Sunday, December 30, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #11 Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Although it was officially a 2011 film, Lasse Hallstrom's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has turned up on a number of year-end best lists, and is included in the 2013 Golden Globe Award nominations for films released in 2012. Salmon debuted at TIFF11 but I missed it then, and saw it in 2012 for the first time, then saw it again in the early spring, a number of times, when I kept renting it again and again through ITunes before finally owning it. I didn't like it much the first time I saw it, or I did like it, but felt that it was an interesting failure, mostly because I felt that the ending sequence worked so badly that it ruined the film. For a couple of months I taught it, in the classroom and in story editing sessions, as an example of a good script gone wrong, most likely because of a desire by a studio executive to have a happy ending. I still feel much the same about that last scene, but I have since come to realize that it is all about one line: "Will you be needing an assistant?" If you haven't seen the film, you will know when you get there, and if you have seen it, you most likely agree.

But until that moment and indeed for much of its breadth, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is actually a beautifully written film, and is graced by two of the loveliest characters to be found on screen this year. It is not just that Emily Blunt and Ewan MacGregor were most perfect to play them: the book by Paul Torday, which I admit to only having glanced through, would seem to be a more richly satirical book, whereas the screenplay works in ironies. Irony is much subtler and softer than satire - especially when it is out of the mouth of two people who are both inherently generous and naturally shy. The clip I have included above (which was hard to find) captures the essence of that witty dynamic beautifully, even while having the shape of a Hollywood rom-com. An earlier scene, which is also the emotional plot point of the film, in which MacGregor brings Blunt a sandwich in a desire to help comfort her in the presumed death of her boyfriend, is just gorgeous. It is a master class in both writing and acting, while not dramatically acute or emotionally intense. This kind of delicate, nuanced, scene of mutual discovery among two essentially kind people is actually one of the hardest things in the world to write. Simon Beaufoy's script moves delicately between the rhythms of each character while shifting the stakes up a notch in the development of the relationship. It is subtle, refined stuff. The rest of the film is lots of fun, with Kristen Scott Thomas doing a star turn as the PM's PR duenna and a particularly enjoyable scene where she manages a scandal over the phone while tucking in and turning out her own children for school. Many other strong supporting performances fill out the narrative, but the two leads steal your heart. I must have watched this film about twenty times during 2012, with frustration, with fascination, with professional attention to the dynamics, and finally with abandoned pleasure.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #10 Romeos and Juliets

One of the great pleasures of my life has been having the chance to follow along (and sometimes blog) the work of one of my oldest and dearest friends, Moze Mossanen, who happens to be (without any prejudice) Canada's premier dance filmmaker. He's been doing it for at least twenty-five years, but each film finds something brand new to say about what dance is and why we continue to be entranced by it. Moze is in love with dance as I have never known anyone to be, and I say this as someone who studied myself for ten years and whose mother structures her week around dance performances. Whether he is taking apart a known work in order to climb inside it with the dancers, or standing back with the choreographer to watch a new work unfold the way an uncle stands behind a delivery room window, he is always engaged at the level of his heart with what dance has to offer us as insight into the inevitabilities of the human spirit. In the past, he has created his own dance stories, and then commissioned choreographers and companies to produce them in partnership with major broadcasters and other funding agencies. Whether it is the music of Joni Mitchell (in From Time to Time), or the literature of Daniel Defoe (which inspired Roxana), or dynamism and courage of a great dancer (which sparked Nureyev), Moze often draws from real-life situations, artists and works to spin his own dance world imaginatively to life. Perhaps his greatest gift, then, is being able to intuit what is going on in the hearts and minds of dancers themselves and share it with the world.

It is this gift that he brings to bear on his gorgeous documentary film Romeos and Juliets, which was aired on CBC earlier this year after a premiere in a Toronto theatre. Observing the creation of a brand new production of Romeo and Juliet for the National Ballet of Canada, he chronicles the path of five possible opening night couples to the finish line where only one can be the debuting artists. In this age of 'reality tv' soap opera and excessive highs and lows, it is characteristic of his own sensibilties that his witness is often to the silent, less conspicuous moments of triumph and disappointment. With an almost intuitive control of the superarching narrative, he delivers one of the finest documentaries of recent memory. Besides being an exquisite filmmaker, he is also one of the funniest people I know. Take a moment and read here about the making of the doc in his own words - - and then go to this link and enjoy the film itself.

Friday, December 28, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #9 Bomb Girls

(This video is a compilation of scenes involving the characters Kate and Betty, put together by a fan of that storyline. But it offers a good glimpse of some of the stronger aspects of the series.)

I came to Bomb Girls through the same friends who sent me to Downton Abbey, displaying the fine range of taste of those close to me! A Canadian series set in 1940s Toronto, it debuted as a mini-series of six episodes following about as many major characters, as they assist the war effort by manufacturing bombs in a West End munitions plant. The show focuses on the lives of the young women who work the assembly line and their supervisor, played by Meg Tilly. While it could never be called a feminist polemic, the show is attentive to gender issues in all the social strata represented. Lorna Corbett (played by Tilly) is working class poor but many times her challenges are ethical ones - always the best way to do character development. Her challenges as a wife and mother are intersected by the internal stigma she feels at being drawn to a young Italian worker; her betrayal is not just about adultery but about 'fraternizing' with a perceived enemy nationality. There is a lesbian character (played by Ali Liebert) who falls for a colleague on the line who has changed her whole identity in order to escape the punishing restrictions of a lunatic pastor father. (These are all season 1 realities which, if the promos are to be trusted, may shift dramatically in season 2.) The irony is vivid and rich: the women who are making powerful weapons of mass destruction are themselves completely powerless to make change in their own lives but continue to try with everything they have.

Though everyone is good, the real revelation of Bomb Girls is Tilly. Returning to performing for the first time after an eighteen year break (other than two brief appearances on Caprica), the Agnes of God star brings to Lorna a quiet dignity and careful nuancing of pain and pleasure largely through her beautifully expressive face and her truthful pace as an actor, which is slightly slower than tv pace usually is. That's an important detail. Tv pacing often forces a tightening of emotional line so that characters appear to have covered emotional distance in faster time than would be truthful in real life. Tilly lives into Lorna's victories and the character's costly mistakes in a way that is heartbreakingly measured in nuanced and subtle silences and reactions. She holds the bar up for the others, and the show's strong narrative takes care of the rest.

(Season 2 debuts on January 2, 2013. If you want to catch up, go to Global TV and watch the first six episodes for free entirely online --- here's the link.)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #8 A Late Quartet

A Late Quartet took me by surprise. And I almost missed it. Though on my shortlist, I had resigned to it falling victim to scheduling at TIFF12 and was certain that the trailer I had seen (which you have here) was pointing toward something not very good actually - more focused on the politics than the music. This is where trailers can be very misleading. The moments pulled out into this one are dramatic high points that look like emotional ones as well, but actually the emotional high points of this film are much subtler and much deeper. This film is about fidelity and loyalty (two slightly different ideas which the movie nuances beautifully) among four members of a string quartet who have played together all their lives and whose passions, needs, failings and longings have been accepted realities unlikely to change. When the cellist, played by Christopher Walken, develops Parkinson's disease and must consider retiring, the dynamics of the group break open and all that was previously taken for granted is shattered. Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener do some of their very best work as characters trying to pick up the pieces, while also living out their unresolved pasts. I was particularly moved by the marriage story of Hoffman and Keener, and how well they bring across the complexity of a union that has not been fulfilling either of them, despite deep mutual love, for quite some time.

