TIFF 2011 Reviews Part I

September brings the Toronto International Film Festival, a period when some of my readers complain that I am preoccupied with movies, and a few think I may miss some skulduggery in transit politics.

Last year’s reviews (and indeed my spring batch from hotdocs) were incomplete for personal reasons.  I may push short versions out the door at some point, or just leave that to history.  The films that deserved to vanish without a trace have already done so, and those that deserved accolades have, mostly, seen them without help from me.  I will try to do better this year.

Reviewed here:

  • Pina *****
  • Le Havre ***
  • Urbanized **½
  • Keyhole **½
  • The Love We Make ***
  • Land of Oblivion ***
  • Barrymore ****
  • Alois Nebel ***½

This covers days 1 to 3 of the festival.

As a general observation, this was not a festival where film after film hit five stars, and choosing my favourites is easy this year.  It’s a tie between the dance documentary Pina and the wonderful Canadian feature from Montréal, Monsieur Lazhar.  That film earned director Philippe Falardeau a well-deserved best Canadian feature award from the jury.

The usual introductory ads preceded each screening including a Blackberry spot that was supposedly showing off their new (and low selling) tablet.  It took me several viewings to figure out the point of the ad, not a good sign for a company whose marketing is deeply in trouble.  Will they be back as a sponsor next year?

References to the City of Toronto as a major sponsor brought catcalls at a few screenings thanks to the antics of our current Mayor.

This year, the copyright notice doesn’t mention the word “piracy”, but the diehards still managed a chorus (sometimes a very small duo or trio) of “Yargghs” at most screenings.  Tiff seems to be trying to discourage this behaviour, but it’s part of the Toronto audience’s way of starting every show on an upbeat.  Poor Tiff — they need to be a tad less stuffy.

As usual, the salute to the volunteers (now sponsored by Cineplex) got the biggest applause.

Toronto’s festival is an important part of the cinema business world-wide, and it’s getting almost embarrassing (we are Canadian, after all) how well visiting filmmakers speak of us both as an audience and of our city.  Many films’ websites list their selection as part of TIFF among their prominent credits.  Ah shucks, we just like you folks to show up with good films and do interesting Q&A’s for the regular audiences, not just the press.

My rankings are:

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

Pina / *****

Directed by Wim Wenders / Germany / France

Pina, a superb homage to the late choreographer Pina Bausch by director Wim Wenders, has been a long time coming.  Dance is notoriously difficult to film both because it is so full of movement and so three dimensional in our perception as an audience.  Dancers do not stand in one place speaking while artificial movement is created through changes of point of view.  They constantly change position relative to us, the audience and to each other.  A static camera conveys a flat, middle distance image, while active cameras moving around the stage can lose the sense of place a theatre gives.

For almost two decades, Wenders wrestled with the problem of dance photography, and with the challenge of Bausch’s choreography, but was never satisfied.  Never, until 3D technology came along.  Wenders spent a year learning how to shoot in this medium, and began work on his film before Avatar showed the industry what was possible.  Indeed, Wenders feels a debt to James Cameron for showing his backers just what 3D was all about, backers who worried that at least they might get a conventional 2D film if nothing else.

Anyone lucky enough to see Pina Bauch’s work and her company Tanztheater Wuppertal will know the exhilaration of being in the theatre.  Years ago I saw her Le sacre du printemps at the Ryerson, a work danced on a stage covered in sod, a version of that work true to the original story, not a puffy piece of abstract dance.  Unforgettable.  In Café Müller, blind dancers (they actually have their eyes closed) move through a stage full of tables and chairs while others desperately try to clear a path.

With 3D, Wenders was able to present dance as it actually feels in a theatre.  Four works were filmed for PinaLe sacre, Café Müller, Kontakthof and Vollmond.  Of these, Le sacre is the closest to a theatrical presentation, performed on a stage with all of the grit and oppressiveness of a dark set.  Café Müller is shown in a white box, that could be actually be a café somewhere, although there’s clever bit of trompe l’oeuil show within a show at one point.  For Kontakthof, Wenders used three separate companies of different ages and cuts between the performances, all shot in the same space that could be a community dance hall anywhere.

