Members name the standout docs at this year’s festival.
TFCA Friday: Week of Feb. 12
February 12, 2021
Welcome to TFCA Friday, a weekly round-up of film reviews and articles by TFCA members.
But first: in case you missed the news, the TFCA unveiled its annual award winners on Sunday. Nomadland took three prizes including Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress for Frances McDormand. The three nominees for the Rogers Best Canadian Feature Award are Anne at 13,000 ft, And the Birds Rained Down, and White Lie. Tune into the TFCA virtual gala on March 9 to see which film wins!
RIP Christopher Plummer
Canada lost its finest actor this week with the passing of Academy Award winner Christopher Plummer. At The Globe and Mail, Barry Hertz remembers what made the man such a force on stage and screen: “Plummer represented the kind of Hollywood legend we might not see again for some time, if ever. He was someone who appealed across the board. He was an artist whose appeal was unlimited. He could play the hero, the villain, the shady man who flits in-between such black-and-white roles. And we tended to root for him no matter what – anything that would enable us to keep enjoying, for just a few more minutes, the smooth confidence of a performer and storyteller who knew just what an effect he had on audiences.”
In Release this Week
Bad Cupid (dir. Diane Cossa, Neal Howard)
Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto says the film is “trying too hard to be funny.”
Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (dir. Josh Greenbaum)
“Hang onto your hats!” advises Anne Brodie at What She Said. “The consistent surrealism is exciting and hilarious but I can’t get those squeaky voices out of my head.”
“Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is a gleefully silly affair in the tradition of Dumb and Dumber,” laughs Andrew Parker at The Gate. “It’s also a comedy where the old adage ‘your mileage may vary’ holds a lot of weight.”
“It starts off goofy and just gets goofier, piling one ridiculous notion on top of the next in an elaborate game of ‘yes, and’ that just refuses to stop for breath,” chuckles Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine.
“[F]or those who devour this kind of outre deadpan comedy – in which, say, the movie can turn into a musical for a stretch, or turn Fifty Shades of Grey star Jamie Dornan into a sex-starved fool who is hot for divorced ladies in culottes – then Vista Del Mar is an unmissable destination,” trip-advises Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
“[A] laugh a minute and there is enough comedy here to satisfy comedy fans,” notes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“To the film’s credit, it delivers exactly what it promises: a vacation,” writes Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar is fun in the sun escapism.”
“[I]t’s a hit-and-miss affair, with some comic bits that work wonderfully, and others that fall flat and/or overstay their effectiveness,” admits Chris Knight at the National Post.
Before/During/After (dir. Stephen Kunken, Jeff Lewars)
“[O]ccasionally smart and funny,” observes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “Females would love this film while men can only shrug and wish they had been portrayed in a more positive light.”
Black Art: In the Absence of Light (dir. Sam Pollard)
“Skewing more contemporary than one might expect, Black Art: In the Absence of Light is an example of a good movie that could’ve been a great one, or possibly an idea better suited to a series,” notes Andrew Parker at The Gate.
Breaking News in Yuba County (dir. Tate Taylor)
“Though a bit uneven in delivery, Breaking News in Yuba County is still a stand-out black comedy,” laughs Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“It earns a dubious spot alongside Getting Away with Murder and Lucky Numbers as one of the most unsuccessful, star-driven dark comedies of all time,” sighs Andrew Parker at The Gate.
Coded Bias (dir. Shalini Kantayya)
“Coded Bias will shake viewers to their core and make them a lot more careful about sharing their information and the types of companies they deem to be trustworthy, especially in a world that moves closer and closer to the large scale implementation of biometrics,” argues Andrew Parker at The Gate.
“Many tech-savvy docs have tackled the extreme privacy concerns raised by the internet and social media, but Coded Bias is one of the stronger ones,” notes Pat Mullen at POV Magazine. “Kantayya’s film, while overtly about technology, offers a greater essay on gatekeeping and decision-making.”
