Members name the standout docs at this year’s festival.
TFCA Friday: Week of Jan. 8
January 8, 2021
Happy New Year! Welcome to TFCA Friday, a weekly round-up of film reviews and articles by TFCA critics
In Release this Week
Blizzard of Souls (dir. Dzintars Dreibergs)
It is “history that was being made with a solid story told from a personal point of view,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “Excellent direction and cinematography added on make Blizzard of Souls a strong contender for the Oscar for Best International Feature.”
Bright Hill Road (dir. Robert Cuffley; Jan. 12)
The “combination between the supernatural and the psychological elements does not work either, not to mention the tacked on silly happy ending,” admits Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Climate of the Hunter (dir. Mickey Reece; Jan. 12)
“[C]ould have done with more humour – black humour that would suit the situation at hand,” suggests Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Cockroach (dir. Ai Weiwei)
“One of the most stirring images in the film is that of a young protestor sitting on the ground after his arrest, his sweet face a picture of exhaustion and shock, his hair and clothes soaked by the water cannons,” observes Kate Taylor at The Globe and Mail. “He has risked everything to preserve civil rights in Hong Kong. Canada and its allies must now pick up the baton.”
Dear Comrades! (dir. Andrey Konchalovsky)
At What She Said, Anne Brodie calls it “stunning” and a “deeply affecting, fact-based story.”
The Dissident (dir. Bryan Fogel)
“Although The Dissident is, arguably, unnecessarily juiced-up with the editing and scoring of a Hollywood thriller, the excesses are balanced by the procedural rigour worthy of a crack prosecutor,” writes Liam Lacey at Original Cin.
“In fact, while [Fogel] lays out the facts of the murder in fascinating and grim detail, his film’s greatest achievement is to humanize the victim,” observes Chris Knight at the National Post.
“Khashoggi’s life, and the political history of Saudi Arabia, is juicy enough to carry a feature-length documentary,” says Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “Yet Fogel consistently employs the tactics of a spy movie to needlessly, annoyingly gussy things up, including a framing device that focuses on the Montreal-set exploits of Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz.”
Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto calls it “a furious doc that is both insightful and informative.”
“The result is a film that feels ambitious but under-baked, lacking the required rigour to truly shed light on the contradictions of Khashoggi’s life, the forces that continue to shape modern Saudi policy, and the global political fallout of his murder,” argues Jason Gorber at POV Magazine.
Emperor (dir. Mark Amin)
“Emperor is no 12 Years a Slave,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “[It] plays like a fiction action picture, easy to watch and quite entertaining, given what it is.”
Herself (dir. Phyllida Lloyd)
Chris Knight happily uses the film review cliché of calling it “a roller-coaster ride” at the National Post, adding, “It’s a little exhausting, but it does generate sympathy for a woman against whom the cards seem to be stacked.
I Blame Society (dir. Gillian Wallace Horvat)
At Afro Toronto, Gilbert Seah says the film has “a fascinating and fresh idea. But the concept can be complicated to deliver as the film proves.”
Knuckledust (dir. James Kermack)
“How good is Knuckledust?” asks Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “The Guardian calls it rubbish. But at least it is hilarious unforgettable rubbish.”
The Minimalists: Less Is More (dir. Matt D’Avella)
“The Minimalists: Less Is Now might just inspire you to pare down the things in your life to the essentials and concentrate on what’s really important,” writes Glenn Sumi at NOW Toronto. “It’s too bad the short doc comes up empty on new revelations.”
Monkey Beach (dir. Loretta Todd 🇨🇦)
“But when a movie truly hits, you shouldn’t have to stop and puzzle out ways to be generous,” admits Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “Monkey Beach is not the gift its filmmakers hoped it might be.”
“One never enjoys panning passion projects, but this years-in-the-making adaptation of Eden Robinson’s novel pales in comparison to its source,” sobs Pat Mullen at That Shelf.
Pieces of a Woman (dir. Kornél Mundruczó 🇨🇦)
Anne Brodie at What She Said calls is “a gripping and intimate drama about childbirth, love and loss. Vanessa Kirby, Shia LeBeouf and Ellen Burstyn create a claustrophobic, uncomfortable world, and we sit next to them in their small rooms as tragedy unfolds.
“I wish Pieces had done more with the momentum it built up during that bravura opening,” admits Chris Knight at the National Post. “It might have done better to focus even more narrowly on Kirby and her stellar performance.”
“There are many complex emotions and ideas simmering beneath the story in Pieces of a Woman, but the movie struggles to find a convincing balance between contemplative quietude and sentimental overkill,” observes Kevin Ritchie at NOW Toronto.
“Grief becomes a palpable, resonant, looming weight on this family,” writes Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “Pieces of a Woman is a film that audiences will feel in their bones.”
“Pieces of a Woman earns its place as being one of the most talked about films of the year,” argues Andrew Parker at The Gate. “Its message about allowing people to process trauma at their own pace is one of the most poignant ever put to film.”
“Showcases the acting performances of the apt cast,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “Everyone is almost perfect here, though the subject matter proves a difficult watch throughout.”
