TFCA Friday: Week of Dec. 9

December 9, 2022

Empire of Light | Searchlight Pictures

Welcome to TFCA Friday, a weekly round-up of film reviews and articles by TFCA members.


In Release this Week!


752 Is Not a Number (dir. Babak Payami 🇨🇦)


“Babak Payami’s poignant documentary 752 Is Not a Number follows Esmaeilion as he searches for truth, brushing up against dangerous politics, uncaring governments, lying officials who twist reality to avoid blame, and those who admit but take no responsibility. All this is framed by his losses and intense feelings of abandonment,” notes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “Devastating.”


“The frame is small and personal. We see news clips, and watch as Esmaelion speaks to government officials over Zoom (the pandemic erupted shortly after the crash) or visits Kyiv, where the plane was headed,” writes Chris Knight at the National Post. “But his is a lonely quest, and a heartbreaking one. Several times we see home movies of his nine-year-old daughter clowning around or practicing the piano. In one scene, he gathers the courage to open his wife’s computer; her final search was “what to write in a wedding card.” Her email was still open.”


At POV Magazine, Pat Mullen speaks with director Babak Payami and subject Hamed Esmaeilion about sharing the latter’s search for justice and how the filmmaker ultimately had to become part of the story. “I confronted the cardinal rule of documentary by Werner Herzog where he says, ‘Don’t get emotionally involved in your story,’” Payami tells POV. “But I found myself being a fly on the wall of a smoldering oven of emotion and pain, and I fell into it. For every rule, there’s an exception.”


Alienoid (dir. Choi Dong-hoon)


Alienoid runs 2 hours and 20 minutes and can be described as a sci-fi space martial-arts fantasy that is confusing, a headache to follow but is entertaining if one just follows what is happening at the moment, throwing caution to the wind,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.

Black Warrant (dir. Tibor Takacs)


Black Warrant is a totally entertaining and watchable little action flick, with really subtle hilarious bits in the story that proves the Hungarian director Taklos a talent to watch,” notes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


Boy Scout’s Honour (dir. Ash Patiño; Dec. 13)


“[O]ne cannot only imagine the same problems occurring in other youth organizations and even schools where teachers have authority over their students,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “An insightful doc on the evil that men do and the cover-up process which is just as evil.”


Emancipation (dir. Antoine Fuqua)


“[C]an Will Smith still headline a movie with all the superstar charisma that landed him his (deserved) first Academy Award for King Richard? The new film Emancipation argues yes, with caveats,” slaps Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “Afforded little onscreen dialogue but many prosthetic injuries, Smith gives his hero a steely yet somehow warm resolve that demands attention from beginning to end. The evils of slavery are piled around and on top of Peter, to the point that Fuqua’s decision to desaturate his film’s colours to an almost black-and-white palette seem less like a decision to sensitively depict atrocity in a Spielberg-ian fashion and more an attempt to pre-emptively avoid charges of engaging in crimson-soaked exploitation of the grindhouse variety. Yet through it all, Smith’s performance grounds the horror in a place of courage, heart and soul.”


Emancipation is episodic in a way that suggests an inability to decide what the movie is ultimately about. The second-act manhunt between Fassel and Peter is entertaining enough. It all takes place against a breathtaking Louisiana wilderness backdrop, shot in an old-photograph filter halfway between colour and black-and-white that suggests Ken Burns might have been the cinematographer instead of three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson,” writes Jim Slotek at Original Cin. “The last act is a straight-ahead blood-and-guts battle, with the Black battalion serving as cannon-fodder for a suicide assault on the Confederate trenches.”


Empire of Light (dir. Sam Mendes)


Empire of Light occasionally trips over its efforts to check all the boxes: mental illness, misogyny, racism, and cinema magic. That’s a lot to process despite the film two-hour running time (minus a minute), and Mendes isn’t always on top of a narrative that moves, sometimes unsteadily, through the lives and times of the characters,” writes Thom Ernst at Original Cin. “And yet, given time and distance, this same deluge of themes and multiple storylines can be invigorating. It’s possible to leave the theatre unaffected only to look back at Empire of Light with affection. And it’s the movie’s ability to linger unnoticed until surfacing with a revised and unexpected understanding that is at the heart of movie magic.”


