Toronto International Film Festival 2006 Reviews — Part 1 of 5

This year, for the first time, I have a website to post these review on, and rather than making everyone wait for the very last review (usually early in October), I will post them here in bunches as I complete them.  Later in the fall, I will collect all of the reviews together into their usual format as a PDF.

This section contains an introduction and reviews of the following films:

  • The Wind That Shakes the Barley
  • The Lives of Others
  • Lights in the Dusk
  • The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair
  • Brand Upon the Brain!

That covers my first two days at the Festival.  I will post more reviews in two-day batches in the coming weeks.

Introduction

This year marks the 25th anniversary of my attending the “Festival of Festivals” as it used to be called, although in the early days, I didn’t see many films. 

It all started back in the Town Cinema with Chariots of Fire and had that first thrill of knowing I was watching something special, something only I and a handful of others knew was so, so good.  Vangelis’ music was not yet part of our built-in soundscape.  Other films that year included Blood Wedding (the first of Carlos Saura’s flamenco adaptations), the Canadian documentary P4W: Prison for Women, and the surprise hit Diva which closed out the New Yorker Cinema (now the Panasonic theatre).  In those days, the New Yorker was the only theatre with decent food, something Cineplex and Famous Players had not yet learned.

For many years, I have taken the week off as vacation and crammed in as many screenings as comfortable.  That number is down a bit over the years — there is life outside of the theatre.  34 films in ten days takes its toll, and as the week wears on, sleeping in, or going home early becomes very tempting.  I’m happy to say that this didn’t happen much although, as you will see later, I dozed off in one or two films.

The Main Title and The Ads

Every screening starts with a Film Festival title adapted from the poster.  I am sad to say (as anyone who has seen the 2006 graphics will know) that this year’s was not a splendid poster.  You can see it on the Festival’s website here.  The animated version starts with several sets of red feathered wings flying out of a building and landing on various statuary as eyebrows. 

The idea is supposed to be that the festival lets your imagination take flight.  Sigh.  It gets pretty tiring on the many repeat viewings we regulars must endure.

Motorola fared a bit better with a series of excerpts from short films shot on Motorola phones.  I wish the excerpts had been just a bit longer so that we got more flavour of what the artists were trying to do.

NBC Universal trotted out more or less the same Salute to the Volunteers that they’ve been using for several years with a little bit of alternate footage.  We applaud every time because without those volunteers, the festival wouldn’t exist.  All the same, I have seen this bit well over a hundred times.  Is NBC so hard up they can’t spring for a new one?

Digital Projection

The big news this year is that digital projection has come of age.  About 25% of this year’s films were screened digitally, and I was astounded by the clarity and richness of the images.  Forget HDTV.  This is spectacular image quality on some of the largest screens in the city.  You can read more about this technology here.

The Awards 

The People’s Choice Award went to Bella, a film that I did not see. You can read its description here.  First runner up was Mon Meilleur Ami, a film by which I was greatly disappointed, and second runner up was Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing which is excellent.

The FIPRESCI international critics’ award went to Death of a President, a fictional pseudo-documentary about the assassination of President Bush and the aftermath.  The film is good but not great, and its aim is to look at the manipulation of media and public opinion in the wake of a national tragedy, not to imply or advocate a specific act.

Manufactured Landscapes won the award for best Canadian feature.  This is a fascinating collaboration between cinematographer Peter Mettler and photographer Edward Burtynsky to look at the landscape of industry and the effects of large-scale industrial works.

I was very pleased to see a new award, the Swarowski Cultural Innovation Award, go to Takva — A Man’s Fear of God.  This was a first feature by a Turkish director that explores the quandry a simple, devout man falls into when his role in the affairs of his community and religion are unexpectedly elevated.  

All three of these films will be reviewed in part 2 of this series.

Common Themes

This was the year of Iraq.  There is no escaping the effect of the Middle East situation on films from many directors.  Sometimes it is the raison d’etre of the story, sometimes it is a passing remark, but it’s often present.

2006 was also a year for great performances by seasoned actors.  Obviously I didn’t see them all, but those by Peter O’Toole (Venus), Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent (Away From Her), Michael Gambon and Albert Finney (Amazing Grace) and Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman (Snowcake) were high points of the festival.

