TFCA Friday: Week of Jan. 19

January 19, 2024

Origin | Elevation Pictures

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


ICYMI: We recently announced three TFCA Award recipients: Charles Officer with the Company 3 Luminary Award, Ariane Louis-Seize with the Stella Artois Jay Scott Prize, and Winnie Wang with the Telefilm Canada Emerging Critic Award.


In Release this Week


The Braid (dir. Laetitia Colombani)


At Original Cin, Kim Hughes speaks with director Laetitia Colombani about adapting her own novel. “[W]hen I started to write the novel, I asked myself what the link would be between me and each character. Each were created with part of me. I feel close to Smita, for example, because she is a mother. My daughter was the same age as the character of [Smita’s daughter] Lalita in the novel,” explains Colombani. “Giulia was a very different part of me but when I was a teenager, I lived for books. My mother worked in a library. I was curious about the world and wanted to travel because of my reading. With Sarah, she is a working mother with a career, and like many women, she is constantly torn between her professional and private lives. I understand her in a very intimate way. These characters became like my sisters.”


“Smita (Maelzer) is an Indian Untouchable living in extreme poverty with her husband and sensitive daughter Lalita. They live on rats and handouts and have no human rights due to their caste. They escape via train, a tortuous journey, looking for a better life,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “Colombani pays tribute to the determination of women to overcome every manner of obstacle to keep life moving forward; it is inspiring, powerfully familiar, and elegantly made, enriched by the performances, united by a traditional symbol of womanhood.”


“An epic drama that looks at a series of interlocking stresses faced by a trio of women in different parts of the world, The Braid takes material that could’ve been straightforward and melodramatic and ensures that the final results are realistic and relatable,” notes Andrew Parker at The Gate.


From the Ashes (dir. Khaled Fahad)


From the Ashes is a surprisingly entertaining Saudi Arabian film under the radar that deserves a look from its both entertaining and social standpoints,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


In the Morning of La Petite Mort (dir. Wang Yu-Lin)


“Director Wang paints a grim view life with little chance of hope or parts that would improve the individual’s lives,” admits Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “His characters are stuck in the rut of mundane daily routines, the need to be loved.  To Wang’s credit, despite the slow pace of his film, his characters are sympathetic and the audience can sympathize if not care for each individual one.”


I.S.S. (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite)


“What might have been a fun and thrifty exercise in B-movie January trash, à la The Beekeeper, instead quickly devolves into eye-rolling tedium,” sighs Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “Cowperthwaite – who makes a curious leap here from the melodrama of 2019′s Our Friend and her docs, including 2013′s SeaWorld-skewering hit Blackfish – is largely innocent of engineering I.S.S.’s hay-wiring. She stages the American and Russian scheming with a semi-diverting sense of dramatic fluidity, her camera drifting between the two sides of the space station with a sense of ease. But there is only so much she can do with such a pressurized chamber piece when the script is sloppy and the performances weightless.”


“It might play off modern fears and act as a reflection of a world gone off the rails, but I.S.S. is best when viewed for what it is: a full throated, white knuckle thriller moving as quickly as possible,” says Andrew Parker at The Gate.


“I hate to bring this up because the filmmakers are clearly very proud of their special effects, but the recreation of micro-gravity is middling at best. Closeups are fine, but whenever someone floats away in a full-body shot, you can imagine the harness that was meticulously erased in post-production,” quips Chris Knight at Original Cin. “On the plus side, production design is superb, and the sets look like they were built from NASA blueprints. I’ve spent some virtual time in the I.S.S. (thank you IMAX and VR headsets) and it does look a treat. But that’s still not enough to tether this problematic product.”


June (dir. Kristen Vaurio)


“While June Carter Cash has been rightfully lauded for her work with her musical legacy family and for supporting her husband, Johnny, both on and off stage, director Kristen Vaurio seeks to remind viewers that these commonly accepted platitudes are only skimming the surface of her talents and accomplishments,” notes Andrew Parker at The Gate. “June goes the extra mile to bring a life filled with often unsung successes back into the light, reminding fans and the uninitiated alike that Carter Cash was a powerhouse.”


The Kitchen (dir. Daniel Kaluuya, Kibwe Tavared)


“If it had gone bigger and become more ambitious with its futuristic elements, or if it had stripped things back and simply presented a no frills character drama, The Kitchen might’ve landed a lot more powerfully,” says Andrew Parker at The Gate. “Instead, it’s a solid directorial debut that’s fine enough for what it is.”


“The film eventually morphs into a film about the relationship between Izi and Benji with the social commentary on land taking a step back,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “Essentially, it becomes a story of two lonely souls who finally have found a reason to make sense of all the trouble surrounding their lives.”


