TIFF 2010 Part I

Yes, it’s that time of the year again, when Steve disappeared into many theatres for 10 days and the unwary thought they could get away with transit announcements while he’s wasn’t looking.

Reviewed here:

  • Cirkus Columbia
  • Shi (Poetry)
  • The King’s Speech
  • How To Build Your Own Country
  • Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries)
  • The Conspirator
  • Beginners
  • Tabloid

In each review, the film title is linked to the corresponding page on the TIFF site which contains credits, stills and, in some cases, trailers.  Where titles are shown in their original language, note that the English version is the one assigned by the production, not necessarily a literal translation.  The reviews appear in the order that I saw the films.

My rankings are:

  • ***** Personal favourite
  • **** Excellent
  • *** Good
  • ** Worth One Viewing
  • * Don’t Bother

Due to circumstances, these articles have sat half-finished for the past few weeks, and work on them will be further interrupted by a busy agenda at a recent TTC meeting.  In any event, I hope to finish them before (Canadian) Thanksgiving.

Cirkus Columbia / ***

Directed by Danis Tanović / Boznia & Herzogovina / 2010 / Bosnian

Introducing Cirkus Columbia, Danis Tanović said that he wanted to make a film about the time before Yugoslavia was torn apart by war, a simpler time when everyone lived together.  In a very loose adaptation from a novel of the same name by Ivica Đikić, Tanović goes back to just weeks before the outbreak of civil war.

Divko (Miki Manojlovic) left his family 20 years ago to escape reprisals from partisans, and has been living in Germany.  Ethnic problems seem to have settled down, and he now wants to come back to the home, the very building he abandoned.  He arrives with his red Mercedes, a new, young and very attractive wife, Azra, his beloved cat, Boni, and enough Deutschmarks to buy just about any favour he wants.

He begins by having his wife Lucija (Mira Furlan) and son Martin thrown out of their home by the police.  They wind up in a spare house provided by the mayor, a hovel that, despite its condition, Lucija tries to make vaguely respectable.

Meanwhile, Divko moves into his old home even taking over a dinner that was on the stove ready to eat.  Sensitivity is not his strong point, except where Boni is concerned.  When Boni goes missing, Divko can think of nothing else but finding his lost pet, his good luck charm.

Through all this, Divko tries to woo Martin away from Lucija, but with unexpected consequences.  They are resolved in the end, but not as Divko hopes.

This all becomes rather comical, but the conflict is close, and laughs are earned from an audience painfully aware of what is coming.  People have to take sides.  The Mayor, the local police and the army all have the air of small-town folk putting on a show, but this won’t last.  A Serbian militia is forming.  Will people stay to fight or flee to relatives and friends in Germany while they can?

Cirkus Columbia is a well-told, if not particularly deep story, something of a farewell to his former country from director Tanović.

Poetry / Shi / ***½

Directed by Lee Changdong / South Korea / 2010 / Korean

Shi opens with a countryside view by a river in Korea.  Mountains provide the backdrop.  Boys play in a field.  The view pans across to the river where the body of a young girl floats, face-down.  We won’t know her story until much later, but it links many threads.

In town, Mija, an attractive woman now in her 60s visits a health clinic.  She has problems with tingling in her arm, and periodic loss of words in her vocabulary.  Her doctor recommends exercise for the arm, but refers her to a large hospital in Seoul for the rest of her diagnosis.  We suspect, and she will learn, that she has an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mija lives with her grandson, Wook, a boy who takes full advantage of a doting grandma, and spends all of his home time watching TV or playing computer games.  His only social life appears to be a tight-knit group of friends.  Mija supports them with whatever she gets from Wook’s mother plus work as a maid to an elderly man suffering from the effects of a stroke.  He may be partly paralyzed and difficult to understand, but there is still a spirit alive inside.

Despite this mundane, rather limited life, Mija joins a literary class to study poetry writing.  She doesn’t really think she could be a poet, and yet her occasional observations of events, plants and objects around her are more poetic than anyone else in the story.  Indeed, Mija, played wonderfully by Yun Junghee (who herself retired from the screen well over a decade ago), is almost a woman from another time.  She is not part of the modern world, her manners are more restrained, she keeps to herself but sees much.

One day, Mija is invited to lunch by the father of one of Wook’s friends, and we learn that the six boys have been sexually abusing a fellow student, the girl who committed suicide and floated down the river.  The police and press are not involved yet, and the fathers hope that the girl’s family will accept a large payment of condolence money.  Saving the boys’ reputation and that of the school is their only real concern.  Mija cannot afford her share, and she must make a sacrifice of her own (which I cannot reveal to avoid spoiling the plot) to raise this.

