This year I will maintain a list of films I have seen with ratings and brief descriptions, and will add to this on a daily basis including pointers to items of special note. Full reviews will appear as I have time to write them out from my notes, mainly after the festival ends. The titles below are hotlinked to the TIFF website.
TIFF has announced the various People’s Choice Awards for 2009:
- PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE [I did not see this. Oprah’s association alone will guarantee its success.]
- MAO’S LAST DANCER [I will publish a guest review from my cousin who loved this film.]
- MICMACS [One of my own favourites]
- TOPP TWINS [Very good, but depends heavily on the subjects as opposed to the director]
- CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY [Michael Moore’s latest, opening soon; I did not see this.]
Midnight Madness [I saw neither of these.]
- THE LOVED ONES
TIFF is over for another year, and I’m now able to return to the land of transit and politics. My last day of films included:
Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky **½: A love affair between Chanel and Stravinsky feeds the composer’s muse while Coco commissions the invention of a new perfume. But for the people involved here, the plot is the same old love triangle without much to interest us. The film opens with a restaging of the première of Le Sacre du Printemps, Stravinsky’s huge break with the traditions of “classical” music, but if the choreography on show (Najinsky’s) is anything to go by, I’m not surprised the audience was upset. (Massine’s 1920 version was also filmed but not included in the final cut.)
The unquestioned star of the film is the art direction — sets, props and costumes that are such a heady brew of deco they overshadow the actors and story.
I tip my hat to Mads Mikkelsen (Stravinsky) who learned not only his French and Russian texts by rote, but also learned to play a piano credibly enough to “play” some difficult works (including portions of Le Sacre) with his hands showing on camera. No double was required.
My Tehran for Sale ***: Granaz Moussavi is a young Iranian artist now living in Australia. In My Tehran, she tells the story of Marzieh, herself an artist, who cannot pursue her work in public due to censorship and repression. Through possible marriage, she has a chance to leave Iran, but this falls through thanks to an unfaithful boyfriend and reluctant immigration officials. In the end, she must sell all she owns, keeping only her memories, to buy passage on an illegal transport out of the country.
Moussavi’s intent here is to show young Iranian urban society, and to show the country in a different light than it’s usually portrayed in the west. Shot in Tehran, but edited in Adelaide, this isn’t a documentary; it’s a well-crafted story of the desperation and loss.
How to Fold a Flag ***: Those who saw Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s Gunner Palace at the festival back in 2004 remember it as the first look at military bravado in the Iraq war, and a deep sense that all was not well. Five years later, they return with a “where are they now” story about four surviving members of 2/3 Field Artillery, the company profiled in their first film.
There is some hope, but it’s hope born largely of the efforts of individuals, not from any aid they received after discharge. Indeed, parts of the army systematically thwarted efforts by soldiers to obtain the veterans’ benefits they were owed. One man works in a hog-butchering plant, but is only one term away from completing a college degree. His bitterness at the war contrasts with a young relative with an ironic pair of jobs: he is training to be a military recruiter, but also is in charge of handling affairs for dead soldiers at Fort Bragg. Another, still haunted by Iraq, wears a list of his fallen company members on his clothing, but at the end is the name of a young Iraqi he killed by mistake at a checkpoint.
War marks everyone, and the trials of this quartet of veterans, scaled up to the thousands who served, give a sobering look at the “collateral damage” to US society.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans *: This was not a good end to my 2009 festival. Somehow, Werner Herzog became director of a remake of Bad Lieutenant with Nicholas Cage. Herzog claims he never saw the original, and that may be just as well with less embarrassment. As the story begins, Det. McDonagh saves a man from drowing in the flooded jails of a police station in the wake of the Katrina disaster. For this he earns promotion, but has also suffered a back injury (the way this happens isn’t really credible, and we’re off to a bad start). Addiction to pain killers follows, but we never really learn how he made the jump from vicodin to cocaine.
For most of two hours, Cage/McDonagh wanders around New Orleans almost permanently high. Amazingly, his colleagues don’t see anything going wrong as he ramples through investigation of a particularly brutal multiple murder. He has a girlfriend, a high-class prostitute who, by the end of the story, is both pregnant and, one assumes, married to the apparently reformed, now-Captain. Lots of bad guys get shot along the way, and the drugs on show, had they been real, would have rivalled the cost of the film.
This bad remake was introduced as having been panned at Cannes and Venice, but those are festivals for “critics and industry people”. In Toronto, the first screening went very well, or so we were told. There were many walk-outs, and only tepid applause at the end. I stayed only to see if Herzog managed to rescue the production. It has its moments, but it’s certainly not worth two hours of my time to see, maybe, half an hour’s worth of wry, amusing acting.
