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: 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.

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

Written by Taylor Baker

70/100

Halsey’s 4th studio album If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power first came to life for audiences in IMAX Theaters on Wednesday August 25th as the backing score for a 53 minute feature film by the same name. Directed by Colin Tilley, Halsey (the actress) uses her magnetism in conjunction with garish (in a good way) and gaudy costuming to weave a nameless tale. If you played the If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power Mobile Game as I did briefly you may already have an inkling of the dark direction the film reaches by the end. Which implies more meaning than it actually delivers on. As do the immaculately executed bits of face-painting and make up that adorn Halsey’s mug throughout the film. Which add a level theatrically that goes a long way to compensate for its shortcomings.

One can’t help but wonder in the era of COVID, with restrictive travel and the difficulty that accompanies running public events, how the medium of a film companion to an album may pay off. Both to the artists and the record label. The gains and losses that come from replacing a live concert with a film through which a communal experience can be had with an artist are numerous, but a one night pre-recorded world tour probably costs the studio a lot less. Beyoncé notably used this medium to varying success with Beyoncé: Lemonade in 2016 and Black is King in 2020. Kacey Musgraves upcoming Star-Crossed indicates the experiment hasn’t been deemed a poor investment by the music industry just yet. It is worth noting that not a single one of these entries including If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power reach the heights that I Am Easy to Find from The National or Anima from Thom Yorke did with half the runtime of these features or less and quick and easy access through YouTube and Netflix respectively. That may indicate the deeper issue that faces these visual album companions, less is more when switching modes of expression, and if you stretch the runtime of the new mode without quality and meaning within it’s language, in this case the filmic language, regardless the quality of the album it can’t prop up or even save the film. For film sound is only one third of the equation. Whether this matters to the fans of a particular musician or group and thus the record labels profit margins remains to be seen.

In If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power deeper meanings are fumblingly forced on the viewer through aerial cuts to the castle indicating a deeper meaning, perhaps domesticity, perhaps foisted identity. Then again a forced deeper meaning of the woods, perhaps sanctuary, perhaps danger. The editing is jarring, as songs end so to do scenes in sharp cuts to entirely different locations. This isn’t a smooth, continuous, or engrossing soundscape. And I don’t intend to indicate that is what pieces like this need to be. But rather traits I’ve observed from some of the best I’ve seen from this vein so far. It failed to keep me enthralled within the film as we journeyed with Halsey from the event of the king, her husband’s death at the beginning to the birth of her child. We’re made to wonder at most of the film’s events both mortal and mythological. I can say, and with conviction, that the beauty that may be found within the amorphousness of her new album and it’s lyrics do not translate here. But that doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting or dull to watch, just that it’s off, in a way that isn’t entirely surprising for a first time director or writer. For fans of Halsey or music film enthusiasts If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is an interesting attempt to translate an album to the visual medium worth engaging with, for most others I suspect you’ll be asking yourself, “What the f*** did I just watch?”

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power Trailer

If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power premiered in IMAX on August 25th and has additional screenings planned through the end of the month.

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

Val

Written by Alexander Reams

68/100

“I went from being the star of the play, to playing the character that was the butt of every joke,” a very begrudging Val Kilmer says as he discusses his first breakthrough at Julliard Acting School. This footage, like most of the documentary, is compiled of six decades of footage Kilmer has recorded throughout his life. After having his vocal medium all but stripped from him, he now turns to the visual medium to tell his story. With direction from Leo Scott and Ting Poo, and narration from Val’s son, Jack Kilmer, Val is telling a story once again. The story of his life. 

While the documentary tries to be an act of emotional catharsis for Val, it can be frustratingly vain. Only showing the work he’s put in, and not his own professional issues that gave him a certain reputation. A reputation that many forgot about when signing onto a movie with him because of his beauty. A beauty that may come once in a lifetime. One that propelled him to superstardom. Leading him to be in films that he himself has proclaimed “are hard to explain”, such is the case with the first film he discusses, Top Secret!

What the documentary does spectacularly is make you see a side of Kilmer that is not often shown, stripping away the beauty of him, to show his personal struggles and backstory to becoming the iconic actor we now know. The journey of which is best shown in the behind the scenes footage for Top Gun. Even admitting that he did not want to do the film. What Kilmer brought to the film changed the way the character was in its original inception. However, by Batman Forever Kilmer’s career, had seemingly outstayed its welcome. The danger that comes with films like Val is the film can cross the border of vanity into boorishness quickly.

By the end of the film, I no longer cared about Kilmer’s career, instead I wanted to see more of his personal life besides the surface level veneer we’re presented. Which still continues to frustrate me even as I write this after the film has ended. Despite all this, the portrait the film presents of its titular subject is fascinating, if not fully interesting. Ting Poo and Leo Scott did a great job of bringing this footage to life and showcasing a controversial, interesting, and vain life of a man who has lost his voice, and are helping him still tell stories, giving him a voice when he no longer has one.

Val Trailer

Val is currently in limited theatrical release and available to stream on Prime Video.

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

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Poser

Written by Taylor Baker

73/100

“I usually will record digital, then I rerecord analog because analog just sounds better.”

