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TIFF: Pelican Blood

Set in the bucolic countryside of Germany, Pelican Blood tells the story of Wiebke, an adoptive mother and talented horse trainer. It’s at her horse camp there that she trains horses and riders for the German mounted police. Wiebke isn’t afraid of a challenge and is determined that Top Gun, her most problematic horse, graduates to the academy even when others doubt her. 

Wiebke is also getting ready to become a mother again. With her adopted daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo), they travel to Belgium to adopt a second child, an orphan named Raya (Katerina Lipovska). Everything seems to be fine until Raya start exhibiting some increasingly strange and frightening behaviors. Wiebke learns that Raya has reactive attachment disorder and feels very little to no fear or empathy. As Raya’s behaviors start to spiral out of control, putting the family in grave danger, Wiebke tries everything she possibly can to rehabilitate Raya. This puts a strain on her relationship with her daughter Nicolina and her love interest Benedikt (Murathan Muslu) one of Wiebke’s trainees. As Wiebke looks for a solution, will she have to sacrifice her work and a chance at happiness to save Raya?

“When you take a journey you can come back changed.”

Directed by Katrin Gebbe, Pelican Blood is an understated and terrifying movie. It’s frightening to not only see the effects of Raya’s psychosis but the lengths that Wiebke will go to help Raya. The term “pelican blood” refers to the sacrifice of motherhood which for Wiebke comes at a greater cost having chosen to be Raya’s mother. At the beginning of the film we learn of the legend where a pelican mother pierces her breast and feeds her dead chicks her own blood to bring them back to life.

The third act takes a strange turn which brings the conflict to its resolution. It’s not something I expected but I don’t know how else the story could have been resolved. I was particularly intrigued by how Wiebke’s scar becomes its own character in the movie. It’s very prominent on her face, changes in appearance and then disappears. We never learn exactly where she got it from but it’s assumed that it was from an encounter with an unruly horse. There are plenty of tender moments between Wiebke and Nicolina and also her sweet romance with Benedikt. These help balance out the tension with Raya.

I really hope Pelican Blood gets distributed in the US. It’s a fine film, very inventive in its storytelling and its solutions, offers fine performances and is enjoyable as both a dark family drama and a pseudo-horror flick.

Pelican Blood had its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

TIFF: The Moneychanger

“We money brokers are the root of all evil. We’re to blame for everything that’s rotten in this world.”

Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler)

Humberto Brause (Daniel Hendler) makes money off of money. He gets his start in the currency racket by way of his new boss Swostaiger (Luis Machin). He even marries the boss’ daughter Gudrun (Dolores Fonzi), an emotionally reserved woman who is no nonsense and all business. Brause’s success catches up with him and he gets greedy, taking advantage of the Uruguay’s fragile economy and his boss’ good nature. After going to jail for three years for his involvement in a corruption scandal, he’s back at it. Narrated by Brause himself, we follow his journey over two decades spanning from early 1960s to the late 1970s. The story is mostly set in Montevideo, Uruguay but Brause’s adventures also take him deep into the Amazon of Brazil, to Buenos Aires and to Switzerland. Brause gets deeper and deeper into trouble. His biggest nemesis Bompland (Luis Machin) threatens to take him for all he’s worth. When he isn’t facing financial problems he’s dealing with his failing health and a wife who doesn’t love him but is determined to keep the business of their marriage going. To get out of his bind with Bompland, Brause will have to go to great lengths to protect his future and that of his family.

Directed by Federico Veiroj, The Moneychanger (Así habló el cambista) paints the portrait of a man who is simply up to no good. It has a terrific sense of place and time and offers wonderful performances from its stars Hendler, Fonzi, Machin and in particular Benjamin Vicuna who is brilliant as the evil Bombland. The film suffers from a lack of consistent tension and overall clarity. The actual currency fraud is confusing and the viewer is left in the dark of what exactly Brause is doing to get himself in all of this trouble. This isn’t a thriller and I found it effective as a saga focusing on its one main character. The story incorporates references to Jesus and the Cleansing of the Temple. As a trilingual viewer (English, Spanish and Portuguese), I was curious to see the two Brazilian characters, including Moacyr (German de Silva) who becomes Brause’s business partner and confidante, speak Portuguese to Brause while he responds in Spanish. Fascinating!

