An interview with Swan Song director Chelsea McMullan about their Rogers Best Canadian Documentary nominee on Karen Kain’s Swan Lake.
TFCA Friday: Week of Nov. 3
November 3, 2023
Welcome to TFCA Friday, a weekly round-up of film reviews and articles by TFCA members.
In case you missed it: We announced our full dates and category updates for this year’s TFCA Awards, including news that we will now have two prizes honouring the best in Canadian cinema with the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award and the Rogers Best Canadian Documentary Award. Both awards carry a cash purse of $50,000, courtesy of Rogers.
In Release this Week!
Anything for Fame (dir. Tyler Funk; Nov. 8 🇨🇦)
“Kids these days! Some social media ‘superstars’ have made lots of money by posting themselves in shockworthy situations, harming themselves, showing their bodies, carrying out ultra-dangerous stunts, and letting their exhibitionist selves shine. There’s a perception that influencers – those with consistent volumes of “likes” – are powerful and wealthy. It’s true – some are,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “Ok, I need a shower.”
Beyond Utopia (dir. Madeline Gavin)
“The doc boasts that nothing is seen on the screen are re-enactments,” notes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “Everything appearing onscreen is actual footage. All sorts of secret cameras were used, including flip phones; one doc that would surely open one’s eyes to the horrors that mankind still install for the sake of power.”
“Gavin’s crew shot secretly inside North Korea, using flip phones, netting horrific images of everyday life and following the family’s trek,” observes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “We meet clandestine ‘brokers’ in North Korea and China, including Pastor Kim has helped 1,000 defectors, risking his and his family’s lives. Gavin’s courageous work, putting one of the worst, most dangerous countries in the world under the microscope is essential viewing. Just breathtaking.”
“This is crazy stuff. North Korea is a nation that appropriated the Christ narrative for its Dear Leader, then banned all Bibles so no one would figure out the government-sanctioned plagiarism,” adds Chris Knight at Original Cin. “It’s a country where you’re liable to be punished if you don’t have a picture of Kim Jong-un in your house, or if a surprise government inspection finds it dusty. One escapee, now living in South Korea, tells how the government collects all human waste to use as fertilizer, making poo theft a common and dastardly crime. I’m honestly not sure which of these threads I found more fascinating.”
“Gavin packs the story with heart-pounding suspense as she follows three narratives of defectors. The key figure in the doc in Pastor Seungeun Kim, a Seoul-based man of faith eager to facilitate escape. The film connects with people in Kim’s network, like Soyeon Lee, who defected from North Korea a decade ago,” writes Pat Mullen at POV Magazine. “She hopes to reunite with the son she had to leave behind. There’s also the five-member Ro family, who travel in a group with two children and their grandmother. By observing Pastor Kim and two key stories, Gavin’s film captures the danger of the great escape.”
Crush: Message in a Bottle (dir. Maya Gallus 🇨🇦)
“Gallus’s film concentrates on four key individuals, who are influential in the province’s Niagara district, where wine-growing has become plentiful…At a precise pace, Gallus follows each of them, mainly in duos, as the beauty of Ontario’s farmland is evoked while the camera shows the lush fields which are yielding extraordinary crops,” notes Marc Glassman at POV Magazine. “With a discerning directorial eye… she offers us the type of unique individuals who are making Ontario’s wines a true success.”
Fingernails (dir. Christos Nikous)
“The general premise of Fingernails presents a multitude of questions ripe for thoughtful discussion, especially given the prevalence of AI, algorithms and dating apps. Initially, Nikou’s script explores the inherent themes and consequences of the institute and testing with careful consideration — but for as intriguing as the premise is, its mileage is apparently low,” notes Rachel Ho at Exclaim!. “Rather than digger deeper into the social, practical and philosophical ramifications, Fingernails gets bogged down in its semi-love triangle, which not only weakens the film as a whole, but also cheapens the original idea.”
