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!

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