I grew up having periodic contact with the Orford String Quartet, Canada's (and one of the world's) then finest string quartets. We had gatherings in our home when the quartet and my father played together and we feasted afterwards. This movie captures what I remember of what it means to be committed to a life in music. The level of excellence must not only be achieved, but maintained, rigorously, at all times. In this way, perhaps the most astonishing thing about A Late Quartet is the actual performing sequences. At the screening I attended, director Yaron Zilberman told us that all four quartet actors (Walken, Hoffman and Keener are joined by Mark Ivanir playing the arrogant first violinist character) spent a year preparing, under the supervision and tutelage of a separate coach for each of them. The goal was to be able to play 15 minutes of Beethoven's late quartet No. 131 in a way that looked authentic. Though the music itself was ultimately supplied by the Brentano String Quartet, the actors are incredibly convincing. In addition, Imogen Poots plays the daughter of Keener and Hoffman, herself a violin virtuoso whose sacrifices of upbringing also play into the emotional unravellings of the relationships. 

In the end, it is really Hoffman's film, however, and comes in a year in which he has given several very fine performances. His disentangling of his character's passions and needs is really what holds the whole thing together, as indeed, a second violinist is the backbone of any quartet. Zilberman also told us that his screenplay (written with Seth Grossman) is itself modelled after opus 131, Beethoven's enigmatic seven-movement work that performers try to play all in one 'breath', without stopping. The film's intelligence, however, lies in how it offers us many resting points. The Beethoven music lingers over shots of an unusually quiet and wintery New York City, thus holding the mood of the anguished souls within it like the cherry orchard in Chekhov.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #7 Downton Abbey

Although it is at the end of its third season in the UK (with that third season just starting broadcast in the US and Canada next month), I did not actually 'come to' Downton Abbey until 2012, when a friend recommended it to me as part of research into teaching serial format television. As often happens with things I later love, I was resistant at first, not thinking much of the first couple of episodes of season 1. I had decided to start at the beginning - and maybe that was the problem. I often enjoy coming into a series at any random place and getting "hooked", then backing up and making my way through. It comes from being a story editor, and wanting to love a show, before understanding why and how we love it. As a story editor, I also enjoy and often look for spoilers -- to get the trajectory, the full sense of what they are doing. So having now seen all three seasons, or series as they are called in the UK, and having read the spoilers for the 2012 Christmas episode which I will view in the next week or so, I feel I have a handle on the whole canvas that is Downton, as we know it so far. (Don't worry, no season 3 spoilers will be coming.)

What I have loved about the show is its absence of top-down hierarchy in character or star power, and this I believe is its greatest strength. Everyone is of equal interest; the narrative events and the reins of the emotional power of the show are equally distributed among its upstairs and downstairs people. That's quite an accomplishment, considering that actors like Dame Maggie are in the mix. The horizontal story focus allows us to invest equally in all kinds of characters. This can lead to unexpected juxtapositions of our real interest and focus, such as when, in the closing of 2011's Christmas episode, Anna seeing Bates taken off to jail packed more of an emotional punch than the declared pregnancy of Lady Sybil. 

I love the show, but I don't deeply admire it the way I do for instance, Borgen. (See Favourite Thing #5.) I have the feeling of it finding its way from season to season, with jumps and long gaps in the narrative line. That would be fine, if the emotional line of the series made up for it (as it does for instance in Laurence Anyways - see Favourite Thing #6). Joys and sorrows of characters' lives can take us by surprise, or not, but when considered more fully, should seem somehow to fulfill the drama. I'm not sure that is always the case in Downton Abbey. Its finest moments arise from its bristling humour (from Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton as duelling matriarchs upstairs, and Lesley Nicol and Phyllis Logan as the cook and housekeeper respectively, downstairs) and its capacity to embody the wry submission to inevitabilities that truly mark the aristocratic wit (captured best perhaps by Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael as Downton's eldest daughters). I confess, however, that I love its downstairs life best - and that is also where I believe the best character work is. Life at Downton is robust with emotional energy where the stakes are the greatest for day to day life. The day to day of Downton is in its kitchen, where the hearth holds the heart of the whole home.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #6 Laurence Anyways

Over my thirty years of attending TIFF, I have developed an odd ritual of belief that the very first film I see turns out to be the most impactful or most memorable film of that year's festival. With this ritual in mind, I often scan the first Thursday of the Sales and Industry Screenings as soon as it comes online, looking to see if any of my heaviest contenders are lined up. Nearly every year at least one of the best films of the season will be in that day. This year, I had a different film slotted into the first spot, but at the last moment had to change my plans and ended up being too late to attend that one. Instead, I slipped into Laurence Anyways, Xavier Dolan's film about a man who wants to continue a life-long committed soulmate relationship to a woman, while embarking on gender reassignment to become a woman also. I surrendered that prized first spot, to a film I had been looking forward to, but didn't expect to love. Almost right away, I was swept in, not just by the unusual narrative or by Dolan's über-florid or lush smokey camera angles, but by the deep love of these two characters for each other. Suzanne Clément's beautiful performance as Fred, the partner who cannot stop loving Laurence in any form, remains perhaps my very favourite film performance of this year. With her dyed-red streaky hair and a wardrobe that undergoes many transformations as the disco era gives way to punk, she laces the film with its innermost heart, while Laurence lives out the exterior revolution that it takes to become who she is. ('Is this revolt?', asks one professor to Laurence, at the college where they both teach when Laurence finally makes her transformed debut at school. 'This is a revolution,' Laurence responds.) The white snowy Trois-Rivières sequence, where the characters are estranged but rediscover each other, is my favourite in the film. Set amid the de rigeur white box suburban houses of that dingy industrial French-Canadian town, it holds one of the best reunion scenes ever put on film. The movie not only reclaimed that 'first is best' ritual spot for me, but it has lived on in my heart ever since. Having recently had the chance to review it again carefully, I am even more amazed. It has one of the finest timings of an emotional line of a film of recent memory. Though that means, of course, that the narrative sometimes lingers and longs, and works inefficiently into diversions. But no matter: it's worth every love-soaked minute to take the full ride. (My previous review of this film, written at the time of seeing it, is here.)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #5 Borgen