Vincere ****: As a young man during worker and peasant uprisings against the Papacy and the King in Italy, Mussolini met a woman who became his wife and fathered his first child. Later, this became an uncomfortable association, and all traces of it were suppressed. Mussolini married again, in the Church, a woman from his home region who would fill the proper role of a “modern” Italian wife and mother. By the time he was in power, “Il Duce” was more than happy to accept assistance and praise from both Church and Crown.
Vincere blends historical and live footage to show the rise of Italian facism through the eyes of Ida Dalser, the first wife. This is an excellent film on all counts — script, direction, acting, lighting, sound, music — nothing seems forced or contrived. Among the best of the festival.
The Invention of Lying ***: Ricky Jervais’ latest film has been promoted with a “ha-ha, wink-wink” sort of feeling with stills and trailers about a world where nobody tells a lie. For the first 20 minutes or so, the gag works with a number of brutally honest encounters leading up to a sadly mismatched dinner date for Jervais’ character, Mark Bellison.
What’s missing from all of the publicity is the heart of The Invention of Lying, the fact that this world also has no god until Mark invents “the man in the sky” who runs everything and advises mankind, through Mark, on the precepts of good living. The afterlife, the commandments (transcribed onto the back of two pizza boxes), even the hypocritical attitude to extra-marital sex, are all here. They’re wrapped in bubblegum, and completely ignored in the publicity, but they’re on full display.
This is a good, funny film, and Jervais actually manages to be likeable, but it’s got a strong anti-religious attitude at its core. I can’t help being amused that this will have wide distribution (the posters for it are up all over Toronto already), while the knuckle-dragging creationists vent their wrath on Creation, a film far more about the Darwin family than about evolutionary theory.
Perrier’s Bounty ***: Michael McCrae is a man with a big problem — he owes €1000 to the nastiest gangster in Dublin, Perrier, and has only hours to find the loot. McCrae must deal with two thugs out to break an increasing number of bones in his body; the girl downstairs who McCrae loves, but who prefers a two-timing charmer instead; and yet another mobster who recruits him for a blackmail scam. This will not come out well in the end.
This is an extremely black comedy with great actors (including Gabriel Byrne as the unseen narrator who turns out to be Death), hilarious dialogue (these are sensitive, well-spoken crooks), but a lot of violence (few characters survive to the final credits, although some go in particularly appropriate ways).
Mr. Nobody ****: Jaco Van Dormael spent much of the last decade writing, then financing and finally shooting a brilliant but complex film about choice, destiny and history. We’re in a world where death is obsolete thanks to genetic engineering, and everyone continues just as they are forever. One mortal remains, the appropriately named Nemo, well over a century old and close to death. The whole world wants to know his story.
There is only one problem: there’s more than one story. Nemo’s life exists in multiple timelines, each spawned when a choice had to occur. This goes back even to his parents — which union would his new spirit choose to inhabit? As he remembers the various pasts, we learn bits of his various histories, and Van Dormael switches effortlessly between them. Are these histories real, or are they layer upon layer of dreams between which one person passes?
Imagine what would happen if time could run both ways, if all outcomes were possible, and you got to choose the one you liked. At the moment Nemo dies, we think “it’s all over”, but, no, he still has a choice.
This is not just a technically dazzling film, but also a tour de force of direction and writing. I hope it finds a distributor, and through that, an audience.
The Damned United ***: Brian Clough had a long, colourful career in English football. Michael Sheen plays Clough among a fine group of actors including Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney and Jim Broadbent. A straightforward story of a man with too much ambition, and you don’t have to be a football addict to love it.
Micmacs à tire-larigot ****: Jean-Pierre Jeunet, best known for Amélie, takes on the arms industry in an over-the-top, Mission Impossible inspired spoof. The title translates, very loosely (according to another site I visited) as a big pile of troubles, although earthier versions come to mind. An inspired band of street folks bring revenge on two arms purveyors in a most delightful way.
Io, Don Giovanni ***: Carlos Saura presents the story of the opera as a frame for a sketch of Lorenzo da Ponte, author of its libretto. Some great music (it is Mozart, after all), and wonderful settings many of which are nothing more than printed drops that can vanish with a change of lighting to reveal another scene behind. Alas, the opening section setting up da Ponte drags, and the shift toVienna and Mozart feels overdue when it comes. Very good, but not Saura at the top of his game.
