Toronto International Film Festival Reviews — Part 4 of 5

This installment contains reviews of:

  • Dixie Chicks — Shut Up and Sing
  • My Best Friend / Mon Meilleur Ami
  • Fay Grim
  • Grbavica
  • This Is England
  • Zwartboek / Black Book
  • Snow Cake

As the Festival wears on,  I sometimes run out of steam (only 3 films on Thursday), and there was always the fear that the best of the Festival was behind me.  No chance.  There are some excellent films in this group.

Wednesday, September 13th

Dixie Chicks — Shut Up and Sing
Barbara Kopple & Cecilia Peck
Rating: ****

March 2003, Sheppard’s Bush Empire Theatre, London.  The Dixie Chicks are nearing the end of their concert in a packed house and Natalie Maines, the lead singer, says “We’re embarrassed that the President is from Texas”.  It was intended almost as a throwaway line, something to tell the crowd that just because they’re from Texas doesn’t mean they blindly support The Iraq invasion that was just getting underway.

The right wing exploded — how dare you criticize “our” President when soldiers are dying in Iraq — and the Dixie Chicks quickly vanished from the Country Music airways.  Rather than putting the girls in their place, as the title suggests, the reaction was so over the top, the comments by radio hosts, callers and other Bush supporters solidified the Dixie Chicks resolve.

Shut Up and Sing is part concert film, part political statement, partly a celebration of free speech over the tyrany of the music business.  Directors Barbara Kopple (who has already won two Best Documentary Oscars) and Cecilia Peck have a classic triumph-over-adversity story combined with great music and a burning political context.  By itself, that might make a decent mid-length TV documentary, but by following the band and their families through the crisis, Kopple shows us the people, their dedication to each other and to their music.

After the reaction from the C&W media and fans to the Bush statement, the Dixie Chicks realized that trying to get back to their old musical and fan base was pointless.  They needed to reinvent themselves for a new audience.  What Natalie started, Emily Robinson and Marty Maguire supported along with their manager Simon Renshaw.  There is almost never a sense of “what have you done to us”, but a collective anger at their critics and tormentors and a drive to succeed in spite of them.

Ironically, the C&W fans themselves were not a uniformly vitriolic bunch (after all, every musical genre appeals to a wide variety of people).  The real problem was the well-organized right wing lobbies who bombarded radio stations with complaints so that Dixie Chicks songs were pulled from the playlists.  Eventually, the Dixie Chicks made a hit of their new album without country radio, but it wasn’t easy.

Shut Up and Sing is a natural counterpart to Death of a President in this year’s Festival, and the reverence shown for the President, right or wrong.  The political context may draws laughs — the lead up to the war in Iraq, the search for WMDs, Bush’s declaration of victory and subsequent fall from favour — but the issues are serious both in the USA and abroad.

Oh yes, the music!  Shut Up and Sing has great concert and rehearsal footage.  If you’re there as a fan of the Dixie Chicks or, like me, as someone new to their work, you won’t be disappointed.

By the end of the film, they’re back in Sheppard’s Bush, and Natalie Maines is still ashamed that the President is from Texas.

Dixie Chicks — Shut Up and Sing has a limited release in the USA starting in late October.  With any luck, we’ll see it here in Canada too.

Mon Meilleur Ami / My Best Friend
Patrice Leconte
Rating: **1/2

What more could I ask for?  I have loved Daniel Auteuil as an actor ever since his work in Jean de Florette, and director Patrice Leconte has made such great films as Monsieur Hire, Ridicule and L’Homme du train.  Well, Mon meilleur ami proves that you need more than a great director and actor to make a great film — you need a credible plot and characters.  Maybe I was just having an off day (this film did, after all, place second for the TIFF People’s Choice Award), but to me there just wasn’t 90 minutes worth of material to make my time and attention worthwhile.  This felt very much like a short story, a sketch, an idea hatched one night in a bar, that was stretched to feature length but couldn’t sustain it.

