Fantasia Film Festival 2021 Review: Baby Money

Written by Maria Athayde

50/100

Baby Money directed by Mikhael Bassilli and Luc Walpoth hangs on a simple premise, a couple down on their luck, facing eviction, and expecting a baby partake in a home robbery gone wrong. This was a competent debut feature and much more subdued than I expected. Like me, if you go into this expecting an all out end to end action packed crime thriller you will certainly be disappointed. However, if you go in with zero-expectations this character-driven suspense piece might be right for you.

What makes Baby Money work in part is Danay Garcia’s Minny. While the acting was competent throughout it is Garcia’s performance that really shone. Garcia carried much of the weight of this movie. The way she was able to expertly balance the emotion, thrills, and fear as the events unfolded were the most thrilling part of the film. Like I emphasized earlier the performances make this more of a character study than an action packed thriller.

Besides Garcia’s performance I also enjoyed how the events unfolded in almost real time. Baby Money would have been a more thrilling ride with a tighter script and additional character development especially in the storyline involving Taja V. Simpson’s and Vernon Taylor III’s respective characters. A good way to boil down and describe the essence of the film would be as Safdie-esque but without their budget, brains, polish, and style.

Baby Money Trailer

Baby Money was screened as part of the Fantasia Film Festival 2021.

You can follow Maria Manuella Pache de Athayde on LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of what she’s up to here.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Jockey

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Every time you get on a horse, you roll the dice. If it’s a good day, then you listen to each other, you forgive mistakes, you work in tandem; if it’s a bad day, well, you might find yourself with rattled nerves and a few bruises, or in an ambulance, or in a grave. For aging jockey Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr.) in Clint Bentley’s film Jockey, he’s had enough bad days for a lifetime, but while he knows his days are numbered, he refuses to face the fact. He lives in a trailer, he drinks, he smokes, his back has been broken more than once, and his right side occasionally goes numb, but still Jackson gets up before dawn to exercise trainer Ruth’s (Molly Parker) horses, riding and racing until the sun sets and then doing it all again. 

Everything in Jackson’s life has a certain familiarity to it: he’s respected around the Arizona race track he calls home, he has a close relationship with Ruth, his friendship with his fellow jockeys—many of whom are played by real jockeys, in the same vein as Chloé Zhao’s The Rider—is steady and strong. He’s able to ignore his aches and pains and inevitable retirement until a jockey named Gabriel (Moises Arias) shows up, claiming to be Jackson’s son.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

For being a “horse movie,” there’s remarkably little fanfare about the animals or sport. There’s a slight focus on a new filly Ruth has bought, one which spurs Jackson to get back into top shape and lose extra weight so he can sit light atop the horse. The races are either shown on a grainy TV in the jockey’s locker room or focus only on Jackson’s face, with Collins’ performance (and the amount of dirt hitting his face) letting us know the results. Bentley, the son of a jockey, focuses instead on the riders, avoiding the pageantry and fanfare often associated with racing movies and opting instead for a quieter, more introspective take on the jockeys. 

Though initially hostile to Gabriel, Jackson begins to warm up to him, taking him under his wing and getting him a position with Ruth. There are no big revelatory or overly emotional moments between the potential father/son duo, though their relationship—tentative and halting—remains affecting nonetheless. This forms the emotional cornerstone of the film rather than Jackson’s relationship with the filly or his desires to win a certain race, and so while Jockey is a “horse movie,” it’s a character study for Jackson, and Collins provides ample material to parse with his stunning performance. Though Arias and Parker put in great performances, Collins wins this particular race by several lengths. Jackson’s not unlike the animals he rides: you have to tell a horse when to stop, as Ruth says, or else they’ll just keep running until they give out, and Jackson keeps pushing himself closer and closer to the edge.

