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#TIFF21 Review: One Second (Gala Presentations)

September 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest film from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, One Second is a pretty wonderful love letter to cinema itself and the travelling picture shows of his youth. Set in China in the 1970s, the engaging plot of One Second follows three people who are all after a reel of film belonging to the 1964 propaganda picture Heroic Sons and Daughters.

Our hero is an unnamed escaped convict from a prison camp (Zhang Yi) who wants to get his hands on the propagandistic newsreel attached to the feature, in hopes that it might contain some footage of his estranged daughter. This puts him in conflict with an orphan girl named Liu (Liu Haocun) who wants the physical celluloid for her own reasons, and a travelling projectionist affectionately called Mr. Movie (Fan Wei), who travels from town to town showing films to the locals and needs the reel for his latest presentation.

There are some nice bits of screwball comedy in the first act as the escapee and Liu keep stealing the film canister from each other. But the film takes on a more poignant quality as it goes along. The centrepiece sequence finds them having to clean the reels of film when they get tangled up together after being dragged through the dirt, and the images of strips of celluloid being tenderly cleaned, and strung through projectors, are shot with nothing but love for the medium.

Yimou’s film was initially supposed to premiere at Berlinale in 2019, but, in a twist of fate, was pulled from the competition, with Chinese censors forcing the filmmaker to re-edit and reshoot parts of his work to appease their sensibilities. Knowing this, it’s easy to wonder how the subtle commentary on Mao’s Cultural Revolution might have played in an unedited version. The film also has a slightly awkward epilogue that feels somewhat tacked on and undercuts a bit of the story’s impact.

But these things aside, One Second still plays quite well in its current form, telling an entertaining, involving and even genuinely touching story about the literal power of film to connect people from different backgrounds. As such, it provided a very fitting closing night film for this year’s festival.

Public Screenings:

Saturday, September 18th – 4:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Saturday, September 18th – 6:00 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Saturday, September 18th – 7:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: Silent Night (Gala Presentations)

September 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The feature directorial debut of writer-director Camille Griffin, Silent Night is a dark but compelling holiday twist on the “last night of the world” premise, that takes a bold, eerily believable high concept setup and applies it to a stripped down character dramedy set at Christmas.

The film follows Nell (Keira Knightley) and her husband Simon (Matthew Goode), who are hosting Christmas dinner for their privileged family and friends at a large house in the English countryside. But there is a poisonous cloud sweeping over the world caused by pollution and climate change, that will kill everything it touches. From here, Silent Night takes a very dark turn that raises some intriguing moral questions, especially with it being released in the midst of a global pandemic.

Griffin wrote the screenplay before COVID-19 hit, and the film finished shooting just before lockdown started in the UK. But the climate disaster storyline, and the film’s commentary on class and collective responsibility, play very differently in the face of the pandemic. It’s hard not to view the film as an accidental COVID allegory now, with allusions to lockdowns, vaccine hesitancy, and government compliance in the face of impending doom.

The emotional anchor of the film is Nell and Simon’s socially conscious oldest son Art (played by the writer-director’s real life son, Roman Griffin Davis), who questions the government protocols that have been put in place. Davis does very strong work as a free-thinking kid who challenges everything that the adults are saying, showing that his breakout performance as the lead in Jojo Rabbit was no fluke.

The film is incredibly bleak, especially as a Christmas movie, and the mix of very dark humour and disturbing subject matter won’t be for everyone. Some of the comic moments maybe feel a bit too macabre, and not all of the characters are equally well fleshed out. But Griffin for the most part does a good job of balancing the film’s juxtaposition between cheery Christmas movie (they even got Canadian crooner Micheal Bublé to sing a delightful new song about Christmas sweaters that could easily get radio play) and apocalyptic drama.

Griffin’s film builds up to a haunting and unsettling finale that is still somehow laced with pitch black humour. At just ninety minutes, Silent Night is engaging from start to finish, built around a thought provoking moral dilemma about how much responsibility we have to help ease the suffering of others that will keep playing out in your head afterwards.

Public Screenings:

Thursday, September 16th – 7:00 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Friday, September 17th – 5:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Saturday, September 18th – 7:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: Wolf (Special Presentations)

September 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

George MacKay plays a young man who believes he’s actually a wolf trapped in a human body in writer-director Nathalie Biancheri’s new film Wolf, which explores the concept of “species dysphoria.” And the film is fine. Neither the total mess nor the instant cult classic that it could have been, Wolf instead is a pretty good if uneven indie drama that is carried by committed performances, with a premise that is just absurd enough to attract curious viewers.