It's Danish. That means it's good. But it also means you get to live inside the characters' experience of their world, watching them push out against the exterior forces of the narrative, and hang on to who they are, in some cases just barely. Billed by the Sunday Express as "The Killing meets The West Wing", the series follows Birgitte Nyborg Christiansen as Denmark's first female Prime Minister (or so she was in fictional terms, until Denmark elected it's first female Prime Minister a year ago. Life imitates art?). The huge talents behind the scenes include creator Adam Price (and don't even think of pronouncing that the English way), Tobias Lindholm and the creative force of DR, Denmark's oldest television network, while boasting a who's-who of Danish acting talent including Søren Malling, Birgitte Hjort Sørenson, Pilou Asbaek, and Mikael Birkjaer. But the series belongs to the formidably compelling Sidse Babett Knudsen as the 'staatsminister', whose desire to transform her country costs her nearly everything she has. The show feels like a thriller at times, with meetings and deaths in dark places, while still finding time for careful nuancing in relationships, the breaths and beats of listening, and loving and losing. Birgitte's deep integrity becomes a rallying point around which the good ones swarm and those who wish they were good, irresistibly return. And yet, with two ten-episode seasons completed, and a third on the way, there have been plenty of opportunities for her to stumble and lose her way, search for the meaning again and go on, all against those blue winter skies, and the shifting architecture of Copenhagen.  Borgen is an icon of all that works so well in the cinema and television of the country to whom we owe so much in this art form. Once I had found it, I watched all twenty episodes in three days. You will too.

Friday, December 21, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #4 El Chorro video

When a concussion laid me out in bedrest for most of the summer of 2012, I thought often of this video. I have been quite addicted to the home movies that flood youtube made by climbers (and many non-climbers, terrifyingly) who decide to walk the dangerous, perilously narrow and officially closed 'El Caminito Del Rey' walkway in the El Chorro Gorge of Southern Spain. Built in 1905 for workers to maintain the gorge, in the more than 100 years since it has fallen into disastrous disrepair with entire sections of it completely missing. What draws me to these videos is a complete awe for something I would both want to do and be never capable of. In this one, made by a multimedia artist in the UK who is also featured in it, I love how much her experience matches what I project would be mine, if I were ever to have that kind of courage and knew how to climb. Not far apart in age (and therefore distinct from the young leaping 20somethings that otherwise people these home movies), I feel a kinship to her fear and amazement. 

Most of all however, I am transfixed by the via ferrata, a thin cable that is attached to the walls of the gorge by which climbers make their way along, and which allows a measure of safety in scaling the non-walkway bits. To me the via ferrata is a metaphor for faith. A person walks the perilous walkways of life holding onto the thin rope of faith which may, or more possibly, may not, be enough in moments of greatest trial. So, lying in bed through July recovering, unable to imagine even standing upright without paralyzing imbalance, I thought of that via ferrata and the number of times the woman here has to surrender herself to the risk. In faith, we are often required to do this, to step with courage into an abyss, taking careful steps, not looking down and holding on to the rope.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #3 Picasso's Goat

He was waiting for me round a corner at the AGO's big Picasso show last spring. When I wrote about that unexpected afternoon in the Gehry-renewed gallery last June, I mentioned him only briefly. Don't know why. I have often thought of him since, the way a melody playing in the background while shopping, stows away in your brain for the rest of the day. His playfulness was what first enchanted me. He emerged just after the horrors of Guernica, and Dora Maar's own photographs of that masterpiece growing in slow painful panels across a studio wall. He made me laugh suddenly, his bulging sides, his strange elf-feet udder, his lopsided ears and those enormous paws. There wasn't a part of him I didn't cling to somehow, internally, in respite. He stood there reminding me that wars end, history marches wearily on, and goats will always be there. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #2 Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley's beautiful autobiographical documentary exploring her own DNA (literally) is my second  shared favourite thing of 2012. Painstakingly crafted, it peels back layers of rumour and gossip to reveal a mother's heart beating and a child's journey of discovery back to her, through the search for her biological father. Polley takes us on one thread after another of implication and innuendo from family members and friends, while also re-imagining her mother through staged re-enactments that are more kaleidoscope impressions than narrative. Even the trailer is beautiful, modeling the careful structure of the film. (Watch how a shot of Sarah laughing becomes a shot of her mother doing the same; how a home movie angle is juxtaposed to the recreated image of Rebecca Jenkins on a train.) Polley seems to be telling us that what we remember is also what we imagine and truth is a delicate business. Then there is the story I too layer on top of hers, my own experience. Visiting the set of Road to Avonlea in 1991, every day for a week, I listened and watched as the little blue-gowned blonde-haired star went by, so hard-working and focussed. And meanwhile those around me whispered quietly behind her back, "Poor thing. Her mother has just died." Now, because of the seamless transitions of heart and mind that Polley builds for us, I could swear my memory was part of the film.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #1 Anita O'Day

This gorgeous version of Anita O'Day singing both "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Tea for Two" is my first thing to share that I found in 2012 and loved. Shot in 1957 at the Newport Jazz Festival, it is taken from Jazz on a Summer's Day, a quiet but exquisite documentary made by Bert Stern (a fashion photographer who is otherwise famous for shooting Marilyn's "Last Sitting") and Aram Avakian in 1960. I have never seen the film in its entirety, but I love what I have seen - particularly the absence of narration, the participatory presence of the audience and the stylings of the great jazz divas. I have just discovered that the entire film is now available on youtube, so now there's no excuse. Something to curl up with on the holidays. One for the ages. 

12 Favourite Things in 2012

Alas. I never did complete the blogging below. As so often happens after TIFF, teaching and studying swallows me back whole and the blog stands empty. Til now. As the year winds to a close, I have decided to post twelve things - in the next 12 days, til the end of the year -- that were favourite things I discovered this year, whether or not they were made this year. I'll share the first one in a separate post.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

TIFF12 Reviews: Films by Women, Part I: Watchtower, Hannah Arendt, Inch'Allah

Nilay Erdonmez in Pelin Esmer's Watchtower
After the wonderful Laurence Anyways, I went home for two days, returning on Saturday (a week ago now). In some ways it was crazy to be missing two of the most important early days of screening on the Sales and Industry pass, but a medical test left me with no choice. I was lucky therefore, that my first three films back were by interesting and visionary women filmmakers, veteran and newcomer alike, because their strengths and compelling subjects immediately brought me back into festival life.

The Film Library for Industry reps is one of the many great assets of having that pass. Films that fall afoul of scheduling can be screened in this small narrow dark room, provided you book ahead. In past years, I have had important personal moments this way: most memorably, the first time I saw Susanne Bier's After the Wedding. Though some of my most sought after titles were not available in the library (like Susanne Bier's latest film, Love is All You Need), last Saturday afternoon, with a gap of time suddenly available, I was happy to settle for Watchtower, Pelin Esmer's fable-like tale of a guard and a coach hostess whose fates entwine with coincidence while both are fleeing from their own secrets.

Esmer surrounds both characters with a mystery that protects them from being too easily understood. The event that binds them ultimately is one of very beautifully constructed crossroads: (without giving it all away), the very thing which the young hostess wants to be rid of, is that which the guard wants to prevent her from losing. The young woman lives a life that seems modern - she is making her own income and living independently. But it soon becomes clear that her freedom is in fact her prison: escaping an unwanted reality, she tries to live out her very private predicament under the constant supervisory world of men, who do not hesitate to comment on her every move.

Therefore, the guard's unfaltering willingness to put himself on the line to assist her arrives as a kind of salvo for the audience, even if we know he is haunted by his own demons. His perserverence in caring for her is also respectful - even when she appears to be indifferent he seems to understand her deeper motivations. His generosity eventually allows both of them some moments of redemption from past tragedies.

I also enjoyed the mist-enshrouded tower of the guard, and its views over a smoky blue forested part of Turkey I would not have known existed.


Barbara Sukowa in Margarethe von Trotta's Hannah Arendt
Margarethe von Trotta has dedicated her life to illuminating the stories of women, both fictional and real. Her films about Rosa Luxemburg (Rosa Luxemburg) and Hildegarde von Bingen (Vision) are at opposite ends of my TIFF 30 year range of experience: I think it was Rosa Luxembourg that first introduced me to von Trotta in the mid-80s and I have followed her ever since. This year von Trotta is back with a biopic of the great German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, in the film with that title.

Hannah Arendt attempts to be a film entirely about thought --- a brave undertaking in a visual medium. Arendt's life would easily fill out a mini-series: her early relationship with the German philosopher Heidegger alone could be three or four segments. Because she is focussed on Arendt's intellectual achievement, Von Trotta chooses instead to drop us into the American experience of Arendt in the post-war era, picking up her story at the time that Arendt served as a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine to cover the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann. The famous Nazi war criminal had helped to design and administrate the "Final Solution". The movie covers only the events of the trial in 1961, but there are several brief flashbacks to earlier eras.

Janet McTeer as Mary McCarthy in Hannah Arendt
Several Americans become important in the drama. Nicholas Woodeson plays William Shawn, the then editor of The New Yorker who tries to warn Arendt about the controversy that is coming, and Janet McTeer is back as the American writer Mary McCarthy - her bearing and self-possession reminding me a great deal of her performance as Gertrude Lawrence in the BBC series Daphne. Her defense of Arendt to a group of Princeton intellectuals in a late scene nearly steals the film. She is always a breath of fresh air because she is able to inject humour into what she does, in the same way that Allison Janney does (who would also have been good in this role - much as I adore McTeer and appreciate Woodeson, why are Brits being cast as Americans?). McCarthy's exchanges of "looks" with Arendt over gossip-intrigue among husbands and friends, convey a lovely sense of the intimacy between these two famous friends, where the screenplay otherwise did not have much time for it.

Barbara Sukowa is wonderful as Arendt, particularly in a climax scene in which she finally breaks her silence and defends her New Yorker articles by explaining more fully what it means for evil to be 'banal'. The greatest atrocities are committed by those who have abdicated their 'personhood' in order to submit to the machine they are cogs in, she tells us. For Arendt, the abdication of personal responsibility and culpability for individual acts, as they participate in a whole, is more inherently demonic than being the architect of these same plans. In this same scene, a student asks her why she describes Eichmann as having committed crimes "against humanity" and not just "against the Jews". Arendt's response, that a crime against a Jew is significant as a crime against humanity, allows the film to exonerate her, and locate her safely back in the intellectual realm, but it doesn't resolve the dilemma of the controversy. Her quest for people to understand "how profoundly important it is to ask these questions" about the nature of evil, finally emerges here, just as a film about thought should: its intellectual premise gathers shape and form and is born in the moment of her delivery. As a result, the critical scene becomes the arrival of the theory, rather than simply a scene in which she vindicates herself against her critics. This kind of subtle control is what makes von Trotta such a fine dramatist, even if her visual style lacks any distinguishing and memorable characteristics. German filmmakers develop a premise better than any other in Europe - and we are carried along in their capable thinking.


Evelyne Brochu as Chloé (left) in Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's Inch'Allah
There was much I was excited about in anticipating Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette's Inch'Allah. One of a number of films this year looking at the Arab Palestinian experience, Inch'Allah works hard to represent the human beings on both sides of the West Bank wall in complexly human light. But there is no question where its sympathies lie. The film's main protagonist Chloé, a Montreal physician, lives in an unnamed part of Israel, but works in the clinic of an unnamed community on the Palestinian side. The film chooses to focus on Chloé's foreign presence amid the conflict, and her resulting naivete becomes the underlying problem and danger of the film. In this way, Barbeau-Lavalette draws us into the web of thinking we know what is going on, and discovering that we don't.

Although I was impressed by how well the film depicted life on both sides of the 'wall'; a problem with the screenplay is that we are not able to see the final impact of her experiences on Chloé. Things start out well: as she begins to take action and make her sympathies and affinities clear, we see how she lacks any real agency within that decision. She is left devastated by the events she has witnessed, and increasingly radicalized, but ultimately the movie is inconclusive about how she is changed. By contrast, in very simply drawn lines and scenes, the film offers very sympathetic and moving portraits of the two young women who occupy Chloé's attention at home and at work: a young female Israeli solider named Ava (Sivan Levy) who hates her job and is occasionally won over by Chloé's desire to build bridges, and a pregnant Palestinian woman named Rand (Sabrina Ouazani) whose husband awaits sentencing and whose unborn child lives in constant danger of ever making it safely into the world. 

The bravery of Inch'Allah comes in its desire to show a wide-range of Palestinian and Israeli personality and experience. Radicals and activists draw Chloé in and there are no clear villains or heros. Having witnessed the death of a boy who attacks an Israeli boundary patrol jeep, Chloé is hardened, but Barbeau-Lavalette prevents us from easy sympathies when the same group of children are seen taunting the pregnant Rand with jeers about her losses. The film seems to be saying there is no winner here, no clear moral absolute, other than the reality that oppression leads to oppression. These are ways that the film shows real strength - by asking us to see the human beings within the conflict, while making clear the central imabalance of power.

A plot element at the very end of Inch'Allah lead me to believe that something is happening which does not actually turn out to be true. Rather than serving as a 'twist' story element, it is in fact an ambiguous problem that takes some of the dramatic punch out of the film's forceful ending. My seatmates in the screening I attended joined me in scratching our heads afterward. "Was she carrying something?", we asked each other. The uncertainty is important because the final action of the screenplay is in the hands of someone other than our heroine. That is a good thing - because when I thought that they were taking Chloé herself to a radical action, I was certain I was the watching the screenplay derail in front of me. But I believe the accidental ambiguity about an interesting choice, also cost the film its due impact.

Inch'Allah is well worth seeing, despite its unevenness. The last shot, of a child whose well-being has been cast into the shadow for much of the film, shows him making a hole in the wall and telling us what he sees. He does so beneath the "Shift+Control+Delete" graffitti (the image is shown in an earlier preview post below), and we are asked to look with him, into a future of hope. The choice reminded me greatly of Banksy's famous painting on the West Bank wall, in which two children are playing with paints and create an image of a wall broken, on the other side of which is paradise. Safi (this child)'s vision is simpler: "a tree, and then another tree above it", leaving us to wonder, who those trees are.

More films by women coming! 