It’s nothing particularly groundbreaking—an aging athlete grapples with his physical decline—but it deals with a corner of the world that typically gets the glossy Hollywood treatment, something that Jockey staunchly refuses to do. It treats the athletes and the sport with care, but never glamorizes their situation; they exist on the fringes of the American West, carving out their own existence in the lonely beauty of predawn Arizona racetracks, shot with care by cinematographer Adolpho Veloso. The narrative might be too thin at times, but the mood is rich, and Collins’ performance, all the more powerful for its understatement, makes Jockey a decent bet.

Jockey was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Neptune Frost

Written by Patrick Hao

60/100

Science fiction narratives have always been more a reflection of the present than about the future. Multi-media musician Saul Williams and Rwandan director Anisia Uzeyman use the genre in their collaboration, Neptune Frost, to make an Afro-futurist musical attempting to navigate the state of present-day Rwanda through the exploitation of First World capitalism in the age of modern technology. If that sounds like mouthful, that’s because Neptune Frost is filled with ambition and provocation but sometimes feels burdened by its capital “T” themes.

The film is set in a dystopic Rwandan village in which the population is being exploited by villagers to mine coltan for tech products. One of the miners, Malatusa (Kaya Free), rebels against the harsh treatment of the laborers and attempts a revolution. In this process, Malatusa forms a romantic bond through a cosmic internet-adjacent connection with the intersex leader of a hacker collective, Neptune (played by both Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja). The two actors playing Neptune are used as a physical manifestation of intersexuality and is one of the many manifestations of abstract concepts throughout the film.

The ideas in the film are rich and ripe for exploration. It makes sense that Williams and Uzeyman chose to tell the story in the form of a musical, in which the music allows its songs to bluntly state the themes. The musical scenes are didactic, but in a film that is swirling with ideas and abstraction, audiences may appreciate the directness.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

The way the interconnectivity of the internet is portrayed in the film seems especially astute. The chants of the protesting miners start a revolution through its reach. The internet is manifested as a world of metal wires and neon hues and serves as a possible utopia for those under global oppression. The world created is akin to an Electric Zoo festival buoyed by the electric synth soundtrack. But, just as soon as the internet is a tool for freedom, it becomes a tool of oppression as well.

The real asset of the film is the retrofuturist costume and set design that grounds the horror of this modern-day dystopia. The ruins of “future tech” are everywhere in the impoverished village and are designed in a way that grounds it to the modern age. This effectively creates a tangibility to this premonition the same way George Miller did in the original Mad Max. The design also speaks to the cyclic nature of the exploitation of the resource rich continent.

There is a palpable anger and frustration felt by the filmmakers that these cycles are still occurring to this day. But this is not necessarily a cynical movie. Rather the vitality of the music and of the performers point to the pride in perseverance of African laborers. Neptune Frost, however, is somewhere in the middle of being too abstract for a mainstream audience but too narrative driven to truly relish in its abstraction. The film does not always hold together, but its complications and richness points to the complexity of the problems it chooses to highlight. It’s hard to condense thousands of years of anger towards the global exploitation of a country into a 100-minute film.

Neptune Frost Trailer

Neptune Frost was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Comala

Written by Taylor Baker

35/100

Comala starts with a denial. The documentarian is interviewing his mother, and she says “no” over a dozen times in reference to whether or not her husband was a hitman. We can’t tell if she’s in denial or just doesn’t know about who he was. It’s an engrossing opening that feels personal. What follows is meandering film that deteriorates when attempting to convey meaning that haphazardly buoys up in the end during a subsequent introspective interview once again with his mother.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Gian Cassini forces perspective from external lighting sources. Casting a single beam of light on carefully laid out images adorning a table. They mean nothing to the viewer. He the looks into a MacBook at other images. They to are absent any force. Emotional or narrative. Gian then uses a projector to project a couple of those images onto his face, in an attempt to convey thoughtful intent. What we actually get is a shabby, incongruent, choice that lacks any tact and causes distrust in addition to dislike of our storyteller.

