Reviews include Across the Spider-Verse, Bones of Crows, and Close to Vermeer.
TFCA Friday: Week of Nov. 13
November 13, 2020
Welcome to TFCA Friday, a weekly round-up of film reviews and articles by TFCA critics
In Release this Week
Ammonite (dir. Francis Lee)
“Francis Lee’s forbidden-love story in 1840s England is vital and austere, not unlike the fossilized sea creature that gives the film its title and poignant symbol,” observes Peter Howell at the Toronto Star.
“[Winslet’s] excellence in the role of a fierce cigar-smoking, barrier-breaking woman, suddenly transfixed by love, is to the top standards of acting, while Ronan’s quiet passion burns the screen,” says Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“Subtlety and mystery are the two elements that elevate Francis Lee’s (God’s Own Country) Ammonite to one of the best films this year,” raves Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“Lee has produced an engaged and carefully constructed study in loneliness, ambition, and the grossly destructive power of the patriarchy,” writes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “But given that Lee has also set out to film a romance, Ammonite is as far from the qualities of passion and yearning as Anning’s fossils are from the Jurassic era.”
“Ammonite is a visually beautiful movie,” notes Karen Gordon at Original Cin. “Lee and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine approach each shot with an artist’s eye.”
“Ammonite is the type of film that can tell more with images, body language, and glances than most epic novels could manage with thousands of words,” argues Andrew Parker at The Gate.
“As he did in God’s Own Country, Lee shapes his film’s love story through disdain and exasperation, Mary treating the calm, unwavering Charlotte harshly and with cruelty, simply because she sees something in the younger woman that she cannot abide in herself,” writes Norm Wilner at NOW Toronto.
“But ultimately the whole was-she-wasn’t-she is a mild addition to the film’s other issues, including some unfortunate parallels with the fantastic French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire (even the script on the posters is similar) that find Ammonite wanting,” observes Chris Knight at the National Post.
Billie (dir. James Erskine)
“Erskine’s film takes a double-pronged approach to the world of archival documentary,” writes Pat Mullen at POV Magazine. “On one hand, it uses a treasure trove of materials to explore the life of a singer in details. On the other, it wonders what happened to the curious journalist who asked questions that some of Holiday’s friends and colleagues would have rather avoided.”
Chick Fight (dir. Paul Leydon)
At Afro Toronto, Gilbert Seah says it is “good only for a few laughs.”
The Climb (dir. Michael Angelo Covino)
“If esteemed French filmmaker Éric Rohmer were still alive today, and he decided to make a movie about modern dude-bros, the result might look something like The Climb, which is the most European feeling American comedy in quite some time,” dit Andrew Parker chez The Gate.
“The result is a very particular kind of male friendship, seen as in a funhouse mirror,” says Chris Knight at the National Post. “We might never have been in Mike’s shoes or Kyle’s, but we may have come close, or secretly yearned for one of their cathartic brawls.”
“There’s a lot to love about the film, the real-life friendship that carries it, the incredibly satisfying long takes, the witty conversation, and unbelievable situations that happen because, you know, life,” observes Anne Brodie at What She Said.
It’s “totally enjoyable fresh entertainment, demonstrating that smart and funny always works,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Come Away (dir. Brenda Chapman)
“It’s a sweet story, with magnetic performances from the children and a graceful, slightly removed turn by Jolie to allow focus on the young ones,” notes Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“Come Away might be too bleak and heady for many kids and too fantastical for cynical adults,” advises Andrew Parker at The Gate. “But for anyone who can find a sweet spot between those settings and has no qualms about Chapman’s literary influences being vastly rewritten is in for a genuine treat.”
“Awash in good intentions and weighed down by its grim premise, Come Away is a fantasy that fails to inspire, despite its star power (including David Oyelowo and Angelina Jolie) and occasionally clever flourishes,” admits Jim Slotek at Original Cin.
“Chapman appears to go for glossy sappiness and a half-baked plot where the idea of a budding Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan never comes to full fruition,” observes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Dating Amber (dir. David Freyne)
Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto calls it a “well-meaning coming out, coming-of-age comedy.”
“In a normal year, this would have been one of the biggest breakouts of the Inside Out festival… but this isn’t a normal year,” suggests Norm Wilner at NOW Toronto.
At The Gate, Andrew Parker says, “Dating Amber is first and foremost about the pressures faced by closeted young adults living in resoundingly hetero communities, but Freyne never leaves it at that, preferring to depict his two likable heroes as complicated individuals with numerous neuroses and responsibilities.”