Against this sordid background, we see Mija’s fellow poetry students and a poetry lover’s club go through the motions — they read poetry by others, they talk about important moments in their lives, but they create nothing.  The instructor fears that people will stop reading, and poetry will die out as an art form.

Scattered through the story are Mija’s observations, her sense of the natural world, including a poignant phrase about ripe apricots throwing themselves on the ground — they will be trodden underfoot, but born again.  Mija may be losing her words, but her poetry glows in a final piece written from the point of view of the young girl just at her death.

Shi is a beautiful, moving film about the transience of life and the search for beauty in it wherever this can be found.

The King’s Speech / ****

Directed by Tom Cooper / UK & Australia / 2009

Audience Choice Award as Best Film at TIFF

As the British Empire entered the 1930s, King George V reigned, and his heir apparent was Edward (known familiarly as “David”), a man who preferred the company of his twice-divorced consort Wallis Simpson.  Edward’s younger brother Albert (“Bertie”), the Duke of York unexpectedly became King George VI in 1936 following Edward’s abdication.

Albert suffered from a severe stammer which prevented his ability to maintain a regal bearing in public speaking engagements that he undertook while still a prince.  To overcome this, Albert was treated by a speech therapist, Lionel Logue, who became a life-long friend and received the Royal Victorian Order for his work.

This could all be rather dry stuff, but for the mixture of script, actors and direction in The King’s Speech.  Colin Firth plays Bertie, later the King, opposite Geoffrey Rush as Logue.  The chemistry between the two actors is the heart of this film, and although great fun to watch, I couldn’t held feeling that in other hands the story might not have fared as well.

After Albert’s disastrous attempt at a closing speech for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925, Logue was approached by the Duchess of York, Elizabeth (later known as The Queen Mother), on an unofficial basis using the name “Mrs. Johnson”.  The practice was a nod to the Duke’s days as a naval officer when he would be listed as “Mr. Johnson” rather than with his royal title.  Helena Bonham-Carter plays the Duchess, later Queen Elizabeth, with a good mixture of her own humour and Elizabeth’s drive to see her husband succeed.

Logue had a non-traditional approach to therapy, and no professional training having learned his craft in part assisting victims of shell shock after WWI.  He’s an amateur thespian, and this gives Rush a chance to quote Shakespeare on occasion.  Logue demands complete equality with Albert in their sessions so that matters of protocol don’t get in the way of what he is trying to achieve.  Early on, we see that Albert has no stammer when he is angry, or when he is distracted and cannot pay attention to his own voice.  The trick is to get him to speak that clearly all of the time.

At this point, Bertie is only a Prince, but with his accession, the need to speak clearly became even more important.  I won’t go into the plot details, but will leave you to savour both the story and the rapport between the actors yourself.

Michael Gambon and Claire Bloom appear in small roles as King George V and Queen Mary, with Guy Pearce as Edward.  Derek Jacobi plays the Archbishop of Canterbury.  In a delightful scene, the Archbishop attempts to shuffle Logue out of preparations for the coronation.  He is politely but firmly put in his place by the only man in the realm who could do so, the soon-to-be-crowned George VI.  Timothy Spall has a cameo as Winston Churchill.

The story of the script is interesting in its own right.  The screenplay by David Seidler began life as a proposed stage play.  Seidler himself stammered, and viewed George VI as an inspiration.  After the King’s death, Seidler found out about Lionel Logue and contacted his family.  There were diaries from the period, but when Seidler wrote to the Palace asking for permission to write the story, he was asked to wait until the Queen Mother died as the events were still too close for comfort.

He was a loyal subject, but hadn’t banked on the QM’s longevity, and the project sat for decades.  Finally completed as a play, Seidler got the script to Rush through an intermediary — a neighbour who left it anonymously on his doorstep — and Rush saw the potential for a screenplay.  Meanwhile, contact with the Logue family had been lost  and nobody knew where the diaries were until they were rediscovered only weeks before shooting began.  They were lucky with a good production researcher who found a contact — “… oh yes, my aunt has some papers …” — and some lines are direct quotes from George VI himself.

Cooper, Firth and Rush did great Q&A at the Ryerson Theatre.  In some ways, the actors were still in character with Firth the dapper, restrained Englishman, and Rush the rumpled Aussie just waiting to drag his friend off to the nearest bar.

The King’s Speech is scheduled to open in early December 2010.

How to Start Your Own Country / **½

Directed by Jody Shapiro / Canada / 2010

To answer the title’s question, one might say “Be eccentric, find a small place nobody really cares about, and have a good website.” These days, finding a piece of unclaimed land is a bit of a challenge, and it’s easier to come up with an art project than the real thing.

Sealand (founded 1967), an old gun tower sharing a structural style with any offshore oil rig, is the earliest of modern-era micronations, although it is predated by over a millennium by the Principality of Seborga (founded 954) which is actually a tiny part of Italy.

