Saturday, September 15, 2007

buddha collapsed out of shame; chacun son cinéma

Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame is an astonishingly assured debut feature from Hana Makhmalbaf (see post below). It is the story of a young girl (not even 9, the age of maturity in Islam) who just wants to go to school. The film follows the great Iranian custom of offering social commentary by positioning it safely in the world of children. Baktya's attempts, first to buy a notebook by selling eggs, and then to find the school itself, reflect the continuing legacy of post-Taliban Afghanistan. A gang of boys who are role-playing war and Taliban autocracy capture her and her friend, and come near to killing her in a game. In the end, her own ingenuity turns her small errand into a quest of enormous proportions, all played out against the empty-caved ruined facade of mountain edifices stripped of their Buddhas. At one point, a boy picks up a rock to stone our heroine and tells us it is the remnant of the eye of one of the destroyed Buddhas. The film's harrowing last shots spin (literally) the story to its conclusion and provide its emotional highest point. An incredibly impressive feature in the tradition of strong first films by the women of Makhmalbaf Film House.

Chacun Son Cinema is a collection of loving hommages to the movies by some of the world's most gifted filmmakers. Each of the directors chosen to express their love of cinema in 3 minutes has in some way been impacted by the Cannes Film Festival, and the collection is meant as a tribute to the 60th anniversary of that annual event. Part of the fun was trying to match the filmmaker to the short before the credits rolled after each section. I remember writing somewhere below that Alejandro Inarittu was worth watching out for in this collection, because of the acuity with the short form that he demonstrated in the 09'11"01 omnibus. He has done it again. A woman clutches her boyfriend's hand during a screening of La Cieca di Sorrento, starring Anna Magnani. The opening shot is of these clutching hands, as we hear from the hidden movie screen "he loves you tenderly, terribly, tragically." As the camera rises, we see that the woman is both blind, and crying. The boyfriend gently whispers in her ears the action of the film. Overcome by it, she leaves. The boyfriend follows her outside, embraces her and calls her Anna. The parallels of screen and life are nuanced but powerful since the movie on the screen is about a blind woman. The woman in the audience and the character on screen have become one in that rarified experience that only cinema can bring. In the moment of turning to embrace her boyfriend, we hold on her eyes. This filmmaker, the director of Babel and other astonishing films, is truly a genius of capturing the emotional line of a film. There is just no one like him.

Also memorable from this collection was Abbas Kiarostami's meditation, "Where is my Romeo?" The camera plays gently across the faces of Iranian women watching the ending of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet which (as in the case of many of these shorts) we only hear. Each woman's expression is a jewel, and the filmmaker is playing on our knowledge of the end of that famous story.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

just like home; four women; it's a free world; night; the secrets; the savages; atonement; blind; breakfast with scot

Gorgeous morning here in New Hamburg. I took some time out to come home, do laundry, attend my own classes (as a student) and now I'm ready to head back in. The early dawn light out here in the mennonite country where I live, reminds me of Silent Light (reviewed below) and the mennonites of that film. I had a vigorous discussion about the movie's ending in a line-up the other day. Without giving it away, let's just say it embraced some magic realism, which viewers will either embrace or balk at. I loved it. As the movies have continued to resonate through the week, my top ten list, predictably is sliding around too. Check it out, top right.

Because I need to jump in my car and get back into the festival, I will just note here the highlights of the roughly 10 films I've seen since Elizabeth which is still riding high at the top of my list. Thanks to the Cate-forums people who are sending me lots of folks to my blog. I might point out to you Cate lovers, that I have several pieces on her in the nether regions of this blog: reviews of Babel and a long essay really about her performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year of the title role as Hedda Gabler. Follow these links and enjoy - and thanks for checking in.

Since my last post, I have now seen parts or all of the following movies. I will survey them quickly here in the order in which I saw them: Just Like Home, Lone Scherfig's movie about a town unhinged by an early morning streaker, lives up to that Danish helmer's ironic sense of humour about the way in which people strip (so to speak) away the facades of their lives. Although not as accomplished as Italian for Beginners or Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, it is worth seeing, if anything for that famous last shot you have now likely seen in several of the daily festival publications. Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Four Women was yet another Indian compilation of four tales, this time meditations on the lives of women who fall into society's labels and can't shake them. Of these the prostitute and virgin ones were most powerful. Simple stories that evoke the enormous challenges still facing most of the world's women.

A Ken Loach film is always going to be in my top ten list. I love this British master filmmaker's unfailing sense of human nature (I guess after 50 years of making movies about same, it shouldn't be surprising). No one does an Act Two climb like he does, and this movie about a woman who starts her own recruiting agency for illegal immigrants lives up to all we've come to expect from Loach. As her decisions spiral her further and further down the path of disaster, we genuinely don't know how on earth she can rescue herself. And the great thing about a Loach film, is that his characters don't always succeed. Like My Name is Joe, this one leaves us clutching our seat on behalf of our heroine, and meanwhile character details, like her fondness for dressing like French movie stars of the 60s, tell us so much. Vintage Loach.

A movie I completely misjudged (unfortunately) from the write-up was Lawrence Johnston's Night, which I thought might be a reflective, meditative celebration of the one thing we all share. In fact, it is hugely superficial, with nothing to offer in the way of actual experience of night that isn't clouded by obvious voiceover. A big disappointment. On the other hand,
Avi Nesher's The Secrets about life in a Jewish seminary for girls, was surprising in its power and nuances. Although it is a standard story of two young women who couldn't be more opposite coming together in deepest friendship, it offers a view of young, intense loving romance, when same is caught up in spiritual struggle. Fanny Ardant makes a wonderful appearance as a wounded woman they are sent to work with.

The Savages, Tamara Jenkins' comedy about siblings forced to take care of their father when he is diagnosed with dementia (pictured above) was also one of those movies I didn't expect to like as much as I did. Laura Linney and Philip Seymour-Hoffman are brillant (particularly Hoffman - wow!) as two average people facing almost constant pain in life situations and dealing with them the best they know how. Some of the best moments of this movie are in the quietest ones, despite the strong dialogue, pointing out how necessary it is to contrast dialogue with silence. (Right, students? Yeah, yeah, yeah, Sherry.)

