Toto The Hero – Arrow Films

Written & Directed by Jaco Van Dormeal

 Belgium/ 1991/ 91 mins

Rating: 4 out of 5.

homas is an unreliable narrator and swears he has been swapped at birth with his spoiled, meanspirited and irritating neighbour Alfred. Toto the Hero begins in Thomas’ future, the crisp cold darkness of a manor home the scene of a death, revenge and the payoff of a life’s turmoil and imagination-fuelled vengeance. It’s not always clear where the line of fantasy is drawn, with the mosaic of flashbacks and whimsical perspective clouding the narration but, as Thomas reflects, we realise this has always been the case. Its peculiar sense of childlike innocence and fantasy reinforces the traumatic struggles and occasionally outlandish plot while enriching the humour.

Taking its title from Toto, the imagined self Thomas wishes he could be, a detective righting the wrongs of his father’s death, the film plays out with clever laughs and catching visuals. For decades filmmakers have endeavoured to blend aspects of children’s fantasy with adult themes and humour, usually leaning heavily on one rather than incorporating them together. Toto the Hero is an abnormally rare example of infusing two story-telling methods sublimely, building on the foundations laid by the other.

Walther van den Ende’s cinematography plays expertly into the daydream angle, offering up heaps of enjoyable shots as the film plays into Thomas’ imagination. Whether this is reducing the colour scale as the film-noir Toto, or the hyper-realist colours of Belgian suburbia with the dancing tulips, the film’s editing allows a seamless cause and effect narrative, gradually switching between the catalyst of Thomas’ frustrations and repercussions. There’s also a dose of adroitness as the characters age, where scenes tend to have quicker edits, while the never-ending days of youth are served with complimentary lengthier shots.

Despite these leanings into rich colours, Toto the Hero refreshingly abstains from sentiment. Relationships can be pure and loving, but the grief, loss and trauma strikingly never stray into melodrama. Michel Bouquet’s sombre voice throughout means that Thomas’ emotional pitch never crescendos; nothing is played for the sake of drama. His desire for revenge on childhood nemesis Alfred never reaches a pitch of ridicule, rather a bitter pang which allows the two to remain speaking, even when vying for the affection of their mutual crush Alice.

Standing head-and-shoulders ahead of her adult peers, Sandrine Blancke’s short time as Alice, Thomas’ possible-sister-love-interest is, for a child performer, exceptional. The incestual nature of Alice and Thomas’ relationship, even if he may not be her brother, is off-putting, and there’s a disturbing focus on Alice’s sexuality as a minor. This does, however, play into the hands of Thomas’ fantasy, and is handled with a deal of delicacy and authenticity which staves off ill-intent. Blancke’s powerful presence balances Thomas Godet’s impetuous, imaginative but shy Thomas as a child.

Nowhere is the writing tauter than in the conclusion, the final clutch Thomas takes to turn the tables and reclaim his ‘stolen’ life. From murder plot to acceptance, the disjointed beginning finds meaning in a tightly stitched series of events which result in a tremendous payoff. But irritatingly this is Toto the Hero’s key fault – it’s too positive. There are a few too many occasions where Jaco Van Dormael’s direction is hesitant to bite down. His reputation for respectful films, which promote those with mental and physical disabilities makes for an exceptionally well-cast film, with intricate writing that both understands and values the struggles of individual characters. It just means Van Dormeal refrains from drawing blood.

Maintaining the film’s ethereal nature, Arrow Film’s Blu-ray rerelease brings an exemplary piece of Belgian cinema to fresh audiences, showcasing a rare species of film. One where the nuances of childhood revelry, make-belief and daydreaming enhance the adult comedy, ideas and repercussions.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/toto-the-hero/

Selah and the Spades – Amazon Prime

Written & Directed by Tayarisha Poe

USA/ 2019/ 97 mins

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Whether you’re a prefect, a drama bobby, or a ‘skin’, everyone struggles to find a place at school and, if cinema is to be believed, especially in America. Set against the soft, rolling green mounds of a Pennsylvania boarding school, Selah and the Spades attempts to decipher the inner workings of student hierarchy through Selah, a graduating seventeen-year-old, under her mother’s scorn and the weight of the school’s underground activities as the leader of the Spades. Could someone maintain the Spades’ influence after she leaves, or will one faction or another assert dominance?

Things don’t start well, with shoddy camera work attempting to emulate intricate angles, resulting in awkward shots cutting off characters and leaving vast empty frames. Cliques within the school dynamic is an age-old trope. Utilising this correctly can result in culturally significant movies. Do it wrong, and you end up with tepid, unfocused, and pale imitations of those movies. Selah and The Spades itself falls into the latter category.

