Friday, October 30, 2009


It has taken me more than six weeks to shake the dust out of my soul that was left by seeing Hadewijch, the Bruno Dumont film that screened at TIFF in September and won the FIPRESCI critics prize there. It is a good year when there's a film that offers me something both immensely personal and beyond personal, touching something at the core of my spirit and causing it to linger there, unshakeably entrenched. I missed the first two screenings of this film and caught it on its third, relieved that I was going to fit it in after all. Within minutes of settling in the theatre, this story of a theology student whose passionate faith leads her into mysticism and danger, had lodged itself within me.

From an objective point of view, Hadewijch can be appreciated as a formal departure from the kinds of movies that get made these days about people of faith. It lacks something important, an anticipated axis. We keep thinking we know where the filmmaker is headed, or where he's coming from, and then we don't. But the film is not into surprises or twist turns for their own sake, or in order to manipulate us. This is a deeply felt and deeply considered portrait of the profound moments of affirmation and detachment, loss and catastrophic separation, joy and redemption that accompany being in love with God.

Celine (a breathtaking Julie Sokolowski) is a 20-something theology student and postulant at a convent called Hadewijch as the movie begins. The allusions to the 13th century Christian mystic who was known by that name begin here, and like Hadewijch of Antwerp, Celine never seems to be fully accepted into cloistered life, but neither does she belong to the bourgeois family she grew up in either. When she is sent out by the mothers superior to try her way in the world, she is spiritually homeless, subject to the vagaries of contemporary life. The long contemplatively shot opening sequence of the film that leads to this decision allows us to feel keenly her contemplative commitment and be afraid for the transition. The film takes its time to establish it: there is no rush into narrative, no desire to set up important details. Instead, Dumont takes pains to introduce Celine and her life in the real time of a mystic, in which whispered prayers lean out of the darkness of a room toward the Crucifix on the wall, and the penitence is real. After she is dismissed, the image of Celine running through the woods to a small chapel grate in order to pray, is our first hint at the emotional journey ahead.

There is nothing unusual about the scenes of Celine's piety. She feeds her food ration to the birds and prays long and hard, just as we have seen other religious figures do in other movies. What we have not known or seen on film (to my knowledge) is what happens when that spirit loses its structure and enters into a contemporary world in which there is absolutely no real place for it. Back in Paris, Celine's depth of faith collides almost immediately with the lure of rebellion. Falling in with a young Muslim man named Yassine (Yassine Salihine), she rides on the back of his bike and feels the presence of danger almost like an ecstatic drug. She is hesitant and uncertain, doesn't want to participate, and yet goes willingly. This is an astonishingly accurate portrayal of what blind and deep faith are like. Blind faith does not resist all temptation. Blind faith is most vulnerable to it, since it believes itself to be most immune from it.

Into this reality, comes a young charismatic man named Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), the brother of the motorcycle driving youth. The older brother is as committed to Islam as Celine is to Christianity. They pray together in his family's small flat, with deep respect for each other's traditions. The radical activism of Nassir's faith begins to inhabit Celine in carefully crafted scenes of mutual religious instruction. Another surprising aspect of this film is its deep respect for a Christian vocation to chastity. (And where are you ever going to see that?) The Muslim characters Nassir and Yassine understand and accept Celine's commitment to Jesus as his lover and his bride. It is not easy for Yassine, but he ultimately gets it. These are not easy concepts, but the encounters allow us to respect the language each character offers the other. The centrifugal axis of it is the same: they all love God.

The anti-narrative movement and pacing of this film provide a perfect mirror to the journey of our heroine. We linger exactly as we should in the mystical transcendent experience she has in two radically different musical moments. The first is at an outdoor rock concert she attends with Yassine. The music defies a genre: both atonal and punkish, it is mostly about sound, a sound that perhaps may have been meant to represent a mystical sphere of vision and spiritual ecstasy. Celine rests in it with apparent ease and grooves gently, her eternally girlish face more and more transported. The scene is repeated in a church where she has gone in to pray. A young group of musicians are rehearsing baroque music. She listens with the same rapt experience of being inside the music.

As the film starts to take a formal narrative turn, and Celine's choices and decisions start to have consequence, a critical sequence occurs in which Nassir takes her to a middle eastern country that is never named. There she witnesses the senseless injustice of a violent-laden oppression of peoples, eternally in the crossfire of religious politics. Her witness of suffering there leads her too quickly to conclusions of meaning: deepest faith is always prepared to act radically in the name of justice. The line between ecstatic faith experience and catastrophic behaviour requires tremendous control to navigate: even Jesus overturned tables in the Temple and began cracking a whip. As the film careens into its final moments, we are both certain and wary of what is coming.

Throughout the movie, the story moves occasionally and unexplainably to follow a young man through his daily life. The connections seem remote: he is a roofer at the convent where Hadewijch/Celine started out. His movement in and out of prison, conversations with his mother, confessions of desire for better life seem only innocuous markers, and not signs of any deeper sense of purpose. We have no idea why we are even being asked to invest in this character at all. But just as our heroine has fully understood the weight of her faith and its impact on the world, he is there for her in a wholly unexpected, wholly spiritual way. The moment of redemption that then occurs has nothing at all to do with the sensuality present in this picture, which conveys a completely false message about this film when viewed out of context. The baptism of Hadewijch is neither the beginning nor the end of her journey, but a stop on the way of her mystical transformation, a living water out of which all things rise that truly want to know the face of God.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

people's choice: 1 right, 2 wrong

Well, I didn't quite get the doc or the Midnight Madness awards right, but for the third year in a row I correctly called the main People's Choice Award: 20 minutes ago Precious was named winner. The MM award went to The Loved Ones (Daybreaker was a runner up) and the Doc award went to The Topp Twins (another film I wish I'd seen).

Friday, September 18, 2009

random notes

Well, the reviews are taking more reflection this year! And I have seen less films than I normally would - all of which is fine. But as I continue to work on my review/essays - which seem to be as much personal journeyings as reviews - a few random notes.

Around about this time, I am able to predict what the People's Choice Award will be. Since that will likely be announced tomorrow, and since they've added two categories, I will anticipate what I think it will be. Last year, I guessed Slumdog Millionaire correctly early on. My guesses are based on Press & Industry buzz and some reportage on public screenings. In the Midnight Madness category, it would be difficult to see anything winning over Jennifer's Body - but if so, maybe Bitch Slap. The TIFF inside blogger taps JB and Daybreakers. In the doc category, I sure noticed that the Daniel Ellsberg Pentagon doc (which I wanted to see and didn't) was getting a lot of traffic in the Press Video library. But I would bet more likely on the Colony, the beekeeping doc, or a more uplifting piece like Google Baby and/or Sunshine Boy. In the main category, I don't know how the star turnout for Precious can possibly not upstage everything else in the way of public appeal, though the movie itself is emotionally tough going. Festival goers don't generally shy away from that, however, if Eastern Promises, Slumdog and Hotel Rwanda are anything to go by. Generally, features which will be in mainstream release don't win this award. (Though those films do go on to mainstream release!) Hard call, but I'm sticking with Oprah.

In other notes, I found the whole Tel Aviv movies controversy this week immensely depressing. Having read all the pros and cons, all the protests of all kinds in all directions, I am mostly just sad that a cinema which is finally coming into its own (Israeli cinema), lost an opportunity to be observed in its own unique voice and contribution because of political realities. I find myself wondering why there aren't more Native Americans protesting the presence of Canadian and American films in the festival, since by showcasing same, TiFF is supporting the cultural oppression of North American aboriginal societies. (I'm quite serious, a case could be made for this.) Or why the Tamils of Toronto did not rise up against the screening of three Sri Lankan films in this year's festival.

