By Anne Brodie
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s gobsmacking take on the historic warrior women of west Africa – the Dahomey Amazons – feels like a superhero epic but with living, breathing, relatable humans. The Woman King. The warriors are phenomenal – Viola Davis is power personified as Nanisca, leading a fine ensemble of actresses, who can convey it all with a look, are skilled fighters, and show how women changed the course of African history. Nanisca’s painstakingly trained fighters – Thuso Mbedu as recruit Nawi, Lashana Lynch as strategist Izogie, and veteran Amenza played by Sheila Atmi are masters of discipline and loyalty, their superpowers in an 1832 Dahomey war against traditional enemies, marauders, and slave traders who both steal Black lives and keep the kingdom wealthy. John Boyega seems born to play the king, a dignified, astute, and eloquent ruler and a savvy politician with progressive ideas about replacing the slave trade with palm oil. The cultural life of Dahomey is rich and robust, ageless, its traditions based on survival, evolution, and community. The nature of the film is to be bloody; fight sequences are epic, yet graceful, and the emotional framework is consistent, anchored by laser-focused performances across the board. Dana Stevens and actor Maria Bello provided the story for this feminist gem/history lesson and it’s a doozy. In theatres.
The jolly British whodunnit See How They Run is cleverly connected to Agatha Christie’s famous murder/detective play The Mousetrap, a world record-setter. It ran continuously for 68 years in London’s West End until the pandemic closed it temporarily in 2020. Suspects are gathered in a living room as officials attempt to sort the identity of the person who murdered the least liked character. Audience members are asked not to reveal the ending. Tom George and Mark Chappell’s ‘extension’ set a year after the play opens, stars Saoirse Ronan, Sam Rockwell, Harris Dickinson, Adrien Brody, and Shirley Henderson. It mirrors the play. It’s 1953 and a crass, abusive Hollywood director (Brody) has arrived in London to check out The Mousetrap for a potential movie adaptation. According to the play’s formula, See How They Run kills off the least liked character early (Brody), a world-weary copper investigates (Rockwell as Inspector Stoppard whose name is an inside joke) accompanied by an “eager rookie” (Ronan) and told without “lazy” flashbacks. The vintage feel and flawless art direction place us firmly in a time and place, and an amusing script and fun performances enliven it, aided by its snappy speed. Richard Attenborough and other important London theatre figures of the period appear; he starred in the original play. Given the strict imposed parameters of the play, it feels unbound and energised, a ray of witty sunshine. Also stars David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson. In theatres.
And some notable TIFF films, in brief, take note as some open soon. Writer-director Darlene Naponse’s Stellar gets under the skin in record time. It takes place inside a dilapidated bar in Sudbury near the nickel and copper mines formed by a meteorite hitting earth 1.8 billion years ago. “AADIZOOKAAN – from the sky it came. Mother Earth willfully split the ground beneath the lake. Serpents swam again in this world. She and He braided the rift.” The indigenous origins of the rim of metals it created came into being. Inside the bar are three people – the bartender (Rossif Sutherland), He (Braeden Clarke), and She (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers). While they talk and drink, they ignore the view out the front window of raging fires, people running for their lives, and total chaos, like a meteorite striking. We’re also shown nature at peace, deer roaming and watching, and sun-dappled forests, untouched by fire and become nostalgic. How should He and She spend their remaining time? Can they mend the rift? Naponse’s incredibly powerful, utterly quiet fable spans millennia and an evening, it is lyrical, mysterious, depressing, and hopeful, so much power packed into a quick look at humanity in the scheme of things.
Something You Said Last Night an intimate portrait of Renata, a young trans woman (Carmen Madonia) vacationing with her parents and sister, a tight, loving and tempestuous unit, reveals the best and worst of families. Ren’s parents accept and support her unconditionally, but it’s a non-issue with his sister Sienna. Their sibling fights ring so true and real, and the vibe is more documentary than fiction from writer-director Luis De Filippis supported by in-yer-face cinematography. Ren and Siena share a bed; one of them farts and the actors laugh hysterically. at other times, they are at war. The aggressive mother (Ramona Milano) expresses her undying love while constantly hollering the kids and demeaning her milquetoast husband (Joe Parro). Ren has zero body issues and wears a string bikini, while Sienna is ashamed of her beautiful body. Acceptance of Ren’s gender is established immediately but her manner, eyes, and constant high alert in public hint at past abuses that are never mentioned. It’s a day in the life of an extraordinarily courageous and well-loved young woman who is strong but always on the lookout for bias-based problems. Quite harrowing at times, but delicate and deeply intimate.
