Members name the standout docs at this year’s festival.
TFCA Friday: Week of Jan. 29
January 29, 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 $100,000 Rogers Best Canadian Film Award is back and will be revealed at our public virtual gala on March 9. Applications are also open for the 2021 Cineplex Emerging Critic Award.
In Release this Week
Below Zero (dir. Lluís Quilez)
“Below Zero is an excellent Spanish action thriller that hopefully will not be overlooked under the radar,” says Gilber Seah at Afro Toronto.
The Dig (dir. Simon Stone)
“The Dig is marked by smart, superior acting, restrained emotions, and interesting characters from across classes,” observes Karen Gordon at Original Cin. “Maybe it’s the restraint, maybe it’s the distracting split of focus between the discovery of the treasure, and the characters’ personal lives, but for all of its positives, the film is, at key times, flat and lacks tension.”
“So many hearts aflutter!” cries Chris Knight at the National Post. “But for all the romantic trappings, the archeological bones of the story remain solid.”
“Mingled with the story of the discovery, excavation and the fate of the treasures is a wealth of personal stories of the team. But they pale in comparison to the momentous discovery,” reflects Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“The problem—and the glorious thing—about The Dig is its subject, the discovery and initial excavation of the largest archaeological project in British history,” writes Marc Glassman at Classical FM. “Kudos must go to director Simon Stone, author John Preston, scriptwriter Moira Buffini and the actors for creating something entertaining and enlightening about such an unfashionable tale.”
“It’s a film about strangers becoming a community, and -Moira Buffini’s script – adapted from John Preston’s 2007 novel – builds a subtle metaphor about a nation banding together to go to war,” digs Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine.
“The Dig is my sleeper of the year!” declares Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “It is a meticulous, fresh and smart piece of filmmaking full of life, wonder and passion.”
“Mulligan and Fiennes honour these overlooked historical figures without any vanity,” writes Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “They imbue their characters with tones as natural as the film’s palette. Warm and muted, they are clearly cut from this Earth.”
“I don’t know how many subscribers actually interested in its mature story and top-level craft will be able to unearth it from their Holidate-choked queues, but here’s hoping some are willing to embark on the excavation,” says Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail on Netflix’s latest offering.
Finding Ohana (dir. Jude Weng)
“This silly version of a child’s Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn’t work!” cries Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Jiu Jitsu (dir. Dimitri Logothetis)
“I like a dopey action movie as much as anyone, but this one’s just exhausting,” groans Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine.
“Jiu Jitsu is the first bad film of 2021,” declares Thom Ernst at Original Cin. “It’s worth asking if [Nicolas] Cage has an agent vetting his scripts or if he appears in these films as a way of whittling down a long list of favours.”
Kenbe La: Until We Win (dir. Will Prosper; Feb. 1 🇨🇦)
“’I will fight to the death for Haiti.’ Director Prosper shows why and what has been done by poet and activist Alain Philoctète to achieve his life’s goal.” – Gilbert Seah, Afro Toronto
#Like (dir. Sarah Pirozek)
At Afro Toronto, Gilbert Seah sees “too many loose ends that, though explained, are too coincidental to be credible.”
The Little Things (dir. John Lee Hancock)
“The gritty and atmospheric tragedy got under my skin; the dark presence of a killer is palpable in every frame,” explains Anne Brodie at What She Said. “A horrifying opening sequence sets us up for a dark ride that gains momentum to a horrifying final twist.”
“The Little Things is all riddles, misdirection, stirring speeches, and gory crime scenes that add up to an appropriately grim and grimy offering that never carves out a unique identity of its own,” sighs Andrew Parker at The Gate.
“To a point, there’s a pleasure in revisiting this world with big-budget production values with shadowy textured cinematography from John Schwartzman (Seabiscuit) and the flesh-prickling score from Thomas Newman,” acknowledges Liam Lacey at Original Cin. “To quote an old diss, usually misaccredited to Samuel Johnson, the parts of The Little Things that are good aren’t original, and the parts that are original aren’t good.”
“Writer/director Hancock plays with the audience’s curiosity on the identity of the serial killer,” observes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “It is a clever game that works right up to the very end where one discovers finally that Hancock has the upper hand.”
