Thursday, September 18, 2014

TIFF14: The Imitation Game's enigma

Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch,
Matthew Goode and Alan Leech offer strong
ensemble work in The Imitation Game
The Imitation Game is Morten Tyldum's biopic of Second World War codebreaker Alan Turing, a Cambridge mathematician who MI-6 (the most discreet level of British intelligence at the time) seconded to help break the famous Enigma machine codes which the Nazis were using. Turing is a very complex figure who never seems to be described the same way twice in the books which chronicle this era. By turns irascible and arrogant and cunning and compassionate, he frustrated, angered and ultimately won the loving respect and support of the team of codebreaking strategists he worked with. He also happened to be gay. Not seven years after the war ended, he was ignobly arrested and threatened with imprisonment for having consensual sex with another man, then a criminal offense in Britain. Fearing what would happen to him in prison, he opted instead to take a hormonal treatment which irrevocably impacted him mentally, emotionally and physically.

It took until 2009 (ie after the stories of Bletchley had become known) for any government-authored apology and pardon process to begin, and Queen Elizabeth only enacted that pardon just last December, 2013. For nearly sixty years, Turing's extraordinary efforts to end the war were clouded in his official record by having picked-up a man. His security clearance was removed, his achievements rendered invisible. The cruelties of war were superseded by the cruelties of peace time - and a hero's honours are especially slim when their work has been clouded in a different kind of secrecy, one the government required. Alan Turing lived in constant shadows - largely of his government's making.

Turing was arrogant and
difficult but he was mostly very driven.
Cumberbatch doesn't just play that,
he illuminates it.
Morten Tyldum understands all this. And perhaps even more credit should be given to Graham Moore's brilliant screenplay, which gives us the Turing story as it should be told: as the sum of all of its parts. All of Turing's experience must live alongside each other, so that history, and the country, can see how he was treated. The three part non-linear interweaving of the film follows Turing in his childhood boarding school attachment to his first and great love Christopher, who first introduced him to ciphers and codes and who offered him much-needed personal affirmation and affection. These bits come in addition to the sequences around the 1950s arrest and the whole Enigma Bletchley drama.

This non-linear structure works well and builds to an effectively moving climax that is satisfying emotionally on the level of character as much as it offers the famous breakthrough that led to the cracking of Enigma. It is sometimes very hard to create suspense with a story we all know the ending to, but Tyldum and Moore do it, in part by unpredictably shifting eras and offering insights to Turing's personality. We come to know him most deeply by the end, but he still remains something of a cipher himself. Even Joan Clark (played by Keira Knightley) who arguably understood him best, felt the blunted edges of his variable moods and states of mind from time to time. Even she couldn't always navigate his intense mood swings in the relentless pursuit of the machine that could break the Nazi machine and end the war. But, as the movie tells us several times, "sometimes it is the people whom no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine." 

Tyldum has cast Benedict Cumberbatch to capture the elusive genius and we are lucky he did, as Cumberbatch has found a way to vibrate both vulnerability and a brassy brilliance in a highly nuanced performance that stretches over two separate eras and holds the memory of a third. I was very moved by his choices, his intense stare of concentration, his weeping over losses. He finds a depth that is astonishing in a piece that moves as fast as this one. Keira Knightley hits all the right notes as his partner in deciphering, and makes much of her short scenes - a perfect counterpart. I also enjoyed Matthew Goode and Alan Leech as other members in various states of conflict and companionship with Turing. All of the performances are strong and the screenplay is tight, efficiently managing the multiple storylines without leaving us stranded in meaning.

My only fault with The Imitation Game is not enough to change its favour with me, but is significant. It's the premise the story hinges on. The conceit is an imagination that Turing told his whole story to a detective while being detained on the indecency charge. 

A scene from the 1950s era part of the storytelling.
The intricate weaving of the three stories is
what gives the movie its depth.
The great miracle of the Bletchley Park codebreakers, besides what they accomplished, is their profound commitment to secrecy. They began work under vow of same with execution for high treason as the promised penalty for breaching. Many many many codebreakers lived long lives and died with that secret. To my mind, there is no way that Turing would have broken that vow to tell a mere detective/stranger the entire story. I couldn't help feeling that a film which otherwise beautifully captures his complexities of character, betrays that character with this choice. 

Even so, The Imitation Game is very much worth seeing. It shows us that human beings are always behind machines even when progress has made those individuals invisible. Their ghosts and their stories are part of our human history but they also create other histories. In the case of Turing, there are people alive today who owe their very existence to his accomplishments and that of his team. I'm glad that the whole story of this man has now been told in such a way as to connect all parts of him to the same accomplishment, and give all of it the dignity that it deserves.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The beautiful restraint of October Gale

Scott Speedman and Patricia Clarkson in
Ruba Nadda's October Gale
TIFF is over, but my TIFF experience is still living on in my heart and mind. People have been asking me 'where are your reviews'? Alas, I am a long believer that reflection is really important when writing about film. Taking time to think about what I've seen is half the experience of being at the festival and this year I decided to surrender to just watching, instead of watching and writing. The reality of media these days means that critics and journalists are forced to churn out responses immediately, often in compressed format, before they have had a chance to fully digest what they have seen. This is the advantage of having your own blog - you can take your time!

It is such a pleasure to be starting my reviews with Ruba Nadda's moving October Gale. She is a filmmaker I have very much admired since I first saw Cairo Time and that film remains among my favourite of all time. I use it to teach and mentor writers working in all formats and at all stages. I do so as a way of illustrating the importance of spending time with characters, allowing them to think and feel and be, even while holding the reins of good story. I also use it as a way to talk about finding and maintaining the sacred spaces of character (sacred is anything that is essential and precious to them). In Cairo Time, we see Patricia Clarkson as Juliette wander the streets of the city, both uncomfortably and then, once she has understood the rules of the world, in a comfort that appears to transcend all the realities she has ever known. That carefully constructed character space is so unusual to find in contemporary film.