The screening of movies in discourse with each other is how a public forms its own opinions and educates itself. It is not the moral obligation of the Toronto film festival to present contrasting sides of an issue but to show well-made films which allow dialogue to exist which can allow for a rich exchange of meaning. If the festival had chosen Ramallah as the city to focus on, there would have been no controversy - and is that truly fair to the situation? Though I am not Jewish, I am a student of the Abrahamic faiths, and while I hated this year's Israeli invasion of Palestine, I could never clearly identify a morally superior outcome in this struggle. It's a brutal, no-win situation. Why can't we talk about that? instead of worrying about what the presence of these films "says". Removing films and signing petitions are political gestures as strident as whatever the festival has done by creating this programme. I have tried, and fail to see how there has been a political agenda on the part of the festival by creating the City to City programme and choosing Tel Aviv to kick it off. The festival has been a vanguard showcase of films which do NOT speak positively of Israel, like last year's Waltz With Bashir. Lebanon, hardly a pro-Israeli film, was also screened this year. An art festival should reflect the tensions of the world and not live in them.

So Shana Tova to my Jewish friends. And may this year bring peace in Palestine.

Monday, September 14, 2009

tiff: cairo time

I have a framed print of a painting by Raul Dufy which I used to hang over my writing desk. It is a view through an open hotel window out onto a Riviera beach curling away in the distance. Inside the room are a few plush chairs and a big vase of flowers. It always seemed to me to invite imaginative experience: what has happened in this room? and why is it that the sloping coastline makes the room seem even more empty?

There is a scene in Ruba Nadda's gorgeous Cairo Time that felt immediately to me like I was inside that Dufy painting, though the location is now Cairo. After having spent a lot of time together in a mutually growing attraction that is as much soulful as physical, Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) invites Tareq (Alexander Siddig) up to her hotel suite. This is it, the audience thinks, the moment of the seduction. And in many less carefully considered films, it would unfold in predictable ways. Instead, these characters hover on the edge. Tareq stands on the balcony looking on to the coastal scene while Juliette remains inside, just out of his view, pouring tea and unable to join him. She starts to go, and doesn't. He finally wanders in, approaches her, she shies away and then draws closer. It is agonizing. But instead of the expected submission, the characters choose something else, even better. And hooray!, there is no dialogue.

This scene captured all that I liked about Cairo Time. I loved the pacing of the film, which allowed the characters to breathe into each other's presence and develop a friendship the way this really does happen, in small awkward moments, and other clearly affinitive ones. I also particularly appreciated the care taken to evoke the quiet spiritual center of the city, even as Juliette tries to navigate its chaotic streets, where the men press in on her in alarming ways. It is a wonderful contrast, and important one. There are long takes that allow us to wallow in the environment as she takes refuge in new ways. The haunting sounds of the minaret and the echoes inside a mosque resonate the transitions our character is experiencing. Her life is slowing down and the movie does that too. Into the space that emerges comes someone whom we sense will perhaps be her lover, or perhaps shouldn't be; the possibility haunts us, and them, as they each fill the void of something missing in the other. I loved Patricia Clarkson's delicate walk between the conservative businesswoman and the emotional lover of two men, trying to discern what to do with how the city is changing her. The ending, which I appreciated, leaves us with the clear feeling that it is perhaps not the final ending. In a sense that ending has only begun.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

day 3: eyes wide open; partir

The Orthodox Jewish world of Eyes Wide Open could have been set in any other place than its story locus of Jerusalem, for we never see a single recognizable sign of the city at the heart of three religious traditions. And yet everything Jerusalem represents to a traditional Jewish man is keenly felt and observed in this stirring and deeply affecting story of two men who fall in love in contemporary Israel.

Haim Tabakman makes his feature film debut with this testament to the crossroads of passion and faith. The story is hardly new: we have seen many many instances of forbidden love playing itself out in inevitable story arcs. Avoiding the predictable is the true challenge of this kind of tale and somehow Tabakman manages to do it, by staying close to the dilemma of character: Aaron, the butcher whose story is told in the film, sees his passionate attachment to Ezri, the young drifter whom he takes under his wing and allows to sleep in the upstairs storeroom, as a challenge by God. "You are a masterpiece" he says to his lover when same is still just his apprentice but the mutual attraction has been made clear to them both. In a theological exercise among rabbis in a study group, Aaron explains that that which is most challenging to us - is also something we enjoy. A faithful person takes on what is hard in order to embrace the task of remaining close to God. What Aaron does not anticipate in his journey, is that embracing the challenge can also be a way to finding the beauty of God's creation.

And Yeshiva-expelled Ezri is a beautiful man indeed: it is not hard to understand why anyone would resist him. His soulful search for truth, and his passionate understanding of his true self walk hand in hand with his unquestionable identity as a good (at heart) Jewish man. Yet he never appears to experience the crisis of identity that Aaron has over his own nature. He accepts both equally: he is Jewish, he is gay; and he equally accepts the hardship ahead of him. In some ways, he more realistically embodies Aaron's theological value than Aaron, who is too steeped in the cultural traditions of family and community life to be able to free himself accordingly. When the predictable confrontation occurs near the end of the film between Aaron and his rabbi, we hear him say, "I was dead. And now I'm alive." Living out the Jewish law (which is unforgiving on this issue) had shut down his most vital self without his even knowing it. Living out his love for Ezri wakes up that which can never be allowed to truly live openly, if the law is the only guide for life.

Tabakman walks this line carefully, without ever slipping into perspectives that might make it easier for the audience: the evil religious authorities, the innocent lovers. Both sides are complex in this drama. We feel slightly uncomfortable about the lovemaking that occurs in the room where Aaron's father has only recently died, but at the same time, those love scenes are some of the most tenderly and caringly observed expressions of love we would want to see in a film (while not particularly graphic). Lying in each other's arms, their beauty as lovers is not lost on us either - the sense that they absolutely belong together. The open spring in a desolate landscape, in which they first recognize their attraction for each other (in a non-sexual scene) is both the context and the conclusion of this love story. The spring of life, which both heals and renews, represents eternal spirituality, which lives on in love, as in life.

Partir, the film I saw next, is Catherine Corsini's attempt to deal with exactly the same dilemma but this time among a man and a woman from different social states. Kristen Scott Thomas plays the wife of a prominent businessman and politician in Nimes, who falls in love with the Spanish builder who is renovating her home to include the office where she will resume her practice of physiotherapy. She is a woman also at a crossroads, who needs to return to a sense of self somehow lost as she raised her two now-teenaged children. An accident gives birth to their romance.

Corsini handles this passion with affecting truth: as with Eyes Wide Open, we completely understand why these two people are together, even while their entire lives surrounding them both, do not easily allow this relationship. Suzanne and Ivan(Sergi Lopez) are drawn together through unquestionable desire, but as the film's progressive challenges to their relationship bring them into ever more perilous circumstances, the film avoids the cliche of that lust crumbling and instead gives an interesting portrait of two people deepening their love and reasons for attachment. They become more committed to each other in the best sense, as their lives unwind, than they were at the start. Each has become a better person in loving the other even as they are slowly driven to desperate acts.

