Tag Archives: Canadian

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021: STANLEYVILLE (2021)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

FEATURING: Susanne Wuest, , Cara Ricketts, Christian Serritiello, George Tchortov, Adam Brown

PLOT: Maria is selected for a contest that promises to “probe the very essence of your mind-body articulation”—and to present the winner with a brand new SUV.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHAStanleyville‘s DIY-feel is paralleled within the narrative as candidates partake in a series of increasingly unhinged, but always ramshackle, challenges (two favorites: “Lobe of Ear” and “Diogenes Nose-Peg”). Trapping five bizarre specimens of humanity in a pavilion, McCabe-Lokos lets his unwieldy absurdist-reality-chamber-drama creak and crash as it lurches toward a gracefully symbolic climax.

COMMENTS: Until watching Stanleyville, I had never heard a ravenously pro-capitalistic screed in folk song form. This was among a number of “firsts” for me, as a pentad of archetypes squared off against one-another over the course of two days. This group is gathered together by an out-of-sync master of ceremonies named Homonculus, and “the heat heats up” as irregular time intervals count down, minds get stretched to snapping point, and bodies pile up in the food pantry.

Stanleyville‘s framework is not ground-breaking: apply pressure to some weirdos in a confined space and see what happens. Marat/Sade did it way back in the 1960s. (In fact, Stanleyville‘s setup makes me wonder if this was a stage play; and if not, when can I expect it to be?) The ingredients are fresh, however, particularly the mysteriously European (and Europeanly mysterious) Homonculus, who finds our heroine Maria sitting in a shopping mall massage chair and promises to change her life. She’s recently finished a shift at her dead-end job, left her dead-end home life, and discarded her purse, along with its contents, in a trash can. An earlier encounter at the office, witnessing a majestic, soaring bird unceremoniously thwack into her window, has left her aware that something is missing in life. She eagerly accepts Homonculus’ offer; not for the brand new habañero-orange compact SUV (a prize description mentioned often, with quiet enthusiasm), but because she feels that fate may have finally gotten up off its ass to give her some purpose.

Her contest competitors are a hyper-affable beefcake who’s neck-deep in a protein-powder Ponzi scheme; a jaded nihilist who incongruously lusts after the SUV; a hedge fund fellow sitting atop a mountain of privilege and self-loathing; and an actor/junkie/musician who never found a failure he didn’t have an excuse for. The four ancillary stereotypes lack depth (as is their wont), but they are merely background distraction (ironic, being the loudest characters in the piece), pushing Maria and her pensive wonderment to the fore.

The fourth stage of the contest (after the balloon-blowing, item sequencing, and the “write a national anthem for everybody everywhere through all time” trials) is when Stanleyville slips from ominously silly into philosophical. If I asked you, “Who is Xiphosura?”, you might not guess an entity who transmits crypticisms through a conch shell —but that’s as much as we learn about him. This is the kind of mystery found in Stanleyville; just enough is explained to keep you going, right up through the (off-screen) final event. Like Homonculus, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos may seem like he’s just making it up as he’s going along. He isn’t; he’s deliberately constructed the pathway toward new modes of mind-body articulation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The persistent failure, however, to conceive of connective tissue between the elements it engages with (either through some development of narrative or in formal playfulness) ensures that the thematically derivative interests and pedestrian existential angsts of Stanleyville on the whole amount to little more than nothing at all…”–Zachary Goldkind, In Review Online (festival screening)

 

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: TIN CAN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Seth A. Smith

FEATURING: Anna Hopkins, Simon Mutabazi, Michael Ironside

PLOT: A parasitologist is abducted after discovering a treatment for a spore-fueled pandemic and awakens inside a life-support canister.

COMMENTS: It was disorienting for me to endure so many of my personal phobias on parade while still remaining committed to finding out how this shuddersome chain of events concluded. Tin Can has plenty of its titular containers: a third of the action takes place inside an icky-liquid-filled cylinder inhabited by Fret, the film’s slime-expert heroine. As she could barely move, practically fused with her surroundings, a sympathetic jab of claustrophobia struck me . And then there’s the disease-y plot device, which on more than one occasion had me glancing away.

