Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: I’m Your Man

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

German director Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man joins the endless ranks of movies grappling with artificial intelligence that have populated the cinematic landscape for decades, though this time it’s a romcom focusing on the connection between cuneiform expert Alma (Maren Eggert) and Tom (Dan Stevens, speaking German and executive producing), a robot perfectly designed to be Alma’s soulmate. Alma, ever practical, doesn’t actually want a perfect robot boyfriend—even if he looks like Dan Stevens—but is part of a trial group testing out the implications of this new invention. She approaches the whole thing with an air of skepticism, her mind having already been made up before she even meets Tom.

Of course, Tom was designed to be her soulmate, and even as Alma grows frustrated with his attempts to woo her—cleaning her messy apartment, throwing rose petals in a bath, making coffee—she finds herself drawn to his childlike wonder at the world, so at odds with her own cynical outlook. And how could she not fall for Tom, when he’s played with such charm and enthusiasm by Stevens? He adapts quickly to Alma’s prickliness, and even rebuffs her attempts at sex with a cheeky smile after she had previously said that relationships need friction. (In case you were wondering, he’s programmed to get an erection after a kiss, and no, he doesn’t get any physical pleasure from sex.) 

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Schrader’s gentle romcom slant to such a thorny, complex issue by no means dodges the questions of humanity that inevitably arise when dealing with artificial intelligence; if anything, her more grounded viewpoint only makes the issue more approachable: I’m Your Man isn’t as highfalutin or intellectual as some of the other entries in the genre, but it tackles the questions inherent in its premise with just as much grace and intelligence.

Even as Alma lets her guard down around Tom, there remains a barrier between them, as she’s too aware of the lies she’d have to buy into if she let herself be wooed. Is Tom truly developing humanity, or is his algorithm just adjusting to Alma’s desires? Is there a difference? Alma studies the poetry found in ancient laws written in cuneiform, but refuses to let herself see the poetry and beauty in her relationship with Tom, too frightened of the possibility of getting suckered in by its ease. 

It’s a deceptively smart movie, lulling you in with easy chemistry and light laughs, and then unexpectedly worming into both your heart and your mind. The ending in particular stands out, not only for its ambiguity but the places it puts its characters in. Schrader never opts for an easy answer or resolution, even when one presents itself, and so while the rom and com elements are ever present and quite effective, there’s a deeper interrogation running under the surface that gives I’m Your Man an enthusiastic spark of life to it.

I’m Your Man Trailer

I’m Your Man 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 Capsule Review: Shark

Written by Alexander Reams

63/100

Ever since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, no one has looked at a body of water the same. That impending fear in the back of our minds that at any moment a shark can come and eat us always keeps us on our toes. In Nash Edgerton’s Shark, it’s not as physical as a metaphorical shark in the form of a jokester. Like its animalistic partner, jokesters are always lying in the shadows, waiting for the climax of their latest bit. Here, Edgerton is joined by Rose Byrne, whose comedic tendencies mesh well with the writer-director-actor-producer Edgerton. Byrne and Edgerton meet, fall in love, and after Byrne conducts a frightening prank on Edgerton’s “Jack”, he asks her to marry him, to which she says yes. That is the kickoff into the honeymoon, where they are going to swim in the ocean (clearly they didn’t take Jaws as a warning sign). Everything from here on is filled with surprises, shock, and dark humor. These are all things that can work well together if taken seriously. In there lies the issue with Edgerton’s latest. The film never takes itself seriously for its benefit and negative. By never taking itself seriously, there is no way to actually be shocked (besides visually, but the shock leaves hilariously quick). I digress, this was still a fun film that made me want to watch the previous entries in the story of “Jack” and see what other pranks he manages to screw up and still pull off.

Shark was screened as part of the 2021 edition 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: The Guilty (2021)

Written by Taylor Baker

48/100

Before talking about Antoine Fuqua’s The Guilty one has to mention the Danish film on which it’s based. Gustav Möller’s Den skyldige which translates to The Guilty, was submitted by Denmark for their Foreign Language Category at the Oscars in 2019. All that to say Fuqua isn’t remaking a poor film, one that perhaps needs it. Instead he with Netflix is retelling nearly the same story from 3 years ago absent any meaningful reason other than the original wasn’t in English.

