Saturday, September 04, 2010

TIFF 10: My List

I will certainly not be able to see all of these! But this is my "short" list. Check back often, as it will likely change a number of times before the 9th, and even afterwards.

*indicates Wavelengths short
##indicates Short Cuts Canada short
*# indicates City to City (Istanbul) short
(not all titles in a shorts program are listed here, just the ones I am mostly attending for)
This list also does not include the Future Projections installations.
However, it does include one Mavericks session.

Africa United (Gardner-Paterson)
- I know I said I wouldn't but I probably will
Another Year (Leigh)
Aubade (Dorsky) *
Biutiful (Inarritu)
Black Swan (Aronofsky)
The Call (Pasetto)
Champagne (Olson) ##
Cinematographie (Fleischmann) *
Compline (Dorsky)*
Confessions (Nakashima)
The Debt (Madden)
Dhobi Ghat (Rao)
Distant (Ceylan)
Eggcellent (Sokol) ##
The Four Times (Frammartino)
The First Grader (Chadwick)
Genpin (Kawase)
Green Crayons (Radwanski) ##
I Am Slave (Range)
Incendies (Villeneuve)
Life, Above All (Schmitz)
Love Crime (Corneau)
Mamma Gógó (Fridriksson)
Miral (Schnabel)
Neds (Mullan)
Never Let Me Go (Romanek)
Of Gods and Men (Beauvois)
On Thin Ice (Kaygun) *#
Ouverture (Becks) *
Pastourelle (Dorsky) *
Poetry (Lee)
Potiche (Ozon)
Route Irish (Loach)
Sandcastle (Junfeng)
Sarah's Key (Paquet-Brenner)
Sophie Lavoie (Émond) ##
- with great trepidation
Tamara Drewe (Frears)
Tears of Gaza (Lokkeberg)
Three (Tykwer)
Trigger (MacDonald)
The Trip (Winterbottom)
Uncle Boonmee.... (Weerasethakul)
Water Lilies (Marie) *
The Way (Estevez)
Woman Waiting (Bourges) ##
Zephyr (Bas)

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

TIFF 10: Random Favourites

A great sadness for me in this year’s festival is no new film with Juliette Binoche! I had hoped that Kiarostami’s Copie Certifié would land at TIFF but no. Instead, however, I get to enjoy two films with Kristin Scott Thomas, whose work of late has been extraordinary (thinking especially of Il y a longtemps que je t’aime). Alain Corneau's Love Crimes unfortunately looks like a French version of the cable show Damages. I have greater hopes for Sarah’s Key, directed by Gilles Pacquet Brenner, which is the story of a journalist whose investigation into a holocaust round-up profoundly influences her own life.

Several years back, I saw a Canadian film about lost seigneuries in Quebec, shot with a gorgeous stillness by Catherine Martin. Martin has returned this year with Trois Temps avant la mort d'Anna (Mourning for Anna), about a woman coping with the loss of a child who was a promising violinist.

Deep in the Woods bears all the signs of a Benoît Jacquot film, with its characters following uncontrollable forces and propelled to likely catastrophe, but once again I am opting for the filmmaker not the movie write-up.

Once upon a time, not very long ago at all, the Festival had a marvelous programme called “Dialogues: Talking with Pictures”. It has vanished, but instead we seem to have something very similar: “Essential Cinema In-Person Events”. Okay. Well, what’s the difference? The difference is that the films being screened are not chosen by directors who have films in the festival. The films are culled from the Essential 100 list of films that the festival and its industry patrons helped generate last year. The presenters may, or may not, have new films in the festival themselves, and/or are re-screening old favourites. And it all happens after TIFF is done. While there is much to applaud in this idea, it’s disappointing to lose the Dialogues program, only because there was always a vital electricity to the older series, with the combined excitement of a filmmaker’s current work juxtaposed (in a larger context) with the works that influenced them. Now we are slave to some list that has been created, which is controversial in its inclusions and exclusions as lists always are.

That said, however, there are many “In-Person Events” that will be too compelling to miss. I hesitate to mention first Walter Murch’s introduction to Acopalypse Now Redux only because this filmmaking legend has already written and spoken much on his reorganization of the Coppola masterpiece. But then again, this is a man who is never not-interesting. Watch out also for his speech on the “State of Cinema”, which imagines what would have happened if film had been invented one hundred years earlier, scheduled as a post-TIFF event on October 10th. I will likely attend “A Night in Nashville” with Michael Murphy and Jacob Tierney.

The standout events in this series will be Molly Haskell, the first feminist to assess women in cinema from both an academic and an accessibly populist perspective, as she introduces Maurice Pialat’s à Nos Amours. And wild horses and natural disasters could not detain me from Isabella Rossellini introducing her father’s Voyage to Italy alongside her own work shown in previous festivals, including the cult-hit Green Porno.