With his parents worried about how he’s been acting too much like a wolf, Jacob (MacKay) gets sent to a clinic that claims to cure people of the belief that they have been born in the wrong body, i.e., a human one. There’s a teen boy who thinks he’s a squirrel, and a girl who wears feathers and a beak and repeats everything back like a parrot. You get the idea.

The clinic is run by a cruel psychiatrist who is known as “The Zookeeper” (played by a terrifying Paddy Considine), who believes in physical punishment, and that the feelings his patients are experiencing can be trained out of them through conversion therapy techniques. It’s here that Jacob meets Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), a feline-identifying patient who bonds with Jacob, despite their natural differences in species identity.

Biancheri was inspired to write the screenplay after reading an article about the real phenomenon of “species dysphoria,” but the story of Wolf could also be read as an allegory of gender identity, racism, speciesism, and gay conversion therapy. I’m not sure if the central metaphor always works. The abject cruelty on display in terms of the torture that these kids are forced to go through also makes the film somewhat tough to watch.

But Wolf features a very committed performance by MacKay, who immerses himself in the role right from the opening scene of him writhing around naked on the forest floor. There are some memorable moments of wolf acting throughout, like when he scurries through the hallways of the clinic shirtless and on all fours, eventually coming to a kitchen window so he can howl at the moon. MacKay keeps Jacob’s emotions very internalized, but comes alive in these scenes.

Depp also commits herself to the strangeness of her role, including a scene where her and MacKay crawl around on the roof sniffing each other, him growling and her purring. Finally, Fionn O’Shea shines in a weirdly compelling supporting role as a boy who believes he is a German Shepherd, and befriends Jacob like a playful puppy. There are moments of absurd humour, sure, but Biancheri also strives for empathy with what her characters are going through.

The film feels a bit too slow in parts, and some of the scenes showing the characters getting in touch with their animal sides can feel like watching acting exercises in a theatre class. The characters in general can seem somewhat thin and are not always that well fleshed out. But Biancheri’s film builds to an engaging finale that includes a stirring sequence that is memorably set to the song “Gloria.” Go for the weirdness of the premise, stay for the full-bodied acting of the leads.

Public Screenings:

Friday, September 17th – 6:00 PM at VISA Screening Room at the Princess of Wales

Friday, September 17h – 9:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: Belfast (Gala Presentations)

September 18, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is the filmmaker’s bittersweet cinematic memoir of growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. The story begins in the year 1969, and follows a young boy named Buddy (Jude Hill), a stand-in for Branagh, who lives on a mostly Protestant street in Belfast where the few Catholic families are being violently targeted.

The street will soon be barricaded off, with checkpoints for coming and going. This provides a tense backdrop for Buddy’s more typical boyhood problems, as he pines after a classmate and tries to do better in school, but gets caught up in trouble. The story itself might feel a bit slight in parts, but Branagh’s film is packed with heart and features a number of finely textured performances.

Jamie Dornan has never been better as Pa, Buddy’s father who is often away for work in England and is struggling to support his family, but manages to put on a brave face without being overly stoic. Caitriona Balfe is quietly heartbreaking as Ma, who is trying her best to make do with what they’ve got, but has her hands full trying to hold the family together. Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds also deliver charming and moving performance as Granny and Pop, Buddy’s grandparents who often watch him in the afternoon and offer sage advice on life and relationships.

At the centre of it all is newcomer Jude Hill, offering a captivating portrayal of a boy unwittingly growing up in the middle of a Civil War who would rather be escaping into the fantasy of TV Westerns and much anticipated trips to the movie theatre. Drawn from memories, Branagh’s screenplay strikes a good balance between gentle humour and piercing human drama, with some commentary on religion and sectarian differences. The film functions as a sort of child’s eye view of The Troubles in this way, with Buddy questioning what the difference even is between a Protestant and a Catholic.

