TIFF Riffs 2... It's a Wrap!

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 21, 2021

Ben Foster in a promotional pic for "The Survivor"
Ben Foster in a promotional pic for "The Survivor"  

The one theme I found over and over in many of the Toronto International Film Festival selections I screened was this notion of survival, especially with women who were fighting to simply have a voice. But also, in some respects, the survival of our species. Even though most of these films were probably written pre-COVID, our own potential annihilation wore heaving on many minds. And on that cheery note, here are more of the best of the Toronto Fest.

"The Survivor"

"The Survivor"

It's rare that a film about the Holocaust explores so many of the gray areas as does "The Survivor," Barry Levinson's sucker-punch-to-the-gut cinematic masterwork, easily his best since the deft dark comedy, "Wag the Dog," in 1997. The film is reminiscent of "Raging Bull," "Schindler's List," and "Enemies: A Love Story," but asks even more complex questions about survival, and what price may be too high to pay. (In that respect, "Son of Saul" came to mind.)

The film is based on the unbelievable true story of Harry Haft (Ben Foster), an Auschwitz Jew who managed to stay alive by fighting fellow prisoners in the boxing ring for the amusement of the SS officers, knowing the losers would be instantly murdered. Levinson's non-linear approach works magnificently as we watch Haft, years after liberation, train to fight Rocky Marciano and fall for his future wife (Vicky Krieps, in another mesmerizing turn), all the while hoping to find the woman he fell in love with years earlier — the one who kept him going in the camps.

This is a career-changing role for Ben Foster, who delivers one of the best performances of the year, and one I cannot shake. Still.

"Unclenching the Fists"

"Unclenching the Fists"

The recent horrors in Afghanistan have shone a light on the unconscionable treatment of women in many parts of the world. We tend to live in a Western bubble and not realize that too many women have little to no agency in their own lives.

Russian director Kira Kovalenko has crafted a truly gripping, hypnotic, and astonishing tale of a young woman, Ada (an extraordinary Milana Aguzarova), who is literally bearing the scars of her country's past. She is smothered and kept under lock and key by her domineering father (Alik Karaev), and is infantilized by her brother (Khetag Bibilov), who is childlike himself. Ada finally sees a possibility to rid herself of her shackles when her older brother returns.

It helps to know a bit about the conflict that gripped the region where the film is set: In 2004, Chechen terrorists created a hostage situation at a school, demanding Russian withdrawal from Chechnya. It ended in mass murder. Putin used the tragedy to further his own power. In Ossetian, with English subtitles

"Întregalde"

"Întregalde"

Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean has crafted a riveting mediation on compassion, empathy, and good will with "Întregalde," which follows three Bucharest aid volunteers who hit the road in their SUV to deliver food packages to the less fortunate in the rural hinterlands of Transylvania, an area known as Întregalde. They are waylaid when they attempt to help a babbling old man looking to get to an old mill. What happens next is a terrifying study in the idea that "no good deed goes unpunished." The trio must withstand a series of moral and ethical dilemmas as they try to survive the night. Muntean ultimately shows us that one life always matters, no matter what. In Romanian, with English subtitles.

"Silent Night"

"Silent Night"

In order to appreciate Camille Griffin's feature debut, "Silent Night," one needs to be okay with genre blends — you need to be able to stomach a grim, nasty, but occasionally hilarious, comedy about the end of the world. Most critics like their films neat and clean, genre-wise, and can't handle too much shifting. Personally, I loved this film, with its many maneuverings. The plot is basic; you've seen it in many a holiday film, where a group of friends gather to celebrate Christmas. This time, though, it's for the last time since a cloud of poison is about to engulf Britain (and ostensibly the world) and kill off mankind. So, the government has created a pill for everyone to take, to commit mass suicide. The script is clever and insightful, and the performances rock, from Keira Knightly to Matthew Goode to Lucy Punch to Kirby Howell-Baptiste. "Jo-Jo Rabbit" star (and son of director Camille) Roman Griffin Davis is the film's soul. His character refuses to capitulate to what the lemmings have accepted. This film is timely as hell.

