September 21, 2020

Toronto International Film Festival 2020 Capsule Review Round-Up

COVID has put the kibosh on much this year, but it can’t stop the capsule TIFF reviews. From the plague-ready, off-model edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, here’s my annual collection of mini-reviews.

The greatly cut-down slate included only slivers of the festival I’d program for myself in a regular year: four to five from international auteurs and a couple examples of global genre cinema. The missing items either are waiting in limbo as sales agents the world over hope that theatrical exhibition will return, or didn’t even get shot.

This list features more Canadian films and documentaries than I’d see at the fest (as opposed to catching them later.) Festivals tend toward the dour and downbeat but that was doubly true this time out. If we’re still trapped in our homes next year, I’ll likely be more vigilant about sorting through the slim pickings, supplementing our streaming experience with titles already available on other platforms.

That said, the overall hit rate was probably as strong as any other recent year. The average score on my numerical ratings would be higher, actually. It’s just that I saw the same festival everyone else did, starting with the film that garnered nearly universal acclaim, nabbed the People’s Choice Award, and will surely be part of the Oscars race—whatever the heck that will look like.

Films are listed in order of preference. Within categories that doesn’t mean much and entails a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons. A festival near you, or not so near you but within your territory for geolocking purposes, may be virtually screening some of these soon.

The Pinnacle

Nomadland [US, Chloé Zhao, 5] When her town closes down in the wake of its gypsum mine’s closure, a self-reliant widow (Frances McDormand) moves into her van and joins the ranks of the nomad subculture, people who rove the US, taking whatever hard work they can get and living out of their vehicles. Rooted in social realist cinema, marked by a triad of transcendent qualities: poetic visual beauty, an indelible central performance and a deep love for the characters from the writer/director.

Recommended

Another Round [Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg, 4.5] Burned out high school teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) embarks with three colleagues on an experiment to enhance their performance by maintaining a blood alcohol level of 0.5% throughout their days at work. Not only an original booze movie, but a big one, full of turns and ambiguities, and an utterly masterful performance from Mikkelsen.

City Hall [US, Frederick Wiseman, 4] The latest of Wiseman’s distinctive epic-length observational documentaries studies the quotidian, procedural and human moments of human life as seen through the processes of municipal government in Boston, as held together by the thoughtful charisma of Mayor Martin Walsh. Improbably absorbing as always, this institutional cross-section offers a beguiling vision of an oasis of good government in the USA.

True Mothers [Japan, Naomi Kawase, 4.5] Parents of a kindergartner react with dismay when a woman contacts them claiming to be his birth mother. Luminous, delicate drama of shifting perspectives.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds [US, Werner Herzog & Clive Oppenheimer] Documentary explores the science and mythology of meteor, from Chicxulub to ʻOumuamua. The intersection between scientific discovery and religious awe, central to all of Herzog’s beautiful and delightful nature docs, rises from subtext to text through the intercession of traditional elders, joyful researchers, and the Jesuit scholar of the Vatican’s heaven stone collection.

David Byrne’s American Utopia [US, Spike Lee, 4] Filmed version of the Broadway version of David Byrne’s recent tour features joyous choreography, simple but arresting stagecraft, and songs from his Talking Heads and solo eras. When you shoot a concert film featuring David Byrne, you have to bring it, and Lee does that ably, finding countlesss different ways to shoot within a proscenium.

The Father [UK, Florian Zeller, 4] Retired engineer (Anthony Hopkins) struggles to piece together the confusing reality of his living circumstances as his daughter (Olivia Colman) copes with his progressing dementia. Impeccably performed stage play adaptation puts the viewer inside the contradictory shifts of the protagonist’s subjective viewpoint.

Night of the Kings [Côte d'Ivoire/France , Philippe Lacôte, 4] When the red moon rises over MACA, the Ivory Coast’s toughest prison, its inmate boss appoints the new arrival as storyteller—a post that results in death if the tale ends before sundown. Prison drama with compelling narrative hook widens out to encompass ancient warfare, contemporary politics, and even a wizard duel.

Summer of 85 [France, Francois Ozon, 4] Love between two young men in a French beach town leads to a bizarre crime. Teen emotions run high in a sunlit melodrama of Eros and Thanatos.

Spring Blossom [France, Suzanne Lindon, 4] Bored with her classmates, an awkward 16 year old (played by the writer-director) pursues her attraction for a ruggedly handsome stage actor (Arnaud Valois.) Character drama sets aside the sexual aspect of this staple French cinema situation to focus on the emotion, periodically breaking from naturalism to have its characters express their feelings through dance.