Last year I watched Veiroj’s Belmonte at TIFF which worked similarly to The Moneychanger as the portrait of one man whose life starts to spiral out of control. You can read my review of that film here. It’s also currently available on Netflix. I quite enjoy Veiroj’s approach and look forward to more of his work in the future.

Federico Veiroj’s The Moneychanger had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Platform competition series.

TIFF: Hope

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Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) has just celebrated the success of her latest dance production but something isn’t right. She’s been in remission from lung cancer since last Christmas. But now she’s suffering from debilitating headaches and her eyesight has gotten so bad she can no longer read. When she visits the doctor and gets an MRI, she’s given terrible news. Her cancer is back in the form of a large tumor in her brain. It’s treatable but incurable and she will soon die of the disease.

At first she keeps this a secret with her distant and workaholic husband Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård). The news draws them together while at the same time the problems they’ve endured throughout their 20 year union come bubbling up to the surface. Anja struggles with how to tell her blended family of children, her dad and her friends. We follow her and Tomas as Anja puts into place her plans for her final treatments and her final days with those she loves most. Through it all she must hold on to a glimmer of hope that everything will be okay.

Directed by Maria Sødahl and based on a true story, Hope is a heart-wrenching film that will leave you emotionally devastated. We’re seated right next to Anja on her roller coaster ride of emotions. We feel her fear, her pain and her paranoia. End-of-life situations are complicated and messy. I love that Sødahl’s film doesn’t tie up everything neatly into a big bow. Instead she allows the viewer to see the bad and the good and every shade in between. Hovig is more than capable to take us on her character’s journey and delivers a breathtaking performance. Skarsgård’s solemn delivery pairs beautifully with Hovig’s. It’s through his tender approach and his support of Anja that we have some emotional foundation.

The story is told over Christmas and New Year’s when the holidays delay access to specialists and puts pressure on Anja to make the season a happy one for her children. I thought the time frame to be an ingenious touch which elevated the stakes in Anja’s story. Hope is a film you may want to avoid and I almost did myself. But I’m so glad I gave over 2 hours of my life so a beautiful film could break my heart. 

Hope had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.

Update: Hope will have a virtual theatrical release on April 16th, 2021.

TIFF: Knuckle City

“Welcome to Knuckle City. Where the boys are rough and tough and the girls are a knock-out.”

Dudu (Bongile Mantsai), aka the Night Rider, is aging out of his sport. He trains at the local boxing gym with much younger competitors and when its time to assign boxers to new matches, gym manager Bra Links (Owen Sejake) leaves him out. Dudu needs the boxing gig to keep him going emotionally and financially. He’s got several mouths to feed and a disabled mother (Faniswa Yisa) to care for. But in the highly corrupt world of “Knuckle City”, the name for the boxing community in Mdantsane Township in South Africa, he’ll have to partake in some dirty dealings to get back into the ring. 

Whether Dudu realizes it or not, he’s following closely in his father Art Nyakama (Zolisa Xaluva), the former boxing champ turned gangster who ran the gym where Dudu trains. Flashbacks show Dudu and his younger brother Duke (Thembikile Komani) and their difficult upbringing that turns tragic when Art is assassinated and Mother Hen is left a paraplegic. Dudu inherits his dad’s love for boxing and women and the motto that you’re not a true man if you don’t take care of your family. Duke has grown up to be a professional criminal and when he’s finally released from jail, Dudu seeks out Duke’s help to re-enter the world of boxing and for a chance at the highly coveted championship. This new partnership comes with incredibly high stakes putting everyone in Dudu’s life in grave danger.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