Atonement is likely to become one of the safest Oscar contenders of this year. Its gorgeous sets and costumes continue the tradition in this year of outstanding production design (truly, one of the most notable elements of this year's crop of movies). With strong performances, and wonderful camera direction in many places, it is an accomplished piece about the power of a lie, reminiscent of The Children's Hour. My only complaint was that it felt occasionally a bit manipulative in its non-linear structure. More on that in some other post, but well worth seeing. One of the strongest movies of the year and a great last minute supporting performance by Vanessa Redgrave.

Blind is the most unusual movie I've seen this year. This film from Iceland by Tamar van den Hop has a very very simple premise: a girl is sent to work with an impossible blind boy. He falls for her and doesn't know that she is not what the time would call attractive or beautiful. An operation that will restore his sight causes her to flee from him rather than face his disappointment. He spends the rest of the movie looking for her. The ending is sublime and again the icy blues, whites, and greys give such an incredible feeling of climate and season that I was huddled in my jacket for the whole movie. A beautiful film. Check it out.

Whoa! Just saw the time! The next film I saw was Breakfast with Scot, by Laurie Lynd, someone else I have known my whole life and whom I am proud to see in this year's festival. His story of a gay couple unhinged in their lives and self-limiting choices by the arrival of a very uninhibited gay 11 year old, takes some unexpected turns and offers us wonderful cameo appearances by the likes of Sheila McCarthy and Megan Followes. Hockey Night in Canada gets a new spin and stereotypes are checked at the boards of this fun drama. Check it out. Must run!

Sunday, September 09, 2007

elizabeth: the golden age: a golden golden film

You wait for it. Each year, you wait for that film which suddenly slips out of the pack and shoots to the forefront as a consummate piece of filmmaking. Some times it happens on the first day, sometimes the last. Sometimes it doesn't happen at all. But it has now happened for me: Elizabeth: The Golden Age is that truly glorious thing: a brilliant film from start to finish, an expression of a carefully considered, masterfully woven tapestry of talents and visions. Shekhar Kapur launched the stardom career of Cate Blanchett more than ten years ago with his beautifully realised depiction of the early life of the great queen, with the first Elizabeth, and now, with his sequel, he has helped to secure her place as perhaps the consummate actress of our age, the heir apparent to Meryl Streep.

In the press conference, which has just finished as I write this, actor Geoffrey Rush (who plays Walsingham, Elizabeth's closest advisor in the movie) describes Kapur's directing style: huddled on the set of a great piece of gothic or Tudor architecture, Kapur asks the actor where he is feeling he wants or needs to be in the room. When Rush (who was also in the first film and understands this intuitive style), suggests a place near the middle of the room, Kapur responds that he now sees the gothic arch surrounding Rush, pressing down on him the weight of the history of the country. This is how great filmmaking is born: this collaborative process among deeply gifted artists. The openness leads to innovation and creativity. And yet, there is clearly a master stylist at work. The camera is constantly revolving around its queen, and yet remains invisible as it does so - the sign of the best choices. When we are too conscious of the camera, then we have left the world of the film. But Kapur also makes fantastic use of the 'overwide', a shot from so far away that the subject is almost invisible. In a moment of indecision about the coming Spanish-English war, we are suddenly high above a vaulted ceiling, looking down on a lone Elizabeth, way into the central long end of the frame, leaning against a wall, a tiny figure alone in her massive decision.

During the press conference, Kapur also spoke of wanting always to reflect the emotional world of the characters --- I wish I could say I paid him to say this, as it is exactly what I have been coaching my students to understand. Therefore, the revserse tracking shot, down a long corridor, as Elizabeth agonizes the final hour before the death of her half-sister Mary, Queen of Scots, which she has ordered, is perfect to reflect the character's torment: we are not so close that we are sensationalized, but close enough to never be let off the hook of her dilemma. This is what movie-making is all about.

Finally, Kapur also told the press corps that the film has a consciously post-9/11 political resonance. The Spanish war is defined here as a way of extending the horrendous Christian crusades of this period. Although it is convenient (and naive) to assume that the Virgin Queen was acting on her own religious moral ground, it is important to remember that the principle of the divine right of Kings, begun by her father, meant that she would have indeed felt her own sense of religious duty. To its enormous credit, the film does not exploit that possibility. Elizabeth is not made into an equally Christian figure (despite many scenes in which she is in prayer). As a religious person myself, and a Christian, I find this balance incredibly refreshing, as it points to the reality that all religious wars wreak havoc and leave lives unalterably shaken, whether the leaders engaged in them are openly religious or more quietly so. I suppose it could be argued that this film is Christian-bashing in its depiction of the Spanish, but I would argue back that it is inquisition-bashing (which I support wholeheartedly). And as proof, Elizabeth's stunning resistance of a gunman's attempt on her life, occurs while she is at prayer. She turns from the altar, embodied by divine strength as she stares down her assailant, and although nothing is implied in the filmmaking that she is acting on 'divine' energy, it is implicit in the scene in her own sense of personhood. In an era where Christian politicization of the war arena seems to have carte blanche, it would have been so easy to use this as a war of wills to allow the "best Christian" to win. In fact, that war was a complex engagement of politics, religion and personality of leadership, just as today's conflicts are.
This is the film to see (so far, of my festival). Remaining public screenings are tonight and tomorrow night. Go for it!
(See below for more reviews of yesterday's films.)

wavelengths 2 & 3; mira nair presents 4 views on AIDS in india; callas assoluta

Text on screen seems to be a hallmark of this year's Wavelengths programmed films. Butterfly in Winter by Ute Aurand and Maria Lang, from the Wavelengths 3 programme is a sublime portrait of ordinary everyday human experience in expressionist terms. The film begins with several title cards that read like excerpts from Lang's diary of caring for her 96 year old mother over five years. We then see it all expressed in visual terms: juxtapositions of images of mother and daughter in relentless routine of eating soup with bread, braiding hair and bathing the body. As they repeats themselves, the images gain new meaning and we are no longer watching them for any story value (a dilemma for western audiences: we simply don't know how not to do that), but just for the beautiful intimacy that can sometimes emerge from being so strongly connected to the person you care for. The blues and golds of dress and hair become almost serene, despite the banality of the same tasks repeated and repeated. And the rhythm of constant jumpcutting and overpacing, which can be so annoying when used without meaning, here serves the filmmakers beautifully.