Fuqua is coming off his worst film to date in May on Paramount+ he released Infinite. Which starred a checked out Mark Wahlberg opposite of a dialed in maniacal Chiwetel Ejiofor. Fuqua’s gone back and forth with hits and misses his whole career. Whether you measure from critical acclaim or actual dough at the box office. The Guilty is a return to form in that it’s fine. It dots i’s it crosses t’s. He puts a great actor in front of his camera and makes him work. Jake Gyllenhaal is game. Chewing on the darkness and wheezing his way through conversations to save a little girl at the other end of the phone line.

It’s all just a little thin though. I can’t quite believe the circumstances surrounding our character Joe Baylor played by Gyllenhaal. He’s supposedly a complex and ranging bad guy. I mean he is one of our “guilty” from the title, after all. But he seems heroic not just for moments but nearly the entire runtime. And when his ugly moments do come out he seems pathetic rather than responsible. There’s a tonal loss of control from the originals central character Asger Hold performed expertly by Jakob Cedergren and this rendition.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Instead of sticking to the tight, suffocating atmosphere that worked so well, Fuqua opts instead to constantly look out through the TV screens to fires raging in LA. His message, themes if you want to be courteous enough to call them that are worn on his knuckles. He’s trying to juggle a bunch of different issues that in his own words preceding the film he wants to bring attention to. Well unfortunately, bringing attention to things and doing a service to them are very different and though his heart may be in the right place his storytelling wasn’t.

The Guilty is at it’s best Gyllenhaal is bug eyed on the phone with Emily and Abby. Trying to help them be reunited safely. The brief moments Gyllenhaal’s Officer Baylor shares with Ethan Hawke’s no bullshit Sgt. Bill Miller ring as a revelation. Hawke as voice actor is superb. Venomous, witty, clever, and insightful all through his annunciation. Once casting directors see what he can do I suspect there will be a late career boom of Ethan Hawke voice acting.

Fuqua’s “one roomer” does little to build on its predecessor. But it doesn’t do it a disservice. The original is undeniably better, but I expect this rendition to be receive lots more eyes with the language shift. Undoubtedly one of the better Netflix Original films to come out this year.

The Guilty Trailer

The Guilty was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival and will be available on Netflix starting October 1st, 2021.

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

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Julia

Written by Maria Athayde

60/100 

Julia directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who were nominated for best documentary feature for RBG in 2019, chronicles the life of American icon and chef Julia Child. Much like RBG this is an extremely paint by numbers documentary that does not offer the audience anything new. In fact, I would suggest that the majority of audiences would be better off reading Julia Child’s wikipedia page, watching the 2009 Julie & Julia feature based on Julia’s life or reading her autobiography, which she co-authored with her nephew, called My Life in France. I am certain that all those alternatives will provide much better value for those that want to get to know Julia. 

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

The biggest misstep is that everything we see in this documentary is surface-level and predictable. First, we get to know Julia before she became a culinary icon. Then we explore Julia’s role in the Office of Strategic Services during WWII. Next, the filmmakers discuss the time she spent in France, her subsequent success and love for food. Unfortunately, all these events are glossed over and there is no clear throughline that makes this documentary flow as a cohesive piece, nor did it keep me interested.

The more I watch documentaries and get to cover them for the website the more aware I am that I want something different. A simple summary, archival footage, and testimonies throughout the documentary often do not add anything new to stories. I unquestionably believe Julia’s story and stories like hers should be told. For example, In an interview about the film to The Wrap the directors mentioned how the pandemic had brought them closer to Julia. Perhaps focusing on more unconventional points like these or trying to tie Julia’s story to the present would have made a more compelling narrative.

Julia Trailer

Julia was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in New York & Los Angeles November 5th.

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: Drunken Birds

Written by Anna Harrison

60/100

Ivan Grbovic’s Drunken Birds is many things. It’s a love story about a man named Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero of Roma) and a woman named Marlena (Yoshira Escárrega), who is the girlfriend of Willy’s cartel kingpin boss. When they declare their love for each other, both are forced to go on the run, and so Drunken Birds also becomes a commentary on the experience of migrant workers as Willy flees to Montreal. 

In Montreal, Willy and several other men, all of whom are also Mexican, share rickety mobile homes, where they wake up at 5:30 every morning to go harvest lettuce under the hot sun. They have the rare excursion to the public library, where they video chat with their families or, in Willy’s case, try desperately to track down Marlena.