It’s easy to see why this first time film was shelved for three years. It stumbles around from meticulously staged shots that reek of unsubtle meaning, to personal handheld interviews with family members and friends of Gian’s father, and neighborhood walks through old haunts. Rather than Comala being a story about a man, the hitman the interview starts out with, it’s about the filmmaker. His childhood and how he sees himself. It rings hollow, as a boy who’s not yet a man trying to figure out who and what he is from external sources rather than his own actions. A large ego can ruin a good film, at minimum that’s the case here. There will surely be films of great quality and merit in the future that explore histories of violence among family members in Mexico, this is not that film.

Comala Trailer

Comala was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: As In Heaven (Du som er i himlen)

Written by Patrick Hao

63/100

As In Heaven is probably the most unconventional horror film of the year. The scares don’t come from any ghouls, ghosts, or monsters. But rather the oppressive societal and religious norms set upon women.

A veteran director of Danish television, Tea Lindeburg is making her feature film debut with assured style. Based on a 1912 Danish novel, A Night of Death, As in Heaven follows a day in the life of a 19th century teenager, Lise (Flora Ofelia Hofmann Lindahl). Her home is a pastoral farm filled with boisterous children and austere adults. Lise is days away from leaving to go to school, a position not many women in the community have.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Linderburg is able to shrewdly capture a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood. She is still young enough to be full of play, but old enough to become desirous. The camera places us into Lise’s perspective, weaving in and out of corridors and fields alongside the children.

Throughout an overwhelming red cloud is cast upon Lise, a very on the nose metaphor of impending doom – the doom being the natural angst created from the tension of strictures of religion and curiosity. This comes to a head as Lise’s pregnant mother begins to have a difficult birth that could end her life.

While the metaphors and themes are on the nose, Lindeburg explores them deftly. She never leaves the POV of Lise as she processes the potential outcomes of her mother’s predicaments. The way Lise views the older adults around her is how we come to view them. From there, the horror develops as the slow realizations of her fate begin to take hold.The 86-minute runtime might be the only thing holding As In Heaven back from being a really great film. Tea Lindeburg packs a lot of ideas into the film, and not all of them get ample amount of time to develop satisfyingly. But, with everything in the news from the vaccination requirement debate to the prevalence of opposition to pro choice rights in Texas, As in Heaven might be one of the most understatedly urgent films at TIFF.

As In Heaven was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Violet

Written by Anna Harrison

65/100

Violet’s titular heroine (Olivia Munn) has everything going for her: she’s an attractive and successful Hollywood executive, admired for her talent at choosing scripts and in possession of caring childhood friends, one of whom—named Red (Luke Bracey)—is letting her stay in his multimillion dollar house while Violet’s own multimillion dollar house gets a new kitchen. (Her friends, too, are attractive.) Alas, even for someone like Violet, there’s always “the committee.” “You know,” she tells her friend Lila (Erica Ash), “the voice that tells you you’re a piece of shit.” But in the hands of first-time director Justine Bateman, this voice (embodied by an offscreen Justin Theroux) isn’t just a voice: it’s a bombardment of images of death and decay, a scrawling cursive onscreen displaying Violet’s true desires, a steady crescendo in unsettling music, a red tint that overwhelms the screen at various points in time. 

It’s only through brief hints and flashbacks that we uncover the true source of Violet’s damaging conscience: her mother. Violet allowed her mother’s insults (most especially “you’re a baby,” though why that of all things is the most harmful degradation escapes me) to worm her way into her brain, and even all these years later they persist, snidely telling her to ignore her boss’s (Dennis Boutsikaris) inappropriate comments, to resist telling her friends her problems, and that dating Red would be career suicide as he’s only a lowly screenwriter, despite the fact that Red has been tailor made to be the perfect movie boyfriend; his only flaw is that he isn’t on Violet’s level professionally (apparently). 