Cowboys (dir. Anna Herrigan)
“It’s a moving, forceful, delicate, and entertaining work that fully redefines what a modern western can be for the first time since Brokeback Mountain,” raves Andrew Parker at The Gate.
“All actors turn in strong performances…but this is Zahn’s film,” says Thom Ernst at Original Cin. “Zahn plays Troy as one of those charismatic rapscallions, completely unreliable but impossible to resist.”
“Zahn is clearly giving the performance he was asked to give,” counters Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine, “but it’s manic and maudlin in the worst way, and it torpedoes any chance Cowboys might have had of connecting to its audience.”
At Afro Toronto, Gilbert Seah says it’s a “solid drama covering several key issues that plague many families.”
I Blame Society (dir. Gillian Wallace Horvath)
“I Blame Society barely scrapes by as midnight movie camp; it’s much better as a form of wryly witty performance art/film criticism,” suggests Liam Lacey at Original Cin.
Judas and the Black Messiah (dir. Shaka King)
***Winner: TFCA Award for Best Supporting Actor – Daniel Kaluuya.***
“Get Out alums Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield magnetically reteam for Shaka King’s potent true story from 1969, when the FBI conscripted Black car thief William “Wild Bill” O’Neal (Stanfield) to spy on Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party,” writes Peter Howell at the Toronto Star.
“Outstanding performances by Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton and Lakeith Stanfield as Bill feel gritty and real, loaded with idealism and guilt,” praises Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“Kaluuya captures Hampton’s blazing intensity and magnetism, as well as his quicksilver speaking cadence,” raves Norm Wilner in a 5-N review at NOW Magazine.
“Judas and the Black Messiah, a disturbing and powerful dramatization of actual events, is definitely worth a second viewing,” suggests Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“Judas and the Black Messiah isn’t just a radical screed about Hampton’s tragic, memorable life,” argues Marc Glassman at Classical FM. “Its plot is fascinating, truthful to history, and allows the power struggles that were on-going at that time to be played out lucidly.”
“Judas and the Black Messiah gives Kaluuya and Stanfield two of the best characters they’ve played to date, and neither wastes a shred of opportunity to elevate King’s work behind the camera,” writes Andrew Parker at The Gate.
At NOW Magazine, Radheyan Simonpillair speaks with breakout star Dominique Fishback about playing Fred Hampton’s lover, Deborah Johnson. “It reminded me of the Black mothers today [who] are constantly losing their children to police terrorism and police brutality in this country and across the world,” says Fishback. “They go on platforms. And they’re strong for every single one of us. And they don’t shed a tear. They tell us to be strong.”
Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail calls LaKeith Stanfield’s performance “unpredictable and surprising” and chats with the star about his Black Panther drama: ““As a Black American, there’s no justice as it relates to law enforcement,” says Stanfield. “Can anything be perfect? No. Can it be much better as it relates to Black people? Yes. Look at the incarceration rates. There is no way you’re getting justice from the system as a Black male.”
“Featuring terrific performances from Get Out alumnus, Daniel Kaluuya as the young revolutionary Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant, William O’Neal, the film is a revelation from King, a director, who until now, was known for his television work and the 2013 comedy, Newlyweeds,” raves Liam Lacey at Original Cin.
Land (dir. Robin Wright)
“Robin Wright makes a soul-stirring debut with Land,” raves Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “Land is one of those films that just grabs you emotionally, mentally, and, arguably, physically.”
“It’s accessible throughout and allows the audience to care more about Edee and Miguel than they do about themselves. Robin Wright has made a remarkable film, one of emotion and beauty,” agrees Marc Glassman at Classical FM.
Life in a Day 2020 (dir. Kevin Macdonald)
“No locations are named; the focus is movement, and inclusion – truly a hymn to humanity and our planet earth. A must-see,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“What it offers, however, is a feel-good reassurance that we’re all in this together and that, somehow, life goes on. Inspiring, if overly simplistic,” grumbles Pat Mullen at POV Magazine.
