TIFF 2008 Reviews (4)

Reviewed here:

  • Dean Spanley
  • Is There Anybody There?
  • Witch Hunt
  • Séraphine
  • Hunger
  • The Hurt Locker

Sunday, September 7

Dean Spanley directed by Toa Fraser

Our title character, played by Sam Neill, is a man of the cloth, but rather more eccentric than the dotty vicars who show up as stock characters on Masterpiece Theatre.  He has a real fondness for Tokaj, the older and rarer, the better.  It’s effect on the Dean is quite astounding — he regresses into earlier lives as a dog and recounts at length stories of past adventures.  Whether he is a just a good con or many good dogs rolled into one barking mad Dean (yes they avoided that line in the film) is hard to say.  Let’s say that the by the end of the story, if he had wanted to get back to a dog’s life, he certainly succeeded.

The star turn belongs to Peter O’Toole, an aging cantankerous father (Fisk Sr.) whose relationship with his grown son (Fisk Jr., Jeremy Northam) is strained, despite weekly visits.  Fisk Sr. has a lifetime’s worth of eccentricities cunningly deployed to insulate himself from the rest of the world.  Under this, however, we will gradually learn that Fisk Sr. really pines for his other son, a victim of the Boer War.

A rare excursion takes them off to a lecture on the transmigration of souls.  Yet another potential con-man, the visiting Swami (Art Malik), intrigues old Fisk with his tales of reincarnation.  I couldn’t help thinking that this part had more meat on it originally as a foil to Dean Spanley himself, but wound up on the cutting room floor.  That lecture provides the initial contact between the Fisks and Spanley, and launches them on a search for ever rarer wines.

The fantasies of a dog’s life are a bit overdone, but they set up the denouement.

By the end of Dean Spanley, I wasn’t sure whether I had just seen an amusing fantasy about re-incarnation, a story of a delectable con artist with a prediliction for fine wine and tall tales, or an extended product placement for Tokaj.

Whether you believe that the Dean was once a spaniel, the yarn is a delightful one and the acting is superb.  Sit back, sip a glass of wine, and enjoy.

Is There Anybody There? Directed by John Crowley

Not too many years ago, I remember a film festival Q&A where Michael Caine talked about winding down and making only a few more films.  So far, he’s showing no sign of this, and filmgoers are luckier for his continued active career.

Is There Anybody There? sees Caine as The Amazing Clarence, a retired magician who pines for his ex-partner, his now-dead wife.  He has been living in a small seniors’ home run by a young couple who struggle to keep the place operating.  Their son Edward (Bill Milner) is fascinated with the afterlife and ghosts, to the point of hiding a tape recorder under beds to hear what happens right at the end.  The prosaic arguments between funeral attendants are not quite what he was expecting.

Edward’s relationship with his parents is strained by their focus on the business, and an unexpected friendship develops between the boy and Clarence.  This is the heart of the film, and the two actors, Caine and Milner, work together flawlessly.  In the Q&A, Caine had great praise for the younger actor’s skill and professionalism, and their rapport shows on the screen.

Clarence’s attempt to leave home in his van run aground, literally, and thus begins a series of misadventures.  We watch him come unglued bit by bit as he loses fragments of memory and skill one by one.  A grand return to his magical days goes wrong in a hilarious (except for the victim) accident, and at this point Clarence really knows his life is near its end.  Edward, by now a good friend, gets to experience death not as some mystical event, but as a natural part of life. 

Michael Caine spoke about the challenges of taking on this role where he must portray confidence and enthusiasm that must give way to confusion and acceptance of his condition, together with the rebirth of finding a close friendship he was not expecting.  The Amazing Clarence is a great role.

This was my second choice for best-of-the-festival, and only by a close margin. 

No North American release date has been announced.

Witch Hunt directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy

The past twenty years have brought wave after wave of accusations and convictions for child molestation as feelings of hidden guilt and privacy gave way to outrage and public acceptance that long-standing wrongs must be corrected.

What happens when this yearing for retribution is exploited for political ends?

Witch Hunt shows us Kern Country, California, where the city of Bakersfield went through just such an experience in the 1980s.  A crusading District Attourney started to find perpetrators everywhere.  Convictions were based on rehearsed testimony and supressed evidence, many were arrested and jailed.

The “crime wave” was completely political in origin, and only after the state Attourney General intervened in response to protests over unlawful prosecutions, were the cases reviewed.  On man served 20 years for crimes he did not commit.  The DA responsible for these travesties is still in office and has been re-elected seven times.

Abuse of power is an important issue, no more so in our “law and order” society where throwing people in jail is a simplistic “solution” to every problem.  The unscrupulous can, and have used crime scares and prosecutions to further their own political careers. 

Unfortunately, what would have been a good 60-minute documentary is stretched to a 91 minute feature.  There is much lingering on photos of the children whose families were torn apart by the legal system.  They are important, but the pacing suffers from over-indulgence.  Sean Penn is the executive producer and narrator, and I couldn’t help wondering whether nobody wanted to tell him he needed tighter editing.

Séraphine directed by Martin Provost

There are days when I have planned to see four films, and by the time the third one ends, my body just wants to go home, to eat, to sleep.  But some films sound too good to miss, and I go back into the lineup for one more round.

There are times I am rewarded with films like Séraphine.

Yolande Moreau has a brilliant role as Séraphine de Senlis (aka Séraphine Louis), a simple woman, a house maid doing odd jobs for anyone who would hire her, trudging from place to place.  There may have been complaints in her posture, in her businesslike attitude to her employers, but her real love was for nature and for painting.

As a young girl, she was a maid in a convent, and at the age of 42 had a mystical revelation that she should paint.  Séraphine always said that her inspiration was from on high.