In the press notes for this film, Kristen Scott Thomas describes her reasons for taking the movie, which included working with Corsini, and cinematographer Agnes Godard. She also thought the story described the stories of people she knew. Recently divorced herself when she shot the film, it continues a journey of recent films in which she explores and deepens a range of expressive emotion we have only seen controlled and hinted at til now. Last year's extraordinary Il y a longtemps que je t'aime offered her a chance to showcase that hybrid ability: controlled surface, brewing emotion. In Partir, she moves from one to the other, instead of playing both at the same time. It is a lesser performance than last year's but she is no less fascinating to watch as she continues to exercise and develop her own gifts. There are moments in which she has breathtaking mastery of her craft, such as when she attempts to sell her own jewellery to women in a gas station, in order to raise the cash to get her and her new family home.

The problem with the film comes in its scenario - the ending does not work and utterly fails the film. It takes the nuance of desperation in character to a particular choice that seems both unrealistic and disproving of the very development of self-understanding that has also occurred by then. It is not only disappointing, it brought bad laughter in the screening I was in, which until then had seemed to be going well. There are uneven places elsewhere in the movie as well, but a strong ending would have allowed me to dismiss those concerns. Instead, it only highlighted them, even while I was mesmerized by the leading lady.
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Friday, September 11, 2009

day two: my queen karo; le pere de mes enfants

Fathers who are complexly damaging from the midst of being also gentle and loving, was the theme of the only two films I could see on Friday. (I was required to be at an all day meeting.) In Dorothee van den Berghe's My Queen Karo, the father is a 1970s free love revolutionary, who drags his wife and child from Belgium to live in a commune in Amsterdam "where anything is possible". Mia Hansen-Love's lovely Le Pere de mes Enfants, features a father/film producer who loves his children but can't climb out of a professional world that is closing in on him. Both men adore their children, lavishing affection and kind attention in ways any child could dream of. And in both films, the children end up utterly abandoned.

My Queen Karo does an amazing job of evoking the spirit of the 70s with its hangover 60s radical emotions. As someone who lived through this era and was indelibly marked by artists who lived in this milieu I could not believe how truthful it felt. Young Karo lives with her mother and father and about a dozen other people as squatters in an upstairs flat of doubtful quality, even if they were paying rent for it. No walls are aloud and everyone is privy to everyone else's world. Karo's mother is a Belgian seamstress who makes costumes for an opera company. The fact that she earns a living and secretly pays the Landlord rent is a source of great fear and moral uncertainty for young Karo, who knows her father would be devastated. When Dad brings home another woman to join their life, a woman he is clearly nuts about, Karo's intellectual dilemmas are deepened by her own emotional pain and fear. The little hedgehog she found in their immigration travels and has adopted as a pet becomes a symbol of her fear and discontent. Putting it in an icetray with water, she puts it in the freezer to stay protected "until things are better".

There are so many gorgeous images in this film that capture the spirit of childhood while remaining anchored in the confusing world of adults. Karo rides behind her mother on her bicycle, arms around her waist, enjoying the play of sunlight on her face and closing her eyes, then nuzzling into her mother's back to smell her. I was reminded of how relatively easy it is for children to find what they need, however they can. A friendship with a downstairs tenant leads Karo to start swimming, a venture she takes on with her own sense of discipline and commitment, never bothered by the distances and tasks of learning or the fierce encouragement of her coach. Sometimes when she looks up, the commune family are there to cheer her on, but on the day of her big diploma test, it is a struggle to free herself from the chaos of their declining lives to get there on time. Her expressive face as she swings freely inside the house (no-walls does have some advantages!) points to the moments of happiness that no other child could dream of. In the film's final shot, Karo uses her swimming skills to dive in to the canal and rescue her mother's costume mannequin, alive with colourful 19th century silks and bodices. The underwater image of her 'rescuing' the life sized form just as she was taught to in her class, captured how important it is to serve the artist in one's self.

Le Pere de mes Enfants is a richly told and deeply moving story of one family's decline in the face of an attempt by one man to be just exactly that kind of artist. Gregoire is the kind of producer that the art house film industry owes its life to. Committed to making movies that develop important filmmakers and thematic ideas, his small production house slowly pays the price and his world sinks ever more deeply into debt, even as his excitement and enthusiasm for projects he has invested in lives on unabaited. In the first half of this beautiful movie, we follow him around his daily life in and out of the office, getting all of the hints of both his passion and his impending pain. His family life is rich and wonderful: his gorgeous wife and three beautiful girls take vacations of meaning, to explore Romanesque chapels or see the colours of the mosaics of Ravenna. A very gentle Christian theme weaves its way through these scenes. In some ways Gregoire is giving his family the very tools they will need to survive his death before he himself even understands fully that he must die. When the awful event has occurred, we watch the devastating impact it has on these very people, and his wife's attempt to keep his legacy alive and somehow save his work is a brilliant testament to the various ways devotion works both during and after our involvement with loved ones. The performances are all breathtaking. Watching the journey of pain lived out by the eldest daughter (who had seemed the least interested in her Dad) was particularly poignant for me (and the actors are real-life father and daughter Louis-Do and Alice de Lencquesaing. Chiara Caselli has a lovely understated presence in this film as Sylvia, his wife. There is a scene in which she is being driven to the set of one of the films after Gregoire's death. The driver, a woman, is talking on a cell phone in Swedish with tension and anger about things we never hear translated. Meanwhile, Sylvia stares out the window in her own agony, eyes uncontrollably filling. The many arguments we saw earlier in the film among the married couple are a source of pain to her now for different reasons, even as she is being reminded of them.

Having read that the movie was based on the life of prolific French producer Humbert Balsan, I found myself wondering who the 'real life' equivalents of some of the characters were. I had already tapped 'Stig', a Swedish auteur who is described by another producer in the film as a 'psychopath', as likely to be a version of Danish helmer Lars von Trier, and that was before I had read that Balsan, who was found dead in his office in 2005, happened to be producing Lars von Trier's Mandalay at the time. Like Balsan, Mia Hanson-Love started out as an actor.

These two gorgeous movies continue a theme for me so far of wonderful new films by female directors: an accident, not a constructed choice. But a happy one.
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Thursday, September 10, 2009

tiff day 1: she, a chinese; bright star; vision

Three very different women filmmakers, each at a specific place in her life work, kicked off my 2009 TIFF today. All three directors take on the multifaceted complexities of love: love of self, love of God and love of another. Margarethe von Trotte (Vision), the veteran German filmmaker who has also acted in movies by her countryman and fellow legends Volker Schlondorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is experiencing twilight years of her own mature 'vision'. Xiaolu Guo, making her TIFF debut with a drama that was my first festival screening of the year (She, a Chinese) is a relative newcomer in the west. And Aussie Jane Campion, whose career started in the 1980s with the instant arthouse iconic hit Sweetie (also being screened this year in the Dialogues programme) has added to an always-interesting, if critically up and down career, with a gorgeously shot and emotionally rich new film about the relationship between John Keats and Fanny Brawne (Bright Star). Though not always even, all three were bright stars indeed.

The opening of Vision shows a group of faithful fanatics huddled in a church, counting down the arrival of the first millenium and the presumed end of the world. (Sound familiar?) In the wake of the sun that rises as usual the following day, a miraculous child is born: Hildegard, who would later become the great mystic, known in association with the cloistered Benedictine order she founded in Bingen, Germany in the 11th century. This choice of how to start the film gives much away in the filmmaking perspective: the movie is as much about the repercussions of ecstatic experience than about Hildegard herself. Von Trotte seems to want to tell this 'based on' story with many different brushstrokes, always favoring Hildegard's humanity over her spiritual wisdom. The many scenes of her acting boldly and against the establishment certainly establish her strength and religious politic, but the more controversial aspects of her nature float a bit uncertainly in the absence of real spiritual presence in the character. Instead of creating depth, the many brushstrokes become jarring. I longed to feel the unique and profound 'indwelling' in Hildegard (played by Barbara Sukowa). On the other hand, I very much liked some of the relationships of the film, and in particular the ambiguous and complex relationship between Hildegard and her adopted novice-daughter Richardis (Hannah Herzsprung). When the latter is torn away from her to become abbess in her own cloister, the news is greeted like the separation of lovers. It is only here that the film successfully conveys how profoundly stirring any kind of love can become when it is entwined with the divine.