Finally, in Vollmond (Full Moon), the action moves at times completely out of the theatre, at times even onto the Wuppertal Schwebeban, a unique piece of transit technology in the company’s home city.  This is the one piece where the 3D trick of sending images out from the screen is used, but it actually fits this performance danced in a pool of water that sprays over the front rows of the audience.

During the Q&A, Wenders said that he will never go back to 2D filming now that he has learned what is possible in 3D. This isn’t technology for its own sake, but real mastery of using cameras, lights and editing with the depth, quite literally, and detail of imagery possible.  One striking feature is a depth of field that goes on forever — there is no short focal plane as one would have in 2D, but a fully detailed image where one can look way into the background just as one would in real life.

For me, this is the first time I have seen dance on screen that has felt like I am really “there”, even more important because this is a company whose work I have seen live.  I must make special mention of the editing including some breathtaking match cuts between different versions of the same work.

Sadly, Pina Bausch never saw this film as she died suddenly just as Wenders began work on it.  Her dancers insisted that the project continue as a tribute to a great choreographer.

Not to be missed.

A 2D trailer is available on the Pina website along with a short discussion of the challenges of 3D cinematography.

Le Havre / ***

Directed by Aki Kaurismäki / Finland

Le Havre is a major port, and illegal immigration via ship is quite common.  Almost by accident, the police find a container filled with travellers from Africa.  One boy, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), escapes and is taken in by an old couple Marcel Marx (André Wilms) and his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen).  Marx is an itinerant shoe shiner, a dwindling trade in a world filled with running shoes.

Oddly enough, they are aided by a police Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who looks the other way at critical moments despite ongoing political pressure to find the runaway.  In time Idrissa will be on a boat to England, his dream destination.

(Yes, the character names are deliberate Kaurismäki jokes.)

The story could be read as a fairy tale, one with a bit too much good luck and one genuine miracle along the way.  In real life, this sort of thing never happens — the French hate the illegals, the police are never sympathetic and good deeds are rarely rewarded by divine intervention.

Many of the actors from Kaurismäki’s stock company are here, some speaking a stilted French that belies their Finnish roots.  There are wonderful, small moments, and Wilms is excellent as Marx.

Yes, the film has heaps of critical praise.  Maybe I was still coming down from the screening of Pina earlier the same evening and wasn’t ready for the low-key subtlety of Le Havre.  When Tiff programs the Kaurismäkis, I almost automatically add the film to my schedule if only because when they’re good, they are very good.  This time, just good.

Aki Kaurismäki plans a trilogy of port-based films with Spain and Germany to follow as locales.

Le Havre plays at the Tiff Lightbox starting on November 4, 2011.

Urbanized / **½

Directed by Gary Hustwit / USA / UK

Gary Hustwit is well-known for his documentaries Helvetica and Objectified.  Here, he focuses on cities as a built form for living.  People have common needs everywhere:  economic activity, transportation, a market community and social interaction.  Hustwit argues that these were lost in the suburbs of the 1950s and are not recovered in new megacities of 2000s.

We open with shots of many cities, mostly on water, Toronto last (small cheer from the home crowd).  Work began on Urbanized before the 2010 Toronto election that brought the worst of “suburban” Philistines to power, and in a Globe interview, Hustwit stated that an entire film could have been made just on the shift in Toronto’s political attitude to urban issues.

Hustwit argues that large cities, even the 19th century rebuild of Paris (which destroyed large chunks of the old city) preserved neighbourhoods because pedestrian scale was still important to the functioning of a city.

We see the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) TransMileneo from Bogatá, Columbia with its huge capacity, but also huge infrastructure (four lanes of buses within an even wider arterial road).  Copenhagen is a haven for cyclists, but this is hardly news.  The Mayor of Rio de Janiero talks of a staged construction of roads with facilities for transit, cycling and pedestrians coming ahead of those for cars.  He observes that there is no “right to park”.

