Tom at TIFF Part 1: A pair of powerful documentaries stand out after the Festival's opening weekend

Toronto International Film Festival
Posted at 6:36 PM, Sep 14, 2021
and last updated 2023-03-11 14:57:33-05

Tom Santilli is a professional film critic, TV personality, host and the Executive Producer of Movie Show Plus.

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, or "TIFF" if you want to sound cool, is well under-way. While several of the Festival's biggest films - like "Dune," "Dear Evan Hansen," "Spencer" and "Last Night in Soho" - have already made their TIFF premieres, only those physically in attendance in Toronto were able to see them. For many other critics across the world who chose to attend TIFF virtually, these films were not made available, thus leaving these big holes in our ongoing coverage.

But not to fret. There were several other great (and some not-so-great) films that premiered over TIFF's first weekend on the digital platform, led by two riveting documentaries that are not to be missed.

Read on for "Part 1" of the "Tom at TIFF" series, with WXYZ film critic and Movie Show Plus's own Tom Santilli, where Tom will give his reports on TIFF throughout the Festival, which runs from September 9th to September 18th.

Yes the two stand-out films from the opening weekend of TIFF happen to both be documentaries. The first is "Attica," a sobering and infuriating look back at the famous prison riot of 1971. The second is "Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11" which is not only powerful but timely, being made available over the 20th anniversary weekend of 9/11.

Below are quick-take reviews on all of the films that I've seen thus far through the first two days of the festival, including these two great documentaries.

"Attica." Checking in with surviving inmates of the Attica Prison Massacre, as well as relatives and children of some of the victims, viewers are given a raw and comprehensive look at exactly what went on back in 1971 when prisoners overtook the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. They took prison guards as hostages, but tried to use the national attention to draw focus on the unconscionable and inhumane treatment that these prisoners suffered while incarcerated. What started off as peaceful and meaningful ended with armed guards raiding the facility, killing not just 29 inmates but 8 of the hostages. This event occurred over 5 days, and happened 50 years ago, but it's clear that many of these same issues are still at the forefront today. It's a straight-forward talking-head documentary but it goes to show that the more things change, the more things stay the same. ("Attica" will release on Showtime later in 2021). Grade: A-.

"Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11." This documentary actually debuted on MSNBC early last week, played at TIFF over the weekend, and is now available on the Peacock streaming service. A filmmaker, following the events of 9/11, wanted to create a space where those directly affected by the tragedies of 9/11 could give their own personal accounts, talk about their lost loved ones, or just get things off of their chests. These testimonial videos have been collected and interspersed with footage taken on that fateful day, to tell one of the most personal accounts of 9/11 that you'll ever hear. The film then reconnects with many of these same people - now in 2021 - as they look back and put their experiences in perspective. It's a difficult but vital watch, and I do hope everyone gets the chance to see it. Grade: A.

"Kicking Blood." Alanna Bale stars in this stylish, personal vampire flick...a film that is very good but probably not impactful enough to make too many waves come awards season. In this universe, vampires act more like junkies, needing their next "fix" to prolong the high that keeps them going. Anna (Bale) comes across Robbie (Luke Bilyk), an alcoholic who has hit rock-bottom, but his desire to get clean deeply affects her. Although it features vampires, this is not at all a horror film, and is more of a forbidden love story. Alanna Bale is tremendous, and she may not be a household name yet, but with performances like this she's well on her way. The film is written and directed by Blaine Thurier, who happens to be the synthesizer player in the band, The New Pornographers. Grade: B+.

"Violet." The only clunker so far at TIFF has been "Violet," the directorial debut of actress Justine Bateman. It stars Olivia Munn - who admittedly gives a career-best performance in the title role - but the gimmick of the film wears thin fast. You see, Violet is tormented by an ongoing voice in her head (provided by Justin Theroux) who continuously drives home her deepest negative thoughts. As if this isn't distracting enough, but hand-written words appear on screen too, signifying what the "other" part of Violet's psyche is trying to say. It's interesting at first, but the gimmick is sustained over the course of the entire film, making "Violet" a big swing-and-miss...the effort is appreciated, but the execution is muddled, at best. Grade: C.

"Mothering Sunday." Mixed feelings describe my thoughts of "Mothering Sunday," a slow, sensual period-drama based on the Graham Swift novel. It stars Odessa Young and Josh O'Connor, both of whom are naked on camera more than they are clothed. The filmmaking is beautiful, from the cinematography to the tasteful direction, to the award-worthy score by Morgan Kibby. Scenes are allowed to breathe, and the story - which unfolds over the course of one day for the most part - wraps in and around itself to create a lovely tapestry of emotions. Young plays Jane Fairchild, an orphan maid, caught up in a forbidden romance with the wealthy neighbor, Paul Sheringham (O'Connor), one of the few young men in post WW-I England who actually returned home from the war. Colin Firth and Olivia Colman appear - in what are decidedly supporting roles - and are terrific, as one would expect. But despite all of the superb ingredients, "Mothering Sunday" is served a bit cold, and doesn't pack the necessary punch. All of that simmering energy ultimately fizzles away. Even still, a lot to like, including on-screen romance no longer commonly found in mainstream cinema. Grade: B.

Check back on Tuesday, Sept 14th, for "Part 2" of the "Tom at TIFF" series, with reviews of films like "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" from director Michael Showalter, "The Guilty" starring Jake Gyllenhaal, "Sundown" starring Tim Roth, "The Starling" starring Melissa McCarthy, and upcoming documentaries on Julia Child, Dionne Warwick and Alanis Morissette.