Similarly, another Wavelengths film (from the second programme) uses text and familiar but beautifully realised shots of nature intercut, to say something about history. John Gianvito's stunning Profit Motive and the whispering wind is a silent portrait of landmark historic markers in the United States and the untold tale which slowly emerges of the history of the US labour movement, suffrage of women and civil struggle of African-Americans. As a cemetery-junkie (I walk my dogs in one daily), I appreciated how lovingly these markers celebrate the known and unknown heros of the American civil rights movement (which in its truest meaning applies to all peoples). Gorgeous waving grass and flowers are mixed with the heavy and weathered stone monuments, and as the film progresses, so does the intensity of the wind which is blowing through those natural elements. The gathering wind becomes a metaphor for the buried voices still speaking out for change. Eventually, the movie erupts into the present with violent sound as we see contemporary peace marches and individuals bravely moving for social change. Although it veers on the obvious from time to time (shots of Shell Oil and McDonald's marquees squinting through the trees), its message is mostly a quiet one and well-worth noting.

In his introductory comments, John Gianvito commended Wavelengths programmer Andrea Piccard for her thoughtful composition of films. He is absolutely right - this film stood alongside the short, Europa 2005, October 27, by French giant filmmakers Straub and Huillet, which documents by simply sitting in front of it, the transforming station in the Paris suburbs where two youths fleeing from police jumped to their burning deaths by accident. Although they can hardly be called heros, their deaths point to the necessity of examining the melting pot of social cultures that our cities have become.

In a similar vein, the Mavericks sessions are looking to expose the political energy of contemporary filmmaking. Yesterday's session brought together prominent Indian filmmakers to showcase views on the AIDS dilemma in India. The movies, by the likes of Nair and Santosh Sivan, are largely uneven, in that they seem to portray the epidemic from mostly a middle-class and above perspective, when perhaps what is needed is enlightenment for the castes who have less access to education. Nair is working in connection with the Gates Foundation, but the people around her seem largely steeped in privilege. I must commend such a wonderful idea and enterprise and all who want to illuminate this situation - I only lament that there does not seem to be an attempt to show average people in average situations. Sivan's film comes the closest, in its depiction of a young boy's stigmatization at school because of his HIV status. But even this submits to an unlikely fantasy finish in which the boy's triumphant return to school is treated as if he is a rock star. More earth-bound movies are needed on this important subject. Let's hope Nair's Jaggo AIDS project goes there.

The divine Miss M!!! And I don't mean Bette Midler (though that divinity can be seen in Helen Hunt's movie, reviewed yesterday). I am talking here about Callas Assoluta, Philippe Kholy's strange documentary on Maria Callas. Using rare footage of arguably the greatest bel canto coloratura of our time, the movie fails to live up to being the insightful portrait of its subject that it promises. As my friend Andrew noted, the scratchy black and white footage of openings outside crowded theatres is infinitely more compelling than the impeccable digitally mastered empty interiors of concert halls the world over where Callas performed. It is an error of filmmaking to think we could ever be more interested in something that is the "site of" a great moment than the actual moment itself. But this is not the worst of the movie's conceits: it makes outrageous leaps of supposition and conjecture and frankly ridiculous errors of artistic judgement. We particularly enjoyed a voiceover narration that told of how moments after Callas and Onassis had been blessed by a Greek Orthodox bishop, they fell into bed together. It is laughable and even offensive to infer that audiences might believe that these human beings would actually start a love affair because they had been "blessed". Still, the movie does offer footage well-worth the price of standing in line, particularly a long television interview with Callas and Luchino Visconti, which points to their complex working relationship, and a moment when Callas describes how her face reads a phrase of music to the audience before she sings it, so that her audiences will know how to hear it. In the end, a great artist transcends even a badly conceived tribute to her life.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

alexandra; glass: a portrait of philip in 12 parts; juno; then she found me; silent light

Day 3 and the weather is still tropical. Where was this in August? I heard a man grumble this morning that it wasn't this hot in Cannes. These bleary-eyed folks have that half-crazed, half-zombied look of those who came here directly from Venice, and other ports before that. The first weekend in Toronto is the 'can't stop' fastest pace of all: no time, to say quit. For me, with now a dozen under my belt, I am barely started. I am in a new rhythm, starting very early, seeing three, then taking a long break to see people or blog or email, and then doing two into the late night. Yes, this crazy pace will catch up with me.

Alexandra, Alexander Sokhurov's latest, is about a woman who goes to the Russian-Czezhen front to visit the grandson she hasn't seen in 6 years. Not a faint-hearted gal, she is game for it all: she handles a kalishnikov weapon with ease, clambers in and out of armored boxcars and tanks and pushes the barrier of a checkpoint above her head to simply pass through. It is vintage Sohurov: Alexandra is Mother Russia itself, enduring on despite its current corruptions and insanities. In a nearby market, she befriends a Czhezhen woman who takes her home to have tea in a bombed out apartment building. The women of this movie bond instantly across religious and national boundaries, while the men of the same platoon are distant from each other, barely communicative and in automated routine. With no sign of real war in evidence, their lives appear both meaningless and abbreviated. Still, the presence of Alexandra's round, elegant face (with earrings and luminescent skin) gives them a hint of all that real life is actually about, and which they've left behind.