The challenges of density and of tower construction contrast parts of New York City, Brasilia and other cities, bemoaning the faults of “design from above” by architects who look only at the sculpture, the setting of their building, not at how it will work within or create a neighbourhood.  Contrasting developments in Capetown and Rio show what can happen with design at a local scale, and construction at a cost the locals can afford.

Stuttgart 21, a project to restructure rail services, was hugely unpopular because it required destruction of buildings and public spaces in the aid of modernization.  A September 2010 protest saw police using water canon and pepper spray, and this led a day later to a 50,000-strong gathering.  In time, the Christian Democratic government was defeated in part thanks to their sponsorship of this project.

Is that a model for future relationships between planners, governments and the public?  Will the public even care?  Recent events in Toronto suggest the answer is “maybe”, but much depends on local circumstance.

Is every city doomed to look like the government-sponsored megaliths of China?  Will the drive toward isolating development forms depending on car-oriented transport networks be halted or reversed?  Can density work in the right circumstances of sympathetic planning, political support and popular awareness of the benefits of good urban design?

I couldn’t help feeling I was watching a carefully selected “greatest hits” album, a family of poster children for what works, at least superficially, in modern cities.  What we didn’t hear often was the “why”, or a discussion of alternatives let alone how to adapt badly-design cities to a friendlier environment.

Urbanized will be popular with city advocates, but I am not sure it will convince many who don’t already share its views.

Keyhole / **½

Directed by Guy Maddin / Canada

Guy Maddin’s films and the mind that creates them occupy a rather strange space in my mental landscape.  The plots may be convoluted, the humour bizarre, the images hard to forget, but at the end are we left with anything more than the experience?

In Keyhole, Maddin tackles The Odyssey, or rather borrows a framework for his characters.  Although one could play “spot the reference”, that’s not essential.

Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) is a gangster who’s been away on a long journey, but now he’s come home with a blind, drowned girl (who may not be dead after all) and a bound young man who will turn out to be his son Manners.  After a shoot-out with unseen police, Ulysses searches through his house for Hyacinth, his wife (Isabella Rossellini).  As the story unfolds, we realize that many if not all of the characters are dead.  Are they ghosts haunting the house or is this entirely a memory play working itself out in Ulysses imagination?  By the end, most have left or disappeared, and Manners is left trapped in the house, doomed to continue the story.

The concept is interesting, but Keyhole just goes on too long, and too loudly.  Maddin didn’t really pull me in to his world this time, and the references to The Odyssey sprinkled through the script seemed more like tack-ons so the audience can feel clever spotting them.  After a while, they’re just boring.

There may be more going on here, but I’m unlikely to venture a second viewing to find out.

The Love We Make / ***

Directed by Bradley Caplan & Albert Maysles / USA

The Maysles brothers, Albert and David, began making documentaries over fifty years ago.  Although David died in 1987, Albert continues with a long, distinguished list of films.

The Love We Make has an odd history.  Back in 1964, the Maysles received a call from Granada Television (UK) saying that a new British rock band was about to visit the USA, and asking whether the brothers would film the event.  The result was What’s Happening!  The Beatles in the USA, and from that grew a friendship with the musicians.  In 2001, Paul McCartney was sitting in a plane on a New York runway.  The date was September 11, and he watched as the attack on New York unfolded.  The plane never left New York.

Wanting to give something back to the city, McCartney helped to organize the Concert for New York, a massive tribute to and benefit for the city and its emergency workers.  He invited Albert Maysles to document the process, but the footage went unused for many years.  People working with Maysles knew the material existed, but the challenge was to organize it and gain distance from the events of 2001.  In 2009, editor Ian Markiewicz decided to have a try and the result was The Love We Make.

Maysles deliberately shot in 16mm black and white, a look that says “documentary” and gives a timelessness to the images.  Material that is intercut from other media, notably TV footage, looks badly dated by comparison from its pre-HD era.