Nadda takes time to really be with her characters, even
as the suspenseful events are playing out.
Now Clarkson and Nadda have reteamed for October Gale, joined this time by Canadian actor Scott Speedman and Tim Roth, in the sort of cameo villainy he does brilliantly. The movie follows Nadda's third feature Inescapable into the genre of the thriller. A woman retreats to an island cottage alone to recover from the death of her husband, only to find a wounded man washed up on her shores, escaping harsh realities of his own. 

What I loved about October Gale is how the one main story situation (ie being pursued by a potential assassin) is enough to sustain us through the real drama of two people who are caught in life transitions, thrown together to figure out how to survive. The movie is about survival - that's its story. The chase sequences, the suspense, are bonus pieces that frame the storytelling and help hold it together, but really we are watching two people help themselves and each other recover from what has been devastating. Nadda lets us know pretty early into the film that this is a character-driven drama. Clarkson's Helen Matthews goes through all the routine of opening up a cottage in the very early spring, exuding self-confidence but not always sure of what she's doing. That binary quality of confidence and inexpertness will become exactly what we need to know about her when the shit hits the fan. "Are you good with that?" Speedman's character William asks Helen as she loads a rifle. The question is one we might be asking too, precisely because the film took time to establish her character in all her ambiguities. Her answer, "Very good" followed by a snap of the load and "Do you want to make us some coffee?" is the kind of contrast Clarkson does so well, responding to the moment but also taking us to the next place, upping the ante and offering just a hint of sexual tension. (I have never forgotten a video I once saw of her reading aloud ads from the phone book as part of a campaign to support the writers' strike some years ago. It wasn't just hilarious, it was real.)

As Helen and William form their strange alliance, each begins to slowly reveal their story and Helen finally has to confess that her husband is not on his way from the city that night, as much as she might wish that he were. Because the character has been so lovingly created, we know that her lie is not just an act of self-protection, it's a necessity to her well-being; she longs for him in a way that makes him still alive when the moment requires it. Speedman is beautifully understated in his role of a man simply in the wrong place at the wrong time who is now living in the hell of revenge-baited hit and run. We know right away that however guilty he may be, he is also a good guy, and that these two like each other. The movie takes time to be with them this way without falling into romantic cliché - a brave and unfashionable choice for a thriller, where character insight is usually allowed when it will spin forward the plot or bring characters to bed. The slow dissolution of Helen's lie and the exposure of her grief are important: they allow her to have become a different person by the time she herself has to use that gun. 

One of the most moving moments for me in the film is when Helen comes face to face unexpectedly with the results of violence. Still very much in danger, she navigates being in the grip of the killer while still taking time to react to what she has just witnessed. It is riveting. These actors all excel at restraint, which might have been Nadda's middle name. It is a word she uses herself to describe her approach to doing sex on screen (or the absence of it, in Cairo Time for instance) but restraint is one of her greatest talents. It is perhaps not a fashionable talent to have in the North American obsession with showing it all. But such restraint delivers a longer, slower-burning fuse that makes for more compelling drama because there is real tension. Tim Roth's character's anecdotage about his son, while holding Helen hostage, is a beautiful example of such restraint. We have no idea what will happen next (and it could happen at any second), but meanwhile we listen to what is essentially the story of a grieving father coping with the memories of his son. Grief and its way of gripping the soul is a central dynamic of October Gale and while Helen will ultimately find ways past it, the Roth character is meant to show us what happens when we can't.

This movie is not a conventional thriller -- but that's the reason to see it. Nadda works in contrasting emotional energies always in her movies; even her early feature Sabah has it. Her more recent film Inescapable brought an immensely personal story into a world where finding space for the lost inner soul is not possible - because that world is itself devastated. Here, what she self-terms her own "languid pacing" worked in juxtaposition to the horror story that is contemporary Syria. Nadda works effectively in this sort of back-and-forth languid-staccato emotion and story rhythm in Inescapable, so that you are never far from the dark realities of its main character. In October Gale you sense that she has deepened that capacity to be both restrained and refined. "Languid pacing" leads to character depth and a fully engaging experience of character. I wish more filmmakers would aim for it.

In addition to the compelling drama, the film boasts fantastic cinematography of Georgian Bay which acts as a visual reminder that only the rugged of spirit can survive the elements and keep their sanity. This is a different terrain from that immortalized in Group of Seven paintings. This version is more truthful perhaps, in its punishing realities. As someone who herself ran out of gas on a lake this summer and had to row to shore in bad weather (!), I had an experience of cottage country which took its toll on my physical body. In October Gale, that's the cottage country landscape that is lived out by these characters viscerally: if they can survive the gale, they have endured a frontier of the heart.

It's significant that the 'gale' of the title, is not the gale of the story events, but a reference to the gale that took Helen's husband. That October gale took away life but October Gale gives life to characters who have descended into darkness and are searching for the light. The great gift to us is: we get to find it with them.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


Mia Wasikowska in Sophie Barthes' Madame Bovary
This list is a continuation of the one begun in the post below. Every year I select eighty of what I find to be the most intriguing films of the coming festival. It is highly subjective, as all lists are, but does come with some thirty plus years of attending TIFF! Here they are. Asterisks represent priority screenings for me but this is for many reasons. All the films are great picks. Some of these descriptions have appeared in earlier posts.