There’s a lot of terrible going on in the world now, what with some fungus-based communicable horrificness passing from person to person with greater ease than I would have thought likely just a year ago. So Tin Can feels topical, while still maintaining a futuristic edge. A suffused lighting scheme heightens the clinical spaces, working equally well with the sinister basements of some unnamed facility. Smith opts for a narrow aspect ratio, heightening the sense of constriction, trapping the viewer in its column just as the visuals push you to the edges.

The sound design is also impressive, with plenty of muffled conversations between occupants of the “tin cans”, and all manner of sinister clanks and squoodges as unknown unpleasantness happens beyond the scope of their air vents. Only one character seems remotely pleased at every juncture, a wiry old man named Wayne (Michael Ironside) who seems to have embraced the prospect of being a harbinger some decades prior. The other characters, well, they love, they lie, they… They have a lot of flashback encounters beneath (what I swear) is the same underpass over and over. Come to think of it, Smith not only overcame my personal discomforts with the themes, he also overcame the fact that he only had one interesting character…

Marred though it is by disorienting plot jumps and flat performances (except, of course, Ironside’s giddy eccentric), Tin Can works when viewed as a philosophical essay. Its sounds and visuals—the gold-toned future drones, the dungeon cylinder repository, and the squiggling gyrations of a fungal chrysalis just before it’s crushed—are strong enough to carry us past the ho-hum human element. And Tin Can‘s themes of transformation, deception, and hope are tried and true. The Waynes of the world, with their manic optimism in the face of doom, are as necessary as the hard-nosed, hard-science heroine Fret. Without Fret, we cannot achieve, and without Wayne, we cannot believe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Smith goes big on the visuals, both inside and outside the can… there is work that evokes Andrey Tarkovsky and Marek Piestrak. It’s splendidly realised and atmospheric, which is important because in later, slower scenes, Smith relies on it to maintain a sense of awe when the actors are compromised in their ability to hold our attention.” -Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE MASK (1961)

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AKA Eyes of Hell; Face of Fire

DIRECTED BY: Julian Roffman

FEATURING: Paul Stevens, Claudette Nevins, Bill Walker, Martin Lavut

PLOT: A South American mask causes its wearers to have 3D hallucinations when they wear it, and then to strangle women afterwards.

Still from The Mask (1961)

COMMENTS: The Mask is short, weird, good movie covered up by a shoddy B-movie. The premise is simple: a bunch of Canadians wanted to rake a bundle of Canadian dollars by making a 3-D horror film, but the 3-D process itself was expensive, so they didn’t want to shell out cash to make the entire film pop. Therefore, we get three short (four to five minute) scenes set in the third dimension, with a flat, lame wraparound story about a cursed mask that causes its wearer to hallucinate. Whenever the 3-D segments are about to begin, a voice commands the mask’s victim (and the audience) to “put the mask on now!,” and the stereoscopic horror show begins.

Fortunately, the brief hallucination sequences are memorably bizarre and surreal—proto-psychedelic, truth be told. The mosaic Aztec mask appears floating in the air, and turns into a skull with two eyeballs popping out. Later, the eyeballs melt away and snakes crawl from the empty sockets, coming straight at the viewer. A zombie walks through a haunted forest. Hooded and cowled figures flank an altar over which the now-giant mask floats. Pillars spout claws. Charon takes us on a boat ride. The mask shoots fireballs. This dialogue-free stream-of-archetypes is accompanied by one of those noisy period horror/sci-fi scores, full of futury noises, shrieks, and heavy reverb. These scenes are straight-up coolness.