Lost Girls in Love Hotels (dir. William Olsson)
“[The] ultimate question is to whether Margaret can rise above all these trials and tribulations in this barely interesting drama,” sighs Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
The Map of Perfect Tiny Things (dir. Ian Samuels)
“Despite a few fresh segments, (the film) ends up as a teen romantic fantasy with the time loop as an unnecessary gimmick,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“Both leads are charming, and Lev Grossman’s script – expanded from his own short story – has an essential innocence that undercuts the genre’s usual cynicism, with complications that are unique and even moving,” says Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine.
Paradise Cove (dir. Martin Guigui)
“I wanted to appreciate Paradise Cove as a homage to 1970s television’s Movie of the Week, the kind of vehicle that might have starred Suzanne Somers and Elizabeth Montgomery playing against type,” admits Thom Ernst at Original Cin. “But any deference Paradise Cove might have to 1970s television is by default rather than design…”
Ruth – Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words (dir. Freida Lee Mock)
At POV Magazine, Pat Mullen speaks with Academy Award winner Freida Lee Mock about her new doc about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Anita Hill film that drew RBG to the director: “I started an anecdotal letter-writing relationship with Justice Ginsburg because we have a mutual friend with whom she occasionally has Shabbat,” says Mock. “The mutual friend happened to talk about the Anita film and Justice Ginsburg expressed that she hadn’t seen it and that she would love to see it.”
Saint Maud (dir. Rose Glass)
“Saint Maud is cut from the same cloth as Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, films that present an unbending protagonist whose unshakable faith comes up against unyielding reality,” observes Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine. Wilner also speaks with director Rose Glass, who doesn’t find the film as scary as everyone else does. In fact, she calls it silly!
“It injects just the right dose of sear-your-brain nastiness,” praises Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail with memories of seeing the film with a traumatised TIFF audience. “Who knows, maybe one day everyone will be able to experience it in a packed theatre, too. Let us pray.” Hertz also speaks with director Rose Glass about lockdown life and “that scene,” which she describes as an effort to make her character’s self-flagellation more creative: “The idea came from a self-bondage website, which had a section where they had tips for people to make your experience that much more painful. That stuck with me.”
“From barely heard whispers to scrapes and clicks that feel like they’re working their way into your ear canal, Saint Maud makes the best use of sound since Ari Aster’s terrifying 2018 film Hereditary,” notes Chris Knight at the National Post.
Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto dubs it, “A little film about obsession that has made its mark where it has been screened.”
“Saint Maud gets under the viewer’s skin in spite of a sometimes overwhelming sense of familiarity,” admits Andrew Parker at The Gate.
Sator (dir. Jordan Graham)
“A masterpiece of squeamishly uneasy, nightmarish mood-making, the demonic-possession film, Sator is partly in the vein of The Blair Witch Project – though much more sure-handed and stylistically sophisticated,” declares Jim Slotek at Original Cin.
“[M]ore like an art horror movie than the usual slasher horror jump in your seat flick, though there is no skimping of the gore,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Skyfire (dir. Simon West)
“Skyfire is the latest film to resurrect a genre that hasn’t caught fire since the ‘70s,” notes Thom Ernst at Original Cin. “Once recognized as the disaster film, the genre now slips into the category of action/drama.”
“I may not have been laughing at the places the filmmakers intended, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself,” admits Chris Knight at the National Post.
“Extremely tacky, silly, clichéd and outlandish made worse by white people speaking Chinese with incorrect accents,” observes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Supernova (dir Harry Macqueen)
“Tucci gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the intelligent bon vivant who confronts his future when faced with dementia,” says Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “This is a wonderful film about savouring life and love in the moment.”
Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail speaks with Supernova MVP and the Internet’s unexpected cocktail king Stanley Tucci about turning his real-life bromance with Colin Firth into an onscreen romance. “[A]s soon as I read Harry’s script, I thought it should be offered to Colin, too,” says Tucci. “And when you’re working with somebody you know intimately for an extended period of time, and when you’re playing characters going through all this emotional stuff on-screen, our friendship only made it deeper.”