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TIFF 10 round-up of previews: Masters & Special Presentations

The Masters programming has now been rounded out with the addition of ten new films to those noted in previous posts. Of these, Film Socialism, Jean-Luc Godard’s attempt to grapple with a meaningless world “in three movements” will be interesting, since grappling with the meaning of Jean-Luc Godard films is a perplex task for many. But I will certainly see it. Poetry by Lee Chang-dong about a woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s mixed with a “disturbing take on juvenile violence” has me worried, but this master is always worth taking in. Each year, the indefatiguable Amos Gitai has something to offer us and each year I go – it’s just a festival priority now. This year, Roses à Crédit continues a fascination with historical drama and is set in WWII and after France. Ken Loach is back with a film that sounds like one of his most socially critical yet: Route Irish about abuses during the Iraqi war. Who can resist a Catherine Breillat feature – even when she fails, she’s fascinating. The Sleeping Beauty, about a girl’s coming of age is said to also have “breathtaking cinematography”. Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira is similarly prone to success and failure, but like Loach, you gotta go because how many more can this octagenarian possibly turn out. The Strange Case of Angelica sounds like his most metaphysical yet.

Over in Special Presentations, besides the frontrunners mentioned in previous blogs, I am certain to see Dan Rush's Everything Must Go, in part because I loved Will Farrell in Stranger than Fiction and in part because my friend Kara production designed it. (This picture is a great preview of her work!) Mike Leigh’s Another Year got my attention, about a dysfunctional group of people who confide in a perfectly happy older couple. Mike Leigh is one of the few filmmakers who are still able to think in complete ideas about characters, rather than character traits: so characters are seen right through to their inevitable conclusions, sometimes in every painful step. I am also curious about Clint Eastwood’s, Hereafter, which sounds very Babel-like in its focus on random stories around the globe joined by themes of death and spirituality. There is, however, only one screening of this film – period. No P & I screenings are listed at the moment. So it may be impossible to see. I probably won’t be able to resist Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Jack Goes Boating about New York couples or John Turturro’s Passione, a musical romp through Napoli. I still miss the fact that his Romance and Cigarettes of recent years was never properly released on this continent. Ditto Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall, Dark Stranger, only because it is such a wonderful pleasure to see a largely underappreciated and unknown character actress like Gemma Jones, have an entire Woody Allen film built around her.

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TIFF 10 Preview: Contemporary World Cinema

The oldest programme, and arguably the backbone of this festival, is its survey of Contemporary World Cinema, a daunting mandate but one it often admirably lives up to. 45 titles were announced here, making film descriptions one-liners at best, but even a single sentence can convey excitement. Africa United by Debs Gardner-Paterson might be the feel-good find of the year, or a moving story of three boys who dream of attending world cup football. I will likely pass, but I predict this one to be a festival favourite. On my list from this programme will be some truly exciting stuff. A new film by Hong Kong feminist filmmaker Ann Hui is a cause for celebration: All About Love takes a look at queer family life in Hong Kong, a first for that cinema.

Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader again has the potential for sentimental agenda, as the story of a man in his 80s who joins a first grade class in Kenya, but something tells me it will rise above that.

I have loved Fest favorite Bent Hamer’s previous films such as Kitchen Stories, so I will look forward to his offbeat humour brought to bear on Christmas in Norway in Home for Christmas. Gabriel Range’s I Am Slave looks at London’s slave trade. Aktan Arym Kubat’s The Light Thief looks promising, as the story of an electrician who steals electricity to assist poor people in a small village. Avi Nesher’s The Matchmaker takes us to 1960’s Haifa, and a young man’s encounters with a holocaust survivor into brokering marriages. Mama Gógó is Fridrik Thor Fridricksson’s film about his relationship with his ailing mother, set in Iceland. Ever since I saw Peter Mullan in Ken Loach’s My Name is Joe, I have appreciated him as an actor. Now he’s a director as well, returning to TIFF with another feature, Neds, about a Non-Educated Delinquent in 1970’s Glasgow. Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men looks at the real life confrontation between Trappist monks and unknown assailants who viciously murdered them in mid-90’s Algeria. German director Tom Tykwer, whose work has made him one of my favourite directors, returns with Three a story of a Berlin couple who both have affairs with the same man.

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TIFF 10 Preview: Discovery, Visions & Vanguard

Every few years the festival attempts to get back down to the innovation and avant-garde promotion that was one of its founding principles. These programs do so well and bring so many new interesting talents to light that they quickly feel mainstream, and so a new program must be invented. Discovery was the first of these, then Visions, then Vanguard. It’s now almost impossible to see a real discernible difference in the three.

The Discovery programme, according to the press release, is for ‘up and coming’ and ‘new and emerging’ filmmakers, but these certainly populate the other categories as well. Of these, what caught my eye was Zhang Meng’s The Piano in a Factory, the story of a man’s attempt to win custody of his daughter by building her a piano; and Sarah Bouyain’s The Place In Between, a dual story of two European and African women seeking answers to questions of personal history, through voyages abroad. Sometimes trends emerge that seem interesting: Argentina is offering us two films about two women coming together to confront the past and/or stare down the future. Delfina Castagnino’s What I Most Want and Stefano Pasetto’s The Call both focus on road journeys, with The Call looking like an Argentinian Thelma and Louise. Argentina seems just generally noticeable in this programme, a trend that might be worth paying attention to.