The problem comes with the majority of the movie, a formulaic horror scenario where nothing makes much sense (in a thoughtless way, not a surrealist way). The cursed mask is passed from a young archeologist to his psychiatrist. A contrived chase scene where the psychiatrist’s fiancee wrests the mask away from him and runs off with it, get into a cab, tip the cabbie enough so that he takes the forbidden artifact and hides it in the Natural History museum for her, only for the psychiatrist to walk in and find it in an office almost immediately, burns up about five minutes of screen time. The mask itself doesn’t seem to have given much thought to its end game: it possesses scientists, one at a time, makes them hallucinate and strangle, sure, but what’s it all leading to, really? There has to be more an evil entity could do with its incomparable supernatural powers than gaslight the occasional idiot. There’s a perfunctory attempt to portray the mask an allegory for drug addiction, but the story’s still a yawner.

The soapy acting is only slightly better than the script: the first victim is a poor excuse for a hand-wringing  , the lead cop is solicitous and ineffective, the psychiatrist breathlessly recites silly lines like “I must experience the greatest act of a human mind: to take another life,” and the fiancee leaves no impression whatsoever.

It’s not that the narrative section doesn’t show some directorial talent; the camera swings the angle where a trembling sapling blocks our view of a too-gruesome-for-the-day strangling. In a similar vein, the camera cuts away from a suicide to focus on a nodding  bobblehead. Touches like these imply that Roffman’s talents lay entirely with visual storytelling; he doesn’t have much of a way with actors, dialogue, pacing, or the other elements in a filmmaker’s toolkit. Or, maybe, Roffman (whose only other feature credit is the unremarkable juvenile delinquent B-movie The Bloody Brood) really was a complete hack, and the credit for the movie’s successes should go the art department and to one Slavko Vorkapich, who is credited with “script for the dream sequences.”

This unevenness—boring, senseless exposition wrapped around three relatively brilliant experimental shorts—puts The Mask in an odd category of movies that aren’t all that good, but which you should hunt down anyway. It’s a bucket list movie, but it’s at the bottom of the bucket.

The cardboard red-blue glasses that come with the Kino Blu-ray or DVD worked a treat. The disc even provide a sample image for you to calibrate them. The DVD also includes an audio commentary, twenty minute documentary on Roffman, and a twenty minute 3-D introduction to the film. The Blu-ray includes all the above plus the 2015 3-D animated short “One Night in Hell.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an exercise in strangeness, but only in spurts… Surreal horror meets television procedural in the mediocre feature, which carries an abundance of eeriness, encountered through the display of some truly unsettling visuals.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nick,” who elaborated that it “incorporates really surreal nightmarish visions throughout the entire film when the ‘mask’ is put on; it’s very strange, especially when the year it was released is put into perspective.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: COME TRUE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Anthony Scott Burns

FEATURING: Julia Sarah Stone, Landon Liboiron

PLOT: A teenage girl enters an experimental sleep study, then finds her life turned into a waking nightmare.

Come True (2020)

COMMENTS: 18-year old Sarah is sleeping around. No, she’s not promiscuous, although she will have a sex scene—a problematic one—later in the film. She’s sleeping around rather more literally: crashing on her friend Zoe’s bed when she can, pitching her sleeping bag on the playground slide when she can’t. In the mornings, she waits for her mother to leave for work and sneaks into the house for a shower, fresh clothes, and a cup of coffee. With this arrangement, it’s no wonder she eagerly volunteers for a sleep study at the local college: it means eight hours per night in a bed, even if she has to be strapped into a bodysuit left over from Tron and wear a goofy foam-rubber helmet with wires leading from it. And she gets paid! If she’s going to leave a deal this sweet behind, you know the nightmares will have to get bad. It’s no spoiler to say that they do, or that getting away from them will require more than just walking out on the study.