François (Daniel Auteuil) is an antique dealer who has never had any friends.  He has no sense of how friendship works and either throws himself at people or tries to buy his way into their lives.  He doesn’t understand why people don’t want his generosity of time and spirit.

One day at an auction,  François buys a Greek vase for €200,000 just because he likes it.  However, his antique gallery partner Catherine (Julie Gayet) is not amused because she has a half-interest in the gallery.  To punish François, Catherine bets him that he cannot produce one true friend by the end of the month, 10 days away.  If he fails, she gets the vase.  (There is a bit of confusion about personal versus company property in this arrangement, but I’m being churlish to point this out, no doubt.)

What is François to do?  He meets Bruno (Dany Boon), a cab driver, who appears able to navigate the world with ease, and asks Bruno to tutor him in the art of dealing with people.  François is not an easy student.  Meanwhile, we discover that Bruno is also friendless: his life’s passion is trivia questions and he dreams of winning a million dollars on Mastermind.  This odd match — the aloof, erudite antique merchant and the working class cabby — works until Bruno realizes François is only a “friend” for the purpose of a bet.

Up to this point, about an hour in, the film drags because the premise wears thin.  Then, the gears shift, literally, as Bruno finds himself selected as a contestant.  What he doesn’t know is that François has arranged this for him. 

His wealth of trivia takes him right through to the final round.  Will he win his million?  Who will he call as his lifeline?  The final question turns out to be a snap for François (or anyone with a decent knowledge of 19th century French art), and that’s who Bruno phones.  All is resolved.  Friends are really friends.  I won’t tell you what happens to the vase.

Fay Grim
Hal Hartley
Rating: *1/2

What a mess!  This seems to be my day for films by directors who should have done so much better.  Although the audience may have loved Mon meilleur ami (see above), they gave Fay Grim a tepid reaction.  A bit of an intro to Hal Hartley is needed for those who might not understand how I arrived at these feelings.

Hartley likes complicated plots and offbeat characters.  In one absurd sequence in Amateur, he has Isabel Huppert writing pornography in an all-night cafe.  Film noir with a 90s update and lots of fun.  In Henry Fool, Hartley plays with the idea of an idiot savant:  Simon Grim is a garbageman introduced to literature by Henry Fool, a literary poseur of the first order and ex-husband of Simon’s wife, Fay.  Simon’s poems are recognized as great art.  Meanwhile, Henry has a past and needs to disappear leaving the dysfunctional Grim family behind.  (I have left a lot out, as you can imagine.)

Ten years after Henry Fool, our title character Fay (Parker Posey) finds herself in the middle of an international spy caper of dizzying complexity.  Henry’s notebooks, all ten of them, filled with his indecipherable Confessions, were dispersed years ago.  Suddenly everyone wants to find them, including the CIA’s Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) as well as the French, Russians, Israelis and more.  Apparently, Henry Fool (Thomas J. Ryan) has been part of every major event in modern political history, and the notebooks are coded memoirs.

Fay becomes a pseudo-spy at Fulbright’s urging.  Everyone thinks she is a canny pro looking for the books, but all she really wants is Henry.  The cloak and dagger stuff gets more and more complex and confused.  Eventually she finds her way to Turkey and a lead to Henry.  It turns out that his current host, Jallal, looks a lot like Bin Laden.  The already overstretched premise comes unglued for me at this point when Jallal says that he should have taken Henry’s advice.

Pulling in events like 9/11, even tangentially, like this is offensive.  Maybe I stand on different ground, maybe I don’t read Hartley’s intentions correctly, but that’s how I feel.  Yes, Henry and his books do escape the clutches of the CIA, but to what end I’m not sure. 

Given the audience reaction, I doubt this will show up in wide release.  Hal Hartley has been absent from the film scene for some time, and now I know why.

Jasmila Žbanić
Bosnia and Herzegovina / Austria
Golden Bear, Berlin Festival
Rating: ***1/2

Sarajevo, Bosnia.  Grbavica is an old section of the city that became a transit camp during the war, and we begin at a support group for women who are war victims, one way or another. 