Friday, September 07, 2012

TIFF12 first review: Laurence Anyways

Suzanne Clément, Melvil Poupaud and Xavier Dolan at Cannes
Laurence Anyways is the story of a man who wants to continue a life-long committed soulmate relationship to a woman, while embarking on gender reassignment to become a woman also. It is about love that endures and also fails, even while the lovers cannot expunge each other from the soul. And I'm not sure which is more astonishing: the fact that at age 23, Québecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan has already made a third fine film, or that at age 23, he has already understood so much, and with such maturity, about the complexity of human relationships.

I wasn't sure at the start. Laurence Anyways begins with intellectual exercise: lovers entwined on a bed, and in a car, reciting out loud the things that 'limit our pleasure'. The items are all expressions of banality that derive from a culture too invested in surface living; by making their list, Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) and Fréderique or Fred (Suzanne Clément) keep themselves on the outside of banality; they are self-imposed outcasts of the kind of day-to-day clutter that make life "routine". They are passionate and devoted to each other, despite that the film's first dramatic turning point - the revelation of gender identity - happens in that most drôle location of romantic thrill-seekers - the car wash. It took me a long while to try to figure out whether Dolan was trying to establish his lovers, tongue-in-cheek, as a kitsch counterpoint to the 'banal' normal lives of the people around them, or whether his characters were so invested in their drama that they failed to see how it had developed its own banality.

Luckily, it was neither. And I do mean luckily. Because this film teeters through sections of its two hours and 40 minutes perilously near to being a film which is parodying itself. But perhaps its ultimate brilliance, is that the soulfulness of its characters, their relentless generosity (even while they are unkind to others), the depth of their passionate longing for each other and the inevitability of their fate all make their way through the landscape(s) of cultural dissipation (whether that is colourless suburban Québec, or electro-rocking nightclub-pinks-and-greys flickering Montréal) tied by a love that won't die.

What I loved about this film is its relentless heart. Love pulsates without sexuality: it is a really remarkable thing that a film about the sexually-obssessed 80s and 90s that involves transgendered identity and the sexual morality of a me-generation - does not ever once give us real sex. It is one of the great strengths of Laurence Anyways.  Dolan wants us to be absolutely clear that this is about love, about two people who believed their generation could "handle this", the 'this' being a self-reinvention that was not about the outward shows of protest that characterize the "look" of the students in the corridors of the school where Laurence teaches, who watch her arrive on her first open day as a woman. The punk make-up and torn jackets and studded faces of those staring at her, are a fantastic counterpoint to the otherwise elegant and tasteful Laurence, in the slow-motion parade of reactions. We are absolutely meant to wonder, who is in identity crisis?

The two central performances are very moving. A moment I will take away from this festival, already, with attachment, is an image of her sitting on a bathroom floor, smiling with pride and affection, as Laurence applies makeup for the very first time. Her agonized journey is one that almost upstages Laurence's (and that may be true also of performance), which I found a fault of the film until I realized that the film is not really about Laurence by herself. It is entirely about Laurence in relation to her great love.

The lovers part. The lovers are then reunited by art. By the art of Laurence. In their reunion come betrayals of others. And then, in the smaller, but unexpectedly profound betrayals of each other, there is the realization of what has actually been sacrificed so that one of them could find peace. But it's okay. In a strange way, their's is a happy ending. And you sense, as the credits roll, that the story isn't done even so.

A word about style. Comparisons have been made of Dolan to Almodovar: both are gay filmmakers, both have a style that embraces larger-than-life emotion. At the moment, Almodovar has more storytelling craft, a sharper eye for how to keep the entire emotional line coherent. But Dolan has a nuancing of emotion that I have not seen in Almodovar. The quivering lip of Fred is given its full edit, the time it takes Laurence to experience fully that first moment as a woman in her classroom, is given the rich long sustained breath it deserves - instead of just being a story beat. We are held in it to the point of excruciating waiting -- for what will happen. And that's how it should be. It may be to his credit that Dolan takes too long with the beats of characters: frankly if a filmmaker is going to err one way or the other, I'd much prefer them to err on this side. And yet the sharp editing of the afore-mentioned car wash moment, contrasted with a long, langorous shot of Fred indulging her own desire for sexual and gender expression at a ball later in the film, made absolutely clear to me that Dolan knows how much time to spend with characters, in the right moments, so that we truly feel the dilemma. He can snap the car-wash scene at its climax into a shot of Fred walking down the street away from it and be right on top of 'story'. But I think he just prefers to soak in the emotional realities and ride them for all they are worth. Go for it, I say. As a result, we are also shown a much more genuine and true (I imagine) profile of the process of gender reassignment, which in this film happens over ten years. The earliest scenes of Laurence as a woman show her head bare in the cut she had worn as a man. We are not ever meant to think of this as an overnight transition - and with that comes the learning realisation that the truth is the truth, at every single moment and every stage of that transformation.

Laurence Anyways is sooo worth seeing no matter how it impacts you. So much of the mise en scène is absolutely gorgeous. The first shots of a transformed Laurence emerging out of mist and fog are kitschy-poetic, but also serene. There is in the end, a strange serenity to Laurence Anyways. We get so inside the characters that we ultimately absorb and do not care about the particulars of the world they are moving through, including the strange coldness, melting like the ice of the Isle of Black that they escape to, that can be found in the mother (played by Nathalie Baye) and Fred's sister (Monia Chokri) --- except to notice when it is warm or cold. We get drawn into each of these sad and lost characters who surround the lovers and recognize people we have known, or even ourselves. They are indeed banal, but Laurence and Fred can't help but ultimately redeem them.

Monday, September 03, 2012

TIFF12 - The Final Short List

Carlos Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux has already brought controversy
in its Cannes screenings. Someone who has seen it told me
recently that it is both deeply poetic and moving and also
terrifying. Reygadas is pushing boundaries in ways that are
about exploring meaning in a variety of contexts.
I hope so much I get to see this.
With three days to go before the games begin, I am finding myself in that place of anticipation and uncertainty: with so many excellent options, how to weed out and fix on the 30 or so I may actually hope to see? The list of 80 + films that I previewed in the posts below, had asterisks indicating those I thought would already push through to a second round but even these have had to be refined. My U of T class will also be seeing films together, and the requirements of that course had to factor into the mix as well.

Li Ruijun's Fly With the Crane has come way up my list, as I consider
the films I want most to see. The premise of a man reflecting on his
own death and trying to reconcile himself to cremation offers the
promise of depth and heart, while the presence of the children may
present humour and lightness also. Ruijun's Summer Solstice was also
memorable from years past.  
Teaching schedules have imposed their way on to the map - and as a result one of my most prized Top Seeds, The Hunt, may go down in flames to scheduling. Both public screenings are off-sale now, and the only P & I screening for the film happens exactly when I must be in class teaching! I may stand in line on the Monday night however, to try to get in Rush to a public screening. This is how it goes: all's fair in love, war and TIFF random scheduling. (And sadly, three of my most sought after films in the whole of the festival are screened at exactly the same time on the first Thursday - Anna Karenina, The Hunt and Amour -- Thus all three go down in flames for me because no secondary P&I screening is being offered, and all three are already Off Sale in the public screenings. Note to self: next year get the P & I pass with the Public tickets attached to it!)

