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.