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TIFF: Sundown

Neil (Tim Roth) tags along with his sister Allison (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two teenage children for a luxury vacation in Mexico. Their idyll is interrupted by terrible news. Neil and Allison’s mother has taken ill and is dying. The family rushes to the airport but Neil has to double back because he forgot his passport. Or did he? Neil makes no effort to recover his old passport or get a new one. Instead he checks into a sketchy motel in a dangerous neighborhood, makes friends with the locals and starts a romantic relationship with a gorgeous shopgirl Bernice (Iazua Larios). Even when he learns that his mother has passed away and his sister, with whom he runs a successful pig slaughtering business, needs him back home in England to arrange the funeral, Neil cuts off communication. Neil knows what he should do but either refuses to or can’t compel himself to follow through. Will Neil’s complacency, willful or not, come at a cost?

Directed by Michel Franco, Sundown is a modern day Bartleby, the Scrivener demonstrating, in this case, the severe consequences of inaction. Roth is superb  as Neil. The character holds the audience and the other people in his world at arm’s length making him equal parts frustrating and fascinating. The movie took a dark turn I didn’t quite expect.

A deeply disturbing meditation on the consequences of inaction; Sundown is a must-see.

Sundown was part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival Special Presentations slate.

TIFF: Belfast

Buddy (Jude Hill) has been through a lot for a young boy. He’s witnessed violence on the streets of Belfast, he’s seen his parents struggle for money, and no matter what he does he can’t get the super smart Catholic girl at school to notice him. Ma (Caitríona Balfe) holds down the fort, raising her two young sons while her husband, Pa (Jamie Dornan) engages in one shady business or another, trying to get some money together to pay the family’s overdue taxes. This couple is young and vibrant but the wear and tear of adult life is starting to get to them. Buddy spends a lot of time with his grandparents Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench), kind hearted elders of the community who are determined to see things through no matter how bad they get. Then some questions arise: What happens when chaos is erupting around you? Do you escape and chose a new life somewhere else? Even if it means facing a whole new set of problems? Or do you fight to hold on that feeling of home?

You don’t have to be an expert on the history of Northern Ireland to appreciate the gravity of the situation happening in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. With the film’s explosive beginning and the lingering threat of violence in the background, Branagh’s film perfectly captures the angst of living in Belfast during those tumultuous years. 

This movie is essentially a tender saga about a family, with a particular focus on Buddy, remarkably played by the young Jude Hill. It’s filled with warmth, love, anxiety and a bit of melancholy. Dornan and Balfe bring a vibrancy cut with a bit of sadness to their roles. Dench and Hinds are brilliant, as per usual, as the loving grandparents who are resigned to see any normalcy in their lives slip away. I would be lying if I said Judi Dench wasn’t the reason I was interested in Belfast in the first place. I’ll watch her in anything. 

The film is shown in black and white with a few pops of color here and there. There is some great cinematography but it did feel a bit too much like it was shot in present day with a black and white filter. The set design, the costumes, etc were all spot but it was a little too sharp and crisp to feel like it was set in the past. There are several classic movie references and film clips from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are shown. It’s clear that movies are an escape for the family during this difficult time.

Belfast was part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival Gala Presentation slate.

TIFF: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Tammy Faye Bakker (Jessica Chastain) was a child of divorce, something that caused her very religious mother Rachel (Cherry Jones) great anguish. She’s kept out of the church that her mother, stepfather and siblings attend but Tammy Faye is inspired by the religious fervor she witnesses from window and is determined to be a part of it. Years later, she meets  Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), a fellow student at her Christian college. The two see eye-to-eye on religious matters, including the idea God’s blessings come in several forms including wealth and business opportunities. They preach the gospel first with a puppet show they take on the road and next on television with The Jim and Tammy  Show on Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) network CBN.

Seizing every new opportunity and making several of their own, the religious duo became television icons. They started their own network, PTL, and hosted their own hit show. It made them rich but soon their tight bond began to sour. Jim was terrible with money and resented Tammy Faye’s star power. Tammy Faye faced many demons including her own husband, loneliness, a fractured relationship with her mother, an addiction to benzos and opposition from one of the biggest leaders in the Christian world, Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). As things unravel, Tammy Faye would need to find the strength to be true to herself.

Based on the 2001 documentary by the same name and directed by Michael Showalter, The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a stunning biopic that hits all the right marks, including an exceptional performance by Jessica Chastain. She got Tammy Faye’s energy, her Minnesota accent and all of her mannerisms all down to a T. The prosthetics and make-up are only mildly distracting and really you can’t help but see Tammy Faye through Jessica Chastain. The film doesn’t try to demonize Jim or Tammy Faye Bakker. They are both presented as flawed personalities, Jim more so than Tammy Faye, who had good intentions but went very badly astray. Tammy Faye is a well-rounded character. We see all aspects of her personality including her great capacity for love and her sympathy for the LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis, something that went against the evangelical mindset at the time. Tammy Faye epitomizes what we think Christianity should be and pitted against Jerry Falwell we see what it generally has become. With that said, at no point does it criticize Christian religion. Rather it criticizes individuals and their actions.