Mary Margaret O' Hara plays a tourist in Austria to attend to a
sick friend, who takes solace in the Kunsthistorische Museum in
Vienna in Museum Hours. There she finds friendship with a guard played
by Bobby Sommer.  I have never seen the work of Jem Cohen but am
drawn to what I've now read about his unusual style. This has become
a must-see for me now.
For fuller descriptions, please see the posts below where I have described each of these films in greater detail. Here I am just listing them again, refined to the 30 odd films I will put priority on. (Again, alphabetically.)

All that You Possess
Amour (Pub screening rush)
Anna Karenina (Pub screening rush)
Beyond the Hills
Clandestine Childhood
(The) Deep
Fill the Void
Fly With the Crane
Hannah Arendt
I was already strongly inclined to see Annemarie Jacir's When I Saw You
but the trailer for the film has really excited me.  
(The) Hunt (Pub Screening Rush)
The Impossible
Late Quartet
Laurence Anyways
Love is all You Need
Mekong Hotel
Midnight's Children
Museum Hours
Post Tenebras Lux
Rhino Season
Royal Affair
Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams are just two reasons why
To the Wonder is a top seed. The first and main reason is because
it is incredible that after a masterpiece like Tree of Life, Malick is
already giving us another film. These feasts usually come every six
years, not within 12 months of each other.  Can't wait.
Satellite Boy
To the Wonder
Wavelengths 1
Wavelengths 4
When I Saw You
White Elephant

Saturday, August 25, 2012

TIFF12: Part 2: Movies M-Z

Here is Part 2 of my preview of the most interesting films of #TIFF12! Continuing titles from M-Z. If you haven't been following, check out the first post below which offers a few summary thoughts as well on the overall collection. An asterisk means this will already be on my short(er) list. A † means that it is being considered for the Film, Prophecy and Culture class at U of T. (Though that is a work in progress also, and others not currently marked may end up being selected.)

Me and You (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Though he is most well known for master classics like The Last Emperor, I have always preferred Bertolucci's smaller films, like the nuanced and moving Beseiged. This film is about a sister and brother who reconcile the damage of family and discover their own identities.

Achipatpong Weerasethakul's Mekong Hotel
*Mekong Hotel (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Yes it's a mouthful, but once you have learned the name by heart, it actually trips off the tongue. And learn it you should, because this Thai director, whose entire career has been launched and upheld by TIFF and Cannes, has become perhaps the most lauded new filmmaker of his generation. Mekong Hotel has been programmed into Wavelengths - so understand what you're getting into. It is ostensibly about a hotel on the Mekong River but is also a meditation on cinema itself and several other themes. Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard, who writes by far the best programme notes, adds "Mekong Hotel evinces a sense of yearning bathed in radiant, sunset shades." 

An iconic image from Seán Ó Cualáin's Men at Lunch
Men at Lunch (Seán Ó Cualáin)
Men at Lunch is an Irish film about an American photograph of European immigrant men perched atop a skyscraper. It figures a row of construction workers having what seems like a relaxing lunch under a tree but in fact on a single beam suspended in the air. Cualáin apparently tackles the iconic image, its anonymous photographer and the men on the beam, like a mystery novel - dispelling the myths and restoring a new truth about the photograph.  I am intrigued by it because the best documentaries I have ever seen, I first saw at TIFF. And many of them seemed like this one: quiet niche-interest films, that have gone on to become... well, Roger and Me.

Middle of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay)
In recent years we have seen an increase in films by or about African-American Women or about the experience of African-American women. Precious was the audience favourite at a recent TIFF and went on to greater recognition. Like Everyday and Few Hours of Spring, noted in the first post, the film deals with the repercusions of prison experience - its legacy not just to those imprisoned, but to the world around the prisoners. The film is about a woman's devotion to her imprisoned husband, despite what it costs her. Redemption awaits.

*Midnight's Children (Deepa Mehta)
You can't really go wrong with a film by this Indian-Canadian, who besides having brought us some of the best English language films in Canada of the last decade, like Water, also thinks very deeply about the themes and realities she is engaging, and often does so quite bravely. So it is no surprise to see her commanding the adaptation of Salman Rushdie's controversial book. The film combines a number of different visual styles to tell the story of 'magical' children born on the very moment of India's independence from Great Britain. A top seed.

Amy Acker and Jillian Morgese in Joss Whedon's
Much Ado About Nothing 
*Much Ado About Nothing
(Joss Whedon)
This is one of my favourite Shakespearean plays, and I know much of the text by heart. I am very curious to see how it works out in a modern context (not just a modern "setting", which countless theatrical productions have attempted). Years ago, Ethan Hawke starred in a very contemporary version of Hamlet that brought genuine insights from the application. This film was shot in 12 days in one house (and property) in Santa Monica. So it will be interesting to see if that brief window forced them to find and live the heart of the play.

Mumbai's King (Manjeet Singh)
One of the best innovations of the last few years in Festival programming has been the advent of the City to City programme which offers a rare opportunity to see films grouped around theme. (More of this would not be amiss.) This year's city in the spotlight is Mumbai and Mumbai's King offers a storyline and a vision that once again takes us into the heart of a street child (well, he has a home, but he lives and spends most of his time on the street). A feature debut.

Jem Cohen's Museum Hours
*Museum Hours (Jem Cohen)
This one draws me, not only because it features Canadian musician Mary Margaret O'Hara, but because some of my own most significant life moments have happened in museums. This film promises us the art of the Kunsthistoriches (literally Art History) Museum in Vienna, a city I would love to know some day. About a guard and a woman tourist who form a friendship, it feels like a lovely escapist piece. 
Night Across the Street follows in the tradition of aging filmmakers who are offering increasingly esoteric visions (see Manoel de Oliveira and Kiarostami in the first post).  This one follows a man as he looks back on his life: real and imaginary characters from different epochs interact with each other in the playful and provocative style for which Rúiz has become renowned.

*No Place on Earth (Janet Tobias)
Tobias explores the region of caves in the Ukraine where Jewish Russians hid from the Nazis during World War II. The central figure in the narrative is not a survivor or a descendent of same, but a cave enthusiast, who was so moved by the discovery of signs of life that he spent nine years looking for and finding those who had lived there and were still alive, eventually leading them back to the scene in 2010. The programme notes tell us that 95% of the Jews in Ukraine perished - this is their living memorial.

*Out in the Dark (Michael Mayer)
A few years ago, I wrote on this blog about a fine first feature called Eyes Wide Open, by Haim Tabakman, about gay love among Orthodox Jewish men. Out in the Dark might be a kind of follow up, though this time the 'forbidden' dilemma is the Palestinian-Israeli one. I'm intrigued to see this, in part because it is one of the few films being offered this year from inside a Jewish perspective of Israel. Even if it is an American co-production. 