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Bateman’s own extensive experience in the industry lends a credibility to Violet’s interactions with those around her as she navigates the treacherous waters of Hollywood, where even for all the bluster with the #MeToo movement so often deals are made with sex, and so often women have to fight tooth and nail to be thought of as anything other than a hunk of meat. (And so often crew members go unappreciated, something Bateman tries to rectify by showcasing Violet’s crewmembers on camera after the credits roll.) While Bateman never directly calls attention to the gender dynamics at play, their presence can be felt nonetheless: Violet worries about being thought of as a bitch, about being too bossy, about appearing ungrateful, about her weight. It’s a very gendered approach to this issue, but never becomes overly didactic or heavy-handed, which makes it all the more effective.

The voiceover and onscreen written words, however, begin to become a bit too much as Violet goes on. The latter, in particular, begins to drift into college slam poetry night territory, and the metaphors become faux deep, self-satisfied fluff (though I’ve never been one for even good slam poetry in the best of times), but Bateman’s addition of these elements shows a unique voice and willingness to play around with the medium that many first time directors do not possess, so I’m inclined to forgive after an exasperated eye roll. Even if the stylistic choices may not always land, the choices themselves are bold and that’s worth at least some merit, though Munn gives a strong enough performance that she doesn’t even need these gimmicks.

Yet for all the doubt that racks her mind and the self-hatred that she grapples with, Violet seems to work through her issues swiftly enough. There’s no one epiphany for her, but rather a series of little victories that seem to have been won handily, and where Bateman avoided being too on-the-nose with her gender commentary, subtlety gets replaced by kitsch for Violet’s final bridge burning, everything wrapping up a little too neatly and with a little too much #girlbossery. But Violet still shows that Bateman has a strong command of her own voice, this bold but imperfect debut still has plenty going for it.

Violet Clip

Violet was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Lorelei

Written by Alexander Reams

72/100

Fog, it distorts the view, while also signaling weather that has and will come. Whether it is while you are driving one morning, or your welcome back to the world after spending 15 years in prison. Such is the case for Wayland, played to perfection by Pablo Schreiber. He spent that much time because he did not snitch on the rest of his biker gang, and was rewarded with a warm welcome home. In the opening shot, composed of said concrete and fog, where Pablo Schreiber’s Wayland gets out of prison after 15 years for not ratting on his biker gang brothers and sisters, then reunites with his old high school sweetheart, Jena Malone’s Lola. From this point it is clear there is something to behold within Sabrina Doyle’s Lorelei. The overall simple look to the film allows the performances to command the screen throughout

The standout of the film is Pablo Schreiber. I have seen him before in roles, but he has never given such a committed, heartbreaking performance. Fully embodying the role of a man who has been torn down to a shred, and then thrust back into society. Bringing a fish out of water aspect to the film since he has been out of society for over 15 years. However, trying to immediately jump back into the life he had before with his biker gang is proven to be fruitless but did make me remember times where I wanted to go back to a certain time, but could not. Jena Malone does a good job, but does not give nearly as good a performance as Schreiber. Which might be unfair to compare given that Schreiber is on a whole other level, but nonetheless it is the nature of criticism to compare performances. 

Sabrina Doyle’s film is one that is full of emotion and life, but does stumble towards the middle. I felt like the middle 30 minutes could have been cut, and made the film quicker in pace. However in that time there are some serious character building moments, but is still frustrating when the unimportant moments are not taking place. I still really enjoyed this film, and hope and pray that Pablo Schrieber will garner some awards buzz come that time. His performance is one of the best of the year and will one that I will soon not forget.

Lorelei Trailer

Lorelei is currently available to rent and purchase on major VOD platforms and is streaming on Hoopla.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021 Review: The Righteous

Written by Taylor Baker

65/100

Mark O’Brien’s directorial debut The Righteous is a severe film detailing Frederic Mason’s (Henry Czerny) and Ethyl Mason (Mimi Kuzuk) next steps after losing their adopted daughter. Near the outset of the film Doris the biological mother is sitting across from Kuzuk’s Ethyl asking about how the service was. She was unable to come due to working at the local steakhouse. It feels like a typical scene at first, until we realize the role each plays, and watching Ethyl try to be strong in front of Doris, while she’s grieving for her lost child internally directly after her funeral.

