Last week, Josh and I gave you our impressions about a handful of films that we saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. We’re back with the second (and final) installment of this feature for this year, as we are people with jobs who can’t just see 50 movies in a week like that’s a reasonable way to live or something.
It was a strong year for Canadian genre films at the festival. I wrote about Les Affamés and The Crescent in our last installment, and Pyewacket was the third Can-Horror film that I had the opportunity to check out.
If you’re anything like me, you’re a huge sucker for goth teens and witchcraft, and Pyewacket pays off in that regard. It follows an angsty teenage girl who acquired an interest in the dark arts, which seems to be a bit of a phase that she’s going through following the death of her father. When her disagreeable mother moves her to a remote rural home and away from her school friends, the impetuous young lady goes full hex on her mom. She performs a ritual designed to summon Pyewacket, a dark spirit who is tasked with bringing about her mother’s demise. When it becomes clear that witchcraft isn’t fun and games and that her rebellious hex would pay very real dividends, she tries to reverse it. Things go about as well as you might expect.
Pyewacket is an economical horror feature with a patient setup and some effective scares. As it is essentially a riff on “The Monkey’s Paw”, we don’t have too much to dig into that hasn’t been covered before, but the film is directed with confidence and style. I would easily recommend it to horror fans, and particularly to anyone whose favourite sub-genre of horror involves witchcraft.
Sadaf Foroughi’s Ava gives us a peek into the world of a teenage schoolgirl in ultra-conservative Tehran, Iran. The rules that govern what young Ava is permitted to do and say seem extreme in a Western context (as well as to her), and she goes out of her way to get around or outright break all of them. The true drama of the film surrounds a bet she makes with her classmate involving whether or not she could get a boy to go out on a date with her, which is compounded by the fact that dating boys has been strictly forbidden by her parents.
Ava is a visually beautiful and impressively constructed first feature, framing Iran in a day-to-day context that we are typically not privy to accessing in the West. The film remains interesting throughout and the performances are solid. Things begin to drift as the film rolls on and we’re given a conclusion that feels more unresolved than purposefully ambiguous, but it is overall a very compelling film from a very promising new voice.
There is a tension at the heart of Corey Bowles’ Black Cop, an ambivalence that runs through its unnamed protagonist. His eyes hidden behind dark glasses and a smirk, he shoves a protester who gets in his face. He likes the power. But he is at once empowered and trapped by the badge. We watch him don his uniform with a sense of almost self-loathing weariness. The uniform doesn’t protect him as a black man in society when he’s not wearing it.
There’s a lot going on in Black Cop, a film that feels understandably confused, frustrated, helpless, and angry. It tells the story of a day in the life of a protagonist who enacts revenge against white citizens by treating them in the way black people are frequently treated for the same non-crimes. This is a protagonist who is a trickster, an oppressor, a protector, a victim, and, by his own admission, an asshole. But he’s never a hero.
The film is kind of all over the place, but it an utterly captivating way. I appreciated and respected this film a lot for its brazenness of style and the way it evokes complicated feelings of conflict and important conversations without making airs about the impossibility of trying to resolve them.
Indian Horse – the movie – does a pretty decent job doing justice to Richard Wagamese’s elegant and heartbreaking novel about Canada’s Indian Residential Schools system, while still paling in comparison to the novel itself. It uses the same structure as the novel, opening with an adult Saul Indian Horse in a recovery program narrating the story, which is then told through a series of flashbacks. The character of Saul is played remarkably well and consistently by three different actors across the film (a la Moonlight), the youngest of whom, Sladen Peltier, is acting for the first time. These performances are really the backbone of the film, as we see the tension between Saul becoming free through his love of hockey yet hardened by his experiences. The older two actors, especially, are great at capturing this bottled-up trauma that sits behind Saul’s eyes.