“Mendes’ script also contains a few subtleties that might make up for its few flaws in what overall is still a delightful film,” notes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


“There are many other threads in Empire of Light that, if tugged on with the lightest of touches, completely unravel the film’s purpose of being – which come to think of it feels like the result of Mendes catching a staging of Annie Baker’s The Flick with a wad of wax stuck in his right ear and a patch covering his left eye,” observes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “From the projectionist played by Toby Jones who regularly pops up to vocalize what everyone onscreen and the audience is already well aware of – movies are an escape, of course! – to its eye-rolling treatment of Hilary’s mental health, Empire of Light is the most noxious kind of faux-benevolent ‘prestige’ cinema.”


“The outsize talent of Olivia Colman is on full display,” notes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “Colman smashes a difficult part as – a theatre manager/people pleaser, an older, mentally unbalanced woman in a sexual abuse situation with her boss, and in a positive affair with a younger Black man who is subject to recurring racist violence.”


“Countless films have bumbled their way towards a happy ending. But the way Empire of Light’s story wraps up is egregious,” notes Victor Stiff at That Shelf. “Mainly due to the script’s shallow examination of the story’s deep themes. Simply put: the movie doesn’t earn its feel-good ending. And placing an unearned happy ending on a film dealing with racism and mental illness comes off as dismissive. It’s like a doctor slapping a band-aid on a bullet wound and telling the patient to go home happy.”


“Ward, who had a small but pivotal role in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, brings a fantastic energy to the role of Stephen, who is trying to navigate being Black and British at a time when the country was rocked by race riots and the rise of racist skinhead factions,” observes Chris Knight at the National Post. “And Colman is as watchable as always, doing that thing where her mouth stays happy while her eyes indicate an almost bottomless depth of grief. The two strike wonderful sparks from one another.”


“Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ evocative lensing of movie love in 1980s England, in this story written and directed by Sam Mendes, prompts us to see not just what’s projected on the screen but also what’s happening all around us,” writes Peter Howell at the Toronto Star. “Notably the blind hatred of racism, which threatens a couple sensitively played by Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward. Film is truth at 24 frames per second; reality is a fist to the face.”


“Unlike the actors in classic British dramas, famed for their tight-lipped performances, Olivia Colman is riveting in a way that the world embraces. She makes Mendes’ deliberately little picture work,” says Marc Glassman at Classical FM. “So does Micheal Ward, who is persuasive as Stephen, a young Black man with hopes that should be pursued—college and marriage. The contrast between the two is immensely affecting, with Stephen on the rise and Hilary barely able to maintain her life.”


The Eternal Daughter (dir. Johanna Hogg)


The Eternal Daughter is and feels like a ghost story with its meticulously crafted atmosphere and sets,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.The Eternal Daughter makes my list of top 10 films of 2022.”


“The Eternal Daughter is a hermetic piece.,” notes Marc Glassman at Classical FM. “Critics have compared it to a string quartet but if so, it’s a lesser one, perhaps a piece by Cherubini or an early Dvorak, worthwhile but not a masterpiece. If one were to praise it, the essential drama, and the film’s real success, is in fully developing the typically intense relationship between a mother and daughter. This being a film about a certain style of British gentry, the women mainly express themselves through misdirection; neither really wants to put their cards on the table. At the end of the film, Julie finally does confront her mother with startling results. Perhaps what she’s done is to take on the ghost in the room.”


“This is truly a collaboration between director and actor. A lot of the success of The Eternal Daughter rests on the shoulders of Swinton, and it is a tour-de-force performance, one of the year’s best. Her work is so subtle and precise that after a while you forget that mother and daughter are one actor. She’s created two full characters, connected and yet separate,” praises Karen Gordon at Original Cin. “Swinton, as an actor, has a way of holding our attention, but never drawing attention to herself, or her technique. She’s incapable of melodrama or sentimentality. Her acting seems drawn from an innate sense of empathy and therefore feels deep and true. And that softness and empathy is the secret sauce in The Eternal Daughter.”