And let me for a moment talk about how well this movie uses disruptive sound. There are several moments in the film where the sound of a phone ringing cuts into a rather emotional scene. There is also Tammy Faye singing against a very silent backdrop and a tension filled scene is disrupted by a baby crying. It’s quite effective. The film also uses ’70s style fonts and mimics grainy television footage which adds to the nostalgic appeal.

At the TIFF Tribute Awards, Jessica Chastain, who also served on the film as producer, talked about the biopic as her passion project. She’s been working on it for 10 years and wanted to make sure that her portrayal of Tammy Faye really showed the love and compassion she had instead of just depicting her as a grifter. 

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I had a vague notion as a child of who Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were. I definitely remember the scandal that landed Jim Bakker in jail. Years later I watched the VH1 reality show The Surreal Life and that’s what gave me my first real introduction into who Tammy Faye Bakker was as a person. That show was like a Real World type format but with celebrities. For the second season, they purposely put Tammy Faye in the home with porn star Ron Jeremy in hopes that it would stir up drama. Other cast members included Erik Estrada and Vanilla Ice. I was really impressed with how Tammy Faye handled herself. They put her in situations where she would have to apologize or defend herself and she was ALWAYS true to herself. She showed a genuine love for others that really struck a chord with me and that I never forgot. Years later watching this biopic about her that same Tammy Faye came through.

I highly recommend this film. It’s one of the best biopics I’ve ever seen. Full stop.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF: Oscar Peterson: Black + White

Director Barry Avirch’s Oscar Peterson: Black + White is a tribute to the legendary Canadian jazz pianist. The story of Oscar Peterson is told through archival photos, performances and interview footage along with present day interviews with musicians, historians, as well as Peterson’s wife Kelly. Talking heads include Billy Joel, Quincy Jones, Jon Batiste and more.

Avrich refers to the film as a “docuconcert” because throughout jazz musicians perform Peterson’s best known work, including Hymn to Freedom and Orange Colored Sky. The musical arrangements match the trio or quartet structure Peterson played from and the piano used is Peterson’s own. The documentary chronicles Peterson’s rise to fame, his extraordinary skill, his mentorship of other musicians, his devotion to his home country of Canada and personal struggles he faced including failed marriages and racism.

While Avrich’s film is informative it’s also heavily biased. At times the film felt like an advertisement more than a well-rounded documentary. With that said, I really enjoy Avrich’s documentaries, particularly Prosecuting Evil and Blurred Lines. There is so much detail and so much research that goes into his documentaries and it truly shows. The documentary-concert hybrid style adds to the enjoyment of the film.

Oscar Peterson: Black + White had its world premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

TIFF: Julia

Julia Child was a revolutionary. In a time when home cooks were looking for anything canned, boxed or frozen in order to ease the burden of housewives, Julia Child came on the air touting French cuisine with all its complexities. But she did so in a way that taught folks on the other side of the television screen how to  step up their game in the kitchen with materials they already had at home and food they could get at their grocery store. Child started a movement that made television cooking something that people watched for both entertainment and pleasure. She also sparked a culinary renaissance bringing back the fine art of cooking to the US.

Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, best known for their documentary RBG, Julia is a celebration of one of the greatest and most important icons of the 20th century. The doc follows Julia’s story from her early days in Pasadena, her secretarial work abroad during WWII, her marriage to her beloved Paul Child, her culinary education in France, her first cookbook, her work in Boston for PBS and her ever enduring fame that made her a national sensation. Having grown up in the Boston area, I watched Julia Child cook on my local PBS station WGBH. And over the years since her death in 2004 and the many celebrations during her centennial year in 2012, I knew Julia Child was special. But Cohen and West’s documentary really drove that home.

The documentary boasts amazing food photography woven in with archival footage of Julia Child in the kitchen, personal photographs and letters, audio recordings of Child talking about her life, as well as interviews. Talking heads include celebrity chefs she directly influenced, family members, friends and many others. Foodies will recognize some big names in the cooking world including Ina Garten, Sara Moulton, Jacques Pepin, Ruth Reichl, Jose Andres and many more. Cohen and West do a fantastic job adding context to Julia’s story while also conveying her spirit, her warmth, her tenacity and her willingness to learn and evolve. I laughed, I cried and afterwards I was starving!

Julia is part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival’s TIFF Docs slate. Visit the Sony Pictures Classics website for more details about the film.

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