Encounter Riz Ahmed TIFF review

TIFF Report: Encounter, The Starling, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, Listening to Kenny G

Our third roundup features films coming to streaming services, including vehicles for Riz Ahmed, Benedict Cumberbatch and Melissa McCarthy.

The 2021 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is on in hybrid form from Sept. 9–18.


Encounter 2021 Toronto International Film Festival TIFF review
Encounter, directed by Michael Pearce

Riz Ahmed plays a troubled vet trying to protect his estranged children from an alien invasion in Michael Pearce’s Encounter, a thorny sci-fi drama that lends credence to the whole “if you’re going to steal, steal from the best” philosophy. Obvious parallels can be drawn to the work of Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Take Shelter) and Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), but Pearce has a few tricks up his sleeve that justify the rather on-the-nose influences. 

Ahmed plays Malik Khan, a former Marine who kidnaps his sons — pre-teen Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and seven-year-old Bobby (Aditya Geddada) — in order to protect them from an invasion of mind-controlling insects from outer space. Though the adventure begins in earnest for the boys, it soon becomes unclear what the menace is — if there’s any menace at all — as the journey becomes increasingly perilous.

Suffice to say that Encounter does not really go in the direction of a massive disaster movie but rather of a nervy character study bolstered in great part by Ahmed’s heartbreaking performance and his relationship with the kids. When Encounter broadens its scope to include a supporting character played by Octavia Spencer, it loses some of its charge — but it’s nevertheless an engrossing and affecting film.

Encounter will be released on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 10.

Encounter, starring Riz Ahmed, Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada

The Starling

The Starling 2021 Toronto International Film Festival TIFF review
The Starling, directed by Theodore Melfi

The kind of earnest and quirky drama about incomprehensible loss that once dominated the Sundance roster, The Starling is a laborious misfire from director Theodore Melfi (Hidden Figures, St. Vincent). Reteaming with St. Vincent star Melissa McCarthy (and subbing Kevin Kline for Bill Murray), Melfi’s film tells the story of a middle-class couple (McCarthy and Chris O’Dowd) who lose their only child to SIDS. Despondent, O’Dowd attempts suicide and winds up institutionalized, while McCarthy attempts to continue her regular life to increasingly diminishing returns. The appearance of an aggressive, dive-bombing starling in the front yard begins to mirror her internal struggle as she tries in vain to build a garden without being attacked by the territorial fowl. 

Practically everything about The Starling is underlined and circled with absolute certainty, with characters spelling out such obvious metaphors that other characters in the scene are forced to comment on its lack of subtlety. The starling itself (which is, of course, a fairly unconvincing CGI concoction) should be more than enough, and yet the film diligently goes about spelling everything out for us in an attempt to wring a few tears out at regular intervals. McCarthy and O’Dowd are actually pretty good at being dialed down here, but the script does them no favours, and The Starling comes across as little else than a mannered weepie. I’ll give it this, though — it opens with a brand new song from slap-n-clap folksters the Lumineers, so I can’t say it didn’t warn me right off the bat.

The Starling will be released on Netflix on Sept. 24. 

The Starling, starring Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd and Kevin Kline

Listening to Kenny G

Listening to Kenny G 2021 Toronto International Film Festival TIFF review
Listening to Kenny G, directed by Penny Lane

I’m a little too young to have been truly cognizant of the whole Kenny G phenomenon, so when I say that I don’t know anyone who actually likes his tweedly smooth jazz wanderings, it doesn’t mean much. My knowledge of Kenny G is mainly as a punchline, which is also the starting point of Penny Lane’s genial and eye-opening documentary.

Kenny G is the highest-selling instrumentalist in history and yet nearly everyone seems to think that he fucking sucks (including me). Lane’s documentary explores what the man himself thinks of that, what his career has been like and what his detractors think of his music, offering a surprisingly well-rounded portrait of a singular presence in the pop music landscape.

Kenny G himself seems like a rather gregarious fellow, showing some self-awareness and open-mindedness as to the wide swaths of haters out there, even if he often seems to have questionable taste in his own productions. At one point, we’re shown concert footage that honestly doesn’t really sound too bad — not exactly groundbreaking jazz, but decent enough. We’re then shown a scene of G in the studio, layering his tweedling in swathes of gross reverb and echo that automatically gives it that elevator music sheen he loves so much. While I can’t be on board with his assessment that the reverb is what gives it its beauty, he sure seems convinced.

Listening to Kenny G is ultimately about more than just one curly-haired jazz saxophone player; it’s about the intangible and impermanent nature of taste and the personal nature of creation. I still think Kenny G’s music is shit after watching the doc, but I cannot deny that it is a type of shit that is 100% his.

Listening to Kenny G is set for release on HBO / HBOMax / Crave on Dec. 3.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain 2021 Toronto International Film Festival TIFF review
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, directed by Will Sharpe

Louis Wain is, at best, a curious footnote in British history — a symbol of a specific time and place that’s pretty interesting but not necessarily the ideal topic for a down-the-middle biopic of the type Will Sharpe has made here. Though The Electrical Life of Louis Wain has an aesthetic and general approach that at least points to an ambition beyond a Wikipedia rendering of biographical facts, it winds up being less than the sum of its parts.

Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a talented illustrator from a rich family who nevertheless has a jack-of-all-trades approach to life, preferring to spend his time on projects he does not master like electrical engineering and opera rather than take advantage of his talent. Forced to bring some money in to support his many sisters, Wain takes a job with a local paper as an illustrator. After a whirlwind romance with the family’s governess (Claire Foy), Wain becomes interested in cats, who become his chief obsession. His drawings eventually help cats become accepted as pets in the U.K., where they were previously considered completely utilitarian animals meant for mousing.

The bulk of The Electrical Life of Louis Wain actually focuses on the relationship between Wain and his wife Emily as well as his slow descent into mental illness rather than on the drawings of cats, which is both wise (how much mileage can one get out of the drawings of cats, really?) and sort of unfortunate, since the film moves from a quirky comedy of manners to a boilerplate dramatic biopic offering Cumberbatch plenty of occasions to freak out and fatten his Oscar reel. It’s occasionally charming but mostly laborious. Ultimately, it’s a stretch to consider this particular life electrical, no matter how hard everyone tries.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain will be released on Amazon Prime Video on Nov. 5.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy

Read our first and second TIFF 2021 report here and here. Check the TIFF website for ticket availabilities for films being screened digitally this year.

For more film and TV coverage, please visit the Film & TV section.