The film is gorgeously captured in black-and-white by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, with a few magical splashes of colour. This includes the opening shots flying over modern day Belfast, which then seamlessly transition into the black and white of the past. It’s a sort of reverse Wizard of Oz effect that works beautifully, matched quite nicely by one of the very good Van Morrison songs that provide the backdrop for the film. We then go into an incredibly well shot sequence that follows Buddy running through the street as violence erupts, the camera spinning 360 degrees around him.

Branagh’s Belfast ultimately works as a good, old fashioned family drama that tells a simple yet effective story, brought to life through excellent performances and some lovely images. The story ends on a very poignant note, resonating with the bittersweet sense of nostalgia that comes to define the film, which I’m sure will only grow on repeat viewings.

Public Screenings:

Sunday, September 12th – 5:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Monday, September 13th – 3:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Thursday, September 16th – 12:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: The Good House (Gala Presentations)

September 17, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Sigourney Weaver stars in The Good House as Hildy Good, an older real estate agent with a drinking problem. It’s a plum role for Weaver, as the character chews up the screen and breaks the fourth wall, addressing us directly as she grapples with whether or not to put down the bottle.

Directed by Maya Forbes (who previously made the 2014 film Infinitely Polar Bear), and her partner Wallace Wolodarsky, The Good House is the sort of thoroughly mid-level adult dramedy that could have easily been made in the early to mid 2000s. The story is taken from a 2003 novel by Ann Leary, which Forbes and Wolodarsky adapted with screenwriter Thomas Bezucha. And it’s a film that, for the most part, ambles along in a breezy, enjoyable way that seems like it would be paired well with a glass of wine (as crass as that may sound for a story about a heavy drinker).

Hildy is trying to regain her crown as real estate queen in the small town of Wendover, Massachusetts (the film was actually shot in Nova Scotia, standing in for New England), where her family has lived for hundreds of years, with a literal witch in her lineage. But she herself is getting priced out of the town and can barely afford living there anymore, with her realtor career not helped by her infamous reputation for drunken self-sabotage.

The film follows Hildy, whose husband (David Rashce) left her for a man some years earlier, as she attempts to restart things with an old flame, handyman Frank Getchell (Kevin Kline). Meanwhile, her adult daughters Tess (Rebecca Henderson) and Emily (Molly Brown) are trying to monitor her drinking following a failed intervention. Hildy befriends a new resident (Monica Baccarin) who becomes a late night wine buddy, and there is also some drama with town psychiatrist Peter Newbold (Rob Delaney), who likes to psychoanalyze others but has his own problems.

The film mostly plays out as a low-key character study that blends some elements of comedy and drama, but it takes a sharp turn in the last act with a dark tonal shift that is actually somewhat jarring. There is a vaguely supernatural element that feels poorly staged, and I’m also really not crazy about how the film uses an autistic kid (Silas Pereira-Olson), the son of Hildy’s clients, as a melodramatic plot device. It’s the most major misstep in the film, and throws the movie off course in the final twenty minutes, before Forbes and Wolodarsky mostly correct things at the end.

The film has been on the back burner for quite some time, and was originally going to star Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro, but the leads Forbes and Wolodarsky have secured do make it their own. Weaver is entertaining to watch as a self-destructive business woman with a wine habit, and her comments to the screen are delivered in an appealingly self-aware way. Kline also does enjoyable work as the down to earth love interest. Despite the aforementioned missteps, The Good House is a mostly agreeable and mildly entertaining film, that plays like a perfectly fine early-2000s adult dramedy.

Public Screenings:

Wednesday, September 15th – 7:00 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Thursday, September 16th – 7:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Saturday, September 18th – 11:00 AM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Saturday, September 18th – 5:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: Three Floors (Special Presentations)

September 17, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The latest work from Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti, who won the Palme d’Or for The Son’s Room two decades ago, Three Floors is a watchable but somewhat mediocre multi-character drama that follows the denizens of an apartment complex in Rome as their stories collide, sometimes literally.

The film opens with the pregnant Monica (Alba Rohrwacher) going into labour in the street and trying to get to the hospital. A drunk driver, Andréa (Alessandro Sperduti), swerves to avoid hitting her and ends up killing a pedestrian with his car, before crashing into the home of his downstairs neighbours Lucio (Riccardo Scamarcio) and Sara (Elena Lietti). This theme of death and new life runs throughout the film, which spans multiple characters in their orbit and unfolds over about a decade with two five year jumps ahead.