Entirely self-taught, Séraphine begins with simple images, but in a distinct style.  From her simple life and drab surroundings come a leap to a brilliantly coloured world of paintings.  For a time, she was unknown until an art critic, Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) comes to Senlis and discovers her art.  Uhde became a patron and advocate of Séraphine’s work, and her style literally blossomed, her paintings became more complex although always in the same recognizable style.

Alas, with the depression, Uhde could no longer buy her works, and Séraphine ended her life in a psychiatric hospital for the aged.  She died as a little-known artist.

The film Séraphine opened on October 1 in France together with a retrospective of the artist’s work.  And, yes, the paintings in the film are only copies — the originals are all in museums and far too valuable to use as props.

The film’s website (in French) contains many stills and a trailer, and this page in particular contains beautiful samples of Séraphine’s work.

Monday, September 8

Hunger directed by Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen is a visual artist born in England in 1969, and Hunger is his first feature.  The setting is Northern Ireland in 1981 at the time of the infamous, brutal Maze prison, and the hunger strikes led by Bobby Sands.  McQueen doesn’t take sides here and tries to show how the guards, the official forces of British might were just as damaged by the troubles as those they locked up. 

At least that may be his intent.  Watching the story at a distance of nearly three decades, and in a post 9/11 frame of reference, it’s impossible to see this just as a history play, a morality story about man’s inate violence.  How you react to the film will depend a lot on your view of how such violence, state sponsored or not, should be judged.  Reaction by viewers who lived through “The Troubles” is predictably strong on both sides of the debate.

Michael Fassbender is excellent as Bobby Sands as is Liam Cunningham as Father Moran, a priest who tries to act as go-between between the starving Sands and the government.  He fails, and after 66 days Sands is dead.  Nine others would follow, and finally Margaret Thatcher relented only to the point of letting political prisoners wear their own clothing instead of prison garb. 

Fassbender starved himself for two months before shooting to play the role, and his skin-and-bones appearance is only partly makeup.  A 21-minute long scene between Fassbender and Cunningham is a tour- da-force of acting.  Father Moran’s sympathies lie with Sands right up to the end, but he cannot condone suicide and must wrestle between his politics and his regilion.

McQueen’s training as an artist shows in every carefully composed frame.  Many shots are beautiful pieces of cinematic composition, and this plays off against the grim surroundings. 

I regret that the film goes on too long.  We get lots of violence against prisoners, assassinations of guards and the deliberately filthy conditions in which the prisoners lived while protesting.  It’s not pretty, but if you don’t buy into the political story, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the characters.

Instead, I found myself watching Hunger as a parable for our times.  Are the excesses of the “war on terror” justified?  Are we complicit because of acts done in the name of our own safety?

Hunger was awarded the Camera d’Or at Cannes.  It opens on October 31 in the UK, and for a limited release in the USA on December 5.  No Canadian date has been announced yet.


This is the point in the festival where I actually saw Religulous, but I have already published the review in Part 2.

The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow

This really has been my day for war, terrorism and religion.  How I manage these thematic screenings, I don’t know, and sometimes it’s just an accident of the schedule.

The Hurt Locker coupled with Religulous shows the worst side of macho America.  Neither film maker intended me to have that reaction, but we old lefties from the ’60s approach things a bit differently, I’m sure. 

In Religulous, we had a comedian masquerading as a commentator on the extremism of religion, forgetting that man invented god(s) in his own image.  If we think of the divine being as a character from weekday soap opera, it explains a lot.

In The Hurt Locker, we have a bomb disposal squad whose leader is a menace to himself and to his squad, but who survives within the army because he’s the gung-ho guy who has already disarmed over 800 devices.  We can go anywhere and we can do anything, the very attitude that got the USA into such a mess in the first place.  Humility is not in his repertoire.

As The Hurt Locker opens, we meet a bomb disposal squad that is less than 40 days to the end of their rotation in Iraq (the film was actually shot in Jordan).  They’re decent guys, but their leader gets blown up and morale isn’t high.  In comes a replacement, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), the hot shot who has no fear.  He’s a bad fit, but he’s the leader and he quickly proves he knows his stuff.

As the squad disarms progressively more complex devices, they come to appreciate James’ expertise, not to mention his amazing luck.  However, things come off the rails when James decides he’s going to get the bad guys, and slips away with his men to do a night search for the bad guys.  He’s totally off his mission, doesn’t bother with backup and seriously wounds one of his own men while pursuing his targets.  Great stuff, but is this really the way the army runs its war?

On one raid, the crew discovers a “body bomb”, a dead boy with a bomb implanted in his chest.  At first they’re just going to blow it up, but our hero, thinking he knows the kid as a roadside vendor near the base, digs in and removes the device from the body.  As he carries out the dead boy, the Pieta symbolism takes US arrogance to new depths.

The rotation ends.  James is back home with his family, but his real love is the field, and gosh darn it, he signs up for another year.

A better metaphor for the mess in Iraq couldn’t be found although I doubt that was Kathryn Bigelow’s intention.  Great FX.  Surround sound.  Shifty eyed locals with terrorist thoughts in almost every heart.  The idea that the USA might be in the wrong war isn’t in a single frame.  The film is adapted from writings of Mark Boal who was an embedded journalist, and if it’s even close to true, it’s a frightening glimpse of the war.

I didn’t stay for the Q and A, and don’t know whether the director was challenged by any members of the audience about the politics of her film.  Myself, I couldn’t help comparisons with Hunger where we see neither side as saints, but both trapped in history.  A little humility in The Hurt Locker would have gone a long way.

No release date for North America yet.  Maybe they’re waiting to see who wins the election.

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