Atiq Rahimi's The Patience Stone
*The Patience Stone 
(Atiq Rahimi)
It is rare that you find a novelist who is also a filmmaker or vice-versa. Rahimi is equally at home in both media, and equally fine. The Patience Stone is essentially a monologue by an Iranian woman to her husband who is in a coma. We listen to her speak things she has not been able to before now, for reasons of community, custom and her own relationship. An unusual premise that promises a rich emotional life.

*Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)
Carols Reygadas' deeply moving portrait of infidelity among Mexican Mennonites, Silent Light, continues to haunt me with its exquisite (though not for everyone) pacing and its magic realism redemptive ending. This film is apparently more experimental, and perhaps less delicate, I don't know. It explores "a family torn between tenderness and violence". Programmer Diana Sanchez (here stepping out of her normal domain to make an offering to Wavelengths) gives us many hints that the film will be challenging and difficult, but that Reygadas' capacity for extraordinary photography and emotionally rich events makes it one not to be missed.

Quartet (Dustin Hoffman)
Make no mistake: this will either be wonderful, or awful. Though it doesn't say so directly, the programme notes would indicate that the film takes its inspiration from the real-life Casa Verdi, in Milano, a place where senior musicians of all kinds can go to live. Because of its proximity to La Scala, it has been often most associated with retired opera singers. The location is not described in the notes but would seem to have shifted to England, if the casting is any indication, where a quartet of aging performers stake out their final territory and revisit lost relationships. This could be another Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, .... or not. If I end up in this screening, it will be because I am too curious about seeing Tom Courtenay, an actor whose early work I absolutely love and whom is hard to find otherwise these days. 

*Rhino Season (Bahman Ghobadi)
If you have ever seen Ghobadi's Time for Drunken Horses, then you will be excited by the prospect of another feature from this brave and visually innovative Kurdish visionary. Continuing a theme in this year's movies of family separations (see The Impossible, among others) and prison or post-prison stories (see Middle of Nowhere, Few Hours of Spring and Everyday), and based on a true story, it follows a man and woman who are arrested during the Iranian revolution and released at different times, the woman believing her husband to be dead. Poetry and magic realism are hinted at in the programme notes.

Mads Mikkelsen and Alicia Vikander in A Royal Affair
A Royal Affair (Nikolaj Arcel)
Mads Mikkelsen again (see The Hunt), this time as a German doctor whose friendship with the King, and passion for the Queen allows him to help set in motion Enlightenment reforms in Denmark. Until his affair becomes his downfall. That's the story, but Arcel was the screenwriter for the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, an adaptation some have preferred to its western counterpart. Among the many things to love about Danish cinema, is the strength of the screen and television writing. So there are many reasons to hope for the best here.

†*Satellite Boy (Catriona McKenzie)
The story of an Aboriginal boy who travels alone through Australia's bush country to prevent a mining company from taking over his grandfather's drive-in cinema, Satellite Boy has the kind of archetypal 'hero's journey' that audiences find most deeply compelling. Reminiscent again (see my post on Lore, by fellow Aussie Cate Shortland), of Rabbit-Proof Fence, it perhaps speaks to the enduring impact of the image of the child-as-pathfinder within Australian storytelling. So many films this year are told from the worldview of a child and all of them, including Satellite Boy, boast very compelling stories.

Short Cuts Canada Programme #4 (Ball, Jarvis, Lazebnik, Leblanc, McKenzie, Morsi, Redvers)
The Short Cuts Canada Programme is one of the jewels of the festival, that is always under-attended. There is wonderful work here, with much to reflect on. Of the six programmes, this one caught my attention most closely for its rich diversity of subject matter. Just copying the Programme short notes here for simplicity: "Ambitiously far-reaching in the scope of its subject and ideas, this programme goes from the modern rat race to a portrayal of family grief during the Gulf War, the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian revolution to a sci-fi vision of survival."

*Ship of Theseus (Anand Gandhi)
What appeals to me about this first feature is its tripartite narrative, involving characters uniquely distinct from those that are most often seen these days in Indian cinema. The three lives that are observed are all people who are seekers, and also characters impacted by contemporary socio-political realities. One of the characters is a young female filmmaker who had lost her sight and is now regaining it, offering us a chance to see the visually rich world of Mumbai through new eyes. Much to be drawn to in both the story and filmmaking style.

†*Sirga (William Vega)
The story of a young girl who flees the murder of her family and destruction of her village to live with her uncle in a remote area of the Andes was already interesting, but this selection has made it into a strong position on my slate entirely because of the trailer and footage available on the linked page. The colour and composition and pacing of the film already feel hynotic. Follow the link and see what I mean.

Clement Metayer and Lola Créton in Something in the Air
*Something In the Air (Olivier Assayas)
If you are someone who was moved by the Occupy protests of last year, and who wonders at the energy of those who continue to struggle for change in that movement, you will have much to draw you into Assayas' latest feature, which looks at a similar time in the post-1968 French political world of student revolution. French actress Lola Créton, one of the most compelling things about Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love from TIFF11, plays the love interest of a young man caught up in Parisian idealism and activism and the film follows them as they flee Paris to continue work elsewhere. Assayas showed a real affinity for the rhythm and meaning of a rural life in juxtaposition to urban realities in the beautiful L'heure d'été. Hoping for more of the same here.

Song for Marion (Paul Andrew Williams)
British actors "of a certain age" are enjoying a real renaissance of demand for their gifts right now in British cinema. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel brought together many of them, and this year's Quartet (noted above) brings more. Here, also, is a story of an aging couple, and how the gift of love for music is passed from one to the other, in this case Vanessa Redgrave to Terence Stamp, as one of them becomes ill. I cannot help but think that this film must have been inspired in some way by the nuanced and moving Swedish film, Song for Martin, by Swedish master Bille August, about a composer and a violinist who come together late in life. That story focussed on the man's illness, but the real life acting couple (Viveka Seldahl and Sven Wollter) were themselves living out Seldahl's illness during the shooting. It is as if this film is a kind of remake and meditation on that film and the film's behind-scenes events, but I won't know for sure til I see it. The similarity in titles seems enough to confirm suspicion. 

James Cromwell and Geneviève Bujold in Still
†*Still (Michael McGowan)
In the first post, I wrote about Michael Haneke's Amour, and mentioned there the similarities between it and this Canadian English language film from McGowan. There are many clips from the film available on the linked page here - watch them. The meditative style and use of voiceover are intriguing and it is sooo rare to see Geneviève Bujold anymore in Canadian cinema. This is a gift we are being given, in many ways, I can tell from the generosity of the availability of those clips, and what the clips show. A high seed for me.

Ingrid Bergman in the great Rossellini classic, Stromboli
†*Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini)
This is a dream-come-true for me. I have long wanted to see this Rossellini masterpiece, but to see it projected is just irresistible. About a refugee who marries a fisherman, it offers themes of spirituality, grace and mysticism, while maintaining a gritty, neo-realist look at contemporary life in post-war Italy. The movement to restore the oeuvre of this maestro has borne amazing fruits in past years of the festival. Somewhere in this blog I describe watching the restored Rome: Open City. Film restoration is extremely moving for the viewer -- you cherish every frame. There is only one screening, and it's free, so don't miss this opportunity.