Ghosts of the Void (dir. Jason Miller)
“A well-made combination of horror drama and thriller, Ghosts of the Void is proof that a simple premise story without any need for the supernatural can result in a tense horror film,” observes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Hands That Bind (dir. Kyle Armstrong 🇨🇦)
“Creepy and spellbinding, the Prairie Gothic film Hands That Bind is set in middle-of-nowhere Alberta during the recession of the early 1980s,” notes Chris Knight at Original Cin. “Canadian writer/director Kyle Armstrong has crafted an unsettling narrative that manages to weave together dreamlike images with an actual plot – this isn’t one of those atmosphere-and-nothing-else thrillers. I was reminded of Jordan Peele’s Nope more than once, and also of Jonathan Glazer’s excellent sci-fi horror Under the Skin.”
“A cow is found dead and meticulously defaced, and later found high up in a tree. Strange goings-on seem to comment on the characters’ chaos. Neighbour Dave (Bruce Dern) is the Greek chorus, enumerating things that happened and what they might mean,” writes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “There’s much going on in this quiet world with shattering twists. Edmonton writer/director Kyle Armstrong shot the film where he grew up and shows his deep understanding of that world, and brings a Gothic doomsday vibe.”
“Director Armstrong has a good feel for his material and his film comes across as genuine and authentic,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “The drama is never overdone and much of it can be seen from the undertones of the scenes rather than huge outbursts from the characters.”
Helen’s Dead (dir. K. Asher Levin)
“A reporter is en route to do a story on Leila’s entertaining style when all heck breaks loose including an intrusion by an angry Henry (Tyrese Gibson) demanding money. The steak tartar served for dinner grosses out the guests and Leila hustles it to the garbage, someone poisons the co-host’s drink, and a guest falls out a window so you see, chaos. Except it IS chaos thanks to plot holes and staccato pacing. It doesn’t pull together like a good bread dough but falls apart like a dry meringue,” sighs Anne Brodie at What She Said.
The Holdovers (dir. Alexander Payne)
“And while Hunham and Tully initially butt heads, what wins out is an odd couple Christmas movie for the ages as they eventually take a generously defined “academic field trip” to Boston; a coming of age for both characters so stunted by off-screen, early life desertion,” says Jackson Weaver at the CBC. “As it takes place in the weeks between 1970 and ’71, The Holdovers also stands as one of the vanishingly few quality New Year’s movies and itself feels a bit like turning over a new leaf. It is my new favourite movie of the year.”
“[T]here’s something magical about The Holdovers that transcends its despondent circumstances, not unlike traditional seasonal offerings A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life,” notes Peter Howell at the Toronto Star. “Payne’s film has the potential to likewise become both a comedy and Yuletide classic.” Howell also interviews director Alexander Payne: “Because I don’t want to explain. Not to sound pretentious, but the creative act is kind of unconscious: it’s conscious but unconscious,” Payne tells Howell. “And I don’t want to define it or be defined by it, because I always want my next movie to be something different. Even if it’s going to wind up being the same, I want to think it’s different.”
“As you might guess, Giamatti gets the best and funniest lines. But Randolph’s grief, anger and sarcasm, combined with Sessa’s touching loose-cannon performance, turns the trio of misanthropes into a team – for one shining moment, anyway,” says Jim Slotek at Original Cin. “The Holdovers is a modest gem, in keeping with Payne’s penchant for making damaged people believable and relatable.”
“[A]n updated variation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in which the miser is replaced by a very strict and unflinching schoolmaster whose past catches up with him with the help of a troublesome student who eventually brings out the man’s good side,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto. “The film is both sad and funny with Paul Giamatti (already an Oscar nominee in Cinderella Man) delivering a career-best Oscar-[worthy] performance.”
“It is difficult to think of any other performer than Giamatti pushing the character to the sympathetic side of that ledger,” notes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “Just as good, though, is the perpetually underestimated Randolph, who gives Mary a quiet and determined kind of no-nonsense strength. Having lost her only son to the Vietnam War – he’s the lone Barton student to have died in the conflict, thanks to every other family being able to buy their way out – Mary could be a chore of a role, a weeping-mother caricature of pity. Yet Randolph is too sharp to play that game, as is David Hemingson’s script. Together with Payne, they create something funny, sharp and stirring.” Hertz also speaks with director Alexander Payne about his relationship with star Paul Giamatti: “It was a little bit in aspic. We had an awesome time doing Sideways and stayed in touch, but then it dwindles. But we always knew we were going to work together again.”