The Visions and Vanguard programmes were announced in the same press release, just underscoring further their similar focus. Officially, Visions represent films that “push the boundaries and challenge mainstream filmmaking” while Vanguard is for those who are young and “irreverent, always on the cutting edge.” Difference? My case rests.

That said, there are some real treats here. Numbers in titles mark the notables: in Visions, k.364 A Journey By Train by British helmer Douglas Gordon, has possibly the shortest feature film description: “Two musicians return to a haunted landscape and play the concerto of their lives” (that’s it!) but it’s enough for me to be interested. Michael Nyman’s Moscow 11:19:31 is in fact a short film about how music intervenes when the ability to speak fails. Vincent Gallo’s Promises Written in Water is shot in black and white and is about the trials of devotion to a promise made. None of these sounds like they push the boundaries of mainstream cinema, but worth looking for nonetheless.

In Vanguard, things do sound indeed much more challenging and gritty, but the grit tends to the gorey, horror and/or psychosexual, meaning some of them might just as easily have been programmed into Midnight Madness. I will, however, try hard to see Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions which has been drawing attention. It is the story of a teacher’s attempt to have vengeance on two of her own students who are are responsible for the death of her daughter.

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TIFF 10 Preview: City to City - Istanbul!

The City to City programme last year became an unlikely hotbed of controversy with its focus on Tel Aviv, which some festival filmmakers and viewers believed to be inappropriate in a year that held the attacks on Gaza. (For my own response to the controversy, see my blog post here.) This year’s city, Istanbul, promises to be much less scandalous, though perhaps more exotic and will allow a terrific opportunity to catch up with Turkish cinema. Of these I am drawn to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new film, Distant which is billed as an “exploration of existential heartache”. Trust me that it is the filmmaker I am following on this one, not the synopsis! The really exciting entries in this programme are the entire slate of Turkish short films, which are a fascinating mix of experimental and narrative dramas told in a wide variety of creative forms.

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TIFF 10 Preview: Canada First and Short Cuts Canada!

The programme used to be called Perspective Canada, and it was exactly that: a cross-section of Canadian perspectives on Canadian story, with an increasingly diverse collection of filmmakers and filmmaker origins adding to those perspectives. Then it was cut and a series of smaller programmes were created. The selection of home-grown product seems to shrink as each year passes, while every indication exists to prove that the actual quantity and quality of production only increases in this country. (See Playback for instance). TIFF would like us to believe that more Canadian films are actually present in the festival - spread out across the other programming categories and that this is good news – and I agree, it is. But the focus on Canadians trying to break into an international pool of talent should still be a very valuable and important goal of this festival. TIFF has lost its commitment to new and emerging Canadian artists and prefers those artists to be already mainstream before it offers support. What is up with that? This festival has given birth to many now world-renowned artists (Jeremy Podeswa, Atom Egoyan, Léa Pool, Patricia Rozema, and even David Cronenberg owes a thing or two to TiFF).

This year, TIFF has programmed a shocking six films in its Canada First programme, a categorty that presents first features by Canadian filmmakers. I have trouble believing there were only six worthy submissions this year: why a cap on this category!? Of the six, I find myself most interested in Katrin Bowen’s Amazon Falls, only because anything that discourages young people from moving with a dream to Los Angeles I would love to endorse. Daniel Cockburn’s eclectically multi-storied You Are Here offers a chance to see the late Tracy Wright in one of her last roles, although you can also see her in Bruce MacDonald’s Trigger, about a female rock’n roll duo who reunite a dozen years after the bust-up of their band.

A more likely place to find the filmmakers of tomorrow is in the Short Cuts Canada programme offering more than 40 shorts. Like Wavelengths, it is broken into programmes of 6 or 8 shorts each, offering a wide and impressive variety of formats and genres. I have quite often really enjoyed at least one slate of films in this category. Trying to see specific films is often hard to do because of these random groupings (they lack the thematic thinking that is found in Wavelengths). Best to just pick a collection that works with your schedule and enjoy. There are always at least two or three that stay memorable. This is the category where I first found the work of Helen Lee, whom I have followed as she moved into feature filmmaking since. I will say, however, that I have noted the following: Champagne, On the Way to the Sea, La Métropolitaine, Green Crayons, Eggcellent, Sophie Lavoie (by Anne Émond), The Trenches and Woman Waiting. Which means I’m probably looking at Programmes 3, 4 and 5.

Elsewhere in the Canadian programming, in other categories, is Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies. The story of twins who go to the middle east to understand their mother’s death, it promises to be a welcome return of this French-Canadian master.