*Madame Bovary
Two films on offer in this year's fest, both directed by women, respond to the timeless novel by Gustave Flaubert; the other is Anne Fontaine's Gemma Bovery (see the list, part 1). Sophie Barthes' latest stars Mia Wasikowska as the woman who seeks freedom from a stifling provincial life.    

Julianne Moore in David Cronenberg's
Maps to the Stars
Mia Wasikowska is also a main reason to see Maps to the Stars, though the most recent film of David Cronenberg has had my interest since its strong debut at Cannes. The Fest blurb remarks on its 'satire and social commentary' and I'm hoping for more of the latter than the former as satire interests me less and less as I get older. Skip satire, let's deal in truthful moments. Julianne Moore has already won awards for a complex performance aiming to do just that. See for yourself in the trailer.

Kalki Koechlin in Shonali Bose's
Margarita, with a Straw
Margarita, with a Straw
This is a strong year for women filmmakers at TIFF, despite what some critics say. I did a whole post on the feast of women filmmakers and have a 'part two' followup that just needs to be finished, equally robust with offerings. Shonali Bose, like Mira Nair, is an Indian filmmaker who has been educated in the United States. Her stories are not just about Indian-Americans but about Indians and Americans finding their way in the shifting values of contemporary culture - anywhere. This love story, between a Delhi aspiring student and a Manhattan activist is one of a lucky crop of films this year which embrace in some way complex loving relationships among women. (See also Clouds of Sils Maria, Sand Dollars, and Breathe, among others.) 

Juliette Binoche
*Mavericks Conversation with Juliette Binoche
This is a rare opportunity to see the multivalent artist who has worked with literally every single living master filmmaker - or very nearly. Heartbreakingly, I will not be able to attend this session due to another important life event that day and it's a tough loss. Hopefully it will be taped. Binoche's English language films sometimes come into criticism for the way her voice inflects the language, drawing attention to a syntax that seems unusual and to some, awkward. But I am reminded of a story once told to me by the late Anthony Minghella, who directed Binoche's Oscar-winning performance in The English Patient. He said that Kubrick would often instruct actors to do exactly that - to repeat the line over and over a hundred times until the inflection changed, the word hit the ear differently and new meaning was found. Here is an artist who brings a luminous desire for presence to every role she plays and whose language of expression (unconfined to words) is often very hard to describe in its emotional and spiritual impact. If you can go, please do so for me.

*Men, Women & Children
There are many reasons to see the latest film by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up In the Air) but maybe the best one is the fact that it is looking at the impact of media, and particularly social media, on relationships. Yes, we know that's something that needs to be critiqued but the trailer looks very compelling and makes use of simultaneous graphics showing what people are currently tweeting, texting, thinking. The only thing that makes me nervous is that it is apparently voiceover narrated by Emma Thompson. Much as I love her voice, not sure I know why voiceover would be needed but it may turn out to be the most brilliant part. Who knows? An interesting aspect of this launch is that no production stills have been made available - there are none on the TIFF page and what exists on the internet has clearly been screen-captured from the trailer. I am intrigued to see what the social media rollout plan is going to be as it actually comes forward.

Robert Kenner's Merchants of Doubt
Merchants of Doubt
I am excited that Robert Kenner, the Oscar-nominated mind and vision behind Food, Inc., has made a documentary about the world of professional skeptics, people who are paid by corporations and others to generate mistrust and doubt about the veracity of climate change. That such people exist should hardly surprise us, but Kenner's plunging capacity to expose these truths will mean that Merchants of Doubt will leave us with little doubt about the long-term harm being done to the planet. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Julie Taymor's A Midsummer Night's Dream which is hiding in the Mavericks programme (but is curated by TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers) seems like it could have lived well in Wavelengths. In a year which has offered Ontarians two vital productions of this play at The Stratford Festival, we seem destined for yet a third, from the extraordinarily rich visual mindscape of Taymor. 

Colin Farrell and Jessica Chastain in
Liv Ullman's Miss Julie
Miss Julie
Liv Ullman was a goddess of my teenaged years, but her work as a director was not easy to access in the days before downloading, streaming and vibrantly rich film library collections. How wonderful that TIFF is bringing Ullman's most recently directed film, an adaptation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie. There have been a number of fine film adaptations of the classic play but this one will star Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton in the story of the relationship of a wealthy woman and a valet.

Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon
in Xavier Dolan's Mommy
By now most people are aware of the brilliance of this very young Québecois filmmaker who this year won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes for his latest film. I loved Laurence Anyways, was not as keen on Tom a la Ferme but am very excited about seeing Mommy, which seems to be even more experimentally playing with form than Dolan has previously, and which also features the wonderful Suzanne Clément. About a complex mother-son relationship.

Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner
Mr. Turner
There is already a lot of strong buzz for this latest from Mike Leigh about the famous 18th-19th century painter J.M.W. Turner and Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes for his performance as the landscape master. I am very intrigued because it occurs to me (and it likely has to other critics) that Mike Leigh is both a companionable figure and also the antithesis of Turner: both men overturn the traditions of their form, but whereas Turner favoured a lush romanticism, Leigh turns an acute eye to realism. I can't wait to see how they go together. In addition to its many reasons for being high on any screening list, Mr. Turner has what will likely be one of the most memorable written lines at this year's TIFF: "I like to paint angels in anguish." Programmed by Piers Handling.

My Old Lady
Oh gosh. I am so hoping that this Israel Horovitz film starring Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline and Kristen Scott Thomas actually offers these actors an opportunity to do good work and is not just a series of story tropes with stars. The trailer has me a bit worried but Israel Horowitz's skills as a storyteller should win the day. About a man who arrives in Paris to sell an inherited piece of property, only to find a woman and her daughter occupying it. 