“[R]arely does a screenplay spend so many decades in development hell without being completely reconceived in the process,” argues Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “But in its frozen-in-time sensibilities, its stubborn refusal to engage with the evolution of the police-procedural genre, The Little Things arrives with a deflated, why-bother sense of futility.”
“Washington is rock-solid as Deke, playing him as a broken man grasping at straws in search of redemption. But nothing else in the movie is up to his standard,” writes Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine.
“Malek is the most interesting of the bunch,” says Chris Knight at the National Post. “The film sets him up as Washington’s nemesis within the police force, and maybe even a bad guy, but watch how the screenplay from writer/director John Lee Hancock nimbly crafts a kind of grudging respect between the two men, even after they get off on the wrong foot.”
Palmer (dir. Fisher Stevens)
“Timberlake is engaging in the lead, undercutting Palmer’s decency with hints of a violent temper, but it’s frustrating to realize, as the movie goes along, that Stevens choose to make the least interesting version of this story,” observes Norm Wilner at NOW Magazine.
“A sold drama which stresses important American values, Palmer is an entertaining watch aided by solid delivery in all departments,” offers Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“With its heartwarming if legally dubious plot, Palmer is a weird hybrid that combines the man-overcomes-troubled-past storyline with the kid-who’s-different-finds-a-friend tale,” argues Chris Knight at the National Post.
At What She Said, Anne Brodie calls Palmer a “quiet gut-punch,” adding, “Steven’s direction is natural and organic, and subtle, things are left unsaid, giving space to the film’s emotional heft, telling a story that could have collapsed under sentimental weight.”
“Timberlake fares fine enough in his strong-and-mostly-silent role, displaying genuine chemistry with Wainwright,” notes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “But Timberlake is going to have to find a way back to filmmakers like David Fincher if he ever wants to make an actual go at this acting thing.”
Penguin Bloom (dir. Glendyn Ivin)
“[T]his isn’t some cutsey, bordering-on-laughable inspiration porn,” cautions Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “It is more patient, messy and dead-serious than its sight-gag of a poster might have you believe.”
“Penguin Bloom is a movie meant to wallow,” notes Jim Slotek at Original Cin. “Depending on your mood, the first act may be especially tough going, full of guilt and despair as Sam mourns for her body and ability, and the unfairness of the accident that took that all away.”
“The appearance of an injured magpie – whom the family calls Penguin because of its black and white colouring – helps her recovery,” writes Glenn Sumi at NOW Toronto. “Yes, Penguin Bloom – based on a real-life story – is every bit as maudlin as that premise sounds.”
“Penguin Bloom is a little simplistic, but it might also steal your heart like it’s a shiny trinket,” admits Chris Knight at the National Post.
“[T]hough predictable in its delivery, offers good performances by Weaver and Watts and some excellent Aussie cinematography,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“The title might already be taken, but it’s a shame they didn’t release Penguin Bloom as The Thieving Magpie,” admits Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “A cackling bird totally steals the show from Naomi Watts in this well-intentioned portrait of a woman at a crossroads.”
“Props to bird handler Paul Mander, whose eight avian ‘actors’ steal the show,” agrees Anne Brodie at What She Said.
Queen of the Black Magic (dir. Kimo Stanboel)
“Starting off with a few scares, director Stanboel steers his film to a full all-out terrifying climax that has to be seen to be believed,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Secret Marathon (dir. Kate McKenzie, Scott Townend 🇨🇦)
At Afro Toronto, Gilbert Seah calls it “a doc that reaffirms one’s faith in the good of people.”
True Mothers (dir. Naomi Kawase)
“[E]motions shown raw, but it is too slow a burn with the film running 2¼ hours. In 2018, Jeanne Herry’s film Pupille, which shows the emotional and personal pains of the entire adoptive process in France, achieved better results more efficiently and effectively,” observes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
You Will Die at Twenty (dir. Amjad Abu Alala)
“You Will Die at Twenty is Sudan’s Oscar submission for best international feature this year, and a beautiful, sombre parable it is,” writes Chris Knight at the National Post.
“[A] magnificent coming-of-age story set in a male dominated Sudanese society where director Alala proves that women can still come up strong,” praises Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“First-time director Abu Alala brings visually striking cinematography to this Sudan-set drama, which imbues the story with its heightened sense of fable,” observes Liam Lacey at Original Cin.