A dentist working in Aurora, Ontario seems like anyone else. But the truth is, Hamed Esmaeilion is in unending pain, His beloved wife and little girl, Parisa and Reera were murdered when on Jan. 8, 2020, an Iranian surface-to-air missile brought down their plane en route from Tehran to Toronto. All 176 passengers aboard Flight 752 were killed. Babak Payami’s poignant documentary 752 Is Not a Number follows Esmaeilion as he searches for truth, brushing up against dangerous politics, uncaring governments, lying officials who twist reality to avoid blame, and those who admit but take no responsibility. All this is framed by his intense feelings of abandonment. He finds kindness as a stranger in Canada seeks him out to return Reera’s Canadian Health Card, a bittersweet moment if there ever was one. The governments of Iran, The United States under Trump, Canada, Ukraine, and more played various roles in the event and aftermath. Eventually, Iran admitted the missiles were fired by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps moments after the flight took off, revealing the hit was intended and well-planned. Trump’s hand is in there as he’d had killed Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian major general, on January 3. Still, Iran called the missile attack human error. Esmaeilion created a group for those who lost loved ones that day and continues to demand answers, which sadly, we don’t feel are coming. Devastating. Screened at TIFF.
Director Lindsay MacKay’s delicate handling of writer Kate Hewlett’s Governor General’s Literary Award play nominee The Swearing Jar, and performances of actors Adelaide Clemens, Douglas Smith, and Patrick J. Adams, featuring a fearless performance by Kathleen Turner, bring this unusual romantic drama home. It’s one to savour, as Clemens’ Carrie weathers a tragic upheaval and attempts to move forward. Carry’s married to Simon (Patrick J. Adams) and theirs is a warm, loving bond. Kathleen Turner is his overbearing mother whom they reject. Singer-songwriter Carry meets Owen (Douglas Smith) a barista while writing a song; he notices she’s emotional and asks her to have a coffee with him. She flees. They meet again and get to know each other. One day, while sitting in a park together her mother-in-law sees them. This brilliantly conceived story is a truthful and complex study of mourning, moving on, and the enduring quality of love; it’ll get you. A TIFF gem.
TIFF‘s We Are Still Here, an eight-part anthology of indigenous stories from eight Australian and New Zealand directors spans time and space. It opens underwater as a First Nations mother and her daughter spear hunt for fish; the hybrid animation/live-action is powerfully expressive. A storm comes up, there’s a massive blast and a British galleon comes into focus; the end of life as the Indigenous people knew it and the start of colonisation. An Aboriginal man leads a dehydrated and starving white gunman on horseback across the desert but instead of taking him to safety, he must bear witness to history. A young Maori girl refuses to adapt to Victorian dress and manners imposed by her ambitious mother and joins the men in their war dance. An Indigenous soldier in a British regimental uniform seems alone in a battle with well-stocked Brits. A young man is repeatedly harassed by a sadistic police officer in a convenience store but finds something wonderful he hadn’t expected. Each story is unique in style, medium, and tone and they’re flawlessly intercut to deliver poetic, powerful, and important cultural truths. We Are Still Here marks the 250th anniversary of the arrival of James Cook in Australia and its subsequent British colonisation.
Lina Rodriguez’ meditative, unhurried TIFF entry, the immigration story So Much Tenderness follows a Colombian environmental lawyer Aurora (Noëlle Schönwald) under death threats who flees to Canada. She witnessed the murder of her husband, also an activist, and figures she’s next. Hidden in the trunk of the car of two Americans, she makes it across the US border to downtown Toronto. It’s unfamiliar, she fears for the daughter (Natalia Aranguren) she left behind and she’s concerned about rebuilding a life and making a case to stay. Local organizations help, and she settles and sends for her daughter. Rodriguez travels back and forth in time with flashes of the past – murder, friends and family to the present in Toronto and working as an ESL instructor. But one day she sees a man on the subway who brings the past rushing back to her. The film is an immigrant struggle scenario, a suspense thriller, and it takes its sweet time to get into our bones.
Is it fun you’re after? A little sexy talk? TIFF entry The End of Sex has both! The kiddies are off for a week of winter camp leaving suburban parents Emma (Emily Hampshire and Josh (screenwriter /co-star Jonas Chernick) alone for the first time in years. They’re really looking forward to, well, having a lot of sex, “we don’t have to close the doors! we can do it anywhere!” but when push comes to shove, it’s a bust. Director Sean Garrity’s squirmy, hilarious look at lunch bag letdown, may hit a nerve, so much the better for this awkwardly comedic journey they begin to get in the mood and make it work. They discuss. They have friendship nailed, they love each other, so what gives? Is it the pressure of a week’s deadline? Is there someone else? Does patriarchal society repress desire? Emma and Josh aren’t afraid to face facts, like her high school admirer, now a gallery owner who makes clear his interest, and Josh’s randy office co-worker Kelly (Lily Gao). They focus on ways to spice things up – a super awkward threesome, a sex club – a real shocker is within, and more, even as the week grows shorter along with their tempers. Awesome cameo by Colin Mochrie – only he could pull it off. Respect.