Memory (dir. Michel Franco)


At the Toronto Star, Marriska Fernandes speaks with star Jessica Chastain about getting into character as Sylvia. “She makes choices that I wouldn’t make and she does things that I wouldn’t actually do. And I love that about her because she’s a different person than I am,” Chastain tells Fernandes. “She’s a different person than all of us. And the past that she has doesn’t mean that she would always make the most correct choice, and we can still root for her. We can still support her and want her to succeed. I find sometimes in a big studio system, where there’s many people commenting on a script, it’s harder to take those kinds of risks.”


“Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard deliver the goods in difficult roles in writer-director Michel Franco’s moving psychological portrait Memory.  Chastain is Sylvia, a recovering alcoholic and social worker at an adult daycare centre.  She has a good if overprotective relationship with her teen daughter Anna (Brooke Timber) who seems wise beyond her years,” notes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “It’s a tight and lifelike portrait of people in crisis, and hard to watch, but raised by all performances. Special note – Harper’s searing depiction of a Bad Mother glows with fire.”


“The relationship that slowly develops between Sylvia and Saul is the focus of Memory, and while hopeful, it is also fraught with issues past and present — all of it presented with the filmmaker’s characteristic unvarnished approach. This is cinema without emotional mollycoddling,” notes Liz Braun at Original Cin. “And along the way, Sylvia has worse trauma to revisit when she and her estranged mother (Jessica Harper) get together; the camera never looks away, and as Memory delves into years of secrets and lies, it is sometimes not easy to watch. What is easy to watch are the superb performances from Chastain and Sarsgaard, both of whom are emotionally naked here.”


“Franco’s previous films, which often featured trauma and intense drama, have often had tragic endings. Happily, he has chosen to make Memory in a more hopeful manner,” says Marc Glassman at Classical FM. “The affection between the two damaged people, Sylvia and Saul, is treated with empathy and care. Two gifted actors, Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, are given the emotional space and enough well-constructed scenes in which to convincingly expose their damaged but inwardly beautiful inner lives. These aren’t Oscar performances but they’re moving and convincing. The cast in general—the legendary Jessica Harper (Suspiria, Phantom of the Paradise), Merrit Wever (Godless, Nurse Jackie) and young Brooke Timber—offer fine support to the film.”


Memory plays like a very depressing version of Silver Linings Playbook,” admits Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “The well-crafted Memory is a challenging, demanding and satisfying watch, a case where one has to work for one’s entertainment that comes as satisfaction rather than joy or laughter.”


“It has powerhouse leading performances from two of this generation’s finest actors, one exceptionally drawn character trying to overcome trauma, and complicated feelings about the nature of forgiveness,” observes Andrew Parker at The Gate. “What Memory lacks is a driving sense of purpose that goes beyond a surface level.”


“Chastain, the Molly’s Game and Zero Dark Thirty force of nature, has become a reliably big, bright, intense presence who doesn’t so much find the spotlight as she steals it with earned gusto. Meanwhile, her Memory co-star has spent decades perfecting a more slippery kind of all under-the-skin magnetism, preferring to sink into roles rather than commandeer them. Pairing the two isn’t so much oil and water as it is fire and ice,” says Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “Yet Chastain and Sarsgaard find all the pieces of Franco’s Memory worth saving, and proceed to connect with one another to build something that is new, remarkable, affecting. Hard to forget, even.”


Moja & Vesna (dir. Sara Kovacic)


“As expected from the story laid out in the synopsis, the subject is heart-breaking stuff and director Kovacic knows how to pull and stretch those heartstrings she does from start to finish,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “The film hangs on and features a ‘revelatory’ performance by Loti Kovacic, playing Moja and if this performance does not move you, nothing will.”


My Loneliness Has Wings (dir. Mario Casas)


“[A]n energetic enough youth drama involving Dan and his relationships with his girl, his grandmother, and his father,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “The film is the directorial debut of Mario Casas who cast his brother Oscar in the lead role.  The film loses steam quite fast, limited by the material, though certain parts of the film shows promise for the young director.”


Origin (dir. Ava DuVernay)


At CBC, Eli Glasner calls Origin “a remarkably powerful and potent film” and speaks with Ava DuVernay about stepping outside the studio system after her tent pole A Wrinkle in Time. “The studio system is nice for a lot of things. It’s cushy and it’s comfortable. But you trade freedom for comfort, and I was interested in being fully free and being able to say and express exactly what I wanted to do with this film. In order to do that, I had to put on my backpack and get out in the world and shoot this thing in 37 days and three countries,” says DuVernay.