Shapiro treats each of these “nations” with due respect, even though one may wonder about the faux-military trappings of some leaders such as the President of Molossia, otherwise part of Nevada.  Regalia they may have, but tanks they do not, and what I can only think of as the “host” governments pay these nations little concern.

The choice of subjects (those for the film, not the denizens of the micronations) was dictated in part by budget, by where the filmmakers wanted to travel, and by creature comforts.  By far the best food was in Seborga.

How To Start Your Own Country verges on a mockumentary, but runs aground, so to speak, in moving from true “nations” to the “New Free State of Caroline” which is a fiction created by Floridian artist Gregory Green.  Absent an actual land mass, this country exists more or less wherever its “citizens” choose to gather.  They are not very eccentric, and are unlikely to spend decades sitting in the middle of a desert defending their right to exist.

My gut feeling was that this would have been a good one-hour doc, but at 72 minutes, some subjects should have landed on the cutting room floor.

Dhobi Ghat / Mumbai Diaries / **

Directed by Kirin Rao / India / 2009 / English and Hindi

As a caveat to this review I must tell you that the screening started over two hours after the scheduled time thanks to a cock-up with another film.  It was a pleasant evening, and I sat chatting with folks around me in the line, but the long wait only heightened my demands on what TIFF billed as “the emergence of a contemporary indie style … a major step forward for Indian filmmaking”.  Well, Bollywood it’s not, but let’s not get too carried away.

Arun (Aamir Khan) is a painter, obviously quite well-off in that off-putting way some films have of placing characters in a social milieu that doesn’t quite fit with their life’s work.  At a gallery opening, he meets and flirts with Shai (Monica Dogra), a photographer visiting from her home in the US.  They spend the night together, but Arun has little use for personal attachment and sends her on her way in the morning.  However, a link between them remains.

Munna (Prateik Babbar) is a dhobi, a laundryman who works for both households.  Shai had left a shawl behind at Arun’s, and it is returned via Munna.  Shai and Munna begin a friendship, but it is doomed, if only because Shai is twice-removed both by her class and by her American background.  She is a dilettante, Indian by descent, but not really part of Mumbai.  She can photograph the gritty world of Mumbai’s underclasses, but always return to her life as a financial analyst in New York.

Munna is realistic about the situation.  He hopes for a career as an actor, but this will end when his brother’s death from drug gang rivalry forces Munna to take the role of head of his family.

Arun moves to a new flat with a view of the old city.  Looking through the furniture, he finds a small box of keepsakes — a ring, jewelery, and a few videos — left by Yasmin Koor (Kriti Malhotra), the previous tenant.  The videos are letters to her family, far away, from a new wife living in her husband’s city.  The letters start well enough, but turn darker and we see that Yasmin’s life was not happy, and the last is clearly a farewell.  Oddly, Arun, the man who can’t form a friendship, is drawn into the story of a woman who exists only in the letters.

This is Kirin Rao’s feature debut, and I couldn’t help feeling the sense that this was partly a vanity production with her husband Aamir Khan.  Many actors in Dhobi Ghat are first timers, and early scenes appeared to be improvised or just badly acted.  The hand-held camera didn’t help.  As the story unfolds, the production style improves.

But it was not worth a two-hour wait.

The Conspirator / **½

Directed by Robert Redford / USA / 2010

The Conspirator takes us to the Civil War, a time when “whose side you’re on” was more than a political decision.  Cities burned and soldiers died, all on home soil.  Lincoln’s assassination sparked a relentless hunt for any who aided in the plot, a blow against the nation with few parallels.

The title character is Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), the mother of one of John Wilkes Booth’s accomplices, and the operator of a boarding house where others lodged.  A Southern sympathizer, Mary won’t betray her son or his friends.  For this, she is charged as a conspirator in the assassination, tried and, eventually, hanged.

Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), is a lawyer and a Yankee Captain just back from the war.  His social and political ambitions are interrupted by Lincoln’s death, and by the insistence of an old friend, Senator Johnson of Maryland, that Aiken defend Surratt in a military court.  Despite his strong feelings for the Union, Aiken takes up the case and becomes an earnest defender, challenging the court at every turn.

The Secretary of War and President want no leniency whatever, and the trial predictably is a witch-hunt.  The evidence is biased or ignored, witnesses are suborned by the state, and the Court, knowing where its duty lies, bristles at reminders that fairness should rule.  Indeed, after Surratt’s guilty verdict, the judges could not agree on the death penalty for a woman, an inconvenient problem that was overturned by the White House.

The production is big on historical accuracy — it tells us this right in the credit for The American Film Company — and I’m sure that they mean well.  The costumes look good, and the locations (many in the South) certainly play their part.  However, the actors speak in a mixture of period and modern “American” that left me wishing for all present-day accents.

