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Tom at TIFF Part 2: The more-than-half-way report

Toronto International Film Festival
Posted at 8:25 PM, Sep 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-20 20:25:23-04

Tom Santilli is a respected journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association, Detroit Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society since 2010. Tom is the Executive Producer and co-host of the syndicated TV show, "Movie Show Plus," which has been on the air for 20+ years in the Metro-Detroit market and Mid-West. He is also the film critic for WXYZ-TV. Twitter: @tomsantilli, Facebook & Instagram: @filmsurvivor.

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, or "TIFF" is now over half-way through. Critics covering the Festival digitally (like myself) have been robbed the opportunity to view some of the most buzz-worthy films that were available only to in-person crowds in Toronto - films like "Dune," "Belfast," "Spencer" and "Last Night in Soho" - all of which have sky-rocketed to the top of award-season radars following their TIFF debuts.

But as the week has marched along, there have been several other noteworthy films that have premiered on the digital platform, with documentaries still leading the way as the most impactful films of this year's TIFF.

If you missed it, you can read Part 1 of our TIFF coverage here.

Read on for Part 2!

(The "Tom at TIFF" series, with WXYZ film critic and Movie Show Plus's own Tom Santilli, follows Tom's digital coverage and his ongoing reports on TIFF throughout the Festival, which runs from September 9th to September 18th.)

We're nearing the final days of TIFF already, and anticipation is high for a few more films to cover, like Michael Showalter's "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" and Barry Levinson's "The Survivor." But here are quick takes and reviews of all of the films I've screened since our "Part 1" report, in no particular order:

"The Guilty." Jake Gyllenhaal stars in this remake of a Dutch thriller of the same name, with this new version being directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day"). Gyllenhaal is a 911 operator, and the entirety of the film takes place within the confines of his call center. The gimmick creates a certain amount of tension, but the effectiveness of the original film doesn't quite translate. Grade: C.

"The Electrical Life of Louis Wain." Benedict Cumberbatch stars as famed feline artist Louis Wain, giving a mesmerizing and quite funny performance. The film is a bit long and unfocused at times, but its a whimsical journey into the mind of a man who lived a very interesting life, with a spirit that matches its subject. Grade B+.

"Lakewood." About as manipulative and stilted as a film can get, "Lakewood" is well-intended but flat and implausible. Naomi Watts stars as a mother who learns of a school shooting at her child's school, who races through the woods to try to save him. The message is completely lost in the manipulative and sometimes mind-boggling choices that the character makes, and it ends up feeling like a real drag, despite its tight 84 minute run-time. Grade: C-.

"Dionne Warwick: Don't Make Me Over." It's a straight-forward and traditional documentary, made enjoyable by whom it chooses to spotlight: The incomparable singer and legend, Dionne Warwick. Dionne participates in the interviews - which also feature her contemporaries, Burt Bacharach, Jerry Blavat, Elton John, Cissy Houston and Gloria Estefan - and is an enjoyable trip down memory lane...the doc doesn't challenge us much, but is reverent of this unique superstar who persevered despite being labeled a "sell-out" early in her career. Grade: B.

"Sundown." A movie that is sure to split its audience, Tim Roth gives a wonderfully detached performance as Neil, a man of few words to say the least. On an island vacation with his sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two grown kids, they receive bad news from home. Neil stays back after losing his passport, and begins to make one curious decision after another. Here's a film - written and directed by Michel Franco - that doesn't spoon-feed its audience, and in fact gives them no information at all for long stretches. The results can be maddening, but it's never uninteresting. Only in the film's final moments are Neil's true motivations revealed, and for me, it made the investment worth every penny. Grade: B+.

"Julia." This documentary on TV's first celebrity chef, Julia Child, is well-made and comprehensive. To steal from the filmmaker's introduction to this film at TIFF, it has plenty of tasty morsels for fans of Julia to chew on...or for those that are just learning about her for the first time: Bon Appétit! Grade: B+.

"The Starling." Maybe my least favorite film at TIFF, this conniving dud from director Theodore Melfi ("Hidden Figures") is for the birds. Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant and Daveed Diggs are not given much to work with, in a story about loss...and a domineering bird that won't leave McCarthy's character alone. It's toothless, predictable, poorly executed and painful to watch...I'll leave it at that. Grade: D.

"Jagged." Truth be told, I really liked "Jagged," a documentary that centers on singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette, who absolutely exploded on the alt-rock scene in the 1990s and never looked back. The film features Morissette herself, who gets candid on her rise to fame, her pop-star roots back in Canada, and her best-selling "Jagged Little Pill" album, one of the best-selling records of all-time and the third-highest of the 90s (behind Shania Twain and Metallica). However in the days since this film's debut at TIFF, Alanis has publicly spoken out against the film...despite her involvement in it, she apparently believes it was nothing like what she was told it would be, and therefore could not support promoting it. Isn't that ironic, don't you think? She doesn't get into specifics as to what was misconstrued in the film, but I think fans of Alanis will love her story and this film...jagged-edges and all. Grade: B+.

"You Are Not My Mother." Truth be told, I'm not a huge fan of horror films, but this one was pretty rad. It includes many impressive scares, some good central performances and a whole lot of Irish folklore to boot, and you're left feeling the willies for long after...which I think is the mark of a good horror movie? Grade: B+.

We're not quite finished! TIFF wraps up on Sunday, September 18th and so does our coverage...check back on the 18th or 19th for a final barrage of movie reviews as well as an all-encompassing recap of TIFF 2021 and which films have now positioned themselves for the upcoming awards season.

Here is the trailer for "Belfast," the one film expected to be the top Best Picture contender at TIFF: