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New Views and Three Gems from TIFF

 New Views and Three Gems from TIFF

28 October 2021

I am woefully behind in posting reviews so will do a roundup in brief before noting several fine selections from September’s Toronto film festival.

Starting with streaming platforms, Netflix keeps adding enormous amounts of content.   That includes new seasons of “Sex Education” (B+, third season, 8 episodes) and the terrific Spanish-language thriller “Money Heist “ (A, fifth season, five of 10 episodes so far).  In the case of the former the randy high-schoolers are played by actors in their 20s.  (Lead character “Otis”, son of a sex therapist, is played by Asa Butterfield who is 24.)  An excellent new drama series is Maid (A, 10 episodes) starring Margaret Qualley as the single mom of a three-year old daughter Maddy who ekes out a precarious living cleaning houses.  It’s based on a real-life memoir.  In terms of lethal action, the hit new series is the Korean Squid Game (B+, nine episodes) in which the financially distressed are abducted and subjected to tests of murderous child’s play that make “The Hunger Games” seem tame. 

Thank to Bob Miller for alerting me to the excellent Australian Netflix series “Love on the Spectrum” in which young autistic adults venture into the dating game. Hopefully having these encounters filmed hasn’t added too much to their anxieties.  The result is both very awkward and very sweet.  A recent Netflix movie is Worth (A-) which explores the tangled legal issues surrounding compensation for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, specifically the allocation of a Congressional fund set up for that purpose in exchange for promises not to sue the airline companies involved.  Netflix has also recently released the 2020 Netherlands/Belgium/Lithuania coproduction The Forgotten Battle (A-), a harrowing Second World War drama about the struggle for the control of the coastal Scheldt region in which Canadian troops played a key role.  A warning that many realistic scenes of bloody horror make it a tough watch.   Netflix continues to be a prolific producer of generally excellent docuseries.  Last month, around the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks it released Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror (A, 5 episodes).   

On Disney+ through National Geographic is Fauci (B+ https://films.nationalgeographic.com/fauci) a compelling biography of Dr. Anthony Fauci who came to prominence during the HIV/AIDS crisis before becoming a leading American public-health figure (and Trump target) in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that has killed millions. On television, HBO has the series “Scenes from a Marriage” (A) which is a contemporary American version of the classic eponymous 1973 series by the late great Ingmar Bergman.  It stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain who can be seen on the big screen respectively: a haunted solitary Isaac in Paul Shrader’s downbeat The Card Counter (B+), and Chastain under a ton of makeup in The Eyes of Tammy Faye (B+).  HBO also has a new documentary Four Hours in the Capitol (A) about the January insurrection when a violent mob of fanatical Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Congress in a crazed attempt to stop the certification of the Electoral College results from the November 2020 elections.

Conditions have opened up enough for more in-theatre viewings.  In Dear Evan Hansen (A) the prodigiously talented actor-singer Ben Platt reprises the role that earned him acclaim on the Broadway stage.  At 90+, Clint Eastwood is the energizer bunny of acting …he just keeps going and going, playing a former rodeo champion in Cry Macho (B+).   Although it takes place in one room attached to a church, there’s a great intensity to Mass (A), a tense encounter in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting as the parents of the perpetrator sit across a table from the parents of a victim; both needing to come to terms with a grievous loss.  (This is not to be confused with the very weird and creepy pseudo-religious seven-episode Netflix horror series Midnight Mass (B). More about that at: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/midnight-mass-tv-review-2021.)  On the documentary side, Dear Future Children (A-) is a compelling profile of young democracy activists in Hong Kong, Chile, and Uganda.  (For an interview with director Franz Böhm see: https://genevasolutions.news/climate/dear-future-children-a-film-about-young-activists-made-by-young-filmmakers. )

 Director Ridley Scott returns with a long and violent historical epic The Last Duel (B) set in late 14th century Normandy in which Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) accuses Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) leading to a royal-sanctioned godly duel to the death.  It’s a ghastly affair culminating in the gruesome battle of male egos; wintry scenes adding to the miserable Hobbesian atmosphere of life as “nasty, brutish and short”.  A footnote observes that the dueling victor was killed in the Crusades a few years later.  So much for God’s favour ….

The following are three fine Toronto film festival selections.

Flee (Denmark and others, 2021, https://neonrated.com/films/flee) A+

This superb feature from writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, a Sundance award winner, tells the extraordinary story of an Afghan refugee Amin Nawabi (a pseudonym) through striking animation interspersed with brief archival clips that go back to the 1990s Taliban overthrow of the Communist regime, a reminder of the decades-long civil war agonies this country has endured.  After his father and a brother were taken away, Amin with his mother and several siblings fled to Moscow, then were smuggled to Scandinavia in shipping containers.  Amin had to survive a series of desperate measures and terrifying ordeals the details of which are truly shocking.  He also came out as a gay man.  It’s almost a miracle that he has been able to achieve quiet acceptance with a partner in Denmark.   Afghanistan is again making tragic news following the Taliban takeover and this refugee story illustrates the light of those forced to flee their homeland.  (More comment at: https://www.indiewire.com/2021/01/flee-review-animated-documentary-sundance-1234611605/.)       

Silent Land (Poland/Czech Republic/Italy 2021) A-

From director and co-writer Agnieszka Woszczynska is the story of a good-looking and well-off blonde Polish couple, Adam and Anna, who rent a stylish vacation villa on a sunny Italian island. However the swimming pool requires a repair and an Arab workman (an illegal migrant) is hired to do the work.  There is a terrible accident which they try to ignore and cover up as the weather turns stormy.  Their beautiful bourgeois façade crumbles, revealing an emotional indifference that critic Mateusz Tarwacki puts in context: “Silent Land is not only a critique of the emptiness of the bourgeois model of life, it is also an arch-accurate commentary on the Polish emotional immaturity, which makes it impossible to deal with trauma. It is hard to believe that a couple from the country of ‘Solidarity’ is so devoid of it, and that cold distance and the will to cut themselves off from other people gives rise to internal demons and awakens the national psychoses hidden beneath the surface. The greatest advantage of Woszczyńska's film is its universality – one does not need to know Polish history and realities to understand its meaning and critical teeth.”

Maria Chapdelaine (Canada/Quebec 2021)  A-

Director Sébastien Pilote helms this excellent screen adaptation (the fourth) of the eponymous historical novel by Breton-born Louis Hémon.  (It was published posthumously as he died at a young age in 1913, the same year that my mother Denise was born to Breton parents who had emigrated to Saskatchewan, enduring many pioneer hardships.) Pilote captures the harsh conditions of the Saguenay region circa 1910 as families cleared the land to eke out a bare subsistence.   The winter scenes especially conjure up the atmospheric spirit of the Gilles Vigneault anthem “Mon pay c’est l’hiver” (“my country is winter”). With a runtime of 160 minutes unfolding over five chapters this is slow cinema in the best sense, imbued with the atmosphere of hardscrabble rural isolation, the rustic shadows accompanied by a mournful score.  Maria, a shy 16-year old, is well played by Sarah Montpetit.   She has already attracted several gentleman callers, not just locals involved in farming and fur trapping.  There is also one promising an easier life in a New England mill town.  The only other visitors are a doctor and a priest when the mother falls gravely ill.  Pilote effectively recreates a backwoods world in which Maria faces adult choices at a tender age.

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