Dinner with Friends (dir. Nicol Paone)
“2020 has left many of us pining for reunions with friends and family, but the borderline unbearable and distressingly unfunny star-studded comedy Dinner with Friends might make anyone unfortunate enough to see it prefer their alone time,” grumbles Andrew Parker at The Gate.
“People take things far with one another, much alcohol is drunk, secrets burst forth, and so on. Then out come the magic mushrooms,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said.
Fireball (dir. Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer)
“Herzoggian wonder is as wide and expansive as the universe, so stargazers should relish his latest consideration of life’s meanings,” observes Pat Mullen at POV Magazine. Jason Gorber chats with Herzog and Oppenheimer about their partnership, David Attenborough, and the end of the world. You can read the interview in full in POV’s new issue.
“Oppenheimer does most of the heavy lifting in talking with experts, with Herzog offering frequently deadpan narration that almost upends the entire production,” notes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
“[A]s with many of his later documentaries – Into The Inferno included – Fireball feels somewhat tossed off, its occasional insights fighting to be noticed amongst a bunch of stuff Herzog thinks will please the punters who’ve come to watch him do his thing,” writes Norm Wilner at NOW Toronto.
First We Eat (dir. Suzanne Crocker 🇨🇦)
“It’s certainly not for the squeamish at times (with full on animal butchery explored, moments of palpable hunger, and a method for creating natural salt that’s certainly outside the box), but the film also isn’t about Crocker’s experiment succeeding or failing,” writes Andrew Parker at The Gate. “It’s about making an honest effort honestly.”
“To what extent is she doing all this less for her children than for herself?” asks Susan G. Cole at POV Magazine. “She really wants them to know the provenance of what they consume and to eat mindfully, but is she imposing too much on the brood?”
Freaky (dir. Christopher Landon)
“Landon openly riffs on that long-plundered staple of weekend-afternoon viewing, the body-swap movie – just with a lot more arterial spray and bifurcated bodies,” says Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
“[T]he opening scene of Freaky amounts to a standard slasher movie in miniature, complete with an urban legend, a masked murderer, horny teens, sex, death and jump scares, all in a little under 10 minutes,” writes Chris Knight at the National Post.
“The problem with high-concept ideas is that the expectation for something brilliant heats up long before the popcorn is even ready to be salted,” pops Thom Ernst at Original Cin.
“It’s witty, fun, iconoclastic and fresh, and loaded with sharp social commentary,” laughs Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“After getting off to a madcap and pleasingly bloody start, the body swapping and slasher movie mash-up Freaky peaks early before dying a painfully slow and unfunny death,” reports Andrew Parker at The Gate.
“[I]t’s a crafty little mash-up, infusing another kind of story with instantly recognizable horror tropes, and seeing what the two genres can do together,” says Norm Wilner at the Georgia Straight.
Hillbilly Elegy (dir. Ron Howard)
“I grew up 500 miles from Vance’s childhood home in Middleton, Ohio, and farther still from the Kentucky stronghold of his ‘hill people’ ancestors,” writes Chris Knight at the National Post. “But I connected immediately to the importance of family ties, and the way you can divide clans into two sorts.”
“Glenn Close and Amy Adams could easily win nominations for their work,” says Anne Brodie at What She Said. “Director Ron Howard says his family has roots in Appalachia and that’s what drew him to the story.”
“Make no mistake: Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy is a bad film, inert and clichéd and largely devoid of cinematic imagination,” argues Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “But it’s not a problematic film. Or as culturally incendiary a production as the internet predicted.”
Peter Howell (and most of Film Twitter) agrees:
HILLBILLY ELEGY (⭐1/2): Director Ron Howard, ever the earnest Opie, presents title tome as the anti-Mayberry, a place where southern stereotypes go to die. Glenn Close and Amy Adams act their hearts out, unlike the inert Gabriel Basso, but Oscar ain't making this whistle stop. pic.twitter.com/Bmgm5Uceue
— Peter Howell (@peterhowellfilm) November 11, 2020
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (dir. David E. Talbert)
“Overall, Jingle Jangle has a thrift shop style of irrepressible clutter, including some ideas that are blatantly derivative.” – Liam Lacey, Original Cin.
“A Christmas film where an all-white cast is NOT the norm, but it is a welcome change – thank you Netflix for offering filmmakers a chance to make a difference.” – Gilbert Seah, Afro Toronto.
