TFCA Friday: Week of Jan. 26

January 26, 2024

Four Daughters | Tanit Films

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

Remembering Norman Jewison


“Jewison was occasionally criticized by his compatriots for not making Canadian films. (The closest he came was 1985’s Agnes of God, which was set in Montreal with largely local Canadian crew and American stars Jane Fonda, Meg Tilly and Anne Bancroft.) But for someone trying to forge a career in the 1960s, Canada had no film industry to speak of outside Quebec,” writes Brian D. Johnson at Zoomer. “By creating and promoting the Film Centre, and mentoring a new wave of daring Canadian directors – such as Bruce McDonald (Highway 61), who launched his career working out of Jewison’s Toronto office – Jewison gave more than his share back to his homeland. Without ever making a Canadian film, he managed to become the godfather of Canadian cinema.”


“His good deeds were many. In the late 1980s, he founded Toronto’s Canadian Film Centre to nurture young talent and, from 2004 to 2010 served as chancellor of the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, his alma mater. Jewison’s career was filled with other film and community service honours, the latter including Officer of the Order of Canada (1982), member of the Order of Ontario (1989) and, in 1992, Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian award,” recalls Peter Howell at the Toronto Star. “What Jewison craved, though, was recognition from his Hollywood peers in the academy. His 1987 rom-com Moonstruck, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage in one of the great comedies of the 1980s, looked like a cinch to win best picture and director at the Oscars. Instead, he lost both categories to Bernardo Bertolucci’s ancient China epic The Last Emperor, prompting Jewison to quip, ‘You can’t fight 200 Buddhist monks and the Forbidden City.’”


“‘If you set out to make a big statement about Canada, you’re going to fail!’” Barry Hertz remembers Jewison saying in an interview at The Globe and Mail. “While Canadian filmmakers – both Jewison’s contemporaries and those who followed him decades afterward – might disagree with such a statement, one thing becomes clear when considering the director’s improbable, eclectic and essential canon: Norman Jewison never, ever wanted to fail. While he may have stumbled here and there, disaster was flirted with more than tolerated. If there is one through-line to Jewison’s films, it is the fierce commitment to the belief that a good story told in a highly entertaining fashion – slick, precise, sincere – is the very best way to win hearts and minds. Give it your all, and audiences will respond in kind.”


In Release this Week


Attila (dir. Stephen Hosier)


“Shifting between grainy home-movie footage of the young Csanyi siblings at play and pavement-pounding explorations into Hamilton’s darker corners – its short-term rentals and massage parlours, its unkempt parks and ER waiting rooms – Hosier weaves together a deeply empathetic horror story that should serve as a shock to the system,” writes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.


“In reframing the narrative around issues of mental health, the foster care system, and life on the streets, Hosier’s documentary finds compassion for those whose pain is not easily visible for all to see,” adds Courtney Small at POV Magazine. “Attila is more than a celebration of a life taken too soon; it is a moving reminder that even the deepest wounds can begin to heal. It just takes time and plenty of support.”


Badland Hunters (dir. Heo Myung-haeng)


“As a low-expectation action flick, it succeeds as a different sequel to Concrete Utopia,” notes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


Behind the Haystacks (dir. Vladimir Anastasov)


“In Greece’s entry for this year’s Best International Feature Oscar, director Anastasov has crafted a delicate and powerful film about a family trying to survive in a harsh and cruel world,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


Cold Copy (dir. Roxine Helberg)


“[The] psychological thriller looks at baseless manipulation and oppression by a person in power over a vulnerable person. Tracee Ellis Ross swaps comedy for drama as Diane, a hard-headed news talk show host who teaches journalism. Mia played by Bel Powley idolises her but is met with a chilling awakening; the person she depends on to guide her into the career she desperately wants has it in for her on sight,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “The story leaves holes in character backgrounds and we are meant to take two people on the edge as is, Mia’s behaviour seems outlandish even for someone obsessed. Ross really sinks her teeth into this monstrous narcissist.”


Cold Road (dir. Kevin Redvers; Yellowknife only)


“Tracy isn’t entirely alone — in her car’s passenger seat is Pretzel, a border collie/whatever mix played by Karibou, a rescue dog belonging to the director’s sister. A real scene-stealing mutt, Karibou produces such unusual sounds that I half-expected him to start talking like Scooby-Doo,” says Chris Knight at Original Cin. “This brings me to my biggest complaint about Cold Road: the dialogue. There’s too much of it. Tracy chatters to Pretzel, to her sister and her husband (until the cellphone reception ends) and endlessly to herself.”


