September 20, 2021

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Capsule Reviews

Another weird year, another weird TIFF. This year the festival brought back more in-person events while also running a version of their at-home streaming track. Valerie and I did the on-line version, which this time was restricted to a maximum of 20 titles.

For years TIFF has been intentionally or otherwise making it incrementally more difficult to do the event diehard style, as we have always done. Often it announces changes that blindside longtime loyalists—sometimes, as this year, after they’ve purchased their expensive memberships and ticket packages. This time around they surprised us by taking a tier of titles that any other year would be available through the package we purchased and moving them into a premium package previously reserved for the most publicized Gala films. For good measure, they threw in a couple of other medium-sized irritants.

To recreate something closer to our usual experience, we programmed another 25 titles already available on streaming platforms. Some actually played TIFF in the past; others were the types of movies that could have played the fest but didn’t.

I’m glad that we did, because the TIFF titles we were allowed to choose from included all of the duds of a normal year and none of the surprise masterpieces. Granted, it was a miracle that any films got made this year, and those that did tended toward the sorts of modest chamber pieces that could be produced under COVID protocol conditions.

This year crystallized a gradually growing realization we’ve been trying to suppress. So much has changed in the world of international cinema, from the festival’s position in their life cycle, to their subsequent availability, and even the style of the movies themselves, has completely changed since we started doing this in the mid 80s.

We have always gone to the fest for great films that we could otherwise never see, and started doing it in the VHS era. We don’t care about seeing things before anyone else does, or seeing the stars wave at us from the stage beforehand, or hearing audience members ask directors rambling questions afterwards. Even the virtues of a big screen experience are blunted by a dirty secret — a packed TIFF venue is not actually an ideal place to see a movie. Talkers and smartphone screens abound in every screening, and the bigger venues they convert into movie theaters for ten days are universally terrible.

You’d think that programming films from existing streaming platforms eliminates the other key part of fest-going, the surprise from out of nowhere. Except we got more of those with our alternate schedule than we did with the official titles this year.

In other words, after 36 years we are retiring from our vacation. Next year we’ll be doing a fully alternate replica of TIFF as we think of it from the past. The old rodeo is dead. Long live the new rodeo.

Here then is my final set of Toronto International Film Festival capsule reviews.

(Capsules for the 2021 Robin and Valerie International Film Festival will drop over time in Ken and Robin Consume Media.)


Murina (Croatia, Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović) Teen (Gracija Filipovic) chafes at the agitated authority of her command-barking father (Leon Lucev) as he hosts a rich, glamorous old friend (Cliff Curtis) to try to sell him on a resort proposal. Taut, superbly acted family drama set against the stunning yet slightly sinister beauty of the rocky Croatian coastline.

Saloum (Senegal, Jean Luc Herbulot) Three gunslingers—the mastermind, the hard case, and the magic user—take an unscheduled pit stop at an eccentric communal resort, which harbors horrible secrets of both the man-made and supernatural varieties. Gorgeously shot, tightly edited contemporary horror western with political resonance and cool monster design.

Compartment No. 6 (Finland, Juho Kuosmanen) Traveling alone on a trip she was supposed to take with her Muscovite professor girlfriend, a Finnish archaeology student finds herself sharing a compartment on the train to Murmansk with a loutish miner. Naturalistic light romantic drama of human connection overcoming barriers of class and personality.

OUT OF SYNC (Spain, Juanjo Giménez Peña) Isolated sound mixer (Marta Nieto) is unnerved to suffer a strange delay in her hearing, which becomes all the more inexplicable as it worsens. Realist weird tale makes smart use of cinema’s relationship between sight and sound. 

Zalava (Iran, Arsalan Amiri) In pre-Revolutionary Iranian Kurdistan, a pig-headed police sergeant interferes with a djinn exorcism, sparking village hysteria. Tale of communal terror and its hazards generates suspense by skillfully modulating its pace.

Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Indonesia, Edwin) After meeting cute by beating the crap out of each other at a construction site, two lovers navigate the vicissitudes of fidelity, vengeance, and impotence. A martial arts flick that isn’t an action movie, but rather an allegorical romantic drama with elements of satire and magic realism to go with its bruising 70s style fights.