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TIFF 10 Preview: Mavericks

On the whole, the Mavericks sessions this year lack the ‘cutting edge’ sensibility and controversy of times past and seem likely glorified talk show format encounters, with a nod to creative process. There are some exceptions. The only one that interests me is the Ken Loach/Paul Laverty discussion of the use of privatized soldiers in Iraq, as part of an overall trend in wargame planning. Moderated by Michael Moore, the chance to see veteran social justice filmmaker Loach and Moore have conversation is worth the outing alone. Both men are rarely seen in a more congenial conversational mode, and both men have a spirituality that feeds their sense of social justice that is quiet and private but makes its presence felt in their work. Loach must be in his late 70s by now and these opportunities will only get rare. The session with Apichatpong Weerasethakul would also draw my attention except that I fear this will mostly be a lovefest for a man who is (justifiably) the darling of the indie exhibition world and will not offer any real insights into craft or process. The blockbuster Mavericks session will be Bill Gates, being interviewed by An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim. One of those gigs that could be penetrating and insightful, or a non-profit infomercial. We’ll see.
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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

TIFF 10 Preview: Hot Wavelengths and Lacklustre Real to Reel

Gee, just a month til opening night (okay five weeks), and most of the programming yet to be announced. To last week's line-up of Galas, Special Presentations and some Masters, today TIFF released Wavelengths and the lion's share of Real to Reel. Readers of this blog (and apparently you exist) know that Wavelengths is one of my favourite programs. The ingenuity, diversity and creativity of programmer Andréa Picard continues with this year's announced films.

The genre 'experimental film' is so murky and undefined that it can allow for a wonderfully wide range of thematic groupings, as Picard testifies to year after year. Her instinct is such that the programs inevitably do what programs should: allow the works to inform each other. It is such an interesting thing for me how programming like this actually achieves what many omnibus films (like Paris Je T'Aime) built around a common theme, try to do and fail.

Here then is a profile of the six Wavelengths programmes, taken from Picard's Press Release notes:
"Wavelengths 1: Soul of the City: As the pace of the contemporary urban experience grows faster and the world becomes increasingly fractured, artists are documenting the vestiges and layers revealed in flux; global updates on the city symphony." This collection of seven shorts set to open the series includes Nishikawa's Tokyo-Ebisu, "a 16mm in-camera patchwork constructed from multiple viewpoints from the platforms of Tokyo’s busiest railway line, Yamanote, and a masking technique which exposes 1/30th of a frame 30 times in order to capture an image of spectral apparitions." So... that's Kabuki/Noh meets Tom Tykwer...?

Wavelengths 2 is themed 'Plein Air': "As with painting, natural light and colour are inexhaustible sources of inspiration for film and video artists, whose plein-air shooting radically transforms our scenic views, offering a stirring ephemerality and, in some cases, a poignant intimacy." This program looks so good that I couldn't pick one to feature and so I'm including the whole write-up.
"In Vincent Grenier’s Burning Bush (Canada/U.S.A.), a virtuosic use of video sets a burning bush alight with crimson colour and spiritual flight. Kaleidoscopic colour, parenting and art-making coalesce in John Price’s domestic life frieze Home Movie (домашнее кино) (Canada), an extended portrait of his children captured with an old Russian 35mm camera and a variety of expired film stock. Ouverture (Canada/France) [pictured at top] by Christopher Becks is a serene, yet kinetic in-camera meditation on an old barn in Normandy. Philipp Fleischmann’s Cinematographie (Austria) reinvents the filmstrip by way of an astonishing 360 degree camera obscura construction, which allows for a continuous image to emerge like a scroll. Recently blown-up to 16mm from its original super 8mm, Helga Fanderl’s intimate triptych, Blow-Ups: Portrait, Tea Time, Red Curtain (Germany) is a tender depiction of a love affair. Anne Truitt, Working (U.S.A.) is a portrait of the Minimalist painter and sculptor elegantly observed by Jem Cohen. Madison Brookshire’s Color Films 1 & 2 (U.S.A.) close the programme with winsome wavelength compositions of light."

Wavelengths 3: Ruhr is devoted entirely James Benning's environmental chronicle of the Ruhr Valley in Germany and includes a 1 hour single shot!

Wavelengths 4: Pastourelle will be a must for me, focussing on the gorgeous images of Nathaniel Dorsky. This series has a slightly spiritual bent, featuring the trio Compline, Aubade and Pastourelle. "Compline is the final film Dorsky was able to shoot on Kodachrome, his preferred and longtime-used film stock. Aubade, which is a poem evoking daybreak, signals a new beginning, with his shooting on colour negative. Glimpses of Paris – the abstraction of its flickering neon signs, the elegance of its views - appear in both Aubade and Pastourelle, the latter presented here as a World Premiere." T. Marie's Water Lilies is a perfect way to end this program.

Wavelengths 5 is called Blue Mantle and will speak in a strange way to my acadenic interests, as it is focussed on oceans and seas as a 'mythic source of life' and 'legendary call to death'. Here is a brilliant example of how subtle and sublime Picard's programming is. These three shorts wind up this programme: "Rebecca Meyers’ blue mantle (U.S.A.) is an ode to the ocean, intercutting between the mesmeric sea with its glistening, beckoning waters and various representations of the deep. Meyers crafts an ambitious treatise buoyed by the breadth of its cast. The apocalyptic sublime of J. M. W. Turner’s 1840 masterpiece The Slave Ship, with its fiery conflagration and strewn debris amid wild waters, is the source for T. Marie’s time-based pixel painting-film Slaveship (U.S.A.). A languorous, searing abstraction with a hot palette updates the classic scene in reference to today’s skewed social hierarchy and the selling of human life. Hell Roaring Creek (U.S.A.) is the latest film by experimental anthropologist Lucien Castaign-Taylor, co-director of Sweetgrass. A static camera records the coming of day as a shepherd leads his flock of sheep across the titular stream in a prismatic, painterly pastoral."

