s film is Swankie, a veteran workamper with magnetic screen presence,” writes Pat Mullen at POV Magazine. “Swankie rivals McDormand in the film’s finest moment as she tells Fern about her cancer diagnosis and reflects on the time she has left.” Mullen also has an essay that situates Nomadland as a leader in a field of hybrid films in which real-life subjects enact the drama of their lives.
“[T]he overwhelming tone is one of beauty and solitude,” approves Chris Knight at the National Post. “Every few scenes we find the stubbornly self-sufficient Fern alone in a stunning landscape, misted by sea spray or dwarfed by an old-growth forest or the hoodoos of the badlands. And not a day of filming seems to have passed without the crew capturing the twin ‘magic hours’ of dawn and dusk in the desert landscape.”
At Afro Toronto, Gilbert Seah says the film is “bound to take in a few Academy Awards on the way, maybe even a third Oscar for McDormand.”
“In these times, when notions of hope should never be overblown, Nomadland offers today’s audience something to believe in: a group of older people who refuse to knuckle under and give up on their lives,” says Marc Glassman for Classical FM. “If they can do it, so can we. And I believe I’m right: this is the film that defines the pandemic.”
“The story at the heart of Nomadland is more dramatic and engrossing than most fictional tales of surviving below the poverty line,” writes Andrew Parker at The Gate, “but the documentary conventions being employed here (along with a great score and some of the year’s finest cinematography) give Zhao’s latest a uniquely lived in quality.”
At the Toronto Star, Linda Barnard speaks with director Chloé Zhao about her process with Frances McDormand and the workampers, as well as learning to slow down. “There’s definitely van dwellers that I’ve met who are sort of going through a time so they can save up and they can go back, but not necessarily going back to a house in the suburbs,” Zhao told Barnard. “Like Linda May, her experience of living in a van made her realize that she doesn’t need to go back to that. She wants to build an Earthship (house).”
Oscar Shorts (dir. various)
At That Shelf, Pat Mullen taps If Anything Happens, I Love You as his favourite among the animated nominees and The Present as the strongest work among the live action shorts. For POV Magazine, he speaks with Anders Hammer, director of the masterful short doc nominee Do Not Split.
At Toronto Franco, Gilbert Seah reviews all the animated, live action, and documentary contenders with special praise for the animated short Opera: “Director Oh examines racism, terrorism and religion in his intricate pyramid that looks like hell on earth.”
At NOW Magazine, Norm Wilner gives a special shout-out to A Love Song for Latasha: “The toll of American racism is felt most strongly in this Netflix production, a lyrical and occasionally abstract remembrance of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old shot dead by the owner of a Los Angeles convenience store, who told police she was shoplifting…It’s a heartbreaker.”
Our Towns (dir. Steven Ascher, Jeanne Jordan)
“It’s most encouraging to see how people have fought to sustain themselves and thrive in these troubling times,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “Economically ‘convulsive’ moments can be conquered and this doc confirms it.”
The Power (dir. Corinna Faith)
“[The] film lags because of its lack of a solid story, its slow pace and meandering of the storyline,” groans Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (dir. Jasmila Zbanic)
At What She Said, Anne Brodie calls this Oscar nominee for Best International Feature a “superior deeply moving tribute to the dead and the survivors.”
Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto says, “staged so well, the film, based on true events, feels so real and relevant.”
“Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić succeeds where many filmmakers fail in conveying the dimensions of a mass atrocity in a film that matches clear-eyed personal experience to history in a lightly fictionalized story,” observes Liam Lacey at Original Cin.
“One watches Quo Vadis, Aida? with one’s stomach in a knot and one’s teeth clenched, ready for the worst. This tautly crafted film leaves one breathless,” notes Pat Mullen at That Shelf.
Slalom (dir. Charlène Favier)
At Afro Toronto, Gilbert Seah says, “the skiing segments are exhilarating to watch (lifting) the film above other sports films.”
Sugar Daddy (dir. Wendy Morgan 🇨🇦)
At the Toronto Star, Peter Howell calls the film “a drama of artful ambition and moral expediency.”
“Unless one can care for the future of Darren, or what she goes through, the film can be a real bore,” admits Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “It definitely does not help that her character comes across as terribly caustic and that she does not care what any of her friends think or do.”
“NOW named Kelly McCormack one of Canada’s rising screen stars in 2019. Watch Sugar Daddy and you’ll see why: Morgan’s slightly stylized, emotionally charged drama stars the Letterkenny and Killjoys scene-stealer…as a struggling musician who joins an agency that provides ‘paid dinner companions’ to older men who don’t want emotional attachments, or anything further,” writes Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine.