Meanwhile, a thousand years later, a girl is born in a village in China and there is absolutely nothing special marked out for her at all. Instead, she lives a dull life of seemingly endless lack of opportunity and promise. Xiaolu Guo transforms this truth, however, by focussing not so much on Li Mei's (Huang Lu) innocence but on her restlessness and her beauty, despite her averageness. A series of boyfriends, young, middle aged and even older men offer her at the very least kindness and at the most love and she loses them all through this quality of restlessness. The one man she most loves (who has the very western name Spikey), dies in her arms. Having lived most of her life within the five miles of her village, when the cacoon is broken it breaks big: she immigrates first to the big city, then to England. But even this far away from home she cannot "settle". Listening to her boyfriend's IPod throughout the film, she escapes her own often very harsh reality. At the same time, Guo's astonishingly insightful eye never allows us to judge her. After seeing her go through scene after scene wearing the same skeleton t-shirt, there is a sudden resonance when she takes work in England as a human model in medical school - and the teacher draws on her naked body the things beneath her skin that cannot be seen. It is a wonderful allegory for how the others in her life attempt to draw out of her all that cannot be seen in our heroine. Love feels impossible, especially played out in front of a vastly ugly industrial landscape. The old and new China are never far from each other. A man leads a cow past a dump filled with electronics parts and a bulldozer plowing through it.

As a quick aside, both Guo and von Trotte coincidentally used the same strange camera movement: a continuous take pan back and forth between characters who are in dialogue. It works well in situations of tension, like when Spikey asks Mei to hit him to test his strength. But an unusual convention to see twice in one day!

Jane Campion's gorgeous, lyrical and emotionally evocative Bright Star is easily one of her best films to date and already likely to place high in my final festival favorites. Working in 19th century milieu is hardly new to this creator of Portrait of a Lady and The Piano. Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw are compelling as the young (and how young they do seem) Fanny Brawne and John Keats, the poet. I want to herald Campion for championing the non-sexual but hugely sensual qualities that passionate love can also have, especially in this era. The kisses, when they finally occur, are gentle touches of the lips, but they hold magic all the same. (In Vision, everyone greets everyone with kisses on the lips - a surprisingly jarring practice to observe, though common in the time.) The pacing serves this piece so well - as we literally watch the slow drop off the cliff of two people in love. The drop is into their own deep attachment, not anything more sordid, desperate or dramatic. Money issues stand in the way of these lovers, and an overbearing poet-friend, Mr. Brown (played by Paul Schneider) who sees Fanny as too-shallow for his intellectual mate. Those two details are enough to prevent the truest possible union from fulfilling itself. Mr. Brown is wrong: Fanny's instinctive intelligence about poetry and her plain way of speaking are exactly what the young writer needs. The movie allows their deepening affection to grow in silent moments each is on her/his own, when the dance of even a wind-driven curtain can seem to embody all that is growing in the heart of the character. The character arcs are subtly but keenly drawn: Fanny's confidence and delight in her own enormous design and sewing skill completely charms us, as it does him, in the first moments of the film, but by the end of the film love has transformed her intelligence, style and wit into a fully-rounded young woman. The movie also contains my favourite dialogue of the day. In presenting herself early on to Keats in one of her new outfits, she boasts that she is wearing the "first triple-layer mushroom collar in the county". His reaction, both disarmed and completely drawn to her, is to say, "you mean like the one behind you?" Amazed that someone else could be wearing her creation, she wheels to see who it is and finds her own image in a mirror. It is a moment that completely captures the elegance and wit of this film.

There was just one hitch with this screening: the fourth reel was spliced on backwards so that the end played out suddenly upside down and sounding like underwater dialogue. It took ages to alert the projection booth but the problem could not be fixed while sitting there. (What a shame, since this was the only scheduled Industry screening to a room full of critics.) So at some point I need to see the last ten minutes. It made no difference. The first 110 were glorious.
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Saturday, August 29, 2009

my (long long) shortlist

Having waded through the pool of press releases this summer and critical responses to other festivals and markets this year, here is my long list (alphabetically) - soon to be reduced to an actual short list. For ease of reference, each of these movies is linked to the relevant festival page and it's all in alphabetical order. These are my top 96 films. Asterisks indicate films that are in my top 25 picks. [NB note: September 10th: Italicized entries indicate a film seen/review underway.]