*National Diploma
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose history is marked by strife, Dieudo Hammadi profiles a group of youth in his home town who want to pass the state exams and secure a more promising future. National Diploma illustrates how a corrupt government, less interested in the welfare of these children, impedes their progress and how the students fight back.

Frederick Wiseman's National Gallery
A perfect screening companion to Mr. Turner! About life backstage at the famous London gallery, Frederick Wiseman's latest film continues a preoccupation of recent years with museum stories. I loved Jem Cohen's Museum Hours set in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches museum, and was even more moved by Aleksander Sokurov's Russian Ark, which toured three centuries of the history of the Hermitage Museum in one shot. Movies observing paintings and other motionless forms of art may seem counter-intuitive to some, but I love to be immersed into these worlds. 

*Natural Resistance
The subject of climate change is the focus of Jonathan Nossiter's Natural Resistance. In 2004, Nossiter's Mondovino became one of only three documentaries ever to be nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes. That film looked at the way in which wine production and wine regions have been impacted by climate change. This year's Natural Resistance profiles four Italian vintners who are defying government and industry odds to make all-natural wine. 

Patricia Clarkson in Ruba Nadda's October Gale
*October Gale
I'm a huge fan of Arab-Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda, whose Cairo Time is one of my favourite films of all time. Reteamed with Patricia Clarkson (also appearing at TIFF14 in Learning to Drive) the story follows a grief-stricken doctor whose retreat to a cottage full of memory is shattered by the discovery of a wounded man. A psychological thriller. A late-breaking clip from the film became available just today on Indiewire. Love it. Only Patricia Clarkson can make "Black. One sugar" read rich with subtext!

Though it is irresistible, it is hard not to be just a little nervous about Willem Defoe playing Pier Paolo Pasolini directed by Abel Ferrera. That is a very very very intense combination of artistic personalities. I am a fan of all three but my greatest hope is that the film sparks a resurgence of interest in Pasolini - for his films, more than how he died. The film follows the last 24 hours of the great filmmaker's life in a style being described as part reality and part imagination. 

Pawn Sacrifice
I would not normally be drawn to a film about chess but this story offers so much possibility and I am trusting screenwriter Steven Knight, director Ed Zwick and the rest of the talent presented to deliver something fine. 

Matthew Warchus' Pride
Who can resist a Britcom about Pride-meets-Labour in 1980s Britain? Not me, especially when featuring such cream of British comedy as Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy. The trailer for this Matthew Warchus film looks like it hits both dramatic and comedy notes.

Princess of France
Matías Pineiro's The Princess of France will bring Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost into a contemporary Argentinian setting with radio actors performing the play and experiencing its movement into their own lives. Pineiro brought us last year's Viola, and seems to have a gift for mining the cinematic possibilities of reflecting on the deeper currents of these plays.

The Riot Club
Her first film since An Education, Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself) brings to TIFF another film about learning experiences, The Riot Clubabout two men who are kidnapped into an exclusive club at Oxford and find themselves falling headlong into the moral dilemmas of the rich and famous. 

Charlotte Gainsbourg, like Reese Witherspoon and Patricia Clarkson is an actress appearing in several movies at once at this TIFF. I like the tone and style evident in the trailer for Olivier Takache and Eric Toledano's latest film since Les Intouchables.

Yanet Mojica and Geraldine Chaplin in
Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán's
Sand Dollars
*Sand Dollars
Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas's Sand Dollars is an inter-generational love story between two women: one, an elderly European and the other a young Dominican. Their relationship has been born out of tourism and sits uneasily among the cultural realities and expectations on all sides. However, the trailer points to a genuinely intimate connection, tested by class and monetary distinctions. Starring the formidable Geraldine Chaplin. 

*A Second Chance

I am always glad when I see that the newest film by Susanne Bier has made it on to the roster of films announced. This year she takes on the thriller genre with A Second Chance featuring Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The film marks the continuation of a long collaboration with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen and editor Pernille Bech Christiansen and tells the story of a veteran police officer whose decision to take over the life of a child has profound implications for his own marriage and the baby's birth family. 

*Silvered Water: Syria, Self-Portrait
The trailer for Silvered Water: Syria, Self-Portrait is a few moments from this documentary by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan made up of raw footage, shot by people who live in the horror of Syria. It quickly brings home the meaning of "risk-taking". Risk-taking artistically, but risk-taking in terms of inviting us into an immersion of self in a heartbreaking place. The narrator is unseen; a child is our focus, whose exclamation at finding flowers amid carnage could act as an emblem for the deepest dreams of those forced to live in war. The combination of form and meaning make this particular doc a high-seed for me.

James Franco plays Benjy in his own film adaptation
of William Faulkner's Sound and the Fury.
The Sound and the Fury
James Franco both directs and stars in this adaptation of the William Faulkner novel which Piers Handling tells us "goes much deeper, exploring the psychoses of his characters with tremendous bravery. The gamut of emotions — jealousy, desire, lust, pride, resentment, stoicism — all bubble away as the Compsons try in their fumbling manner to make their way forward." A follow-up to  As I Lay Dying, Franco's other Faulkner adaptation.
Besides Maps to the Stars, Julianne Moore is also appearing in Still Alice, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's chronicle of a linguistics professor who starts losing language, and thus embarks on early onset Alzheimer's. No trailer yet but this much draws me in. It is hard to imagine a film that deals with this subject in a more insightful way than Sarah Polley's Away from Her but I'm open to it.