“Kirby, through what seems like sheer determination and teeth-gritting strength, transcends what is offered to her, and to Martha. Both performer and character come out the other end of the film changed, renewed,” notes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
Shadow in the Cloud (dir. Roseanne Liang)
“A bonkers monster movie, with more than a little DNA from the classic Twilight Zone episode ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,’ Shadow in the Cloud takes the ‘gremlin’ mythos back to its wartime source,” writes Jim Slotek at Original Cin. “And it gives Chloë Grace Moretz her most kick-ass role since, well, 2010’s Kick-Ass.”
“When its scope widens around an hour in, Shadow in the Cloud gets more cartoonish than seems comfortable, trading its uneasy metaphors for a series of not-entirely-shocking twists and wildly over-the-top action sequences that are undeniably entertaining, but also a little disappointing,” admits Norm Wilner at NOW Toronto.
Soros (dir. Jesse Dylan)
“Through a series of interviews with fans and skeptics alike, Dylan paints a complex, sympathetic picture of the man, providing refreshing context to a fascinating, divisive and impactful individuals from the last century,” observes Jason Gorber at POV Magazine.
Stars Fell on Alabama (dir. V.W. Scheich)
“90 minutes of excruciating clichés to sit through before the two come together as a couple,” according to Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
The White Tiger (dir. Ramin Bahrani; in select theatres, on Netflix Jan. 22)
“[Adarsh] Gourav is terrific, showing us the dark recesses of human malevolence sparked by insecurity,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said.
Words on Bathroom Walls (dir. Thor Freudenthal; Jan. 12)
“What is most fascinating about the story is its treatment of the two central teen characters – both with problems with their personalities, the two learn(ing) from each other, their personalities transform(ing),” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
TV Time: Hooray for (Swear) Words!
At What She Said, Anne Brodie looks at two new doc series on Netflix about the power of words: History of Swear Words, starring Nicolas Cage, and Pretend It’s a City, which reunites Fran Lebowitz with Martin Scorsese. On the latter, she writes, “The 70- year old’s on-the-mark observations about life in the world’s busiest city are gems of imagination, word usage, speed and fancy, what Oscar Wilde might have been, had he been born a woman in New Jersey.”
At POV Magazine, Pat Mullen raves about Pretend It’s a City: “It’s the most social documentary, so to speak, in recent memory. On one hand, Pretend It’s a City is an engaging portrait of Fran Lebowitz, but on the other, it’s an essential time capsule of pre-COVID city life. I haven’t laughed so heartily and consistently since 2019.”
At NOW Toronto, Norm Wilner says Nic Cage “is the fucking shit” whenever he pops up in History of Swear Words, noting, “This could have been nothing more than a goof; that show where an Oscar-winning actor delivers a monologue of memorable F-bombs designed to go viral on social media. But it’s a little more than that. It’s pretty damn engaging.” On Pretend It’s a City, he doesn’t find the gift for language quite as colourful, writing, “It’s not that Lebowitz isn’t making good points. It’s that she makes them all in the exact same way fashion, and editor David Tedeschi – who cuts all of Scorsese’s documentaries – doesn’t do anything to disguise that.”
Looks Like Rain: The Year to Come
At The Globe and Mail, Barry Hertz lists 21 films to look forward to in 2021 including Denis Villeneuve’s Dune and Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog.
Is a return to theatrical moviegoing in the forecast? Norm Wilner at NOW Toronto looks at the year ahead after months of COVID closures.
From the Archive – Crashing Cannes
In this new addition to the TFCA Weekly, one Canadian film gets a retrospective spotlight from the TFCA vault.
David Cronenberg’s Crash was released in a 4K restoration over the summer and a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection in December. Here’s what Brian D. Johnson wrote about the film at Maclean’s following its controversial 1996 Cannes premiere:
In the seaside town that the movie industry turns into Babylon on the Riviera for two weeks each May, almost nothing comes as a shock. No one, however, was quite prepared for Cronenberg’s Crash—an utterly bizarre movie about characters who have an erotic addiction to crashing cars. Films competing for the festival’s coveted Palme d’or ranged from the Coen brothers’ black-humored Fargo, set in the snows of Minnesota, to Bernardo Bertolucci’s languorous Stealing Beauty, set in the Tuscan hills. But landing on the climactic Friday night of the festival, Crash’s austere excursion into expressway sex in Toronto was the competition’s most hotly anticipated entry—and by far the most provocative. It left audiences stunned, disturbed and wondering what they were supposed to think…
In fact, Crash belongs to a genre for which there is no prototype. It could be confused with pornography, in that it contains perhaps as much sex as dialogue—at least a dozen sexual acts, mostly in vehicles. The film opens, with three sex sequences in a row, beginning with a scene of [Deborah Kara] Unger placing her breast against the enamelled fuselage of an airplane. But unlike porn, Crash does not titillate. It is so cool, so exquisitely composed and so cerebral in its immaculate design that it is almost impossible to empathize with the characters—to embrace their fantasies.