Finally, Wavelengths 6: Coming Attractions is perhaps the most exciting and plays into one of the early classes I will be teaching in my new course at Humber this fall. Looking comparatively at early silent era films and contemporary experimental shorts, here again we have an example of sophisticated programming: "Peter Tscherkassky's Coming Attractions (Austria) is a sly, sartorial comedy masterfully mining the relationship between early cinema and the avant-garde, by way of fifties era advertising. With references to Méliès, Lumières, Cocteau, Léger, Chomette, the film playfully explores cinema's subliminal possibilities using an impressive arsenal of techniques like solarization, optical printing and multiple exposures. Completing the evening’s attractions is a selection from EYE Film Institute Netherlands’ Bits and Pieces project (Netherlands), which restores and compiles “anonymous, unidentified or otherwise interesting fragments”, saving them from oblivion for our viewing pleasure. The archival prints will be presented with live piano accompaniment by William O’Meara."

Cannot wait!!!

Meanwhile, in the same day, TIFF announced the bulk of Real to Reel, and as excited as I was by Wavelengths, I am disappointed in this slate. Of these, the only one that caught my eye turned out not to be Real to Reel, but a late announced Masters entry (but still a documentary): Patricio Guzman's Nostalgia for the Light. "In Chile's Atacama Desert, astronomers peer deep into the cosmos in search for answers concerning the origins of life. Nearby, a group of women sift through the sand searching for body parts of loved ones, dumped unceremoniously by Pinochet’s regime. Master filmmaker Patricio Guzmán contemplates the paradox of their quests." I think that sounds fantastic.

I will say that I am intrigued by Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's look at the Chauvet caves in Southern France, where no one has ever shot. This could be absolutely enchanting, or tedious, depending on which version of Herzog is in play. Naomi Kawase's Genpin, a look at a birthing clinic in Japan and the bond between mother and child with a gynecologist who has been practicing for 40 years, could also be fine.

Otherwise, the R to R line-up is mostly an unappealing fare of stuff including boxers and the man who brought down the Governor of New York in a sex scandal. And who knows what to make of the Indian film The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical (Sarah McCarthy), documenting a production of the Sound of Music among Mumbai street children. This is one of those times when you have to trust the Festival that there will be more going on here than the late-night child sponsorship infomercial spoof that springs to mind. (Is there such a thing? I have no idea. But there could be!)

More to come.... (TIFF also announced one more Gala a profile of Bruce Springsteen with a title too long to copy in here and another Masters add-in, Jorgen Leth's Erotic Man.)

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

TIFF programming: early favourites

TIFF has finally (!) made its first spate of programming announcements, releasing the Galas line-up and a substantial part of Special Presentations and Masters. Here are my early favorites!

Top seed from this batch:
Susanne Bier's new film, In a Better World (pictured). Although very reminiscent in description of After the Wedding, that actually speaks for it! I'm always drawn to films by this fantastically thoughtful filmmaker.
"The story traces elements from a refugee camp in Africa to the grey humdrum of everyday life in a Danish provincial town. The lives of two Danish families cross each other, and an extraordinary but risky friendship comes into bud. But loneliness, frailty and sorrow lie in wait. Soon, friendship transforms into a dangerous alliance and a breathtaking pursuit in which life is at stake."

One of the most poetic filmmakers to emerge in recent times gives us a poetic spin on an impossible reality. Very excited about Julian Schnabel's Miral:
"From the director of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Before Night Falls and Basquiat, comes Miral, the visceral, first-person diary of a young girl growing up in East Jerusalem as she confronts the effects of occupation and war in every corner of her life. Schnabel pieces together momentary fragments of Miral’s world – how she was formed, who influenced her, all that she experiences in her tumultuous early years – to create a raw, moving, poetic portrait of a woman whose small, personal story is inextricably woven into the bigger history unfolding all around her."

Close followers:
Anything by Alejandra Gonzalez Inarittu will have my attention. I loved Babel and most of what this director has done. Biutiful looks very promsing.
"This is a story of a man in free fall. On the road to redemption, darkness lights his way. Connected with the afterlife, Uxbal is a tragic hero and father of two who's sensing the danger of death. He struggles with a tainted reality and a fate that works against him in order to forgive, for love, and forever. The film stars Javier Bardem."

I remember so well seeing Tran Ahn Hung's gorgeous Scent of the Green Papaya at the festival many years ago - and have been faithful to this filmmaker since. His latest, Norwegian Wood, sounds gorgeous.
"Adapted from Haruki Murakami's bestselling novel. Watanabe, a quiet and serious college student, becomes deeply devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman with whom he shares the tragedy of their best friend’s death. When Naoko suddenly disappears, Midori, an outgoing, vivacious and supremely self-confident girl marches into Watanabe's life. The film stars Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi and Kiko Mizuhara."