At the Elgin Theatre, a running joke (for the audiences who attended regularly) was the astonished look on guests’ faces when they walked onstage to introduce their films.  The talent (directors, actors, writers) is always ferried to the stage door in a limo, and they come in through a small, nondescript part of the building.  Only when they walk onto the stage do they see the restored theatre with all its gilt decorations.  Not a shabby place for your premiere.

Finally, people have really learned to turn off the cell phones and blackberries (we were all told often enough) and I was not at a single screening where a phone interrupted us.  Maybe I was just lucky, or hang out in a “better” class of audience, but I prefer to be an optimist and hope that this is a good sign for the future.  Either that, or everyone loves the “vibrate” setting too much!

Ratings

  • * I stayed to the bitter end (but probably shouldn’t have)
  • ** Maybe worth seeing once
  • *** Recommended
  • **** First rate
  • ***** Best of the festival

The reviews are arranged in the order of viewing.

Thursday, September 7th

The festival started on my birthday this year, and I celebrated by spending the night at the movies.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Ken Loach
UK/Ireland/Italy/Spain/Germany
Rating: **
Palme d’or Winner at Cannes

Award or no award, I was disappointed with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the latest in a long line of features from Ken Loach.  The setting is Ireland during British occupation just after WW1.  Soldiers fresh home from the war take up a new role in Ireland as the hated “Black and Tans”, and they’re none too kind to the locals.

The story is set in a small town in Cork.  Divisions between those who support and those who oppose British rule fall among friends and relatives, and the film’s main intent is to portray the effect of an occupied country divided against itself. 

Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney play brothers Damien and Teddy.  As the film opens, Damien is about to leave for work in London and is not involved in the republican cause.  However, an incident at the railway station outrages him and he decides to stay in Ireland.  Teddy is already a republican and welcomes his brother to the fight.

Things get fairly predictable.  The nasty Brits, both the army and the resident landowners, anger the Irish, and reprisal killings start the inevitable cycle.  Eventually, a truce comes, but Ireland is to be a partitioned dominion, not the independent country the IRA wanted.

Needless to say, Damien and Teddy wind up on opposite sides of this mess with tragic consequences for the family.

There is some analogy to present-day Iraq, but it’s a stretch.  The Wind That Shakes the Barley spends far more time on the personal relationships and upheavals than on the political situation or history. 

The events leading up to the war for independence are well documented, and in his introduction Loach said that, if anything, what is shown in his film understates the violence.  It’s easy for us to hate the nasty, brutish Brits, but they are cardboard villains.

Cannes may have loved this film, but I think Ken Loach could have done better by forcing us to have some sympathy for the British and weigh both sides of the political and social divide.

Das Leben der Anderen
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (director and writer)
Germany
Rating: ****
Winner of German Best Feature, Director, Lead Actor and Cinematography awards

When Germany was still a divided country, nothing happened in East Germany without the security police, the Stasi, knowing about it.  Everyone spied on everyone else, and as much as a quarter of the population were informants at one time or another.  With the fall of Communism, many have forgotten just how intrusive a state can be in daily life.  Post 9/11, previously “liberal” countries embrace levels of surveillance and security that would have been unthinkable decades ago.  The Lives of Others is a cautionary tale of where this can lead.

It is 1984.  Ulrich Mühe plays Captain Gerd Weisler, a loyal member of the Stasi who sees his job as a high calling necessary to state security.  As the film begins, we see an interrogation that is recounted for the benefit of a class of new recruits.  The assumption is that everyone has something to hide, and with the proper technique an investigator can find out anything.  One student raises concerns and the small “x” Weisler makes against his name on the class list tells us that his career will be brief. 

Weisler is assigned a special task to monitor a loyal and popular playwright, Georg Dreymann (played by Sebastian Kock).  There is a special irony here:  Dreymann is actually working on an exposé of life in East Germany for the magazine Der Spiegel, but the state doesn’t know this.  The real goal is to find anything that could be used to disrupt Dreymann’s relationship with his girlfriend, a popular actress, who is the object of a government minister’s lust.

At first, nothing seems to be going on and Weisler passes days listening in on conversations of little interest.  Then, a respected, but black-listed director commits suicide.  Dreymann, a close friend, starts work on an article about East Germany’s hidden secret of high suicide rates in this supposed paradise.  Meanwhile, Weisler has learned that the motives behind his assignment are dubious and he begins to doubt the foundation of his work. 