Adrift. Bui Thac Chuyen's film observes an aimless young couple's encounter with social mores and their own needs, in contemporary Vietnam.
Ahead of Time. Ruth Gruber, the world's youngest Ph.D. at age 20, is now 97 and has spent a lifetime helping to raise awareness to Jewish cultural experience in Europe and America. Her life is profiled in this film by Bob Richman.*
Applause. Danish actress Paprika Steen stars in Martin Pieter Zandvliet's first dramatic feature.
The Art of the Steal. Don Argott's documentary examines how the Barnes collection of Impressionist art was wrested from its home in Pennsylvania after the death of the collector.
Bare Essence of Life. Sotoko Yokohama's film is about a mentally challenged young farmer who falls in love with a girl from Tokyo.
Beyond the Circle. Golam Rabbany Biplob directs this Bangladeshi tale of a man whose music takes him from the rural north to the big city of Dhaka.
Blessed. Australian Ana Kokkinos looks at the lives of seven children and their respective mothers and the uneasy relationships among them.
The Boys are Back. Scott Hicks' story of a bereaved single father coping with parenthood is his first film back in Australian since Shine.
Bran Nue Dae. The hit aboriginal musical hits the big screen in this adaptation by Australian Rachel Perkins.
A Brand New Life. Ounie Lecomte's movie about a little girl who is abandoned by her father so he can form a new life has been a favourite of mine since Cannes.*
Bright Star. Jane Campion's latest film is a portrait of the poet John Keats and his relationship to Fanny Brawne.*
Broken Embraces. Almodovar's latest film will likely be my first festival screening. It is the story of an aging blind screenwriter forced to face unresolved past life decisions.*
Cairo Time. Canadian Ruba Nadda's latest feature stars Patricia Clarkson as a woman who befriends an Egyptian man while waiting for her husband.*
Capitalism: A Love Story. The world of financially-melting down corporate America is under the lens of Michael Moore's 20th anniversary pic.
Carmel. Amos Gitai's films, which I do not miss each year, are always complexly nuanced tales of Israeli/Jewish identity. This very personal addition allows Gitai a chance to reflect on having a child who is a soldier.*
Chloe. Atom Egoyan's feature may be better known at the moment for being the movie Liam Neeson was making when Natasha Richardson died. However, that will soon change, as Neeson and Julianne Moore are said to give career-best performances in this film based on a film by Anne Fontaine in which a woman seeks to test her husband by secretly setting him up with another woman.
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky. A favourite actor of mine, Mads Mikkelson, stars with Anna Mouglalis in this look at the intersection of two famous lives, made by Dutch helmer, Jan Kounen.
Colony. Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell profile a family dealing with 'colony collapse disorder', the disintegration and decline of bee colonies, and its impact on agrarian economy.
Cooking With Stella. The best of Deepa Mehta's Water are on hand for brother Dilip Mehta's feature about a New Delhi diplomat's cook whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of new residents.
Creation. Jon Amiel's psychological emotional portrait of Charles Darwin.
La Danse - Le Ballet de l'Opera de Paris. This Mavericks presentation screening of Frederick Wiseman's documentary on the famous Parisian ballet company will include a discussion with the master afterward.
The Day God Walked Away. Philippe van Leeuw revisits the Rwanda genocide of the 90s through the harrowing story of one woman.
The Day Will Come. German filmmaker Susanne Schneider's film shows how one woman's family is disrupted forever by the appearance of a woman from her past.
La Donation. Quebec helmer Bernard Emond's tale of a Montreal doctor who takes over a country practice and finds deeper meaning in what she does.
Dorian Gray. British filmmaker Oliver Parker directs Colin Firth in this adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel.
Down for Life. Set in South-Central L.A., this film by Alan Jacobs tells the story of a Latina girl gang leader, striving to be free of the gangs and become a writer.
Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl. Manuel de Oliveiro's luscious look at thwarted love in 19th century Portugal.
An Education. Lone Scherfig, one of my favourite Danes, returns with this tale of teenaged life in London in the 1960s.*
L'Enfer de Henri-Georges Cluozot. Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea profile the great filmmaker and his unfinished final projet, L'Enfer.
Eyes Wide Open. Haim Tabakman caused a stir in Cannes with this sensitive portrait of two Orthodox Jewish men in love.*
Face. Taiwanese festival favorite Tsai ming-liang returns with another one of his mystical magical fantasies, this time about a director making a movie at the Louvre, based on the Salome legend.
Fish Tank. Andrea Arnold's film about a tough, working class British teenager has also been a favorite of mine for this festival since it debuted at Cannes.*
Five Hours From Paris. Leon Prudovsky's first feature brings together an unlikely couple in this romantic comedy from Israel.
Gigante. A romantic comedy from Adrian Biniez about an overweight close-circuit tv security guard who falls for a cleaning woman in a supermarket.
Glorious 39. Bill Nighy and Julie Christie are two reasons to take in Stephen Poliakoff's drama about war-time England.
Good Hair. Jeff Stilson's doc about the African-American 'do' with Chris Rock narrating, promises to be fun.
Green Days. A new feature by the youngest of the brilliant Makhmalbaf women (Hana) appears to have come in over the transom: there is not even a full write-up yet on the website, but some good pictures.*
Hadewijch. I have very high hopes for Bruno Dumont's profile of a contemporary theology student who falls in love with an Islamic fundamentalist in Paris.*
The Happiest Girl in the World. Romania's Radu Jude's comedy focusses on a teenager who wins a car and finds herself the target of family manipulation.
Heiran. Shalizeh Arefpour's feature debut observes the repercussions of young love in modern day Tehran, when same is not endorsed by family.
Les Herbes Folles. Legendary filmmaker Alain Resnais' tale of two people who meet over a lost wallet.
I Am Love. A Milanese family empire slowly unwinds as the patriarch announces his plans for his family in this feature from Italian Luca Guadagnino.
I, Don Giovanni. Anything by Carlos Saura, the Argentinian master of dance on film, is a must. But this playful profile of Mozart's librettist is a top seed for me.*
Jean Charles. Henrique Goldman looks at the life of a Brazilian immigrant to London, as same is impacted by the terrorist events of July, 2005.
Kelin. Ermek Tursunov's film profiles a young woman torn between a true love and a husband she has come to love. Boasting absolutely no dialogue, it is yet another film from the emerging cinema of Kazakhstan.
Life During Wartime. Allison Janney is reason enough for me to make Todd Solondz' latest film about a woman whose ex-husband is released from jail at the very moment she is remarrying, a very top seed.*
London River. Rachid Bouchareb examines the intertwined lives of two parents during the London bombings of 2005. Starring Brenda Blethyn.*
Lourdes. Jessica Hausner's third feature film observes a physically and emotionally challenged young woman as she visits the famous shrine.*
Max Manus. I will probably see Espen Sandberg and Joachim Roenning's movie about the famous WWII resistance fighter, for its Scandinavian context.
Melody for a Street Organ. Two Russian children, orphaned by the death of their mother, search for their father in this film by Kira Muratova.
Men on the Bridge. A true-to-life fiction about three men whose lives intersect on the Bosphorous Bridge in Istanbul, by Azli Osge.
The Men Who Stare at Goats. Grant Heslov's all-star cast film is based on a true story about a troop of psychic soldiers.
Micmacs a tire-larigot. Few will be able to resist Jean-Pierre Jeunet's comedy about a man who falls in with an ex-con.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Although I was a new teen at the time, this controversy in the 70s led me into an obssession on Watergate, and the birth of my political consciousness. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's doc looks at the man often forgotten in those anals of history.
My Queen Karo. Belgian filmmaker Dorothée van den Berghe offers a coming of age tale set in a 'free love' community in Amsterdam in the 70s.
My Dog Tulip. As a puppy parent, this animated tale of a man befriending a German shepherd by Paul and Sandra Fierlinger, is a high contender.
My Tehran for Sale. Granaz Moussani's first feature looks at youth in Iran. Made under political constraints by an Iranian-Australian.
My Year Without Sex. This title might have indicated the journallings of a young would-be femme fatale, but Sarah Watt's film is something better: the profile of an Australian woman who, after suffering an aneurysm, finds friendship with an equally-in-crisis clergywoman in trying to recover.
Once Upon a Time Proletarian: 12 Tales of a Country. Xiaolu Guo's other film in this festival is a poetic meditation on the lives of 12 average Chinese workers.
Ondine. Neil Jordan goes home to Ireland in his latest feature, a magic realist story of a man and his daughter whose lives are turned around by a 'woman from the sea'.
Partir. Catherine Corsini's story of a mid-life love affair starring Kristin Scott Thomas is another high-ranker for me.*
Le Pere de Mes Enfants. French actress Mia Hansen-Love turns to directing in this family drama equivalent of Run Lola Run. A family's disintegration is shown first from the father's point of view, then the mother's.*
Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands. Peter Mettler takes an Edward Burtynsky-style look at the controversial energy project. Likely to be this year's Manufactured Landscapes.
La Pivellina. Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel's film looks at an Italian Roman trailer park family and how their lives are turned upside down by the sudden appearance of an abandoned two year old.
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire. That long-winded title has been as much of a deterrent for me as the overhyped festival appearance of Oprah Winfrey, but there is a lot to hope for in viewing the trailer for this second feature from Lee Daniels.
Same Same But Different. German Helmer Detlev Buck's film is a youthful love story set in Cambodia.
Samson and Delilah. Warwick Thornton's first feature chronicles the friendship of two Australian aboriginal teens who are both outsiders.
The Search. Pema Tseden's journey through small villages of Tibet searching for singers to play characters in a Tibetan opera, is a film within a film.
She, a Chinese. Guo Xiaolu has two films in this year's festival and both are on this list. The write-up for this film describes the story of a woman told "using short, lyrical captions or silent, beautifully composed snapshots of landscapes."*
Short Cuts Canada 2. This collection of short films by young Canadian filmmakers (and veterans like Guy Maddin) looks to be the most promising of the five programmes.
A Single Man. Tom Ford brings together Colin Firth and Julianne Moore (both here with other films as well) in a story of a gay college professor coping with the death of his partner.
Solitary Man. I normally am not a fan of Michael Douglas but Brian Koppleman and David Levien's film also co-stars Susan Sarandon and is said to have a tight script.
Soul Kitchen. Fatih Akin's Edge of Heaven was a major discovery of recent TIFFs. His latest is the saga of a young German chef sorting out his bad life luck.
Sparrows. This projection, accompanied by live piano music, features Mary Pickford in one of her most popular roles as a Louisiana girl raising neglecting children on a baby farm. Directed by William Beaudine, it was originally released in 1926.
Spring Fever. This taboo-breaking feature took years to make in China where director Lou Ye has been under a five year ban since his film Summer Palace. It is the story of two men in love and the jealous wife who observes.
St. Louis Blues. Hard to resist Dyana Gaye's Senegalese road trip musical that uses French songs of the 1960s.
The Sunshine Boy. Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's documentary follows an Icelandic woman seeking ways to communicate with her severely autistic son.
The Time That Remains. This semi-biographic film by Elia Suleiman, divided into four historical episodes, portrays the daily life of Palestinians in 1948 who were considered a minority, even in their homeland.
The Topp Twins. Leanne Pooley's doc looks at this popular lesbian, country and western singing New Zealand twin performing duo.
The Trotsky. With its all-star Canadian cast and mixture of styles, Jacob Tierney's film about a young man who believes he is Trotsky could be the best Canadian feature this year.
The Unloved. Actress Samantha Morton turns to directing in this film based on her own childhood experiences growing up in the social services system in England.
Vincere. Marco Bellochio directs this profile of Benito Mussolini's formational years and passionate relationships before becoming Il Duce.
Vision. Margarethe von Trotte's much anticipated depiction of the medieval spiritualist Hildegard of Bingen.*
Wavelengths 1: Titans. George Méliès’ playful and eccentric spirit hovers throughout Wavelengths’s opening programme.
Wavelengths 2: Pro Agri An appreciation for nature and its untold mysteries.
Wavelengths 3: Let Each One Go Where He May. A celebration of Chicago-based filmmaker Ben Russell.
Wavelengths 4: In Comparison. Observation is the main modus operandi of these films.
Wavelengths 5: Une Catastrophe. From agitprop to poetry, personal expressions of historical and collective memory confront spectres from the past throughout this programme.
Wavelengths 6: Flash Point Camera. Art and experience partake in these films about the passage of time.
What's Your Raashee? Ashutosh Gowariker's romantic comedy about a man who has to find a bride in 12 days is likely to be the best of the Indian/Bollywood fare this year.
Whip It. If I end up seeing Drew Barrymore's first feature about roller derbying women, it will likely be for Ellen Page and Marcia Gay Harden and a bit of respite from more serious fare.
White Material. Isabelle Huppert starts in Claire Denis' African tale of a French woman plantation owner threatened by civil war.
The White Ribbon. European auteur Michael Haneke explores events in a small village on the eve of World War I. Winner of the Palme d'Or.*
The White Sheik. Neil Jordan introduces Fellini's first feature, a romantic comedy about a honeymooning couple in Rome.
The Window. Buddhadeb Dasgupta's morality tale looks at how one man's gesture to repair a school window leads to complex political and personal trouble.
Women Without Men. Shirin Neshat looks at the lives of five Muslim women in Tehran in the 1950s.*
The Young Victoria. Canadian Jean-Marc Vallee directs an all-star British cast in this depiction of the early years of the famous monarch.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