Good to see Michael Winterbottom taking on something light for a change, instead of the heady, intense fare he's had of late. Returning to native soil, The Trip promises to be a fun piece and - hey, a character study! What a novelty!
"Follow two good friends in this hilarious road movie as they embark on a tour of the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales of Northern England, eating, chatting and driving each other crazy. The film stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon."

The description of Darren Aronofsky's latest, Black Swan, made me laugh out loud: it's hard to imagine Natalie Portman as a psychotic ballet dancer but I won't miss it. Reminiscent of that three-hanky classic from the 80s with Anne Bancroft and Shirley Maclaine, The Turning Point.
"A psychological thriller set in the world of New York City ballet, Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a featured dancer who finds herself locked in a web of competitive intrigue with a new rival at the company. Black Swan takes a thrilling and at times terrifying journey through the psyche of a young ballerina whose starring role as the duplicitous swan queen turns out to be a part for which she becomes frighteningly perfect. Black Swan also stars Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder."

Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine has been much bally-hooed already and had my interest a while back:
"Blue Valentine is the story of love found and love lost, told in past and present moments in time. Flooded with romantic memories of their courtship, Dean and Cindy use one night to try and save their failing marriage. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams star in this honest portrait of a relationship on the rocks."

Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist may offer another glimpse of the more reflective and mystical style emerging in French cinema.
"From the director of The Triplets Of Belleville comes a film of grace and unique beauty. Working from a never-produced script written by Jacques Tati for his daughter, Chomet tells the story of a magician who was pushed aside by rock and roll, yet finds one young girl who appreciates his magic. The film stars Jean-Claude Donda and Eilidh Rankin."

Although this looks a little frighteningly like a French film version of Damages, I will follow Kristin Scott Thomas into any world any time - and here's hoping that Love Crime will be a more interesting ride than that other awful series.
"Dangerous Liaisons meets Working Girl in this deliciously caustic tale of office politics. Starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier as mentor and ingénue, Love Crime is a remorseless clash of two competing egos."

General Interest (so may drop off the list as the month unfolds):

A new woman Indian filmmaker always catches my interest - as I remember that Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay was one of the very first directors I saw at the film festival in 1988. Anurag Kashyap's The Girl in Yellow Boots, also attempts to capture the complexities of survival in contemporary Mumbai.
"Ruth is searching for her father – a man she hardly knew but cannot forget. Desperation drives her to work without a permit, at a massage parlour, where she gives ‘happy endings’ to unfulfilled men. Torn between several schisms, Mumbai becomes the backdrop for Ruth's quest as she struggles to find her independence and space even as she is sucked deeper into the labyrinthine politics of the city's underbelly."

I don't know Kiran Rao, but this description of Dhobi Ghat caught my attention instinctively. And my instinct has paid off over the years!
"In the teeming metropolis of Mumbai, four people separated by class and language are drawn together in compelling relationships. Shai, an affluent investment banker on a sabbatical, strikes up an unusual friendship with Munna, a young and beautiful laundry boy with ambitions of being a Bollywood actor, and has a brief dalliance with Arun, a gifted painter. As they slip away from familiar moorings and drift closer together, the city finds its way into the crevices of their inner worlds."

Steven Silver's The Bang Bang Club takes a look at an important moment in South African history...
"The Bang Bang Club was the name given to four young photographers, Greg Marinovich, Kevin Carter, Ken Oosterbroek and Joao Silva, whose photographs captured the final bloody days of white rule in South Africa and the final demise of apartheid. The film tells the remarkable and sometimes harrowing story of these young men – and the extraordinary extremes they went to in order to capture their pictures. The film stars Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman, Taylor Kitsch, Neels Van Jaarsveld and Frank Rautenbach."

Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go features two British actresses in much demand but with very different styles and screen presences. I'm curious enough to see how it works:
"Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) spent their childhood at a seemingly idyllic boarding school. When they leave the shelter of the school, the terrible truth of their fate is revealed and they must confront the deep feelings of love, jealousy and betrayal that threaten to pull them apart."

I will likely try to see Casino Jack just because I so enjoy watching Kevin Spacey get in the headspace of a complex villain.
"Based on a true story, Kevin Spacey stars as Jack Abramoff, the former high-powered lobbyist whose bribery schemes and fraudulent dealings with Indian casinos ultimately landed him in prison, and stunned the world. It remains the biggest scandal to hit Washington, D.C. since Watergate. The film also stars Barry Pepper, Kelly Preston, Rachelle Lefevre and Jon Lovitz."

Emilio Estevez' The Way makes me a little nervous - I'm wondering how he will handle the religious aspect of this - but Martin Sheen's deep faith may assist in a story that otherwise sounds intriguing.
"Martin Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who comes to St. Jean Pied de Port, France to collect the remains of his adult son, killed in the Pyrenees in a storm while walking The Camino de Santiago. Driven by his profound sadness and desire to understand his son better, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage. Along the way he learns what it means to be a citizen of the world again and discovers the difference between “The life we live and the life we choose.”

Stephen Frears is such an intelligent filmmaker, if an uneven one. Tamara Drewe sounds like a lot of fun.
"Based on Posy Simmonds’ beloved graphic novel. When Tamara Drewe returns to the village of her youth, life for the locals is thrown upside down. Tamara – once an ugly duckling – has been transformed and is now a minor celebrity. As infatuations, jealousies, love affairs and career ambitions collide among the inhabitants of the neighbouring farmsteads, Tamara sets a contemporary comedy of manners into play."

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Criterion Collection Project 2; Faith in Film Project 1: Diary of a Country Priest

Diary of a Country Priest
Robert Bresson, 1951, France
Criterion Number 222

Robert Bresson's luminous Diary of a Country Priest is the first film in an adjunct series of pieces I'd like to write on the portrayal of faith in film. Sometimes these will overlap the Criterion collection, sometimes not. This one does.

The 'simplest and most significant secrets' are the transparent thoughts of the Curé d'Ambricourt (Claude Laydu), a newly ordained priest who writes daily in his journal about the world of his calling. Lacking in both confidence and body strength, suffering from an illness not identified til late in the film, he leans against the walls of his spare rooms, fasting on wine-soaked bread and withering in the heat and stifling society. His crises are many: surrounded by a disaffected community steeped in mysterious intrigue, he is scorned often and made to feel superfluous and meaningless, a role he seems too ready to accept. So why do we care?

In her gorgeous essay, Spiritual Style in the films of Robert Bresson, Susan Sontag identifies Bresson as a 'reflective' filmmaker, belonging to a contemplative tradition that is not understood and which therefore has caused Bresson's work to languish largely unappreciated. The reflective or contemplative tradition in film, she says, stands in opposition to art which is emotionally immediate and accessible.

This is an excellent place to begin writing about faith in film, for if a film cannot be reflective, how does it find its faith-filled center? How does a film about faith resist being cold, as Bresson's films too often were seen to be in North America, without also succumbing to a sentimentalism or a desire for complete endings in which transformations are absolute. The thing I love about Journal d'un curé de campagne is how closely it models what it means to be a person of deep commitment to faith life, a commitment that is often filled with more darkness and doubt than rarefied inspiration and joy. The curé struggles not just with heat and illness, but with the demons within his own heart, and his journalling is the only activity that ties that inner torment to his physical being in the world. The struggle within this world is modelled in the slow pacing of narrative in the film. As Sontag writes, reflective art "postpones easy gratification". We can feel relieved at the appearance of an older wiser curé who fills our hero with warnings and strange encouragements - because he seems at least to be alive within his vocation, to have figured it out, to be plodding along. Our man is not nearly as clever.

Here, the fluid, almost motionless face of Claude Laydu is essential to Bresson's vision. His face is reminiscent of what Roland Barthes described in an essay on Garbo, as the neutrality onto which we can project almost any emotion. The camera lingers on his reactions more than on his actions: he is constantly in a state of receiving people, information, advice. His capacity for reception stands in ironic contrast to his own pursuit of God: like many gifted men and women of faith professions, he agonizes in prayer, longs to feel God, has moments of certain abandonment and clear visitation. He is unable to receive God cleanly into his heart and mind.

In the mission of priests lies the key to their own salvation. As the curé becomes more connected and involved with his constituents, he feels God more keenly, even as others find him intrusive and dismiss him. It is a transformative experience for the audience when we first see him smile, see his neutral face fill in with signs of fulfilment. The centerpiece scene of the film is a scene in which he guides a woman haunted by the death of a child into emotional freedom. It is an exquisite exchange of two people talking at a raw level rare in films before or since about what it means to surrender something to God, to submit pain to a higher power. The principle is hardly new; it's the first step for alcoholics and addicts, the first part of any taking of vows in vocational life. But it is rarely portrayed with a submission equal to that which it portrays. The woman hangs tight to her bitterness and disillusion, argues her way expertly around pastoral care and yet the unmoveable peace of the curé's commitment to her, neither conversionary nor evangelical, becomes impossible to resist. Falling to her knees, her surrender is a simple thing, not a heartbreaking dramatic climax.

I am someone who normally hates voiceover continuous subjective narration. In reading Sontag's essay, I understood why it did not bother me here. The very reason I feel it normally doesn't work is here the reason for its success: it does not further the action, it repeats it or doubles it. We hear the priest explain events and then see them, or more effectively, we see the events and then have him explain them. The doubling creates a rhythm that is almost liturgical, like the repetition of psalms or scriptural phrases or well-known hymns.