“The pandemic of mental disease is the great shadow over the film; you feel its dark presence in these two loving, blameless human beings. It’s sad and illuminating, and not easy,” observes Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“British writer/director Harry Macqueen sets his very assured second feature in the country’s Lake District, with resultant take-your-breath-away scenery,” says Chris Knight at the National Post.
“[An] immensely powerful drama confronting the problem of growing old, and with all the ailments that go with it,” raves Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Synchronic (dir. Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead)
“[An] outrageous premise that has too many loose points (and) worst still, the directors are way too serious with their story which looks as if it is made up as they go along,” suggests Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
To All the Boys: Always and Forever (dir. Michael Fimognari)
“Warning: this is a feel good teen romantic comedy so adults be forewarned that it is best to stay away,” cautions Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“This is as sweet, pretty and predictable as a good cupcake (and there are lots of those in the film) and aimed squarely at the tween to twenty crowds,” admits Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“It’s not that To All the Boys: Always and Forever is outright terrible – far from it – but rather that it’s missing the comedic, emotional, and romantic spark of the first two adaptations of author Jenny Han’s works,” suggests Andrew Parker at The Gate.
X (dir. Scott J. Ramsey)
“Never has a film about sex been so boring,” declares Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Festember: The Second Wave!
At That Shelf, Jason Gorber and Pat Mullen join members of the team to discuss the highlights of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
At Toronto Franco, Gilbert Seah highlights three films to see at TIFF Next Wave: Cocoon, Night of the Beast, and My Name Is Baghdad.
At Complex Canada, Pat Mullen previews the Toronto Black Film Festival and speaks with festival director Fabienne Colas about what inspires her to create an event to amplify Black storytellers.
At Original Cin, Liam Lacey does a deep dive on the Toronto Black Film Festival and offers highlights including Stateless and #LANDoftheBRAVEfilm.
At What She Said, Anne Brodie offers a rundown of the films screening at Toronto’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival next week.
TV Talk: True Crime, Cakes, and Drama Aplenty
At The Gate, Andrew Parker has been flipping channels between three shows: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (“an effortlessly bingable, yet uniquely melancholic true crime documentary saga”), Helter Skelter: An American Myth (“made without the sort of sensationalistic slant that often followed the case since the late 1960s”), and Little Birds (“s sexy as a pile of old tires”).
Similarly, Anne Brodie at What She Said has a duo of CanCon: season 5 of Working Moms (“continues its merry, sarky adventures”) and season 4 of The Great Canadian Baking Challenge (“It’s not only the cakes that are colourful, there is drama aplenty”).
From the Vault: Last Train Home
To celebrate Chinese New Year, we’re taking a pilgrimage with an acclaimed Canadian doc that observes the migratory patterns of families reconnecting for the holiday, Lixin Fan’s Last Train Home. Here is Alice Shih at POV Magazine reflecting on Last Train Home’s portrait of the tradition with a few words from Fan. This essay was reprinted in the TFCA’s anthology Our Words on Film.
It is true that the Confucian value of filial piety has long played a big role in Chinese lives. Being away from one’s family was never encouraged by traditional values, but a changing society somehow shifted and modified the value toward a more pragmatic approach of bettering one’s material life. Although the parents work away from home, they send all their savings to the grandparents for their kids. Sadly, what we learn from Last Train Home is that providing material comfort alone does not translate into filial affection. Without parental presence and emotional support for their entire childhood, the children do not connect or sympathize with their parents, as the gap between them widens into an irreparable split.
“My work allowed me to travel, so I did have a chance to see my family back in Wuhan, but not usually at Chinese New Year,” Fan recalls. “I haven’t spent a single Chinese New Year with my family in the past ten years; I’ve always been on a shoot somewhere. I’m used to it now, but I do miss them from time to time. I left home in search of better opportunities in life, just like the migrant workers. Nowadays, technology can somewhat help us overcome our homesickness.