“Mothers and daughters have played a big part in Hogg’s other movies, with Swinton herself taking on the role of her actual daughter’s mother in The Souvenir,” says Chris Knight at the National Post.The Eternal Daughter is a less straightforward examination of the filial bond, but it is a wonderfully atmospheric tale. ‘One view called me to another, one hilltop to its fellow’ might describe the way it pulls viewers along. It’s also the opening of They, a 1904 ghost story by Rudyard Kipling, which someone in the film has chosen as bedtime reading. Make of that what you will.”


Food & Romance (dir. Annika Appelin)


“The film celebrates female friendship, women who have their own faces and bodies, and who through the loving support of one another, can get through anything,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “And it shows starting over can be the best thing ever. A fun, light tonic for the winter blues that lives in goodwill and good food.”


Free Puppies! (dir. Samantha Wishman; Dec. 13)


Free Puppies! is not a ground-breaking documentary but an effective enough light documentary that gets its message across that will change the world – canine-wise,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “A true story about the heartbreak and heroism of dog rescue in America.”


Framing Agnes (dir. Chase Joynt 🇨🇦)


“Director Chase Joynt, expanding on a short film he made in 2019, uses modern-day actors to dramatize transcripts that were found in the archives of Harold Garfinkel, a gender health researcher at UCLA in the 1960s,” writes Chris Knight at the National Post. “The result is a multifaceted examination of trans issues from two different eras. On the one hand we have modern trans actors, shot in black and white, with Joynt playing their interlocutor, a Mike Wallace type of TV journalist.”


“We meet via actors as individuals who went through the UCLA programme via their conversations with Garfinkel; their conversation is intimate and illuminating as are the actors’. One person got in based on a lie in order to get surgery, a Black woman tells her unique story of battling numerous prejudices at once, a woman reassigned as a man talks about sex versus gender, a teenaged boy says he knew from his earliest memories that he was not the sex he was assigned at birth,” observes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “One of the most compelling interviews is with historian Jules Gill-Peterson, who wrote Histories of the Transgender Child and guides us through the shades of meaning and being for trans people.”


“While there is an early sense in Joynt’s film that it is simply fun to ape the environs of bygone television eras, the re-enactments ultimately work on a narrative level, too,” notes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “There are intersecting layers to Joynt’s film whose thematic and contextual conversations with one another would be lost were he to simply line one conventional talking head up after another. With only Garfinkel’s archives to go on, Drucker is able to give a sly, necessarily mysterious air to Agnes’s life. And, yes: the format is quite fun to watch, too.”


“A transcendent reflection of transgender truths and attitudes, calculated to keep you pondering the complicated reality of personal identity. This formally daring doc from Toronto’s Chase Joynt, winner of the Sundance ’22 NEXT Innovator and Audience Awards, employs a talk-show format and recreates personal histories to illuminate both past and present, via a discovered cache of 1950 case studies from the UCLA Gender Clinic,” notes Peter Howell at the Toronto Star. “Trans actors play the real people from those studies, whose long-silenced voices are finally heard. Stellar performances all, especially from Zackary Drucker as the title Agnes, a rebellious and resourceful hero of the trans movement who rejects labels.”


“Director Joint appears to love the talk-show format. His film is almost a series of talk show sequences put together, and as such, might seem too much of the same thing,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


At POV Magazine, Pat Mullen, calls Framing Agnes “a genre-bending creative documentary that blurs the lines between past and present, fiction and non-fiction, and scripted and unscripted” and chats with director Chase Joynt and writer Morgan M. Page about flipping the script on trans narratives. “Visibility often produces a fantasy of social change that obscures the ongoing context of violence against trans people,” says Joynt. “One of the moves we try to make in the film is to shine a light to turn the apparatus on itself quite literally to relocate our attention on the violence of these curiosities, and to foreground the relationship between visibility and vulnerability.”