The workers are working on a family farm inhabited by Richard (Claude Legault), his wife Julie (Hélène Florent), and their daughter Léa (Marine Johnson), and their dysfunction ripples out into the lives of the workers they hired on. Last summer, Julie had an affair with one of her employees, and family dinners have become unbearable. Richard has sunk into passivity and Léa longs for a way to escape this mundane, broken life, and thus Drunken Birds serves also as a portrait of a fractured family falling apart.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Drunken Birds is so many things, in fact, that it fails to congeal all its spinning plates, and each story thread on its own isn’t given enough weight to hold its own narrative. Guerrero is magnetic, though little screentime is given to Willy and Marlena together, sapping their romance of power; still, he effortlessly conveys Willy’s longing as he searches for home—not a house, not a place, but a person. There are hints of Willy’s less-than-ideal situation as a migrant worker, and as a Mexican in amongst a sea of white Canadians, but the film seems hesitant to commit fully to this idea and instead dances around it; the film’s climax ostensibly hinges on unspoken racial tensions, yet carries less gravitas than it should. The family drama that spills out into Willy’s life, especially as Julie finds herself increasingly drawn to him, feels like an unnecessary addition to the movie up until the final act, where it all crashes together.

Where Drunken Birds soars, though, is its visuals. Cinematographer (and co-writer) Sara Mishara creates simply beautiful compositions, often employing the use of very long takes to track characters as they wind their way through the corn fields, through the streets of Mexico, or through a thrumming night club. Wisps of magical realism make their way into the film, and everything feels slightly otherworldly; Léa’s expedition into the world of sex work and her resulting rescue by Willy in particular stand out. If the story is stretched too thin to entirely hold itself up, the lush cinematography will keep your gaze occupied even if your mind wanders, and the score by Phillippe Brault stands out as well. With a little bit of a tighter focus, Drunken Birds could have been a triumph; as it is, it keeps itself afloat through strong performances and stronger visuals, but never truly flies from the ground.

Drunken Birds 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: The Starling

Written by Taylor Baker

10/100

Theodore Melfi’s long awaited feature film follow up to 2016’s Hidden Figures is a an schlocky melodrama with paper thin characters and paper thin ideas. Melfi reteams with Melissa McCarthy who plays Lilly Maynard. A grieving mother whose child one day doesn’t wake up. Her husband Jack played by Chris O’Dowd checks himself into an institution after his wife wakes up to find he’s attempted suicide.

Along the way there’s a CGI bird, that begins incessantly attacking McCarthy whenever she goes outside at home, on her way to work, or just to garden. Part of the film is spent figuring out a dastardly way to deal with the pesky starling, but each plan always ends with McCarthy holding back and opting not to go forward, or regretting the decision she’d made. Over loud composition forces emotion whenever the occasion arises, which is often. The Starling serves as Matt Harris’s first attempt at a feature screenplay and while it hits familiar narrative beats it lacks personal intrigue, we’re always an arms length away from our characters rather than in lockstep. Watching their emotions rather than feeling them.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

McCarthy’s Lilly interplays with the Kevin Kline’s veterinarian/therapist Larry, who while clever in his moments reinforcements that The Starling is fanciful and entirely unreal. Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, and Skyler Gisondo round out the significant supporting roles as a Grocery Store Manager, Art Therapist, and Grocery Clerk respectively. Each of these players seems forced into the narrative to an awkward level of neither being significant nor briefly shown. Rather they’re in the familiar uncanny valley of, “We got great actors look! And please ignore that we don’t know how to use them.”

Ultimately The Starling doesn’t sing or even warble. It stumbles slumping laboriously through the genre conventions of melodrama. Loss eating up every inch of the narrative without ever really feeling sad. Leaning on a CGI bird for Melissa’s character arc, as she emerges to a more outspoken partner while O’Dowd is away. The Starling isn’t even interesting in failings, not only unoriginal, but uninspired. As too many of these recent Netflix Original Film offerings are.

The Starling Trailer

The Starling was viewed as part of 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival and is currently streaming on Netflix.

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

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Jagged

Written by Maria Athayde

*No Rating/100

How do you review or critique a documentary that has been publicly disavowed by its main subject? This was my biggest challenge when it comes to this review. As soon as I finished watching what I thought was an okay documentary I was alerted, by my editor, Taylor Baker, to this article on the LA Times in which Alanis Morissette decries Jagged as a story she did not agree to tell. Alanis states that she “was lulled into a false sense of security and their salacious agenda became apparent immediately upon my seeing the first cut of the film”. 