Naomi Kawase's Still the Water
*Still the Water
Right now the scheduling is working against my being able to see Naomi Kawase's Still the Water but I am hoping for a break that changes that, as this beautiful director (The Mourning Forest) has a visual style uniquely her own. The story of two young people on a tropical island finding comfort for "loss, loneliness and love" in each other after a typhoon, it will undoubtedly have some of the most gorgeously poetic footage of this year's fest.

It is so exciting that female Iranian filmmaker Rakhshan Banietemad finally has made another film (though appalling that the area that should have been the place of her bio in the programme note, is given over to the Contemporary World Speakers guest. Fix this TIFF!!!) The story which looks at the interweaving lives of seven characters is sure to show us how we still have to learn about the average lives of women in Iran.

This Is My Land
Children and the Middle East continue as TIFF Docs themes in Tamara Erde's This is My Land, which observes how six Palestinian and Israeli schools teach the history of that region. What a critical piece of the puzzle to take on. How would we ever otherwise know? Erde is Israeli but reaches across political lines. 

Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and
Charlotte Gainsbourg in Benoît Jacquot's
Three Hearts
Three Hearts
Benoît Jacquot is another filmmaker whose work I have followed since the earliest days of his career, through TIFF screenings. This latest features a story of sisters (Gainsbourg and Mastroianni) who become involved with the same man. A master who never disappoints, but take a look for yourself at the 

The Tribe
There is huge buzz from Cannes around Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's The Tribe, which features deaf-mute non-professional actors who perform without subtitles or any spoken word. A Danish/Ukrainian co-production, the trailer hints at a vivid story of a deaf-mute gang who do what gangs do - get into trouble. Programmer Dimitri Eipides, whom I'd follow to any film, says we shouldn't miss it.

Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu
The words "luminous, lyrical and poetic" seem at odd juxtaposition with the story of a cattle herder subjected to fundamentalist rule, but with Malian master Abderrahmane Sissako, anything is possible. From the director of 2002's Waiting for Happiness.

Everything about the description for Reza Mirkarimi's Today prompts me to want to see it and the programme notes just confirm it. A pregnant woman about to give birth and a Tehran taxi driver find their lives drawn irreversibly together by the events of one night. The implications of each person's story as it is slowly revealed, profoundly affects the other. 

Alanis Obomsawin's Trick or Treaty
Trick or Treaty
Alanis Obomsawin has become synonymous with the struggle of Canada's First Nations communities to stay in historical and traditional relationship to the land. The trailer for Trick or Treaty invokes not only the horrors of European colonial engagement of this country's first peoples, but the specific legal ways in which its implications have been realized. Elegant, informative and always unsettling, this new work by Obamsawin turns its focus on the 1905 Treaty 9.

*Tu Dors Nicole
The programme note by Steve Gravestock for Stéphane Lafleur's Tu Dors Nicole paints an irresistible image of that moment between graduation and the real world in all our lives. About a young woman in small town Québec trying to figure out what to do with her life, it was loved by those who saw it at Cannes, perhaps because it is "infused with a gorgeous, sultry melancholy". From the director of Continental, A World Without Guns which won Best First Canadian Feature at the 2007 TIFF. 

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard in
the Dardennes' Two Days, One Night
*Two Days, One Night
Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne always offer us something to reflect on and storytelling that is riveting while also feeling anchored in everyday experience. I think of them as a kind of edgy version of Eric Rohmer. This latest starring Marion Cotillard follows a woman desperate to hold on to her job after her workmates voted to increase their own wages rather than accept her return from a mental health leave. 

The women of Suha Arraf's Villa Touma
*Villa Touma
Suha Arraf's skill as a screenwriter (The Lemon Tree) will be no doubt present in her first feature film as a director (
if the trailer is any indication), in this story about a Christian teenager in Jerusalem who goes to live with her aunt in Ramallah and finds a world "frozen in time". She quickly becomes the remaining hope of a world long gone but being held up by the women of the family. 

*Wavelengths Programme 1
The very first programme night of Wavelengths shorts called Open Forms, features a collection of works from KwieKulik Group, "a Polish art collective active in the seventies and eighties led by and named after Zofia Kulik and Przemyslaw Kwiek", interspersed with a fantastic cross-section of short artists, including T. Marie, a festival regular whose work I have always enjoyed. Programmer Andréa Picard says the linking idea is "performativity in landscape and social sphere" but I also discern a more spiritual quality, drawn from preoccupations with colour and light. 

We Were Wolves
A second English-Canadian film that takes place in cottage country (see Ruba Nadda's October Gale), We Were Wolves is a first-time feature from Newfoundland filmmaker Jordan Canning, about two brothers who retreat to their father's Kawartha Lakes cottage after his death, to sort out his affairs and their own lives. A fun trailer.

Last year, Jean-Marc Vallée wowed us with the subtle and complex Dallas Buyers Club, one of my favourites of TIFF 2013 and of the whole year in cinema. This year he returns with an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, about a woman who walks the Pacific Coast Trail to help herself overcome her own demons. The trailer offers much promise.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep
*Winter Sleep
Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival. There is no trailer for this three hour journey through the Cappadocia region of Central Anatolia in Turkey but those who have seen Once Upon a Time in Anatolia will know that this master will have us spellbound as he guides us through the moral and spiritual awakening of a writer and small hotel proprietor. 

That's it!! Enjoy. Happy #TIFF14! Look for reviews between Sept. 4 and 14th!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Jan-Willem van Ewijk's Atlantic.
Coming up with the "80 films to watch for" blog this year has been the hardest ever. I always think in terms of what seems impossible to miss since no one can see eighty films, but this year I wished it was possible. Therefore, this list is not a "best of". All lists are subjective and many fine films that you should see may not be here. At the same time I feel confident that it is a good culling. Asterisks represent personal priorities and some descriptions are repeated from previous posts.