“The film at times can feel like a hybrid between a feature film and a documentary. Conversations with experts and individuals are quiet and conversational. As well, DuVernay has cast some non-actors in various roles, from archivists to, most movingly, an older white man recounting a racist incident he witnessed at age nine that has haunted him for his entire life,” says Karen Gordon at Original Cin. “This mix gives the film a quiet, serious, and grounded tone which makes it approachable and human. And although it deals with heavy emotions, grief, and racism, the film itself is not at all heavy going.”


“Another elegant, powerful, intelligent, and moving film from Ava DuVernay, whose inspired films are always a joy,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “The latest film DuVernay wrote and directed follows Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in a remarkable performance) whose best seller Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents was the result of years of travel, introversion, interviews, and significant pain.”


At The Globe and Mail, Barry Hertz calls the film “demanding of discussion” and chats with writer/director Ava DuVernay about piecing together her complex story. “As I shared the script with people, I was aware that what I had in my head was not easily digestible on the page. A lot of those cuts were on paper, but if you’re reading it and it says, ‘Isabel is walking in an airport, now cut to Nazi Germany where people are saluting Hitler,’ you go, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is this?’ I did find a lot more in the editing suite, but people struggled with the script,” DuVernay tells Hertz. “Which is why I held onto people so tightly who saw what I was doing in the script. Not film executives but fellow filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, who told me, ‘I see it, keep going! Go further!’ It was so helpful to make this outside the studio context, where I could break boundaries and experiment.”


“Sometimes messy is better than perfect, and Origin is definitely a prime example of that statement. If Origin were too streamlined and slick, it would feel watered down, ineffective, and pandering,” admits Andrew Parker at The Gate. “If it were a straight up lecture directly addressed to the camera, Origin would struggle to maintain any interest outside of people actively willing to take notes (which would probably suggest they would’ve been better off just reading the book instead).”


At the Toronto Star, Marriska Fernandes calls Origin a “testament to DuVernay’s strength as a filmmaker” and learns how the director captured the international scope of the story. “For a lot of years, I’ve made films and I’ve been a student of Black history and African diaspora around the world,” explains DuVernay. “But studying the Indian people in Indian culture, travelling to Germany and sitting with people, and hearing the myriad stories of different cultures within the German nation, and really just changing my perspective about what other people experience and seeing a lot more commonality with what I experienced has enlarged my life.”


“DuVernay’s coup in dramatizing Wilkerson’s historical theory was to make the brilliant journalist the central figure in a film drama,” writes Marc Glassman at Classical FM. “Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor creates a moving portrait of Isabel Wilkerson, a fine writer and thinker, who must cope with the loss of her husband and mother while writing Caste. In the process of evolving her theory, she encounters opposition from other intellectuals as well as many Black Americans who have always considered their situation to be unique and are somewhat offended by a theory, which suggests that other classes and cultures have suffered from similar forms of oppression. Through determination and self-confidence, Wilkerson eventually triumphs with the publication of her book, which becomes a critical and popular success.”



The Teachers’ Lounge (dir. Ilker Çatak)


“Turning a supposedly innocuous setting into a powder keg almost immediately, Çatak’s unique and unparalleled look at the stresses placed upon teachers arrests the viewer’s attention and begs for further discussion,” writes Andrew Parker at The Gate.


“Çatak and his co-writer Johannes Duncker have written an economical script that keeps us inside the school, and focused on Nowak  as the walls feel like they’re closing in, and as every day seems to bring a new layer of threat or complication,” says Karen Gordon at Original Cin. “Çatak does interesting things with The Teachers’ Lounge. He’s kept the movie small and down to earth. This isn’t a dystopian look at the future of humanity, but a story first about a school and a community, and how things can begin to spiral and give over to group-think.”


“Beautifully written and unfolds flawlessly, if horrifically, heightened by Benesch’s regal performance as a moral mainstay in an ugly event for which she is ill-equipped,” observes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “Joy in the classroom and gym turns to brutality as a strange malaise falls over the school. Also stellar is young Vincent Stachowiak as young Tom. Far-reaching and unsettling as it upsets our moral applecart. Germany’s Best International Feature entry for the Oscars.”


“A cautionary tale evoking raw emotions!” exclaims Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


“The gloomy lesson of the film, which Çatak and Duncker say is based on real-life experiences, is that good intentions have unforeseen consequences and that truth is always trampled by rumour, suspicion and hatred,” notes Peter Howell at the Toronto Star. “Is this an overly cynical assessment to make about The Teachers’ Lounge? Perhaps. The tension the film expertly builds is undeniable, but unlike most classroom dramas there is no consoling epiphany or kumbaya moment.”