Sylvie Mix stars as Lennon Gates, and before the title sequence winds down there’s little doubt that she’s the professed Poser that the film’s title indicates. But how far does it go? What follows is a weaving observational film at times bordering on a critique of the music and art community in Columbus, Ohio. All the while Lennon is in the background observing, recording, and chewing her lip to create episodes for her Podcast, a motif that certainly hit home with this particular viewer. When does the operation of collecting become artistic theft, and when does mimicry do the same? These are big questions you can put in the heart of Poser though it’s unclear if the film’s screenwriter Noah Dixon(who also co-direct’s alongside Ori Segev) intended for them to be there all along, or if he found something perennial in his screenplay by accident.

Lennon convinces Bobbi Kitten to do an interview for her Podcast around a third of the way into the hour and twenty seven minute film. Bobbi Kitten is part of a musical duo that is at the top underground music scene, and as the film continues Lennon becomes infatuated and obsessed with her. Looking to see and feel the world how she does. Wanting to know what it’s like to be her. Someone so cool, so creative, so original. These ideas come alive in an art gallery where Bobbi asks Lennon to focus on her and do everything she does. The idea being that at some point, the one who is copying begins to inform the choices of the originator. It’s a chewy idea, and one that hasn’t left my mind days after viewing.

The films editor Donavan Myles Edwards works crisply alongside composers Adam Robl and Shawn Sutta who provide original music to the score. Their sounds constantly buttress a written or contextual accent further, crescendoing to particular sound queues and frequently lingering in wideshot images that evoke feeling. This allows the composition to sit in the background miring us deeper into various emotions. Not quite a drama or thriller Poser lies moodily somewhere in between. 

Poser is currently playing as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival to purchase a ticket to it click here.

Sundance 2021 Review: Mother Schmuckers (Fils de plouc)

Written by Anna Harrison

25/100

There’s a chance I might have enjoyed Mother Schmuckers if I were a frat bro sitting in my frat house with my fellow frat friends and we were all very high. Unfortunately, I am not a frat bro, and I watched this stone-cold sober in my bedroom. 

Mother Schmuckers begins with its two lead characters, brothers Issachar (Maxi Delmelle) and Zabulon (Harpo Guit) attempting to force-feed their sex worker mother (Claire Bodson) their own fried shit. Their mother promptly vomits, and we are forced to look at the bile as the title card appears in it. Things don’t get any more sophisticated from there.

The bulk of the movie chronicles the brothers’ attempts to get their dog, January Jack (whom their mother—understandably, might I add—loves more than them), back home after they lost him. What follows is one vile thing after another, from bestiality to necrophilia, ostensibly played for laughs but lacking in any humor whatsoever. 

There are the faintest glimmers of something funny, such as when the brothers acquire a gun and chase each other through the streets of Brussels and onlookers think these two idiots are terrorists, or when the two are roped into dancing for a terrible music video. There are the briefest glimpses of an emotional undercurrent regarding the boys’ relationship to their mother, but any tenderness is quickly zapped away by whatever appalling hijinks Issachar and Zabulon get into next. The low-budget, frenetic cinematography and editing could almost be charming if they weren’t showcasing such uncharming scenes. So, what are we left with? Not much, it would seem.

The problem is not that the brothers are completely irredeemable—media is full of morally murky protagonists, and when done well, we still are invested in them at the end of the day regardless of their morality. We can even find them funny: I don’t think anyone would call the gang in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia upstanding citizens, but it’s the longest-running American television comedy because it makes its characters’ unlikability funny. Mother Schmuckers, however, foolishly equates crassness and grossness with humor, leaving us with a distinctly unfunny movie that lacks any sort of pathos, therefore eliciting no emotion other than disgust. 

Mother Schmuckers does not ever attempt to be a sophisticated film (aside from a brief appearance by Mathieu Amalric, whom I can only assume was forced at gunpoint to be in this), but it seems to think it’s a funny one. It’s wrong.

Mother Schmuckers Trailer

Mother Schmuckers (Fils de plouc) is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

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

Sundance 2021 Review: Wild Indian

Written by Taylor Baker

66/100

In an effort to define a train of experience for Native life Wild Indian starts in the 1800’s with a man who appears to have the pox wandering west. It quickly changes course to the 1980’s where a young boy commits a murder and his friend witnesses it. We then jump time once again to 2019. It’s unclear which adult actor is portraying which child, and right when you think you have it figured out a pivotal and violent scene in a strip club occurs. Acted out by Michael Greyeyes’ M’kwa. The previous portion of the film until we arrive at this timeline was uneven at best. In this newer adult aged portion of the story though, we see grounded heart-pulling performances and a vast improvement to the editing. In the pivotal murder scene in the 1980’s there was an editing flub that undid a lot of the gravity of the moment.

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. demonstrates an original voice in his directorial debut, smoothly stringing together lens movement, committed performances, a ringing tone of guilt, and an almost lovable anti-hero. It should be noted that this not only serves as his directorial debut but the first feature film screenplay he’s written. There are some exterior shots that lose the pace a bit, and editing fades that leave much to be desired. But there’s talent on display here, and when Corbine Jr. let’s the performers go the film jumps to life. I’d love to see him re-team with Greyeyes in the future.

The dramatic beats lean heavily on Gavin Brivik’s score, that’s swells queue a compassion for our anti-hero that would be hard to muster without. Eli Born provides a consistently clean shot. His images are never ugly and occasionally border on gorgeous. There’s few filmmakers at Sundance thus far that have put the ownness on the performer to make a film sing and wrote their screenplay to adequately set their performers up to do so. Though the ending doesn’t provide the payoff we as an audience want, our longing for more clarity shows how effectively it’s narrative worked.