Anaïs Demoustier in Pascale Ferran's Bird People.
Dive in or wade out cautiously. Move methodically or browse. All films are linked to the TIFF description page, and trailers, where available, have also been given. Let the feast begin! 

*1001 Grams
The gentle irony that pervaded Bent Hamer's Kitchen Stories has lingered in his later films and is visible in the trailer for 1001 Grams. Billed as an "offbeat comedy", Ane Dahl Torp stars as a Norwegian lab technician sent to a Paris conference with the Norwegian 'kilo' where she learns to reconsider what weight means. 

From the moment I watched the trailer, I have been drawn to the wide spaces and spiritual lighting of Jan-Willem van Ewijk's second feature Atlantic (shown at top), about a man who windsurfs across the sea to be reunited with a woman who has left an indelible impression. 

Hajooj Kuka's Beats of the Antonov
*Beats of the Antonov
Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka brings Beats of the Antonov to the fest: a celebration of the "Sudanese farmers, herders and rebels of the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain regions, who defiantly celebrate their heritage and tend their lands in the face of a government bombing campaign" People who resist state acts of violence by offering witness to tradition -- this is part of how the human race survives. We need to hear stories like this one to ground ourselves in hope for the future of the world.

*Bird People
Again, the trailer has drawn me in, reminding me a bit of Kieslowski's Rouge in its uses of coincidences which may turn out to be profound. The film features French rising star 
Anaïs Demoustier whose subtle performance in Malgoska Szumowska's Elles I really loved. Here she plays a French chambermaid whose life patterns begin to overlap with that of a disaffected American businessman. 

Black and White
There is no trailer available yet for Mike Binder's film about the custody struggle among grandparents of a bi-racial child but there has been some conversational buzz about how issues of race are played out. There is an appealing cast, including Octavia Spencer and Jennifer Ehle in this drama about an alcoholic (Kevin Costner) struggling to hold on to the little girl he has been raising for seven years after his wife dies. 

Dustin Hoffman in Francois Girard's Boychoir
In another post, I have talked about the migration of Québecois filmmakers to Hollywood. Francois Girard, whose Thirty-two Short Films about Glenn Gould and The Red Violin are treasures of our national cinema, brings us this story of a young music prodigy who comes up against an intense choirmaster. This looks like a conversation partner to Whiplash, which Toronto Star critic Peter Howell tells me I have to see, about a contentious mentor-student relationship. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates and Debra Winger. 

A scene from Mélanie Laurent's Breathe
Breathe (Respire)
Piers Handling's programme note for Breathe makes it clear that this second feature from actor-turned-director Mélanie Laurent takes a dark and even harrowing look at an intense teenaged friendship/relationship among two girls. 

The trailer makes it even more vivid. I am nonetheless drawn to it, mainly because it shows signs of working in interesting ways with the metaphor of breath, as that essential life force is connected to love. 

Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche in
Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria
*Clouds of Sils Maria
Readers of this blog know that a Juliette Binoche film is always a top-seed but I liked also what I saw in the international trailer.
Olivier Assayas' gift for writing complex characters is another reason to see Clouds of Sils Maria, about an actress (Binoche) whose relationship with her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart, in a career-changing performance) deepens as they retreat to the Swiss Alps to prep a play. From the director who brought us 2008's deeply felt Summer Hours

Coming Home
Once again, a trailer has drawn me in, despite that it is only ninety seconds. (And I would have likely wanted to see Zhang Yimou's new film anyway.) Featuring the incredible Gong Li, the Meryl Streep of Asian cinema, it tells the story of a post-cultural revolutionary woman suffering from amnesia, whose search for lost memory coincides with the return of her imprisoned husband. I really hope I get to see the film that Variety has called another Doctor Zhivago

Mathieu Denis' Corbo
I have to strain to think of any feature film yet that has dramatically portrayed the inside of the famed FLQ, though at least one or two have looked at the October crisis of 1970. In the absence of any programme notes online, the trailer for this first feature by Mathieu Denis not only hints at a strong visual style, but makes clear that we will see a rare point of view of an important moment in our nation's history. 

Hao Lei in Peter Ho-sun Chan's Dearest
I was very affected by Richie Mehta's Siddharth at TIFF13, a film which shares a storyline with Dearest of parents looking for a child who has been abducted into slavery. I enjoyed Peter Ho-sun Chan's Love Letter - another reason to believe in this film which takes a hard look at an impossibly hard subject. 

*The Duke of Burgundy
Danish star Sidse Babett Knudsen is my main draw to this Peter Strickland film. The star of Susanne Bier's After the Wedding and the lovely comedy Den Eneste Ene, she is most widely known perhaps for having played Birgitte Nyborg, the statsminister in three seasons of Danish television's Borgen. Joined by Chiara d'Anna here, she plays an amateur lepidopterist "whose wayward desires test her lover's tolerance". From the director of Berberian Sound Studio

Mia Hansen-Løve is one of the best women filmmakers to emerge during the last decade of TIFF. Her newest film, Eden stars Greta Gerwig and Brady Corbet as lovers invested in the meteoric rise of French electronic music in the 90s. Hansen-Løve shot the film in France and New York and co-wrote the script with her brother Sven who worked as a Parisian DJ during the period being chronicled in the film. The story focuses mostly on Paul, the DJ, and the impact on him of huge success. 

Elephant Song
In some ways it makes sense that wunderkind of Canadian theatre, playwright Nicholas Billon, should have a film made of his beautiful play that features Xavier Dolan, wunderkind of Canadian film (see Mommy, also at TIFF14). In this film, Dolan is an actor, playing the patient to Bruce Greenwood's psychiatrist in this adaptation of Billon's play, which I saw when it was produced at the Stratford Festival. The film is directed by Charles Binamé and also features Catherine Keener. 