As far as documentaries go this one is pretty standard. The documentary starts with an introduction from director Alison Klayman saying how making this feature was making her middle school dreams become a reality but she does not elaborate further on her connection to Alanis or her music. After this brief introduction, we are presented with a standard documentary montage that traces Alanis birth in Ottawa, Canada, her rise to fame, and explosion into stardom which coincided with the release of her third studio album Jagged Little Pill (JLP) in 1995. Sprinkled throughout we have testimony from high school friends, music producers, and band-mates reminiscing about their time together on tour and commemorating the 25th anniversary of the album’s release.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

My biggest qualm with this documentary was how certain aspects of Alanis’ life and career were glossed over. During her on camera interviews, during several occasions, Alanis mentioned how the transition from Ottawa to Los Angeles and the challenges that came along with. What we see on screen seems to suggest that this move affected her deeply. Yet simultaneously what we’re seeing on camera does not go into a lot of detail. Alanis mentioned how she was pressured to lose weight, maintain a certain image, and she even references alleged statutory rape incidents when she was around 15. All these things are presented without much context and what we see on camera does not allow Alanis to fully explain her own story or how these incidents impacted her life and career. Another issue I had was the complete lack of detail paid to the impact Alanis had and continues to have on female artists in the music industry. Aside from 45 seconds where we see Taylor Swift and Beyoncé performing some of Alanis’ songs, her impact in the industry especially for female artists is almost entirely forgotten.     

Documentaries are supposed to be personal but I have a hard time reconciling how this feature is supposed to work after being publicly disavowed by its main subject. All the statements I have read so far do not go into detail into how Alanis’ story diverges from what we see on screen. At the time this article was published no comment has been made by the film’s director or producers regarding these differences. In the end, I wish the doc had explored more than just JLP. I understand it’s supposed to be a commemoration of the 25th edition of the album but it could have been so much more nuanced and painted a fuller picture of what Alanis is all about. Most of all I support artists having a say on how their story is presented. I cautiously recommend that you watch this documentary and read supporting material to have a better understanding of the controversy surrounding the film. 

Cautiously Recommended

HBO’s Music Box Trailer

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

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: Ahed’s Knee

Written by Alexander Reams

86/100

A film that oftentimes wants to forget its heritage. Nadav Lapid’s sophomore effort Ahed’s Knee (also one of the stranger titles of a film in 2021), is possibly the most 2021 a 2021 film can be. Inspired by a story of Lapid trying to decide if the child he welcomed to the world with his girlfriend should be raised Israeli or not.

The film follows a filmmaker who is trying to make a film that condemns the government, while the film is being funded by the government. Am I the only one who sees the irony in that? No? Okay, good. It opens on a casting session, where we also find out why the film is titled its strange name, “Ahed’s Knee” in reference to the title of the film “Y” is making. No name, just a letter. I will admit it was disorienting at first but after 20 minutes I adjusted. While this is the surface level, what lies beneath is even deeper. Lapid is searching for any semblance of hope in his native land in a time of turmoil due to the government influence over the nation, as well as foreign policy, and the ongoing issues with Palestine. Lapid is as much a wanderer as his lead is, walking the earth like “Jules” from Pulp Fiction. These vignettes in the desert continue Lapid’s style of gorgeous cinematography, collaborating again with his Synonyms DP, Shai Goldman. Rarely keeping the camera static, propelling a sense of urgency and chaos, which just so happens to be the mental state of “Y”.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Despite all of this, the film falters with a story that does not take the time needed to marinate on its heavy themes, and VERY unique storytelling. You could either blame the writing or directing. This is an issue that unfortunately falls on Lapid either way, as he is commonly his own writer and director. That does however lead to more creative control over what translates from script to screen, something that does help keep the film together. Even still, I found myself confused at multiple points in the film, particularly with one dance sequence that seemingly came out of nowhere. 

A film searching for hope in even the darkest of crevices is something this world needs right now in this season of COVID, political and social unrest, and the feeling of losing freedom. “Y” constantly is fighting something or someone, whether that be the death of his mother, and his denial of that, the continuing issues of casting this character of “Ahed” for his newest film, or the pushback he receives from the Ministry of Culture in Israel. Namely for making a film that condemns the government, under the guise of a warning to other insurgents to not rebel against the totalitarian-esque government.