Following this event Mark O’Brien’s character, Aaron Smith appears under unusual circumstances. He’s hobbled with an injured foot or ankle, and lost in the woods. Frederic agrees to take him in for the night, against Ethyl’s wishes. Ethyl convinces a local cop to stop by on her way home and on her arrival Frederic invents a story, claiming Aaron as his long lost nephew and hustling Officer Hutton on her way. Frederic and Aaron share an odd late night cup of tea, and Frederic wakes up with a start to Aaron and Ethyl cooking and chortling with laughter in the kitchen.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021 

Jason Clarke’s no frills production design, offer a believable secluded cabin and small town feel. Scott McClellan serves as cinematographer and captures a few meticulously crafted shots that are captivatingly lit and terrifically framed. The outdoor sequence detailing Aaron’s arrival is one such particular shot. Editor K. Spencer Jones weaves the film together in a coherent and captivating way that doesn’t seem like it could be improved upon with any change.

While I’m not convinced by O’Brien’s first feature screenplay, it certainly seems like he’s come to play as a director. With masterful lighting, and industrious acting from perennially overlooked performers O’Brien seems to know how to lean on talent. The Righteous might be the first in a long line of films from O’Brien. But the journeys still out on whether those films will continue to be written by him, and I take no satisfaction from my lack of confidence in his writing. I’d be happy to see him grow, and be proven wrong.

The Righteous Clip

The Righteous was screened as part of the Fantasia 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s work on Letterboxd and Rotten Tomatoes.

Fantasia Film Festival 2021 Review: Coming Home in the Dark

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

Coming Home in the Dark serves up a nice slice of idyllicism in its opening minutes as its cameras sweep through the beautiful New Zealand landscape with its lush rolling green hills and blue skies. The family that treks through this vista have their squabbles, as all families do, but Jill (Miriama McDowell) and Alan (Erik Thomson), nicknamed Hoaggie, still love each other, and though they may struggle with their sons Jordan (Frankie Paratene) and Maika (Billy Paratene), it still seems to be one big happy family. The four are preparing to go camping, and all is well until two strangers saunter up and pull out their guns.

The vagabonds are called Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), and though Jill and Hoaggie turn out their pockets and hand them the keys to their car, Mandrake and Tubs stay, the latter silently watching as the former monologues. Tensions are already high, and cinematographer Matt Henley uses plenty of long takes to keep the anxiety bubbling, often obscuring some of a character’s face so the audience has to guess at their expression. Jill, Hoaggie, Jordan, and Maika are all face-down on the ground, and thus the audience can only see Mandrake’s boots and the barrel of his gun; Hoaggie observes Mandrake from the back seat of a car, and viewers only catch a sideways glimpse of his profile. 

And then, in a flurry of shocking violence, first-time director (and co-writer with Eli Kent) James Ashcroft takes Coming Home in the Dark up a notch, kicking gears into something akin to a horror movie, though one that relies on a creeping sense of dread rather than jump scares and gore. Gillies in particular imbues Mandrake with such an edge that every time he opens his mouth the sense of uneasiness grows until it feels like it might choke you—here is proof that not every actor appearing on the CW (Gillies is most known for his role in The Vampire Diaries and its spinoff, The Originals) is just a pretty face. 

But why are Mandrake and Tubs inflicting this violence, both psychological and physical, on Hoaggie, Jill, and their family? Where Coming Home in the Dark separates itself from other thrillers are the urgent ideas running beneath its violent surface: the effect of abuse on both the victim and the abuser, the insidiousness of certain state institutions, the culpability of those who just stand by and watch bad things happen. “There’s a difference between doing something and letting it happen,” Jill says. “There has to be. But they live on the same street.”

Despite Mandrake’s hideous malevolence, as he begins to coax out bits and pieces from Hoaggie’s past (and his own), even a character you had come to trust and sympathize with begins to churn your stomach. It’s quite an impressive debut from Ashcroft, who keeps the film slim and taut, never letting the audience’s anxiety lessen as he teases out the true reason for Mandrake and Tubs’ appearance.