The film is anchored by a fine performance by waiflike Julia Sarah Stone, who perfectly embodies the resourceful girl struggling to make it in the big bad world. Though not a great film (see below), Come True is a great calling card for Stone. Direction is stylistically solid; the odd lighting schemes (why would scientists illuminate the room they use to monitor sleeping patients in purple neon?) can be forgiven as part of a scheme to create a dreamlike atmosphere. The clinical look and some of the odd faces and wardrobe choices (i.e. Dr. Meyer in his enormous glasses), slow pace, and synthy score all put me in mind of Beyond the Black Rainbow.  And, while the nightmare scenes themselves (which tend to be tracking shots down shadowy corridors, ending with visions of silhouetted figures) are a little low-key, Come True is legitimately visionary at times: Sarah wakes in an unfamiliar place with an eyepatch and a freakishly dilated pupil, finds another person hooked up to a dream monitor, and watches some low-res hypnagogic hallucinations (including a brief shot of herself with fangs) while a spookily comforting ian ballad plays in the background.

With all that going for it, it’s sad to say that Come True totally drops the ball with a truly disappointing, left-field twist ending. While, in retrospect, you can put two and two together, there aren’t any meaningful hints about this last-second revelation dropped throughout the body of the picture. The reveal turns 90% of the movie into a red herring—so that, to the extent that you get involved in the putative plot, your time has been wasted. It’s rare that a movie’s final shot can undo all the good it’s done up until that point, but Come True manages that trick, turning a film that was headed for a mild recommendation into a recommended pass.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Burns’ script is just as concerned with the weirdness of Sarah’s waking life as it is the literal monsters that populate her dreams, and the filmmaker’s ability to balance and juxtapose those two portions of the film only strengthen each section.”–Kate Erbland, Indiewire (contemporaneous)

SLAMDANCE 2021: APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: NO TRACE (2021)

Nulle trace

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DIRECTED BY: Simon Lavoie

FEATURING: Monique Gosselin, Nathalie Doummar

PLOT: After a smuggler escorts a woman and infant across the border, her draisine is stolen; she encounters the woman she smuggled on her trek back north.

Still from No Trace (2021)

COMMENTS: If Andrei Tarkovsky had made a film about a human smuggler in a post-civilization world, it would look (and feel and sound) like Simon Lavoie’s No Trace. The mystical energy of Canadian wildlands is punctured only by a pair of iron rails as our nameless protagonist navigates her track-bound wagon through the soft palette of black and white trees and scrub. Religion and doubt vie for dominance. And soft aural cues warn of danger. As with the journey into the heart of “the Zone“, metaphysicality in No Trace flourishes the farther our hero travels from her anchor to civilization.

What little civilization She (Monique Gosselin) comes from is made abundantly clear at the start. There is no state, just men with guns. But men with guns are often open to bribes, and so She has a living. Her latest job is transporting a young mother (Nathalie Doummar, credited as “Awa,” though I do not recall her name ever mentioned) and an infant girl across a border whose demarcation is all too unclear. The smuggler’s vehicle breaks down after She receives another assignment, and She is forced to hide in the wilds near the rails. Awa is there. And, in a tragic way, so are her daughter and husband.

No Trace‘s strangeness is carried primarily by its steady drip-drip-drip of unlikely filmic characteristics. The score is spartan, but when the “doom western” chords swell and plang, it’s all the more powerful for it. I’m at a loss for another example in which the primary musical cues climax after a fade to black. The black and white cinematography is as beautiful as the world is bleak, with soft greys highlighting the lush variance of the ever-present forest. And the dialogue, scarcely present in the first half (maybe half-a-dozen brief lines), merely elucidates what little exposition that isn’t made clear in the image.

The subtlety of the action and the actors further renders No Trace a contemplative picture. The slightest raising of the smuggler’s hand in a key scene resonates far more than any flailing histrionics or wild gyrations could. This and the surrounding quietude scream Tarkovsky, yes, but it’s the film’s climax that swerves No Trace into spiritual wonderment. Awa and the smuggler are in a ragged shack, and Awa— a devout Muslim—asks the smuggler, “You are not a believer?,” to which the smuggler coldly replies, “I’m not that desperate yet.” The closing scene, with Awa embraced by leaves and the smuggler embraced by her precious railway, culminates in a theological twist worthy of the late Russian master.