Ever since I first heard his collaborative album, "Hydrogen Jukebox", set to the poems of Allan Ginzburg, Philip Glass has always been one of my favourite contemporary composers. His movie scoring grates on the nerves of many, but I love them: the score to The Hours still makes me cry to listen to. I love his compositional style, emulated in the documentary about him Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts by director, Scott Hicks. There is a lot of wonderful material here, mostly in the form of quotations by people surrounding Glass, including an enigmatic Chuck Close and Glass' sister, Shep. But too much of the movie is too reverential, not allowing us to see the darker side of a man whose brilliance was wrought at the hand, he tells us, of two dramatically contrasting teachers: the terrifyingly brilliant Nadia Boulanger (sister to composer Lili, and a great musician of this century) and the gentle loving Ravi Shankar. We need to understand better also, how it is that Glass' marriages seem not to work out: in this movie, a relationship/marriage that seems in its first flush as the movie starts, is over when it ends. Who is the man that participates in those cycles of self-limitation? His shadow side is hinted at by his Tibetan buddhist spiritual guides and friends. But we never get to see it: Hicks just likes Glass too damn much. Too damn bad. Some wonderful stuff in here though: including development and rehearsal footage of Glass' recent opera, Waiting for the Barbarians.

Mark my words. Juno, the Jason Reitman comedy featuring "it" girl Ellen Page, is going to be the sleeper comedy of the season. It's crackling wit and sharp-edged hairpin story turns are reminiscent of last year's favourite, Little Miss Sunshine but with much better character work. (Sorry, folks, I just couldn't bring myself to like that film. I did try!) Allison Janney and Jennifer Garner are among those providing stellar support in the wings, but it is really Page and the screenplay that are the runaway hits of this movie. Some of the funniest lines of the season are in this movie about a pregnant 16 year old trying to do the right thing by putting up her baby with a beautiful rich couple. The script avoids all the obvious cliches and pitfalls one cringes in the dark, expecting. With strong character work and (gasp) values one can relate to, this is worth the wait in line.

I wish I could say the same about what I saw first this morning. It was time to hit a problematic screenplay, one of those hit-and-miss semi-Hollywood, semi-independent feature films that mean well, fall flat on their face but also have moments of incandescent beauty. Enter, Then She Found Me, Helen Hunt's directorial debut, starring herself, Colin Firth, Matt Broderick and Bette Midler. The screenplay is the problem here - it needed another two or three passes. Actors who write and direct often fall into this rhythm early on, where no one is around to tell them the movie's not ready to be made yet. However, actors also have an amazing ability to peer to the heart of a scene and be very daring in the writing. One thinks of Tim Robbins, for instance, and Emma Thompson. Helen Hunt (in collaboration with others) has created several amazingly-written and directed scenes, particularly the ones with Colin Firth where the two hash out what real commitment actually means: hurting each other over and over and sometimes meaning it but always wanting to fix it too. It is one of the best performances ever wrought out of Firth, because he has such depth to work with. The rest of the movie, however, founders under the weight of a script which doesn't know which genre it belongs to, and a novice director too often putting the camera in the wrong place. Too bad!

Sometime over the summer, I listened to a podcast in which Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott (NYT critics) talked about their favourites from Cannes. As a result, I made a vow not to miss Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light (pictured at the very top), about a Mexican mennonite family of contemporary times, impacted by adultery. This movie could never be anticipated, despite that plot summary. At once haunting, poetic and with a shattering honesty, it portrays the human heart engaged in such a scenario with absolute integrity to all involved. There are no villains here, and in this vein it reminded me greatly of Robert Guéguidian's Marijo et ses deus amours of several years ago. Silent Light is painted for us in long, elegant, silent brushstrokes in which the landscape, with its relentless harsh realities and breathtaking beauty, is almost a character in the film. This is fitting, since the Mennonites reverence the land as much as each other. The inevitable realities play out, but not in a way you've ever seen before and the silence are both peacefully reassuring and bristling with all that is unsaid. Meanwhile, light reflects off everything: water, leaves changing colour, even the brass knob if a clock pendulum, which swings back and forth and pushes forward the inevitable march of time. Breathtaking!

Friday, September 07, 2007

fugitive pieces; my winnipeg, persepolis; 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days

Holocaust movies, and particularly the legacy inherited by the survivors, is a running theme of this year's TIFF (as discussed below). The closing film Emotional Arithmetic, a Canadian feature with Susan Sarandon and Max von Sydow, faces off with the survivors in the current era. Fugitive Pieces, which I saw this morning, deals with a more immediate aftermath, following the story of a young boy who having witnessed his parents' death and his sister's abduction, is rescued by a Greek archeologist who adopts him and raises him in Greece and in Canada. I have known director Jeremy Podeswa my whole professional life - we were at film school together in Los Angeles and I know that he himself is the son of holocaust survivors. Jeremy has really come into his own with this beautiful adaptation of the lyric and poetic novel by Anne Michaels. It is reminiscent of The English Patient in many ways: particularly how its non-linear structure flows back and forth along the memory string of one person. There is also the language which is spare and haunting, and allows a very rare thing in North American feature films, which is dialogue that adds another layer of meaning not necessarily aimed at pushing forward story. Most dialogue does indeed push forward story - but this dialogue offers wonderful insights into the ways in which human emotion thwarts the healing process intended by the mind. I was particularly struck by how the main character Jakob (played by a sublime Stephen Dillane, someone else who can do no wrong) is unable to respond to the beautiful effervescence of his new love, because he is too mired in his own pain. "Then Alex invades my thoughts with her shameless vitality", he says in voiceover. It is a painful, but wonderful line that says so much about both characters. Eventually, he learns how to set free his painful emotion so that both his heart and mind are free to engage new life and love. The other performances are equally fine, particularly Rade Sherbadgia as Athos, Jakob's rescuer, who is almost unbearably compelling.

