Noteworthy Films at the 2021 Toronto International Film Fest

The films featured at TIFF represented all genres from all kinds of places. Works by veterans and new filmmakers added dimension to the fest. These were in the mix. 

Ali & Ava (***) With a certain sense of whimsy and an exceptional ability to tell a unique love story, writer-director Clio Barnard gives two lost souls a new chance at romance. Ava (Claire Rushbrook), an Irish teacher and widowed mother, tends to her five children but not to herself. Ali (Adeel Akhtar, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) a Pakistani landlord still living with a wife he’s been separated from just to keep up a façade, is effervescent and a music fan. The two very different and mature adults live in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England—a town whose demographics are changing. Their paths cross. Their eyes meet. Love. 

Barnard astutely dives into Britain’s working-class strata with the same wisdom as venerable director Ken Loach (Ladybird Ladybird) when he examines blue collar life.  Her characters, their relationships and modest goals feel authentic and are gracefully told in a no-frills brand of realism. There’s hard, searing drama (the mother son conflict between Ava and her bitter son Callum (Shaun Thomas). Whimsy (the musical bonds between the two lovers is lighthearted). Romance (love guides them into each other’s arms). Rushbrook and Akhtar have wonderful chemistry. The entire cast is believable. The sets (Celina Norris), production design (Stéphane Collonge) and lived-in clothes (Sophie O’Neill) depict proletarian life. There are no cheap shots or ethnic slurs just to make a point. Clio Barnard has judiciously created a thoughtful look at intercultural love in the 21st century. It’s a love letter to middle-aged people who dare to find romance across ethnic lines.

Benediction (***) “I cannot remain silent in the face of such casualties,” declares WWI English poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden, Small Axe). His conscientious objection leads the Under-Secretary of State for War to send him to the Craiglockhart War Hospital and a psych ward. There, under the care of Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels, The Crown) and as he mentors a fellow patient/poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), Sassoon furthers his career as a poet/author. Always questioning war, championing soldiers and now learning how to navigate gay life in the 1910s when there is no road map. 

In the hands of the consummate art film director Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives), the cinematography (Nicola Daley) is as sumptuous as the production design (Andy Harris), art direction (Adam Tomilson), sets (Alison Harvey) and costumes (Annie Symons). Davie’s research is so impeccable and storytelling so comprehensive that audiences will feel like they’re learning every facet of Sassoon’s life. From decorated war hero, to pacifist, to young gay idealistic man and an old embittered married father (Peter Capaldi) with a wife and equally angry son. The Boys in the Band bitchy, cutting but brilliantly written dialogue may give some viewers pause. The self-hating, misguided life-path choices may seem passé. Yet Sassoon’s identity struggle makes for an intriguing journey of self-discovery even if his final revelations are cynical. A sad but telling and expertly composed biofilm. 

Inexorable (**1/2) Deceitful people and femme fatales don’t normally introduce themselves. So, there’s a good reason why the wealthy unsuspecting family in this very twisted Belgian thriller don’t recognize the warning signs when a young woman Gloria (Alba Gaïa Bellugi) insinuates herself into their chateau. She befriends their dog and daughter. Cozies up to the wife (Mélanie Doutey) a rich publisher and charms dad (Benoît Poelvoorde) a famous novelist who wrote the best seller Inexorable. Gloria has ulterior motives. Revenge tops her bucket list. 

A girl gone crazy theme drives the plotline. Part Fatal Attraction. A little Misery. Writer/director Fabrice Du Welz (Alléluia), with a great assist from co-writers Aurélien Molas and Joséphine Darcy-Hopkins, sets up an intense cat and mouse narrative that gets more wicked and faster (editor Anne-Laure Guégan) as the prey gets cornered and played. It’s never hard to believe that the petite interloper is so evil because Bellugi skillfully exhibits sociopathic behavior. Poelvoorde, as the lying, pervy author, gives all cads a bad name. Performances, direction and plot points keep you engaged and baffled until the brutal ending. Disturbing. Erotic. Obsessive. And filled with engrossing deceit displayed by vile characters.