Andréa is the son of a prominent judge (Moretti) who wants nothing to do with him after the accident, while his mother Dora (Margherita Buy) struggles with the prospect of losing her son. Lucio and Sara have a young daughter, Francesca (Chiara Abalsamo), that they frequently leave in the care of their elderly neighbours Renato (Paolo Graziosi) and Giovanna (Anna Bonaiuto). But Renato is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and when he wanders away with Francesca one night and gets lost in the park, Lucio becomes convinced, without any basis, that he sexually abused her.

This causes extreme tension between the two neighbouring families, which is complicated by the arrival of Renato and Giovanna’s teenaged granddaughter Charlotte (Denise Tantucci). Lucio starts spending an inappropriate amount of time with her, leading to the most questionable and, for lack of a better word, problematic storyline. Meanwhile, Monica is struggling to navigate motherhood on her own, with a husband (Adriano Giannini) who is mostly away for work, and a sleazy brother-in-law (Stefano Dionisi) trying to inch his way back into their lives.

Based on a novel by Israeli author Eshkol Nevo, the plotting in Three Floors often feels heavy-handed, unfolding through a series of highly contrived plot developments that weave these characters in and out of each other’s lives. The performances are mostly decent if unremarkable, and it visually has the look and feel of a TV movie. Moretti’s film is unabashedly melodramatic and dips into soap opera territory quite frequently, but, as far as these things go, it’s fine enough for what it is and for the most part held my attention while watching it.

Public Screenings:

Wednesday, September 15th – 6:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Thursday, September 16h – 1:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Saturday, September 18h – 5:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (Special Presentations)

September 17, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Director Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is a quirky and enjoyable biopic of eccentric British artist Louis Wain, whose stylized drawings of cats with large eyes are credited with helping turn felines into acceptable house pets. You see, cats were thought of only as rodent-killing vermin at the time in Victorian England, but Wain’s endearing drawings helped change that perception.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the film as Louis Wain, and is a natural fit for the role of a socially awkward but likeable eccentric. When we first meet him, he is an oddball illustrator who also fancies himself as a composer and inventor. He is struggling to financially support his widowed mother and five sisters of varying ages, having been left as the “man of the house.” The first part of the film happily and pleasantly occupies the space of being a quirky romance between Louis and Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), a governess who is hired to help his younger sisters with their studies.

The two adopt a stray cat that becomes the inspiration for his anthropomorphic feline paintings, and a cat picture empire is born. But it’s plagued by Wain’s poor business sense and fraying mental state, as his love story takes a tragic turn. The second part of the film introduces heavier themes of mental illness, as Wain becomes increasingly manic and his strange ideas about electricity and evolution (at one point he expresses his sincere belief that cats will soon evolve to speak English, walk on two legs, and turn blue) start to consume him.

Despite the dark undertones, Sharpe brings an often whimsical feel to the material, matched by some fun cameos and pronounced stylistic touches (including cat subtitles) that add buoyancy to the typical biopic formula. The film is framed in a 4:3 aspect ratio, and the story is told through voiceover narration by Olivia Colman that has an almost literary quality to it. It won’t work for everyone, and there are some odd tonal shifts, but I enjoyed the somewhat unconventional approach. Cumberbatch does appealing work in the leading role, and cat lovers will find parts of it pretty irresistible.

Public Screenings:

Sunday, September 12th – 1:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Wednesday, September 15th – 4:00 PM at Cinesphere IMAX Theatre

Friday, September 17th – 7:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: Bergman Island (Gala Presentations)

September 16, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The latest from French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve, Bergman Island is a very enjoyable love letter of sorts to the work of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The film is set on the Baltic island of Fårö, where the director lived and shot some of his most famous films, which has become a sort of cinephile tourist trap complete with a safari tour of Bergman’s filming locations.

The film follows Chris (Vicky Krieps) and Tony (Tim Roth), a filmmaking couple vacationing on the island, where they get to watch original film prints in Bergman’s private screening room and sleep in the bed from Scenes From a Marriage, which is a fitting backdrop for the silent rift that is forming between the two. Tony is a popular director invited to give a talk on the Bergman’s work, while Chris is struggling to finish her latest screenplay, a romance drawing on elements of her own life and relationship.