Get the Hell Out [Taiwan, I-Fan Wang, 4] Taiwan’s notoriously pugilistic parliament tips into arterial spray when the effluent of a controversial chemical plant triggers a zombie epidemic. Zombie comedy features an eye-searing palette and an onslaught of optical overlays, and is paced like a quarter kilo of crushed Adderall.

Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time [Hungary, Lili Horvát, 4] Top neurologist questions the accuracy of her recollections when she moves back home from the US to Budapest for a romantic rendezvous, only to find that the object of her affections professes not to remember her. Quietly suspenseful drama of psychological uncertainty.

Shiva Baby [US, Emma Seligman, 4] The ambient social pressures of a post-funeral gathering skyrocket for a directionless college student (Rachel Sennott) when attendees include not only the expected ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) but also the sex work client she’s caught feelings for. Knife-edge comedy of emotional suffocation uses a plucky suspense score for that extra frisson of social anxiety.

Under the Open Sky [Japan, Miwa Nishikawa, 4] Out of prison after a long sentence, an aging yakuza (Koji Yakusho) struggles with his volcanic temper as he attempts to go straight. Bittersweet drama anchored by a lead performance from Yakusho, a mainstay of contemporary Japanese cinema.

New Order [Mexico, Michel Franco, 4] A wedding thrown by a wealthy family during a growing insurrection suffers a murderous attack by protestors and the kidnapping of the bride. Wildly disturbing vision of political violence and degradation takes its time unreeling its allegorical purpose.

Limbo [UK, Ben Sharrock, 4] Syrian oud player grapples with guilt over family left behind as he cools his heels with other refugee claimants at a center in the bleak and isolated Outer Hebrides. Moments of deadpan humor and stark landscapes layer this exploration of displacement.

Violation [Canada, Madeleine Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli, 4] Woman (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) exacts meticulous revenge after her brother-in-law rapes her. Although this jarring, meditative drama includes gruesome imagery and horror-exploitation motifs, it’s closer in spirit to Michael Haneke than Dario Argento or Wes Craven.

Shadow in the Cloud [New Zealand, Roseanne Liang, 4] When an WWII RAF Flight Officer (Chloe Grace Moretz) boards a Samoa-bound cargo plane bearing a mysterious package, a monstrous gremlin on board is just one of the surprises. Enclosed space horror-action thriller tips an 80s-style hat to Carpenter and Cameron.

Beans [Canada, Tracey Deer, 4] As the 1990 Oka standoff envelops her Mohawk community, a shy tween achiever (Kiawentiio) decides to toughen up by ingratiating herself to the tough kids. Mixing the docudrama and coming-of-age structures offsets the inherent trickiness of both, but it wouldn’t work without an appealing and touching performance from its charismatic young lead.

Akilla’s Escape [Canada, Charles Officer, 4] Weed dealer hoping to leave the business (Saul Wiliiams) tries to recover his boss’ ripped-off cash and product without sacrificing a young gang member who reminds him of his younger self. Moody, laconic crime drama contextualized by the political history of Jamaican gangsterism.

Enemies of the State [US, Sonia Kennebeck] Documentary pulls apart a labyrinth of contradictory evidence around Matthew DeHart, an Indiana man who was framed for child pornography by the FBI as part of a Wikleaks espionage case, or created a story of secret files to shield himself either cooked up a Wikileaks-related espionage smokescreen to mask his sex crimes. Invites the viewer to join a filmmaking team as it goes ever deeper down a rabbit hole.

The Inconvenient Indian [Canada, Michelle Latimer, 4] Essay-format documentary examines the Indigenous struggle for sovereignty and cultural reclamation in North America, as hosted by novelist Thomas King and inspired by his nonfiction book of the same name. Makes its case through cinematic language, pushing the archival footage and talking heads format to the background.

Beginning [Georgia, Dea Kulumbegashvili, 4] Depressed wife of a pastor bears the brunt of a persecution campaign from a local man hostile to their minority Baptist faith. The camera acts as a pitiless eye in this harsh, austere drama of pervasive male oppression.

The Truffle Hunters [Italy, Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw, 4] An aging generation of Piedmontese truffle hunters carries on the search for the elusive delicacy, fearing the poison bait left for their beloved dogs by ruthless newcomers to the trade. A documentary balm for lovers of food and canines luxuriates in the presence of sumptuously photographed forest eccentrics and their very, very good dogs.