Four Daughters (dir. Kaouther Ben Hania)

***TFCA Awards Nominee: Allan King Documentary Award***


“Olfa raised her girls to be independent, and free of men. When she finally takes a lover, a convicted murderer, he rapes her daughters. Rahma and Ghofrane leave, and Rahma becomes a Goth (‘Satan worshipper’). Both disappear,” notes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “The brutal tragedy of their story dominated national headlines for years, against the backdrop of cultural, social, and political change as dictator Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, leaving shaky freedom behind. Ben Hania’s unique formatting and style raise the temperature and we marvel as the actors learn to see through Olfa’s and the missing women’s eyes. Wow.”


Four Daughters is an odd mix of domestic detail, family affection, sisterly carry-on and offhand violence, with an unholy history of physical and psychological abuse dogging all the women under Olfa’s roof,” says Liz Braun at Original Cin. “Then there’s the wider abuse and control available via the patriarchal society in which they live; based on her thoughts about sex, shame and obedience, Olfa seems to have absorbed a lot of misogynistic received wisdom about the world.”


At POV Magazine, Jason Gorber calls the film “an emotionally deep, profoundly affecting work.” He also speaks with director Kaouther Ben Hania about finding a new mode for re-enactments. “I wanted to hijack how re-enactments work, to find a new way of using this device but in a way that I can tell my story in a better way. Actors ask a lot of questions, so I told myself, I won’t do classical re-enactments—I’ll let the actors, while re-enacting, ask their questions about the characters and motivation,” Ben Hania tells Gorber. “I took the re-enactment and I put it in a Brechtian theatre mode, with distance in the scene going out of the scene. It’s a movie telling everybody that it’s a movie, and there’s no fourth wall.”


“This is clearly a group of women in distress, still suffering from the trauma of abuse and the ongoing separation of Ghofrane and Rahma from the family. Olfa talks of an intergenerational ‘curse’ stretching back to her birth family. She says as a girl she felt obliged to embrace violence to fight the men who were threatening her mother and siblings: ‘I became a man, to protect my mother,’” writes Peter Howell at the Toronto Star. “The film is never less than riveting, wherever the truth lies.”


Four Daughters is an unforgettable and compelling documentary about female abuse with a strong statement that the female gender is just as strong as the male and will do anything in order to prove themselves and to survive,” adds Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “The audience is also given a revealing and educational tour of a society that is mired in male dominance.”


“By focusing on one complicated family dynamic, Ben Hania is able to convey how quickly Tunisian politics has changed from the time of the Arab Spring to its complex and quite vulnerable present day democratic reality,” says Marc Glassman at Classical FM. “We discover that the older daughters aren’t dead, but their fates are inextricably bound to the radical shifts in Muslim society that are still taking place. Four Daughters is a film that tries to do too much but it does succeed in giving us a profound sense of what it’s like to try to negotiate lives in the shifting, violent but vibrant environment of contemporary North Africa.”


“The resulting film could, crassly, be called Arab cinema’s answer to Todd Haynes’s May December – a meta-fictional drama that finds its tension and surprise in stepping back and forth over the line separating the authentic and the rehearsed. Yet Hania doesn’t have the kind of mean streak in her that such an experiment might require, with the director gracefully favouring understanding over manipulation,” notes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “As unflinching as it is empathetic, Four Daughters is the best and slipperiest kind of film, whether you want to label it a documentary or not.”


Last Night at Terrace Lanes (dir. Jamie Nash)


“So, is it the film’s cheese-string budget that’s to blame? Partly, but not entirely. Granted, a larger budget would allow for better effects, but a larger budget has little to do with the film’s languishing pace, and the script (written by Adam Cesare from a story by Jenna St. John) which ignores when logic would allow for a father and daughter to reassess their relationship,” writes Thom Ernst at Original Cin. “Last Night at Terrace Lane had the potential to be good bloody fun but opted instead just to be bloody. Then again, it also chose to be only 75-minutes. So, not all bad.”


Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero (dir. Carlos López Estrada, Zac Manuel)


At POV Magazine, Pat Mullen calls the film “an ode to queer joy in concert form.” and speaks with directors Zac Manuel and Carlos López Estrada about sharing the young star’s story. “What we did in this film was instinctually inspired by his music and his identity,” Manuel tells Mullen. “It felt wrong to put him in a chair and talk to him. You know, he’s really hot, he’s really funny, he’s really personable—you wanna have pillow talk with him. The idea to put him in bed was the most natural way to do an interview with him.”


Razing Liberty Square (dir. Katja Esson, US only)


“Katja Esson’s doc shot over five years features residents who have lived in Liberty Square since its founding told to get out, a single mother of seven who cannot afford any other place, a principal fearing her school – the only one for miles around – loss will severely impact children’s lives. Follow the incredible story step by step, some triumphs, some losses, and in the end three lessons – 13 million Americans will lose homes due to rising sea levels by the end of the century and 400 million worldwide. Climate gentrification continues to spread across the globe,” observes Anne Brodie at What She Said.