Director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s Knuckle City is absolutely riveting and just plain brutal. This film is gritty and intense and it grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. The world of Knuckle City serves as a study of toxic masculinity. There is plenty of machismo however the women are not to be messed with. While they don’t match the men in screen time they do match them in strength of character. These women include Nosisi (Awethu Hleli), Dudu’s daughter who serves as caretaker for her younger siblings and grandmother and is having a romantic relationship with a thug from a particularly dangerous gang, Mother Hen (Faniswa Yisa) who survives an abusive marriage and an assassination and Ma Bokwana (Nomhle Nkonyeni), the counterpart to gangster kingpin Bra Prat (Patrick Ndlovu).

“Growing up in the township of Mdantsane in the 80s and 90s was an experience that has shaped the entirety of my life. The energy of the landscape and the visceral fight for survival that is palpable on the streets has inspired in me a deep yearning to chronicle the lives of its inhabitants through cinema… [Knuckle City] is an ode to my formative years and an exploration and fundamental dissection of the toxic masculinity that continues to purvey in this space.”

Jahmil X.T. Qubeka

Knuckle City is both boxing movie and family saga and Qubeka presents both in a balanced and compelling way. I was captivated by this film and its easily a new favorite for me. Mantsai is brilliant as Dudu and I loved the scenes between him and Duke played by Thembikile Komani. 

The actors speak a mix of Xhosa, a native Bantu language with a series of clicking consonants, English and what I believe might be Afrikaans. Xhosa is a fascinating language and I was particularly intrigued in how it fits in the social fabric of the local community. If you’re a fan of boxing films such as the Rocky and Creed series, Raging Bull, The Fighter and The Set-Up, Knuckle City is not one to miss.

Knuckle City had its international premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their contemporary world cinema program.

TIFF: White Lie

Katie (Kacey Rohl) is sick. But not in the way everyone thinks she is. She’s become a sort of celebrity on campus thanks to her fundraising campaign #Fight4Katie, which aids her public battle with melanoma skin cancer. The problem is Katie doesn’t actually have cancer. She goes through an elaborate scheme to forge medical documents, fake medication, and pretend to go to weekly chemo treatments. She shaves her head daily, eats little and takes medication that will make herself look sick. Katie will go to great lengths to keep up the ruse. Not only is Katie fooling the donors who are contributing money to her campaign, she’s also lying to her girlfriend Jennifer (Amber Anderson) who has been a steadfast companion. She’s been alongside Katie through her journey even when Katie holds her at arms length. Like all big lies, cracks appear. Her father Doug (Martin Donovan) has seen this all before. When Katie’s mom committed suicide, Katie faked illness to skip school. Doug doesn’t believe Katie’s cancer diagnosis and he’s ready to reveal the truth on social media. Can Katie keep up the lie or will she have to face some harsh truths?

Directed by Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis, White Lie is a taut and compelling drama that offers only harsh realities. Why does Katie lie? We don’t know. It could be for fame, for empathy, or to fill some void within herself. This film doesn’t try to judge its protagonist nor does it try to explain why she does what she does. It takes a step back and lets this unreliable character tell us her story. I love that this film offers no real answers and the ending is not what I wanted nor what I expected. For a film about a big lie, this felt very true.

Kacey Rohl delivers a powerful performance as Katie. You can’t help but hate the character and be fascinated with her at the same time. I enjoyed seeing Martin Donovan, in an albeit small role, as Katie’s dad. 

If you’re like me and you’re fascinated by people who lie, especially when they go to great lengths to do so, then White Lie is a film you must see.

White Lie had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of the TIFF Next Wave program. Check out my interview with the directors here.

UPDATE: White Lie will have its digital release on January 5th, 2021. It will be available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango, Vimeo, Vudu, Google Play and other platforms. Visit the official website for more details.

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