Lift Like a Girl [Egypt, Mayye Zayed, 4] From ages 13 to 18, under the tutelage of a volcanic, motormouth coach, with a rubble-strewn lot on a busy Alexandria street, weightlifter Zebiba trains to be a champion. Fly-on-the-wall documentary inhabits a hardscrabble community powered by loving verbal abuse.

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel [Canada, Joel Bakan & Jennifer Abbott, 4] Polemical documentary deploys narration, stock footage and talking heads (some appearing via lockdown video conference) to survey corporate capitalism and the struggle against it from Reaganomics to COVID and the George Floyd protests. Comprehensive primer for the prospective young progressives includes a call to continued electoral action.

40 Years a Prisoner [US, Tommy Oliver, 4] Documentary recounts the 1978 standoff between members of radical Black back-to-nature organization MOVE and Philadelphia police through the efforts of the son of two of the group members to secure their parole. A strong emotional hook greatly assists in telling a tenaciously complicated story.

Good

Pieces of a Woman [US, Kornél Mundruczó, 3.5] Grief tears a couple (Vanessa KIrby, Shia LaBeouf) apart after the death of their baby in childbirth, abetted by the insistence of her domineering mother (Ellen Burstyn) that they pursue legal action against their midwife (Molly Parker.) Wrenching drama marked by deep performances and key long take scenes. An otherwise masterful script reaches for the conventional when it hits its climax.

Wildfire [UK/Ireland, Cathy Brady, 3.5] After going missing for a year, a bipolar woman (Nika McGuigan) drops in on her sister (Nora-Jane Noone), opening the wounds of shared tragedy. Raw, unsubtle family drama against the backdrop of Northern Irish politics as Brexit threatens a fragile peace.

Fauna [Mexico/Canada, Nicolás Pereda, 3.5] Narratives nest within narratives when an actor visits his girlfriend’s family in a sleepy small town. Comic misunderstandings, naturalistic locations and twisting meta-story may remind seasoned festival-goers of the works of Hong Sang-soo, with Coronas instead of soju.

The Water Man [US, David Oyelowo, 3.5] Imaginative kid (Lonnie Chavis) heads into the Northwestern forest in search of a legendary immortal, thinking he holds the secret to curing his mom (Rosario Dawson) of leukemia. One of the more successful of a recent wave of films that put a somber sin on 80s kids adventure, thanks to a well-constructed script and Oyelowo’s sure control of tone.

The Way I See It [US, Dawn Porter, 3.5] Documentary profile of Obama-era Official White House photographer traces his arc from work for the Reagan administration to anti-Trump social media firebrand. Whether American viewers consider this slickly fashioned film heartfelt or sentimental will depend on party registration. It’s certainly explicitly designed to fire up Ds to get out there to de-elect the current president.

Okay

Bandar Band [Iran/Germany, Manijeh Hekmat, 3] A pregnant singer, her husband and their guitarist try to get their van through a floodstruck region to attend a contest gig in Tehran. Neorealist drama where the obstacles in the characters’ path are literal.

Penguin Bloom [Australia, Glendyn Ivin, 3] A former surfer left paralyzed from the chest down by a freak accident reluctantly bonds with a magpie chick named Penguin, which one of her young sons has rescued. Sun-dappled animal-related family drama about the depression and anger that can accompany a life-changing injury.

Falling [US, Viggo Mortensen, 3] Pathologically forbearing airline pilot (Mortensen) attempts to find a new situation for his lifelong miserable prick of a father (Lance Henriksen) as his dementia worsens. With one character incapable of change and another not needing to change, almost all of the scenes repeat the same dynamic.

Gaza Mon Amor [Palestine/France, Tarzan & Arab Nasser, 3] Middle-aged fisherman discovers a Greek statue and courts a wary dress shop clerk. Deliberately paced dramedy of life under oppression.

Concrete Cowboy [US, Ricky Staub, 3] After yet another expulsion from school, a troubled teen (Caleb McLaughlin) gets dumped for the summer with his father (Idris Elba), who belongs to Philadelphia’s threatened culture of inner city horse owners. A rich social milieu is the star of the show in this affirming drama, which could do with a stronger drive to activate its protagonist.

I Care a Lot [UK, J Blakeson, 3] Corrupt legal guardian (Rosamund Pike) who slaps unsuspecting seniors into care facilities to bleed them dry triggers a cat-and-mouse game when her latest prey (Dianne Wiest) turns out to be the mother of a wealthy gangster (Peter Dinklage.) Engaging thriller— until it betrays the contract it has established with the audience.