Leader of the Spades and de facto controller of the student body, Selah is thoroughly unlikeable – still not a great start. Tayarisha Poe’s script talks of the importance of passing the torch, and the weight placed on Selah’s shoulders, but we don’t experience this gravity. Her ‘pushy’ mother is a one-note role from Gina Torres, with a monotone delivery; but this is likely out of directional choice and not performance. In only one direct instance, where Selah speaks directly to the audience (in another of Jomo Fray‘s peculiar designs in the cinematography), are the expectations placed on young women addressed. How men want them to look ‘impossible’, and how the faculty wish to control their bodies. A sensational, true, and persistent issue, but this isn’t demonstrated in the film. Lovie Simone and others are capable performers, but the characters have zero accountability or problems with authority, regularly wearing whatever they please, doing whatever they want, and suffering zero consequences, causing a detachment from the audience to these characters.

The exception is Celeste O’Connor. While performances range from deadpan to noticeably lacking and seldom engaging, O’Connor’s place as the new blood, the potential successor, and Selah’s new plaything is the audience’s way into the story. Unsure of what precisely is going on, but with chemistry with Simone, O’Connor has an authentic presence, a likeability, and tenderness which, when pushed, makes for the only significantly genuine arc across the film.

Complaining of a lack in control, but seemingly answering to no one regarding Selah’s extensive drug trafficking and manipulation, Poe’s script is a hot mess of ideas that smash into one another. Had the narrative attempted to expand this psychological power play to maintain the only control Selah possesses, Selah and the Spades may have stepped forward as an exceptionally detailed account of a young woman projecting her lack of control onto the outside world. Instead, with the peculiar choices to downplay violent or potentially gritty aspects in catering to a teen-drama, Poe waters down her script to an unengaging level.

This lack of direction skewers the film at various intervals, entirely uncomfortable with sticking to the confines of one or two storytelling mechanics. The cinematography is uncomfortable, unable to settle on a shop, focusing attention away from point of action. Aesthetically, the film has some design, but poor lighting casts characters in blocking shadows, which removes the ability to gauge expression. Poe’s writing has nuances of an adroit script, weaving sexuality and even aspects of asexual nature surprisingly delicately into the backgrounds. These aspects mean Selah and the Spades has wasted potential; a coming-of-age narrative with no one at the helm to charter the course, causing the focus to drift all over the place. 

Available to stream on Amazon Prime now

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/selah-and-the-spades/

My Darling Christopher – Homemakers, HOME

Writers: Jo Sargeant and Clare-Louise English

Director:  Clare-Louise English

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Determined to stretch its capabilities in storytelling during lockdown the Homemakers Project is a series of new commissions. A showcase of diverse talents, ranging from straight dramatic performances to voice-overs, mime artistry and digital editing and deaf dramaturge, My Darling Christopher is a compact film featuring hopeful rising stars as they hone their skillset.

On the shores of foreign soil, away from his family, Christopher, a young Naval officer, reads a letter from his wife on a peculiar encounter their son Clive had while attending Goring school, following his evacuation from Margate’s school for the deaf. A story which focuses on inclusive story mechanics, My Darling Christopher centres on the day a fighter plane crash lands metres from Clive’s classroom.

A young boy at the dawning of war, Clive Davis contracted meningitis, resulting in the loss of his hearing and sight. Navigating his way through life, Clive finds a new way to communicate with his mother and overcome both his lack of senses, but also to survive the war.

Minimal to the story, Robin Paley Yorke’s titular role fulfils a narrative purpose, sat on the shores as he reads the words of his wife Dorothy, her voice-over provided by writer Jo Sargeant. Sargeant captures an elegance, providing a clarity in speech but conveying the delicacy of a concerned mother, as much as a loving wife.

Despite the theatrical nature of the production companies and cast, My Darling Christopher, at only nine minutes, demonstrates canny cinematography, with steady wide shots and the occasional diverse angle when lowering to Clive’s level at school. David Monteith-Hodge’s direction of photography is clean, refraining from over-saturating scenes and focuses on the performers, save for the pilot’s descent which overuses editing effects, superimposing archive footage over a visual vernacular, with the two competing for focus.

Principally the focus lies not with Christopher, but his son Clive, a deaf child whose time at boarding school is opening his mind and improving his confidence. Calling upon the real Clive Davis for authenticity in his performance, along with benefitting from Stephen Collin’s exceptional ability as a deaf dramaturge, William Grint is front and centre the success of My Darling Christopher. The childlike glee, expressive emotions and movements shift the performance from a British Sign Language recitation and into authentic life; Grint is Davis.

The pilot’s infusion of excessive movements, with elements of mime work, Brian Duffy’s fluid movement and precision detract more than it could potentially add, and on occasion even comes off as distasteful. Orchestrating a visual reinforcement of aerial battles, bombardments and assaults over Europe, Duffy’s rapid hand movements are a stark difference from Grint’s earnest performance as Davis. Duffy’s peculiar need to insert exaggerations and, even comic nuances in what seems to suggest a more harrowing scene is off-putting and dips the film into a brief nose-dive.

There is a pull-up, however, as Sargeant’s return as Dorothy to close out the piece leaves a tenderness, reinforced by Grint’s humble performance. My Darling Christopher respects the life of Clive Davis, as equally as it offers a glimpse at the honour that he paid his father. A touching film, which benefits greatly from its promotion of deaf dramaturgy, simply leans too much on editing and poorly integrated visuals.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/my-darling-christopher-homemakers-home/

 Available to rent here