The camera pans from empty face to empty face, eyes that are turned inward on personal tragedies.  It stops on Esma (Mirjana Karanovic), a single mother who is making ends meet, just barely, to support her daughter Sara (Kuna Mijovic).

Esma has a day job in a factory and a night job in a bar, plus a dwindling state allowance.  In the bar, she’s older, less attractive and not as good at minding the customers as the other staff.  When she sees a man who is ex-military, she has flashbacks, but we don’t know why yet.  Not a good way to start a new job.

Meanwhile Sara is difficult child with problems at school.  She’s a tomboy whose only link with her father is knowing that he was a shaheed, a martyr for Bosnia in the war.  She picks a fight with a boy but slowly they become friends.

Esma also has a new friend who is ex-army (who wasn’t).  His former unit commander wants him to settle some old scores, and it’s clear there is a lot of unfinished business from the war. 

A school field trip for Sara triggers a crisis.  Esma has taken the night job to raise money for Sara’s trip, but she should travel with substantial state subsidy based on father’s war record.  Finally, Sara learns that Esma has no birth documents because she was in a Serbian concentration camp and was raped by soldiers.  Sara’s father is actually one of the enemy, not a war hero.

The story ends with a tentative resolution, but we are left with the haunting view of the women.  The women, Esma and Sara, are the focus of this story, and both actresses are superb in their roles.

In the Q&A, director Jasmila Žbanić told us that according to the UN, there were about 20,000 such war victims, and the real number is probably much higher because so many women were embarrassed to report their experiences.  There is now a generation with large number of fatherless families, and support from the state and the international community is declining as the war fades into history.

This is Jasmila Žbanić first feature film and a great debut. 

Thursday, September 14

This Is England
Shane Meadows
Rating: ***1/2

Shane Meadows is the former enfant terrible of English cinema.  He started off with low budget movies starring all of his friends, and now here he is with a Gala screening at the Toronto Festival.  The venue may have changed, but Meadows is true to his roots in Nottingham.

This Is England traces Shane Meadows’ own youth and the birth of Skinhead culture.  In its early days, Skinheads were working class whites and blacks, and their musical inspiration came from Jamaica.  Meadows lived through the transition to the violent, racist subculture we know today.  This Is England is set in 1983, a transitional period when both flavours of the culture co-existed, and shortly after the Falklands war.

Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) is a feisty kid modelled partly on Meadows and partly on the actor himself.  He is taken in as a junior by a local group (I hesitate to call them a gang because there are so few, and because their behaviour isn’t what we think of with that word today) and gets some respect by standing up for himself.  Shaun is nurtured and protected by his friends, but changes come with the return of Combo (Stephen Graham) from prison.

Combo takes over the gang, or as much of it as will stay with him, and he, of course, is a National Front supporter.  He’s older, harder, and barely has a grip on himself.  The gang splits into two camps, and Shaun goes with more violent strain.  At first he is drawn to the raw power of Combo, but then fears where it is going.

A National Front meeting shows us the beginning of Skinhead exploitation by right wing, and the parallel with modern events is clear.  Just as Thatcher sent men to their deaths in the Falklands as a re-election PR exercise, Blair sent men to the middle east.  Neither war was justified, and fighting for an island full of sheep had lasting effects.

In the end Shaun breaks from his group (as Meadows did) and we are left with final image:  Shaun staring into the camera.  What is he thinking?  What will he become?

There is excellent acting here from a largely unknown cast, but I must especially mention Tommy Turgoose who carries the lead role.  His mother died during the filming, and This Is England is dedicated to her memory.

I have been watching Shane Meadows’ movies right from the beginning when the Festival showcased his shorts.  We’re lucky that ten years ago the British Film Institute gave him a small grant, and from that has grown a strong, experienced artist who shows us the underbelly of his country.  This is not a pretty picture of England, but that’s not Shane Meadows’ game.