Last night, I stumbled into a late screening of Guy Maddin's hilarious, charming and utterly hypnotic My Winnipeg. A reverential tribute to his home town, the film grapples his deep sense that he ought to have left it by now, and why hasn't he. The opening sequence of the movie includes long sequences of people on trains, in "drugged chugging", unable to stay awake on voyages they hope will take them out of town, but which seem only to circle Winnipeg. The almost entirely voiceover-driven film (Maddin is one of the few people who can use that form successfully), is again poetically written, allowing us to understand and relate the images and is also a major source of the movie's humour. Maddin's attempt to relive his childhood by moving back into his old home in a beauty salon for a month comes complete with his mother playing herself, and sounding like a cross between Lauren Bacall and boozy-throated Elaine Stritch. The blues and greys and whites of the colour are soporific - and I floated off to sleep a couple of times at this 10:15 pm screening! But quickly awoke again, just like when I ride on a train myself!

Persepolis, is Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronneaud's adaptation of Satrapi's graphic novel, an autobiographical turn about growing up in revolutionary Iran. Fans of the book will be thrilled by this version, which is both faithful to the book and is a testament to how much the 'storyboard' process can assist the development of story. I was amazed by the visual thinking in the film version, which has been clearly conceived and developed as any film would be - entirely shot for shot, in a very cinematic style. All the normal language of camera angles is here, but there is also wonderful work being done through editing techniques like lap dissolves and layering and use of different colour palettes to reflect different eras of her life as the narrative weaves back and forth.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days refers to the stage of pregnancy of Gabriela, a character in Cristian Mungiu's riveting film which won this year's Palme D'Or at Cannes. The lead character, however, is Gabriela's best friend and room mate, Otilia, who assists her friend in getting an abortion, at great personal sacrifice. Wide shots held in sustained takes for long, realistic sequences, marks a combination of both western and eastern styles: western wide shots which focus us usually on story, but the eastern style pacing and sustained edits tell us we are engaging the emotional line of the film more than its story, but both are quietly harrowing, in that way we have come to associate with Eastern European cinema. Otilia's relentless devotion to her friend takes her into choices that few of us would be willing to make, especially when it is largely owing to Gabriela's fundamental weakness and inability to tell the truth. As a result, more than simply a portrait of Communist Romania in the 1980s, it is a profile of a friendship, one tested by every possible kind of challenge and which leaves its two heroines at the end ultimately in one piece, if silently and irrevocably changed forever.
Great films - go see them all!
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Thursday, September 06, 2007

first reviews!: edge of heaven; disengagement; and lust, caution!

Well, it's September, but it feels like July! Walking the already well-trod path between the Sutton Place and the Varsity, I had to take off my jacket. That's amazing. Every first-day of the festival since I can remember, I have either been dragging my tote bag and latte through the pouring rain or longing for a parka. It was positively balmy on the Bay beat. I am rushing this out before heading off to meet up with someone and then see more movies! Here are the first reviews!

Faith, personal spirituality, and the politics of religion are going to be big themes at this year's TIFF. Faith Akin's Edge of Heaven is a beautiful combination of cinematic styles, both east and west. A complexly (but brilliantly) structured screenplay weaves together four or five lives with the kind of layered textures of a Kieslowski film (Red comes to mind). Synchronicities in storytelling can be hit or miss affairs; there is always the huge risk of it seeming forced by the needs of the screenwriter. Here the dovetailing is also interwoven with a non-linear structure so that not only lives overlap, but so do dramatic timelines. Those of us old enough to remember the glory days of Hanna Schuygulla in old Fassbinder and other German and Italian films will be thrilled to see her back here, playing a hardened German mother who sees the light of redemptive caring in the wake of a personal tragedy. Her face registers so many layers at once it is a master class in acting. The rest of the cast are very strong too, particularly Nursel Kose as Yeter, a man in relentless pursuit of 'doing the right thing' while also trying to appease his own yearning, wandering spirit. The film suffers at the top from clunky editing and a feeling of wrong coverage but that falls away and the filmmaker's visual style slowly emerges strong and masterful.

Disengagement, as you know if you've been reading here, has been a real heavy-hitter for me. Both an Amos Gitai film and featuring Juliette Binoche it has been one of my front-runners. The film both lives up to my own hype and disappoints. When you come to know the style of a particular filmmaker, you learn how to appreciate whether the work is strong within their vision. This film is very daring, even for Gitai. Having exposed so much of the middle eastern despair in his previous films, he now focusses more solidly on character work, and moves into abstract themes. The opening half, which takes place in France, follows Binoche's transformative character Ana, who is grieving her father, and her own failed life. "I'm lazy," she says, casually, "probably because I'm in despair." The line is ever so gently ironic and is part of the incredibly textured and detailed character lacing of emotion and psychological complexity that Binoche brings to this turn. Her whole body is different: a highly sexualized character in this part of the movie, she slides from room to room and up and down staircases peering sensually over her shoulder, her dress-straps always falling. Barbara Hendricks, the great American soprano sings Mahler. Only in Gitai can you have a black woman singing at a French Jewish man's funeral in German! Much more on this movie later, as it digests.

The line up for the Press/Industry screening of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution wound through the Manulife Centre and out on to Balmuto. The woman in line with me was not impressed. "This is like a Public screening line!" (oh, the horror!) It did afford us a glimpse of Michael Moore on his way to a limo, as discreet and smiling as ever, with the ubiquitous cap. Once in the cinema, even the most hardened press corps were silenced by the incredibly subtle nuancing of the growing relationship between the two lead characters. Tony Leung can simply do no wrong. That's all there is to say about him. He has a face and a body that can single handedly carry the emotional line of a film, but he gets lots of help here from newcomer Tang Wei, whose round face can read both eternal innocence and hatred in the same heartbeat. The movie is an exquisite set piece, featuring the deep burgundies, reds and maroons of WWII Shanghai and Hong Kong. The incredibly graphic sex scenes are gorgeous and erotic -- probably the best on-screen sex in movies for some time, in no small part because it is about the characters engaging each other as much as their bodies. All three of these movies are worth catching. Go for it!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

combined public-industry schedule!

