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TIFF '21 midway catch-up — the good and the not so good

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Midway through the 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, we’re taking stock of the good and not so good.

Many of the films I was looking forward to seeing are living up to their buzz. I’ll have more to say about “The Power of the Dog,” “Dune,” “Spencer” and others in my wrap column, but not every film has met expectations. Here’s a look at six that have delighted and two that haven’t.


The Forgiven

Are forgiveness and vengeance incompatible, or is there a middle ground? There’s much to ponder in John Michael McDonagh’s taut morality tale, which sets Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain as a squabbling couple en route to a wild party, whose reckless driving in the Moroccan desert kills a Muslim youth. The grieving father of the dead teen demands atonement; the party will happen regardless of consequences. A crack ensemble cast — including Matt Smith, Caleb Landry Jones and Canada’s Marie-Josée Croze — and a wickedly smart screenplay amplify moral issues that gnaw at the mind.

A Hero

Ace Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi really knows how to turn the screws on a story, which inevitably starts out simple and slowly becomes more complicated. He’s in excellent form with the dilemma facing Rahim (Amir Jadidi), a humble calligrapher on a two-day release from debtor’s prison, who is offered an opportunity to quickly win full freedom. Rahim tries to do the right thing, but missteps and doubts, inflamed by social media, threaten to make his life all the more miserable. “Nothing is fair in this world,” a character sagely observes.

Jagged / Oscar Peterson: Black + White

Two worthy docs about Canadian music superstars, singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette and jazz legend Oscar Peterson, told in their own voices. Alison Klayman’s “Jagged” chronicles the pain behind Morissette’s 1995 confessional breakthrough album “Jagged Little Pill,” which sold an astonishing 33 million copies and empowered other women, but sprang from an early career marred by multiple statutory rapes and an eating disorder. Alanis, calm and composed at 47, marvels at her survival. Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, in Barry Avrich’s doc, also speaks of the toll that creating music and relentless touring took on his family life, even as they lifted the humble Montrealer to global fame. Avrich scoured archives for rare interviews in which Peterson, who died at age 82 in 2007, talks about a career that redefined jazz piano, helped give civil rights a soundtrack (“Hymn to Freedom”), and made him a hero and influence to the likes of Quincy Jones, Jon Batiste and even Billy Joel.

The Middle Man

Bent Hamer’s ice-cold sense of humour finds natural allies with a cast of top Canadian actors — Paul Gross, Don McKellar, Sheila McCarthy, Kenneth Welsh, Rossif Sutherland — as the Norwegian auteur makes merry with grieving in a disaster-prone U.S. city (played by Sault Ste. Marie, where much of this was filmed). Norwegian actor Pal Sverre Hagen is Frank, a chronically unemployed man who thinks his life has taken a turn for the better when he accepts the municipal job of “middle man,” tasked with informing residents of tragic losses. Frank has obviously never seen a Bent Hamer movie. This one’s hard to laugh at, much harder to forget.

Neptune Frost

“I count the stars, but will they count me?” This sci-fi musical, by “Slam” writer/actor Saul Williams and Rwandan actor/playwright Anisia Uzeyman, is an act of pure cinema, inviting the mind to wander as freely as its characters and narrative. Surrealistic Afro-futurist poetry, matched with equally unbound images, targets human exploitation and rapacious capitalism in the chronicle of intersex runaway Neptune, played by both Cheryl Isheja and Elvis Ngabo. It’s the wildest trip at TIFF 2021; conventional travellers need not book passage.


Last Night in Soho

I really wanted to love this movie, as I do many of Edgar Wright’s genre-blending films. And it starts off so well: a burst of music and energy as a candy-coloured Swinging Sixties tribute in David Lynch mode, with Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy playing two women in one body in a psycho thriller of mirror opposites. Think of Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” set in London, with a fab ’60s pop soundtrack. Midway through, Wright abruptly shifts into a lurid homage to Italian giallo horror films, breaking the spell and losing my allegiance. That’s one tribute too many, Edgar.

Listening to Kenny G

For about the first 30 minutes of Penny Lane’s doc about jazz saxophone phenomenon Kenny G, I was feeling sympathy for this critically derided horn blower and admiration for his honesty: “I don’t think I’m a personality to people. I think I’m a sound.” Then comes the repetitive and excruciating next hour, in which Kenny burbles on and on about his incredible talents, not just at playing the sax but anything he puts his mind to, from golf to flying to baking. He’s smugly and insufferably tone-deaf about his conceits. I want to lock him into an elevator playing an infinite loop of “Songbird,” but he’d probably consider that a pleasure. 🌓

(This story originally ran in the Toronto Star.)



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