a slimmer trimmer TIFF

Now that all of the programming has been announced, I have some gleanings on the overall movement of the festival. A shifting of the tide that I have suspected for some time, has started to be visible. If I could ballpark it I would say that the festival is investing in a major piece of real estate that will embody it as a cultural institution, precisely at the moment that it is starting to slide a notch or two in its significance as a public festival, though its importance as a sales market is still high.

One of the latest press releases lists titles available for acquisition, ie those movies that are yet to be picked up for distribution. It is an astonishingly long list. The list can be viewed two ways: either that producers have held off until Toronto to showcase their movies in hopes of making a better deal, or that more of the likely sellable product has in fact already been picked up at earlier festivals.

The late positioning of this festival in the year, has always struck me as something working against it. (Though I am not advocating changing that.) Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and Venice (and many others of note) have all gone before Toronto in the calendar year. This offers the festival a chance to watch the trends and to pick up only the best, but increasingly the most interesting films have had significant exposure before getting to us. Many critics do not attend the most popular TIFF screenings, even in their industry projections, because they have already seen the films elsewhere and formed their judgments of them. The very thing that promotes Toronto as a venue for selling movies, ie the great audience responses, is also that which is increasingly distanced from the decision makers themselves. Do the industry reps and critics attend those public screenings to see the responses? I'm sure many do. I also know many don't.

This is not a spectacular year for TIFF in terms of names, or even glamour-drenched openings. Despite a studded star list of guests, there is a really notable lack of exciting premieres this year. The most intriguing European films have already been seen elsewhere. Should we therefore start to despair the future of this fest?

No. The festival's greatest tradition, which is to showcase international titles that would never otherwise see the light of North American day (despite prizes elsewhere), continues in great strength. The quality of these lesser known films, from Shirin Neshat's Women Without Men (pictured at top), to Jessica Hausner's Lourdes to Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch promises to be very high. Although New York follows us and will pick up many of these films, Toronto is where they will be seen by the most people and find the greatest chance of distribution.

The discerning TIFF-goer, must look to that TIFF solid core of international medium to low budget features to find the raison d'etre of the festival alive and well. Contemporary World Cinema, Special Presentations, Vanguard, Discovery, all hold the real gems. Along with important venues like the Wavelengths programme, they speak to the average and avid art film buff, who will do anything to be in Toronto that first real week of September. Get out the highlighters!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

julia & .... well, julia

When I was a young girl in the 70s, visiting my grandparents in Philadelphia, some part of every day was spent watching Julia Child on television. My grandmother sat on the blue sofa at the back of the front room and knitted while she watched, pausing sometimes in the middle of stitches, to pay closer attention. My grandmother herself had spent some time at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. Later, her passion for Julia shared the stage with an equal fondness for Jacques Pepin, whose 'appy coooking' became as much a favorite expression for Grandma, as 'bon appetit' had been.

If she had lived past 2001, my grandmother would have been 98 on August 7th, which was, coincidentally, the release date of Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron's uneven but entertaining adaptation of Julia Child's memoir and Julie Powell's blog of the year she spent making all of the recipes in Child's opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Today, August 15th, is Julia Child's birthday - she was just a year younger than my grandmother. Like Julia Child and Julie Powell, these two women had nothing in common except their passion for cooking. Julia Child introduced french cuisine to average Americans like my grandmother, and she also radically altered the palette and technique of American restaurant kitchens (something the movie does not get into). The next big wave would be the move to more natural and local eating, but even the goddesses of that movement, like Alice Waters, were in debt to the doyenne of beurre blanc.

The jubilant, buoyant and even bouncing congeniality of Julia Child is brought wonderfully to life by Meryl Streep who has a chance in this film to showcase her often underserved comedic talent in a role which allows humour to grow out of character, instead of character circumstance. An actor at this advanced stage of her own development must look carefully to find the roles that will actually stretch her. Though the character of Julia Child is not plunging or even very dramatic, the role gives Streep the opportunity to control her often-noted capacity for mannered acting into something in which manner is entirely called for, since the mannered gestures of Julia Child are infamous. Streep captures that manner and because it is so effortless, is then able to play with the resonances of deeper feeling - heroically so, since emotion is oddly missing from this film. Situations are set up to convey emotion theoretically but not much of it actually happens. Therefore Streep's careful lines and nuancing make all the difference to this film. When she chooses to allow the occasional penetrating insight into her portrayal of Child, it is within the frame of comedic experience. A scene in which she learns by letter of her sister's pregnancy for instance, provides a spontaneous context for her own losses (she was childless) within an intention of happiness at the news. It is a brilliant example of Streep's gifts for knife-edge dynamics. And though it's played for its comedy, the audience gets the chance to register the note about her character.