“Giamatti’s performance reminds a viewer of his best work while proving that he’s one of the best actors in the medium,” writes Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “He finds the perfect meeting point between character actor and star here, creating a fallible anti-hero who could easily be repulsive on the page and yet is immediately endearing on screen. In his hands, Professor Paul Hunnam delivers his first true master class. This performance is one for the books.”
Hurricane Season (dir. Elisa Miller)
“[H]as the perfect moody and horror atmosphere rich with superstition and mystery of a poor Mexican village where the village folk have nothing better to do but create trouble for each other; film also contains a breakout performance by putting teem Palma Alvamar as she comes-of-age amidst all the turmoil,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Jezabel (dir. Hernán Jabes Aquila; Nov. 7)
“Director Jabes’ films his debut feature as an artistic and stylish thriller in nonlinear mode – intercutting his story in flashbacks. The film is in reality a whodunit with lots of distractions,” notes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Locked In (dir. Nour Wazzi)
“[T]he film is prevented from being the tithe black thrilling psychological drama it could have been, instead it is a largely unbelievable piece of fictional horror that comes with a slasher ending,” says Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Nuovo Olimpo (dir. Ferzan Ozpetek)
“The concept of love through the ages – time and space will not get in the way of love (this appears to be the message in the film) – a poetic and aspiring one comes instead quite forced and if one examines the film and story more carefully as it unfolds, quite unbelievable and clichéd, including the scene when Pietro appear to Enea by the window of a passing train,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Nyad (dir. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin)
“Thirty years before the story begins, the long-distance swimming world champ gave up the gruelling, dangerous 161 km solo swim from Cuba to Florida and became a sports broadcaster,” says Anne Brodie at What She Said. “In 2010 at the age of 60, she determined to try again and finish, and without a shark cage. She trained against doubt and discouragement because of her age, but Nyad thrives when faced with a challenge. Annette Bening who plays Nyad spent much of last year in the water, recreating the swim. Sure she didn’t do the ‘Mount Everest’ of swims, but used her own iron will in this profoundly physical role. By her side is Jodie Foster as coach and best friend Bonnie, who ignored Nyad’s sharpish ways to help her complete her lifetime dream.”
Priscilla (dir. Sofia Coppola)
“Where Luhrmann illustrated an explosion of fame and fortune, Coppola considers the stillness of living in the aftershock. Within this world, Cailee Spaeny turns in a restrained performance as Priscilla, moving quietly without much vibrancy,” says Rachel Ho at Exclaim!. “Although this may sound like a negative point of criticism, anyone who has read Elvis and Me will see Spaeny’s portrayal of Priscilla as precisely accurate.”
“Coppola sees Elvis as more vampiric than godly, emphasizing his control over Priscilla with the curious casting of Aussie actor Elordi, who towers over Mare of Easttown actor Spaeny: he’s six-foot-five, she’s five-foot-one,” writes Peter Howell at the Toronto Star. “Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (The Beguiled) frame Priscilla with many shadowy close-ups, including brief shots of a batlike Elvis performing onstage, more menacing than entertaining…The claustrophobic gloom is partly due to practical constraints — the film was shot quickly in few locations during the pandemic — but it’s more to do with Coppola’s view that the bright lights of fame can obscure the darkness of a soul left to languish.”
“A half-careful viewer can see the corner-cutting seams of Priscilla’s quick 30-day shoot just about everywhere – the film’s copious number of interior scenes that seem to repurpose sets, an absence of live concert scenes featuring hordes of extras, and a Graceland mansion (actually an estate located just outside Toronto) smaller and less enchanting than the popular imagination might conjure,” observes Barry Hertz at The Globe and Mail. “Yet the filmmaker meets and rises above her financial challenges with visual wit and narrative verve at every opportunity. The relative smallness of this film’s Graceland, for instance, underlines the gilded-cage aspect of Priscilla’s early life – the character is, like Coppola’s version of Marie Antoinette, just another young girl trapped inside a castle that others might kill to be imprisoned by.”
