Saturday, September 14, 2013

TIFF13 Review: The Railway Man

Wide shot 1: Colin Firth as Eric Lomax in The Railway Man
At the beginning of time the clock struck one
Then dropped the dew and the clock struck two
From the dew grew a tree and the clock struck three
The tree made a door and the clock struck four
Man came alive and the clock struck five
Count not, waste not the hours on the clock
Behold I stand at the door and knock.

This unusual 'biblical nursery rhyme' is heard over the opening shots of Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man. Written by British army signals engineer Eric Lomax, it becomes something of a touchstone in the film adaptation of Lomax's autobiography, as several times and in varying conditions in the film we hear him recite it. The film tells the story of Lomax's ordeal at the hands of Japanese torturers after the fall of Singapore during the second world war and is made with careful craftsmanship, never indulging in the violence but not stinting on it either, instead framing this extraordinary story with the redemptive grace that marks its final resting place. Sent to work on building the notorious 'death railway' (which includes the also famous bridge over Kwai), Lomax initially seems to have it a bit easier than some of the other Allied prisoners forced to endure heavy labour. However, after a hand-drawn map he made is discovered by his captors, his life takes a nightmarish turn and he is horrifically tortured. The translator of his interrogations becomes the subject of his deepest haunted post-traumatic memory.

Wide shot 2: Teplitzky keeps the camera wider
than many would, a distancing that offers respect
without sacrificing immediacy
It is very hard to talk about what makes this film so powerful without giving away its ending. Wondering about how to handle this, I checked out the just-released international trailer. Trailers can make a film look so completely different from what it is, or take elements that are indeed true and distort how they work. The trailer for The Railway Man is not inaccurate, but it is a bit misleading in its tone. The film is not just about revisiting and confronting the past, as the trailer suggests, but about living through that past. It's not a romantic love story, but a story of gruelling commitment by a couple who love each other so deeply that they can strive to survive horrific challenges. It is about living in memory and through it, both together. A friend I watched the film with who is a family therapist explained that traumatic experience is not 'remembered' in the sense of traditional memory. The traumatized person actually lives the experience over and over. They are in it; they do not have any objective detachment from it. The film makes that utterly vivid.

Colin Firth keeps surpassing himself. These years we are seeing the great hours of his career. But nothing quite prepares you for his haunted eyes and the combination of strength and gentleness. Nicole Kidman presents a clean clear solidity laced with compassion as the uncompromising Patti. Jeremy Irvine and Hiroyuki Sanada bring depth to their roles as the younger Lomax and the older interpreter. 

The direction is so incredibly fine, keeping the frame wide in many moments when others would go in close, somehow implicitly understanding that the whole picture is more meaningful than the sum of its gruesome parts. There is a kind of railway track tunnel use of the long shot (visible even in the trailer) allowing us to feel as if we are standing at both ends of time, as Lomax did, connecting the two places he lived in with one view. Wide shot after wide shot becomes over-wide, sometimes making Lomax a small, blackish ant-like figure walking a windswept beach, seemingly overcome by the enormity of his pain. At other times, we hang with him, upside down, tormented, broken, close enough for clarity but not too close. Teplitzky's deep respect for the subject keeps him from crossing the line of pretending to truly know it. 

The film's intense non-linear structure, moving backward and forward in time, allows us moments of rest that are rare but so essential in films on this kind of subject, so that the audience can catch up to what it now knows instead of just enduring barrage after barrage of challenging images. Use of dissolves and multi-layered shots of curtains and glass and reflections, moving in and out of focus, populate the first third of the film, bringing us inside the deep paralysis that Lomax occupied after the war, and before his life offered him a chance to physically return to the place of the events that so damaged him.

Eric Lomax and Takashi Nagase in the 1990s
Ultimately, however, this is a film about forgiveness. There is only a hint of this in the trailer, which otherwise wants to focus on revenge. (Let's stop and think about why revenge sells a movie better than forgiveness...!) This turn of events is not foreseen, but neither does it surprise us. Lying on his side in excruciating agony, the words of the biblical-nursery rhyme he invents offer clues to the deeper equilibrium that helps Lomax endure. The film does not take on the deep faith that underscores his book and which he uses to provide a thread of interpretation for his own self-reckoning. While there are enough subtle signals dotting the landscape of its story breadth to offer hints, I am a bit sad about this, because it is from this deep well that Lomax is ultimately able to draw up the love, compassion and kindness that will water his soul and offer him release. 