Ru (dir. Charles-Olivier Michaud)


“There is not much story in the film, the story is replaced by experiences of what the family goes through from the time the soldiers break into the house in Vietnam to their selling in winter Montreal.  The art direction is nothing short of superb, down to the very detail of the ‘stubby’ beer bottles used during the time,” admits Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


“As Tihn’s family begins to adjust to life in Canada, her memories of leaving Vietnam become darker. She has witnessed terrible things and experienced a harrowing ocean voyage and time in a refugee camp,” writes Liz Braun at Original Cin. “Everything from the past that is dark and dangerous and claustrophobic stands in stark contrast to the light and beauty of the Canadian landscape; Ru is a visually enchanting film. On the subject of love letters, the way filmmaker Michaud and cinematographer Jean-Francois Lord present the places and people of Quebec in the ‘70s will make you proud to be Canadian.”


At The Globe and Mail, Barry Hertz speaks with director Michaud and producer Kim Thuy about bringing this beloved story to the screen. “Michaud credits the film’s strong reception to the power of Thuy’s immigration story, which is ‘so specific to her own life that it ends up becoming universal. I think that people watch it and see their own families in it, no matter where they came from,’” writes Hertz. “Thuy herself has a different theory. ‘It’s all about how beauty is possible, love is possible, after the most traumatic circumstances, thanks to the kindness of strangers,” the author says. “It is a story about the openness of people, the pure intentions of our neighbours. This is the story of Canada.’”


“Although it takes a bit too long to ultimately come together, and it might be a tad stoic, the cinematic adaptation of Kim Thúy’s award winning bestseller Ru still manages to tap into a rich vein of emotions and substance surrounding experiences faced by many immigrants who have fled from violence,” writes Andrew Parker at The Gate.


Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (dir. Anna Hints)


“It is a remarkably intimate setting. The talk runs from body image to child bearing, physical and emotional trauma, love and death and the whole damn thing. The film shimmers with heat and flesh and sweat, as ever-deeper layers of personal experience slowly come to the surface in crucial conversation,” observes Liz Braun at Original Cin. “The women’s stories are devastating. And familiar.”


“Anna Hints has deliberately made a film without a protagonist. Instead, we’re invited into a culture, a social environment, where women share their naked lives with each other. She forces us to think about women as a collective, a group that encounters similar scenarios throughout their lives, from their girlhoods to old age,” notes Marc Glassman at Classical FM. “By refusing to give us their names and faces, Hints asks us to apply the same relevance to each intimate story, whether tragic or comic. Since we can’t match a story that moves us with an image, we must accept all of the tales we hear as being unforced and truthful.”


Sometimes I Think About Dying (dir. Rachel Lambert, US only)


At the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, Rachel West speaks with director Rachel Lambert about the films that inspire her. “[The] first film that made me want to make a film was The Godfather and the first film that made me understand that film could be poetry could be something that is that goes beyond the narrative that could go into a place that I think some of the greatest fine arts can access was Taxi Driver,” says Lambert. “And not because I’m like, oh, man, do I do I understand Travis Bickle? Thankfully not. And I’m sure that whilst Scorsese might have, he might have connected to feelings of rage or hopelessness or frustration. I can’t imagine it wasn’t similar place of vectoring and channeling that into him.”


There Is a Monster (dir. Mike Taylor)


“The few bad acting scenes are nothing short of hilarious and actually make the movie,” admits Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


Totem (dir. Lila Aviles, US only)


“At best, the film succeeds in looking at a child’s musings of death and time, trying to make sense of what is happening and not so effective are the problems  and skeletons brought out of the closet during the party by the their clan members,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.


Under the Fig Trees (dir. Erie Sehiri)


“Though fiction, the film could also play as a documentary,” suggests Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “The film is an easy watch, no concentration is needed, and no stress is required either, just observation of the Tunisian workers.  The audience is given a lesson on the local way of life, both the differences as well as the similarities with North America.”


The Underdoggs (dir. Charles Stone III)


The Underdoggs – unsubtly brought to us by the Raising Cane’s chicken finger chain – is a perfect reflection of its main character. It’s stuck in the 90s and focused on recreating past glories instead of forming new ideas,” says Andrew Parker at The Gate. “It’s predicated on the idea that the formula is so solid that it shouldn’t be messed with at all. It also goes all in on the belief that kids cursing like sailors and doing horribly inappropriate things is funny. And, yeah, it is kinda funny at times, simply because young actors often revel in the chance to crush a funny line reading out of the park. After you hear someone call another person a ‘bitch ass punk ass bitch’ the twelfth time, that kind of diss tends to lose all meaning, if it even had any to begin with.”