The film finds its creative spark through Hansen-Løve’s choice to bring Chris’s screenplay to life as a movie-within-a-movie, morphing into a side story involving a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) being reunited with her crush Joseph (Anders Danielsen Lie) at a wedding on the island. And this narrative foray is somehow just as involving as the main plot. Hansen-Løve’s screenplay is sharply written at every turn, with engaging dialogue that includes some lively discussions of Bergman’s work.

Deftly balancing both the main story and this movie-within-a-movie, Hansen-Løve has crafted a pretty lovely piece of cinema with Bergman Island, which impresses in its writing, storytelling, and naturalistic performances. Krieps does very solid work in the leading role, and Roth is a natural fit as a slightly aloof director. Plus, good use of ABBA in a memorable dance scene.

Public Screenings:

Monday, September 13th – 9:30 PM at Roy Thomson Hall

Tuesday, September 14th – 7:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Saturday, September 18th – 9:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: Sundown (Special Presentations)

September 16, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Neil Bennett (Tim Roth) is a wealthy Englishman vacationing at a resort in Acapulco, Mexico with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two kids Colin (Samuel Bottomley) and Alexa (Albertine Kotting McMillan). Their holiday gets cut short when Alice receives a phone call informing them of a death in the family, and that they have to return to London. But instead of getting on the plane, Neil pretends to have lost his passport at the airport and stays behind, checking himself into a hotel and taking up with a local woman (Iazua Larios).

Written and directed by Michel Franco, who was at the festival last year with New Order, Sundown is another movie that shows the dark underbelly of Mexico colliding with the wealthy tourist side. I don’t think the characters are that well fleshed out, and the film does drag a bit despite only running for around eighty minutes, unfolding through languid long takes.

But Roth carries Sundown with a decent, closed off performance that keeps us guessing as to why he suddenly ran out on his family, and there is enough intrigue as to where the story is going to keep us watching. This is one of those movies where not much happens until things start happening all at once, and Franco delivers some interesting twists in the second half.

Public Screenings:

Sunday, September 12th – 7:30 PM at Scotiabank Theatre

Monday, September 13th – 3:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Friday, September 17th – 5:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

#TIFF21 Review: Dashcam (Midnight Madness)

September 16, 2021

By John Corrado

★½ (out of 4)

Director Rob Savage made waves during the pandemic when he released Host, a horror movie set on Zoom. Now he returns with the Blumhouse-produced Dashcam, another pandemic project that was apparently made on the fly without much of a script and just a basic outline. And it’s a mess.

The “found footage” film follows Annie Hardy (playing an extreme version of herself), an indie musician who has an online show called Band Car. She drives around Los Angeles streaming from her car, making up freestyle raps based on words that people throw up in the comments. It’s a bit that grows old fast, and it doesn’t help that Annie is extremely grating as a character. She is a stereotype of a reactionary online troll who says and does provocative things to get a reaction, proudly wearing her MAGA hat, denying the COVID pandemic, and refusing to wear a mask anywhere she goes.

We are already tired of her purposely obnoxious antics before the first scene is even over, and it’s a chore to spend an entire movie with her. Annie ditches quarantine in L.A. and escapes to London, England to pay a surprise visit to her old bandmate Stretch (Amar Chadha Patel) and his “woke” girlfriend (Jemma Moore). They, too, grow tired of their surprise visitor, prompting Annie to take off in Stretch’s car. She soon picks up a mysterious passenger (Angela Enahoro) and, well, shit happens (literally).

What follows is an anarchic mix of Blair Witch Project and Evil Dead, with Annie’s perpetually running livestream capturing the insanity, as comments flood in on the bottom left corner of the screen. The film does have a few jump scares and some gross out moments that do work to make us feel queasy, coupled with the kinetic camerawork. But Dashcam can’t really sustain itself for a feature running time and the protagonist tests our patience right from the start.

It’s only 77 minutes long (about ten minutes of which are end credits that treat us to more of Hardy’s cringey rapping), and even then it feels stretched to the breaking point. I kind of wanted to admire the free-flowing, anything goes, experimental quality of Dashcam, but the end result doesn’t work as a whole. I did watch the film at home, so maybe it plays better with an audience, I don’t know. But my reactions ranged from “WTF am I watching” to simply feeling like I was wasting my time.

Public Screenings:

Saturday, September 11th – 11:59 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Sunday, September 12th – 3:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

Thursday, September 16th – 9:00 PM at digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (Canada)

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to 18th.

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