No Trace is currently playing Slamdance (online).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By stripping away artifice and taking a surrealist route and view, Lavoie ponders what lies beyond what we think we know, about an uncertain and obscure future.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THINGS (1989)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Andrew Jordan

FEATURING: Barry J. Gillis, Bruce Roach, Doug Bunston, Amber Lynn

PLOT: Don visits his brother Doug in a remote cabin infested by things; Doug’s wife suffers a miscarriage and the two brothers investigate the fuse box after the power goes out.

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: This cinematic monstrosity is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, horror or otherwise. But it pushes the envelope of ineptitude so incredibly far that it turns a corner, reaching Zen levels of disorientation and otherworldliness.

COMMENTS: The closing credits begin with a notice that is probably more telling than the filmmakers intended. After we see the hapless Don Drake running through the woods, we are told, “You have just experienced THINGS.” I certainly have. I experienced many things: dismissiveness, confusion, disgust, and ultimately, wonderment. I watched this movie under the impression that it was a purposely bad, contemporary movie designed to invoke the strange era of straight-to-video horror. Upon discovering that this was actually from that era, I felt confusion, betrayal, surprise, and once again, wonderment. Things does not seem like it could have been made as anything other than a joke. That it stemmed from ambitions other than snarky tomfoolery blew my mind.

Things kicks off looking like a ’70s porno from Hell. A young woman in a Lucifer mask is propositioned by a skuzzy Canadian named Doug who wants her to have his baby. She disrobes, and then withdraws a baby—in a carrier—from a nearby shower stall. The man is pleased until the unseen infant nips his hand. Doug awakens on the couch, his encounter just a dream. His reality sucks even worse, though; his wife is in horrible pain from some procedure (which we later learn was performed by the evil Doctor Lucas), and his brother Don is coming to visit. Doug, Don, and Fred (an affable friend of Don’s) exchange bizarre remarks and make allusions to previous, infinitely superior horror movies. But as needs must, the “things” begin appearing and zed1-grade gore ensues.

Whoever the hell Andrew Jordan is (was?), it at least can be said of him that he knew his good horror films. No fewer than half-a-dozen classics are referenced—from Evil Dead to Videodrome—in an amusingly oblique manner (particularly Evil Dead: “How’d that movie start that you’re always talking about,” asks Don while holding a tape-recorder, “Y’know that weird one, with all the weird things?”). Even odder are the intercuts with 80s porn mega-star Amber Lynn as a newscaster very blatantly reading off of cue cards. The film claims to be set in America, but by the tenth “aboot” and the line, “Agh! The blood is just dripping like maple syrup!,” I saw through the façade. That, however, was the only revelation I could tease out of this morass of non-sequiturs and ambiguous—to put it politely—narrative spasms. (I almost wrote “narrative leaps” there,  but changed it after considering how the story never really goes anywhere.)

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what happens in the movie, and at a further loss to explain how it kept my fascination throughout. Unfortunately Things appears to be the writer/director’s only film credit (although leading man, co-writer, co-producer, etc., Barry Gillis, went on to rack up intermittent IMDb credits), so I may never view another window into his creative process. But it could be worse: I could have lived the rest of my days never having witnessed such a spectacle in the first place.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Basically, this movie is like the lovechild of Hotline Miami and Evil Dead as directed by Max Headroom. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and anyone with a stomach for gore and even a little bit of a taste for the weird owes it to themselves to give this one a try.” -Alex, Movie Russian Roulette (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (2019)

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Must See

(For Canadians)

Recommended

(For normal people)

DIRECTED BY: Matthew Rankin

FEATURING: Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Seán Cullen,

PLOT: William Lyon Mackenzie King modestly rises to the plateau of Canadian supremacy to become Prime Minister.

Still from "The Twentieth Century" (2019)

COMMENTS: During my first visit to Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival in 2017, I made the acquaintance of several Canadian college students. I had the opportunity to talk politics with one of them—a hot topic at the time. One young man, in particular, was full of passion and ideals, like many college students. But he was very Canadian about it. No fan of Trudeau (“too centrist”), he was also skeptical of the recently elected French president Emmanuel Macron. Despite the fervor I knew burned within him, the most damning criticism of the French prez he dared speak was: “too centrist.” He limited his body language to a slightly uncomfortable sidelong glance.

