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Northernstars™ @ TIFF 2023

Northernstars at TIFF 2022, image,
Film Correspondent Thom Ernst at TIFF 2022.

Northernstars™ @ TIFF 2023
by Thom Ernst – Film Correspondent

(August 29, 2023 – Toronto, ON) The cloud looming over the Hollywood writer’s strike is beginning to reveal an unexpected silver lining. We knew good things would come out of the strike, but did we expect anything this soon? And did we think the ripple would travel this far North?

Faced with the possibility of a festival without stars, TIFF23 shifts focus off celebrities and onto film. That statement needs some clarification; TIFF’s focus has always been film, despite criticisms that it has become too dependent on the fleeting glamour a star provides. Fewer stars don’t mean better films, although an argument can be made that there aren’t as many opportunities for lesser films to ride in on the coattails of big-name movie stars. A star-light festival means more opportunity for independent, foreign and, the reason we at Northernstars.ca get out of bed each morning, for Canadian films to shine, get coverage, play to a sell-out audience, and garner a few interviews; You know, the same attention Northernstars.ca gives Canadian cinema every day.

It’s too early to accurately determine which of the over 30 Canadian films are more deserving of our attention. And yet, either by title, by reputation, or by name (brand recognition matters in Canada too), a few titles stand out. It helps that an army of boutique publicity houses are working overtime to help determine the list for us.  

Opening the festival is legendary director Hayao Miyazaki’s newest film, The Boy and the Heron. It is the first time a Japanese film has opened the festival and is the first time that an animated feature has been selected as the opener. As former TIFF CEO Piers Handling mentioned in a 2011 CBC interview, “Since we are a truly international festival, we simply don’t feel the pressure to select our opening night film based on geography.”

Seven Veils, Atom Egoyan,
Photo by Amanda Matlovich.

That said, director Atom Egoyan returns to TIFF with his latest feature, Seven Veils, which has a ring of the autobiographical about it. Amanda Seyfried (pictured above) plays an earnest theatre director tasked with remounting her former mentor’s most famous work, the opera Salome. Haunted by dark and disturbing memories from her past, Jeanine allows her repressed trauma to colour the present as she re-enters the opera world after so many years away. Egoyan first directed Salome for the Canadian Opera Company in 1996 and returned earlier this year to revive the production on stage. As Northernstars™ reported in July, Seven Veils will have its World Premiere at the 48th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Riding high on brand recognition is Finn Wolfhard—the kid from Stranger Things for those unfamiliar with the brand—making his directorial debut with the Canadian horror/comedy Hell of a Summer. What is more, Hell of a Summer lands in the best-branded category the festival offers—Midnight Madness.

Viggo Mortenson stars and directs in a Mexican/Canadian/Denmark production called The Dead Don’t Hurt, a Western, with one of those astounding on-point titles that sound both fun and tough. Word has it that The Dead Don’t Hurt is a feminist Western told in reverse.

Speaking of on-point titles, few are more on-point than Ariane Louis-Seize’s comedy horror, Humanist Vampire Seeking Consenting Suicidal Person. Confession: I’m wary of titles that reach too aggressively for attention, but they work. This title is already on people’s must-see lists. The story (as if the title isn’t enough of a summary) is of a soft vampire unable to kill. When her family cuts off her blood supply (to vampires, blood is money) she finds a cooperative and suicidal donor. It could be Harold and Maude if Maude was a vampire. 

Name recognition in Canada doesn’t get much bigger than Mr. Dressup. The documentary Mr. Dress-up: The Magic of Make-Believe, is sure to draw in the nostalgic who hold fast to this Canadian icon and the show he starred in that lasted 39 years. 
La Bete, movie, poster, The Beast, The Beast, a French/Canadian co-pro from director Bertrand Bonello, is a science fiction starring Léa Seydoux. Truth is, I will see any film Léa Seydoux stars in, Canadian or otherwise. Seydoux last set foot in Canada to shoot David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. Always happy to see Seydoux in a film; thrilled when the film has Canadian connections. And it gets personal: Seydoux and I share a gap between our front teeth. Well, we don’t actually share the gap, but we both have one. 

Summer Qamp tops my documentary must-see. It’s a summer camp for queer, non-binary, and trans kids. That might be enough to get you into the screening but the added oomph that has me lining up at the box-office is that the camp is in rural Alberta. I don’t know all there is to know about rural Alberta, but a non-binary, queer, trans summer camp sounds a bit off brand.

Backspot at TIFF, image,
Courtesy of Night is Y.

Backspot is a story ostensibly about overcoming crippling anxiety, with the backdrop in the world of cheerleading. The film stars Evan Rachel Wood. But it’s the appearance of Devery Jacobs that has me earmarking Backspot in the program book.
Hey Viktor! Admittedly, it’s the picture in the program book–a man in a full Indigenous headdress looking out from the page, perplexed–that caught my interest. The film is directed and written by Edmonton-born, Cody Lightning and is about Cody Lightning. This is one to be seen and discovered for ourselves. I don’t quite get the premise, but it sounds meta and meta is fun. 

Queen of My Dreams, movie, poster, I’m going in with high hopes for The Queen of My Dreams, a Canada/India production that could be Bollywood meets Hollywood North.

In Flames, a first feature horror by Zarrar Kahn. Canadian horror rarely lets you down. 

Fitting In marks the return of prolific television director, Molly McGlynn to the festival circuit. It’s been six years since McGlynn’s debut feature, Mary Goes Round, and we’re ready for another. 

Finally, I hear from a good source that Seagrass is (and I quote) “solid”.

Northernstars.ca is attending the festival throughout its 10-day run—September 7 to 17—covering Canadian content film and providing daily festival colour. Click here for a link to TIFF and other September 2023 film festivals.

Northernstars logo imageThom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward.