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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