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!