Not Recommended

Memory House [Brazil, João Paulo Miranda Maria, 1] Racist harassment from German co-workers drives dairy worker to vengeance. Blunts the political anger of its subject matter with enervating pacing.

September 20, 2020

TIFF Day 10: The Festival Wraps With Some Very Good Dogs

The final day of TIFF 2020 has come and gone and below are my final capsule reviews. I’ll post a full capsule roundup on Monday.

Fauna [Mexico/Canada, Nicolás Pereda, 3.5] Narratives nest within narratives when an actor visits his girlfriend’s family in a sleepy small town. Comic misunderstandings, naturalistic locations and twisting meta-story may remind seasoned festival-goers of the works of Hong Sang-soo, with Coronas instead of soju.

Preparations to Be Together For an Unknown Period of Time [Hungary, Lili Horvát, 4] Top neurologist questions the accuracy of her recollections when she moves back home from the US to Budapest for a romantic rendezvous, only to find that the object of her affections professes not to remember her. Quietly suspenseful drama of psychological uncertainty.

The Truffle Hunters [Italy, Michael Dweck & Gregory Kershaw, 4] An aging generation of Piedmontese truffle hunters carries on the search for the elusive delicacy, fearing the poison bait left for their beloved dogs by ruthless newcomers to the trade. A documentary balm for lovers of food and canines luxuriates in the presence of sumptuously photographed forest eccentrics and their very, very good dogs.

Bandar Band [Iran/Germany, Manijeh Hekmat, 3] A pregnant singer, her husband and their guitarist try to get their van through a floodstruck region to attend a contest gig in Tehran. Neorealist drama where the obstacles in the characters’ path are literal.

The Water Man [US, David Oyelowo, 3.5] Imaginative kid (Lonnie Chavis) heads into the Northwestern forest in search of a legendary immortal, thinking he holds the secret to curing his mom (Rosario Dawson) of leukemia. One of the more successful of a recent wave of films that put a somber sin on 80s kids adventure, thanks to a well-constructed script and Oyelowo’s sure control of tone.

Among the differences of this digital-only fest was that it removed the flexibility to choose between multiple screening dates. In a regular year I program the last days and work backward to end on some combination of stronger and/or lighter selections. Here programmers assigned a 24 hour window for each film. These last movies weren’t what I would have picked as closers in ordinary times. To compensate for this Valerie and I are running a day of fake TIFF programming to simulate the funner final Sunday we usually shoot for. They consist of one film that played at TIFF 2019 and three others from previously-appearing directors. Play along at home by streaming The Vast of Night, The Forest of Love*, Mr. & Mrs. Adelman, and Ace Attorney.

*Update: Turns out this one is ultra-disturbing and in no way fun or light. Going into something with mistaken tonal expectations—just like the real TIFF!


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus.

September 19, 2020

TIFF Day 9: A Gorgeous Adoption Drama from Japan & Deadpan Hebridean Bleakness

Wildfire [UK/Ireland, Cathy Brady, 3.5] After going missing for a year, a bipolar woman (Nika McGuigan) drops in on her sister (Nora-Jane Noone), opening the wounds of shared tragedy. Raw, unsubtle family drama against the backdrop of Northern Irish politics as Brexit threatens a fragile peace.

The film is dedicated to the memory of lead actor McGuigan, who died of cancer last year.

40 Years a Prisoner [US, Tommy Oliver, 4] Documentary recounts the 1978 standoff between members of radical Black back-to-nature organization MOVE and Philadelphia police through the efforts of the son of two of the group members to secure their parole. A strong emotional hook greatly assists in telling a tenaciously complicated story.

I would like to have seen more on the genesis of the group and the first stages of their conflict with the mayor and police. So much needs to be unwound in the 1978 standoff that the even more astonishing story of a 1985 confrontation, which resulted in Philadelphia authorities dropping a satchel bomb from a helicopter, killing 11 and burning down 65 houses, goes unmentioned here. Another doc I haven’t seen, Let the Fire Burn, focuses on that part of the story.

True Mothers [Japan, Naomi Kawase, 4.5] Parents of a kindergartner react with dismay when a woman contacts them claiming to be his birth mother. Luminous, delicate drama of shifting perspectives.