In the end, the curé cannot ultimately live in the world of his kind of success. When he is unable to break an angry child from her own commitment to sin, he resigns himself. His body submits to the creeping illness but we suspect that his mind might have done so too, given the chance. Instead, the deterioration of the body and his failure with the child allows the kind of release we saw in the bereaved mother: he surrenders more and more to the grace of his own enduring commitment. His death is not one of winning or losing but of resting comfortably in his own skin, aware of the light in his heart and reunited with it.
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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Criterion Collection Project 1: Claire's Knee

Claire's Knee
Eric Rohmer, 1970, France
Criterion Number 342 (no. 5 of the collected Six Moral Tales)

Nothing conjures summer quite like an Eric Rohmer film, and so I start my journey here with the master of the ethical fable, and one of my favourite filmmakers. This fifth in Rohmer's Moral Tales series, le genou de Claire laces together themes of fidelity and desire so delicately that the slightest shift in the cool breeze of the Alpine lac d'Annecy might throw it all awry. The French/Swiss border lake north of Grenoble serves as a spectacular backdrop to the unwinding of the personal intrigue of Jerôme, a man just slightly past his prime, flirting with ideas of continuing the promiscuity of his past on the eve of his marriage. As always with Rohmer, seasoned actors mix with newcomers and the pace sets itself. Title cards tell of the passing of days and feel like chapter headings of a lazy summer book, the kind we bring to the beach and read only a page of each day (in the idyllic holiday).

As in all his movies, Rohmer's ironic take on relationships stays firmly grounded in an almost intractable sense of the natural order of things, which includes in his world a belief that fixed and committed relationships work best. With this destination in mind, he enjoys putting his characters through distraction and disaffection, tumbling them in and out of almost-bed with one another, while they sort out where their hearts are leading them. His are character-driven films, in which the camera discovers with us the inevitable truths to be revealed. There is no way to predict the course of narrative in his tales. Not because they are spellbinding and full of clever twists, but precisely because they are not. Rohmer is the master of the anti-climax, but one which feels like a relief and a release.

Jerôme is guided by Aurore (played by Aurora Cornu), a novelist searching for inspiration who volunteers him to 'experiment' a contrived situation of love by getting him to appear to return the love of a young girl. He does so, and since he has no genuine desire for her, regrets himself. Things change when he first feels desire for her sister (by marriage), Claire. Confronted with Claire's knee while she is up a ladder, he feels a twinge of that which the novelist had hoped to inspire elsewhere.

Jerôme does not pursue Claire so much as pursue an idea about wanting Claire. The idea is what taunts him, not the woman herself. When circumstance leads them both into a scenario for possible romance, the action of putting his hand on Claire's knee becomes transformative for Jerôme. Believing himself to be ridding the girl of a terrible boyfriend, his fidelity of purpose supplants his desire and he feels an almost altruistic happiness. The movie's final scene makes clear the irony of this conceit, but no one cares. The characters end up where they belong and integrity is in tact.

A mainstay of a Rohmer film is that the hero/ine is never in love with the right person. In this film, the transitory love of youth is personified in the disingenuos performance of Béatrice Romand who plays Laura, a 16 year old girl in a sort of Nabokovian state of transition into nubile sexuality, in love with Jerôme but much too smart to move there too quickly. Instead, she talks to him about it, while lying in his arms on a mountainous hillside. People talk in Rohmer films, more than they do, and it astonishes me therefore that I like them so much. But the talk in these films is a spiritual journeying, a kind of voyage of self that is pragmatic and distancing but also captures the essence of how love works. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

In the end, the characters' own blasé approach to relationships guides them best. Rohmer loves the subtle ways in which youthful hearts shift direction and yet he also refuses to see that as capricious or fanciful. These are deeply felt dalliances, even if the gold evenings of the Côte d'Azur wash them in romantic light.
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Friday, June 25, 2010

Summer 2010 Criterion Project

The time has come for me to begin a project I've longed dreamed of, which is to watch and review as many of the films in the Criterion collection as I can in a summer season. Tonight I stood in front of the three long shelves that house that collection in the amazing Gen-X Video store in uptown Waterloo and began making a list. The primary goal is to watch films that I have not actually seen, but always wished I had. And yet, as my fingers thumbed the fat and slim spines of the colour-coded titles, I realized I would not be able to resist also talking about movies I've always loved.

The Criterion Collection, as many know, began in the 1980s as a way of bringing art house titles to a brand new home video market. They have since survived not only many changes in ownership and direction, but also many transformations of video viewing media technology, from laserdisc to DVD to blu-ray and most recently, pay-per-view download. I have always been a bit unclear as to why and how the titles are chosen. Surveying the list, there is no doubt in my mind that some of the decision making has been esoteric, representing only the idiosyncratic passions of one of Criterion's founders. There are also titles very noticeably missing - great, great films that deserve this chance at preservation and veneration. There is nothing, for instance, from the silent era, no Murnau, no Vidor, not even the better-knowns Griffith or Chaplin. And in other cases, a filmmaker has been observed, but the choice of film is surprising. Faced with the opus of Krysztof Kieslowski, for instance, the Collection favours only La Double Vie de Veronique, a wonderful film, but not his best. It's clear that the CC is trying to avoid a kind of AFI "top 100", preferring instead to focus on films whose path to glory has been controversial or shall we say... subtle, and/or holding up now renowned films that once upon a time seemed destined to gather dust in vaults.

I'm excited about this. So is my hana, who always gets a treat when she visits Gen-X and thus has many smiling nights ahead!
First review by tomorrow night!
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