Therese Desqueyroux (Claude Miller)
Last year I was very impressed with performances I saw by newcomer Anaïs Demoustier in Woman in the Fifth and Belles. Here, she can be found in Claude Miller's last film (continuing a theme of master filmmakers in their final works) supporting Audrey Tautou, whose career has not seemed to live up to the promise of Amelie, until now. An adaptation of a French classic by Francois Mauriac.

†*Three Kids (Jonas D'Adesky), preceded by Peripeteia (short) (John Akomfrah)
The earthquake in Haiti in 2010 is the backdrop for Three Kids, all boys, who flee their orphanage-styled home for the streets of Port-au-Prince, as the disaster is taking place. The film takes an interesting form, as part-documentary, part-fiction film, in which the real-life children play themselves in an "observational and improvisational approach" that sounds interesting. Pereipeteia, the short that is also playing in this programme, is inspired by the image of two black figures in a 16th-century Dürer work.

Wang Bing's Three Sisters
Three Sisters (Wang Bing)
The combination of documentary form, and the Wavelengths programme, draws my special attention to this entry by Chinese filmmaker Wang. An apparently meditative and poetic look at how three girls aged four to ten participate in the economic livelihood of a peasant family living in extreme poverty, set against a stunning visual mountainous landscape, it's 153 minutes, but don't let that stop you. Even taking in half an hour of it - if your pass type allows it - could give a lasting impression.

*To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
And wondrous it is indeed, to have another film from Malick so soon after The Tree of Life, which last year became one of the most extraordinarily loved films of my life. Mystical, esoteric, challenging the conventions of cinematic form at every turn, rigorously challenging in ideological pursuits, and deeply embedded in journey of faith, I would walk miles to see anything made by Malick. A top-five seed.

Bernard Émond's Tout ce que tu possèdes
†*Tous ce que tu possèdes (Bernard Émond)
On the schedules as All that You Possess, it represents the first film of Émond's since his beautiful trilogy on faith, hope and the love that is in 'caritas', or 'charity'. Telling the story of a professor of Polish literature who reawakens long dormant relationships within his family, it promises a redemptive and lyrical emotional line. From a gifted filmmaker. A high seed.

*Viola (Matías Piniero) preceded by Birds (Gabriel Abrantes)
Another film which is experimenting with a contemporary spin on Shakespeare (see Much Ado About Nothing, above), this Argentinian feature engages Twelfth Night, both literally and in the context of a Shakespearean highlights production within the film, focussing mainly on the gender-bending character of Viola. The film is preceded by a 17 minute adaptation of the Aristophanes classic set in contemporary Haiti.

Virgin Margarida (Licínio Azevedo)
The country of Mozambique is being represented here in a feature from Brazilian documentary filmmaker Azevedo who lives there, about the 're-education camps' for women in Mozambique in the late 20th century after independence. An incredibly rare opportunity to hear this story from this particular perspective - - and when will you next see a film from Mozambique?

Walker by Tsai Ming Liang
Walker (Tsai Ming Lang), preceded by The Capsule (Athina Rachel Tsangari)
Anyone who has followed this blog before, knows that the Wavelengths programme is one of my favourites. This year they are branching into features - a terrific development. There are no programme notes yet for these films (though they may be there by the time you are pursuing this). Nonetheless, the pictures are utterly provocative and compelling for Walker, from the always-interesting Lang. And with its meditation on fashion, set in an 18th century mansion on the island of Hydra, what's not to like about the promise of The Capsule?

Walls of Dakar (Cissé/Guéye)
No, not that Cissé. But this is another one worth noting. These two Senegalese filmmakers document the peaceful uprising of artists against an oppressive government intent on silencing them, through an explosion of brilliant and critical street art that appeared on the walls and spaces of the capital city of Dakar. The film is accompanied by a screening of the short Joe Ouakam about a celebrated Senegalese musician by another performer Wasis Diop.

Nathaniel Dorsky's August and After in the Wavelengths #3 programme
Wavelengths Programme #3
(Goel/Horedia, Tito/Tito, Woodman, vom Gröller, Grenier, Hamlyn, Dorsky)
You can't go wrong with any Wavelengths programme because they are so gorgeously curated, but I have randomly pulled out this one. A giant in the history and development of experimental cinema, Nathaniel Dorsky is back again at TIFF, this time with August and After, a meditation on the deaths of also-giant, George Kuchar (Hold Me While I'm Naked) and actress Carla Liss. This elegy exists at the end of a programme that also includes a rare opportunity to see videos by photographer Francesca Woodman. There is only one screening of this whole programme, and it directly conflicts with one of our U of T classes at the moment. Accompanied by new videos by Nicky Hamlyn and others, this is a terrific programme.  

When Day Breaks (Goran Paskaljevic)
Continuing a theme of holocaust or WWII dramas, this film takes up the life of a retiring Serbian professor who discovers through an accident of found-objects that he wasn't who he thought he was. The Jewish identity he uncovers becomes a journey about much more than just his own personal history, as he revisits events he thought he had previously understood. An interesting perspective on post-holocaust legacy.

Annemarie Jacir's When I Saw You
†*When I Saw You 
(Annemarie Jacir)
I have a number of reasons to be very excited about Annemarie Jacir's second feature film about life in a refugee camp in Jordan in 1967. Her first film, Salt of this Sea, won the prestigious FIPRESCI prize at Cannes when it was shown there. Although I have not seen it, I am already impressed by the depth of the storytelling visible in the programme notes for this film, and from seeing clips of Jacir's previous work. 

†*White Elephant (Pablo Trapero)
A number of films this year are set in Buenos Aires, whether the filmmakers come from there or not. Trapero is a genuine porteno who turns his lens (sympathetically) on contemporary Catholic missionaries seeking to bring better life to one of the city's worst slums, which exists alongside a gentrified residential area. Their desire to protect what they have created is threatened by drug lords and slum lords and their own increasingly different approaches. Starring French actor Jérémie Renier, who is taking a break from the bad-boy characters of films by the Dardennes and others. As my colleague Brian Walsh wrote me about this one, "church, slums, gentrification, drug lords - it's got it all"!

World Not Ours (Mahdi Fleifel)
Like Zaytoun (below), this documentary explores the world of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, this time in the present-day, and through the lens of a friendship between Fleifel and someone living in the camp Ain El Helweh with whom he has remained close, from a day when the filmmaker lived there also. The mutual preoccupation with soccer and politics provides a lens for viewing how their worlds have changed and stayed the same.

†*Zaytoun (Eran Riklis)
This list began (in the previous post) and now it ends in the Middle East, this time in the hands of a pro-Palestinian Israeli filmmaker, in a story about an Israeli fighter pilot who must rely on a handful of Palestinian children for his safety, when he is shot down over Lebanon. The dream of the young ringleader, to plant a salvaged olive tree, back in his own home village, speaks to an enduring theme in this year's of TIFF of reclaiming one's own roots, wherever they may be.

In the coming days, the shortlist, and late additions.