Lakewood (**) This momma bear crime/thriller may not have a strong future in theaters but may do well on female-oriented cable TV channels like Lifetime. A widowed mom (Naomi Watts) ships her little daughter (Sierra Maltby) and fussy teenage son (Colton Gobbo) off to school, then heads into a vast park/forest for a jog. Just her and her iPhone. Through calls and texts, she learns there’s an emergency lockdown at her son’s school. Gunman on the premises. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, unable to get back to town quickly, her smart phone is her only lifeline. Very believable and au currant premise with a storyline that leaves the drama category and heads straight into genre movie territory almost like it’s perfectly willing to exploit a very touchy social ill. 

If viewers are expecting graphic depiction of a mass school shooting, they will be disappointed and impatient when the focus remains solely on the mom and her actions. Within the confines of that creative choice, as a mom who’s an employee at a municipal taxation department begins to investigate a crime in real time, director Philip Noyce (Patriot Games) piles on the tension based on Chris Sparling’s script. The film starts with interest, lags for 21 minutes with too much basic setup, then, as the details of the crisis evolve, it picks up steam. Basically, this is a one-woman show but easy stuff for an actor of Naomi Watts’ caliber. She will make audiences care about the brave matriarch. Unfortunately, her solitude gets stale, the character’s jogging looks like baby steps and the 84-minute run time (editor Lee Haugen, Papillon) seems like an eternity. In this far-fetched movie the biggest dose of reality is that an iPhone can’t be recharged with an Android charger. Damn it!

Listening to Kenny G (**1/2) Elevator music. Wallpaper. Kenny G gets a bad rap for making background music. He’s also been raked across the coals for taking and homogenizing a black art form—jazz—and earning more money than God with his iconic saxophone. His album Beautiful is the #1 instrumental album of all time. Seventy-five million records later, he’s explaining himself and deflecting abuse from traditional jazz musicians like Pat Metheny. Is that justifiable anger or are haters just going to hate?

Jazz critics, music professors, fans, detractors and everyone but his accountant share their opinions in documentarian Penny Lane’s well-detailed overview. A likable curly-haired Jewish teen from Seattle who is a woodwind prodigy is inspired by Grover Washington. He’s also blessed with a work ethic of a mule as he introduces his brand of jazz to zillions of music lovers. With a self-deprecating humor and humbleness mixed with pride and chutzpah the musician takes stock of his career. An emotional flak jacket protects him from personal attacks. Archival footage, photos, interviews and statistics chronicle his brand of ultra-light smooth jazz. His fans will rejoice. Others, not so much. Ironically, his most sophisticated music in this doc are his new duets with John Coltrane’s old tracks. That coupling brings the art form of jazz back to its roots and introduces people to a legend. That’s what may finally give Kenny G the respect that evades him. Returning the favor. 

Sundown (**1/2) If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to overstay a vacation and discover if your tropical paradise is really heaven, watch this very understated but intriguing drama. Mexican writer/director Michel Franco (New Order) has created an observant ode to rich Anglo travelers who holiday in Latin America. Fortyish Neil (Tim Roth) is on vacation in Acapulco with his extremely wealthy sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two kids. Suddenly they get a call. Their mother has died. The quartet rushes to the airport to go home, only Neil has left his passport in the hotel and can’t make the flight. He promises to catch up later. Instead, he checks himself out of the ritzy hotel into a cheap one spending his days among the less-monied locals sunning on the beach. 

Franco’s family drama pits the ultra-rich against the everyday lower class. Beach bum Neil hooks up with a Bernice (Iazua Larios) who sells beers on the beach. He is callous and self-centered. She is gorgeous and caring. Their romance, crime, an unforeseen tragedy and attempts at reconciliation empower the script. Franco’s directing approach is natural and unfettered (like Cassavetes), making the viewer feel almost like a voyeur lounging on the shore next to Neil or a guest in the hotel room next door, or a witness at the legal proceeding where Neil must explain his behavior. Alice: “You’ve been hiding! Did you even lose your passport? Neil: “No.” Alice: “What’s the matter with you?” Dude’s a slacker Alice. A slacker. Franco’s look at rich foreign interlopers on Mexico’s famous beach is intriguing though not as scathing as it could be. Not as indicting as the director’s film New Order.

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