Limbo [UK, Ben Sharrock, 4] Syrian oud player grapples with guilt over family left behind as he cools his heels with other refugee claimants at a center in the bleak and isolated Outer Hebrides. Moments of deadpan humor and stark landscapes layer this exploration of displacement.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus.

September 18, 2020

TIFF Day 8: Cottage Country Art-Horror

Pieces of a Woman [US, Kornél Mundruczó, 3.5] Grief tears a couple (Vanessa KIrby, Shia LaBeouf) apart after the death of their baby in childbirth, abetted by the insistence of her domineering mother (Ellen Burstyn) that they pursue legal action against their midwife (Molly Parker.) Wrenching drama marked by deep performances and key long take scenes. An otherwise masterful script reaches for the conventional when it hits its climax.

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel [Canada, Joel Bakan & Jennifer Abbott, 4] Polemical documentary deploys narration, stock footage and talking heads (some appearing via lockdown video conference) to survey corporate capitalism and the struggle against it from Reaganomics to COVID and the George Floyd protests. Comprehensive primer for the prospective young progressives includes a call to continued electoral action.

The doc starts by tackling apparently public-minded initiatives as Trojan Horses for privatization. It is a Crave Original. Crave, Canada’s premium cable/streaming service, is a division of Bell, one half of our reigning telecom duopoly and the lead sponsor of the Toronto International Film Festival

Violation [Canada, Madeleine Sims-Fewer & Dusty Mancinelli, 4] Woman (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) exacts meticulous revenge after her brother-in-law rapes her. Although this jarring, meditative drama includes gruesome imagery and horror-exploitation motifs, it’s closer in spirit to Michael Haneke than Dario Argento or Wes Craven.

Many years the power of coincidence throws up an unintended motif running through many of the movies we pick. Past examples have included cats, stress vomiting, animal slaughter, and teddy bears. This year’s motif: plastic bags as a suffocation weapon.

Falling [US, Viggo Mortensen, 3] Pathologically forbearing airline pilot (Mortensen) attempts to find a new situation for his lifelong miserable prick of a father (Lance Henriksen) as his dementia worsens. With one character incapable of change and another not needing to change, almost all of the scenes repeat the same dynamic.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus.

September 17, 2020

TIFF Day 7: Concert Films are the New Concerts

Beans [Canada, Tracey Deer, 4] As the 1990 Oka standoff envelops her Mohawk community, a shy tween achiever (Kiawentiio) decides to toughen up by ingratiating herself to the tough kids. Mixing the docudrama and coming-of-age structures offsets the inherent trickiness of both, but it wouldn’t work without an appealing and touching performance from its charismatic young lead.

Akilla’s Escape [Canada, Charles Officer, 4] Weed dealer hoping to leave the business (Saul Wiliiams) tries to recover his boss’ ripped-off cash and product without sacrificing a young gang member who reminds him of his younger self. Moody, laconic crime drama contextualized by the political history of Jamaican gangsterism.

Williams, a recording artist, also supplies the score. The kinds of films that play at the festival often economize by favoring black credit  screens over full title sequences, so it’s always a bracing change of pace to see a well-done one. The title sequence for this not only delivers a welcome jolt of mood and energy but does a lot of the storytelling work that would otherwise have to be done with expository dialogue.

New Order [Mexico, Michel Franco, 4] A wedding thrown by a wealthy family during a growing insurrection suffers a murderous attack by protestors and the kidnapping of the bride. Wildly disturbing vision of political violence and degradation takes its time unreeling its allegorical purpose.

David Byrne’s American Utopia [US, Spike Lee, 4] Filmed version of the Broadway version of David Byrne’s recent tour features joyous choreography, simple but arresting stagecraft, and songs from his Talking Heads and solo eras. When you shoot a concert film featuring David Byrne, you have to bring it, and Lee does that ably, finding countlesss different ways to shoot within a proscenium.

David Byrne has always been a hugely important artist to me, but I was surprised how moved I was to get to feel that I was at a live concert.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus.

September 16, 2020

TIFF Day 6: Gay Teen Melodrama, A Brilliant Anthony Hopkins Performance, and Epic Municipal Poetry

City Hall [US, Frederick Wiseman, 4] The latest of Wiseman’s distinctive epic-length observational documentaries studies the quotidian, procedural and human moments of human life as seen through the processes of municipal government in Boston, as held together by the thoughtful charisma of Mayor Martin Walsh. Improbably absorbing as always, this institutional cross-section offers a beguiling vision of an oasis of good government in the USA.