The parallels with modern history, 9/11 and the compromise of civil liberty is clear although this is not stated explicitly.  I couldn’t help feeling that I was in a lecture hall for my own good picking up the odd bit of historical trivia, but losing interest in the argument as a whole.

Beginners / ***

Written and Directed by Mike Mills / USA / 2010

Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor play father and son in a story loosely adapted from director Mike Mills’ own life.  Beginners is a family story with a difference.

Hal (Plummer) lived for 75 years with a secret — he was gay, but kept up appearances until his wife died.  Now he is able to come out to his son Oliver (McGregor) and enjoy life as the man he wanted to be.  Oliver’s difficulties in accepting the man his father has become and the changed view of his own family history provide the tension, such as it is, and the arc of the story.

Beginners, despite its title, tells the story in parallel tracks, and we are able to fill in events from different time frames as each unfolds.  In one, Hal embraces his new life as a healthy, active senior.  He finds a younger lover and a relationship that never existed with his wife, a woman who pursued and married Hal hoping to “fix” his problem.  In other threads, Oliver deals with the prelude to and aftermath of his father’s death still not fully accepting the man he has become.

Oliver finds a new love of his own, Anna (Mélanie Laurent), and through them we see how Oliver has problems of his own with relationships.  Flashbacks show a marriage strained in ways the young Oliver could not understand, and his own character may have grown from that frosty environment.

Woven into the story are bits of gay cultural history and the message that “Hal” in his own youth lived in a much more restricted, closeted society where an open gay lifestyle were impossible.  Oliver, and by extension a modern audience, could not imagine the difficulty of such times.  This is the least successful thread in Beginners because it feels a bit preachy rather than leaving the audience to make the connection.

I wanted to love this film, but must settle for a fable about acceptance and love, imperfectly told.

Tabloid / ***

Directed by Errol Morris / USA / 2010

Errol Morris likes to contrast subjects with themselves at different ages.  In The Fog of War, his subject was Robert McNamara seen at an interval of 40 years.  In Tabloid, Morris turns to Joyce McKinney, a pretty and intelligent young girl whose self-image came from beauty contests.  Eventually she was Miss Wyoming, but she was (or appeared to be) very naïve.

She became involved with a Mormon boy, Kirk Anderson, whose family didn’t exactly approve.  She really had a thing for him, but one day, he just vanished.  Tracking him down took some work, but in time Joyce found he had moved to England.  She pursued Kirk, organized an abduction, and kept him for a time almost as a sex slave.  She just wanted to have his baby (that part didn’t work out).

At this point, we start to wonder how she could afford the scale of her undertakings including a private eye, security and a plane rental in England.  The media, the “Tabloids” of the title, were interested too in a case they dubbed “The Manacled Mormon”.  Investigation revealed that Joyce had worked as a stripper/domme and, of course there were photos (given their age, the style is almost quaint by modern internet standards).

McKinney looks back on her life in a classic Morris interview.  He simply lets the subject talk, portraying herself and her history as she believes it, as she wants us to understand her.  The fascination is the utter disconnect between “then” and “now”.  Right to the end, Joyce maintains she has done nothing wrong.

As a footnote to the story, McKinney was briefly back in the news in 2008 when her aging dog was cloned in Korea.  There are now five of them, and Joyce finally got the “children” she had wanted years ago.

3 thoughts on “TIFF 2010 Part I

  1. I think you mean TIFF 2010. Unless you have a time machine. If you do have a time machine, can I borrow it?

    Steve: Oops!

    If I did have a time machine, I wouldn’t let the TTC anywhere near it for fear I would be short-turned and left in an unwanted era.


  2. Steve, thanks very much for your TIFF reviews – I always liked that you go beyond the strictly public transport approach and get some other perspectives.

    I’m truly sad that I didn’t have a chance to see The King’s Speech at TIFF and will have to wait to see it in theatres.

    TIFF has a nice connection with public transport tho … both have so many interesting stories….

    I have to wonder what a film that included the TTC (as a set piece or part of the story) would be like………

    Cheers, Moaz


  3. Thank you for the reviews, Steve. I eagerly await your next batch.

    Did you get the feeling that the general quality of the movies at this year’s TIFF was better than, about the same as, or worse than previous years’? I know that this is an impossible question to answer empirically, but I thought maybe you and the people you hang with have some general impressions. I ask because it could bode well or ill for the future of movies’ quality.

    Steve: What I saw was generally quite good, although nothing absolutely blew me out of the theatre (that doesn’t happen every year anyhow). As the reviews roll out, you will see there were a few that left me cold, and one where the film described in the program was not what was on the screen. It happens.


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