I Am D.B. Cooper (dir. T.J. Regan)


“The mix of re-enactments making the film look fictitious and the interviews making the film look like a doc does not mix and it shows,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


In Broad Daylight: The Narvarte Case (dir. Alberto Arnaut Estrada)


“Director Estrada’s doc, which undoubtedly will cause many an audience to rile in anger,  has an important message and it is not a good one,” observes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “The message is not to f*** around in a corrupt regime unless one is prepared to die for the cause.”


The Leech (dir. Eric Pennycoff)


The Leech is a relatively straightforward narrative that calls to mind director Darren Aronofsky’s underrated Christian parable, Mother! (2017), which also deals with religious themes and features unwanted guests. It could also fit comfortably into the home invasion horror genre with a deep dark dab of comedy,” notes Thom Ernst at Original Cin. The Leech would be an odd addition to most people’s Christmas film library, although we all celebrate in our own way. So far be it from me to dictate what sets your yuletide log afire.”


Pinocchio (dir. Guillermo del Toro)


“The animation is rich and dark, even Gothic, it is a musical overwhelmed by the glorious visuals,” notes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “This is the most satisfying-looking film adaptation and it’s also the scariest, the one that finds evil lurking everywhere but promises that love will prevail, no matter how painful the journey.”


“The title of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio could easily be interpreted as short-hand for ‘this is so not Disney,’” observes Jim Slotek at Original Cin. “Deeper, darker, mordant, with a definite horror movie vibe, it is what you might expect from del Toro, a filmmaker who gave us Pan’s Labyrinth – essentially a dark fairy-tale wrapped in real-world fascism, as this is as well. (This Pinocchio is also nominally a musical, which some might also find frightening).”


“The film grinds to infrequent halts with random songs,” notes Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “There’s no ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ here, although a scatological ode to Mussolini invites a few laughs. However, since one practically forgets the songs as soon as they’re over, the aura of the fable quickly pulls one back in… No film has ever created the puppet boy with such a personality. Who knew the key ingredient to Pinocchio was, well, wood?”


“I’m fawning over the images, as when Pinocchio practically sunbathes on a naval mine in one of many golden hour shots,” writes Radheyan Simonpillai at The Globe and Mail. “And I’m welcoming the hard gothic take on this centuries old fable that isn’t afraid to incorporate history’s cruelty. But I’m ultimately left unmoved and even a tad frustrated by a movie that’s easy to admire while it struggles to entertain.”


Something from Tiffany’s (dir. Daryl Wein)


“It’s definitely escapist fare aimed at the holiday and it’s fun to see how things unfold,” admits Anne Brodie at What She Said. “You’ll also you’ll hear Karen Dalton’s beautiful song ‘Something on Your Mind.’”


The Sparring Partner (dir. Cheuk Tin Ho)


“Though most of the action takes place in the courtroom, the film examines several other key issues besides the guilt of the two accused, they being referred to as sparring partners as both their attorneys are fitting for their innocence,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “The result of the case ends up not as important as how the verdicts came about. Nevertheless, this rare courtroom piece from Hong Kong is one of the best Hong Kong films to emerge this year. The film won one of its leads the Best Actor award, deservedly so, Man Pui-Tong as a slightly mentally challenged man.”


Spoiler Alert (dir. Michael Showalter)


“There are 3 strong gay films recently. Bros is a sillier comedy while the soon to be opening The Whale is Darren Aronofsky-styled dead serious,” observes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “Spoiler Alert falls in between the two which means there is both comedy and drama, for those who like their drama with a lighter touch (think a gay version of Love Story) and for those who like their comedy with a dash of tragedy.”


“What struck me most about Spoiler Alert was its nuanced look at a loving relationship,” observes Rachel Ho at The Globe and Mail. “The joy and devotion that Michael and Kit shared was betrayed by hurtful decisions and words but never tarnished. In spite of their challenges, there always remained a respect and adoration for one another that rose above any scars left behind. The film is a testament to the beautiful greys in love that may sting in the moment, but when a bigger picture is forced upon us, are appreciated for the balance they provide.”