In a normal year I’d wait for the four and a half hour Wiseman documentary to arrive on television rather than taking up two time slots to watch it from the confines of a cinema seat at TIFF. But this is not such a year and with a digital screening you get a pause button when you need it. This is bound for PBS and due to the breadth of its subject matter will serve as an excellent introduction to those unfamiliar with this pillar of the documentary form. Or track down 2017’s Ex Libris, about the New York Public Library. In North America Wiseman’s filmography can be found on the Kanopy platform, which you may be able to access through your public library system.

The Father [UK, Florian Zeller, 4] Retired engineer (Anthony Hopkins) struggles to piece together the confusing reality of his living circumstances as his daughter (Olivia Colman) copes with his progressing dementia. Impeccably performed stage play adaptation puts the viewer inside the contradictory shifts of the protagonist’s subjective viewpoint.

Forget Draculas and Cthulhus. This is the real terror.

Summer of 85 [France, Francois Ozon, 4] Love between two young men in a French beach town leads to a bizarre crime. Teen emotions run high in a sunlit melodrama of Eros and Thanatos.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus.

September 15, 2020

TIFF Day 5: If You Drop the Weights He Vituperates You, But If You Lift Them He Sings About Ducks

The Inconvenient Indian [Canada, Michelle Latimer, 4] Essay-format documentary examines the Indigenous struggle for sovereignty and cultural reclamation in North America, as hosted by novelist Thomas King and inspired by his nonfiction book of the same name. Makes its case through cinematic language, pushing the archival footage and talking heads format to the background.

Beginning [Georgia, Dea Kulumbegashvili, 4] Depressed wife of a pastor bears the brunt of a persecution campaign from a local man hostile to their minority Baptist faith. The camera acts as a pitiless eye in this harsh, austere drama of pervasive male oppression.

I Care a Lot [UK, J Blakeson, 3] Corrupt legal guardian (Rosamund Pike) who slaps unsuspecting seniors into care facilities to bleed them dry triggers a cat-and-mouse game when her latest prey (Dianne Wiest) turns out to be the mother of a wealthy gangster (Peter Dinklage.) Engaging thriller— until it betrays the contract it has established with the audience.

Concrete Cowboy [US, Ricky Staub, 3] After yet another expulsion from school, a troubled teen (Caleb McLaughlin) gets dumped for the summer with his father (Idris Elba), who belongs to Philadelphia’s threatened culture of inner city horse owners. A rich social milieu is the star of the show in this affirming drama, which could do with a stronger drive to activate its protagonist.

Lift Like a Girl [Egypt, Mayye Zayed, 4] From ages 13 to 18, under the tutelage of a volcanic, motormouth coach, with a rubble-strewn lot on a busy Alexandria street, weightlifter Zebiba trains to be a champion. Fly-on-the-wall documentary inhabits a hardscrabble community powered by loving verbal abuse.

The coach and his key athletes denigrate the skills of male lifters, while constantly referring to the girls as boys, urging them to man up, and telling them they need to grow balls if they want to win.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus.

September 14, 2020

TIFF Day 4: Masterful Performances from Frances McDormand and Mads Mikkelsen

Nomadland [US, Chloé Zhao, 5] When her town closes down in the wake of its gypsum mine’s closure, a self-reliant widow (Frances McDormand) moves into her van and joins the ranks of the nomad subculture, people who rove the US, taking whatever hard work they can get and living out of their vehicles. Rooted in social realist cinema, marked by a triad of transcendent qualities: poetic visual beauty, an indelible central performance and a deep love for the characters from the writer/director.

This is from Searchlight, formerly Fox Searchlight, now part of the Disney empire, so you’ll get a chance to see it. Likely as part of awards season, whatever the heck that’s gonna look like this year. Normally I don’t spend festival slots on titles with distribution but that’s out the window in the COVID-verse.

(At the moment cinemas are open, with distancing, here in Ontario but if you look at the numbers we’re in the early denial phase of a reimposition of lockdown measures. Whatever the deal is I don’t plan to be inside a theater in any foreseeable time frame.)

Her next project is a huge pivot from poetic verite dramas like this and The Rider— Marvel’s The Eternals. 

Memory House [Brazil, João Paulo Miranda Maria, 1] Racist harassment from German co-workers drives dairy worker to vengeance. Blunts the political anger of its subject matter with enervating pacing.