Zwartboek / Black Book
Paul Verhoeven
The Netherlands / Germany / U.K. / Belgium
Rating: ***

At the Q&A after the screening of Black Book, Paul Verhoeven explained that this film came from a script idea twenty years in the making.  That takes us back to his years with The Fourth Man and Robocop.  This is the sort of story that wouldn’t fit in 60th anniversaries of the end of World War II.  One wag in the audience mentioned that we finally could have a film with a “good Nazi”, but that misses the point:  the loyal resistance in many countries was not uniformly self-sacrificing, and many people had double if not triple lives in the resistance, as profiteers, and as collaborators.  In the midst of this, it’s hard to have every occupying German as a murderous, racist pig.

Rachael Steinn is played brilliantly by Carice van Houten, one of many fine Dutch actors we don’t see enough of in these parts.  She is a singer and a Jew who is disguised and hiding from the Nazis.  An attempted escape goes horribly wrong, and we have our first inkling that those who seem to be against the Germans are really traitors.  As the story unfolded, I found my theory of “who’s the rat” changing again and again, and this is the mark of a well crafted mystery — there’s no suspense if we know too soon.

Rachael joins the resistance with the job of getting close to local German officials.  Things are going well — she has undreamed of access, listening bugs are planted, and everything is going fine until an attempt is made to expose one of the officers for profiteering.  Unknown to Rachael, her target has known all along who she is and what she’s doing.

I won’t give any more away here to avoid spoiling things for you.

My only complaint about Black Book is that its soundtrack is too intense and manipulative.  I don’t like being bombarded by big tracks that try to sway my feelings out of proportion to the story, that get in the way of me deciding how to react to events.

The title, Verhoeven explained, is a double entendre.  There is a big difference in English between “a little black book” and “being in someone’s black book”.  In Zwartboek, unmasking the real traitor depends on just such a book.  Good, but try to avoid a theatre with too aggressive a sound system.

Snow Cake
Mark Evans
Canada / U.K.
Rating: ****1/2

This is one of those oddball co-productions with a foreign director and lead actors that finds itself set in Canada.  To Mark Evans’ credit, they do not try to pretend this is Wisconsin, and Wawa gets to play itself.

With begin with Alex (Alan Rickman) who is driving from Timmins to Winnipeg “because it didn’t look so long on a map”.  We will come to learn that he is recently out of jail and still dealing with his background, and this journey is part of him putting his life back together.

On the road, he meets Vivienne (Emily Hampshire) who is hitchhiking and talks his ear off.  This has all the makings of a blossoming fall/spring friendship when out of the blue, Alex’s car is broadsided by a truck and Vivienne is killed.  (I have to tell you this in order for the rest of the film to make sense here.)  Vivienne was on her way to Wawa to visit her mother, and all that’s left as a memento are some gifts.  Alex survives the crash and decides to visit Linda, Vivienne’s mom, both to explain what happened and to deliver the presents.

When he arrives, he is not prepared for what he sees.  Linda is autistic and devoid of outward reaction to her daughter’s death.  Indeed, her focus is on the presents, “sparklies” she calls them, fascinated by anything that glitters.  Alex and Linda form a strange friendship as he learns the peculiarties of her world, and she comes to trust him to enter, ever so slightly, into hers.

Sigourney Weaver is Linda, and this is a juicy role for her.  Linda is plain, alternatively aggressive and terrified of the world, and lacking all of the social skills that make “normal” friendships work.  Her world is highly ordered and must not be disturbed.  Alex rather likes her, but friendship of a more romantic kind comes from the neighbour Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss).  There’s a point where we can imagine a rather odd extended family settling in Wawa.

Rickman and Weaver have lots of fun with their characters, but the high point comes in a game of Comic Book Scrabble.  Linda, for all that she wants a well-ordered world, has special rules.  You have to make up any word with your letters that might be a sound effect, say, in a comic book, and you must use it in a sentence to justify your definition.  Linda breaks through Alex’ reserve, and Alex sees that Linda is far more than a frightened, withdrawn woman.  He finally gets to see the Linda that Vivienne knew.

Snow Cake ends with Alex back on the road to Winnipeg, but he has left a special present behind for Linda.  It’s a surprise!

This was one of the contenders for my “Best of the Festival” ranking, but Away From Her won out in the end.