Aha! A few days ago I posted the preview Industry schedule. On Friday the final combined public-industry schedule went online. And if you look to the right, I am in the process of linking all titles to their combined schedules, instead of just to the public one. All links up at the moment are to the combined schedule.It allows even more fine-tuned timing! Those Industry folks checking in here, note that the Wavelengths, Canadian Retrospective and Dialogues programs overlap with the public festival. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Full film schedule online!

Today marks the beginning of the best part of the pre-fest, the planning! With the full public schedule now online, and full descriptions too, there is everything needed to begin to shape the days ahead. For me, the wait is longer: the Industry schedule won't occur til later in the week. Today is the day that the program guide becomes available too at the public festival box office, and when ticket ballots can be handed in.

I am working on linking all of the programs and films at right - but it may take a while! In the meantime, here is my own personal film list: the movies I intend and/or hope to see. Although obviously I won't get to all of these! I have asterisked my ten top seeds.

*4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Mungiu - Visions)
L'Age des Ténèbres (Arcand - Gala)
Alexandra (Sokhurov - Masters)
Atonement (Wright - SP)
Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon (Rohmer - Masters)
Blind (Van den Dop - Discovery)
Breakfast with Scot (Lynd - CWC)
Brick Lane (Gavron - CWC)
Bucking Broadway (Ford - Dialogues)
*Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame (Makhmalbaf - Visions)
Callas Assoluta (Kholy - RTR)
Captain Mike Across America (Moore - SP)
Cassandra's Dream (Allen - Gala)
Le Cèdre Penché (Ouellet - CF)
Chronique d'un Été (Brault - Canadian Retrospective)
*Chacun son Cinéma (Various - SP)
Children of the Sun (Tal - RTR)
Closely Watched Trains (Menzel - Dialogues)
Closing the Ring (Attenborough - Gala)
Dans la Vie (Faucon - CWC)
Dans la ville de Sylvia (Guerin - Visions)
*Désengagement (Gitai - Masters)
Duchess of Langeais (Rivette - Masters)
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (Kapur - Gala)
*Emotional Arithmetic (Borzman - Closing Night)
Encounters at the end of the World (Herzog - RTR)
Entre la mer et l'eau douce (Brault - Canadian Retrospective)
Fugitive Pieces (Podeswa - Gala/Opening Night)
Fados (Saura - Masters)
La Fille Coupée en Deux (Chabrol - Masters)
Geneviève (Brault - Canadian Retrospective)
*Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (Hicks - RTR)
La Grande Illusion (Renoir - FIAF special presentation)
I'm Not There (Haynes - SP)
In Bloom (Perelman - SP)
In the Valley of Elah (Haggis - SP)
*It's a Free World (Loach - Masters)
*Just Like Home (Scherfig - CWC)
Juno (Reitman - SP)
The Last Lear (Ghosh - Gala)
Lust, Caution (Lee - SP)
Man From London (Tarr - Masters)
Man from Plains (Demme - SP)
Mid Road Gang (Thongsang/Vithuranit - SFZ)
Mira Nair Presents: Four views on AIDS in India (Mavericks)
My Winnipeg (Maddin - SP)
Night (Johnston - Visions)
Nightwatching (Greenaway - SP)
Nothing Is Private (Ball - SP)
Les Noces de Papiers (Brault - Canadian Retrospective)
*Oh What a Lovely War! (Attenborough - Dialogues)
*Persepolis (Satrapi - SP)
Pour la suite du monde (Brault - Canadian Retrospective)
Princess of Nebraska (Wang - Masters)
Rendition (Hood - Gala)
Rails and Ties (Eastwood - SP)
La Scaphandre et le Papillon (Schnabel - SP)
Secret Sunshine (Chang-dong - CWC)
*Silent Light (Raygadas - Visions)
Smile (short) (Kwan - SCC)
Silk (Girard - SP)
Savages (Jenkins - SP)
Sleuth (Branagh - Gala)
Sukiyaki Western Django (Miike - MM)
The Secrets (Nesher - CWC)
Then She Found Me (Hunt - SP)
Tracey Fragments (MacDonald - Visions)
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Wang - Masters)
Virgin Spring (Bergman - Dialogues)
*Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (Hsien - Masters)
Wavelengths 1 - 5 (see right)
The Walker (Schrader - Gala)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

full film list announced

After a day delay to honour the death of Canadian Opera Company director Richard Bradshaw, TIFF announced its full 07 line-up Wednesday, including programmes that have not been previously announced, and innovative cross-over industry public festival events and forums. The list features expected crossover festival entries like Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of the Broadway play Sleuth, starring Jude Law and Michael Caine (which premieres in Venice) and a good dash of the unexpected, like Wayne Wang's two features on contemporary life for Chinese immigrants in America, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Princess of Nebraska.

Doc Talks has gone public. For all fans of that form, this will be a great opportunity to listen to the masters talk about development, production and financing. A normally industry only event, the decision to open it up responds to a clear initiative in the festival to bring the public and industry aspects of the event closer together. A wide range of guests will look to subjects like, covering war, adapting biographies and how to tackle large 'theme projects' like the BBC's Why Democracy series. For Canadians, there is a rare and wonderful opportunity to hear Michel Brault and Denys Arcand talk about Quebec cinema and the distinctive needs of docs and fiction films. Arcand's L'Age des Ténèbres will screen in this year's TIFF as well.

Mavericks is back, and taking a cue from Michael Moore's hit appearance last year, the events are going to tackle socio-political issues like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and HIV/AIDS by showcasing people who are working hard to make progress in those areas. Former President Jimmy Carter, himself the subject of a documentary called The Man From Plains, will join his wife Roslynn at Mavericks to speak about his Carter Center which aims to assist efforts at peace in the Middle East. The director of the doc is veteran Hollywood filmmaker Jonathan Demme, crossing over into the documentary realm. Not often you get to see a former President (or any President) talk about world peace instead of world war! Indian filmmaker Mira Nair will present and talk about four short films that look at differing perspectives and experiences of HIV/AIDS in India.