I believe The Railway Man will have an uneasy critical reception. It defies the conventions of contemporary cinema by not giving us an intense sensationalism. It forces us to watch in a much more sober and more deeply unsettling way, reminding me a bit of Kieslowski's A Short Film about Killing. There is violence portrayed in the film but it is not intensely graphic in the way that so often feels pornographic now in movies. The restraint of this film will be misunderstood as detachment but the film doesn't entertain or enthrall, it moves us. It asks us to witness, to wait, to walk slowly. To take it one horrible re-lived memory at a time, alongside many other moments of quiet inextinguishable sadness and silence, the black hole of being lost. It invites us into brief seconds of murder and the longer quieter minutes of sitting on the dusty memory-soaked ground. It is not for the faint of spiritual heart.

Even romantic moments are on the medium close-up
side of close, offering a loving sense of restraint
essential for this tough story. 
Lomax's life-long obsession with railways is what inspired him to draw the map that got him into trouble. It provided the context for his love-at-first-sight first encounter with his wife. It is the subject of his forced labour. And it is the rhythmic intuition of his heart, beating out rhymes and verses to pass the hours of unchartable darkness.

At the beginning of time, the clock struck one....

Some seventy years after those events and only a year after his death, we can be grateful. The fourteen years it took to develop the screenplay, with the help of both Eric and Patti Lomax, means that we get to bathe in a work that is itself bathed in love. And dwell in its wise heart.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

TIFF13 Reviews: Finding Vivian Maier

Self-portrait, by Vivian Maier
Six films (and a short) on Friday, and seven films yesterday. People ask me how I keep them straight. That's not the problem. The problem is how to find time to write about them all! Some I'm still holding onto in my mind and heart and need to reflect a bit more on first (Ida, Une Jeune Fille, Closed Curtain, Dallas Buyers Club as examples). Some films can be written about easily - some need to be thought about and held close for a while first. One of these is Finding Vivian Maier

The story of John Maloof's discovery of the photographic opus of Vivian Maier has now become quite well-known. Needing some illustrative pictures for a history book on the Portage Park area of Chicago, Maloof bought the majority of the collection at an auction house across the street from where he lived. Not finding them useful for his project, he set them to one side for a while, and then came back to them later. While investigating her he discovered that Maier had just died. These are some of the details uncovered in Maloof's documentary (made with Charlie Siskel) Finding Vivian Maier.

There is much to like about this film, which seems to combine the filmmaking expertise of Charlie Siskel with the passion of John Maloof. Maloof has clearly done more than anyone to understand this elusive artist, and done so with much respect and care. The documentary is a loving tribute, even while it examines darker evidence of her life as a nanny. The photographs are given to us with juxtaposition against other great photographers, perhaps to indicate a kind of influence. I'm not sure. The documentary is compelling and gripping, and ultimately moving.

But it also left me with many questions which I felt the documentary skirted; I felt it could have been more transparent than it was. The film tells us at the end that Maier was supported in her last years by two of the children she nannied, who not only bought her an apartment but paid her bills. Why aren't they in the film? At the same time, we hear that she was dumpster diving and eating food out of a can before she died; why did the support run out? Maloof says in the film that he bought up the other Maier items purchased by others at the original auction, but doesn't tell us that one of those original buyers was actually the first to post her work online, or that he didn't quite buy up everything: a Chicago art dealer owns about ten percent of the collection. 

Through his persistent research, Maloof uncovers the French family of Maier, and the village where her relatives owned property; however, he doesn't share with us any other information about her background which he must have received some insights on. The film dwells (a bit sensationally) on the possibility of abuse in Maier's background as part of explaining that in her more than forty years as a nanny, she clearly was a damaging one at times. But it doesn't do so with much depth - perhaps because there are no answers available. Maloof also doesn't comment on the fact that Maier was alive for two years after he found the photographs in 2007. These are just the accidents of fate, but it deserved a bit of reflection on that loss - on the possibility that if he'd pursued her sooner, he might have found her while she was alive.