In his typical style, Maysles just follows people, his camera slips into the background, as McCartney wanders New York streets, meets with fellow musicians, gives interviews, rehearses and then, finally, to the concert.  Performance clips are intercut with backstage footage, although without those, the doc would spend rather too long on Sir Paul and less on the context for the story.

McCartney was Executive Producer for this film, and there’s a whiff of hagiography.  The film’s arc works because there is lots of music to fill things out the McCartney portrait and his upbeat message to NYC.

During the Q&A, we learned that Maysles has much unseen film is his archives.  Director Bradley Caplan feels it is his duty, along with other Maysles associates, to get this out to screens.  An example:  Back in early 60s, at Cannes, Orson Welles invited them to come to Madrid with an idea of making a film about people who go to bullfights.  They went to many, got lots of footage of Welles, but the film project never went further.  Some day, maybe, this will appear as a “new” Maysles film, but meanwhile he is working on a doc having children interview each other.

Land of Oblivion / ***

Directed by Michale Boganim / France / Germany / Poland / Ukraine

French title:  La terre outragée

Disaster thrillers are common enough in cinema and TV, but their focus is often on the threat to come, on the cataclysm that arrives or is narrowly averted.  Land of Oblivion looks instead at the aftermath, the physical effects on a city, the emotional effects on the survivors.

Prypiat was a city of 50,000 in northern Ukraine built in 1970.  The architecture is unremarkable.  It has a park, a brand new Ferris wheel (one which never carried a rider), and the obligatory statue of Lenin where a wedding party gathers for photos.  Anya (Olga Kurylenko) and Piotr (Nikita Emshanov) are midway through their celebrations when Piotr is called away to an emergency, a “forest fire”.  The date is April 25, 1986, and the fire is actually the meltdown of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant.  Anya will never see Piotr again.

Valery (Ilya Iosifov) will have a loss of his own.  We first meet him and his father Alexei (Andrzej Chyra) planting an apple tree as a flock of migrating cranes passes by.  Alexei, a scientist, realizes what is happening at the plant despite calming official statements, and remains behind during the evacuation to do what he can.

Ten years later, Prypiat is a ghost town.  The desolation of the remaining city is striking.  This is not a set, but what is left of a real city destroyed not by war nor earthquake, but simply abandoned to the elements and vandalism.  Dead trees are everywhere, and tourists can safely enter the area only for brief, supervised visits.

Anya now guides tours of her former home.  She has a French lover, Patrice, but her own future health is uncertain.  Alexei survived physically, but he wanders the countryside boarding trains with an out of date ticket for a station that no longer exists.

Valery returns on a tour to Prypiat, but breaks away from the group.  In the remains of his old school, he searches for a souvenir of his youth.  On the wall of a ruined house, he scrawls a message for his father, should he be alive, telling him that the family is living in a town nearby.

On yet another train, Alexei overhears a father talking to his son about a passing flock of cranes.  The survivors will continue their lives, such as they can.

Land of Oblivion makes no attempt to lecture on the dangers and effects of a nuclear disaster.  Lives are broken or lost, and the inevitable strain is between building a future and cherishing the past.  This is a memory play, but of a very real place, a monument to technological failure.

Barrymore / ****

Directed by Erik Canuel / Canada / USA

The aging John Barrymore had been a great actor from a renowned family, but in William Luce’s play Barrymore, we see the great man at the end of his career, a victim of drink and his own ego.  It is 1942.  Barrymore rents a theatre to rehearse and then show off a revival of his great 1920 hit, Richard III for potential backers.  But he can’t remember his lines, and would prefer to spend the time reminiscing and tippling from a well-laden drinks trolley.

Christopher Plummer is John Barrymore, a role he originated in 1996 at Stratford and then moved to Broadway where he won the Tony for Best Actor.  In 2011, he remounted the play at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, and Eric Canuel directed the film version shortly after the stage run.

Canuel (known recently for Bon Cop Bad Cop) adapted the play for film opening up the action from the enforced single view a theatre audience must have.  Almost all of Barrymore was shot in the Elgin (one of Tiff’s many houses).  The camera is free to move from the house onto the stage, into the wings, and in one haunting scene, onto a narrow stairway and a remembered childhood terror.