There’s an undercurrent of racial tension at play with Mandrake and Tubs’ relationship and past—Mandrake is white and Tubs is Māori—that rears its head in the finale, but is so subtle that you have to wonder if Ashcroft intended it to be there or we are just grafting an invented conflict onto the film, yet it’s easy to infer the implications. Even if Ashcroft leaves some of these avenues underexplored, Coming Home in the Dark’s moral quandaries still offer plenty of room to get lost in. Much like Mandrake, when it puts its foot on the gas pedal, it rarely slows down, never letting your pulse do anything but race.

Coming Home in the Dark Trailer

Coming Home in the Dark was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Fantasia Film Festival which runs until August 25.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Reminiscence

Written by Alexander Reams

45/100

Most films about the future wish to remember the past as if it was better. Oftentimes the past is the teaching moment for the times ahead, something the future always forgets. Much like Lisa Joy’s directorial debut Reminiscence. In a now flooded Miami, a man (Hugh Jackman) searches for his lost love through an inception-like machine. With these floods came heat, and with that the population became nocturnal to escape the sun. All the while, the rich, colloquially titled “Barons”, live on their own secluded island and leave everyone else to rot. With a film as heavy loaded with CGI, one would assume that they would be great effects, considering who is behind the camera, Joy is one of the co-creators of Westworld, that has some of the best effects on television, and rivals a lot of major studio films. Unfortunately they are mildewed with sets that seep with rushed work. While they elevate some scenes, one standout being a fight in an underwater performance house, they often reminded me I was watching a CG laden film. Especially in action/sci-fi films, I don’t want to remember I am watching something. I love to be swept away in a world of illogical decisions, unrealistic premises that become all too real, and all too personal by the end. 

There are countless films that have taken a piece of this premise and done worlds better in almost every aspect of filmmaking. Lisa Joy clearly has a flair for the science fiction genre, but it felt as if Warner Bros did not want her to take what she learned from creating the massive world in Westworld, instead making a paint-by-numbers picture that clearly was inspired by Inception, but worlds apart in terms of the marrow of filmmaking ie. acting, writing, execution. Hugh Jackman has been slowing down his output, and he was one of the leading reasons I was excited to see this film. He rarely turns in mediocre performances, but unfortunately it does happen here. Always feeling like he is sleepwalking, and never commanding the screen like he has done in the past with such films as Les Miserables, Bad Education, or any of his turns as “Logan/ Wolverine”. The same can be said for most of the cast, except one, who is reduced to a glorified cameo, Daniel Wu. As an Asian-American, cajun, gangster, who could be a typecast and stereotypical role, Wu takes it and has the most fun out of the entire cast.  

Lisa Joy has a way with telling grand stories on an even grander scale, evident by her creativity throughout Westworld. Even with this, Reminiscence fails where films like Inception and Tenet succeed. Playing with time is a difficult task to even play with, let alone succeed and make it work for the audience. Joy wants to, but she is compressed from a 10 hour season to a 2 hour film, and she continually introduces new concepts up until the credits roll. I don’t blame her, I blame Warner Bros. They have a very public reputation of going in and recutting films, screwing over some of the most brilliant filmmakers of our time (i.e. Zack Snyder, I will never forgive what they did to him). Let us remember when the runtime was posted online for the first time, 148 minutes. That sounds about right from what the trailer showed us. Then as the release date became closer, it dropped to 116 minutes. That began to scare me, and when my fears came to pass, those fears turned to frustration. I wish I had more positive things to say about this debut, but I don’t. I still have great things to say about Lisa Joy, this does not undo everything she has created with Westworld. This had the potential to be a great film that would influence other filmmakers for years to come, instead we were given a disappointing, boring film that left me feeling empty, like the story was incomplete. 

#ReleasetheJoycut.

Reminiscence Trailer

Reminiscence is currently in wide theatrical release and streaming on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.