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.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over

Written by Maria Athayde

65/100

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over co-directed by Dave Wooley, making his feature directorial debut, and David Heilbroner immortalizes a legend, humanitarian, and artist we all know as Dionne Warwick. While there is nothing particularly innovative or different in this feature it still managed to capture the allure, talent, and heart of one Dionne. Punctuated with archival footage of Dionne, amateur nights at the Apollo theater, and “testimony” from the likes of Elton John, Snoop Dog, Alicia Keys, Gloria Estefan, Bill Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Smokey Robinson one can start to understand the magnitude and impact this woman had in the music world and beyond.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

While one can infer that influence Dionne has in American culture the movie does a poor job of contextualizing it for the audiences, especially those who are unfamiliar with her work. This is particularly true when the movie talks about her experiences in the racially segregated South. Likewise, the documentary also overlooked Dionne’s ability to read music, understand complex melodies, and how she did not fit into one box. Dionne always had this uncanny ability to navigate among soul music, R&B, and pop that I wish was further explored in the documentary. 

Dionne is much more than raw talent. She’s pure skill, technique, and a person who is in full control of her voice. As a person and artist Dionne was always sure of herself which surely contributes to her continued success. This documentary is the perfect introduction for those looking to learn about Dionne Warwick but it definitely lacks that something extra for die hard fans or those who are already familiar with her story.

Dione Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over 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: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Written by Patrick Hao

45/100

In past thirty years, the famous televangelist, Tammy Faye Bakker, has gone through a rehabilitation of her image, especially in the gay community. A lot of that has to do with her openly talking and accepting gay men during AIDs epidemic on her show, something that would still be unheard of today in the evangelical community. Another reason might be the opulence of Tammy Faye. Her famous makeup, iconic Joan Crawford “eyes,” and high-pitched squeak of a voice are a heightened form of femininity in a way that makes her ripe to become a gay icon. Her status grew with the 2000 documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, two directors whose subjects are often gay icons.

It is with this context that brings The Eyes of Tammy Faye, an adaptation biopic of the famous 2000 documentary. The director Michael Showalter, a staple of sketch comedy groups the Slate, has been dutifully directing nice, easygoing dramedies such as The Big Sick and My Name is Doris in the last few years. When it comes to his direction of The Eyes of Tammy Faye, I couldn’t quite understand why her story needed to be told.

Told like a standard biopic (it even opens with Tammy Faye getting ready for one final big performance) the film portrays the Tammy Faye story with a pitying reverence.  We see Tammy Faye grow up in a religious home, one in which she is ostracized by the community because her mother (played by the always dependable Cherry Jones) is considered a harlot for having Tammy with her first husband. But this is presented as what fueled Tammy’s love of God.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Eventually, an Icarus like class fall which permeates these types of movies begins to take place. At the height of their power, excess of money and materialism by both Bakkers begins to overtake their priorities. Tammy Faye, however, is all but exonerated from any misuse of funds – something that was also a problem with the original documentary. Instead, she is portrayed as being blissfully oblivious to any wrongdoing, choosing to stay silent instead of asking questions.

That is the biggest problem with both the original documentary and Showalter’s direction. It is too reverential to Tammy Faye’s story and confuses any messages or themes that a viewer might come away with. Showalter does not have the ability to be a satirist like Scorsese did with Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. Nor does the film ever give reason for us to empathize with Tammy Faye’s choices. Any criticisms of American evangelicals or the cult of celebrity seems hollow and well-trodden. This is all done much better on HBO’s woefully under-seen The Righteous Gemstones, a satire with a more biting edge that does not have to pay deference to a cult icon.

If this movie offers anything, it is a vehicle for Jessica Chastain to get an Oscar nomination. Her performance as Tammy Faye Bakker is not embarrassing but is the type of unrestrained performance  that is fodder come Oscar time. She, like the real-life Tammy Faye is going to garner a lot of attention for her showiness but leans too heavily on makeup and prosthetics.

Only towards the end was there a sense that the filmmakers had any grasp on why this story is worth telling. But, by then it is too little too late.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye Trailer

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is currently screening in limited release and was feature at 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: 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.