“An unabashed and infectious slice of seasonal song and dance cheese, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey – a title that makes me giggle a little every time I have to say it out loud – is on the high side of family friendly holiday movie expectations.” – Andrew Parker, The Gate.
Jonathan Scott’s Power Trip (dir. Jonathan Silver Scott, Edward Osei-Gyimah)
“As a primer on the fight for energy choice, Jonathan Scott’s Power Trip is decent enough. As a documentary, this feels like a draft for something better,” admits Andrew Parker at The Gate.
Jungleland (dir. Max Winkler)
“A sturdy reminder of the power of rough-and-tumble actors engaging in rough-and-tumble matters,” says Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
The Life Ahead (dir. Edoardo Ponti)
“Ultimately, Ponti’s film survives on the one surprise that’s not much of a surprise at all: the power and majesty of his lead actress,” concludes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “And how did the director score such a casting coup? You’d have to ask his mother…Sophia Loren.” Hertz also chats with Ponti about how directing Momma Sophia.
At What She Said, Anne Brodie calls it “a heart-tugging tale made devastating by Loren’s endless talent for understatement and dignity.” She also interviews the iconic Sophia Loren and her son/director Edoardo Ponti about working together and finding strength.
“If you crave predictability in these crazy times, you may enjoy The Life Ahead, a heartstring-tugging drama from Italy that pulls no punches and offers few surprises,” says Chris Knight at the National Post.
“If the intergenerational drama of The Life Ahead echoes with familiarity, however, it’s because it uses a reliable mould,” notes Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “This touching two-hander has universal themes about empathy, compassion, and being a responsible citizen of the world.”
“Loren might be the biggest star, and Gueye might be the standout leading character, but together they make The Life Ahead into a refined sort of tearjerker that rises above its melodramatic status,” writes Andrew Parker at The Gate.
“Loren is the prime reason to watch the Netflix distributed Italian movie The Life Ahead,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Martin Eden (dir. Pietro Marcello)
“The period piece is beautifully shot by cinematographers Francesco Di Giacomo and Alessandro Abate, featuring hot new Italian star Luca Marinelli in the title role – all reasons to see this lavish production,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“It’s a full-blooded interpretation of London’s character,” says Pat Mullen on Marinelli’s performance at That Shelf.
“A polished and sweeping literary world character study, Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello’s Martin Eden is a tale of meteoric rises and spectacular falls, just not in the way most people imagine them,” notes Andrew Parker at The Gate.
“The politics of Martin Eden are something of a puzzle,” observes Liam Lacey at Original Cin. “By the last third of the film, Martin, riding in flashy suits behind his chauffeur, has become an insufferable intellectual fraud and a nihilist.”
“Italian director Marcello’s searing adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel speaks urgently to the ways poverty, class and free-market capitalism clear a path for self-serving, ideologically confused demagoguery,” writes Kevin Ritchie at NOW Toronto.
“This is a film with gravitas and historical sweep to it; though not perfect by any means, it’s a reminder of how very good art-house cinema can be,” notes Marc Glassman at Classical FM.
“I didn’t see anything like it in 2019, and I feel confident 2020 guarantees the same thing,” raves Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel (dir. Jennifer Abbott, Joel Bakan 🇨🇦)
Marc Glassman at POV Magazine calls it “a must-see if only to remind us to avoid the empty messages of hope provided by slick corporate entities.” Also at POV, Pat Mullen speaks with directors Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott about following-up their hit film and dealing with COVID cuts.
“The election of Donald Trump, who himself ticks a lot of boxes on that psychopath test, wasn’t even the apex of things; now we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, the spread of which was and continues to be encouraged by people who’ve been turned against science by conspiracy theories on Facebook,” observes Norm Wilner at NOW Toronto.
“On a personal and political level, I agree with pretty much everything being said in The New Corporation down to the letter,” writes Andrew Parker at The Gate. “I don’t think it’s a good documentary. I also don’t think it goes far enough.”
“The directors have assembled impressive footage as well as important interviewees and subjects,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“The gut-wrenching Canadian documentary The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel looks at the relentless, destructive movement of corporations into government and civic/social and cultural policy,” notes Anne Brodie at What She Said.