The Unloved ***: Samantha Morton spent much of her youth in foster care. Here, in her directing debut, she give us a story of Lucy, a young girl who never lived with her mother, and whose father’s violence triggers a move to a children’s home. The story is never maudlin, and Molly Windsor, as Lucy, carries the film easily. The sadness, the lack of connection among children, their need to make the best of a bad life, are all on view. In the end titles, we learn that over 70,000 children are in care in the UK, with a further 35,000 “on watch” in dangerous homes.
A Single Man ****: A haunting tale of lost love based on the Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name. Colin Firth, who just won Best Actor at the Venice festival for this role, plays a university professor unable to cope with the death of his partner, a younger man. Superb.
Glorious 39 **½: 1939 brought the finest summer weather in years to England, a complete contrast to the horrors that would follow. Within British society and government, a shadowy group favoured accomodation with Hitler at any price fearing the results of an inevitable defeat. Glorious 39 uses this context for a cloak-and-dagger drama about a woman whose family world collapses as she discovers the plot, and the ruthlessness, around her. Good premise, but it goes off the rails about half way through. One character cannot carry the load of this plot, and some twists are less than credible, not to mention needlessly violent. Disappointing.
The Most Dangerous Man in America ***½: Daniel Ellsberg started out as a Marine, then an analyst in the RAND corporation where he helped to plan US strategy in Viet Nam. Eventually he came to see the war as a huge lie, a long-running but futile effort to project military power. His release of “The Pentagon Papers”, a top secret, 7,000-page analysis of the history of US involvement in southeast Asia, exposed decades of lies by five administrations, and launched a major battle between the press and the Nixon White House.
This documentary wisely mentions the Iraq war only at the very end and leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions about the role of government and media in packaging war for domestic consumption.
Ondine **½: Neil Jordan’s latest film begins with a fisherman who catches a beautiful, young girl in his nets. Who is she? Is she a selkie, does she have the power to charm fish, to grant wishes? The fisherman’s daughter propels the mythical explanation of events and this unbalances the story. She suffers from kidney failure and gets around in a wheelchair. This is central to two major events, but feels contrived, a simplistic alternative.
Es Kommt Der Tag (The Day Will Come) **½: A variation on mother-daughter reconciliation set in Alsace wine country.
Carmel *: Amos Gitaï gives us a confused, self-indulgent piece that appears to be a lament for an Israel that might have been. He’s unhappy with current political directions in the country, but expresses this in an eliptical, unfocussed manner. Very disappointing after last year’s Plus tard, tu comprendras.
The Informant! : The rating here is so low as to be invisible. The story is supposed to be about an insider at ADM, a global agribusiness, who exposed price fixing and other chicanery. However, the man in question couldn’t stop with the real issues, but fabricated increasingly complex stories about his situation in a desperate bid for attention. In some ways, this is a tragedy, but we’re not meant to see it that way except for a brief passage near the end. The film has the sense of multiple rewrites and maybe even reshoots as Steven Soderbergh tried to rescue the project from much-deserved oblivion.
Warner Brothers sent a badly scratched print (I thought such things didn’t exist any more in this digital age) to the festival, and the theatre was crawling with anti-piracy monitors. They think they have a big hit. I think even the Matt Damon fans will be badly disappointed. A complete waste of time.
Waking Sleeping Beauty ***: Disney Studios produced some of the finest animated feature films in the catalog, but by the mid-80s, corporate focus had shifted and the animation department was resting on its laurels, adrift without strong, audience-pleasing work. This is the story of the turnaround at Disney from 1984 to 1994 that brought successes such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. All of the footage is from the period including a lot of home movies, and the “talking heads” reminisce only as voiceovers.
This is a documentary about corporate machinations and competition between huge egos, and the way that this almost destroyed the founding purpose of a company. We wind up with a renewed faith in the animators’ art, and disgust for the incompetence of corporate mismanagement.
A Serious Man ***½: The Coen Brothers return with a fable set in 1967 Minnesota about a man cursed by God and the impossibility of actually knowing anything. A very dark comedy.
Get Low ****: This is currently in the running for my favourite of the festival, although we’re only about half way through. Robert Duvall is superb in a story set in the rural south of the late 20s, a crusty old bugger who decides it’s time for his own funeral, but wants the wake to happen before he goes. Superb script, acting and direction from first-time feature director Aaron Schneider. Also stars Bill Murray and Sissey Spacek.
Harry Brown ***: The Michael Caine of Sunday’s interview is a totally changed man here. We first see him as a tired pensioner with few friends and passtimes living in a dangerous housing estate in London. After his best friend is killed, Brown becomes a one-man vigilante to avenge the crime. Sounds like an overused formula, but the scheme works here admidst the squallor of modern England.