Another Round [Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg, 4.5] Burned out high school teacher (Mads Mikkelsen) embarks with three colleagues on an experiment to enhance their performance by maintaining a blood alcohol level of 0.5% throughout their days at work. Not only an original booze movie, but a big one, full of turns and ambiguities, and an utterly masterful performance from Mikkelsen.

Shadow in the Cloud [New Zealand, Roseanne Liang, 4] When an WWII RAF Flight Officer (Chloe Grace Moretz) boards a Samoa-bound cargo plane bearing a mysterious package, a monstrous gremlin on board is just one of the surprises. Enclosed space horror-action thriller tips an 80s-style hat to Carpenter and Cameron.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus.

September 13, 2020

TIFF Day 3: Yakuza Redemption

Gaza Mon Amor [Palestine/France, Tarzan & Arab Nasser, 3] Middle-aged fisherman discovers a Greek statue and courts a wary dress shop clerk. Deliberately paced dramedy of life under oppression.

The Way I See It [US, Dawn Porter, 3.5] Documentary profile of Obama-era Official White House photographer traces his arc from work for the Reagan administration to anti-Trump social media gunslinger. Whether American viewers consider this slickly fashioned film heartfelt or sentimental will depend on party registration. It’s certainly explicitly framed to fire up Democrats to get out there to de-elect the current president.

Under the Open Sky [Japan, Miwa Nishikawa, 4] Out of prison after a long sentence, an aging yakuza (Koji Yakusho) struggles with his volcanic temper as he attempts to go straight. Bittersweet drama anchored by a lead performance from Yakusho, a mainstay of contemporary Japanese cinema.

Penguin Bloom [Australia, Glendyn Ivin, 3] A former surfer left paralyzed from the chest down by a freak accident reluctantly bonds with a magpie chick named Penguin, which one of her young sons has rescued. Sun-dappled animal-related family drama about the depression and anger that can accompany a life-changing injury.

In a regular year I would definitely have programmed Under the Open Sky, and would possibly have picked Gaza Mon Amor, depending on its position on the schedule grid.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus.

September 12, 2020

TIFF Day 2: Tales About Wizards from an African Prison & Zombies in the Taiwanese Parliament

Shiva Baby [US, Emma Seligman, 4] The ambient social pressures of a post-funeral gathering skyrocket for a directionless college student (Rachel Sennott) when attendees include not only the expected ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) but also the sex work client she’s caught feelings for. Knife-edge comedy of emotional suffocation uses a plucky suspense score for that extra frisson of social anxiety.

If you've been missing family events during the pandemic, this film is the cure for that. Polly Draper and Fred Melamed appear as the loving but insufferably intrusive parents.

Night of the Kings [Côte d'Ivoire/France , Philippe Lacôte, 4] When the red moon rises over MACA, the Ivory Coast’s toughest prison, its inmate boss appoints the new arrival as storyteller—a post that results in death if the tale ends before sundown. Prison drama with compelling narrative hook widens out to encompass ancient warfare, contemporary politics, and even a wizard duel.

Spring Blossom [France, Suzanne Lindon, 4] Bored with her classmates, an awkward 16 year old (played by the writer-director) pursues her attraction for a ruggedly handsome stage actor (Arnaud Valois.) Character drama sets aside the sexual aspect of this staple French cinema situation to focus on the emotion, periodically breaking from naturalism to have its characters express their feelings through dance.

This year’s Q&As are Zoom interviews between the programmers and filmmakers, which drop on YouTube when the films become available for online viewing. In the Q&A for this one we discover that the director wrote it when she was 15, a year younger than her character. She’s 20 now. Lindon is the daughter of well-known French actors Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain.

Get the Hell Out [Taiwan, I-Fan Wang, 4] Taiwan’s notoriously pugilistic parliament tips into arterial spray when the effluent of a controversial chemical plant triggers a zombie epidemic. Zombie comedy features an eye-searing palette and an onslaught of optical overlays, and is paced like a quarter kilo of crushed Adderall. 

It’s quite an achievement to find the worst hue of every color on the visible spectrum. Fortunately the underlying message, that government officials would respond to a pandemic by idiotically making it worse, has no bearing on anything that comes to mind.


Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus.

September 11, 2020

TIFF DAY 1: Chilling at Home With Werner Herzog and Some Meteors

It’s that time of year again—but what a different year. The Toronto International Film Festival, COVIDVERSE edition, has begun.

The show must go on, though with a slate one-fifth of the usual size.