A chance encounter where Weisler almost recruits a young child as an informant against his father is the turning point.  Weisler becomes a silent conspirator with Dreymann by filing false reports about his activities.  When the article is smuggled back to West Germany and published, there is a huge embarrassment for the state, but nobody can actually prove who helped whom.  Weisler is banished to a dull job opening letters in the basement of the Post Office.

Ulrich Mühe’s performance is exceptional — an emotionless man dedicated to his work who loses faith in the system that sustains him, and who becomes as much its prisoner as his subjects.

He is a short and rather comic man in person, far removed from Weisler’s character.  As a young man, Mühe was already a budding actor and the Stasi had no less than four of his classmates acting as informants. 

The Lives of Others is von Donnersmarck’s first feature.  Both direction and script leave nothing to be desired, and this is a debut that well deserve the standing ovation it received.

Watching this story, my overwhelming thought was of the huge waste of time and manpower such an intrusive security appartus entails.  What resources did East Germany waste on following its citizens activities at such a detailed level?  How much of today’s security apparatus will really serve the cause of keeping us safe, and what dangers lie in its perversion for political oppression?  The Lives of Others ends with a hint of reconcilliation between the watcher and the watched that may fit its era, but not our own.

Friday, September 8th

Lights in the Dusk
Aki Kaurismäki
Finland/Germany/France
Rating: **½

Aki Kaurismäki is a master of films where dour Finns find themselves in hopeless situations.  Sometimes these are comedies, sometimes tragedies that comment on the sadness of life.  It’s not always easy to tell at first glance.

Our hero is Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), a security guard who has no friends.  Even his fellow workers don’t care for his company.  Empty space surrounds him even when he’s in a crowd.  In a bar, he’s a nonentity whose clumsy attempts to pick up a blonde fall flat.  Then his luck turns.

Suddenly, she is interested, but we know there is an ulterior motive — she is part of a Russian gang who are planning a jewel robbery, and they need someone on the inside to learn how to evade the security systems.  Koistinen is gullible and more than a bit naive.  He is convicted for aiding the heist, but never gives up his “friends”.

Once he’s out on parole and working in a restaurant, he spots his old partners and plots a revenge.  The attempted killing fails, of course.  By the end of the story, he finally acknowledges the friendship, if not love, of the only person who ever cared for him, a local hot-dog vendor who seems almost as sad and lonely as he is.

This is a tale of a man with totally impractical dreams and a social ineptitude that prevents him from succeeding at even simple friendships.  The setting is the usual wry Kaurismäki environment with all of his usual reperatory company in the cast, but the idea doesn’t hold up for 80 minutes.

The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair
Michael Tucker, Petra Epperlein
Germany
Rating: ***

At the 2004 festival, Tucker and Epperlein presented Gunner Palace, a documentary of the early days of the Iraq invasion.  This was a time when things seemed brighter: everyone would welcome the invades; there was hope for a new democratic government that would soon take control of the country; all would be well in short order.  Even then, in September 2004, the optimism was fading, but we didn’t yet know how long and costly the occupation would be for everyone, especially the Iraqis.

A short passage in Gunner Palace depicts a night raid on a Baghdad house in September 2003.  Several men are rounded up even though one protests in quite fluent English that he is a journalist and has done nothing to warrant his arrest or the way he is treated.  He is, of course, ignored.  This scene haunted the filmmakers who realized that, in different circumstances, they might be arrested and disappear into the security apparatus of some country.  Who was this man?  Why was he arrested?  What had happened to him?

By chance, someone at a Gunner Palace screening in New York said “I know him”, and in 2005, the directors met Yunis Abbas in Amman, Jordan.  Their extensive interview forms the heart of The Prisoner.

Abbas and his brothers wound up on the Abu Gharib prison, although not in the most notorious part of that compound.  For some reason, the Americans thought that Abbas was plotting to kill Tony Blair on a visit to Iraq.  They were wrong, but they took nine months to figure out that they had no reason to hold him.

During that time he faced repeated interrogation, poor food, and physical danger.  Most of the prisoners lived in open-air tents and had no protection from artillery attacks on the prison.  Ironically, he had also been tortured by Saddam’s regime in the late 90s.

The interview is intercut with some Gunner Palace footage, Abbas’ home movies and Army documents including an incredibly insensitive manual on techniques for dealing with the locals.  We see a man caught in a system that does not even fully understand its own mission and which routinely degrades the very people it is supposed to be liberating.