Canada’s subdued idealism is captured flawlessly in Rankin’s directorial feature debut, The Twentieth Century. Structured as a 1940s melodrama and styled as a 1920s Expressionist nightmare, its tone fits squarely (and appropriately) in the realm of a 1930s screwball comedy of manners. Our hero (though he would be loathe to designate himself so loftily) is the ever well-intentioned and deferential William Lyon Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne, reminiscent of also-Canadian comedian Martin Short). King’s mother long ago had a vision of her son becoming Prime Minister, and though his path to success is long and trying—nigh thwarted at times by a sinister doctor, an embarrassing shoe fetish, and a fascistic Governor General—King ultimately defeats the love-cult Quebecois separatist candidate to become the most foremost (foremostest?) among Canadian equals.

As a comedy, The Twentieth Century is pure gold. I ultimately gave up writing down amusing quotes as Rankin & Co. continued to hammer home just how incredibly quaint, civil, and bizarre they and their fellow citizens were and continue to be. (One recurring mantra stands out that sums up the Canadian experience: “…as certain as a winter’s day in Springtime.”) All the sets and special effects are Maddin-esque, to the point that I think the Guy’s gone mainstream (in Canada, anyway). The villains are all cartoonishly evil, the heroes are all cartoonishly mild-mannered, and Winnipeg is dismissed as the home of “heroin, bare naked ladies, and reasonably-priced furniture”.

Though we’ve dropped the “Why It Won’t Make the List” blurb, I feel it necessary to mention in case I’m called out about this omission. Quite a lot of weird goings-on do go on (ejaculating cactus metaphor, blind-folded-ice-floe marriage ceremony, and PM Bert Harper impaled by narwhal, among them), but ultimately it feels like the film is trying too hard with that angle, drawing too much attention to the oddities instead of letting them play on the fringes. (Even its poster crows, “…men play women and women play men!” So what?) The Twentieth Century succeeds brilliantly in being funny, however, and that’s something to actually crow aboot.

Gregory J. Smalley adds: I think we can now officially say that Guy Maddin isn’t an auteur; he’s a genre. The Twentieth Century proves that Guy Maddin movies need not be made by Guy Maddin.1 Rankin isn’t even trying to hide Guy’s influence; as a humble and patriotic Canadian, he’s embracing his national heritage. But it works, totally. If you’re a director making a film noir, you include shadowy lighting, a femme fatale, and a hard-drinking gumshoe. If you’re a director making a Guy Maddin movie, you include Expressionist landscapes, a timid hero plagued by sexual fetishes, and Louis Negin in drag.

Obviously, Giles’ last paragraph anticipates that I would object to his not nominating this film as an Apocrypha Candidate.  And I do. The Twentieth Century has an ejaculating cactus. That should automatically make it a candidate as one of the weirdest films of all time. Don’t overthink these things.

I know little about William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s three-time Prime Minister and FDR contemporary, but I think this biopic may not be completely accurate. Per Wikipedia, King secretly believed in spiritualism and used a medium to speak to his dead mother, historical trivia that may illuminate Negin’s role in the film. On the other hand, I highly doubt that King was a proud champion seal-clubber. In America, when we want to make a comedy about a revered leader, we cast Abe Lincoln as a vampire hunter—a take so ridiculous that it can’t be possibly seen as impolite or belittling. Canadians, on the other hand, are happy to depict a national hero as a man consumed by repressed ambition and an obsession with boot-sniffing. Superficially polite, actually subversive; that’s Canada for ya.

The Twentieth Century debuts tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 20) in virtual theaters (and possibly some live dates, too). Check The Twentieth Century home page for a list of vendors/venues.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a cheerfully bonkers satire… [Set in] a time when William Lyon Mackenzie King was busily striving to become Canada’s weirdest prime minister…”–Peter Howell, Toronto Star (festival screening)