Episode of the Sea
The spirituality of landscape seems to be very present in both Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan's Episode of the Sea and Joana Pimenta's The Figures Carved Into the Knife by the Sap of the Banana TreesThe first film dwells in the seemingly anachronistic Dutch fishing village of Urk, a community that was once an island. The second, a short, offers an amitié amoureuse among the two actual islands of Madeira and Mozambique through a correspondence made up of images. They are being screened together. 

The cast of Denys Arcand's An Eye for Beauty
*An Eye for Beauty
There are so many reasons to want to see the latest from one of Canada's greatest filmmakers but what I'm especially drawn to is its love story (between a Québecois architect and a Torontonian woman), and its promise of a return to some of the tonal qualities of Denys Arcand's earlier works. Or so the programme note tells me, and I have no reason to doubt it; no reason not to see any film by the director of Jésus de Montréal

I have been following the films of Michael Winterbottom ever since I saw the first instalment of his four-part movies for tv, Family, at TIFF in the early 90s. There has been some unevenness in the last years, I feel, of artistic success, but never any compromise of bravery and boldness. Always ready to confront the underlying truths of a situation, no matter how difficult, I expect the same from this film, loosely based on the Amanda Knox murder. 

Martin Dubreuil and Hadas Yaron in
Maxime Giroux's Felix and Meira
*Felix and Meira
Movies about faith and spirituality, and the cinema of Québec are two of the great passions I bring to TIFF. So I am very intrigued by the possibilities of Maxime Giroux's Félix and Meira, about a young Jewish Orthodox woman in Montreal whose religious and cultural identity is challenged by friendship with a compassionate neighbour. I don't know Giroux but the trailer looks promising. A high seed. 

*Force Majeure
Ruben Östlund's film was a sleeper hit at Cannes and here too the trailer would only confirm that promise. I'm guessing this story of a man who abandons his family during an apparent avalanche while on holiday in the Alps, will ask us to reconsider how the morals we hold dear hold up against brute instinct. Are we really who we think we are? A multi-Scandinavian country collaboration. Always good news.

*Foreign Body
I am intrigued by the possibilities of 
Krzysztof Zanussi's Foreign Body, about a man in love with a woman who has decided to become a nun, and his struggle to be near her and withstand the political and sexual maneuvering of a businesswoman who wants to promote him. The programming note indicates a portrait of very contrasting worlds in contemporary Poland. 

Gemma Arterton and Fabrice Luchini in
Anne Fontaine's Gemma Bovery
*Gemma Bovery
Years ago, I had the chance to interview Anne Fontaine in connection with her film Nathalie and was impressed not only by her graciousness toward my rusty French but also by her keen observation and understanding of the characters in that film. I've made it a point to see her films ever since and am never disappointed. This contemporary update of the famous Flaubert novel, featuring an Englishwoman in Normandy looks promising and will offer a contrasting view from the version being seen elsewhere in this festival in Sophie Barthes' Madame Bovary

*Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
In the past decade, we have seen some incredibly insightful films about the way women's lives are affected by religious orthodoxy of many kinds in middle eastern cultures. While others have told stories of women from inside orthodox Judaism in Israel (Amos Gitai's Kadosh comes to mind), this film speaks to the legal experience of women in that world, in a way that Iranian filmmakers have done repeatedly. Therefore,
Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz's Gett about a woman seeking a legal divorce from a husband she has long separated from, is an expected highlight for me. 

In 1990 I remember seeing at TIFF (or the Festival of Festivals as it was known then) a very deeply moving film by Ann Hui called Song of the Exile, about a Hong Kong woman reconciling her relationship with her Japanese mother - a tale that was autobiographical. It was one of the first films to awaken me to Asian cinema and to the changes of pace and energy one could experience there. I went on to faithfully follow her work in a career that has been prolific and included Summer Snow and the more recent Night and Fog. I am so excited that Hui is bringing The Golden Era (pictured at top) to TIFF straight from Venice where it will first show. The film is a biopic of the 20th century female Chinese novelist Xiao Hong (The Field of Life and Death) who wrote brave books that chronicled the suffering of women in Chinese society, particularly under Japanese occupation. A Chinese trailer is available but none yet with English subs.

Goodbye to Language 3D
There are many who believe that Jean-Luc Godard is the ultimate French cinéaste, having offered over five decades a canon of film that is often exceptional and always experimental and controversial. This film is being described as a "visually sumptuous and richly complex meditation on history and eternity, being and nothingness, desire and death." I'm not sure I could add anything to that! But see for yourself in the trailer

*Good Kill
Recently, while in my car for three hours, I heard a CBC interview with an American soldier whose job had been to direct drones on Afghanistan targets. He had left the post because he found this form of combat severely challenging morally. So I am very glad that Andrew Nicoll has made Good Kill, about an Air Force officer (Ethan Hawke) who becomes increasingly disquieted by the job he does, firing from an office chair in the American west, drones intended for terrorists whose nature and identity become difficult to discern. Starring Ethan Hawke and January Jones and from the director of Gattaca.

Reese Witherspoon in
Philippe Falardeau's The Good Lie
*The Good Lie
Reese Witherspoon is at the apex of her career and will see two films launched at TIFF14, this one and Wild. Both are directed by Québecois filmmakers now working in the U.S. Philippe Falardeau, whose last film was the exquisite Monsieur Lazhar, is behind the camera for The Good Lie, about an American woman who helps four Sudanese refugees find their way on American soil. One of the strongest aspects of Monsieur Lazhar was the direction of ensemble work and the trailer gives every reason to hope for it here too. 