“While Sugar Daddy seems timely in its theme of patriarchal power and exploitation, in other ways, this is familiar ground,” notes Liam Lacey at Original Cin. “Movies and the selling of sex have a long history. It’s a subject that provides both prurience and high-minded social commentary.” Lacey also gets a hat tip for directing us to the most depressing website after Twitter, OscarHookers.com.
Thunder Force (dir. Ben Falcone)
“McCarthy and Spencer are unexpectedly fun together and the film’s lighter than meringues that have just been exploded; an OK timewaster to showcase McCarthy’s commitment to her character and Spencer’s ability to rise above and enjoy herself,” admits Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“I suppose we should all be happy that the Falcone-McCarthy household is a prosperous one,” sighs Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “Not only have they found love, they have also developed a successful business formula: Thunder Force is as low-stakes, low-energy, low-cost filmmaking as Tammy, et al.”
“[A]n abject failure of imagination from the generally reliable couple who’ve collaborated on Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party and last fall’s Superintelligence – all satisfying entertainments in their own right that showcased McCarthy’s considerable gifts as a performer. Even when they were messy, they worked well enough that you didn’t mind,” pukes Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine.
Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto says it “arrives and lands with a big thud.”
“[Jason] Bateman’s knowing, literally winking performance helps raise the movie’s entertainment factor a little, but Thunder Force remains a Friday-night, nothing-else-on kind of streaming option,” agrees Chris Knight at the National Post. “Fun for McCarthy fans, but lightning in a bottle it ain’t.”
Wintopia (dir. Mira Burt-Wintonick 🇨🇦)
Calling the film “a startlingly apt juxtaposition of footage,” Marc Glassman at POV Magazine interviews director Mira Burt-Wintonick about crafting a personal essay about her father’s lifelong search for utopia: “Some of my own process of going through the grief was in there, but the balance was skewed toward utopia as a topic. It became clear, after I did that first pass, that anyone could make a film about utopia, but I should try to make the film that only I can make, a film about our relationship—Pete’s and mine—and the grieving process. I let go of a lot of the utopia information to focus on that.”
TV Talk: Guilty Pleasures and Guilty Parties
At The Globe and Mail, Johanna Schneller unpacks the world of “guilty pleasures” that audiences binge-watch through the night. She finds a trend by asking her friends which shows they enjoy as heartily as a bag of cheesies or an I’m-going-to-eat-it-anyway cupcake. “As these conversations piled up, though, something became obvious: many, many of these secret shows are ones pitched to and/or made by women,” writes Schneller. “Not the titles widely acknowledged as prestigious, such as I May Destroy You or Insecure. People are happy to discuss those endlessly, to engage in spirited debate with detractors. With those, we stand by our taste. The series or films we don’t discuss are the ones that are perceived to be sprinkled with cheese. Because they’re about romance.”
Should Joss Whedon’s impending cancellation deter readers from binge-watching The Nevers? Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine looks at the Whedonisms of the show, which may or may not live as long as Buffy did. “It’s difficult to imagine what The Nevers will look like post-Whedon; the show is so utterly his thing, focusing on a band of eccentric underdogs trying to overcome their own differences while battling an entrenched power structure intent on keeping them under its control,” writes Wilner. “It’s Buffy and Firefly with lashings of Marvel’s X-Men, with Whedon’s remixing mildly disguised by setting the whole thing in 1899 London, three years after an inexplicable incident left hundreds of people – all of them marginalized, most of them women – with powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men.”
“[Cristin] Milioti is terrific in her part but the story is repetitive, ham-handed and strained,” writes Anne Brodie not on Palm Springs, but the new ten-part series Made for Love. As for Brenda Blethyn’s turn to sitcoms in Kate & Koji, Brodie likes the star but not the tired laugh track. “Since when do laugh tracks help a show, if it’s well written and played?” she asks.
At NOW Magazine, Kevin Ritchie looks at Raoul Peck’s “compelling and jumbled” doc series Exterminate All the Brutes, writing, “It’s an unflinchingly violent and confrontational film that uses scripted scenes (starring Josh Hartnett as a ruthless colonial settler), animation and archival footage to explicitly show the ways Indigenous, Black and Jewish populations in Africa, Europe and North America have been brutalized, from dumdum bullets and starvation to lynching and the Holocaust.”