After nine months, Abbas is released with nothing more than a “sorry” for his troubles.  

Despite two Freedom of Information requests, the Army denies all knowledge of Abbas.  Things might have rested there but for an unexpected guest at the festival.  Ben Thompson was an MP in the Army Reserves out of Columbus, Ohio and was part of the group who replaced the disgraced crew at Abu Gharib.  During his tour there, Thompson regularly met Abbas who had become a leader of and spokesman for the prisoners.

Thompson spoke of the camp conditions and his disgust at them after the screening.  He has now left the Army and is a student.

In a festival where the excesses and follies of the Iraq war underlie so many films, The Prisoner is a caution to everyone who would give the state unfettered powers in the name of security.

Brand Upon the Brain!
Guy Maddin
USA/Canada
Rating: ***½

I am not going to attempt to describe this film.  Here is an excerpt from the description in the film festival program:

Brand Upon the Brain! concerns a character named Guy (played by Sullivan Brown as a youngster and Eric Steffen Maahs as an adult).  He has accepted his mother’s invitation to return to the island of Black Notch and the orphanage where he was raised.  He has come to paint the lighthouse and this marks his first trip back to the island in thirty years. 

Memories are everywhere on Guy’s beloved island. He remembers his pubescent sister (Maya Lawson), his chastity-demanding mother (who watches over the island with her super telescope), his workaholic scientist father and his own under-stimulated youth.  Then, celebrity teen detectives Wendy and Chance Hale (both played by Katherine E. Scharhon) arrive on the island to investigate the mysterious head wounds suffered by former charges of Guy’s enigmatically malevolent mother and father.

With young Guy’s assistance, we witness a kaleidoscope of memorable images: a coven in the marsh; his mother’s mysterious Romania-shaped birthmark; secret codes and rendezvous; crashing waves; sin-cleansing turpentine baths. On top of this, there is the traumatizing turmoil brought about by the Hales’ investigation.

Guy Maddin’s first experience with the festival was to have his debut film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, refused for screening.  The festival has never quite lived that down, especially in 2000.  In that 25th anniversary year, Maddin produced the most memorable of ten shorts celebrating the festival and the history of cinema.  The Heart of the World was an amazing five-minute black and white silent in which the our heroine selflessly dove to the centre of the world to nurse its dying heart back to health and save the planet.

At about that time, the festival’s director, Piers Handling, said to Guy Maddin “you should make a feature some day”.  Well, by way of films like The Saddest Music in the World, he did, and Brand Upon the Brain! is the result.

This is a feature-length, silent, black and white movie (with more distressed footage than is healthy to see in one sitting).  The world premiere at the Elgin Theatre featured a live 11-piece orchestra, an original score composed and conducted by Jason Staczek, three live Foley artists (sound effects), a narrator and a pseudo-castrato singer in the manner of Ivan Rebroff having a soprano moment.

This film has it all:  Oedipal complexes, incest, orphans, a mysterious youth-giving nectar, vampirism, cannibalism, gay marriage, transvestism, bisexuality and more than a little Bergman gone mad.  Poor Guy tries to paint over the past with whitewash, three coats, but he cannot escape his legacy.

Brand Upon the Brain! will lose something in transition to a conventional print with a prerecorded soundtrack, and I have to admit that it’s a tad longer than necessary.  All the same, it’s great fun.

One thought on “Toronto International Film Festival 2006 Reviews — Part 1 of 5

  1. I heard Cineplex and AMC will be joining together to bring digital projection to the cinemas.  I think it is good for anyone who is interested in becoming a projectionist without worrying about their size.  Film reels are very heavy and it needs two people to carry them.  Plus film reels are very expensive stuff. 

    FYI, Cineplex now owns Famous Players.

    Steve:  Yes, in the old days, the rivalry between these two chains during the Festival was quite amusing.  At the Uptown, run by Famous Players, they managed to run an entire film, a premiere no less, out of focus.  Cineplex posted copies of the press coverage of that debacle in the lobby of the Varsity. 

    Famous Players never managed to figure out that people inside the theatre buy their food while people in line buy food from nearby stores, or bring their own.  They even tried to prevent people from bringing food into the Uptown even though the audience had languished in a lineup for as much as an hour.  My favourite vignette was a group who sat down in the front row and spread out a small picnic (there may even have been wine!) in a scene reminiscent of the opening of “Tampopo”.

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