But while director Stephen Campanelli is a great cameraman who has worked for Clint Eastwood for decades—and naturally this film looks gorgeous—, he is inexperienced and somewhat shallow as a director. This is such a powerful story but, but something gets lost in the translation. No doubt that’s party due to mostly losing the novel’s first-person narrative voice, but the stark simplicity of Wagamese’s prose is here rendered in such heavy theatrics it sometimes borders on tacky. That’s not to say the film isn’t affecting. It frequently is, especially when it relies on its actors. I just wish Campanelli wasn’t getting in the way of it so much. It’s a good movie, but it should have been a great one.
Long Time Running
The country wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Gord Downie, but when his cancer diagnosis was made public in early 2016, that’s what Canada was forced to do. In a way it felt like the band’s summer tour, their last, which culminated in a televised concert in the band’s hometown of Kingston watched by over 11 million people, functioned as a sort of living wake for fans of a band who has helped define Canadiana. Long Time Running helps ensure that The Tragically Hip remain not just a relic, but a vibrant and living contribution to Canadian culture.
The film wisely doesn’t try to encompass the entire history of the band, but drops in on them at the point of the cancer diagnosis and follows them over the next several months as they prepare for a seemingly quixotic final tour. But what the film documents is not just a farewell tour, but an incredible story of perseverance. It’s heartbreaking to watch Downie, post-surgery, as he struggles to relearn the words he wrote. From the nervousness of the days leading up to the tour’s first show in Victoria to the increasingly emboldened performances across the country, this is the story of a band finding understanding with their fanbase one last time. In the grand resilient spirit so fundamental to the character of this country, Downie gave Canada a collective force of hope.
During the climactic final concert in Kingston, we see a country come together to share the experience, from parks to bars to those thousands packed into the Kingston square. It’s bigger than hockey. It’s essentially about family. And Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier make the fans part of this family, as they cheer, dance, cry, mourn, and celebrate. I don’t know whether this will play outside Canada at all, or whether anyone without knowledge of the Hip or their role in this country will connect with it. But it’s so human, so loving, and I think there’s room for documentaries to act as a means to preserve and contextualize artists’ work as a form of appreciation. In the case of The Tragically Hip and what they’ve meant to Canada, there’s a country’s worth of room.
A Worthy Companion
There are films that tread a fine line between discomfort and distaste, between exploration and exploitation; A Worthy Companion is as good an example of that kind of high wire act as you’re likely to see. Its portrayal of an abusive relationship between an adult woman, Laura (Evan Rachel Wood), and a 16-year-old girl, Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), is all kinds of disturbing and murky in the same way the film as a whole is.
This first feature by brother pair Carlos and Jason Sanchez is sophisticated in the way it doles out information with subtle visual cues and blurs the line between victimhood and abuse, in a way that keeps the audience constantly on edge. The film is almost impenetrably dark, challenging but rewarding for its portrayal of how complicated cycles of abuse and manipulation can be. There’s a scene in a swimming pool near the end of this film that will be among the most memorable few moments of film I’ll have seen all year.
North of Superior
On the closing day of the festival, I got the chance to see IMAX co-creator Graeme Ferguson’s 1971 short, North of Superior. If you aren’t aware, IMAX (then called the Multi-Screen Corporation) is a Canadian invention, and the first permanent IMAX cinema in the world was right here in Toronto. TIFF and the province worked together to reopen the Cinesphere – closed down since 2012 – specifically for this festival, where they showed some classic IMAX shorts as well as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, with Nolan in attendance. However during the screening I attended, they made the exciting announcement that the Cinesphere would permanently reopen this fall for regular programming!
North of Superior is a dazzling trip through North Ontario. From its percussive, explosive introduction that sends the audience hurtling through the air, the film’s director Graeme Ferguson was changing film in ways even he probably didn’t understand, as we marvel almost 50 years later at the ways Christopher Nolan is using and the places he’s fitting IMAX cameras. Here, Ferguson shoots from helicopters, flips a canoe with the camera inside, and gets uncomfortably close to a forest fire. It all feels like a love letter to the more forgotten places and people who live in the shadow of South Ontario’s cities, but whose efforts nevertheless sustain those cities.
Watch the entire film HERE.