Hold Your Fire (US, Stefan Forbes) Documentary recreates the 1973 robbery-turned-hostage incident in which a group of young black Sunni men hoped to steal guns from a sporting goods shop to protect themselves from the Nation of Islam, in which the beginnings of hostage negotiation techniques were created and implemented on the fly. Archival footage and compelling retrospective interviews illuminate a complicated narrative with resonances into the present day.

A Banquet (UK, Ruth Paxton) After her husband’s death, a brittle woman (Sienna Guillory) struggles with her eldest daughter’s (Jessica Alexander) visionary transformation, which has taken away her need to eat. Slow burn realist cosmic horror filters eating disorders, emotional control and female rage.

Kicking Blood (Canada, Blaine Thurier) Vampire (Alanna Bale) connects with a detoxing alcoholic, prompting her to reconsider preying on humans. Frosty supernatural indie drama extends the vampire-as-addiction metaphor.

Yuni (Indonesia, Kamila Andini) High schooler with a yen for purple chafes at the narrow expectations her religious school, family and village have for her.  Observational social drama enlivened by a vivid color palette.


The Daughter (Spain, Manuel Martín Cuenca) Teacher at a juvenile detention center helps a pregnant 14-year old escape so she can live secretly with him and his wife at their mountain home and give them the baby when it is born. Ultra-restrained domestic thriller could stand a notch or two less restraint.

Dug Dug (India, Ritwik Pareek)  A local saint cult springs up when a motorbike keeps mysteriously returning to the site of its owner’s death. Gentle satire of faith and religious merchandising shows the sort of color and verve that raises hopes for a fresh wave of Indian art cinema.

Tug of War (Tanzania, Amil Shivji) A callow Marxist subversive falls for an Indian girl who has escaped her arranged marriage in British-controlled 1950s Zanzibar. Political romantic drama adopts the language of classic Hollywood glamor, albeit without the magnetic movie star performances the style depends on. Based on a classic Tanzanian novel.


Earwig (France, Lucile Hadžihalilović) In a creepy manor, an anxious loner (Paul Hilton) looks after a girl with teeth made of ice, at the behest of mysterious masters. The director’s first English language film pushes her dream narratives of childhood transformation into the far fringes of austerity.

Not Recommended

You Are Not My Mother (Ireland, Kate Dolan) A withdrawn teen’s depressed mother briefly disappears, prefiguring the revelation of a supernatural family secret. Contemporary folk horror with stronger direction than script, with extensive foreshadowing genre fans will be well ahead of and an inactive menace that doesn’t do enough to propel the story.

Snakehead (US, Evan Jackson Leong) Smuggled immigrant (Shuya Chang) works off her debt by acting as the right hand to the matriarch (Jade Wu) of an NYC Chinatown crime family. Socially conscious gangland drama features the bane of longtime documentarians turning their hand to fiction:  awkward, exposition-heavy scripting.

Arthur Rambo (France, Laurent Cantet) Rising literary star (Rabah Nait Oufella) plummets when the hate-filled tweets of his old alter ego resurface. Refined, uncinematic debate film presents thesis, antithesis, and credits.

Medusa (Brazil, Anita Rocha da Silveira) Member of AN ultra-right Christian school’s violent, pallid-masked theocratic girl gang  goes undercover at a coma ward in search of a disfigured model. Overlong, unfocused political allegory references the horror genre, chiefly by adopting Dario Argento’s color palette.

After Blue (Dirty Paradise) (France, Bertrand Mandico) On a psychedelic alien world, a young outcast (Paula Luna) frees the statuesque, wish-granting death-dealer Kate Bush and she must accompany her hairdresser mother (Elina Löwensohn) on a quest to hunt her down. Invokes the spirits of Jodorowsky and Barbarella for a sleepwalk trudge through an arbitrary sequence of dream-logic events. Like its influences it is perhaps intended for a chemically altered audience.

La Soga 2 (US, Manny Perez) Dominican hitman (Perez) has gotten out and is living with a devoted new girlfriend, until a corrupt CIA officer pulls him back in. Scrappy microbudget crime flick is Dominican.