"One Second"

"One Second"

One of the world's most celebrated directors, Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern," "House of Flying Daggers"), delivers a love letter to cinema with TIFF's Closing Night selection, "One Second," which is set near a vast Chinese desert near the end of the Cultural Revolution — when showing movies was one of the last remaining artistic expressions people could still gather to appreciate. A fugitive (Zhang Yi) arrives at a village where a film will soon be shown, but he is not interested in seeing the film, just the newsreel footage that will precede it. When he witnesses a scraggly young girl (Liu Haocun) steal a reel, he chases her, and a fascinating story begins.

"One Second" was originally scheduled to world premiere at the Berlinale two years ago but was canceled because of a "technical problem," a euphemism for Chinese censorship. No one knows how little or much of it was cut and/or reshot. It's angering that a talent like Yimou, who has managed to etch out a career maneuvering around Chinese politics, would be treated this way, alas, he was and it could happen anywhere.

I was enchanted by this film, although I do wonder what Yimou's original cut might have been. I'm imagining it would not have contained the jarring and unnecessary coda.

"Medusa"

"Medusa"

Brazil's Anita Rocha da Silveira's bold "Medusa" takes on radical Christianity in the wildest of ways, creating a fantastical world that feels like it could happen tomorrow — a world where gangs of crazed religious young women corner and kick the crap out of other women they deem sinful, and then convert them. Meanwhile, the tough-ass male members of this psycho congregation known as the "Watchmen" take to the streets at night, bullying those less worthy. But when one of the girls, on a mission at a local medical ward where coma patients are tended to, comes upon the vilified poster girl for all that is impure and evil, everything changes. "Medusa" is a trippy film that brings to mind Argento, von Trier, and even "Heathers," with one of the most satisfying endings of any film this year. In Portuguese, with English subtitles.

"True Things"

"True Things"

Based on the novel by Deborah Kay Davies, "True Things" is co-writer and director Harry Wootliff's sensory-overload cinematic expression of a woman who becomes so infatuated with a man that she allows her entire life and being to be consumed by him.

Ruth Wilson (frighteningly good in Showtime's "The Affair") plays Kate, a bored claims worker living in a small seaside town in the UK, who meets a ridiculously dyed-blond ex-con (a rather smoldering, until he's not, Tom Burke) and goes mad for his charms, upending a life she wasn't too thrilled with in the first place. Wilson, in a knockout performance, is transformative here, from the early days of waiting for a return text to a reawakening of sorts. She is no victim.

"I'm Your Man"

"I'm Your Man"

In "I'm Your Man," "Downton Abbey's" Dan Stevens plays a new type of cyborg that replicates a human to perfection. These new robotic humanoids are designed to be the perfect partner, created specifically to tend to the person's every want and need. Just like he did for Lady Mary!

Alma (Maren Eggert, terrific) is a scientist who, in order to get funds for her own research, gets roped into evaluating this new type of robot. She must live with "him" for three weeks and decide his fate (as well as the fate of the experiment) accordingly. Alma is obviously beyond skeptical, and initially just annoyed, but things take an interesting turn in writer-director Maria Schrader's intelligent and keen comedy, which never chooses sci-fi dazzle over true human depth of feeling. Stevens proves he is a master with precision comedy. In German with English subtitles.

"Small Body" ("Piccolo corpo")

"Small Body" ("Piccolo corpo")

As a fallen Catholic who has tired of films that deal with misguided followers, I almost gave up on "Small Body" in the first 30 minutes, but I am happy I stayed with it. Writer-director Laura Samani's alluring film centers on Agata (Celeste Cescutti), a young woman who has a stillborn child on an island in northeast Italy in 1900. The corpse is taken from her and immediately buried. She is then informed by the local priest that the child cannot be given a name, as she is forever banished to the darkness of limbo (such was the Catholic belief for centuries if you died before baptism). But there are those in the village that know of a distant place where you can have your dead baby resurrected long enough for it to get baptized before it dies again. So Agata sets on an insane odyssey (that wakes the viewer up from the humdrumness) in which she encounters some mercenaries as well as a savage thief of questionable gender. While I may question the denouement, I was moved by it. And Cescutti reminded me of an Italian Kate Winslet. In Italian with English subtitles.