The Great Man

A conversation partner for Good Kill, The Great Man stars Jérémie Renier as a French Foreign Legion soldier who is given the chance to repay a war debt to a comrade by becoming guardian to his son. French filmmaker Sarah Leonor directs. 

There is considerable buzz around this latest feature from South Korean director Shim Sung-Bo; the film is also going by the name Sea Fog. It was written by Bong Joon-ho, whose script for Snowpiercer is getting tremendous praise. The story follows a group of fisherman who encounter incredible obstacles while trying to ferry people illegally from China to Korea in high seas. 

*Hector and the Search for Happiness
I am so excited for my old friend, Tinker Lindsay, who is the co-writer of this feature, continuing a long-time collaboration with director Peter Chelsom. Simon Pegg plays a disaffected London psychiatrist who travels to many continents exploring what makes people happy in the hopes of being able to reorient his own life. Also featuring Rosamund Pike and Christopher Plummer. The trailer promises a great ride!

*Hill of Freedom
There seems to be a plethora of promising South Korean programming this year and that was even before the titles for the City to City programme (which this year features Seoul) were made known. There's something about this one which tugs at me. From the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo who brought us the incredibly beautiful Nobody's Daughter HaewonHill of Freedom tells the story (in English and Korean) of a Japanese teacher who comes to Seoul to find and reunite with a woman he once proposed to and still loves. Themes of emotional longing and separation are close to this master's heart. 

Lixin Fan's I Am Here
I Am Here
Lixin Fan's I Am Here follows his beautiful 2009 doc feature Last Train Home, which looked at the separation and reunion of children and their parents who work hundreds of miles away. In I am Here, one of four films in this years TIFF Docs that looks at the lives of children and youth, Lixin profiles young singers in contemporary China as they attempt to win a major nationalized singing competition. 

Alan Türing is the man most largely responsible for having broken the elusive German Enigma code, which is often credited with changing the course of the second world war in favour of the Allies. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the Cambridge genius who is never described in historical accounts in the same way twice. From Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (Buddy) and also featuring Keira Knightley.

Infinitely Polar Bear
Screenwriter Maya Forbes is another writer-turned-director at this year's TIFF, bringing to the fest this story based entirely on her own childhood experiences. Starring Mark Ruffalo, it follows a newly diagnosed manic depressive father as he tries to care for two daughters in Boston while his wife is away studying for a business degree in New York. Writing characters capable of mood shifts is always challenging, and even more so when it is close to home. But I am hoping for the best from this feature film debut. 

Martti Helde's In the Crosswind
*In the Crosswind
This film has perhaps the most intriguing
 trailer in the whole of TIFF14. Martti Helde's film, set in war-time Estonia, follows a woman and her daughter as they try to return home after deportation to Siberia. But it is the black and white and manipulation of time in the visual style that is most compelling in this film being billed as an ode to both home and memory.

In Her Place
The trailer for Albert Shin's feature evokes tones of a thriller. There are currently no online programme notes for this film, but I am nonetheless drawn to what appears to be a story of class differences and the delicate interweavings of a rich couple looking to secretly adopt a child born into local poverty. 

The trailer for Lisandro Alonso's Jauja, featuring Viggo Mortensen, offers only one scene, but one that is entrenched in a kind of ethereal uncertainty. About a 19th century general who goes searching for his disappeared daughter, beautiful emotional beats among its characters are contrasted with an intense story observed in careful beats. 

Tsai Ming-Liang's Journey to the West
*Journey to the West
if I had to choose one film that captures the spiritual capaciousness promised in this year's Wavelengths, it would be Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang's Journey to the West. The trailer made me feel as I did when I saw the trailer for Manakamana last year. This is the continuation of Tsai's walker series, begun (as a feature) in 2012 with a film of that name and continued in shorts. A monk moves slowly through urban spaces, head down and palms up, causing juxtapositions both physical, temporal and spiritual. Joined this time by Denis Lavant. It is being paired up with Margaret Honda's Spectrum Reverse Spectrumdescribed as a camera-less film made up of exposing film stock to light. 

Learning to Drive 
Catalan director Isabel Coixet directs Patricia Clarkson as a self-absorbed book critic who takes up driving lessons in the aftermath of a failed relationship. Her instructor is a Sikh man living in Queens (played by Ben Kingsley) who is also recovering from marriage problems. Coixet's feminist leanings will be upheld by the source material - Katha Pollitt's memoir/essay of the same name. 

Andrey Zvyagintsev's 2003 The Return brought him comparisons with Tarkovsky, but to date I've never seen his movies. Leviathan will likely be where it begins. Like Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, this story is loosely inspired by the biblical book of Job. It follows a man who is bent on preventing a land official from eliminating his home. Zvyagintsev won the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes for this "painterly, primordial tale" and a Variety review describes it as his most accessible work yet. 

Kate Winslet in A Little Chaos
 A Little Chaos
Alan Rickman's second turn as a director is the closing night film of this year's fest. The story of a woman hired by Louis XIV's chief architect to create the great gardens of Versailles, it features Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts and Rickman himself. I might normally wait for the release of this film but will see how the industry scheduling lands. A costume drama set at Versailles may be the perfect getaway late in the fest! 

Love in the Time of Civil War
One of my favourite films of TIFF13 was Louise Archambault's Gabrielle, which went on to win a Canadian Screen Award for Best Feature Film. The beautiful performance by Alexandre Landry in that film caused me to become an instant fan, so I am keen to see his performance in this new docudrama by Rodrigue Jean about an addicted hustler in Montreal. 

Part 2: M-Z is in a separate post. Go here!