“Cailee Spaeney plays Priscilla as a profoundly lonely girl, who has no emotional resources beyond herself. She has no friends in school and doesn’t know how to talk to her very conventional mother. Shots of her in bed gazing upward indicate her troubled happiness,” notes Marc Glassman at Classical FM. “Elvis Presley is in love with her—but she doesn’t know why nor does anyone else. In scene after scene at parties, she talks with her dream man but there is no connection. He doesn’t understand her, and she can’t even get him to relate to her sexually.”
“Priscilla is a very well-made film, no argument here, but it is a story that comes out too personal with director Coppola focussing too much on Priscilla and Elvis leaving all other characters that might enliven the story to the sidelines to the point of omission,” writes Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
“The film takes us through their seven-year courtship, through their marriage, and the birth of their daughter Lisa Marie, and Elvis’s increasing detachment from Priscilla that seems to turn into disdain, and even some abuse. Priscilla was aiming to have a more normal family life; he was becoming more self-absorbed and distant,” says Karen Gordon at Original Cin. “Through it all, Priscilla is portrayed as a remarkably mature and self-possessed young woman who knows who she is and what she wants from life. As the film unfolds, that never wavers, nor does her self-esteem or sense of what’s important to her. “
“As Priscilla wafts through Graceland, pops pills, and struggles to gather her agency, though, Priscilla ultimately resembles a really beautiful watch commercial. This is a gorgeous portrait of people looking fabulous,” writes Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “Coppola harnesses the emptiness of this life as Priscilla awakens to the reality that the glossy veneer of celebrity isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. The film lets audiences experience the explosion of rock and roll from the perspective of a young girl who was forced to sit at the sidelines of a cultural revolution. It’s glamorous, but it isn’t pretty.”
Quiz Lady (dir. Jessica Yu)
“Despite the mediocre script, Quiz Lady is still a barrel of laughs owing to the excellent comic timing of the comedic duo Sandra Oh and Awkwafina,” chuckles Gilbert Seah at Afro Toronto.
Rustin (dir. George C. Wolfe)
“Stuck with many potentially dull scenes dramatizing groups of people—mainly Black activists—arguing for the best strategies on the march, Wolfe makes them as entertaining as possible, but Rustin is hardly an auteur film. The amazing theatrical craft of Wolfe ensures fine performances, from Colman Domingo as Bayard Rustin; Chris Rock, effective as Roy Wilkins; Jeffrey Wright (Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.), absolutely extraordinary as the terrifying NYC rep and, finally, the legendary Audra McDonald as Ella Baker,” says Marc Glassman at Classical FM. “The problem that Wolfe can’t totally rectify is the stentorian tone of the film: we’re made to feel that important events are unfolding, forcing people to make speeches, not talk. One wishes that the production had been allowed to relax a little since it’s obvious that what we’re seeing is of massive importance.”
“[E]xperience the warm, witty, mercurial performance by Colman Domingo in a breakout lead role,” writes Liam Lacey at Original Cin. “The 53-year-old actor, a veteran of Broadway and series television (Fear of the Walking Dead, Euphoria) delivers a performance which makes this modestly budgeted biographical drama pop like a Broadway musical. He looks like a shoo-in for awards season attention.”
“The biopic is at its best when it simply lets the fight for equality hang in the air between these players pushing for change,” writes Pat Mullen at That Shelf. “The film explores what it meant to be a gay Black man in Rustin’s era as the character navigates relationships both personal and political. Rustin has a casual relationship with his assistant Tom (Gus Halper) a liberal white guy who devotes himself to the leader and his cause. But when Elias (Johnny Ramey), a new helping hand in the office, makes a pass at Rustin in the bathroom, Bayard finds immediate comfort with another man who truly understands the skin he lives in.”