“Ausiello works the same entertainment/celebrity beat on which I’ve spent most of my career, and he is a witty writer,” says Jim Slotek at Original Cin. “Unfortunately, what ended up on the screen is a movie that rides on tropes, with some sore-thumb attempts at surrealism. The title literally references what happens as the movie opens. We see Michael (Jim Parsons), sharing a hospital bed with his dying loved one Kit (Ben Aldridge)… Ultimately, Spoiler Alert is earnest, emotional, good-hearted and edgeless.”


Spoiler Alert frequently echoes Billy Eichner’s more personable Bros. Many narrative beats mirror the R-rated comedy. Spoiler Alert, while being consistently charming and heart-warming, never hits the heart, humour, or hunkiness of the raunchy rom-com,” notes Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “Alternatively, one must also admire its restraint. Spoiler Alert doesn’t concern itself with ‘historic’ firsts. It knows that there’s nothing history-making about Michael and Kit’s relationship. People live and people die.”


Viking (dir. Stéphane Lafleur 🇨🇦)


“Fuelled by a jazzy score by Mathieu Charbonneau, Christophe Lamarche-Ledoux, and Organ Mood, Viking never goes for the uproarious belly laughs, nor the big emotional moments, nor the grand vistas one might expect in a space movie,” writes Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “Anyone looking for “Houston, we have a problem” tugs or Gravity-like vertigo is totally at the wrong film. Instead, Viking is a space movie that’s firmly grounded with both feet planted right here on Earth. It’s easily Lafleur’s best film yet.”


A List of Lists: The Best of 2022


At The Globe and Mail, Barry Hertz recaps the best ten, or thirteen, films of the year. Atop the list? Top Gun: Maverick flies high: “I’m just as surprised as you, but seven months after first watching Tom Cruise’s love letter to speed/himself, I cannot recall a more engrossing, perfectly executed piece of big-big-BIG movie-making than Top Gun: Maverick,” writes Hertz. “A potent combination of star power and sky-high cinematic craftsmanship, director Joseph Kosinski’s epic is a tremendous ride that shockingly retains its power on second, third, fourth viewings.”

Anita Lee and Nisha Pahuja received this year’s DOC Institute Honours

Industry: Honours and Streamers

At POV Magazine, Pat Mullen reports on the annual DOC Institute Honours, which recognized Anita Lee and Nisha Pahuja with the Rogers-DOC Luminary Award and the DOC Vanguard Award, respectively. The duo also recently collaborated on the documentary To Kill a Tiger. Lee sees this as an exciting time for doc makers to explore creative approaches to non-fiction: “There’s this misconception that fiction is a creative storytelling space and, somehow, documentary is less so,” Lee tells POV. “I would argue that’s not the case at all. For filmmakers who want to represent the world they live in and have both social impact and artistic impact, it’s a great time to explore areas of renewal and resurgence in storytelling.”


At The Globe and Mail, Barry Hertz looks at the arrival of Pluto in Canada and what that means for a market oversaturated with streaming services: “While there is no regulatory requirement or minimum threshold for Canadian content for Pluto TV to launch here, the service’s partnership with Corus – including 2,500 hours of “specially curated” homegrown programming from the Canadian company’s home, food, drama, kids and news divisions – offers the kind of familiar, locally relevant programming that [Olivier] Jollet [Pluto’s executive vice-president and international general manager for Pluto TV]  hopes will entice domestic viewers,” writes Hertz.


TV Talk/ Series Scribbles


At What She Said, Anne Brodie takes a peek at the Netflix mini-series Harry & Meghan: “Liz Garbus certainly closes ranks with the formerly Royal scallywags and you have reached your own conclusions as to what version of their story you like,” writes Brodie. “There is a lot at stake for them so it’s only human nature to paint the best picture. Who knows what the real story is? Not us.”


At POV Magazine, Marc Glassman does a video interview with Vicki Lean about her new documentary The Climate Baby Dilemma, which examines the choice to raise a family in the face of global warming.