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould **½: A documentary covering Gould’s life. If you push me, I might plump for three stars, but only barely, because this territory has been covered before by others. Well made with an excellent choice of music and archival photographic material, but odd for who was included or omitted as a talking head.
My Dog Tulip *** (dog lovers only): A quirky animated feature by Paul & Sandra Fierlinger based on the book by J.. Ackerly. We learn a lot about the various bodily functions of dogs and how these relate to canine social graces, as well as the unknowbility of man by dog and vice-versa. Dog lovers will understand. Others will wonder how such material can be stretched to nearly 90 minutes. The entire film is hand-drawn, but using digital technology, not paper.
Bright Star ****: Jane Campion’s latest film is a beautiful, touching story of John Keats and his great love Fanny Brawne. Campion used the phrase “a door opening slowly” to describe her work, and one might worry the action would drag. No, this is a excellent period romance where the poetry fits naturally. My favourite film so far.
The Topp Twins ***: Yodelling Kiwi lesbian twins sing C&W. If this were only a music act, it wouldn’t deserve a film, but the Topps are more than singers. They have many alter egos ranging from society matrons to men who just don’t get it. Part concert film, part a history of social protest in NZ, part comedy.
A Conversation with Michael Caine: Michael Caine talked for 90 minutes about his career and fulfilled his ambition to be a stand-up comic. Questions from the audience included Sam Neill asking for advice about acting. A marvellous chance to see a great actor without the usual rush of a post-screening Q&A.
Vision ***: Margarethe von Trotta directs a biopic about Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century abbess and mystic. In some ways, a once-over-lightly treatment given that there is so much to cover. As much a view of Church politics as of Hildegard’s works. Good, with Barbara Sukowa in the lead role, but unsatisfying.
Ahead of Time ***½: 97-year old Ruth Gruber was “born in a stetl called Brooklyn” in her own words. Her early life and education took her to Cologne for a doctorate based on the works of Virginia Woolf, but she turned to writing and journalism. Her work took her to many of the important places and events including the plight of Jewish refugees during and after WW2. An excellent documentary, moving without being maudlin.
The Art of the Steal **: The story of a fight to keep the Barnes Collection near Philadelphia from falling into the hands of the city’s power-brokers and “big art”. Far too self-indulgent, and at least half an hour too long. The Barnes may or may not “belong” in its original setting, but this film is more a vanity documentary than an examination of the role of high art in local politics. May run into problems being screened in the USA for legal reasons.
La Danse: Ballet of the Paris Opera ***: 158 minutes of backstage scenes at the Paris Opera Ballet. Fewer talking heads would have cut this down to a still-hefty but less tiring length. Still, worth seeing for the good parts, but this film had only one TIFF screening.
Women Without Men ***½: Iran 1953. A haunting film using repression of women as a metaphor for repression of society. Iran is at the moment of installation of a military dictatorship by the US and Great Britain, and seeds of the theocracy to follow are already evident. A lament for a lost culture and the unintended consequences of foreign intervention.
Creation **: The opportunity to explore scientific and religious tensions of Darwin’s age are lost under family melodrama, some of which is probably not even true. There is some great acting in this period piece, but it feels almost like Darwin has been repackaged for the family values crowd. Very disappointing.
The Good Heart ***: Brian Cox is a crusty old barman in a small, backstreet New York bar. He serves only the regulars, until one day in hospital he befriends a young man who attempted suicide. A great character study shot mostly in, yes, Iceland.
Beautiful Kate ***: A story of family reunion and reconciliation set in rural South Australia. A 40-year old man returns home from Sydney with his much younger girlfriend to visit his dying father. On that visit, he must also confront feelings for his long-dead brother and twin sister. Strong, believable acting from a mix of seasoned and young actors.
Two Films by Mark Lewis:
Backstory ***: The vanishing art of rear-screen projection in film-making featuring the Hansard family who, for a time, cornered the market for a technology now replaced by digital effects. A dry family portrait turns into a bittersweet comedy about a fading aspect of cinema.
Cinema Museum ***: A tour of a London museum full of cinema-related ephemera owned by two pack-rats whose collection dwarfs the worst imaginable attic, basement or storage room you have ever seen.
L’Enfer de Henri-Georges Clouzot ***½: A lost, incomplete film by one of France’s master film-makers emerges from the archives. Part documentary, part revelation of Clouzot’s attempt to depict madness through film with effects predating CGI, part dramatization of the unrealized script — this is an essential film for anyone interested in cinema history. Screens again on Saturday Sept. 12 at Jackman Hall, and on Friday Sept 18 at the Varsity. Go to the Varsity — the sound is better.