Oh, No—Here Come the Oscars


At The Globe and Mail, Barry Hertz recaps who’s in and who’s out. Most exciting is the nomination of the Canadian documentary To Kill a Tiger. Hertz speaks with director Nisha Pahuja about what that nomination means. “We really made this as a group of women outside any ecosystem,” says Pahuja. “We don’t have distribution support anywhere in the world other than Canada. We’ve been doing this on our own. I found that initially really difficult and kept hoping that somebody would pick us up. But now that I’m here in this moment, I’m grateful for the experience that we had, because it’s allowed us to manage and run an awards campaign in the way that we want. Every film’s journey has its own story, and this is ours.”


At the Toronto Star, Peter Howell reports on the Oscar nominations, including those double omissions for Barbie and the unexpected score for America Ferrera, along with other notable noms: “Other pleasant nomination surprises included Annette Bening in best actress contention for the marathon swimming biopic Nyad (Jodie Foster has a best supporting actress nod for the same movie), Colman Domingo for best actor in the civil rights drama Rustin, and Jeffrey Wright for best actor and Sterling K. Brown for best supporting actor in American Fiction, a book world satire that seemed to be losing heat on the awards circuit of late,” writes Howell.


A Festival of Festival Coverage: The Sundance Kids (cont’d)


At the Toronto Star, Peter Howell shares his picks for the top films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. His favourites include Never Look Away, Thelma, and Skywalkers: A Love Story: “Not many films come with a trigger warning for people ‘sensitive to exposure at heights.’ It’s entirely justified by Jeff Zimbalist’s awesome documentary on rooftopping, the extremely dangerous and illegal sport of climbing the world’s tallest buildings for fun, social media notoriety and sponsorship money. He focuses on Russian couple Vanya Beerkus and Angela Nikolau, lovers and rooftoppers (they prefer the term skywalkers), who seek a new challenge to renew a romance that has soured from bickering, resentments and pandemic confinements,” writes Howell. “The doc becomes a real-life Mission: Impossible or 007 caper, as well as a battle against fear, pain and security guards. Skywalkers is so engrossing, it makes the movie cliché about ‘edge of your seat’ viewing seem like an understatement.”


Canada’s Top Ten


At The Gate, Andrew Parker recaps the selections, which include his picks for two of 2023’s top Canadian titles: “Meredith Hama-Brown’s debut feature [Seagrass] about an unhappy family trying to muddle their way through a retreat meant to strengthen the marriage at its core, is (for this writer, anyway) the finest and most thought provoking Canadian film of the year; a moving look at how children process their parents’ unhappiness,” writes Parker. “Neck and neck with Brown’s film for title of the year’s overall best in Canadian cinema is Sophie Dupuis’ stylish and emotionally potent, Solo which follows a queer drag performer (the always wonderful Théodore Pellerin) who strikes up a potentially destructive relationship with the new guy in town (a brilliantly cocky Félix Maritaud).”


At What She Said, Anne Brodie reports on the tribute to Charles Officer: “Officer, a beloved Toronto filmmaker leaves a remarkable legacy of stories on the hometown Black experience, award-winning stories of empathy and character. TIFF Lightbox hosts a celebration of his life and work Sunday during its Canada’s Top Ten showcase with Officer’s Unarmed Verses, his Top Ten film, followed by a post-show discussion with some of his closest collaborators.”


TV Talk/Series Stuff


At What She Said, Anne Brodie keeps apace with Expats: “Crammed with storylines that mix and mingle, the pace is beyond driven. Mercy [Ji-Young Yoo] says Hong Kong is dying, and the entire early chapters are set in a wind-whipped and wet typhoon raining havoc on the city, adding symbolic fuel to Mercy’s prediction.”


At Exclaim!, Rachel Ho also digs into Expats: “Rather than brush such matters under the rug and set Expats in another time, Beijing-born Wang applies an unexpected directness. While public figures around the world continue to step lightly around any issues concerning the Chinese government, especially in relation to Hong Kong and Taiwan, Wang makes a clear statement through the series,” notes Hot. “As Margaret, Hilary and Mercy live their lives, we see the protest play out through newscasts, comments from waiters and, most prominently, in the penultimate episode, ‘Central 中環,’ which is the stand-out episode of the series.”


At CBC, Jackson Weaver takes flight with Masters of the Air: “It’s more than understandable why the series, filmed now nearly a century after its subject took place, no longer includes first-hand testimony as its predecessors did. But without them, Masters of the Air takes a complete tonal shift,” notes Weaver. “Where Band of Brothers‘ commentary and The Pacific’s tactical maps and mission outlines bookending its episodes helped tack on a certain sense of solemnity and awe, Masters of the Air has given over completely to just another story using its historical context for entertainment.”