And speaking of Michael Moore, TIFF's favourite maverick is back with his movie Captain Mike Across America, which chronicles his attempts to help swing the US national election of 2004. If there was ever a resume that was developed by the Toronto Film Festival it is this one. Moore has debuted every single movie he's made at TIFF and holds huge regard for Canada in general. I remember eavesdropping on a conversation he was having once on the Park Plaza roof with a (friendly) man who wanted to convey an important opinion to Moore. Mike listened closely for much longer than many would, then thanked the man quietly for what he had said and excused himself to move on. It was classy in a quiet way, the side of the filmmaker that gets less exposure to the public but is probably closer to the truth of who he is.

Enough! Let's talk about movies! The Dialogues program, previously completely unannounced, shows great promise. Peter Bogdanovich is presenting restored versions of two films: Jean Renoir's classic La Grande Illusion and a long lost John Ford silent film Bucking Broadway. Ellen Burstyn will present the 1970s landmark film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore? which not only sparked a successful tv series but captured the early days of the feminist movement as it impacted on the average life of the average woman. Most exciting for me, Richard Attenborough, a filmmaker I am not normally drawn to, is presenting his own debut feature from the 60s, Oh What a Lovely War! This intensely satirical and fun musical about the British World War I experience features an incredible cast of British actors. (Picture at top of page.) Those who think of Maggie Smith only in terms of Harry Potter, should check out her showstopping number as a stripper seducing men into signing up. Like the films of Michel Brault, this film too was screened on my living room wall when I was a child and my father was preparing his film classes. For those interested, my essay about those evenings appears in today's Globe and Mail national edition.
Happy planning!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

now it gets exciting...

Not that it wasn't already. But now the fun begins. On Wednesday, TIFF announced 73 new titles, and with it the substantial portion of the programming, including the lion's share of Special Presentations, Masters, Visions and Vanguard. Another Juliette Binoche film is in the mix: Amos' Gitai's Désengagement, a film about a woman searching in Israel for the daughter she lost at birth. In our one degree of separation game, Gitai (pictured above) is also one of the filmmakers participating in Chacun Son Cinema, a celebration of the Cannes Film Festival by 35 directors whose lives have been changed by the French event, including Canadian Atom Egoyan.

There are so many ways to go one step forward from this film!
Among the 35, is the already mentioned Hou Hsaio-hsien, whose Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge is discussed below. Another director, Youssef Chahine, has his own festival entry, Chaos, about the tyrrany of a single policeman in a Cairo neighbourhood. Contributors the Coen Brothers, are bringing No Country for Old Men to the Special Presentations programme. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who has debuted almost all of his feature films at TIFF, and who wowed festival audiences last year with Babel, is another one of the 35 Cannes artists, though he has no other film in the festival. Still, he is worth mentioning because of his skill with the short format. His entry in the September 11 shorts project, 09'11"01, was arguably the best, alongside Samira Makhmalbaf's (see last post). I have been teaching ever since, his use of black screen and expressive sound in that memorable piece.

Another festival favourite, Ken Loach, winner of last year's Palme D'Or for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, will be bringing his latest film, It's A Free World to this year's TIFF.

And speaking of Palme D'Or's, the top prize at Cannes this past May was for Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, which critics have been quick to name one of the finest films of the year. The Romanian filmmaker's movie is about the oppression of Communism in that country and about a woman seeking an illegal abortion in a bleak political and social reality.

The social realism of Iran in the 70s is the setting for Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, an adaption of her own award-winning graphic novel about growing up in the Iranian revolution. Other women filmmakers to watch out for include Lone Scherfig (pictured below), whose previous films, Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself both debuted at TIFF and who returns this year with her latest film, Just Like Home. Her movies always have a slightly black comedic element. In this film, a streaker runs through the streets of a small Danish village, sparking depression among its residents. The ever sensational Catherine Breillat, whose deep preoccupation with the sexual and sensual nature of humanity is expressed in previous films like Romance and À Ma Soeur brings to this year's festival, Une Vieille Maîtresse about a bridegroom's secret passionate life among the French aristocracy and featuring Italian sensation Asia Argento in we-can-guess which role.

With about two-thirds of the programming now announced, the final ranks will be filled out on Tuesday, when the full and final film list will be presented in a press conference and announced on-line. Final list? I remember the days when movies came in over the transom at such a last minute that they didn't make the programme book. One such case was a documentary on a small auto town in Michigan made by a newcomer. That debut screening was held in the tiny Cumberland 4, and I still remember an excited but slightly bewildered filmmaker lumbering to the front to gratefully talk about his work. It would be the last time his movies could screen in such a small venue. Why? The filmmaker was Michael Moore. And the movie, Roger and Me.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

makhmalbaf moxy

I think Iranian women are like freshwater springs: the more pressure applied, the more force they show once they are freed. Samira Makhmalbaf

When you've been around the film festival for as many years as I have (this is my 17th festival), you begin to experience a kind of strange but exciting deja-vu of discovery. I remember when Samira Makhmalbaf, the elder daughter of Iranian master filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf arrived at TIFF with her debut film The Apple. She had been 17, when she shot it, 18 when it was brought to Cannes. The documentary-drama chronicled the attempts of some village people to pressure an average Iranian man to let his two daughters out of forced captivity in their home. The girls, who were 11, had never been outside - at all - because of the man's religious fear that they might shame themselves and/or him. Through Samira's film (and with the help of Iranian social workers), their cocoon is finally burst. The closing image I remember vividly: the girls laughing and eating apples outside the house.

No two young women could be more different from the housebound girls of The Apple than sisters Samira and Hana Makhmalbaf, despite a shared country and society, proving just how providential birthright is. As children, the young filmmakers played on the sets of their father's films and hung around his film school. Their step-mother, Marzieh Mezkini, who once was a student of their father's, made films on which they worked. The combined talent here cannot be calculated. But the real story is the emergence of a female family aesthetic. These bright, amazing women are capturing, with incredibly moving sensitivity, the private, untold stories of very real Iranian women.

