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:

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:

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – Netflix

Directed by David Dobkin

Written by Will Ferrel & Andrew Steele

Rating: 3 out of 5.

With 2020 cascading a series of cancellations on major cultural events, none have hit fans as hard than the postponement of The Eurovision Song Contest. Starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdamsDavid Dobkin’s musical comedy Eurovision Song Contest: Story of Fire Saga has hit Netflix, and while it’ll scratch the itch, it isn’t quite the same.  Maybe, just maybe, Iceland is in with a shot this year (the irony being their official 2020 participant was a bookies’ favourite). In Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Lars Erickssong (Ferrell) and best friend/possibly-maybe sister Sigrit (McAdams) have been bothering the locals with their entries to the contest for years. After a horrific boating accident incapacitates the official entry, Fire Saga is the only option left for Iceland to stay in the competition.

Will Ferrell plays Will Ferrell. That’s about all you need to know as far as his dedication to character stretches. Occasionally it works, but more often he swings for the punchline and lands in a puddle of bewildering. There are attempts at a Sacha Barron Cohen mockumentary but he isn’t fully committing. Lars is unfamiliar with other customs, socially awkward and frequently talks about his and other’s genitals, because that’s still funny, right? Fire Saga seems indecisive between a conceptual mockumentary and a parody, the significant issue here is that it hasn’t the wit for the former, and in the case of the latter Eurovision is a parody of itself – and a far more successful one.

Everything seems dire, and then, Dan Stevens enters the fray. Extravagant, delectable, and debonair – Stevens has the capability of saving the film, especially when sharing the screen with Melissanthi Mahut, the Grecian representative. The pair’s raised eyebrows and glittering gowns may seem antagonistic at first, but their sequins and ferocious nature belay a shockingly persuasive background of development. The Russian entry, Stevens’ opulent flamboyance sparks conversations of recent Russian acts displaying a ‘campiness’; Eurovision one of the only acceptable occasions where they can be open without fear of persecution. It’s a small touch, and in the grand scheme of Ferrell’s antics is surprisingly, and touchingly, subtle in its quiet condemnation of Russia’s attitudes towards LGBTQI+ communities.

Steven’s vocally-dubbed performance makes up for his recent stint in Beauty & The Beast, but if Pierce Brosnan thought this would make amends for Mamma Mia!, the jury’s still out on this one. Fulfilling his obligatory role as the disapproving father, Brosnan’s role is as paper-thin as his accent, joining McAdams in ticking all the boxes of a role which could have been played by anyone.

So, what’s Eurovision without the songs? From Lion of Love to Double Trouble, a smattering of the numbers are evidence of Eurotrash homework. We have it all – power ballads, the risqué fleshy routine, disturbing are-they-siblings duets, and to the film’s credit, a sentimental note on countries choosing to forego the English dominance and perform in their regional language. And when succumbing to a jukebox routine inviting a host of whos-who of Eurovision, the resulting cameos will offer an additional joy for fans of the event, and they’re blended enough so non-Eurovision fans won’t have the momentum disturbed.

Not quite Nul Points – this is still trash. Hot Trash. Hot Euro-Trash. Thing is, it’s like the event itself – a hideous idiom – you’ll either enjoy this or won’t get it. With tighter alignment, embracing what it gets right and ditching what was forced and contrived – this could have been an exceptional musical comedy. As it is, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga begins tacky, rises like a phoenix but ends up losing its (bucks) fizz as the runtime stretches, save for the occasional glitter bomb.

Review originally published for The Wee Review:

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is available to stream from Netflix