There are distanced and drive-in screenings, but we are forgoing those entirely in favor of digital screenings. For $19 - $26 a pop, viewers in Canada who grabbed tickets in time can watch on digital devices. Options include Chromecast, so we’ll be hunkering down in front of our home theater setup for a total of 39 films. No TIFF unfolds without technical problems, but this time an entire new set of them awaits!

Many rights holders are sitting on completed films hoping to launch them when normalcy returns to film exhibition. TIFF 2020 titles skew less toward the offbeat genre items that make up my typical must-see list and more to documentary, Canadian and generally serious fare. I did snap up tickets for the three Midnight Madness titles.

Normally we see 45 films each. We’ll be filling in the gaps with titles already on streaming services. Most years there’s a documentary about film near the start of the fest, so I’ve found one of those. We usually strive to stack up fun, poppier choices on the last Sunday, so I’ve picked out a substitute slate to replicate that. To not be weird, I’ll be putting capsule reviews of those flicks in our weekly Ken and Robin Consume Media feature, not here.

Pandemic Festival tosses our finely-tuned logistical routines, honed over 34 years, out the window. I’m sure you’re all anxious to hear about the profound changes this wreaks on our snack game.   

I’ve drawn up a specific schedule of screening times to keep us on track, with break times marked. Finally we can pause TIFF films for brief naps. We’ll be making a point to go out and speed-walk around the block to mimic the salutary effects of dashing between venues.

And as for the dudes loudly voicing wrong movie opinions while we’re packed, sardine-style, in line-ups at the Lightbox or Scotiabank, well, we’ll just have to imagine what they had to say about opening night:

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds [US, Werner Herzog & Clive Oppenheimer, 4] Documentary explores the science and mythology of meteor, from Chicxulub to ʻOumuamua. The intersection between scientific discovery and religious awe, central to all of Herzog’s gorgeous, delightful nature docs, rises from subtext to text through the intercession of traditional elders, joyful researchers, and the Jesuit scholar of the Vatican’s heaven stone collection.

Enemies of the State [US, Sonia Kennebeck, 4] Documentary pulls apart a labyrinth of contradictory evidence around Matthew DeHart, an Indiana man who was framed for child pornography by the FBI as part of a Wikleaks espionage case, or created a story of secret files to shield himself either cooked up a Wikileaks-related espionage smokescreen to mask his sex crimes. Invites the viewer to join a filmmaking team as it goes ever deeper down a rabbit hole.



Capsule review boilerplate: Ratings are out of 5. I’ll be collecting these reviews in order of preference in a master post the Monday after the fest. Films shown on the festival circuit will appear in theaters, disc and/or streaming over the next year plus. 

September 04, 2020

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Chief Plant Health Officer

In the latest episode of their planchette-moving podcast, Ken and Robin talk historical isms, a man in a barrel, unsolicited seeds, and Ouija board inventor Elijah Bond.

August 14, 2020

August 07, 2020

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: You May Be Competent

In the latest episode of their tightly-wrapped podcast, Ken and Robin talk vampire firewalling, the espionage of Jan van Eyck, weird war mummies, and the Quasi War.

July 31, 2020

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: The Mystical Land of Hat

In the latest episode of their tantalizing podcast, Ken and Robin talk GMing war for ex-military players, Toronto tow truck gang wars, world-breaking words, and ‘Oumuamua.

July 24, 2020

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: It Would Totally Match Her Raven

In the latest episode of their inescapable podcast, Ken and Robin talk forecasting player behavior, cats, the creative importance of napping, Loie Fuller, and saving Houdini.

July 17, 2020

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Toss In Your Werecows

In the latest episode of their ennui-destroying podcast, Ken and Robin talk interesting boredom, Lair of the White Worm, John Carpenter's Aliens, and the occult battle of Kursk.

June 26, 2020

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Chorus Cubed

In the latest episode of their not-distracted-by-the-woman-in-red podcast, Ken and Robin talk meme-filled meta-kibitzing, Montreal Open City, present tense in fantasy fiction, and the RFK-Scooby Doo time ripple.

June 05, 2020

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Dragons Love Merch

In the latest episode of their awesomely helmeted podcast, Ken and Robin talk automatic successes, imperiled Czech mayors, the secrets of Valhalla Cat, and Nicolas Roerich.

May 22, 2020

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Submarine for Sea Ghouls

In the latest episode of their intrepid podcast, Ken and Robin talk Sense Trouble, fatbergs, William Stephenson, and doomsday predictor Albert Porta.