“Pitch your tale too bleakly and you risk turning off viewers with a no-hope message. Paint a rosy picture and people may feel absolved of the need to act. The New Corporation ends, as do many modern documentaries, with a solemn refrain: There is more to be done,” concludes Chris Knight at the National Post.
Our Time Machine (dir. Yang Sun, S. Leo Chiang)
“The world Maelonn creates is beautiful and strange, its tactile clockwork design functioning as a physical analogue for the mechanics of the human brain, and I can totally understand why the filmmakers are so beguiled by it,” observes Norm Wilner at NOW Toronto.
A Rainy Day in New York (dir. Woody Allen)
“A Rainy Day in New York arrives today like a desperate, frequently nauseating plea to Make America Woody Again: an invitation to both absolve the filmmaker of unspecified transgressions and to get lost in a world where everyone is fabulously witty and wealthy and worth your attention,” writes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
“The only surprise of A Rainy Day in New York is Woody Allen’s apparent lack of interest in young people,” quips Pat Mullen at That Shelf.
Saint Frances (dir. Alex Thompson)
“The characters are well-written, they eventually figuring out for themselves what is wrong and how to deal with their problems,” observes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“Performance is the key to the film’s success and the team of Thompson and O’Sullivan have chosen wisely, not relying on famed names but simply on fine actors, who know how to fill in a person’s life in two minutes,” writes Marc Glassman at Classical FM.
At What She Said, Anne Brodie calls it “funny and challenging, complex and at times transcendent.”
“For about the first thirty minutes or so, it seems like Saint Frances is destined to be a likable enough riff on such a familiar story,” notes Andrew Parker at The Gate, “but Thompson and O’Sullivan gradually keep adding a tremendous amount of depth the longer they spend with these characters and their complicated situations.”
“Playing a shiftless thirtysomething who stumbles onto something resembling purpose after taking a babysitting gig, O’Sullivan is a genuine find, charming and sincere,” says Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail.
Truth is the Only Client (dir. Todd Kwait and Rob Stegman)
“I’m not going to tell you what the filmmakers concluded, but I will encourage you to watch this utterly riveting and important doc,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said about this JFK assassination doc.
TV: The Crown and Christmas
“If you think the Roys play a mean game of Boar on the Floor, wait until you see the Royals!” exclaims Pat Mullen while reviewing the fourth season of The Crown at That Shelf, calling it the best installment yet in Netflix’s hit series.
“Emma Corrin is a deeply naive Lady Diana Spencer, who catches Prince Charles’ eye at the Spencer estate,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said on The Crown’s hotly anticipated take on Princess Di.
The highlight of this season of The Crown is easily Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher. Johanna Schneller at The Globe and Mail talks with Anderson about bringing the Iron Lady to life.
Gearing up for Yuletide cheer, Gilbert Seah previews the LEGO Star Wars Holiday Special, saying, “The filmmakers put outlandish comedy over action in the film and it works!” Anne Brodie at What She Said gets into the holiday spirit with Lifetime’s The Christmas Edition, calling it, “pure holiday gingerbread infused escapism.”
On the new series Inside Pixar, Gilbert Seah calls it “an inspiring look at how the Pixar animators and staff obtain their inspiration [and] includes clips of the latest Pixar films – Soul and Luca.”
Festember – a month/season of film festivals!
Toronto’s Reel Asian Film Festival kicked off yesterday with the doc Down a Dark Stairwell, which Andrew Parker at The Gate called, “an uncomfortable, depressing, and unmissable snapshot of police violence and what it means to be a person of colour today.” He also checks out Dust and Ashes, Mogul Mowgli, Moving On, and The Taste of Pho.
At NOW Toronto, Norm Wilner offers his picks for Reel Asian, which include a live reading of the adaptation of Catherine Hernandez’s Scarborough.
Checking out some films at DOC NYC, Pat Mullen at POV Magazine recommends The Last Out from Toronto’s Sami Khan and 9to5 from 2019 TFCA Award winners Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar.
Books and Biz
Barry Hertz peruses the shelves to look at two new film books about great auteurs: one on Martin Scorsese and one on Paul Thomas Anderson by TFCA member Adam Nayman. Get the latter at Abrams Books.
Hertz also has two must-read pieces on changes in the industry: one looks at Ontario’s doing away with film ratings (a Ford government decision that’s actually drawing applause?) and one with Susan Krashinsky Robertson that looks at how Hollywood is scrambling to balance its business model when theatres are closed (or might as well be, given audience numbers) and viewers at home expect cheap streaming.