As Child's long-devoted husband Paul, Stanley Tucci is perfect, as only he can be. His own comedic timing is different from Streep's - a little more playful and nuanced - but he manages to convey in soft strokes his identities as Mr. Julia, on the one hand, and as a government officer whose career is dwindling, on the other. Even more perfect is Jane Lynch, in a short turn as Child's sister Dorothy. A hugely underappreciated character actor, Lynch made it seem as if these were indeed two women cut of the same pate brisee... her entrance and the subsequent restaurant scene with Streep and Tucci is one of the best sequences in the film. Frances Sternhagen as cookbook legend Irma Rombauer and Linda Emond as Simone Beck, Child's cookbook collaborator, give lovely supportive performances.

In her currently running blog on the making of her book and story into the movie, Julie Powell confesses that she has seen the movie six times and still cringes at the parts about herself. I haven't read her original Julia blog, but I'm with her. The film tries to convey a fairy tale American success story in the parlaying of her cooking blog into a hit book. There is much mention of Julia Child having "saved her" from drowning and lifting her sense of self-esteem. Even as much of the current blog as I read tonight when I got home did not convince me that much has changed. She seems incredibly self-deprecating and almost an eerily objective witness to her own public transformation, rather than someone appreciating it from a place of solid emotional growth.

Perhaps this is part of why the emotional journey of Julie Powell in the film is never convincing. A substantial part of the blame can be laid on Ephron's mediocre and disappointing screenplay. She is so much better than this script. Having seen a preview before the film of the next Streep movie, It's Complicated, I found myself daydreaming about what this movie might have been like if Nancy Meyers had made it. Meyers has a genuine gift for comedy as a filmmaker and her own writing never clunks in its transfer to the screen. Something's Gotta Give works entirely because its heavy romanticism is very self-conscious and even pokes fun at itself. This is the central flaw of Ephron's movie: it takes itself way too seriously (while never engaging more than surface emotion.) There is a lot of 'faux depth' in the Powell storyline. Even in the Child sequences, when there is confusion and setback around the publication of the cookbook, the script is laced with oneliners like "your book will change the world". When Stanley Tucci says it, he is able to give it a lovely playful quality that allows us to accept that wretched line. The modern story is not nearly able to pull the same thing off.

An attempt is made to link the two stories through the common elements of challenge, like rejection and peer pressure. These are never really convincing - they seem arbitrary and obvious. For this reason the film feels much longer than it should be. Without a real dramatic tension, it just seems to drift.

Amy Adams tries hard to make her role deeper than it is, but not even a fine actor like her can pull it off. While Meryl Streep, on the other hand, refines her plunging instincts to be sure and not make Julia seem deeper than she actually was. The irony of this is important and entirely measures the screenplay. Neither actress should have had to work so hard.

There is a moment when Julie's husband gives her a string of good fake pearls for her birthday. Julie rips off the necklace she is wearing to put on the new one. We then cut to Julia wearing actual pearls. It is a transition that says it all about mastering the art of anything. If the movie had simply stayed with the French story, we might have been dining on boeuf bourgignonne, without ever needing to reach for the Tums.
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Wednesday, July 29, 2009


In the fortnight (there's a word that needs to come back into common useage) since my last post, there have finally been some solid programming announcements. TIFF has now released a substantial list of films being presented in the Wavelengths, Midnight Madness, Vanguard, and Discovery programmes as well as the lion's share of Special Presentations and Galas. Wavelengths and Midnight Madness represent two (closer than you'd think) ends of the TIFF spectrum: from the art house to the horror house. Both have a finite number of possibilities, like the Dialogues category (in which filmmakers show movies that have influenced them and talk about why - not yet announced for this year) so it makes sense that they are announced first.

Readers of this blog in past years will know that I am a huge fan of the Wavelengths series, which presents gifted artists in the experimental and avant-garde scenes to an international audience. It is such an important venue in this way, one of the true 'maverick' programmes left in the festival unaffected by market and distribution politics. (It actually seems as if every time TIFF becomes aware of this lapse or gap in their programming, they add a new area to get it back. Vanguard, Discovery and even in its day Midnight Madness were/are all meant to be the cutting edge of the festival. But often these films have now come from somewhere else first, whether Cannes, Berlin or even Sundance. The premium on true world premieres is becoming compromised as years go by but that's for another post!) This year, the "City to City" programme is the new nuanced, 'vanguard' film viewing genre.

I always try to get to all of the Wavelengths screenings. As a sample I offer Wavelengths 1, the opening night programme, featuring T. Marie's 010101 (pictured above), described by the most articulate programmer in the festival, Andrea Picard, as "an incredibly meticulous digital painting, offering one minute, one second and one frame of shimmering and breathtaking beauty through its diaphanous and forever-changing palette." It is programmed with a cornucopia of films looking at artistic manipulation of form, from Heinz Emigholz' Two Projects by Friedrich Kiesler (the Viennese architect), to Klaus Lutz' Titan, which reflects on the filmmaker as voyager, to Ernie Gehr's Waterfront Follies, which observes Brooklyn Harbour as it is "interrupted by the flow of human interaction." Be sure to check out this always exciting programme, usually screening only in the first weekend.

What else surfaces? Well more of those Cannes hopefuls have dropped in. Ounie Lecomte's A Brand New Life (see post below) has now been slated and Susanne Schneider's The Day Will Come (pictured), the story of a woman facing the daughter she gave up thirty years ago to do terrorist underground work in Germany. Though I did not mention Schneider's film in my Cannes post, it did originate there.

The documentaries, split up among Real to Reel and the other programmes, also offer the usual possible riches. Michael Moore will weigh in with Capitalism, a voyage into American financial markets. There is no end to the brave bullying of this true maverick, whom I will never forget strolling down the aisle at his very first TIFF appearance twenty years ago. Don Argott's The Art of the Steal looks at what happened to the Barnes collection of impressionist art once the collector himself died.

I'm not the gal to guide anyone through Midnight Madness, but Rick Jacobsen's Bitch Slap (pictured) has caught my eye, since I loved the work of this helmer in the vintage Xena television series and the movie looks to be a campy take on the sexploitation classics. Jennifer's Body will be the undoubted draw in this category, as Juno sensation Diablo Cody returns with a script directed by Karyn Kusama and featuring the ubiquitous Megan Fox. Whether I will actually get to either of these - we will see.

From this end of feminism to a perhaps more socially observant one, if I could pick two films from the recent releases that most excite me, they would be Shirin Neshat's Women Without Men, which looks at the lives of four Iranian women during the summer of 1953, and An Education (pictured at top), the always wonderful Lone Scherfig's take on suburban teenaged life in 1960s London.

Still... despite these riches, there is much more programming to come. Up next will likely be the Canada First list (my prediction!). It is already being announced much later than usual, perhaps because a non-Canadian film is opening the Festival for the first time in quite some time. Stay tuned.

PS: It is now a day later, and I see from the TIFF home page that the Canadian programming is indeed slated for August 4th.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

slow TIFF summer

Wow! Is it ever a slow-TIFF PR summer! I don't think I can recall this little in the way of programming information, so close to the festival itself. After nothing since June 23, on Tuesday the Festival released the bulk of Galas and a handful of Special Presentations. Only 47 films have been announced to date, including opening night film, Jon Amiel's Creation. What is going on? By now we should know much more, even considering the "week late" factor (the festival feeling like it's starting a week later than usual).

