Tag Archives: SIFF Reviews

SIFF 2021: Wisdom Tooth (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Writer-director Liang Ming’s drama is an ambitious feature debut–perhaps overly so. Set in northeast China, the film begins as a character study about a brother and sister struggling to make ends meet in a fishing town. The young woman (Xingchen Lyu) is an undocumented worker and on the verge of losing her hotel maid job. Her half-brother (Xiaoliang Wu) has just lost his fishing job.

When the siblings befriend the free-spirited daughter of a prosperous mob boss, the sister oddly begins to act like a jilted (lover?) once her brother and their new friend start sleeping together…but there is no explanation as to why. There is a suggestion that the two women have the hots for each other, but that thread goes nowhere fast. About 40 minutes in there is a hint that you’re now watching a crime thriller, but no thrills ensue. Ultimately the film is a wash.

SIFF 2021: Topside (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Be advised: This stark, intense and harrowing drama about homelessness and heroin addiction is not for the squeamish (count me among the squeamish). Co-writers and directors Logan George and Celine Held’s film begins literally in the dark underbelly of New York City…and figuratively works its way down from there.

A homeless single mother (Held) and her 5-year old daughter (Zhaila Farmer) survive hand-to-mouth living in an abandoned subway tunnel. When city officials order a sweep of the subterranean community, mother and daughter are forced “topside” onto the mean streets. Not a “feel good” film, but the most gripping and heartbreaking junkie drama I’ve seen since Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 character study The Panic in Needle Park.

SIFF 2021: The Spy (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Swedish director Jens Jonsson’s WW2 drama is based on a “rumored” story regarding famous Norwegian-Swedish actress Sonja Wigert. After Sonja (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) shuns the advances of German occupied Norway’s reichskommissar Josef Terboven (Alexander Scheer), he arranges to have her father arrested by the SS (as spurned Nazis do). Swedish intelligence offers to help free her father if Sonja agrees to get chummy with Terboven so she can gather intel (they are eager to find out if/when the Germans plan on invading Sweden).

The film drags in the first half, which is essentially a series of fetes and elegant dinners where Sonja flirts and mingles with high-ranking Nazis, but eventually delivers on its “spy thriller” billing with added layers of subterfuge and intrigue. While not destined to be mentioned in the same breath as Mephisto or The Last Metro, The Spy is a stylish (if workmanlike) genre entry. The screenplay was written by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Jan Trygve Røyneland.

SIFF 2021: The Salt in Our Waters (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s sumptuously photographed variation on the venerable “city mouse-country mouse” scenario concerns a metropolitan sculptor (Titas Zia) who travels to a remote fishing village in the Bangladeshi Delta for a sabbatical. Inspired by the beauty of the coast (as well as one of the young women), he begins work on new pieces. Some villagers are puzzled by his sculptures (which they view as “idols” with no practical purpose) but are hospitable to their guest.

However, when the fishermen find their nets are suddenly coming up short (due to rising tides), the recently arrived outsider becomes a convenient straw man for the “Chairman”, the local head cleric and village leader. A compelling, beautifully acted drama that makes salient observations on tradition vs. modernity and science vs. fundamentalism.

SIFF 2021: Deadly Cuts (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Strictly Ballroom meets Eating Raoul in this twisted black comedy from writer-director Rachel Carey. A quartet of hairdressers living in a crime-ridden Dublin neighborhood are working overtime to brainstorm new “cuts” that are innovative and exciting enough to wow the judges at the imminent “Ahh Hair!” championship.

The women suffer a setback when their salon is vandalized by a gang who run a neighborhood protection racket. When the gang’s oafish leader shows up at the salon demanding payment, the confrontation escalates and the women are forced to defend themselves-with extreme prejudice. Let’s just say… it’s on to the championship, girls! The film becomes increasingly more campy and over-the-top as it progresses, but it’s (darkly) funny throughout.

SIFF 2021: The Bears’ Famous Invasion (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Granted, the bruin incursion recounted in this charming fairy-tale is likely more “famous” in Italy than elsewhere (Lorenzo Mattotti’s animated film is adapted from a popular Italian children’s book that I have never heard of called La famosa invasione degli orsi in Sicilia), but the story has universal appeal. A wandering minstrel and his young daughter happen onto a gargantuan bear while seeking shelter in a cave. Lucky for them, the hungry bear is up for swapping tales (as opposed to gobbling down an obvious easy dinner). The two tales told intersect in clever fashion. An imaginative and splendidly animated family-friendly entertainment.

SIFF 2021: Beans (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2021)

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Writer-director Tracey Deer’s impressive debut (co-written with Meredith Vuchnich) is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a 12 year-old Mohawk girl nicknamed “Beans” (Kiawentiio). Beans’ preteen turmoil and angst is juxtaposed with a retelling of the 1990 “Oka crisis” standoff in Quebec, which involved a land dispute between Mohawk protesters and Canadian law enforcement.

Beans, her little sister, father and pregnant mother find themselves in the thick of the (at times life-threatening) racist backlash from the local Quebecois settler community. Deer’s interweaving of documentary realism (via archival news footage of the crisis) with wonderful, naturalistic performances from her cast makes for an absorbing social drama.

SIFF 2021: Waikiki (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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Trouble in paradise. This intense, shattering psychological drama is about a young native Hawaiian woman (Danielle Zalopany, in an extraordinary performance) who is at a crossroads in her life. She suffers PTSD from an abusive relationship. She is temporarily homeless and living in her van. She juggles several part-time jobs, including bartending and teaching hula. One night, upset and distracted following an altercation with her ex, she hits a homeless man with her van. From this point the film makes a tonal shift that demands your total attention. A tour-de-force for Christopher Kahunahana, who served as writer, producer, director, and editor.

SIFF 2021: Too Late (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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I am not a big fan of gore movies, but despite my initial trepidation I ended up enjoying D.W. Thomas’ horror comedy. The Los Angeles stand-up scene provides the backdrop for this tale about a long-suffering talent booker and P.A. (Alyssa Limperis) who works for a demanding variety show host (Ron Lynch) who owns his own comedy club. He’s a real monster. No, seriously (I’ll leave it at that). Tom Becker (who is the director’s husband) wrote the frequently hilarious screenplay, which doubles as a clever metaphor for the dog-eat-dog world of stand up. As a former comedian, I have to admit they had me at “club owner who is a real monster”.

SIFF 2021: Strawberry Mansion (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 10, 2021)

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This sci-fi tale depicts a dystopian near-future where the government has figured a way to collect taxes on the unconscious. A hangdog tax man (Kentucker Audely, who co-wrote with director Albert Birney) who specializes in auditing people’s dreams calls on an aging, free-spirited artist (Penny Fuller) to paw through her dusty collection of dream archives, which are housed on VHS tapes.

As the glum bureaucrat watches her dreams, he finds that he can interact with her younger self, with whom he begins to fall in love (Brainstorm meets Harold and Maude). There’s also a subplot about a virus that invades your dreams with product placements (similar to the “blipverts” in the Max Headroom series). The movie has a few inspired scenes but feels too derivative of films like The Lathe of Heaven, Paprika, and Dreamscape.