Ahed’s Knee Trailer

Ahed’s Knee was screened as part of the 2021 edition 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: Montana Story

Written by Patrick Hao

63/100

In just a short time, Haley Lu Richardson has become one of the most dynamic actresses in American cinema. She has an ability to adapt into whatever locale she is placed in, whether it is suburban California in Edge of Seventeen, a Hooters-esque restaurant in central Florida in Support the Girls, or even in the rough and tumble farms of Montana in Montana Story. Richardson’s naturalistic acting style brings so much life and authenticity beneath the surface of all the characters she plays.

Montana Story feels like it will become a minor work in Richardson’s promising career, but it certainly continues to be a showcase for her immense talent. She plays Erin, a 25-year-old who returns to her family farm in Montana to see her estranged comatose father. Also, there is her estranged brother Cal (Owen Teague), who has been handling the burden of their father alone.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

The childhood ranch is a lot like the fractured relationships of this family: rundown, hollow, with no farm animals but a few chickens and an old stallion. A deep rift fissured the family when Erin revealed to the newspaper that her father was covering up a toxic chemical spill at a local mine leading to their father beating Erin half to death, while Cal stood there frozen.

Large landscapes like Montana have always been used as a backdrop to intimate emotions. Half of the best westerns ever made were built on that. However, despite great performances from Richardson and Teague, who are able to create quiet intimacy, the script by writer-director duo Scott McGehee and David Siegel, often falls to the rote cliché side. This could be fine if the directors had taken the movie in a more melodramatic space like a Douglas Sirk western melodrama, but to stay quietly intimate hurts the film.

The movie also hints at other more interesting aspects of the inhabited surroundings that go strangely unexplored. The Keystone Pipeline protests, and controversy is mentioned on the radio, indigenous characters and actors populate the periphery, and a sweet Kenyan nurse (Gilbert Owuor) taking care of the leads’ father hints at an interesting backstory but never goes beyond. To populate the background with BIPOC characters certainly gives the world more depth but they never go beyond that function. What does it mean to them that Cal and Erin’s father is a man that would cover up environmental crimes? Whatever the case is, Montana Story is an engrossing drama on the effects of abusive parents. None of it is new or surprising, but we continue to see great work from Haley Lu Richardson. Owen Teague holds his own as well. And honestly, sometimes just setting a movie against the beautiful vast landscape of Montana is enough to make a movie worthwhile.

Montana Story 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: The Story of My Wife

Written by Alexander Reams

32/100

Love is a strange concept, those who watch Rick & Morty will know it as a chemical reaction in the mind, and there are others who disregard that definition and go for “you know it when you see it.” In Ildikó Enyedi’s The Story of My Wife, both concepts are thrown out of the window and instead our lead Jakob (yes, I notice the its the same spelling of John Cena’s character in F9, but even Jakob Toretto is far more intriguing than our Jakob here.) portrayed by Gijs Naber’s is introduced in the most masculine of ways, captaining a ship out at sea while dealing with some kind of sickness. He is suggested to go to town and find a wife, as that has solved this issue for many other men. Now have we seen any of these men? No. Is this just a plot device used to introduce Léa Seydoux into the film? Yes. From the opening shot of Gijs Naber, I questioned if he even was a ship captain, his mannerisms, speech, verbiage, was all that of an educated man, which he could very well have been, but compared to his compatriots on the boat, it didn’t make sense.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

As soon as Léa Seydoux enters the frame, the film dive bombs into another 150 (or so) minutes of absolute dreck. The film is presented, and clearly wants to be an odyssey of a man finding love, but is instead drowned by watered down dialogue that is bound to make you as sick Jakob was. The Story of My Wife is a film with a 169 minute runtime. Co-Writer/Director Ildikó Enyedi clearly let the pace get away from her and did not realize the scope of the picture she was making nor how to control it’s bow. Or perhaps she knew what she wanted to do, and unfortunately failed to do so.

The film suffers from an abhorrent script and direction, which caused it’s players to fail as well. The only gleaming note of kindness I can give this film is in it’s cinematography. Captured by Marcell Rév, a frequent collaborator of Sam Levinson, who shot the film with a mix of guerilla and steadicam style. Shooting angles that make the film stand out visually, along with its production and costume design. Unfortunately that is not nearly enough to save this bloated, wretch of a film. I can forgive a bad film, I cannot forgive a boring film, and this film is boring with a capital B. Film is supposed to sweep us away to another world and tell us stories that help us escape reality, here I wanted reality to come back after 20 minutes because what is going on outside in the world is so much more intriguing than this garbage.

The Story of My Wife Trailer

The Story of My Wife was screened as part of the 2021 edition 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.