The State of the Biz
In a new Long Take, Jim Slotek reflects upon the ways in which COVID-19 movie theatre closures are changing the way we consume movies and think about the cinematic experience. “Is it possible the benighted 2020 was a landmark movie year – maybe even the year we could no longer deny the obvious?” asks Slotek. “To wit: a film needn’t be seen in a cinema to be “cinema.” Home is overwhelmingly where the audience is, even in non-viral times.”
At CBC, Eli Glasner looks at the state of award season in an unprecedented state for the industry:
— CBC Morning Live (@CBCMorningLive) January 29, 2021
TV Talk: True Crime and PR
At The Globe and Mail, Johanna Schneller looks at two stream-able shows, Flack and Call My Agent, which both depict a world that film critics know all too well: the public relations machine. But do the shows match the spin-doctor mania that happens IRL? “In fact, the very concept of handling stars feels like wrangling dinosaurs,” writes Schneller. “Mostly, the triumphs and transgressions of today’s celebs play out on social media, through strangers’ cellphones, in real time. Scandals – Armie Hammer’s cannibal accusation, Kellyanne Conway’s family chaos, Tom Cruise’s on-set rant – are crowd-sourced from social media posts and responses. The juice now is all raw material, unverified innuendo bubbling from Insta accounts such as Deux Moi. Old media, including tabloids, aren’t breaking stories – they’re catching up.”
At What She Said, Anne Brodie recommends The Pembrokeshire Murders, with special props for its lead: “Keith Allen as manipulative suspect John Cooper is absolutely nerve rattling; what a performance!” She also checks out Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, which we’ll be controversial for putting in the TV file, but would be remiss to omit McQueen’s “excellent” and “ambitious” work. For more crime drama, Brodie also chats with Kristin Kreuk of CBC’s hit series Burden of Truth.
Sundance Kids Go Virtual
At the Toronto Star, Peter Howell previews what to expect at the mostly virtual edition of Sundance this year. He also speaks with director Tabitha Jackson, who identifies the Sundance spark that keeps the festival going in a virtual space. “Connection. Community. Meaning-Making,” says Jackson. “I think the festival’s greatest strength is in the community of artists that believes in Sundance and trusts us to launch their work, and those first audiences who trust us to introduce exciting new independent work, distinctive voices and breakthrough talent that might set the conversation for the rest of the year.”
Premiering today at Sundance, Rebel Hearts is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser about a group of courageous nuns fighting for change in the 1960s. Pat Mullen at POV Magazine speaks with director Pedro Kos and producer Shawnee Isaac-Smith about their inspiring film with contemporary resonance. “We were not making a film about the ’60s. We were making a film about now,” says Kos. “What the IHMs fought for in the ’60s—to be a part of the world, to change the world, to be this force for good, and to empower women in power—we need to do that work now…It really is a film about change and how change happens.”
And check out some member reactions from opening night!
From the Archive – Manufactured Landscapes
There isn’t much Canadian content at Sundance this year. However, film buffs can revisit a Canuck hit from the festival, and Rogers Best Canadian Feature Award winner, Manufactured Landscapes on CBC Gem. The first in Jennifer Baichawl, Nick de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky’s environmental trilogy, Manufactured Landscapes wowed audiences from its opening shot.
Here is Adam Nayman at POV Magazine on that beauty of an opener:
The first shot of Jennifer Baichwal’s new documentary, Manufactured Landscapes, tracks slowly across the floor of a massive factory, passing hundreds of workers hunched dutifully over the day’s projects. After four minutes, you begin wondering if it’s a gag, if the shot has actually lapped itself. The rows and workers just keep on coming. The shot continues and continues and continues for ten minutes. It is one whole camera magazine, a cinematic eternity.
This trajectory may seem soporific, but not its effects. The fact of the factory’s small army and the suggestion of what they might cumulatively produce over the course of an afternoon (or a week or a month or a year) sets the viewer’s mind to buzzing: facts, figures, extrapolations. The camera never leaves the factory, but its implications are remarkably expansive. “The first shot,” says the film’s producer, Nick de Pencier, “is like a decompression chamber, from the outside world to the universe of this film. In it, you’re going to learn the rules of this film. It’s not Documentary 101.”