Enter Hana Makhmalbaf. The newest comer of the family is now 17 herself, the age her big sister was when her first feature debuted. TIFF announced this week Hana Makhmalbaf's film Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame as headlining a list of new Visions programming. But this is actually Hana's second feature. Her first film was a documentary on the making of her sister's movie, At Five In the Afternoon, which premiered at TIFF '05. In the newly liberated Afghanistan, women faced new opportunities, and also very old minds and hearts. The documentary looked at the consequences of even making a film about the post-Taliban era. Heady stuff for a 14 year old, as she then was. Prior to that, she shot the stills for Marzieh Mezkini's The Day I Became A Woman, which observed the last day of free play in the life of a little girl, before she becomes housebound herself on her 9th birthday. (Islam marks nine as the age of maturity for girls.) She also worked as second unit director for Meshkini's brilliantly observed Stray Dogs (also TIFF'05).

On the virtue of sheer pedigree, this latest Makhmalbaf screening will be a top seed for me. I am so used to thinking of Samira as the young upstart. Her impressive debut was followed by the by-far-best short in the 11'09"01 collection which appeared at TIFF'02. In her nine limited minutes, Samira followed a young woman Afghan teacher as she attempted to explain to her small charges the collapse of the World Trade center. The children understood terrorism; they understood bomb. What they didn't get was 'tower'. The teacher took them round their small village, pointing to monuments and asking the children to imagine something hundreds of times higher. They are never able to.

Imagination. Integrity. Inspiration. The strength and vision of this family of women filmmakers stands out on the skyline of Iranian cinema like a beacon for the generations of women who are coming of age in the middle east. Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame promises to live up to expectation. This drama follows a six year old girl and her family who live in the wreckage of a Buddha destroyed by the Taliban. The world around the girl is inhabited by boys who imitate the violence they have seen.

If you have missed the work of Samira and Hana Makhmalbaf and Marzieh Meshkini, start now. Ten years from now, no doubt, you will be the 'old timer' watching the debut of yet another clanswoman, and remembering nostalgically when you caught Hana Makhmalbaf's North American debut at TIFF'07. Hana dreaming indeed!
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Thursday, August 02, 2007

one degree of separation

I am pleased to be linked to the blogs section of the official TIFF site. If you're new to my blog, navigate at right to see my posts on previous year TIFFs as well.

I have been wanting to do this for a while. I have been wanting to see how many films announced so far at TIFF I could thread together on a one-degree of separation connection. The trick is where to start?

Real to Reel was announced this week. Alongside these films, TIFF did a big media release on Tuesday identifying four programmes now fully slated (they are Canadian Retrospective, Sprockets Family Zone, Wavelengths and Midnight Madness). What they neglected to add is that the scheduling for these programmes is also on view. For some of these, that is nothing new. If, like me, you are a Wavelengths fan (more later), you know that the experimental film screenings always appear early in the media waves and always are screened in the popular first weekend. The venue this year seems to have moved from the arty but cramped Al Green Theatre at the Miles Nadal Community Centre to the Varsity 7. Though they do not say so, I imagine that this is to accommodate the Industry folks interested in those screenings and operating on tight schedules. Too bad. The Wavelengths vibe is a beat of its own and the alternate venue was a great thing. The festival always combines the Wavelengths public and industry screenings and all industry showings are at the Varsity. For those of us who enjoyed getting out for the walk along Bloor Street, this move is sort of sad news, though the Wavelengths programme itself is better than ever! (Stay tuned for a later post profile.)

Sad news? How can I speak of sad news in a week that holds the deaths of both Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. That is cinematically akin to when Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died in those same memorable days in August ten years ago. Both filmmakers are giants, but Bergman's legacy cannot possibly be imagined: he was for a generation of directors an icon of how to find personal expression without losing depth or cultural value. My first memory on hearing the news was entirely personal. On the orientation day at the American Film Institute where I went to school in Los Angeles in 1983, I discreetly hid my feelings of intimidation from my already networking colleagues and hung out by the refreshment table. There, a lovely bearded older man struck up a conversation with me. He turned out to be Sven Nykvist, Bergman's legendary cinematographer and the school's guest speaker for the day. I wonder how those who helped to make the vision of a genius, respond to a death like this. Nykvist is also gone: he died last year. Cries and Whispers and Fanny Alexander not only had an impact on my impressionable young artist soul, they helped to form it. Sad news indeed.

To get on with the one-degree chain, let's start there with Bergman. One of the most moving testimonials on Bergman this week came from Woody Allen, who said, ""He was a friend and certainly the finest film director of my lifetime." Allen's latest film Cassandra's Dream was announced today as a new Gala. Featuring Ewan MacGregor and Colin Farrell, it is the latest in a series of Allen's movies to be shot entirely in England. It has a darker narrative than usual, but features a score by Philip Glass. Philip Glass is the subject of the newly announced Real to Reel documentary Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts by Australia's Scott Hicks (of Shine fame). The title says it all, reflecting Glass' own signature composition style and causing me to wonder if this will be like a slimmer version of 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.

And speaking of that film, Francois Girard, its director, has a new film in this year's festival, Silk, which chronicles a 19th century silk merchant voyaging in Japan. The film features Keira Knightley, who is certainly hot this year. She appears also in British director Joe Wright's Atonement, which, like many films, is being screened at Venice before arriving in Toronto.
And now that we're on to Venice (I couldn't resist this pic which has nothing to do with the film festival!), a quick look at the slate for that event (which immediately precedes Toronto so closely that journalists can't even go home and do their laundry), shows already some overlap with TIFF and some titles we might hope to get. Besides Atonement, Venice is premiering TIFF entries In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis), Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway), Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik). Let's hope that Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited and Youssef Chahine's Heya fawda (le Chaos) also cross the Atlantic. These are just the films in competition! Out of competition there is Woody Allen's film mentioned above, and another Wes Anderson film, this time a short, Hotel Chevalier. Venice is also showing out of competition two restored and rarely screened Bertolucci films, La Via del Petrolio and Strategio del ragno. Which causes me to say to that organization one-degree removed from TIFF, "Take note, Cinematheque!" Happy planning!