TIFF 2008 Reviews (6)

Reviewed in this post:

  • Fifty Dead Men Walking
  • Synecdoche, New York
  • Toronto Stories
  • Me and Orson Welles
  • Who Do You Love
  • Blood Trail


Thursday, September 11

Fifty Dead Men Walking  Directed by Kari Skogland

Yes, another film about The Troubles.  The title refers to the claim that at least fifty people are still alive who, but for a double agent working for British intelligence, would have been assassinated by the IRA.  This particular story is adapted from the life of a real person who made quite a stink about being misrepresented until he actually saw the film and received a $40K financial settlement.

Oddly enough, this is a “Canadian” film due to production arrangements although it’s a co-production with Northern Ireland and has a British/Irish cast.

Martin (Jim Sturgess) is a small time crook recruited as a double agent by Special Branch.  His handler Fergus (Ben Kingsley) takes a fatherly interest in Martin but will eventually lose control of him to MI-5.

The story is told from the British point of view, and it’s the IRA who are a thoroughly nasty bunch with no qualms about their tactics.  Contrast this with the view of the Brits we get in The Hunger reviewed earlier in this series.

Martin’s relationship with his pals, his girlfriend and Fergus becomes more and more complex as he moves deeper into the IRA and his intelligence becomes more valuable.  The tension for us and for him is in wondering when his cover will be blown and he will become a target himself.  Eventually, thanks to a botched MI-5 raid, Martin’s career is over.

There’s nothing here we don’t know already about The Troubles and I left the theatre wondering why we needed yet another film covering familiar ground.

Synecdoche, New York  Written & Directed by Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Haufman is a clever writer, and in Synecdoche, New York he tackles the creative problem of the author as the master of his own world.  Unfortunately, Kaufman didn’t quite master his own world, and this film is too clever by half.

The title, a pun on Schenectady where the story is nominally located, refers to a literary device where a part stands in for the whole.  No, not quite a metaphor (where one things stands for another) or a simile (where two concepts have a fraternal sort of relationship).  If you really care, you can read about it on Wikipedia.

Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an author and a director of ineffectual productions in a small theatre.  He’s something of a nerd and his family life is coming apart.  Early in the film, Caded suffers a bizarre bathroom plumbing accident, and as the story unfolds (if this term can be used with such a convoluted script) his various medical conditions get totally out of control.  He is aging rather quickly and can’t do anything about it.

To counter the disintegration of his real life, he creates a fictitious one.  This is hardly a new concept, but for Caden the situation is helped immesurably by a “MacArthur Genius Grant”.  At least there may be a grant, or it might just be in his mind.

With this grant, Caden builds a replica of New York City in a large warehouse, and proceeds to duplicate his life as theatre.  The cast of the play within the film grows and grows, and they become restless that the production never actually starts.  However, the characters get away from him, in some cases living “him” better than he does himself, while his own life (assuming it really is “his” life we are seeing) falls apart.  Try as he might, he cannot will an ordered, happy life by writing it into his play.

By the end, Caden the author/director is himself being directed by a woman speaking through an earpiece right up to the point of death. 

I have left out a lot here including almost all of the action in the inner story.  There are too many contrivances.  Anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes could have been cut from this film without damaging the premise, but Kaufman directed himself, his debut in that role and self-referential within the movie.  Like Caden, he doesn’t seem to know what to cut.

Synecdoche, New York has opened in Toronto.

Toronto Stories  Directed by Sook-Yin Lee, Sudz Sutherland, David Weaver and Aaron Woodley

Toronto gets to play itself in Toronto Stories, a set of four linked shorts by Canadian directors.

We begin at the airport with a mixed bag of people coming through immigration.  A lone, well-dressed boy shows up speaking no English, but with a Canadian postcard of the RCMP.  He’s obviously used to fending for himself as he quickly slips away and takes a bus down into the city.  He will form the link of the four stories to follow.  Each story tells of relationships — one just starting, a few falling apart and an unlikely hope in one of the city’s darker corners.

Shoelaces (Woodley)  Two kids escape from a local bully and wind up playing late at night in a ravine.  One thing leads to another, and that play brings a first kiss.

The Brazilian (Lee)  Sook-Yin Lee (Willia) is one half of a mixed-race couple.  She’s gung ho for romance, but her friend Boris is just not ready for a relationship.  How do you find the right person in a big city? 

During the Q&A, a woman in the audience asked whether the Lee’s employer (the CBC) has any problems with her showing up (again) naked in a film, a reference to her role in Shortbus.  Much tittering in the house.  I do not know how this might fit in with our government’s cultural policies.

