TIFF 2021: 'I'm Your Man', 'The Survivor', 'Quickening' | Sci-Fi, Romance, Drama | Capsule Reviews
I'M YOUR MAN
Putting the ''A'' and ''I'' in relationship is director-writer Maria Schrader's latest effort I'm Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch originally in German). Maren Eggert co-stars in the sci-fi romance as Alma, a scientist who starts a trial run of examining a cyborg called Tom (Dan Stevens) that is created to be a perfect, synthetic romantic partner based on Alma's exact preferences. It just happens to be that Alma was approached to do this as part of her work and not because she's enthusiastic about the idea, leading her also to examine her own interactions as Tom tries to fit into her world by learning from interactions between the two of them.
Fuelled by plenty of charm and a tonally sound approach to rom-com-ness of it all, I'm Your Man's story—adapted by Schrader and co-writer Jan Schomburg from Emma Braslavsky's short story—seems very basic on the surface but thankfully ventures a bit further than that as it goes along. There's a real crowd-pleasing aspect to it as there's enough humour for anyone to participate in the film's conversations about relationships, humanity and longing while also not relying solely on those comedic beats. Alma's work and research offer a window to see why she isn't all that excited about synthetic partners.
However, her family life that takes a solid 20 minute chunk of the movie isn't all that thoughtful or impactful which seems like a small misstep in Alma's journey. But even during those weaker parts, Eggert emotes the character's hesitation and resistance well while creating solid, charming chemistry with her co-lead. Roles involving A.I. are tricky to make feel ''alive'' but Stevens manages to do that against all odds, delivering not only in terms of drama in scenes with Eggert but also bringing much welcomed levity when he's alone on the screen. Whilst you might wish for another layer in the characters or something special in the film's visual style, it's an extremely easy watch because it is able to expand on its premise.
Smileys: Story, Dan Stevens, tone
Frowneys: Minor issues with characterisation
Imagine that you're given an assignment to piece together and stylise something that is just bait for awards and you might come up exactly with same framework that director Barry Levinson has with his newest film The Survivor, written by Justine Juel Gillmerr and based on Alan Scott Haft's nonfiction book 'Harry Haft: Survivor Of Auschwitz, Challenger Of Rocky Marciano'. Ben Foster portrays Harry Haft, a Polish-born professional boxer in 1940s after surviving Auschwitz's concentration camps, partly for boxing other inmates in fights where losers faced immediate death. The movie goes back and forth between disturbing flashbacks at the camps and Haft's boxing career, family life and him trying to find out if his former girlfriend Leah (Dar Zuzovsky) also made it out alive from Poland.
Haft's story is remarkable to say the least and while the film might not keep it together as remarkably, it's a hard one to necessarily dislike because its ambition can certainly be felt. It's really just the casting of Foster and some other supporting actors (handled by casting director Ellen Chenowith and Levinson) that breaks the cinematic glass in front of that story, which then makes the journey a bit hard to swallow. As admirable Foster's transformation for the role can be, you still need to consider the fact that Haft was a teen when he was captured by Nazis and in his mid 20s when boxing, while Foster looks a whole generation (or even two) older no matter what his weight is.
Much of the character's later life with his losses and temper is similarly unreachable to a viewer, again going back to Foster because it doesn't seem that he is on the same wavelength, much like Levinson's direction. One thing that can keep you going with a character who is hard to understand is the search for Leah and that storyline does wrap up nicely in the film's finale. That is also a scene where you can sense something under the skin of Harry, it's just a shame that it takes about 100 minutes to get to that point when time is everything.
Frowneys: Casting, Ben Foster
Canadian director and writer Haya Waseem's debut feature Quickening unsurprisingly takes viewers to the land of moose, hockey and successful pop stars. There they will meet a Pakistani Canadian teen named Sheila (Arooj Azeem) who's going to college studying performance arts. Her school life leads her meeting her first love and losing her virginity with the boy before the relationship quickly ends, much to Sheila's disappointment. She ends up going head-to-head with her own expectations, as well as mental and physical health while stressful home life with her parents (Bushra Azeem as mom, Ashir Azeem as dad) also weighs her down.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty, it must come with a caution that this movie is seemingly going for a very niche audience (most likely including those who have studied performance arts), and that it can be hard to dissect everything if you're not part of that group. What is clear is that Waseem does a good job with her actors, the performances being very natural and believable. Most of the things going on are rather casual, giving the material some room to breathe sometimes.
On the other side, anything that doesn't really include the cast looks and sounds off in many ways. Quickening's overall look is overdramatic and funereal as cinematographer Christopher Lew's contribution to that isn't aligned with characters or dialogue, stretching Waseem's tone way too far since it looks more like your Vimeo showreel than a drama picture about youth. Similarly misguided is Spencer Creaghan's music which appears in the film as if it's being pulled from a space opera without ever considering the rooms or environments that characters are in. Other aspects like lighting and sound mixing add to the performative output that can look cool to some but will likely just keep you away from Sheila and that's not optimal.
Smileys: Directing had its moments
Frowneys: Tone, score, cinematography