There are many implicit tragedies in the story and one is that the art world is taking its time recognizing Maier, but not because she doesn't merit their attention. It's complex. Maier did not print her own work (or did so unsuccessfully), so it is hard to know how to curate her as an artist. I appreciate this problem. My own brother is a landscape and portrait photographer who prints his own work with tremendous detail and care. It is part of who he is as an artist. It must be hard to know how to share the work with others without implicit instructions.  However, it is so clearly deserving of some sort of special understanding. Attention from people like Mary Ellen Mark, whose spontaneous and genuine responses to the photographs in the film should be enough to roll the ball forward, but it is stalled. Is that because Maloof has gone ahead and exhibited her himself (in cooperation with small private galleries in various cities)? Calling himself her curator? It is hard to be critical of this obviously passionate collector whose deep love and respect for Maier have brought her the attention she has. But by his own admission, he brings no skills to this enormous task, nor does he seem to be seeking out the assistance of those who do have those skills. Why? If he is wanting to serve her work, if that is his biggest goal, then why hasn't he asked for help with that? These were the questions I was left with as I walked the rainy street afterward.

In the end, despite these unsettling questions, what moved me most was the work of Maier itself (which illustrate this review). They reveal more about others than she can say about herself, perhaps, but that was her choice. Melancholic and stark, revealing and mysterious, haunted by shadows and by lives torn from what they should have been, they reveal an artist who was most at home when standing among her subjects. Looking them in the eye.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

TIFF 13 More Reviews: Three Romcoms

Fanny Ardant in Bright Days Ahead
Thirteen films since my last post! Will have to update in blocks, perhaps around genre. 

The romcom is enjoying a bit of a global renaissance if this year's selection at Tiff is any indication. Through the accidents of scheduling, I ended up with three of them in a row on Friday morning.

Fanny Ardant's radiant beauty at the age of 60 is an incandescent light in Bright Days Ahead, Marion Vernoux's portrait of a woman whose life is in need of transformation, even as she is forced into transitions she hasn't sought out. Recovering from the death of a friend and a marriage sliding uneasily into complacent routine in its golden years, Caroline unexpectedly finds herself in the arms of a man half her age, whose sexual addiction does not mean he doesn't also fall in love from time to time. Vernoux handles the complexities of their encounter with care and manages to avoid the trappings of the genre by allowing Caroline to always be the author of her own life changes. Even as she anticipates the end, she lives into it with wisdom and acceptance. The film is very much about freedom and hers is always one she has chosen. I carry with me some gorgeous shots of Ardant walking in dusk light by the sea, as stunning as the landscape.

I slid into Joel Hopkin's The Love Punch, about a half hour in. There are a few funny sequences that made me laugh out loud - and this is a perfect film for a late night can't-sleep jammies and teatime with Netflix. But make no mistake, this is a cotton candy of a movie about divorced jewel thieves who reunite to enact a revenge heist. Joined by Celia Imrie and Timothy Spall, the funny bits come in the slo-mo mock action movie sequences when they put on the next guise and head out like heroes. Hopkins is his most at home in the form here but the rest of the film's farfetched plot lacks this kind of satiric edge and sorely needs it. Emma Thompson and Pearce Brosnan have enjoyable chemistry but even they are working too hard. Thompson is just too good an actor; it is impossible for her to be truly lite. The gift of her comedy is that she brings layering and longing to an otherwise seemingly superficial character (just think of all of her scenes in Love Actually). But it has to be written for her. And please please. Can someone please give Celia Imrie a real role? Here is a strong British character actress who has played the exact same oversexed semi-silly character in the last three films I've seen her in. She does it well, but all of these actors deserve better.

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox
The real gem of Friday morning, however, was
The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra's lovely lovely film about a man on the verge of retirement who starts receiving lunches by mistake from a lonely housewife, who is trying to woo her way back into her husband's heart through his stomach. Letters to the other start to appear under the naan and soon they are each telling the stories of their deepest memories and regrets, desires and dreams. The gem of this film is its screenplay, beautifully crafted and quite funny also, including a prominent secondary character who is only ever heard and not seen, like something from a Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch comedy. But Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur are beautiful as the two leads. The preparation of the food adds a bonus pleasure: so sensory that you swear you can smell it and taste it. (Plan now to go for Indian food afterward.) I hope The Lunchbox gets widespread release; Variety has already declared it to have crossover potential. Maybe that means more people will see this quietly touching film.