Windows (Sutherland) is the least successful of the four episodes.  An escaped con and his girlfriend are in a house that’s clearly not theirs.  He wants her back in his life, she’s not happy about the situation.  A neighbourhood watch busybody calls the cops not because this white couple is suspicious, but because a black window clearner shows up to work on the house.

Lost Boys (Weaver)  Henry (Gil Bellows) is a street man, a bit addled, but he’s got a Forest Hill background.  One of his hangouts is Union Station (the security staff know him well) where he meets the boy from the airport.  When Henry sees the kid leaving with a child pimp, he tries to rouse the police to do something, but they won’t believe him.

The quartet of shorts works reasonably well, but I would have enjoyed Toronto Stories more had there been better connections between the episodes.

Me and Orson Welles  Directed by Richard Linklater

Occasionally, a director has the chance to build a film around an actor who already owns his role.  Such was the case with Christian McKay who had been playing a one-man show as Orson Welles.  So strong is his interpretation, one has to remember that it is still a sketch, an homage, not the real thing.

Me and Orson Welles is itself adapted from a novel.  There’s a lot of crossover here.

Richard Samuels (Zack Efron) is a young would-be actor hoping to play on Broadway.  He manages to talk his way into the Mercury Theatre, Welles at that point fledgling company.   There’s a romantic interest, Sonja (Claire Danes) who actually keeps the company together while hoping Welles will smooth her way to greater things in the film world.  Richard should know better than to upstage the great man.

Welles is preparing Julius Caesar and Richard will play Lucius.  Rehearsals are chaotic.  Richard is not a very good actor.  Amazingly, opening night comes off brilliantly, a triumph for Orson Welles.  Richard is not so lucky and his career in the theatre is a brief one.

Me and Orson Welles isn’t a big, complex story, but it has a lot of brilliant acting with solid work right into the supporting cast.  The direction and editing are tight, and it’s great fun to watch both as an ensemble piece and to see Christian McKay’s take on Orson Welles.  What could have been a weak film built around one overdone character actually works because Linklater has the good sense to keep Welles off the screen enough for us to savour his appearances.

Friday, September 12

Who Do You Love Directed by Jerry Zaks

A great way to start a Friday at the end of the fest is a documentary that sends you out wanting to sing and dance.

“Who Do You Love” is the story of Chess Records, the label that brought black music to a wide audience in America. If it were just a biopic with historic footage intercut, it would be interesting but not exciting. If it were just a music video, with actors carefully synching to old recordings, why bother?

To his credit, Jerry Zaks brings major characters to life, especially Muddy Waters, and with them, their music.

The Chess brothers started off in the junkyard business, but Leonard Chess (Alessandro Nivolo) wanted more.  He heard a new kind of music, the blues, and knew that there would be a market for it.

Chess starts by opening a club in rundown part of Chicago betting that at least the black audience will come and the whites may follow.  Next he buys a record company.

In still segregated America, a white man embracing black culture was an oddity, and both the musicians in the story and we in the audience have good reason to distrust Leonard’s motives.  He’s far from perfect, friendships can be strained and families don’t always hold together.

The real treat is rapport between the characters and the actors.  All are musicians and perform in the film.  David Oyelowo (Muddy Waters) is Nigerian, speaks with a British accent, but mastered both the black delta accent and the slide guitar (after two and a half months of work).

Both Oyelowo and Marshall Chess, Leonard’s son, were at the screening, and Who Do You Love got a lot of help from other living musicians who were part of Chess Records.

Blood Trail  Directed by Richard Parry

Robert King started as a war photographer in 1993 in Sarajevo, and he was really not up to the job.  His fellow media members figured that either he wouldn’t hold up, or would be killed.  Only a year earlier, Richard Parry had started covering wars as a cameraman, and Parry found King an odd subject.  At the time, King was only 24 and an outsider, but gradually he learned his craft. 

Chechnya, Moscow, Iraq — these are among the places Robert King worked, and Parry’s path kept crossing King’s.  The idea of a documentary about a war photographer, someone who went from barely being able to sell a picture to regular appearances in Time appealed to Parry, and his film kept getting longer.  First it was a 25-minute short, then a 50-minute TV documentary, then finally an 80-minute feature with the addition of recent fottage in King’s Tennessee home from 2007.

When we watch TV or see photos in newspapers, we can forget that someone had to take them, often at great risk.  How to show the real character of what is happening in such situations?

When we see Robert King as he is today, we see someone who became part of the machinery of war and was changed by it.  He started off naive, rose in strength and skill, but now is marked by his profession. 

This documentary is a fine counterpoint to Hurt Locker which I reviewed earlier.  No bravado, no heroics, no sense of immortality, just a look at the human cost of going back to theatres of war over and over to document what happens there.