"Three Floors" ("Tre Piani")

"Three Floors" ("Tre Piani")

The opening moments of Nanni Moretti's latest feature, "Three Floors (Tre Piani)," provide quite the promising setup. A pregnant woman (Alba Rohrwacher) is walking onto a deserted street late at night, as a car suddenly speeds around a corner, right by her, hitting another woman and crashing into an apartment building. Cut to a small girl staring... at the car inside her home. Her father (Riccardo Scamarcio), seemingly unfazed, asks the driver if he's okay. The film traces ten years in the lives of the characters affected by this incident. It's an intriguing setup that tends to hit more than it misses, thanks in large part to solid performances by the luminous Margherita Buy, the spellbinding Rohrwacher, and newcomer Denise Tantucci. The men don't fare as well, mostly because their roles are thinly written. In Italian, with English subtitles.

"Compartment No. 6" ("Hytti nro 6")

"Compartment No. 6" ("Hytti nro 6")

Aboard a train across rural Russia, Laura (Seidi Haarla), a Finnish student who has just left her girlfriend, meets the crass Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov). Stuck in the same compartment, they are forced to get to know each other despite their differences, and a tricky bond develops. Writer-director Juho Kuosmanen has created something that is close to magical with "Compartment No. 6," co-winner of the Cannes Grand Prix. Haarla is super. In Russian and Finnish, with English subtitles.

"Sundown"

"Sundown"

When we meet Neil and Allison in Acapulco, they seem like another wealthy British couple on vacation with their teen children. But they're anything but — they're siblings. When Allison gets a devastating call from home, the family must return to London. Fast. Things take an unpredictable turn, and then a few more stunning turns, in writer-director Michel Franco's twisty, mysterious, and moody film, "Sundown." Tim Roth peels off just enough layers of this enigmatic figure, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is scarily good as a woman on top — and dead set on staying there.

"The Story of My Wife"

"The Story of My Wife"

The early word on Ildikó Enyedi's "The Story of My Wife" out of Cannes was that it was a lumbering bore and the ensemble was acting in a language they were uncomfortable in (English). While the latter may be a bit true, the former is not. I found the near-three-hour film to be stunning and mostly gripping — although there was nothing new revealed in the final reel. Set in the 1920s and adapted from Hungarian poet Milán Füst's novel, the film follows a sea captain (handsome Gijs Naber), who literally marries the first woman who walks through a cafe and must then live with her possible infidelities. Léa Seydoux is arresting as his wife, keeping us intrigued even when the narrative runs out of steam.

AND THE REST...
"Encounter"  

AND THE REST...

Good performances save certain other films that are lacking otherwise.

Riz Ahmed delivers a joyfully unhinged performance in Michael Pearce's deceptive thriller "Encounter." Ahmed plays a totally toured-out marine who knows that alien bugs are burrowing into people and taking control of their minds, so he kidnaps his two children from his estranged wife. What begins as a seemingly fraught sci-fi flick becomes something entirely different. The film is flawed and a bit headache-inducing, but worth it for Ahmed and Octavia Spencer in a key role.

"The Good House" features strong acting from Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline, who were first paired in Ang Lee's classic 1997 film, "The Ice Storm." Otherwise, what filmmakers Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky are trying to say about alcoholism is admirable but lost in a messy and rarely funny narrative.

Melissa McCarthy shines bright in the otherwise lackluster film, "The Starling," about a very serious subject — the loss of a child. Kevin Kline, again, provides great support but the film, directed by Theodore Melfi, never seems to decide what it wants to be, thanks to a screenplay that spends too much time on minutiae and not enough on character development.

Two almost completely one-person showcase films have little to offer except the powerhouse performances by the leads. Both are too gimmicky, and needed to expand outside of their limited confines (and I do get they were COVID lockdown films).

Antoine Fuqua's "The Guilty," written by Nic Pizzolatto, is a remake of the far superior 2018 Danish film, and isn't half as intense except for Jake Gyllenhaal's committed turn.

In Phillip Noyce's "Lakewood," Naomi Watts does all the incredible heavy lifting as a mother lost in the woods who discovers there's an active shooter in her son's high school... and it may actually be her son. Chris Sparling's screenplay is not interesting enough to keep us hooked. This film needed to enter the school to really be effective.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute