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.
“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.
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.
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.
Set during the early days of the Spanish Civil War, director Alejandro Amenábar’s While at War/Mientras dure la guerra takes place in Salamanca where celebrated novelist Don Miguel de Unamuno (Karra Elejalde) serves as dean of the local university. Unamuno, known affectionately as Don Miguel, was known as one of the early opposers to the uprising and Generalisimo Franco’s (Santi Prego) dictatorship. Don Miguel meets to discuss the fiery political climate with his trusted friends a protestant priest (Luis Zahera) and college professor (Carlos Serrano-Clark) who soon become victims of the new regime. The highly respected author is safe for the time being but as Franco rises in power, controlled by commander and tyrant Jose Millan-Astray (Eduard Fernandez), Don Miguel flails between the loss of hope and the desire to take a stand. During it all he is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Chanta who appears to him in his dreams. The movie ends with Unamuno’s famous last speech.
While at War offers a grand production, fine performances but lacked in emotion. The first half felt a little stale and distant. The second half makes up for this makes up for this as Don Miguel loses his friends, develops a bond with his grandson, and repairs his relationship with his daughter. Throughout the film Don Miguel creates origami animals and this ends up being an important plot point at the end. This was a nice touch that added some personality to his character. Elejalde is absolutely brilliant as Don Miguel de Unamuno. He seamlessly transforms himself into his character. I’m a big fan of Alejandro Amenábar’s film The Others (2001) and was excited to see more of his work. The cinematography, costumes and sets are simply glorious and worth watching for that alone. While at War offers a fascinating story I just wish it didn’t hold its audience at a distance.
I can only evaluate While at War as a film and not as a representation of Spain’s military history. I don’t know if there are any inaccuracies in its representations of real life figures. It does offer a clear warning that neutrality is dangerous and we need to appreciate the past if we have any hope of a future.
While at War had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.
The ocean depths hold many secrets. Marine biologist Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) has devoted her young career to studying the patterns of ocean life in an effort to take the mystery out of the sea. Little does she know that a sea creature awaits her, beyond the scope of anything she has ever studied or could ever know.
Siobhán joins a fishing trawler manned by married couple Freya (Connie Nielsen) and Gerard (Dougray Scott). Fisherman are incredibly superstitious and Siobhán’s red hair is a sign that they’re in for some bad luck. Also on the vessel are a trio of fisherman Sudi (Eli Bouakaze), Johnny (Jack Hickey) and Ciara (Olwen Fouere) as well as fellow scientist Omid (Ardalan Esmaili). Siobhán is quiet, serious and anti-social and the spirited Johnny starts to bring her out of her shell. The bad luck rears its ugly head when a luminous creature that spews a blue slime, latches its tentacles onto the boat. Siobhán, the only one on board equipped for scuba diving, meets the creature face to face. The shipmates soon learn that the creature has wiped out the crew of another trawler and they’re next. One by one the creature exposes its blue slime into open wounds, laying its eggs that explode out of its victims. Will the crew be able to escape in time before the creature infects them all?
Sea Fever feels both classic and brand new. It’s in the same vein of those classic sci-fi thrillers where the creature serves a vessel to help tell a very human story. Writer and director Neasa Hardiman offers a slick and emotionally devastating story. There are so many themes that come bubbling up to the surface. Man versus nature, fear of the unknown, the importance of social bonds, and self-sacrifice for a greater cause.
There are no stereotypes. Everyone is their own character, true to themselves and not a pawn for the sake of the story. Siobhán is a fascinating protagonist and Hermione Corfield does her justice. Studious, smart and emotionally distant, we see her grow over time as she becomes the film’s hero. It’s great to see what a woman director/writer can do with a science fiction story featuring a strong female lead. Sea Fever had me enthralled. I usually don’t go for this genre but I’m glad I took a chance on this film. It’s thrilling in a quiet way. It’s not splashy, doesn’t depend on elaborate action sequences or fancy special effects (although the special effects it does have are pretty slick). Instead it latches on to its characters and won’t let go.
Sea Fever had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.