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 Capsule Review: Nuisance Bear

Written by Alexander Reams

50/100

The bear population is a topic of controversy. Animal rights activists say they should be able to roam wherever they want. Everyone else generally agrees that they are cute, but dangerous. There are countless examples of bears being dangerous to society. Going into this I assumed it would be a message piece that wanted me to feel bad for bears. What followed instead was a meditative work on bears roaming which proved to be much more interesting, but did lose me by the end. What works here is the cinematography, putting the viewer in the landscape of this film. I felt every step the bear took, every breath that was exhaled, a huge credit to the sound mixer. What does not work is the way the filmmakers went about conveying this story. I felt constantly disconnected from the subject of the film. There seemed to be no heart behind it, which detracted from the piece throughout. I love to emotionally connect with films but Nuisance Bear was unable to pull me in in any meaningful way. The beauty of the film is it’s combination of the aural and the visual, take one away, and the other should replace what is taken away. That doesn’t happen here. Despite the absence of an emotional connection there is at least gorgeous cinematography to behold throughout the film which puts many of the best DPs to shame.

Nuisance Bear Trailer

Nuisance Bear was screened as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2021.

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

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Benediction

Written by Alexander Reams

98/100

Benediction: (noun) The utterance or bestowing of a blessing, especially at the end of a religious service.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Numbers 6:24–26

Benedictions are almost always used in Christianity to signify the end of a worship service. The last words you hear before you go out to eat and forget everything, it is said in the hopes that these words will stick with you throughout the week until the next Sunday when you sit in your same seat and listen to another sermon. It is a constant throughout worship services in one form or another. Terence Davies’ study on the poet, soldier, and writer Siegfried Sassoon is not a typical biopic. Davies doesn’t care about informing you about the person, presenting a portrait of a man who could not be with the ones he loved, or could not find the right one to love instead, and how it affects him at different points in his life. In such, putting a benediction, or a look of hope, on Sassoon’s life.

The film begins with a reading of one of Sassoon’s poems, with archive footage of World War I in the background, providing us with his opinion on the war even before we see him on screen. Damning the war, and himself. Then Sassoon appears, not Capaldi, but Jack Lowden, who embodies this character in every frame he appears, every syllable he utters is perfect. As a Peter Capaldi fanboy, I was disappointed that his role is a glorified cameo, however that disappointment was replaced with fascination and heartbreak as Jack Lowden commands the screen in what hopefully will be his breakout role, he has been in high profile films before (Dunkirk and Mary, Queen of Scots). Never before though has he commanded such a quiet presence that riveted me throughout the runtime of the film.

It brings this writer great shame to admit that Davies is a filmmaker who I have never dived into, and after seeing his latest, I want to dive in more. His usage of Sassoon’s poems as a way to show vignettes of his life correlate brilliantly with the usage of archival footage to continually remind us that Sassoon, while he did serve, became disenfranchised with a war he saw as unnecessary and had the guts to speak out against one of the biggest empires on the planet. The film is a message of bravery while also a meditation on heartbreak.

Sassoon’s life was filled with heartbreak. After the war he had a string of lovers, however, the film only shows in detail, 2 of them. Both of them were clearly being destructive for Siegfried and I couldn’t help but feel heartbreak for him. He wants to be loved and he wants to give love, but in a time when 2 men could not love one another how they want. This love he has is one of pure truth. One that seeps throughout the film and nearly bursts through the final shot of the film. Utilizing Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis to show a simple moment but one that is the utmost profound in a film full of deeper meaning and how Sassoon was subjected to this disregard because of who he was as a person. This shot is reminiscent of Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and its use of Fantasia on a Theme is as heartbreaking as the use of Vivaldi’s Presto from “Summer” in his Four Seasons symphony.

Benediction is one of the finest films to come out this year, a meditative and personal reflection for Davies, while also breaking me emotionally to the point where I could not stop caring for Siegfried Sassoon and only wanted him to be happy in a time where he could not be. Whether due to his own personal drawbacks or the fact that being openly gay at this time in Britain was a criminal offense. I hope this film is widely seen, and that everyone who does see it comes away from it with some version of a message. I know I did, and I rarely take messages from films. Like its title, Benediction is a benediction on the life of Siegfried Sassoon, while also feeling like one for Terence Davies filmography.

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

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

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: Petite Maman

Written by Taylor Baker

78/100

“Say goodbye.”

Petite Maman will historically be known as the film that Celine Sciamma followed up her intimate, awarding winning and otherworldly Portrait of a Lady on Fire with. Perhaps unfairly, as her predecessor to that title, Girlhood bears none of the brunt of the comparison that Petite Maman must contend with. Petite Maman like Portrait feels like an enchantment. A storied fable comes to bright life in front of us, played so straight that it’s easy to think you’re the one getting things confused. Why is Nelly’s mother gone? And at what point exactly did this child, Marion enter and why does she seem so much like Nelly’s mother?

Petite Maman sets out with a family reeling from the loss of a matriarch. Not just a mother, or a mother in law, but a grandmother. It’s Nelly’s (played by newcomer Josephine Sanz) first exposure to the face of death. And it leaves an indelible mark on her. Sciamma is interested in and successful at expressing the longing for understanding of a child. The yearn for connection, to know undoubtedly what is true. Because a parent’s role after all is to protect a child from some of the harshness they’ll come to find in life. This protection indelibly becomes apparent to all youth as they age further and wonder about that boundary of distinction offered by a parents protection from reality. 

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

At one point Nelly directly asks her father, aptly named le pere what he was like as a boy. Who he was, what scared him. It’s a long look back at identity from his perspective, but it’s her beginning to formulate the identities and lives of others around her simultaneously. To experience a child going through this step in person is something magical itself, and Sciamma magnifies just the right parts of that to bring it to life without losing any of the intimacy of such a monumental shift in growth to the screen. One can’t separate this maturity with the massive longing and loss of her grandmother, whose cane she procured before leaving the hospital. Part token of her grandmother, part totem to her. It, like so many choices in the film, feels real, relentlessly and intimately so.

Similar to Christian Petzold’s Undine from 2020 or Murakami’s magical realism behemoth Killing Commendatore that resembles a sculpture more than a book, you’re unsure exactly where the boundaries of this fable are. How is it that her mother is a little girl? At one point Marion (Nelly’s mother) asks, how she got there after Nelly reveals that she is her daughter. Her reply, “I come from the path behind you.” rings with a delicious metaphorical completeness. At once indisputable and incomprehensible. How else could she have come? How else indeed.

Petite Maman Trailer

Petite Maman 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: 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.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Preview | With Thomas Stoneham-Judge of ForReel

The 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9th to the 18th. To learn more about the festival and see this year’s lineup of films and schedule, visit https://tiff.net/

Want to know what we’ve seen, want to watch, or what we each thought the best films were? Reference the Letterboxd Links below!

Taylor Baker’s List | Thomas Stoneham-Judge’s List

Connect with Thomas Stoneham-Judge and ForReel