Friday, September 06, 2013

TIFF13 First Reviews!: Manakamana, Story of Children and Film; Blue is the Warmest Color; Le Démantèlement

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color
Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velese's Manakamana
It felt spiritually luxurious (an oxymoron?) to start my TIFF 13 with Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velese's beautiful Manakamana, shot entirely on the cable cars that bring pilgrims to the Manakamana Temple in Nepal. The filmmakers were also working with the coincidence that the length of time it takes to run a full magazine of 16mm film is almost exactly the same as the time it takes to ride to the temple, in one direction. Although partly funded by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, Stephanie Spray has spent many years making films in Nepal, which allowed her to 'cast' people in this documentary whom she knew. The result is a vivid portrait of eleven groups of people as they ride upward (and then downward) coming to and from a spiritual encounter. There also animals on the ride: the goddess Manakamana demands animal sacrifice but although the practice has now been outlawed at the temple, animals find their way on to the cars. The real time accompaniment of the camera became quickly transporting, as the lush green hills of Nepal floated beneath the subjects. I was transfixed and could have watched this film all day. Coming out and adjusting my eyes to the bustling chaos of King Street, I had the feeling of fulfilment that every year I hope for somewhere along the line of the festival -- and here it was after the first film! I almost didn't need to see another one. But of course I did! (I hope to write a much fuller, much more reflective piece on Manakamana at a later time.)

Shinji Somai's Moving, one of the many films discussed in
Mark Cousins' S
tory of Children and Film 
My next film was Mark Cousins' Story of Children and Film. From the Irishman who gave us the omnibus Story of Film two years ago, this follow-up piece which profiles the way children have appeared on the silver screen was remarkable but not quite as fully formed as the other work. Providing his own narration, Cousins' voice is affable and feels conversational, like sitting with someone at their computer console as they show you favourite clips. But this very quality can also limit the film. Cousins frames the discussion around footage of his own niece and nephew who provide links to the film's themes that at times felt forced. He seems to have understood this himself, for the movie departs half way through to a trip to Wales, from where the rest of its thematic branches are investigated - but without children - in a way that was never quite convincing. No matter. Cousins' decision to break up his discussion into various moods and child states-of-being was brilliant and provided nice links among the chosen selections themselves. Also, I think of myself as someone who has followed closely children in the cinema, but I am indebted to Cousins for introducing me to at least a dozen films I did not know and now want to see badly. Among those I did know, I was thrilled to see Shinji Somei's Moving, excerpted several times throughout the documentary. I still remember vividly first seeing the film at TIFF in the 90s.

Blue is the Warmest Colour was a high seed for me coming into this year's fest. Fresh from Cannes and its Palme d'Or win, the screening of the film happened on a day when many media were running a story quoting the actresses about how difficult it was to make. (Not sure why these articles are circulating now - and hard to tell if they are based on contemporary interviews or those made at Cannes.) It doesn't matter. Whether it is pornographic or not, excessive or not, the controversy around this film cannot obscure its central beauty: this is a very deeply felt, caring and loving profile of what it is to be in a new passionate relationship. Both Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux give remarkably nuanced performances, but the film unmistakeably belongs to Exarchopoulos; her appearance in every single scene of a three hour film holds us without any gaps - she is incredible. My story editor brain wanted to intervene as I saw the film making its narrative twists and turns but most of my notes are incidentals about continuity and motivation. Ultimately, the film is about passion: the erratic and impulsive decisions that we make when we are deep in love. The much-discussed love scenes, with their graphic sexuality, rang true for me and did not raise any concerns about exploitation. I found the film's depiction of relationship on the whole quite loving. If the director appears to be a bit infatuated with his leading lady... well, it's not the first time. I spent part of my summer watching Godard films, which star his muse Anna Karina. And so it goes...

I was very sad that I had to miss the first 40 minutes of Sébastian Pilote's Le Démantèlement, about a man who decides to dismantle his sheep farm in rural Québec in order to give financial support to a daughter who is in need. The last hour of the film that I did see was very compelling. Gabriel Arcand does a wonderful job as Gaby, a man walking the line between a resolute decision, profound losses, and bumbling and awkward relationships with everyone in his life, from his friend who desperately tries to talk him out of it, to his other daughter and his ex-wife. A conversation late in the film with his second daughter helps us to come to terms with his decision; it is a critical scene in a beautifully structured screenplay. Supported by great old favourites of Québecois cinema like Lucie Laurier, Gilles Renaud and Johanne-Marie Tremblay, along with newcomer rising star Sophie Desmarais (who is also appearing in Sarah Prefers to Run) this is a beautiful ensemble piece, even though the main character spends most of his screen time alone. Agata Smoluch del Sorbo's programme note describes the film as channeling the spirit of Michel Brault and Claude Jutra and she is right. Animals also run as quiet and powerless partners to Gaby's decision-making. Animals were also present significantly in Manakamana, and in both films offered a reflection of the harsh realities of life, while also being silent witnesses of important spiritual transitions. 

A great first day.
Gabriel Arcand in Sébastien Pilote's Le Démantèlement