Sly (dir. Thom Zimny)
“Sly reveals a personal side to the very public action figure adored by fans since his 1976 breakout role in the movie Rocky,” writes Marriska Fernandes at the Toronto Star. Fernandes also chats with director Thom Zimny about telling Sylvester Stallone’s story: “When I first met him, he seemed full of energy and I didn’t want to contain him in a chair. I wanted to let him speak and roam around the room, and film him in a way that there would be no one else but a cameraman … I wanted the film to feel like you stepped into the room and started talking with Sly,” says Levy.
“There are many surprises for viewers who are only aware of the giant successes, from the seriousness with which Stallone takes his writing, to the experience he had as a polo player, yet another arena with which father and son would have conflict,” says Jason Gorber at POV Magazine. “On the other hand, the tragic and sudden death of Stallone’s son Sage is noted randomly with an ‘in memoriam’-style intertitle, yet never discussed amid Stallone’s many accounts of fathers and sons.”
Verona (dir. Sebastian Back 🇨🇦)
“For a film where not much happens, Verona is strangely beguiling, which augurs well for the prospects of Canadian writer-director Sebastian Back, here making his feature debut,” says Kim Hughes at Original Cin. “The film’s lovely use of natural light and effortless pacing is almost hallucinatory, especially as it surveys the abundant forests and waterways of its rural locale, often from above.
“Director Sebastian Back’s remarkable coming-of-age story, set in Verona, South Frontenac in deeply rural Ontario tells the story of teenagers who live in a remote world of nature, space, and sky,” notes Anne Brodie at What She Said. “The humid, yellow-white atmosphere really speaks to us now as we face winter, and Back perfectly captures the twin fires of summer and adolescent sexuality. The day progresses with more moments of note as we draw into Verona and its ordinary everyday and extraordinary moments of teen life in a tiny town where everyone knows everyone and there are no secrets.”
Who’s Yer Father? (dir. Jeremy Larter 🇨🇦)
“Who’s Yer Father has a definite flavour all its own, kind of fishy, spicy and nutty. Jeremy Larter’s extremely localised comedy, set in a fishing village somewhere on Prince Edward Island, features Larry (Chris Locke) a sweet, courageous private investigator usually content to hunt down “borrowed” Pyrex casserole dishes for clients. He’s the only PI on PEI. But along comes adventure and the promise of big payday from local seafood buyer Luke (Matt Wells), to ID whoever is stealing his lobsters and selling them to black marketeers. He and local convenience store owner Rhonda (Susan Kent) are friends and she tells him all the gossip about Luke.
Wingwomen (dir. Melanie Laurent)
“The film contains lots of impressive action set pieces, and though lacking in the emotional department, (relationships are brushed away as humour in the film), Voleuses or Wingwomen should entertain action fans – sans problem!” advises Gilbert Seah at Toronto Franco.
You Were My First Boyfriend (dir. Cecilia Aldarondo; Nov. 8)
“Working with co-director and editor Sarah Enid Hagey, You Were My First Boyfriend offers a shrewd blend of film-within-a-film vignettes alongside behind-the-scenes verité as Aldarondo works with actors and former classmates to recreate these memories,” writes Pat Mullen at POV Magazine. “One really gets to see the process of leading with care behind Aldarondo’s approach. These exercises are equally therapeutic for some of her classmates, including recreations that inadvertently retraumatize peers and let them heal.”
File Under Miscellaneous
At CBC, Eli Glasner profiles Emma Seligman, who followed her breakout film Shiva Baby with the knockout Bottoms: “With a much bigger cast and crew than Shiva Baby, plus the complex stunt and fight sequences, Bottoms was a chance for Seligman to level up her skills as a director,” writes Glasner. “Still, the filmmaker says the steepest part of the learning curve was confronting her own sense of imposter syndrome. ‘It’s just such a wild concept to think that hundreds of people got together to go make what you wrote in your head in a coffee shop. Like, this doesn’t make any sense at all. Why are you all here? I think that stepping onto a set with that many people and telling myself I could do it took a lot more out of me than I expected it to. But I think I got there in the end.’ Now that Seligman’s got a taste for blood and bedlam, she wants more.”