The Teachers’ Lounge could be said to be about the birth of the centrist position; I guess my only fear, and it’s something sure to be teased out in thinkpieces over the coming months, is whether the picture actually is centrist, which is to say pro-centrism, where Donald is 0.999 and Hilary is 1, so why bother voting,” writes Bill Chambers at Film Freak Central. “This even starts to curdle into something vaguely fascist, as centrism is wont to do, with Ms. Nowak’s and Oskar’s mounting humiliations and news of the miniature Woodwards and Bernsteins at the school paper getting censored all provoking a tickle of schadenfreude because their passion seems both misplaced and foolish. Still, the haunting final shot is a loss for everyone involved in a way that doesn’t feel equivocating or cynical, just quietly tragic.”


Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer (dir. Thomas von Steinaecker)


“There’s a kind of religiosity in believing the universe is actively hostile to humanity,” observes Liam Lacey at Original Cin. “If you take the statement seriously. Of course, as Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer reminds us, Herzog is something of mischievous put-on artist, given to stunts and legend-building, and semi-serious grandiosity: ‘It’s an injustice of nature that we do not have wings,’ he gravely declares at one point in the film. This is not an argument with the universe that can be easily remedied, though one can dream.”


“Patti Smith, Nicole Kidman, Carl Weathers, Robert Pattinson, Chloé Zhao, and a slew of his actors speak out, agreeing that Herzog is unique and that there is no one like him and that he invokes extreme responses – they seem amazed and horrified by him,” adds Anne Brodie at What She Said. “Judge for yourself. If his extreme antics weren’t real, the story would beggar the imagination.”


“A straightforward portrait, Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer will satisfy both established Herzog fans looking for quirks and those interested in him from a pure filmmaking background,” says Rachel West at That Shelf. “Though any Herzog fan will tell you there are even more unbelievable stories left out of the documentary (my personal favourite is the time he rescued Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck, which was turned into a wonderfully animated recollection here). Nevertheless, there is plenty here to dig into, analyze, and discuss when it comes to Herzog’s pop culture impact and celebrity.”


“It’s a lot of terrain to cover,” admits Pat Mullen at POV Magazine. “However, von Steinaecker’s interest in Herzog’s distinct voice—deep and intimidating, yet soft and curious—and his oft-parodied grandiose vernacular, offers an appropriately amusing window into the unique celebrity status that he enjoys. The best moments aren’t those in which Herzog shares insights about his process. The film soars—nay, flies—when he waxes philosophical and delivers the loony, deadpan prophesies that people love. The man knows how to please his audience.”


A Festival of Festival Coverage: The Sundance Kids


At the Toronto Star, Peter Howell forecasts this year’s Sundance Film Festival and sees a shift in online programming and some wrestling in artificial intelligence: “AI-influenced films and experiences premiering at Sundance ’24 include Jazmin Renée Jones’ Seeking Mavis Beacon, an investigative doc about Black representation in the digital world; Gary Hustwit’s Eno, a doc about ambient music pioneer Brian Eno (U2, Talking Heads, David Bowie) that creates new images with each screening; and Rashad Newsome’s Being (the Digital Griot), a ‘participatory experience’ that uses an AI-driven digital storyteller to engage audiences in discussions derived from Black communities, theorists, poets and activists.”


At POV Magazine, Pat Mullen picks ten documentaries atop the Sundance must-see list. At #1 is Union: “[The film’ observes the plight of the Amazon Workers Union (ALU) as folks mobilize to unionize in the online shopping behemoth…While the story offers a great hook, Amazon’s growing presence in the documentary space also leaves many filmmakers uncomfortable with the prospects of a corporation with a bad track record for labour rights becoming a power player in a field rooted in social justice, human rights, and democratic movements. How Union lands (and sells) could be one of Sundance 2024’s defining moments.”


TV Talk / Series Scribbles


At The Gate, Andrew Parker reports on American Nightmare and notes that the fuller story is just a Google search away: “While it tells the nuts and bolts details of the central case just fine, there’s a whole lot of material around the periphery of American Nightmare that’s just as eye opening and potentially incendiary, but all of it is being left on the table. It’s good, but it could be even better.”


Ditto Death and Other Details, as Karen Gordon at Original Cin notes that the series “has mystery and jeopardy, but none of the grit or depth that reveals deeper things about society. It has more of a glossy, soap-opera feel to it.  Characters are mostly beautiful, fashionable, sexy with fabulous wardrobes. Amid increasing tension, everyone takes time to accessorize, that kind of thing.”


Meanwhile, at What She Said, Anne Brodie does some sleuthing with Criminal Record, which “plumbs the psychological, societal, and cultural depths of police cases and those involved. Cush Jumbo is Detective Sergeant June Lenker, making waves in an office that suffers from thinly veiled racism and sexism.” She also follows the clues with American Nightmare: “Kind of fun, well-made, and sure to put a bad taste in your mouth.” Meanwhile, Yearbook invites six Canadians to settle “unfinished emotional business with figures from their school days.”