Barrymore arrives at the stage door (one of the few actual “sets”), comes into the empty theatre and his dressing room.  Already his mind is playing tricks — out onto the stage, a full house, applause!  But the prompter comes in, brings up the lights and the audience vanishes.  Now Barrymore must face his nightmare, an empty house with nobody to cheer the old man.  (This bit of magic is only in the film version, and the play is better for it.)

By the second act, Barrymore has tried to become Richard, but he really falls apart and never reaches the end of Shakespeare’s text.  There will never be a tryout for the backers.

On film, the camera allows us a closer view of Plummer who, without the need to play to the last row, gives us more character, more tragedy with flashes of brilliance.  The shifting point of view lets us see the prompter (only a voice in the stage version), and this improves the rapport, such as it is, between the two characters.

I have seen three versions of Barrymore now and prefer the cinematic one, although Plummer on a real stage is not to be missed either.  In the stage versions, I couldn’t help feeling that as the evening went on, “Barrymore” lapsed more into “Plummer” than he should have and the Shakespeare quotes that worked were almost as if one actor stepped out of the other’s body.  I prefer the older Plummer (now older than Barrymore himself was in the play), and there is a real weariness, an acceptance of the end of things in the recent versions that was missing back in 1996.

The challenge here for actor, director and audience, is that this is an 80-minute monologue on film, a much more difficult medium than the stage where audiences are used to focusing on one actor, on one voice.  But it’s Christopher Plummer’s voice, and he carries us through Barrymore’s story brilliantly.

Alois Nebel / ***.5

Directed by Tomáš Lunák / Czech Republic / Germany / Slovakia

The dark history of central Europe gives the backdrop to three films I saw this year at Tiff.  After WWII, ethnic Germans living in border areas of neighbouring countries were not exactly popular.  Retribution for wartime Nazi activities, whether the local Germans were involved or not, was common, and they were expelled, many by train.

Alois Nebel (Miroslav Krobot) is a dispatcher at a small town railway station, Bílý Potok, near the border between the Czech Republic and Poland.  He’s a loner who does his job, but is haunted by the past.

Wachek (Leoš Noha) is the railway switch tender, but he’s a nasty character always happy to inform on others, and envious of Nebel’s job (and the apartment that goes with it).  His father, Old Wachek (Alois Švehlík) was a wartime collaborator, but then became a nationalist.  He also killed the former switch tender, Müller, and raped his daughter, Dorothe, before she was deported.  That girl was a love of the young Alois Nebel.

“The Mute” (Karel Roden) is Dorothe’s son and Wachek’s half-brother.  He grew up in Krakow, but in the confusion of the fall of communism, he sneaks back across the border.  He carries a photo that we recognize as being of Dorothe and Alois.  His goal is revenge against his father, Old Wachek.

Alois Nebel’s surname, in German, means “fog”, and there is much fog both in memory and in the prevailing weather at Bílý Potok.

What I have not mentioned yet is that this is a black and white animated film.  The story began as a trilogy of graphic novels written by Jaroslav Rudiš and drawn by Jaromír 99.  They were adapted as a screenplay, filmed and then converted to animation by rotoscoping — drawing using the live action material as the basis for the artwork.  Although the original novels are in stark black and white, the animated version uses grey tones for a more subtle palette on the big screen.  Jaromír 99 drew the key frames so that his visual style would be preserved in the cinema version.

The result blends the strength of live characterization with the flexibility of animation to focus only on key parts of the image, and to slip effortlessly from “real” settings to illusions.  What might have been a good but unremarkable live action film is transformed through the animation.  Alois Nebel is a great addition to animated cinema, although its setting may limit the breadth of distribution.  Definitely worth watching for.

Examples of the artwork and a trailer (without subtitles) can be seen on the Alois Nebel website.

One thought on “TIFF 2011 Reviews Part I

  1. It annoys me when the film industry refer to copyright breaches as “piracy”. The correct term is “bootlegging”.

    Steve: But pirates get better costumes!


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