At The Globe and Mail, Johanna Schneller profiles Rising Voices Canada, a career accelerator program that aims to boost Canadian filmmakers. “Nobody here is getting $100,000 to make a short film,” Kadon Douglas, executive director of BIPOC TV & Film, tells Schneller. “When I told [CEO of Hillman Grad] Rishi [Rajani] that we have a program where filmmakers were given $125,000 to make a feature” – Telefilm’s first Talent to Watch initiative – “he said, ‘You mean a short film?’ No! This is the reality in Canada.”
At The Globe and Mail, Barry Hertz chats with Telefilm Canada’s new executive director Julie Roy about the state of Canada’s top film funder. “I was just at a conference this morning about the problem of over-production – this notion of too many projects getting developed and not enough money to produce them,” Roy tells Hertz when asked about Telefilm funding fewer projects via Talent to Watch, but with higher contributions. “But we did increase the budgets to give a better opportunity for creative ambition. And we’ve seen it become very successful – we had a Talent to Watch film, In Flames, at Cannes this year.”
At the Toronto Star, Peter Howell reviews Matt Singer’s book Opposable Thumbs about film critic thumb-masters Roger Eber and Gene Siskel: “Opposable Thumbs is a little light on examples of how Siskel’s and Ebert’s advocacy could turn a forgotten film into a hit, such as Louis Malle’s 1981 curiosity My Dinner With Andre. Written by and starring two real-life friends, André Gregory and Wallace Shawn, it’s 110 minutes of two intelligent and articulate men talking, talking and talking over dinner. But Siskel and Ebert both loved it and yakked it up so much the film became a smash, playing art house cinemas for many months.”
A Festival of Festival Coverage: Fine French Cooking
At the TFCA blog, Jason Gorber, Rachel Ho, and Pat Mullen report from their trip to the Windsor International Film Festival. For Gorber, WIFF started on a high note with The Taste of Things: “its captivating use of food as a form of seduction, its impeccable navigation of the societal changes in post-Revolution France that echo in every haute-cuisine kitchen to this day, and its downright erotic use of copper pots, exotic ingredients, and gluttonous portions makes this easily the best film I saw.” Mullen agrees calling it the best of the fest: “A never-better Juliette Binoche…simply glows from within and radiates the joie de vivre that exists only in French kitchens.” For Ho, though, she picks UFO Sweden as the highlight: “What results is an adventure that many of us dreamed of as kids…coming to life before our eyes.”
At Toronto-Franco, Gilbert Seah previews this year’s Ciné Franco: “The capsule reviews include reviews of 4 films that were screened at Cannes, only one of which was picked by TIFF. Three of these films are nothing plain of excellent as are many of the other French films screened at CineFranco. My personal Favourite is Un Homme Heureux with Fabrice Luchini and Catherine Frot providing laughter non-stop.”
TV Talk/Series Stuff
At CBC, Marriska Fernandes chat with All the Light We Cannot See’s Shawn Levy about where his Netflix adaptation sits in his body of work: “For me, I’ve done a lot of comedy; I’ve done a lot of adventure, a lot of action-comedy. When you’re doing those genres, you’re connecting with the audience in a certain way, and the visuals, the editing, the pace — they need to have a certain kinetic approach to engage with that audience. When you’re making a show like this, which is heavier subject material, historic, grounded events, you are allowed — in fact, required — to create a style and aesthetics that are in some ways just more elegant, more lyrical, a little more poetic.”
At What She Said, Anne Brodie says Netflix’s Mysteries of the Faith “takes us to the heart of religious beliefs with special emphasis on relics… These are major symbols and some believe, physical connections to Christ that can work miracles.”
At The Globe and Mail, Barry Hertz offers an appreciation of late Friends star Matthew Perry: “Perry’s death will no doubt be used as something of a crass zeitgeist marker in the weeks or months to come – the first Friends star to die, meaning the first star of the last big network-television sitcom to die, meaning another tick on the cultural clock of a generation as it approaches midnight. And there will be many who parse the pages of Perry’s 2022 memoir for meaning and perhaps prescient clues, which won’t be all that hard to find. The warts-and-more-warts book can be a brutal read, riding the waves of promise and recovery as much as it threatens to crash into the rocks of relapse at any moment.”