However, from my earlier Cannes review, it is good to see Jane Campion's Bright Star enter the field. Of the remainder, the most intriguing for me is Rachid Bouchareb's London River, featuring the always-wonderful Brenda Blethyn, about a man and a woman who come together to find their children in the aftermath of the London bombings of 2005. Catherine Corsini's Partir also catches my eye, featuring the once-again very hot Kristin Scott Thomas (pictured at top). Scott Hicks' The Boys are Back, featuring Clive Owens, takes on men, and particularly fathers, coping with grieving sons.

Hopefully, this dearth of programming info will end in a blaze of announcements. I expected some more to be released today (it's mid-July!), but things should ramp up soon. One new feature TIFF has introduced that helps to make up for the wait, is the release of multiple images for each film already announced and temporary descriptions that have some weight. It's nice for us TIFF bloggers to have some choice now as we go shopping for images to populate our posts! (Click on the pictures here to go there and see more....)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

pina dreaming

Once, when I was a teenager, immersed in acting lessons and still unable to give up ballet, despite an upper body that had filled out and a patrician second toe that made pointe work impossible, I went to see Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Dance Theatre. I still remember the piece I saw: there were leaves and dirt on the floor that the performers slid on and smeared each other with. At one point there was a kind of cakewalk in which the dancers followed each other single file while making a beautiful repetitive arm and hand gesture that spoke to my childish heart. The music of that little cakewalk I still remember, all these years later. It is a complete unit of melody which, like the dance, repeats itself over and over. I don't know why my brain has held on to it, but it has.

In the week or so since Pina Bausch died, that melody has been haunting me. I have plunged into a sea of youtube, dailymotion and other video sites, trying to determine what must have been the piece that I saw. The leaves and dirt point to Rite of Spring, the early monumental work that took on Stravinsky with a kind of existential, almost reluctant spirituality, thwarted by a downward spiral of human emotion. The dates for that project (mid-70s) jive as well. I watched segments from it with amazement and new appreciation, but the gorgeous Stravinsky was wrong for the work I saw. The music I remember is extremely playful. Like the music of a jewel box, it is a tune a child could pick up and hum for days. And I remember it being a briefer work - a short piece.

As I continued my search, I was reminded of Pina Bausch's exclusive and devoted relationship to the classical choral music repertoire. In an era when her North American spiritual cousin Twyla Tharp was criss-crossing the landscape of western musical tradition with her works, Bausch stayed remarkably loyal to the classical choral forms. Her passion for Gluck allowed for her beautifully layered Orphee et Eurydice (pictured above). Though in later years she experimented with African and Asian themes and rhythm, she was most at home with the European canon, both classical and contemporary, and leaning toward opera in new and revitalized ballet interpretations of such legendary works as Bartok's Bluebeard.

Since I was not often able to see her work live, the video journey has led to yearnings and regrets for missed opportunities. Of these, Cafe Muller sticks out, and watching her lifelong collaborator, the amazing Dominique Mercy in Ein Trauerspiel, set to one of my favourite piano works by Schubert (the piano trio in E flat). Kontakthof with its somewhat oversimplified message of sexism is still a raw, powerful piece and I would be curious about its echos in memory for me of a youthful feminist zeal. But if I could snap my fingers and see anything in the next minute, it would undoubtedly be Vollmond, the very recent work which is an extraordinary celebration and lamentation in water. It would have been not only affecting, but hugely impressionable to me. Watch a trailer from youtube and you'll see what I mean.

I still haven't figured out what was the work I saw back in my teens. But my journey also took me to one of my favorite films, and one of my earliest encounters with international cinema, Fellini's E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On). In that movie, Bausch plays a blind princess on a 19th century ocean voyage with other nobility. In the scene I remember, she recounts the colours produced by the sounds of people's voices. It's one of the few times we the world heard the actual voice of Pina Bausch in a performance context. Watch her and note how her lovely character, at first glance the most colourless and dowdiest person at the table, becomes by the end of the scene the most transcendently compelling.

Her face then, and especially in recent years, looked a bit like Virginia Woolf, another hero of mine. There is the same intelligent brow and slightly sunken cheeks, smallish eyes that somehow still dance with liveliness. The face is expressive, like Martha Graham's. It causes me to imagine how the face would have leant itself to the body when she performed her own works. In that regard, perhaps nothing is more iconically vivid as a farewell image of Pina Bausch than the white-draped sylphanic and diaphonous black and white scenes from Cafe Muller. In them, she is almost a dream incarnation of herself, even while rooted in the rough and tumble hard-edged and very earthbound choreography of the men who fight and fall around her in the cafe. That footage is available in many places online, but watch it here in this French tv version where the quality is best. It starts at minute 2:27 but the documenary profile, if you understand french, is a good setup. We are so lucky that we have that sequence to watch so that we can always remember this goddess of the underground as the moving spirit that she was, rooted in earth and leaves but equally and eternally buoyant.
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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

TIFF 09: first programming announcements

In my post below, I spoke of films to look for at TIFF that have originated at Cannes. Two of those have now been announced: Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, and Haim Tabakman's Eyes Wide Open. I discussed earlier the reasons why these two films have captured my interest. Other previously festival-exposed films of this year announced by TIFF for September include Tsai Ming-Liang's Visage (Face) which has been named in the Visions series. I can't say I have really understood this director's vision, nor have I ever sat through an entire feature. But I am likely to see this one, if anything for its portrait of artistic process and the fact that it features Fanny Ardant (pictured). Jessica Hausner's Lourdes interests me for a bevy of personal reasons, though I am otherwise unfamiliar with her.

Those one-liners that the Festival releases with these announcements (until the programme book descriptions are ready later in August) are often frustratingly banale or really usefully insightful teasers. One falling into the latter category for me is the description of Asli Ozge's Men on the Bridge (pictured here): "The stories of three men working at the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul are told by the original characters, in this mosaic depicting real persons exposing their lives and aspirations." I have no idea what that will amount to but it sounds intriguing!

One of the most exciting developments is the introduction of a brand new programme: City to City. Films will profile a particular metropolis every year. TIFF 09 is focussing on Tel Aviv in honour of that city's centennary in 2009. A great start, as the festival has left largely unrepresented of late Israeli cinema. The films of this country usually come in under the rubric of the Masters programmes where noted filmmakers like Amos Gitai show their latest works. The fact that there are enough new films to support an entire programme is exciting to me. The films themselves have not yet been announced.

The first press releases have now begun to dribble in and with them the Festival season begins. Don't know if it's true, but everything has seemed a bit "late" this year. Still no opening night film announced for instance, but there is much already to cheer for - summed up by the Festival's "Customer Service Improvements" press release. Last year's festival was steeped in public discontent in the wake of a ramped up corporate privilege scheme (no doubt tied in part to how Bell Lightbox has changed the financial dependency of the festival on its sponsors). The good news is - they listened. This year some of the dropped privileges for public passholders have been restored. The festival is now offering repeat Gala Screenings to ticket package-holders. And the Elgin has been given back to the public in a mix of public and industry/corporate screenings. Single ticket sales will be available well in advance of the beginning of the Festival now and and the advance review process window for early balloting of ticket choices has increased to a week. Check out the TIFF site to find out more - the 09 site is now officially launched.In the past, I was allowed two public screenings per day in addition to the Industry screenings, but unfortunately, my budget required me to opt for the Industry pass without the festival tickets this year. But I will be watching closely what happens with the public festival as well. More to come!